Ruthie Tompson, pioneering Disney animator, dies aged 111

By Andrew Pulver
Ruthie Tompson with film Critic Leonard Maltin  attending the screening of An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation, 2018.
‘A legend among animators’ … Ruthie Tompson, with film critic Leonard Maltin, at the screening of An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation, in 2018. Photograph: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for TCM

Ruthie Tompson, the last living link to the earliest days of Walt Disney’s animation studio has died aged 111. In a statement, the Walt Disney Company said Tompson had “passed away peacefully in her sleep” on Sunday at her home at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement complex in Los Angeles.

Tompson was a longtime Disney employee who worked on the 1937 hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and remained with the company for four decades until the mid-1970s. Having got to know Walt and Roy Disney through working at a riding school in the San Fernando valley where the Disney brothers played polo, Tompson was offered a job as a painter on Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which began production in 1934. She later recalled: “We worked into the night, day after day, until we got it exactly right!”

Born in 1910, Tompson first came across the Disney brothers as a child when she passed their makeshift studio in Los Angeles’ Kingswell Avenue, near her home. According to a Disney oral history project in which Tompson participated in 2010, she said in the 1920s she was invited in to watch Walt and Roy Disney, along with their earliest collaborators Les Clark and Ub Iwerks, working on their cartoons. Tompson also recalled that she had been asked to act as a test subject for the Alice Comedies short films that Disney was producing, their first commission after moving operations to Los Angeles from Kansas in 1923. “Walt would engage all of the kids in the neighbourhood and take pictures of us running and playing and doing things, for animation purposes. He always gave us a quarter or 50 cent piece, and, of course, I went right to the candy store for liquorice.”

Having joined Disney studio after leaving school, Tompson was promoted to final checker (checking the animation cels before filming) and subsequently to scene planning, working on a string of Disney classics (largely uncredited) including Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins and The Aristocats, as well as the 1960s TV cartoon Popeye the Sailor. Bob Broughton, Disney supervisor of special photographic effects, recalled: “Ruthie was mechanically inclined. She was excellent at figuring out the mathematical and mechanical logistics of camera moves.”

In 1952 she became one of the first three women invited to join the International Photographers Union. Tompson was named as a Disney Legend in 2000, and appeared alongside Whoopi Goldberg at Disney’s D23 Expo in 2020. Tompson retired from Disney in 1975 aged 65 after completing work on The Rescuers (which was released in 1977), but continued to work on other projects, including Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

Bob Iger, Disney’s executive chairman, said: “Ruthie was a legend among animators, and her creative contributions to Disney remain beloved classics to this day. While we will miss her smile and wonderful sense of humour, her exceptional work and pioneering spirit will forever be an inspiration to us all.”


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