He wasn’t one of the legendary “nine old men,” but his contributions to such classic films as Sleeping Beauty and Mary Poppins, not to mention various company theme parks, were essential to Disney’s long legacy. Frank Armitage, the Australian-born illustrator, muralist and longtime Disney imagineer who also contributed to the eye-popping visuals on Fox’s Fantastic Voyage died on Monday from age-related causes in his Paso Robles home, Disney Animation Studios’ Communications VP Howard Green has announced. He was 91.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Armitage served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the second world war, after which he attended art school. He soon dropped out and after winning an international art competition, moved to Mexico city where he trained as a muralist under David Alfaro Siqueiros. Moving to Los Angeles in 1952 with less than $100 to his name, he quickly found work at Walt Disney Studios, going on to contribute to a string of animated classics over the next decades. He first worked as an animator on Lady and the Tramp, but soon put his training as a muralist to good use, creating background paintings for such films as Peter Pan (1953), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), as well as the Disneyland episode Man in Space (1955).
Armitage left Disney after The Jungle Book, and went on to provide production illustration for Fox’s science fiction film Fantastic Voyage. The film, based on the story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby, sees a submarine crew shrunk to microscopic size to repair the damaged brain of an injured scientist. The visual effects made good use of Armitage’s expertise in anatomical drawings, and went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-color and Best Special Effects.
Armitage returned to Disney in 1977 when he was hired as an Imagineer. In that capacity, he worked on the Wonders of Life Pavilion in Epcot, he painted 5,500 square feet of murals for Walt Disney World’s Safari Fare Restaurant, and several of Tokyo DisneySea’s murals including nine of President Theodore Roosevelt, among many other contributions. Armitage had previously worked on Disney theme parks in the early 1950s, contributing to art at Storybook Land as well as other points around the park.
Armitage retired from Disney in 1989, after which he studied medicine and later, acupuncture in China. He continued to paint anatomy and other medical artwork and in 2006, he donated a portion of that work to the Biomedical Visualization Graduate Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2010, he donated several oil pencil drawings of gorillas to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Atlanta, Georgia and the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.
He’s survived by his daughters, Disney Imagineer Nicole Armitage Doolittle, and scenic artist Michelle Armitage, by his son Wes and by his stepchildren Tracy and Cecil, by his wife of 33 years, Karen Connolly Armitage, as well as his sister, Margaret. In lieu of flowers, donations in his name can be made to the Ryman Arts Foundation, Liga International, or the University of Illinois at Chicago BVIS program to support students pursuing masters degrees in biomedical visualization.