I was in line to meet Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney's famed Nine Old Men, in town to promote a collection of limited edition sericels and prints from THE JUNGLE BOOK. We were told that anyone can stand in line to meet the two Disney giants, but if you want them to sign anything, you would have to buy the limited edition set, which was about $300. I decided that to be given the rare chance to just meet these guys is definitely enough for me -- even if that meant moppng the floor with my tongue, it'd be worth it.
The clientele was mostly hoity-toity collectors with many a nose stuck in the air. I was so underdressed for the occasion, but I didn't care. I was going to meet two of my heroes. I found comfort in the fact that I was probably only one of a few there who actually were an artist or animator. At the time, I had yet to enter the animation field, still in school and working on my illustration degree. But I knew at the time that animation was my passion, and having a chance to meet these two men would be a hightlight of my soon-to-be career.
As the line inched closer, I was able to watch them, Frank and Ollie, casually meet and greet each person. Ollie was under the weather that night, so he never budged from his chair. Frank was standing, giving hand shakes, big smiles and hellos to everyone. I recall that he was quite tall, even for being in his 80's -- an age where it seems time really takes its toll on the body and everything shrinks. Frank projected a personality far beyond his age. He was like a beacon.
It was my turn. I walked up to Frank and shook his hand. That hand. The hand that gave birth to many inspiring characters, many incredible scenes. The hand that has drawn perhaps millions of drawings, each one a small birth of personality and life. The hand that has moved millions, perhaps even billions, on this planet to tears, to laughter, to sorrow, to pain, to wonderment, to exhilaration, to joy, to love. I shook that hand and time stood still for me. In this frozen moment, I wanted to be some kind of conduit where all his experiences and knowledge of the craft somehow channeled into me. Oh, if only. If only I could gather all his thoughts and feelings about animation, even the anguish and hardships that seems to be so evident of the art-form, and suddenly become this new creation myself, the Tenth Old Man, or something.
I figured that Frank had heard all the usual greetings, "I remember when I first saw BAMBI," "I loved that one scene where...." and so I said to him, "Very nice to finally meet you. You know, I'm an artist and I want to become an animator. What advice do you have to give to someone just starting out?" His eyebrows went up slightly when I mentioned that I wanted to become an animator. Perhaps I was the only one there who's asked him this question. He leaned in closer (it was a bit loud with everyone there talking), and said to me these three things:
DRAW, DRAW, DRAW
In retrospect, I realized that Frank had probably been asked this question countless times, and had at that point condensed all his experiences and knowledge down into a pat answer, ready to give out to any fledgling animator. Pat or not, I took this knowledge he gave me that fateful night and treasured it like gold. Even today, I've done my best to try and adhere to these 'commandments', and they are indeed gold to me. The communication part is the hardest to obtain, however, because you can't just simply take a class on it. Anybody can be told to be more observant and all they have to do is just do it. The same for drawing -- it's just a matter of discipline to remember to draw every day, all the time. But learning how to communicate with an audience, now that's something special, and cannot be taught.
Back at the Cricket Gallery, I thanked Frank immensely for his words, wished him well, and then moved on to Ollie. I extended out my hand and shook his. Again, my head began to swim, thinking about this hand that has drawn so many wonderful drawings and sketches, each one magnificent and beautiful, touching each and every one of us who've watched those brilliant Disney films. Since Ollie was ill, I didn't want to take too much of his time, but I did thank him whole-heartedly for the hard work he's done throughout the years and wished him well.
My dad told me afterwards that he really enjoyed going with me, because he liked the fact that he was witnessing the convergence of the Old with the New. A passing on of the torch, of sorts. Oh, how I hope that's true, I said. We've yet to see what I can do as an animator, but I'll try not to disappoint.
To this day, I have Frank's words taped up on my desk, as a constant reminder. When Frank passed away late last year, it was a sad day for me, and I looked up at his 'commandments' and had a quiet moment.
I then said to myself, Now is the time for me to shine.