By Anthony Hayward


Ruthie Tompson

Born: July 22, 1910;

Died: October 10, 2021

RUTHIE Tompson, who has died aged 111, spent almost 40 years as a key member of the Disney studios’ animation team, starting with its first full-length feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, after falling under the spell of Walt and his brother Roy as a child.

She lived down the road from the pair in the Los Angeles hillside district of Los Feliz when they started a studio in their uncle’s garage.

On her way to school, she would stop to look through the window. One day, transfixed by two young women working on cels – celluloid sheets on which animators’ drawings are traced and coloured before being photographed – she was invited in. “They were drawing pictures like mad,” she told historian and author Didier Ghez in 2007, “and then there was somebody out in the back who was shooting them on a funny camera.”

Shortly afterwards, when the brothers were looking for ragamuffins to play tag in a street scene for one of their Alice Comedies, a series of short films mixing animation and live-action in stories about a girl and her cat, Roy rounded up Tompson and other locals. “He paid each of us a quarter [25 cents], which I was glad for because I could buy licorice,” she recalled.

Later, when she was working at a riding school in the San Fernando Valley, where the brothers played polo, Walt recognised her, and asked: “Why don’t you come to work for me instead of playing around the horses?”

When she accepted, he put her through night classes to learn the skills of inking and painting, and in 1935 she helped to finish production on one of the many Disney short films being released at the time. But there was no more work immediately and she took a job elsewhere as a receptionist.

Then, in autumn 1937, the studio was in a frantic rush to finish its biggest project to date, the 83-minute-long Snow White, in time for Christmas. She was asked back to work among the dozens of women in the ink and paint department to help complete it.

“I got in on the dirty work, more or less,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “It was at the end of it where you had to clean cels and patch up little things that might have popped off, and do legwork. I was a gopher, really.”

Perhaps more satisfyingly, on the 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts, she was a painter, filling in the colours – predominantly whites, blues and greys – for characters already inked (the process of tracing the animators’ lines). Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy all appeared in the film.

After Snow White took millions of dollars at the box-office, she worked on other early Disney classics, Pinocchio, Fantasia (both 1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), as well as its shorts.

From painter, she rose to final checker, ensuring all the colours were right and the action within the correct area, then animation checker, reviewing movements such as mouth and arm actions.

She made her greatest contribution as a scene planner, liaising with animators and background painters to work out logistics and to guide camera movements. This was seen on screen in Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), which mixed live action with animation, The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973), as well as the short films Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974).

Ruth Irene Tompson was born in Portland, Maine, in 1910 to Athene (née Sterling) and Nahum Tompson. The family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, then Oakland, California, when she was eight. After her parents divorced and her mother married John Roberts in 1924, she lived in Loz Feliz and, on leaving Hollywood High School, took a job at Dubrock’s Riding Academy.

As an animation checker with Disney during the Second World War, she worked on training films for the US armed forces starring the studios’ most popular characters. Then, as supervisor of the scene-planning department, she helped to develop its multiplane camera system, used to photograph animated scenes and background art onto film.

Her pioneering work led in 1952 to the Global Photographic Union inviting her to become one of its first three female members. She was also a checker on the Disney animated TV series, Popeye the Sailor (1960-62).

With the Disney studios having a compulsory retirement age of 65, Tompson left in 1975, by which time she was head of the scene planning department, after completing The Rescuers (1977). She took that skill to Metamorphoses (1978), which featured Greek myths and was conceived as a Japanese version of Fantasia by the creators of Hello Kitty. An initial flop, it was revamped and re-released the following year as Winds of Change and had some life on video.

She was ink and paint supervisor on Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978).

In her 90s, she worked in the editing suite at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Channel 22, making programmes for residents at its Woodland Hills retirement home, where she lived. In 2000 her old employers saluted her as a Disney Legend; in 2017 she was honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her contribution to the animation industry. She is survived by two nieces and a nephew.