Ruthie Tompson’s technical mind led her to be named supervisor of the Scene Planning department at The Walt Disney Studios. There, she helped to establish the camera mechanics used to photograph animated scenes and background art onto film. As Bob Broughton, a Disney Legend and former 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.”
Born in Portland, Maine, on July 22, 1910, Ruthie was raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Her family moved to California in 1918, arriving first in Oakland on November 11, Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. As she later recalled, amidst the end-of-the-war celebrations she and others wore masks over their faces to guard against influenza, which was epidemic at the time.
Ruthie’s association with Disney began long before she was a Studio employee. As a child growing up in Hollywood in the 1920s, she lived a short distance away from the fledgling Disney Bros. Studio on Kingswell Avenue.
“I used to walk by the Disney Bros. storefront,” she once recalled. “I was curious and snooped around, and, finally, they invited me in for a look. After that, I’d visit quite often. I remember sitting on the bench and watching Roy shoot the animated cels onto film.”
“Once Roy asked us neighborhood kids to play tag in the street, while he photographed us with a movie camera,” she continued. “I suppose it was for the Alice Comedies; he paid each of us a quarter, which I was glad for because I could buy licorice.”
Later, Ruthie attended Hollywood High School. At 18, she took a job at Dubrock’s Riding Academy in the San Fernando Valley, where Walt and Roy Disney frequently played polo. Walt offered Ruthie a job as a painter in the Ink and Paint department, where she helped put finishing touches on the Studio’s first full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in 1937.
She was soon promoted to final checker, reviewing the animation cels before they were photographed onto film. By 1948, Ruthie again transferred to animation checking and scene planning. As a result of her adept skill at guiding camera movement for animated films, in 1952 Ruthie was invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE. She was one of the first three women to be admitted into the Hollywood camera union.
After dedicating nearly 40 years to The Walt Disney Company and working on virtually every Disney animated feature up through The Rescuers, Ruthie Tompson retired in 1975. She celebrated her 100th birthday in 2010.