If Snow White looked suitably snowy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney’s first animated feature; if Pinocchio’s nose was just growing at the right pace; if Dumbo was the right shade of elephantine gray; all of this is due in part to the largely unrecognized work of Ruthie Tompson.
Part of a group of women who in the 1930s and 1940s worked at Disney in much-needed anonymity – and one of its oldest members – Ms Tompson, who died Sunday at 111, spent four decades at the studio. Over time, she has worked on almost all of Disney’s animated feature films, from “Snow White” to “The Rescuers,” released in 1977.
Disney spokesperson Howard Green said she died in the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, Calif., Where she had long resided.
Ms. Tompson joined Disney as an inker and painter. She later trained her eye on the thousands of designs that make up an animated feature film, checking for continuity of colors and lines. Still later, as a member of the studio’s scene planning department, she devised precise ways for her film cameras to give those flat, static drawings a lively, vivid life.
“She made the fantasies come true,” said John Canemaker, an Oscar-winning animator and animation historian, in an interview for this obituary in 2017. “The whole setup was pre-digital then, so it was all paper, camera, film and paint. . “
Among the totem films in which Ms. Tompson helped breathe life into are “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940) and “Dumbo” (1941), as well as countless animated shorts, including anti-Nazi animated “Der Führer’s Face”, which won an Oscar in 1943.
In 2000, Ms. Tompson was named Disney Legend, an honor bestowed by the Walt Disney Company for her outstanding contributions. (Previous recipients include Fred MacMurray, Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury; subsequent recipients include Elton John and Tim Conway.)
Her accomplishments were all the more remarkable because, by her own cheerful admission, she could hardly draw a straight line. Still, his association with Disney seemed almost preordained from an early age.
Ruth Tompson was born on July 22, 1910 in Portland, Me., One of two daughters of Ward and Athene (Sterling) Tompson. She spent her early childhood in Boston. When she was 8, her family moved to Oakland, California.
In 1922, after her parents divorced and her mother married John Roberts, an outdoor painter, Ruthie and her sister moved with her mother and stepfather to Los Angeles, where her mother worked as an extra in Hollywood movies. The family lived down the street from Robert Disney, an uncle of Walt Disney and his brother Roy.
The Disney brothers founded their first film studio nearby in 1923, and it was on the way to Ruthie Tompson’s school. As she walked past her each day, she gazed through a window in wonder as the animation work unfolded.
One day, Walt Disney spied on her.
“He come out and said, ‘Why don’t you come in and look? “” Ms. Tompson recalled about nine decades later in a podcast for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
“I was really fascinated,” she said. She returned to the studio several times, becoming something of a staple there.
During these years, the studio was filming the Alice Comedies, a series of silent short films mixing animation and live action, and sometimes using neighborhood children as extras.
Among them was Ruthie, who has appeared in several photos, receiving 25 cents for each. Her movie pay, Ms. Tompson remembers, went toward licorice.
His association with Disney might well have ended there if it weren’t for the fact that a decade later Walt and Roy chose to take polo lessons.
After graduating from high school in Hollywood, young Ms. Tompson found a job at an equestrian center in the San Fernando Valley. A few years later, the brothers visited the stable to learn how to play polo, which was then all the rage among the smart ensemble.
“Ruthie Tompson! Walt Disney said when he saw her there. “Why don’t you come work for me? “
“I don’t know how to draw that’s worth a dime,” she replied.
Regardless, Mr. Disney told him: the studio would send him to night school to learn the basics of inking and painting.
“Of course,” Ms. Tompson recalled, “everyone around me said, ‘Don’t say no! Don’t say no! ‘”
After night school, she joined the studio in time to work on “Snow White”. His tasks – menial and non-artistic but very necessary – were to clean the dirt and dust from the finished cells, as the transparent celluloid sheets that went before the camera were called.
She was soon assigned to the ink and paint department at Disney. Composed of a hundred women working in relative obscurity, it was informally known as “the convent”. The work of the women, entirely done by hand, consisted of transferring the animators’ drawings from the paper to the cels.
Many inkers and painters were themselves deeply gifted artists. But in the 1930s and 1940s, animator jobs – the studio’s most glamorous artistic positions – were closed to them.
“The women do not do any creative work related to preparing the cartoons for the screen, as this work is done entirely by young men,” read the documents sent by the studio to women applying for the jobs of the screen. ‘era. “The only job open to women is to trace the characters on transparent celluloid sheets with India ink and fill in the traces on the back with paint according to the instructions.
(In 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, women held only 20% of creative jobs in the animation industry, according to Women in Animation, a trade association founded in 1995.)
Ms Tompson, as she and the studio quickly agreed, had no future as an inkwell: she pressed too hard and snapped off the fine pen tips that the job required. She became a painter, known in the language of animation as an “opaque”.
“It doesn’t take a lot of brain to do that – you just have to follow the lines,” she said in a 2007 interview. “It’s like painting numbers.”
She then worked as a final checker, which involved modifying the finished setups of a film – like the layered transparencies including the cels and their backgrounds were known – like a giant flip book to make sure the color and the line remain consistent throughout.
“On a 500-cell stage, all four or five would be painted by a different girl, so the colors had to follow,” Ms. Tompson explained in 2007. “If they put the blue in the wrong place, we have to take them back. and have them redone.
In 1948, she was promoted to the dual role of animation checker and scene planner. As an animation checker, she scrutinized the artists ‘work to see, among other things, that the characters literally kept their heads: in the animators’ haste, different parts of a character’s body, often made in the form of drawings. separated, might not line up.
The scene planner was tasked with determining the complex counterpoint between the finished installations and the cameras that photographed them: what camera angles should be used, how fast the characters should move relative to their background, etc.
“She had to really know all the mechanisms to make the image work on the screen as the director, the designer and the animator preferred: how to make Peter Pan walk or fly in the specified time,” Canemaker explained. “What she did ended up on screen – whether you saw her hand or not – because of the way she supported the directors’ vision.”
In 1952, Ms. Tompson became one of the first women admitted to the International Union of Photographers, a branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees representing cameramen. She retired in 1975 as supervisor of Disney’s scene planning department.
She never married and left no immediate survivors, Mr Green said.
On the Walt Disney Family Museum podcast, Ms Tompson fondly recalled her long-standing association with Walt Disney and the unexpected career to which it spawned.
“I never ceased to be in awe of the fact that I was there and that I was a part of this wonderful thing that he was doing,” she said.
She added, pragmatically, “Even if they were just old cartoons. “
Alex Traub contributed reporting.