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Site created 12/15/97.

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page created: 3/29/04

An Interview with Ted Thomas,
Director of 1995's Frank and Ollie

L to R: Frank Thomas, his son Ted Thomas, and Ollie Johnston
L to R: Frank Thomas, his son Ted Thomas, and Ollie Johnston

Barrie Maxwell (The Digital Bits): Perhaps, Ted, you could start by giving us a bit of background about yourself and your work prior to the Frank and Ollie documentary?

Ted Thomas: Leading up to Frank and Ollie, I tried my darnedest not to be a filmmaker when I went to college. In fact, my major was in cultural anthropology, with studies in music, but an interest in photography and ultimately a film I made about a South Indian musician that I studied with led me back to documentary filmmaking. I worked with the National Geographic television specials off and on for six or seven years, finally getting to write and produce for those. I also did some writing and directing for Tokyo Disneyland - large format work with a 360-degree circle-vision camera, and I did writing and directing for PBS projects on television and managed to win a few awards doing that. All the time wanting to do something for the screen, some sort of feature work.

In the late 80s, I got this idea to do a picture about my father and Ollie Johnston and that was an idea that took a long time to get to fruition - took us seven years all in all to get people to believe in the project and to get the permissions to do it and to raise the money to do it and all the things that feature documentaries usually come up against.

BM: Was there always interest from Disney itself to see something like this done?

TT: That's a hard one to answer because while there was some interest in seeing something done about Frank and Ollie, there was virtually no interest in seeing it done as a feature documentary. And every time I made contact with the company, we would get steered back to the Disney Channel, who over the course of time that we spoke with them saw a much smaller project than we did.

BM: More like a short subject?

Director Ted Thomas
Director Ted Thomas

TT: More like a half-hour or one-hour clip show that they had done previously. There was a very good series of TV films made during the 80s called the Disney Family Album which looked at remarkable people in the Disney organization, whether it be one of the nine old men or someone else who had made a large contribution to the company and its films in one way or another. And so those would always be referenced and when we would talk in terms of going more into the nature of friendship and how an artist gets their inspiration, things like that, then eyes would glaze over. It was a little bit too rarified and fancy-pants to really get people interested in it, but someone who did understand and believed in the project was Roy Disney. It was finally with his encouragement and help, that after we had done quite a bit of shooting ourselves, he was able to help us bring the appropriate people together within the company to get the project to the next step.

BM: What was the reaction of your father and Ollie Johnston to the whole idea?

TT: Well that's an interesting one because when we started talking (when I say we, I mean my partner Kuniko Okubo and I - we've been married since 1981 and we've been making films together on and off since then, so we decided we were going to make this one together as well), first we had to convince Frank and Ollie why our making a film about them would be different than something that had been done before and why anyone would be interested in watching them, for 90 minutes. We spent countless hours talking over what it was we wanted to put on the screen and why we wanted to put it there and why we thought the story of their friendship and their approach to art was an interesting one, because all along they kept trying to push us to get to the clips - that that's what people would want to see. And we would say "No, no, that's icing on the cake, but you're the main event here and people are going to want to know your story and get a feeling for what makes you tick and how you solve problems and how your friendship stimulated each other".

BM: I would certainly think that anyone who has seen the documentary would agree that your approach was the right one.

TT: Thanks, and thank goodness for hindsight.

BM: Did the filming proceed as you expected or were there any unexpected pleasures or problems that arose during it?

TT: Well, the unexpected problem (other than getting permission from the Disney company because we wanted to use so much of their footage) was the amount of preparation time it took with Frank and Ollie to get everybody on the same page - about what we were going to film and why we were going to film it. Because just as we outline in the film, they have very different approaches to the way they create and very different approaches to the way they internalize an idea and feel comfortable with it. Frank, either because of kinship or just because of a logical way of approaching things, was a lot easier to get our ideas across with. Ollie, just in the way he approached his scenes when he was animating, he had to feel that it was the right thing. It didn't matter how much you talked through it and talked through it logically, until he felt right about it emotionally, he wouldn't budge. He wouldn't say "yes, let's do that". As a result, it was a great education in terms of understanding what it was about these guys that we had to try to put on the screen, because we had to understand that just in order to prepare for the filming. So that was an unexpected problem.

An unexpected pleasure was one of the things that people have remarked about the film that they think is the most unusual part of it, which is when we put them in front of a white screen and had them do some acting and they acted out the characters that they subsequently animated. That really came as one of those bolt-from-the-blue moments. On the very first day of shooting, we were doing one of the sit-down interviews with Ollie, and talking to him about the scene from Bambi that he animated of Thumper eating greens. You know, in the middle of doing that, for a flash, for one of these split seconds, Ollie transformed into Thumper. You actually saw Thumper sitting in front of you there. This got us to thinking about if they can do this quick-silver change and become these characters, we've got to capture that in some way. So, for the rest of the shooting, we kept brainstorming about how to do it. We couldn't think of a way to do it without it coming across as kind of hoaky, then we finally hit upon the idea of well, let's get them on to a stage where it's a stylized environment and they're just interacting with their own shadow, kind of like Peter Pan and have them act out these scenes and then we can cut to the actual scenes. That was one of the very last things we shot actually. Shooting took place over a ten-month period on and off. We did some shooting in August of '92 and October of '92 and then the spring of '93.

Ollie Johnston (seated) and Frank Thomas during the glory days of Disney animation.
Ollie Johnston (seated) and Frank Thomas during the glory days of Disney animation.

BM: During the filmmaking was there anything new or unexpected that you personally learned about your father or his relationship with Ollie?

TT: Yes, I always had this image of my father as being sort of organized and being the leader. They were always referred to as Frank and Ollie, and I guess in that I had assumed that Frank took the lead in things. In the making of the film, I realized how really symbiotic their relationship is and the extent to which my father, as logical as he is, is inclined to explore ideas endlessly, to try every last variation that you could think of on staging or coming up with an action. Only then would he actually implement it. He's constantly searching for that. I think Ollie, in many ways, was extremely helpful to him in saying, "no Frank, that's not it. This is it; this is the core". I was not aware of the extent to which Ollie would take the lead in helping to focus Frank's efforts. Conversely, Frank was able to give a very logical context to the emotional approach that Ollie was having in terms of saying, "Well gee, if you do it this way, this is going to be the end result. Is that what you want to do". So that was a discovery for me.

BM: Moving on to the DVD, what was your own personal degree of involvement in it and are you happy with the end product in the sense that it included what you wanted to see in it?

TT: Yes, well I guess we'd better be happy with the DVD because we were very involved in making it. When (Disney) Home Entertainment finally decided to bring it out, fortunately they contacted us. In this case, I would like to think the folks over there in production saw a lot of upside to having us involved. For after all, it is a very personal film and we felt that if we could be involved in the making of the DVD, that we would be able to not just add bonus features but expand on the entire story and the experience of the film. A lot of the things we put in there were a combination of ideas that came up, the questions that people have had over the years about Frank and Ollie or about their hobbies or what it was like growing up in a Disney family. We thought the DVD would be a great place to address some of those interests that people have shown. So we did this making-of film, which was a combination of behind the scenes information and an expression both of what it was we were trying accomplish with the picture as well as growing up with Disney. Then we were able to get this terrific televised performance of the Firehouse 5+2 from the early 60s and more about Ollie's trains. Additionally, one of the great things Frank and Ollie were able to do after their retirement from making pictures was to embark on a second career as authors and they were able to put into words and set down on paper just how they and their colleagues made all these discoveries that made character animation possible. Trying to put some of that on the DVD would be a terrific way for subsequent generations to extend this library of how-to knowledge that Frank and Ollie had begun with their books.

BM: As we've noted, the picture was originally made in a decade ago. What's happened to Frank and Ollie since then?

TT: Well, both of them did a lot of personal appearances and delivered various talks, but they're both 91 now and time has caught up with them, slowing their activities substantially. Frank suffered a stroke in 1996 that severely affected his right side. He has regained some use of that side and can still do some drawing, but not to the degree that he'd like. Ollie was in good shape until the last two years. Both still get out, but understandably, it's much harder now.

BM: Finally, what have you been doing since the Frank and Ollie picture and what's your current project?

TT: I've been involved in trying to get several feature-length documentaries off the ground, but none have completely taken flight as yet. At present, I'm involved in discussions concerning some projects that Walt Disney's daughter wants to do.

BM: Ted, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. It's been a real pleasure.

TT: You're very welcome.


Our thanks to Ted Thomas for taking the time to chat with us, and to Rick Rhoades and everyone at Buena Vista Home Entertainment for arranging the interview. Be sure to read my review of the Frank and Ollie: Special Edition here.

Barrie Maxwell

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas
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