As a child growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s, Ruthie Tompson passed by the first Disney film studio every day on her way to school. Each day, she peered inside the windows and watched the animators at work—until someone took notice of her and invited her inside.
“I think it was Walt [Disney] because he roamed around quite a bit,” Tompson later recalled. She became such a fixture at the studio that Walt’s brother, Roy, brought an apple box for her to sit on, transfixed, as animations came to life around her. “[A]s it got late, he would say, ‘I think you’d better go home. Your mother probably wants you to come home for dinner.’”
These visits marked the start of Tompson’s long, fruitful association with the Walt Disney Company. After graduating from high school, she formally joined the studio as an inker and painter, transferring animators’ drawings from paper onto “cels,” or celluloid sheets used in the filmmaking process. Over the next 40-odd years, she took on roles in final check, scene planning and the camera department. Her work—”largely unheralded,” writes Margalit Fox for the New York Times—helped shape many of the beloved children’s films produced during Disney’s Golden Age, among them Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins, The Aristocats and Robin Hood.
On October 10, at the age of 111, Tompson “passed away peacefully in her sleep” at her home in the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s retirement community in Woodland Hills, California, Disney announced in a statement.
“Ruthie was a legend among animators,” says Bob Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, in the statement. “While we will miss her smile and wonderful sense of humor, her exceptional work and pioneering spirit will forever be an inspiration to us all.”
Born in Portland, Maine, in 1910, Tompson moved to California with her family when she was 8 years old. Her childhood was suffused with Disney: She lived down the street from Robert Disney, Walt’s uncle, and in addition to being a regular observer of the Disney film studio, appeared as a live-action reference model for an early series of shorts, the Alice Comedies. She received 25 to 50 cents for each picture and used the money to buy licorice.
When she was 18, Tompson took a job at a riding academy in the San Fernando Valley, where the Disney brothers often played polo. Though he had not seen her since she was a child, Walt recognized her “signature Buster Brown haircut,” and invited her to work with him, wrote Patricia Zohn for Vanity Fair in 2010. Tompson replied that she couldn’t “draw worth a nickel,” but Disney was undeterred, promising that the studio would send her to night school so she could learn the craft of inking and painting.
The first film Tompson worked on was the studio’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She joined a group of about 100 women, some of them “profoundly gifted artists” who were barred from animation jobs because of their gender, per the Times. Tompson didn’t have the steady, delicate touch needed to work with the inkers, who “not only had to trace the animators’ pencil lines exactly but also had to capture the feeling of what the animators were intending in the scenes,” according to the Walt Disney Family Museum. Instead, she was assigned to paint in the lines that had been traced by the inkers.
Soon, Tompson was promoted to the position of final checker, making her responsible for reviewing animation cels before they were photographed onto film. “Out of a 500-cel scene, every four or five would be painted by a different girl, so the colors had to follow through,” she explained in 2007. “If they put blue in the wrong place, we’d have to take them back and have them redo them.”
In 1948, Tompson began working as both an animation checker reviewing artists’ work for inconsistencies and a scene planner—a role that required her to guide how the camera should move to bring vitality to the animations.
“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,” John Canemaker, a historian and Oscar-winning animator, tells the Times. “What she did ended up on the screen—whether you see her hand or not—because of the way she supported the directors’ vision.”
Though she operated behind the scenes, Tompson’s technical skill was recognized when she became one of the first three women admitted to the International Photographers Union, reports Rachel Treisman for NPR. She continued working for Disney until her retirement from the studio in 1975, making invaluable contributions to “virtually every Disney animated feature up through The Rescuers,” per the statement. In 2000, Tompson was named a Disney Legend, a title bestowed for exceptional contributions to the company.
Last year, in honor of Tompson’s 110th birthday, a celebration was held at the Motion Picture & Television Fund campus. Staff decorated the halls according to Tompson’s two passions: Disney and the Dodgers. When asked the secret to her longevity, Tompson joked that she was a vampire before adding, “I don’t know why I am still here, but I know that I don’t want to be revered for how old I am. I want to be known for who I am.”