Animator, director, producer and story artist Burnie Mattinsonwho joined the Walt Disney Company at the end of its first great run of films, when Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942) were new and an in-his-prime Walt Disney was just 42 years old, died today. He was 87. He was the last full-time Walt Disney Studios employee who had worked at the company when Walt Disney still ran it.
Seeing the studio’s Pinocchio at the age of six convinced Mattinson he wanted to work in animation. “Ever since I saw that film, this was my dream—to work in this business,” he recalled years later “So I worked every day, drawing.”
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After graduating high school, he convinced his mother to drop him off at the studio gate, where he handed his portfolio to a security guard. Impressed, the guard called Ken Seiling, the head of personnel. There were no available job positions in the studio’s animation department, but Mattinson got his foot in the door with a job in the traffic department. Six months later, Mattinson started working on Lady and the Tramp (1955).
It was the start of the career of the man who became the longest-serving cast member in the history of The Walt Disney Company, who was set to receive the company’s first-ever 70th anniversary service award this coming June 6.
Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer, Walt Disney Animation Studios, said in a statement, “Burny’s artistry, generosity, and love of Disney Animation and the generations of storytellers that have come through our doors, for seven decades, has made us better—better artists, better technologists, and better collaborators.” All of us who have had the honor to know him and learn from him will ensure his legacy carries on.”
Raya and the Last Dragon director Don Hall — whose Big Hero 6 won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — also issued a statement.
“For almost 30 years,” Hall wrote, “I’ve had the privilege to work alongside Burny Mattinson, from Winnie the Pooh to Big Hero 6 to, most recently, Strange World. I have marveled at his artistry, enjoyed his good humor, and sat enraptured by his stories of Disney history. At 18 years old, he followed his dream of working at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and for almost 70 years he lived that dream every day, inspiring all of us who had the good fortune to follow in his footsteps. I love him dearly.”
He worked as an artist on such classics as Lady and the Tramp (1955), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), etc The Rescuers (1977). He served as a key member of the story team on contemporary Disney classics including Aladdin (1992), Beauty and the Beast (1993), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Tarzan (1997) and Mulan (1998).
At one point, Mattinson became an assistant animator to one of the studio’s legendary Nine Old Men, Marc Davis, on Sleeping Beauty (1959) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Mattinson went on to work for 12 years under another renowned animator, Eric Larson, while mastering the animation of Ludwig Von Drake for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961) and contributing to such features as The Sword in the Stone (1963) and The Aristocats (1970). As the Nine Old Men began to retire, Mattinson became a key animator on Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) before being recruited by Frank Thomas to work on storyboards for The Rescuers (1977).
“Then Woolie Reitherman, who was a director, asked, ‘Would you stay [in the Story Department]?’ Mattinson later remembered of his career. “And I said, ‘Ok!’ I started loving making the story because there is something very creative about it. It was never hard.”
Legendary Disney animator Eric Goldberg — who was also a close friend and colleague of Mattinson’s — said, “Burny was the Renaissance man of Disney Animation. He literally did everything that could be done at the studio—assistant animator, animator, story artist, producer, and director of many films that made an indelible mark on our collective appreciation of the Disney ethos. He was also, when he started, traffic boy to Walt, giving Walt his weekly spending cash.
Of Mattinson’s art, Goldberg added, “Burny was low-key, charming, inventive, and superbly gifted as a draftsperson and a storyteller. His storyboards were beautifully acted and wonderfully atmospheric, which I first encountered when I joined the studio for Aladdin. The more I saw of his work, the more I became in awe of his breadth of talent. I value his cheerful friendship and lasting inspiration to me and so many other animation artists. He will be missed, but not forgotten.”
Mattinson’s achievements include directing the animated featurette Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), which marked the return of Mickey Mouse to the screen for the first time in 30 years. He was also a producer as well as co-director The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
“Animation is 75 percent thinking and 25 percent drawing,” Mattinson once said of his process. Everything must be carefully thought out first. Our animators not only have to think like actors but also figure out how to get that performance across on paper and on the screen. Our characters pause to think and connive. You can see it in their eyes.”
Asked two decades ago to reflect on his career at Disney, Mattinson said, “I mean, 50 years is a long time, but I still feel like that 18-year-old kid that came here back in ’53, you know? I never feel like I’ve gotten old.”
According to DisneyMattinson was still working full-time as a story consultant and mentor at the time of his passing.
Mattinson is survived by his wife, Ellen Siirola; his son, Brett Mattinson, and his wife, Kelly, and their two children; and his daughter, Genny, her husband Larry Ellena, and their two children. Funeral services will be private, and he will be laid to rest at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the MPTF (Motion Picture and Television Fund) in Woodland Hills, California.
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