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108-year-old former Disney animator learned her pre-CGI art watching kids play leapfrog

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Aug 18, 2018, 12:33 PM EDT (Updated)

Most of the classic animated films that ended up making Walt Disney a household name in nearly every corner of the globe were crafted long before the advent of computer-generated animation. To create movies like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, illustrators and shaders studied the movements of real bodies, training themselves to translate familiar postures and movements in a stylized way that transformed the familiar, elevating it in the process into something more.

At 108 years old, former Disney animator Ruthie Tompson was happily in the trenches back in the 1930s and ensuing decades, when the only way to make a cartoon character move was to sit down and start inking the first cel. The process, she recently explained to Entertainment Weekly, was as straightforward and low-tech as it gets: Watch what real bodies do, and then figure out a way to turn it into art.

Recalling how Walt Disney (who lived in her neighborhood) used to pay children to jump around, play leapfrog, and generally just be kids so the studio could use their pictures as a reference, Tompson said she got started as an illustrator “on the tail end of Snow White,” and did mostly grunt work until Disney himself pushed her to take the next step.

“I went to night school and did what they told me to do,” she said, showing off one of her few nitrate cels to have survived the attrition of time.  “…After I inked this, these cels, two or three of them, the head girl in the inking department came over and gave me a little hug and she said, ‘Honey, I think you better go into painting.’”

Being a part of Disney’s early growth spurt put Tompson at the center of more than just the animation studio — it also gave her insider access to Disney himself, making her a firsthand witness to the creation of an entertainment empire. At one point, Disney even was ready to recruit Tompson to drive guests around his newly opened California theme park in a real horse and carriage — until he thought better of the whole idea.

“He decided not to do it because ponies get frisky and kids might scare ’em or something,” she joked. 

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