Over seven decades, Mattinson put together an incredible resume including dozens of titles that have impacted generations of moviegoers. He was also one of the few remaining people who could say that they’d worked directly with Walt. In a 2020 interview, Mattinson remembered those early days at the studio when he would, each Friday, cash a check on Walt’s behalf so the boss would have some spending money for the weekend.
Mattinson was born in San Francisco on May 13, 1935. As a child, his mother took him to the San Francisco Orpheum Theatre where he saw Pinocchio for the first time. It was an experience that would serve to shape the rest of his life.
“I was six years old and I decided I was gonna work at Disney,” Mattinson said in a video celebrating 65 years at the company. “It was the quality of what they did. I say that from Pinocchio… these are drawings that are coming to life. If you want in-depth characters, it had to be Disney. That’s why I wanted to be there.”
In 1945, the Mattinson family moved to Los Angeles. As Mattinson explains to fellow Disney legend Eric Goldberg in the video linked below, after graduating from Notre Dame High School, his mother told him he needed to find a job. Always a fan of drawing and of the work being done at Disney, he asked his mother to drive him to the studio where he planned to apply for a job. She obliged, dropped him off, and said she’d be back in an hour.
A genial security guard called “Pappy” told Mattison that he wasn’t allowed onto studio grounds without an appointment, but that the young man could wait in Pappy’s booth for Mrs. Mattinson to return. While they waited, Pappy asked Mattinson to have a look at the portfolio he’d brought with him. Impressed with what he saw, the guard called into the studio and got Mattinson a meeting which ended with a job offer in the Disney mailroom. Within six months and with no formal art training, Mattinson began working as an in-betweener on Lady and the Tramp.
Mattinson was later promoted by Marc Davis, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, to assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty and filled the same role on One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
During a 2020 interview, when asked about what he learned while working with the Nine Old Men, Mattinson recalled some advice he was given by Davis when working on Sleeping Beauty, “He said to me, ‘Just remember, 25% of it is the doing it, the rest of it, the 75%, that’s the thinking about it before you animate or do anything.”
After Dalmatians wrapped, Mattinson began working with another of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Eric Larson. The two worked closely for the next 12 years and were involved with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color tv series as well as the feature films The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats.
After finishing an in-house training program, Mattinson became an animator and worked on the films Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too. His work caught the eye of Frank Thomas, another of the Nine Old Men, who asked him to help storyboard The Rescuers.
In much the same way that a bold and unsolicited action of Mattinson’s landed him a job at Disney back in 1953, an equally bold and unsolicited act got him his first directing gig thirty years later. After listening to a Disneyland Records Christmas album, Mattinson came up with the idea for Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He sent a copy of that album, along with a note outlining his pitch, to studio head Ron Miller.
The following day, Mattinson was summoned to meet with Miller. He nervously headed to the boss’s office fearing he had overstepped, but was pleased to find out that Miller liked his idea and wanted to make it a reality. Mattinson was assigned to direct and produce the featurette, which has become a perennial holiday classic. The success of that film landed him the gig of producer and co-director on The Great Mouse Detective.
“I enjoyed direction,” Mattinson once said. “But I found, actually, it was more fun to do the drawings. You know what’s the fun part of it? Getting into that world. When you’re sitting down and taking a little stick-figure character and starting to think what his world is like, where he’s going, what he’s gonna do, what are they feeling at this moment? You’re trying to get inside this character’s mind. That’s the main thing; it’s about characters.”
In the 1990s, Mattinson was a member of the story team on renaissance classics including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, and Mulan.
Mattinson continued working full-time at Walt Disney Animation Studios into the new century, filling the role of story supervisor on the 2011 feature Winnie the Pooh and 2007 Goofy short How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. More recently, he served as a story consultant on Big Hero 6 and Strange World.
In 2003, when asked to reflect on half a century 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.” In 2008, the Walt Disney Company officially recognized Mattinson as a Disney Legend, although his status had long since been cemented as one of the studio’s all-time greats.
“The biggest thing is having fun,” Mattinson once said. “I’ve always found that through all those pictures I’ve worked on if you’re having fun working on it, it will come across.”
After learning of his passing, Mattinson’s friends and colleagues have been paying tribute to the animation legend.
Oscar-winning Disney director Don Hall said, “For almost 30 years, 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.”
Eric Goldberg recalled, “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.”
Other Disney colleagues, like Marlon West and Stephen Anderson, also posted tributes on social media:
The Walt Disney Service Awards, October 23, 2018. I was celebrating my 25th year. Burny Mattinson, standing with myself & Michael Giaimo, was being honored for his 65th. No one will surpass his years as a Disney artist.
A legend and a gentleman. pic.twitter.com/VEy7KFQhnf
— Marlon West (@marlonw) February 28, 2023
They say ‘Don’t be sad it’s over. Be happy it happened.’ I loved every second of knowing this beautiful man. I’ll miss you, Burny. pic.twitter.com/QSf0RUBZ8d
— Stephen Anderson (@stevehatguy) February 27, 2023
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.