REMEMBERING FRANK THOMAS
© 2004 Ron Barbagallo
As done for the "I've Got No Strings" sequence drawn for Pinocchio, these rough pencil animation drawings from the thoughtful eye and hands of Disney animator
Frank Thomas show the animator's careful use of comedy within an animated movement.
Note Pinocchio's right leg as he progressively starts to loose control of it
by the time Thomas has drafted the final panel.
Fully painted still movie frame images of Pinocchio created from drawings by
While we lost Frank Thomas in September 2004, I think it can be said that Frank
like many a great artist before him can be found within his body
of work. Maybe the search for Frank’s real gift, his legacy, can be found within his choices, how went about tackling
a scene — in the broad strokes and within the details.
For starters, foremost, Frank Thomas was an animator who drew with the subtle
understanding of an actor. A lot has been said that Frank was Walt’s favorite when it came to drafting scenes that required genuine feeling, like
the scene where the seven dwarfs sob over Snow White’s lifeless body or the intricate (even if it feels so casual) interplay between
Lady and Tramp during the Belle Notte sequence. Sincerity of emotion
never felt so honest as it did when rendered by Frank.
The same attention can be seen in the way Frank leads an audience through careful
observation how characters behave. In the “I’ve Got No Strings” sequence in Pinocchio, Thomas made decisions in advance of doing his drawings
regarding the gamut of emotions that might wash over Pinocchio’s face. Naivety. Insecurity. Embarrassment. Surprise.
Thomas sifts through all of these emotions, layering them like an oil painter,
letting certain feelings surface, then retreat and then resurface
again. From Pinocchio's insecurity as he begins to dance, to the
joy that comes from mastering a few steps, to a small reoccurrence
of self doubt, evolving into a full blown bout of joy which occurs
as Pinocchio gains confidence while conquering his performance.
Balancing the nuances of these emotions as they ebb and flow across Pinocchio’s face with such evolving accuracy is no small trick. It takes more than the
ability to draft a puppet dancing on stage. It takes someone with
the empathy to understand what it might be like for that character
in that situation and to put those feelings and expressions properly
into every aspect of his drawings.
And, if drafting his characters with emotion were not enough, there is another
element to Thomas’ work that you can see during this same sequence from Pinocchio. That element
is the addition of comedy in small places within a scene to add a
subconscious undercurrent to the character's personality. Often done
during the middle of another larger action (in this case, Pinocchio
gaining confidence as he learns to dance), Thomas plays with the
idea that wooden marionettes are made of separate pieces of wood
holding their own individual weight. Their parts often move independently
of the puppeteer.
Despite Pinocchio having no problem moving around the stage with the posture
of a small boy, and despite the absence of any strings on him to
create this action, his left leg and then both legs start to sway
independently as he dances near the beginning of the “I’ve Got No Strings” sequence. This addition to his dancing movement not only lends a more solid
sense of his physically still being a wooden puppet, but also adds
an unexpected element of comedy as it is clear that Pinocchio is
not as in control of his movements as he might think.
This playful bit, which originally served to add some humor to Pinocchio’s early dance steps, becomes Thomas’ point of reference toward the end of the sequence where the weight of Pinocchio’s legs send him hurling into a row of Russian Cossack puppets concluding the
scene with a comic crash.
In ways like this, Frank Thomas was like a master orchestra conductor selecting
from the elements of emotion and comedy and accentuating from those
elements to create a fully realized performance. In the forefront
of his mind, Frank always thought before he drew, with the intent
to use every trick at his disposal to capture, as he most eloquently
put it, the illusion of that character’s life.
Images are © Disney Enterprises Inc. ALL RIGHTS
The author would like to thank Sarah Baisley, Bill Desowitz and Dave Koch for
This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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BY RON BARBAGALLO:
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For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,
click on the link above and scroll down.