Famed Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker discuss Nine Old Men at the Walt Disney Family Museum

September 16, 2018

On the afternoon of July 28, Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker appeared at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to reflect on the work of the Nine Old Men. This talk accompanied the special exhibition Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Masters of Animation currently on display at the museum. Ron Clements and John Musker are famous for directing “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Aladdin” (1992), “The Princess and the Frog” (2009),“Moana” (2016), and many others. The Nine Old Men (Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas) were Walt Disney’s original animators, so named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Nine Old Men on the Supreme Court. Clements and Musker presented on their time working and learning from some of the Nine Old Men.



Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco | © Evelyn Morehead


Clements began the talk by walking the audience through his beginnings as an animator. He recalled first seeing “Pinocchio” (1940) at nine years old which had a “profound effect on [him].” His love for “Pinocchio” inspired Clements to seek a career in animation. Later, Clements applied for a position with the Walt Disney Animation Studios, but was unsuccessful. This prompted him to enroll in a training program under Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men. Eight weeks later, Clements was hired by Disney due to his impressive animation tests throughout his program with Larson. At the Studios, Clements was mentored by Frank Thomas while working on “The Rescuers” (1977) and “Pete’s Dragon” (1977).


© Boungawa/WikiCommons 


Musker had an interest in drawing caricatures since childhood. He ventured on as an editorial cartoonist during his time at Northwestern University and later was accepted to CalArts. After his second animation test at CalArts, Musker was hired as an intern for the Walt Disney Animation Studios where he was mentored by Eric Larson. “I owe everything to him,” recalled Musker when reflecting on his time with him.

© Boungawa/WikiCommons


Clements and Musker shared that their all-time favorite Disney character is Jiminy Cricket, who was animated by Ward Kimball. Musker described Jiminy Cricket as an “icon of sincerity and warmth.” Kimball was also responsible for the animation of Lucifer the cat from “Cinderella” (1950). According to Musker, Lucifer is an example of how Kimball was a “marvel of comic invention.” Kimball “liked the more eccentric and comic characters,” such as Lucifer the cat. Clements first encountered Kimball when attending one of his animation lectures. Kimball opened the class by saying “Walt’s dead and you missed it,” a prime example of Kimball’s “wry sense of humor” said Clements.

© Walt Disney Productions for RKO Radio Pictures/WikiCommons


Clements and Musker both had a lot to say about the legendary Milt Kahl, with Musker stating that “Kahl was brilliant from the beginning of his career.” Due to his immense talent, “Kahl got stuck drawing the hard to draw characters, and sensitive moments.” According to Musker, “Kahl was a shape creator.” Of the Nine Old Men Kahl was probably the most intimidating. Clements recalled how “Kahl was a cantankerous character who everyone was afraid of, but was so talented.” Although it was Kahl’s character to “always be upset about something,” Clements thought “it was cool to have someone around who was so critical.”

© Gareth Simpson/Flickr


“What’s more important—the drawing or the acting?” Clements asked the audience. The Nine Old Men were great animators because they were also great actors. Clements, who worked with Frank Thomas for two years, commented how Thomas was “the great actor.” Clements concluded that “animators are actors—it’s the essence of what they do.” Clements played the clip of Thomas’ spaghetti scene in “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) to demonstrate that notion.

 © Janke/WikiCommons


Before concluding the presentation, Clements and Musker shared some key takeaways from their time spent with the Nine Old Men. Both men gained knowledge of how to create believable and engaging characters. Clements said “you have to show the character thinking, the expression changes; any movement is a response to what the character is thinking.” Musker added “characters have to have appeal, something that draws you in and compels you to watch.”  Musker concluded the inspiring talk with his advice to aspiring animators: “It’s important to open yourself to criticism—to develop a thick skin.”

Nine Old Men exhibit banner at the Walt Disney Family Museum | © Evelyn Morehead


Guests can experience the special exhibit, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Masters of Animation, from May 17, 2018 until Jan. 7, 2019 in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was created by Walt Disney Animation Studios producer Don Hahn, who conducted extensive research by interviewing each animator’s family to unearth details about the unique backgrounds and personalities of the men. Each animator receives their own insightful section within the exhibit. Be sure not to miss this one of a kind, in-depth look at the fascinating lives and work of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men!


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