If Snow White looked appropriately snowy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney’s first animated film; when Pinocchio’s nose grew at the right rate; whether Dumbo was the right shade of elephant gray; all of this is due in part to the largely unannounced work of Ruthie Tompson.
One of a cadre of women who worked in indispensable anonymity at Disney in the 1930s and 40s – and one of its longest-lived members – Ms. Tompson, who died Sunday at the age of 111, spent four decades in the studio. Over time, she worked on almost every Disney animated film, from “Snow White” to “The Rescuers,” which was released in 1977.
A Disney spokesman, Howard Green, said she died in the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, California, where she had long lived.
Ms. Tompson came to Disney as an ink artist and painter. She later turned her eye to the thousands of drawings that make up an animated film and checked them for continuity of color and line. Later still, as a member of the studio’s scene planning department, she developed precise methods for the film cameras to bring these flat, static drawings to life.
“She made the fantasies come true,” said John Canemaker, an Oscar-winning animator and animation historian in a 2017 interview for this obituary. “The whole setup was pre-digital back then, so everything was paper, camera, film and color.”
The totemic films that brought Ms. Tompson to life include “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940) and “Dumbo” (1941), as well as countless animated short films, including the anti-Nazi cartoon “Der Führer’s Face”. “, Which won an Oscar in 1943.
In 2000, Ms. Tompson was named a Disney Legend, an honor given by the Walt Disney Company for outstanding service. (Previous recipients are Fred MacMurray, Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury; future recipients are Elton John and Tim Conway.)
Her performance was all the more remarkable as she could barely draw a straight line by her own cheerful admission. But her connection with Disney seemed almost predetermined from her youth.
Ruth Tompson was born on July 22, 1910 in Portland, Me., To one of two girls of Ward and Athene (Sterling) Tompson. She spent her early childhood in Boston. When she was 8 years old, 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 films. The family lived down the street from Robert Disney, an uncle of Walt Disney, and his brother Roy.
The Disney brothers opened their first film studio nearby in 1923, and it happened to be on Ruthie Tompson’s way to school. She walked by it every day and peered through a window as if the animation unfolded.
One day Walt Disney was spying on her.
“He came out and said, ‘Why don’t you go in and watch?'” Ms. Tompson recalled about nine decades later on a podcast for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
“I was really intrigued,” she said. She returned to the studio many times and became a fixture there.
During those years the studio made the Alice Comedies, a series of silent short films that combined animation and live action, and sometimes hired neighborhood kids as extras.
Among them was Ruthie, who appeared in several pictures and received 25 cents for each. Her cinematic salary, Ms. Tompson recalled, tended towards licorice.
Their connection with the Disney’s could have ended there if Walt and Roy hadn’t decided a decade later to take polo lessons.
After graduating from Hollywood High School, the young woman Tompson took a job at a riding school in the San Fernando Valley. A few years later, the brothers visited the stable to learn to play polo, which was very popular with the smart sets at the time.
“Ruthie Tompson!” Walt Disney explained when he saw her there. “Why don’t you come and work for me?”
“I can’t draw a cent,” she replied.
Anyway, Mr. Disney told her, the studio would send her to night school to learn the basics of ink and painting.
“Of course,” recalled Ms. Tompson, “everyone around me said, ‘Don’t say no! Don’t say no! ‘”
After evening school she came to the studio in time to work on “Snow White”. Their job – mean and inartistic but very necessary – was to remove dirt and dust from the finished cells, as the transparent sheets of celluloid that went in front of the camera were called.
Soon she was assigned to Disney’s ink and paint division. It consisted of about a hundred women who toiled in relative darkness and was unofficially known as “the nunnery”. The pure manual work of the women consisted in transferring the animators’ drawings from paper to the cels.
Many ink pens and painters were gifted artists themselves. But by the 1930s and 40s, animators – the studio’s most glamorous artistic positions – were closed to them.
“Women do not do any of the creative work involved in preparing the cartoons for the screen, as this work is only done by young men,” reads materials the studio sends to women applying for jobs at the time. “The only work that is open to women is to trace the characters on transparent celluloid sheets with ink and to fill in the traces on the back with color according to the instructions.”
(As of 2015 – the last year for which figures are available – women only had 20 percent of creative jobs in the animation industry, according to Women in Animation, a professional association founded in 1995.)
Ms. Tompson, as she and the studio quickly agreed, had no future as an ink pen: She pushed too hard and broke the fine nibs the job required. She was made a painter, known in animation jargon as “opaque”.
“It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that – just follow the lines,” she said in a 2007 interview. “It’s like painting numbers.”
Next, she worked as the final inspector, checking the finished setups of a film – as the layered transparencies with the cels and their backgrounds were called – like a giant flip book to make sure the color and line stayed consistent throughout.
“Of a 500 cel scene, all four or five were painted by another girl, so the colors had to go through,” Ms. Tompson explained in 2007. “If you put blue in the wrong place, we’d have to take it back and have it repeated . “
In 1948 she was promoted to the dual role of animation checker and scene planner. As an animation checker, she examined the work of the artists, among other things, to see that the characters literally keep their heads: in the hurry of the animators, different body parts of a character, which were often created as separate drawings, cannot match.
The scene planner was tasked with working out the intricate counterpoint between the finished setups and the cameras they were photographing: what camera angles to use, how fast characters should move relative to their background, and the like.
“She really had to know all the mechanics of getting the image to work on screen, the way the director, the layout artist and the animator preferred it: how to make Peter Pan run or fly in the allotted time,” explained Mr. Canemaker. “What she did ended up on screen – whether you see her hand or not – because of the way she supported the directors’ vision.”
In 1952, Ms. Tompson was one of the first women to join the International Photographers Union, a branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees that represents cameramen. She retired in 1975 as director of the scene planning department at Disney.
She never married and left no immediate survivors, said Mr. Green.
On the Walt Disney Family Museum podcast, Ms. Tompson fondly recalled her longstanding association with Walt Disney and the unexpected career that resulted from it.
“I never got over the awe that I was there and was a part of this wonderful thing that he was doing,” she said.
She added pragmatically, “Although they were just plain old cartoons.”
Alex Traub contributed the reporting.