Simanaitis Says

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LET’S CELEBRATE Disney animation and also the near-term evolution of publication. Initially published in 1981, the book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life has been the classic work describing the artistic process of turning static images into moving ones, or at least those that we perceive as moving. Animation is wonderful trickery of the eye and mind.

The 1981 First Edition of the book led to subsequent versions—both of lesser quality, one with a subtle name change. Ultimately, though, there’s a 21st-century format that accomplishes in a computer app what only the mind could do in the original.


Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Abbeville, 1981.

My copy is missing its dust cover, but its 575 pages are fascinating, wonderfully bright and instructive. It’s difficult to imagine better teachers of the animation art: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were two of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, as he called them, key artists who transformed comic cartoons into full-length cel-animated artistry.


Ollie Johnston, left, and Frank Thomas. Image from the wonderful website maintained in their memory,

Frank Thomas, 1912 – 2004, was key in animating the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney Special Platinum Edition), 1937; the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella, 1950; the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (Two-Disc Special Un-Anniversary Edition), 1951; and Captain Hook in Peter Pan (Two-Disc Platinum Edition), 1953. Ollie Johnston, 1912 – 2008, included among his creations Mr. Smee in Peter Pan, Alice and the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and the Stepsisters in Cinderella. Bambi (Two-Disc Platinum Edition), 1942, was a joint effort of the pair, who remained good friends all their lives.


Frank Tomas’s Thumper wasn’t in the original script, but stardom followed. Bambi, 1942. This and other images from Disney Animation, the Abbeville First Edition.

Even today, their book Disney Animation is considered the bible of animators, its topics including practical matters such as Animating Expressions and Dialogue, Acting and Emotion, and How to Get It on the Screen. Also discussed are a wealth of other details, story boards, character development, incorporating sound, special effects and cinematographic matters.


Many practical matters are addressed.

There’s an interesting analysis of a feature-length animated film. Aptly, it’s titled How Many Drawings Does It Take? and Why Does It Take So Long? The eye accepts motion if it’s offered animated images at 24 frames/second. Each frame has several drawings, with principal figures, foreground and background. On average, there are four drawings per frame; hence 4 x 24 = 96 drawings/sec. In an 80-minute feature, this is 460,800 drawings. Then these are put into cels and painted, for another 460,800 drawings.

Adding to these finished images all the preliminary sketches, layouts, animations, “inbetweeners” and others, it totals more than 2,500,000 drawings and perhaps three and a half years—for an 80-minute feature.


The heroine sings at the wishing well, Snow White, 1937.

The book is also an historical account of animation from An Art Form is Born to The Future (the latter, from a 1981 perspective). There are plenty of nuggets. For example, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914, stands out for its first display of animated personality: McCay’s Gertie shows shyness, stubbornness, even tears when she is criticized.

Walt Disney moved to Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. He had a regular animated feature called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927, only to lose rights to it in 1928. Walt’s Steamboat Willie, 1928, introduced a new character named Mickey Mouse.

Who’s the lucky one now?


A mouse named Mickey expresses anger and disgust, Steamboat Willie, 1928.

The publication history of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life is a microcosm of the book business. From a bibliophilic point of view, its 1981 Abbeville First Edition is the most desirable. Its pages feel like today’s high-quality magazine cover stock. Its illustrations are individual works of art.


Geppetto’s workshop, Pinocchio, 1940.

The 1988 edition of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life has less impressive paper stock and its art reproduction suffers. Similarly for the 1995 Hyperion edition, which is recognizable by its swapping of title, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. Either is still a fine bible of animation, but neither is as highly prized as the Abbeville original.


Captain Hook and Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, 1953. 

As a 21st-century update, an English company Touchpress arranged to develop an iPad app based on Principles of Animation, the book’s third chapter. Apple Inc. named this $13.99 app, Disney Animated, the best iPad app of 2013, the iTunes App Editor noting, “We’re absolutely spellbound.”

Reviewers commend its information on today’s computer-graphic animation techniques as well as traditional methods and materials. The app also won a Children’s Award in 2014 from BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.


Disney Animated, a Touchpress iPad app.

I confess, I’m still spellbound by the classic approach. But I’ll be downloading the app before long. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Bonnie Inman
    February 17, 2018


    I have a hard copy of the 1981 first edition of the Illusion of life; by Thomas & Johnson. The big Red book.
    How can I go about seeing the value of the book.
    How many copies were made of this 575 page book.

    Thank you for your time

    Please advise
    Bonnie Inman

    • simanaitissays
      February 18, 2018

      Hello, Bonnie,
      Sorry, I do not know how many copies were published. As a general price guide, I’d suggest looking at and amazon’s secondhand listings. Of course, such a price doesn’t equate with value, nor with sell price to a dealer.
      Enjoy the “big Red book.” We sure like ours,

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