Meeting Giants

It was the early 90's and I was standing in line with my dad at the Cricket Gallery in Buckhead, a trendy, mostly-bar-hopping area just north of downtown Atlanta. It was strange to see a gallery devoted to mostly animation art amongst music venues, beer pubs, and one-week-old-then-they're-closed stylish hip dance clubs, but since this was during the Second Golden Age of Animation, with collectors snatching up cells like it was going out of style, perhaps a walk-in store in this area wasn't that out of place after all.

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:


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.


  1. That's a great story, Ward. And how gand to meet Frank. The closest I came to meeting himwas recognizing him in Iron Giant (and the Ollie engineer says, "Go on. tell 'em what you saw, Frank).
    I like especially what you took from that encounter. Very nice indeed.

  2. Wow, what a terrific experience, and what great advice. Short but very sweet. Thanks for sharing. I just wrote those "commandments" down and put them up in my studio as well.

  3. Definitely one of your unforgettable golden moments. It's a pleasure to know them closer to acquire a 'special' touch that makes you a fine animator! I wish I could meet them both (which unfortunately doesn't come to fruition) for I too admire their works, suggested by my mentor (who is of course an animator) to know more about their relationships with Walt and the rest of the Nine Old Men. Good for you! And yes, Frank's passing is a tough pill to swallow but the legacy of the Nine Old Men will never fade away.

    - Glen!

  4. You and Andrea are both very good with words. You can feel as if you were that kid again shaking Frank's hand for the first time all over again. Thanks for sharing that! What a cool story. Those 2 were/are so inspirational for us animator's it's so cool to hear you actually got to shake the hand of a master! hehe

  5. Hon! This is the best ever. I remember your telling me of this event. And you've made reference to it over the years. But putting it down in writing - it's very powerful and moving. And I can see how meeting them made an impact on your life. Great job.

  6. When I was young, everyone thought I would grow up to be an artist. I drew on everything. I loved colors. All my art work in elementary school had interesting color applications. I turned coloring books into abstracts, with blue and green horses, purple headed people, and oceans of orange. In high school, I express myself by drawing cartoons. I enjoyed creating the captions almost as much as drawing the characters. Peas-NO-Nuts, The King Wizard of Mad Mumblings, Whombie of the Desert, and Frothy Froth kept me as busy as any homework assignment. While my class was having lunch, I was preparing their dessert on blackboards in the classroom. My cartoons were in the bathroom stalls (boys and girls), on the stadium steps, in the stairways, on the walls in the halls...EVERYWHERE! Working my way through college became a slow and tedious process. I decided to delay my cartoon career and set out on my own to discover the world. I joined the Air Force. They had no need for a cartoonist, but computer geeks were practically non-existent and the need for them was growing. They put me in electronics school. A year later the USAF decided I had enough electronics background, so they sent me to computer classes. Six months later I emerged as a Strategic Air Command (SAC) Control System computer technician. Most of my cartoons were now done on computer paper. The Air Force frowns on perpetrators of unauthorized writing or drawing on a government surface. After the Air Force, I joined AT&T and they sent me to school to get a First Class Radio License, a requirement for tuning and repairing microwave generators and radio transmitters carrying thousands of phone messages across the airways of the USA. Then I got married, had two of the most unique children imaginable, and spent years of coaching youth soccer. By 1975, AT&T had discovered my background in computers and sent me to school to introduce me to the software side (somewhat akin to Luke going over to the dark side) of the computer industry. I found this niche satisfied my creative cravings (so what if it was in a computer language that nobody ever read as long as it worked) and gave me satisfaction when my 50 lines of novel coding did the job of 1000 lines of the esoteric criteria. When the kids went off to college, I thought about the original course in my life which I had deviated from so long ago. AT&T would not pay for me to become an cartoonist, abstract or otherwise, so I changed my major to Computer Information Systems (CIS) and got my degree. I did manage to get Frothy Froth published for a couple of years in a local AT&T newsletter, circulation 900. Fast-forward now to that night when Ward met Frank and Ollie. It re-lit the flame that had burned so long ago in my soul; that longing to put together a red, yellow and green that no one on Earth had never ever seen; that desire to fill that cartoon bubble with a liquid of words seemingly so unsubstantial, worthless, light and airy, but upon analytical retrospection goes to uncharted depths of intellectual insight. And I knew that this moment we were in was a time-lock, where the control of time is being handled by those in charge of it. I could see the admiration in my son's eyes and I had no doubt about the direction of his future. It was quite satisfying for me to witness this event.


    I brought up a lot of thoughts of my own experience meeting great people and thinking about "those hands."

    I quoted this post in my own today, titled Hands.

    You were very inspiring.

  8. Ward, you draw AND write so beautifully, I will remember this for a long time, many thanks.

  9. Great story and wonderful telling. Very lucky to have met such legends!

  10. Your communicating ability through writing is not in question, my friend. Know that.
    You pieced together this recollection in such a beautiful way. The flow was there. The emotion was there.
    It really was gorgeous, Ward.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  11. That last line gave me chills dude... No lie. It reminded me of some of those "defining moments" in my life that have kept me in pursuit of my passion in spite of many setbacks. Perhaps I'll have an equally inspiring story to tell on my blog some day.

    I'm a recent addition to the Atlanta animation community and I'm doing some 3D stuff at Turner Studios.

    Joe is still coordinating the figure drawing sessions at Creative Circus. You should drop by one night, I'd love to meet you.

  12. Thanks all for the nice comments on... my words? Wow, who would've thunk? I tried really hard in getting a handle on that wonderful night I met Frank & Ollie, as it was such a tentpole moment for me. Living through it again while writing it down was really special, as I suddenly remembered little things I had forgotten throughout the years.

    Thanks again all!

    And J Griffin, I'm sure you will have an inspiring story. No doubt. And Joe used to work for Primal a while back and had the figure drawing class set up there. When he left to go to Turner, and when Primal moved, the classes were then moved over to Creative Circus. I've been meaning to do it, but get so tired when I'm done with work. Me just wanna go home afterwards. But one day I will get back into doing it. It's a good thing they got there. Hopefully we will indeed meet someday. Thanks for visiting!

  13. Hey, Ward. Excellent, excellent story. I had the good fortune of seeing the boys give a talk at the L.A. County Museum of Art back in 2001. Though they were both frail and their memories clearly weren't what they used to be it was still a delight. --Frank Thomas was on a walker at that point but he had it tricked out with a bell and a little horn!