Ruthie Tompson, whose hand helped paint early Mickey Mouse, was the very picture of humility — even as she turned 110.
“We worked into the night, day after day, until we got it exactly right!” she told the Hollywood Reporter last year, from the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s retirement community in Woodland Hills, Calif., while enduring the second global pandemic of her lifetime.
Tompson died at her home there Sunday at 111.
She was an official Disney Legend — a hall-of-fame program honoring those whose work has made “a significant impact on the Disney legacy.” “Snow White” would help launch her on a four-decade career in hand-drawn animation, including work as an uncredited ink-and-paint artist on 1942’s “Bambi” and as an uncredited scene planner on such other Disney movies as 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” 1964’s “Mary Poppins” and 1970’s “The Aristocats.” She also worked on the worlds of Popeye and Winnie-the-Pooh, and last worked on 1978’s animated “The Lord of the Rings,” as an ink-and-paint supervisor.
Yet when The Washington Post reached Tompson last year at the MPTF facility, mentioning some of the classic films from her remarkable career — including “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and “Dumbo” in the ‘40s — she downplayed her role. “I was not an animator,” she said, speaking briefly by phone, yet she pointed proudly to what her Disney departments created collectively.
Tompson was refusing to tout some of her true gifts, including the ability to film the animation cels so that some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters came alive for generations of viewers. It was the subtle art of turning line into life.
Consider, too, the terrain that Tompson first had to navigate. Walt Disney hired men as higher-paid animators while as many as 100 women sometimes worked around-the-clock, applying precise tints to the cels, working between the men’s black strokes.
“It was a man’s world all over the place,” Tompson once told Vanity Fair.
Working in the Ink & Paint department (dubbed “the Nunnery”) was complicated by Disney’s “unrelenting perfectionism,” Patricia Zohn wrote in 2010 for the magazine, but was “reducible to a simple imperative of the time: ever nimble but never showy, their job was to make what the men did look good.”
Tompson actually knew the brothers Disney — Walt and Roy O. — before joining their studio. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1910, she moved with her family to California as a young girl, growing up in Hollywood near the humble Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio storefront — where the Disneys would pay neighborhood kids a few coins to film them at play, for “Alice Comedies” shorts that informed their animation. Walt Disney later ran into Tompson when she was 18 and invited her to come work at the studio. Soon she was attending night school to master her new craft.
Tompson, who retired from Disney in the mid-'70s after finishing her work on “The Rescuers,” had the longest history with Walt and Roy O. Disney of any company employee.
After working with brush and color, Tompson was promoted to checking animation cels, and then working out the mechanics of each scene, including the technical relationship between characters and background. As Tompson grew increasingly skilled at camera movement within animation, in 1952 she became one of the first women asked to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
“While conditions have certainly improved for women in animation since Tompson’s tenure at Disney, female animators remain extremely underrepresented,” the Women and Hollywood website has reported. And the Women in Animation organization says that “more than 60 percent of animation and art school students are women, and yet only 20 percent of the creative jobs are held by women.” WIA’s aim is “to make it 50/50 by 2025.”
Tompson’s tenacity, meanwhile, remains a beacon. “Ruthie was a legend among animators,” Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger said in a statement, adding: “While we miss her smile and wonderful sense of humor, her exceptional work and pioneering spirit will forever be an inspiration to us all.”
As Tompson herself liked to say: “Mickey Mouse and I grew up together.”