(p. A20) If Snow White looked suitably snowy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” if Pinocchio’s nose grew at just the right rate, if Dumbo was the correct shade of elephantine gray, all that was due in part to the largely unheralded work of Ruthie Tompson.
. . .
In 1922, after her parents divorced and her mother married John Roberts, a plein-air 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 happened to be on Ruthie Tompson’s route to school. Walking past it each day, she peered through a window, transfixed, as the work of animation unfolded.
One day, Walt Disney spied her.
“He came out and said, ‘Why don’t you go inside and watch?’” Ms. Tompson recalled some nine decades later in a podcast for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
“I was really fascinated,” she said. She returned to the studio many times, becoming something of a fixture there.
During those years, the studio was shooting the Alice Comedies, a series of silent shorts combining animation and live action, and sometimes enlisted neighborhood children as extras.
Among them was Ruthie, who appeared in several pictures, receiving 25 cents for each. Her cinematic salary, Ms. Tompson recalled, went toward licorice.
Her association with the Disneys might well have ended there had it not been for the fact that a decade later Walt and Roy chose to take polo lessons.
. . .
“Ruthie Tompson!” Walt Disney declared on seeing her there. “Why don’t you come and work for me?”
“I can’t draw worth a nickel,” she replied.
No matter, Mr. Disney told her: The studio would send her to night school to learn the rudiments of inking and painting.
“Of course,” Ms. Tompson recalled, “everybody around me said: ‘Don’t say no! Don’t say no!’”
. . .
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 characters literally kept their heads: In the animators’ haste, different parts of a character’s body, often done as separate drawings, might fail to align.
The scene planner was tasked with working out the intricate counterpoint between the finished setups and the cameras that photographed them: which camera angles should be used, how fast characters should move relative to their backgrounds, and the like.
“She really had to know all the mechanics of making the image work on the screen as the director, the layout person and the animator preferred: how to make Peter Pan walk, or fly, in the specified time,” Mr. Canemaker explained. “What she did ended up on the screen — whether you see her hand or not — because of the way she supported the directors’ vision.”
. . .
In the Walt Disney Family Museum podcast, Ms. Tompson fondly recalled her long-ago association with Walt Disney and the unexpected career to which it gave rise.
“I never got over being awe-struck at the fact that I was there and I was a part of this wonderful thing that he was doing,” she said.
For the full obituary, see:
Margalit Fox. “Ruthie Tompson, Invisible Hand Behind Pinocchio’s Nose, Dies at 111.” The New York Times (Wednesday, October 13, 2021): A20.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Oct. 12, 2021, and has the title “Ruthie Tompson Dies at 111; Breathed Animated Life Into Disney Films.”)