If Snow White looked suitably snowy in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Disney's first animated feature; if Pinocchio's nose grew at just the right rate; if Dumbo was the correct shade of elephantine gray, all that is due in part to the largely unheralded work of Ruthie Tompson.
One of a cadre of women who in the 1930s and '40s worked at Disney in indispensable anonymity — and one of its longest-lived members — Tompson, who died Sunday at 111, spent four decades at the studio. Over time, she worked on nearly every one of Disney's animated features, from "Snow White" to "The Rescuers," released in 1977.
A Disney spokesperson, Howard Green, said she died at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement community in Woodland Hills, Calif., where she had been a longtime resident.
Tompson joined Disney as an inker and painter. She later trained her eye on the thousands of drawings that make up an animated feature, checking them for continuity of color and line. Still later, as a member of the studio's scene planning department, she devised exacting ways for its film cameras to bring those flat, static drawings to vivid animated life.
"She made the fantasies come real," John Canemaker, an Oscar-winning animator and a historian of animation, said in an interview for this obituary in 2017. "The whole setup then was predigital, so everything was paper, camera, film and paint."
Among the films into which Tompson helped breathe life are "Pinocchio" (1940), "Fantasia" (1940) and "Dumbo" (1941), along with countless animated shorts, including the anti-Nazi cartoon "Der Fuehrer's Face," which won a 1943 Academy Award.
In 2000, Tompson was named a Disney Legend, an honor bestowed by the Walt Disney Co. for outstanding contributions. (Previous recipients include Fred MacMurray, Julie Andrews and Angela Lansbury.)
Her accomplishments were all the more notable in that, by her own cheerful admission, she could barely draw a straight line. Yet her association with Disney seemed almost foreordained from the time she was very young.
Ruth Tompson was born July 22, 1910, in Portland, Maine, one of two girls of Ward and Athene (Sterling) Tompson.
In 1922, after her parents divorced and her mother married John Roberts, a plein-air painter, Ruth Tompson and her sister moved with her mother and stepfather to Los Angeles, where her mother worked as an extra in Hollywood movies.
The Disney brothers founded their first film studio in 1923, and it happened to be on Ruth Tompson's route to school. Walking past it each day, she peered through a window, transfixed, as the work of animation unfolded.
Many years later, she joined Disney's ink and paint department. Comprising about 100 women toiling in relative obscurity, it was unofficially known as "the nunnery." The women's job, done entirely by hand, was to transfer the animators' drawings from paper onto the cels.
Many inkers and painters were gifted artists themselves. But in the 1930s and '40s, animators' jobs — the most glamorous of the studio's artistic positions — were closed to them.
Tompson eventually retired in 1975 as the supervisor of Disney's scene-planning department.
"I never got over being awe-struck at the fact that I was there and I was a part of this wonderful thing that he was doing," she said.
She added, pragmatically, "Even though it was just plain old cartoons."