REMEMBERING FRANK THOMAS
© 2004 Ron Barbagallo

 

 

Top Row:
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.

Bottom Row:
Fully painted still movie frame images of Pinocchio created from drawings by Frank Thomas.

 

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 RESERVED.

The author would like to thank Sarah Baisley, Bill Desowitz and Dave Koch for their help.

This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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ARTICLES ON AESTHETICS IN ANIMATION
BY RON BARBAGALLO:


The Art of Making Pixar's Ratatouille is revealed by way of an introductory article followed by interviews with production designer Harley Jessup, director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan and the film's writer/director Brad Bird.

Design with a Purpose, an interview with Ralph Eggleston uses production art from Wall-E to illustrate the production design of Pixar's cautionary tale of a robot on a futuristic Earth.

Shedding Light on the Little Matchgirl traces the path director Roger Allers and the Disney Studio took in adapting the Hans Christian Andersen story to animation.

The Destiny of Dali's Destino, in 1946, Walt Disney invited Salvador Dali to create an animated short based upon his surrealist art. This writing illustrates how this short got started and tells the story of the film's aesthetic.

A Blade Of Grass is a tour through the aesthetics of 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through 1942.

Lorenzo, director / production designer Mike Gabriel created a visual tour de force in this Academy Award® nominated Disney short. This article chronicles how the short was made and includes an interview with Mike Gabriel.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, an interview with Graham G. Maiden's narrates the process involved with taking Tim Burton's concept art and translating Tim's sketches and paintings into fully articulated stop motion puppets.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, in an interview exclusive to this web site, Nick Park speaks about his influences, on how he uses drawing to tell a story and tells us what it was like to bring Wallace and Gromit to the big screen.


For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,
click on the link above and scroll down.