Walt Disney Animation Studios
|Type||Division of Walt Disney Studios|
|Founded||October 16, 1923|
|Founders||Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney|
|Headquarters||2100 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank, California, United States|
|Key people||Edwin Catmull (President)
John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer)
Andrew Millstein (general manager)
|Parent||The Walt Disney Studios
(The Walt Disney Company)
Walt Disney Animation Studios, headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California (formerly known as Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Productions and Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio), is an American animation studio which creates animated feature films, short films, and television specials for The Walt Disney Company. Founded on October 16, 1923, it is a unit of The Walt Disney Studios. The studio has produced 53 feature films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and its most recent being Frozen (2013).
Originally founded as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923 and later incorporated as Walt Disney Productions in 1929, the studio was exclusively dedicated to production of short films until expanding into feature production in 1934. In 1983, Walt Disney Productions named their live-action film studio Walt Disney Pictures. During a corporate restructuring in 1986, Walt Disney Productions was renamed The Walt Disney Company and the animation division, renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation, became a subsidiary of its film division, The Walt Disney Studios. In 2006, Walt Disney Feature Animation took on its current name of Walt Disney Animation Studios when it was folded under The Walt Disney Studios alongside Pixar Animation Studios, which was acquired by Disney in the same year.
For much of its existence, the studio was recognized as the premier American animation studio; it developed many of the techniques, concepts, and principles which became standard practices of traditional animation. The studio also pioneered the art of storyboarding, which is now a standard technique used in both animated and live-action filmmaking. The studio's catalog of animated features are among Disney's most notable assets, and the stars of its animated shorts—Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto—have gone on to become recognizable figures in popular culture, as well as becoming mascots for The Walt Disney Company as a whole.
Walt Disney Animation Studios, today managed by Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter (who also manage Pixar), continues to produce animated features using both hand-drawn and computer generated imagery techniques. Their 54th feature, Big Hero 6, is currently in post-production and set for release on November 7, 2014.
- 1 History
- 1.1 1920s: Foundation and early years
- 1.2 1930s: Silly Symphonies and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- 1.3 1940s: New features, strike, and World War II
- 1.4 1950s: Return of features, end of shorts
- 1.5 1960s: Walt Disney's final years
- 1.6 1970s: Decline in popularity
- 1.7 1980s: "Rock bottom" and return to prominence
- 1.8 1990s: Disney Renaissance
- 1.9 2000–2005: Second decline
- 1.10 2006–2010: Rebound
- 1.11 2010s: Resurgence
- 2 Studio
- 3 Productions
- 4 Collaborations
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
1920s: Foundation and early years
Kansas City, Missouri natives Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Los Angeles in 1923, producing a series of silent Alice Comedies short films featuring a live-action child actress in an animated world. The Alice Comedies were distributed by Margaret J. Winkler's Winkler Pictures, which later also distributed a second Disney short subject series, the all-animated Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, through Universal Pictures starting in 1927. The Disney studio was set up in storefront offices on Kingswell Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. In early 1926, it moved to a new building, which was known as the Hyperion Studio, for the company on a lot at 2719 Hyperion Avenue and took on the name the Walt Disney Studio.
After the first year's worth of Oswalds, Walt Disney attempted to renew his contract with Winkler Pictures, but Charles Mintz, who had taken over Margaret Winkler's business after marrying her, wanted to force Disney to accept a lower advance payment for each Oswald short. Disney refused, and as Universal owned the rights to Oswald rather than Disney, Mintz set up his own animation studio to produce Oswald cartoons. Most of Disney's staff was hired away by Mintz to move over, once Disney's Oswald contract was done in mid-1928.
Working in secret while the rest of the staff finished the remaining Oswalds on contract, Disney and his head animator Ub Iwerks led a small handful of loyal staffers in producing cartoons starring a new character named Mickey Mouse. The first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, were previewed in limited engagements during the summer of 1928. For the third Mickey cartoon, however, Disney produced a soundtrack, collaborating with musician Carl Stalling and businessman Pat Powers, who provided Disney with his bootlegged "Cinephone" sound-on-film process. Subsequently, the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, became Disney's first cartoon with synchronized sound, and was a major success upon its November 1928 debut at the West 57th Theatre in New York City. The Mickey Mouse series of sound cartoons, distributed by Powers through Celebrity Productions, quickly became the most popular cartoon series in the United States. A second Disney series of sound cartoons, the Silly Symphonies, debuted in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance.
1930s: Silly Symphonies and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In 1930, disputes over finances between Disney and Powers led to Disney's studio, reincorporated on December 16, 1929 as Walt Disney Productions, signing a new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. Powers in return signed away Ub Iwerks, who began producing cartoons at his own studio.
Columbia distributed Disney's shorts for two years before the Disney studio entered a new distribution deal with United Artists in 1932. The same year, Disney signed a two-year exclusive deal with Technicolor to utilize its new 3-strip color film process, which allowed for fuller-color reproduction where previous color film processors could not. The result was the Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees, the first film commercially released in full Technicolor. Flowers and Trees was a major success, and all Silly Symphonies were subsequently produced in Technicolor.
By the early 1930s, Walt Disney had realized that the success of animated films depended upon telling emotionally gripping stories that would grab the audience and not let go, and this realization led him to create a separate "story department" with storyboard artists dedicated to story development. With well-developed characters and an interesting story, the 1933 Technicolor Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs became a major box office and pop culture success, with its theme song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" becoming a popular chart hit.
In 1934, Walt Disney gathered several key staff members and announced his plans to make his first feature animated film. Despite derision from most of the film industry, who dubbed the production "Disney's Folly," Disney proceeded undaunted into the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which would become the first animated feature in English and Technicolor. Considerable training and development went into the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the studio greatly expanded with established animators, artists from other fields, and recent college graduates joining the studio to work on the film. The training classes, supervised by the head animators such as Les Clark, Norm Ferguson, and Art Babbit and taught by Donald W. Graham, an art teacher from the nearby Chouinard Art Institute, had begun at the studio in 1932 and were greatly expanded into orientation training and continuing education classes. In the course of teaching the classes, Graham and the animators created or formalized many of the techniques and processes that became the key tenants and principles of traditional animation. Silly Symphonies such as The Goddess of Spring (1934) and The Old Mill (1937) served as experimentation grounds for new techniques such as the animation of realistic human figures, special effects animation, the use of the multiplane camera, an invention which split animation artwork layers into several planes, allowing the camera to appear to move dimensionally through an animated scene.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost Disney a then-expensive sum of $1.4 million to complete (including $100,000 on story development alone), and was an unprecedented success when released in February 1938 by RKO Radio Pictures, which had assumed distribution of Disney product from United Artists in 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was briefly the highest grossing film of all time before the success of Gone with the Wind two years later, grossing over $8 million on its initial release, the equivalent of $134,033,100 today.
During the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, work had continued on the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series of shorts. Mickey Mouse switched to Technicolor in 1935, by which time the series had added several major supporting characters, among them Mickey's dog Pluto and their friends Donald Duck and Goofy. Donald, Goofy, and Pluto would all be appearing in series of their own by 1940, and the Donald Duck cartoons eclipsed the Mickey Mouse series in popularity. The Silly Symphonies, which garnered seven Academy Awards, ended in 1939.
1940s: New features, strike, and World War II
The success of Snow White allowed Disney to build a new, larger studio on Buena Vista Street in Burbank, where The Walt Disney Company remains headquartered to this day. Walt Disney Productions had its initial public offering on April 2, 1940, with Walt Disney as president and chairman and Roy Disney as CEO.
The studio launched into the production of new animated features, the first of which was Pinocchio, released in February 1940. Pinocchio was not initially a box office success. The box office returns from the film's initial release were both below Snow White's unprecedented success and below studio expectations. Of the film's $2.289 million cost—twice of Snow White—Disney only recouped $1 million by late 1940, with studio reports of the film's final original box office take varying between $1.4 million and $1.9 million. However, Pinocchio was a critical success, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Original Score, making it the first film of the studio to win not only either Oscar, but both at the same time.
Fantasia, an experimental film produced to an accompanying orchestral arrangement conducted by Leopold Stokowski, was released in November 1940 by Disney itself in a series of limited-seating roadshow engagements. The film cost $2 million to produce, and although the film earned $1.4 million in its roadshow engagements, the high cost ($85,000 per theater) of installing Fantasound placed Fantasia at an even greater loss than Pinocchio. RKO assumed distribution of Fantasia in 1941, later reissuing it in severely edited versions over the years. Despite its financial failure, Fantasia was the subject of two Academy Honorary Awards on February 26, 1942—one for the development of the innovative Fantasound system used to create the film's stereoscopic soundtrack, and the other for Stokowski and his contributions to the film.
Much of the character animation on these productions and all subsequent features until the late 1970s was supervised by a brain-trust of animators Walt Disney dubbed the "Nine Old Men," many of whom also served as directors and later producers on the Disney features: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, and Marc Davis. Other head animators at Disney during this period included Norm Ferguson, Bill Tytla, and Fred Moore. The development of the feature animation department created a caste system at the Disney studio: lesser animators (and feature animators in-between assignments) were assigned to work on the short subjects, while animators higher in status such as the Nine Old Men worked on the features. Concern over Walt Disney accepting credit for the artists' work as well as debates over compensation led to many of the newer and lower-ranked animators seeking to unionize the Disney studio.
A bitter union strike ended in mid-1941, which was resolved without the angered Walt Disney's involvement in July and August of that year. As Walt Disney Productions was being set up as a union shop, Walt Disney and several studio employees were sent by the US government on a Good Neighbor policy trip to Central and South America. The Disney strike and its aftermath led to an exodus of several animation professionals from the studio, from top-level animators such as Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla, to artists better known for their work outside the Disney studio such as Frank Tashlin, Maurice Noble, Walt Kelly, Bill Meléndez, and John Hubley. Hubley, with several other Disney strikers, went on to found the United Productions of America studio, Disney's key animation rival in the 1950s.
Dumbo, in production during the midst of the animators' strike, premiered in October 1941, and proved to be a financial success. The simple film only cost $950,000 to produce, half the cost of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio, and two-fifths of the cost of Fantasia. Dumbo eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release. In August 1942, Bambi was released, and as with Pinocchio and Fantasia, did not perform well at the box office. Out of its $1.7 million budget, it only grossed $1.64 million.
Production of full-legnth animated features was temporarily suspended after the release of Bambi. Given the financial failures of some of the recent features and World War II cutting off much of the overseas cinema market, the studio's financiers at the Bank of America would only loan the studio working capital if it temporarily restricted itself to shorts production. Then in-production features such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp were therefore put on hold until after the war. Other issues affecting the studio at the time included the drafting of several Disney animators to fight in World War II, and the necessity of the studio to focus on producing wartime content for the US Army, particularly military training and civilian propaganda films. From 1942 to 1943, 95 percent of the studio's animation output was for the military. During the war, Disney produced the live-action/animated military propaganda feature Victory Through Air Power (1943), and a series of Latin culture-themed shorts resulting from the 1941 Good Neighbor trip were compiled into two features, Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944).
Saludos and Caballeros set the template for several other 1940s Disney releases of "package films": low-budgeted films composed of animated short subjects with animated or live-action bridging material. These films were Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The studio also produced two features, Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), which used more expansive live-action stories which still included animated sequences and sequences combining live-action and animated characters. Shorts production continued during this period as well, with Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto cartoons being the main output accompanied by cartoons starring Mickey Mouse, Figaro, and in the 1950s, Chip 'n Dale and Humphrey the Bear.
In addition, Disney began reissuing the previous features, beginning with re-releases of Snow White in 1944, Pinocchio in 1945, and Fantasia in 1946. This led to a tradition of reissuing the Disney films every seven years, which lasted into the 1990s before being translated into the studio's handling of home video releases.
1950s: Return of features, end of shorts
In 1948, Disney returned to the production of full-length features with Cinderella, a full-length film based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault. At a cost of nearly $3,000,000, the future of the studio depended upon the success of this film. Upon its release in 1950, Cinderella proved to be a box office success, with the profits from the film's release allowing Disney to carry on producing animated features throughout the 1950s. Following its success, production on the in-limbo features Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp was resumed. In addition, an ambitious new project, an adaptation of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" set to Tchaikovsky's classic score, was begun but took much of the rest of the decade to complete.
Alice in Wonderland, released in 1951, met with a lukewarm response at the box office and was a sharp critical disappointment in its initial release. Peter Pan, released in 1953, was, on the other hand, a commercial success and the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1955, Lady and the Tramp was released to higher box office success than any other Disney feature from the studio since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earning an estimated $7.5 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1955. Lady is significant as Disney's first widescreen animated feature, produced in the CinemaScope process, and was the first Disney animated feature to be released by Disney's own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution.
By the mid-1950s, with Walt Disney's attention primarily set on new endeavour such as live-action films, television, and the Disneyland theme park, production of the animated films was left primarily in the hands of the "Nine Old Men" trust of head animators and directors. This led to several delays in approvals during the production of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, which was finally released in 1959. At $6 million, it was Disney's most expensive film to date, produced in a heavily stylized art style devised by artist Eyvind Earle and presented in large-format Super Technirama 70 with six-track stereophonic sound. However, the film's large production costs and underperformance at the box office resulted in the studio posting its first annual loss in a decade for fiscal year 1960, leading to massive layoffs throughout the studio.
By the end of the decade, the Disney short subjects were no longer being produced on a regular basis, with many of the shorts divisions' personnel either leaving the company or begin reassigned to work on Disney television programs such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland. While the Disney shorts had dominated the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) during the 1930s, its reign over the award had been ended by MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoons, Warner Bros' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and the works of United Productions of America (UPA), whose flat art style and stylized animation techniques were lauded as more modern alternatives to the older Disney style. During the 1950s, only one Disney short, the stylized Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, won the Best Short Subject (Cartoons) Oscar.
The Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and Goofy shorts had all ceased regular production by 1953, with Donald Duck and Humphrey continuing and converting to widescreen CinemaScope before also being discontinued in 1956. Disney shorts would only be produced on a sporadic basis from this point on, with notable later shorts including It's Tough to Be a Bird (1969), Runaway Brain (1995, starring Mickey Mouse), and Paperman (2012).
1960s: Walt Disney's final years
Despite the 1959 layoffs and competition for Walt Disney's attention from the company's grown live-action film, TV, and theme park departments, production continued on feature animation productions at a reduced level. In 1961, the studio released One Hundred and One Dalmatians, an animated feature which popularized the use of xerography during the process of inking and painting traditional animation cels. Using xerography, animation drawings could be photo-chemically transferred rather than traced from paper drawings to the clear acetate sheets ("cels") used in final animation production. The resulting art style—a scratchier line which revealed the construction lines in the animators' drawings—typified Disney films into the 1980s. The film was a success, being the tenth highest grossing film of 1961 with rentals of $6.4 million.
The Disney animation training program started at the studio before the development of Snow White in 1932 eventually led to Walt Disney helping found the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). This university, formed via the merger of Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, included a Disney-developed animation program of study among its degree offerings. CalArts became the alma mater of many of the animators who would work at Disney and other animation studios from the 1970s to the present.
The Sword in the Stone was released in 1963, and was the sixth highest grossing film of the year in North America with estimated rentals of $4.75 million. A featurette adaptation of one of A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released in 1966, to be followed by several other Pooh featurettes over the years and a full-length compilation feature, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was released in 1977.
Walt Disney died in December 1966, ten months before the studio's next film, The Jungle Book, was completed and released. The film was a success, finishing 1967 as the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year.
1970s: Decline in popularity
Following Walt Disney's passing, Woolie Reitherman continued as both producer and director of the features. The studio began the 1970s with the release of The Aristocats, the last film project to be approved by Walt Disney himself. In 1971, Roy O. Disney, the studio co-founder, died and Walt Disney Productions was left in the hands of Donn Tatum and Card Walker, who alternated as chairman and CEO in overlapping terms for the rest of the decade. The next feature, Robin Hood (1973), was produced with a significantly reduced budget and animation repurposed from previous features. Both The Aristocats and Robin Hood were minor box office and critical successes.
The Rescuers, released in 1977, was a success exceeding the achievements of the previous two Disney features. Receiving broad critical acclaim, commercial returns, and an Academy Award nomination, it ended up being the third highest grossing film in 1977 and the most successful and acclaimed Disney animated film since The Jungle Book. The film was reissued in 1983, accompanied by a new Disney featurette, Mickey's Christmas Carol.
The production of The Rescuers signaled the beginning of a changing of the guard process in the personnel at the Disney animation studio: as veterans such as Milt Kahl and Les Clark retired, they were gradually replaced by new talents such as Don Bluth, Ron Clements, John Musker, and Glen Keane. The new animators, culled from the animation program at CalArts and trained by Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Woolie Reitherman got their first chances to prove themselves as a group with the animated sequences in Disney's live-action/animated hybrid feature Pete's Dragon (1977), the animation for which was directed by Don Bluth. In September 1979, dissatisfied with what they felt was a stagnation in the development of the art of animation at Disney, Bluth and several of the other new guard animators quit to start their own studio, Don Bluth Productions, which became Disney's chief competitor in the animation field during the 1980s.
Delayed half a year by the defection of the Bluth group, The Fox and the Hound was released in 1981 after four years in production. The film was considered a financial success by the studio, and development continued on The Black Cauldron, a long-gestating adaptation of the Chronicles of Prydain series of novels by Lloyd Alexander produced in Super Technirama 70.
The Black Cauldron was intended to expand the appeal of Disney animated films to older audiences and to showcase the talents of the new generation of Disney animators from CalArts. Besides Keane, Musker, and Clements, this new group of artists included other promising animators such as Andreas Deja, Mike Gabriel, John Lasseter, and Tim Burton. Lasseter was fired from Disney in 1983 for pushing the studio to explore computer animation production, but went on to become the creative head of Pixar, a pioneering computer animation studio that would begin a close association with Disney in the late 1980s. Similarly, Burton was fired in 1984 after producing a live-action short shelved by the studio, Frankenweenie, then went on to become a high-profile producer and director of live-action and stop motion animated features for Disney and other studios. Burton's projects for Disney would include the stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), and a stop-motion feature remake of Frankenweenie (2012).
Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, became president of Walt Disney Productions in 1980 and CEO in 1983. That year, he expanded the company's film and television production divisions, creating the Walt Disney Pictures banner under which future films from the feature animation department would be released. After a series of corporate takeover attempts in 1984, Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O. and nephew of Walt, resigned from the company's board of directors and launched a campaign called "SaveDisney", successfully convincing the board to fire Miller. Roy E. Disney brought in Michael Eisner as Disney's new CEO, and Frank Wells as president. Eisner in turn named Jeffrey Katzenberg chairman of the film division, The Walt Disney Studios. Near completion when the Eisner regime took over Disney, The Black Cauldron would come to represent what would later be referred to as the "rock bottom" point for Disney animation. The studio's most expensive feature to that point at $25 million, The Black Cauldron was a critical and commercial failure. The film's $21 million box office gross led to a loss for the studio, putting the future of the animation division in jeopardy.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, the significance of animation to Disney's bottom line was significantly reduced as the company expanded into further live-action production, television, and theme parks. As new CEO, Michael Eisner strongly considered shuttering the feature animation studio and outsourcing future animation. Roy E. Disney intervened, offering to head the feature animation division and turn its fortunes around, while Eisner established the The Walt Disney Pictures Television Animation Group to produce lower-cost animation for television. Named Chairman of feature animation by Eisner, Roy E. Disney appointed Peter Schneider president of animation to run the day-to-day operations.
Wanting more room for live-action production, Disney executives moved the animation division in 1985 from the Disney studio lot in Burbank to a variety of warehouses, hangars, and trailers located about two miles east (3.2 kilometers) in nearby Glendale, California. The animation studio's next feature was The Great Mouse Detective, begun by John Musker and Ron Clements as Basil of Baker Street after both left the Black Cauldron production team. Released in 1986 as the first movie under the Walt Disney Feature Animation name, the film was enough of a critical and commercial success to instill executive confidence in the animation studio. Later the same year, however, Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment released Don Bluth's An American Tail, which outgrossed The Great Mouse Detective at the box office and became the highest-grossing first-issue animated film to that point.
Katzenberg, Schneider, and Roy E. Disney set about changing the culture of the studio, increasing staffing and production so that a new feature would be released every year instead of every two to four. The first of the releases on the accelerated production schedule was Oliver & Company in 1988, which featured an all-star cast including Billy Joel and Bette Midler and an emphasis on a modern pop soundtrack. Oliver & Company opened in the theaters on the same day as another Bluth/Amblin/Universal animated film, The Land Before Time; however, Oliver outgrossed Time and went on to become the most successful animated feature to that date.
While Oliver & Company and a new feature, The Little Mermaid, were in production, Disney collaborated with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and master animator Richard Williams to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a groundbreaking live action/animation hybrid directed by Robert Zemeckis which featured licensed animated characters from other animation studios. Disney set up a new animation studio under Williams' supervision in London to create the cartoon characters for Roger Rabbit, with many of the artists from the California studio traveling to England to work on the film. A significant critical and commercial success, Roger Rabbit won three Academy Awards for technical achievements and was key in renewing mainstream interest in American animation. Other than the film itself, the studio also produced three Roger Rabbit shorts during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A second satellite studio, Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida, opened in 1989 with 40 employees. Its offices were located within the Disney-MGM Studios theme park at Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida, and visitors were allowed to tour the studio and observe animators at work. The same year, the studio released The Little Mermaid, which became a keystone achievement in Disney's history as its largest critical and commercial success in decades. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who'd been co-directors on The Great Mouse Detective, Mermaid earned $84 million at the North American box office, a record for the studio. The film was built around a score from Broadway songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who was also a co-producer and story consultant on the film. Mermaid won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Song and for Best Original Score
The Little Mermaid vigorously relaunched a profound new interest in the animation and musical film genres. Mermaid was also the first to feature the use of Disney's Computer Animation Production System (CAPS). Developed for Disney by Pixar, which had grown into a commercial computer animation and technology development company, CAPS would become significant in allowing future Disney films to more seamlessly integrate computer generated imagery and achieve higher production values with digital ink and paint and compositing techniques. The Little Mermaid was the first of a series of blockbusters that would be released over the next decade by Walt Disney Feature Animation, a period later designated by the term Disney Renaissance.
1990s: Disney Renaissance
1990–1994: Successful releases
Accompanied in theaters by the Mickey Mouse featurette The Prince and the Pauper, The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was Disney's first animated feature sequel and the studio's first film to be fully colored and composited via computer using the CAPS system. However, the film did not duplicate the success of The Little Mermaid. The next Disney animated feature, Beauty and the Beast, had begun production in London, but was moved back to Burbank after Disney decided to shutter the London satellite office and retool Beauty into a musical-comedy format similar to Mermaid. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were retained to write the song score, though Ashman died before production was completed.
Debuting first in a work-in-progress version at the 1991 New York Film Festival before its November 1991 wide release, Beauty, directed by Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, was an unprecedented critical and commercial success, and would later be seen as one of the studio's best films. The film earned six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, a first for an animated work, winning for Best Song and Best Original Score. Its $145 million box office gross set new records, and merchandising for the film—including toys, cross-promotions, and soundtrack sales—was also lucrative.
The successes of Mermaid and Beauty established the template for future Disney releases during the 1990s: a musical-comedy format with Broadway-styled songs and tentpole action sequences, buoyed by cross-promotional marketing and merchandising, all carefully designed to pull audiences of all ages and types into theatres. In addition to John Musker, Ron Clements, Kirk Wise, and Gary Trousdale, the new guard of Disney artists creating these films included story artists/directors Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, Chris Sanders, and Brenda Chapman, and lead animators Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Nik Ranieri, Will Finn, and many others.
Aladdin, released in November 1992, continued the upward trend in Disney's animation success, earning $504 million worldwide at the box office, and two more Oscars for Best Song and Best Score. Featuring songs by Menken, Ashman, and Tim Rice (who replaced Ashman after his passing) and starring the voice of Robin Williams, Aladdin also established the trend of hiring celebrity actors and actresses to provide the voices of Disney characters, which had been explored to some degree with The Jungle Book and Oliver & Company, but now became standard practice.
In June 1994, Disney released The Lion King, directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff. An all-animal adventure set in Africa, The Lion King featured an all-star voice cast which included James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, and Jeremy Irons, and songs written by Tim Rice and pop star Elton John. The Lion King earned $768 million at the worldwide box office, to this date a record for a traditionally animated film, earning millions more in merchandising, promotions, and record sales for its soundtrack.
Impact of success on Disney and animation industry
Aladdin and The Lion King had been the highest-grossing films worldwide in each of their respective release years. With animation becoming again an increasingly important and lucrative part of Disney's business, the company began to expand its operations. The flagship California studio was split into two units and expanded, and ground was broken on a new Disney Feature Animation building adjacent to the main Disney lot in Burbank, which was dedicated in 1995. The Florida satellite, officially incorporated in 1992, was expanded as well, and one of Disney's television animation studios in the Paris, France suburb of Montreuil—the former Brizzi Brothers studio—became Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris, where A Goofy Movie (1995) and significant parts of later Disney films were produced. Also, Disney began producing lower cost direct to video sequels for its successful animated films using the services of its television animation studios under the name Disney MovieToons, later renamed DisneyToon Studios. The Return of Jafar (1994), a sequel to Aladdin and a pilot for the Aladdin television show spin-off, was the first of these productions. Walt Disney Feature Animation was also heavily involved in the adaptations of both Beauty and the Beast in 1994 and The Lion King in 1997 into Broadway musicals.
Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Disney story team were heavily involved in the development and production of Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature ever produced. Toy Story was produced for Disney by Pixar and directed by former Disney animator John Lasseter, whom Peter Schneider had unsuccessfully tried to hire back after his success with Pixar shorts such as Tin Toy (1988). Released in 1995, Toy Story opened to critical acclaim and commercial success, leading to Pixar signing a five-film deal with Disney, which bore critically and financially successful computer animated films such as A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), and Monsters Inc. (2001).
In addition, the successes of Aladdin and The Lion King spurred a significant increase in the number of American-produced animated features throughout the rest of the decade, with the major film studios establishing new animation divisions such as Fox Animation Studios, Turner Feature Animation, and Warner Bros. Feature Animation being formed to produce films in a Disney-esque musical-comedy format such as Anastasia (1997), Cats Don't Dance (1997), and Quest for Camelot (1998), respectively.
1995–1999: Declining returns
Concerns arose internally at Disney, particularly from Roy E. Disney, about studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg taking too much credit for the success of Disney's early-1990s releases. Disney president Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident in 1994, and Katzenberg lobbied CEO Michael Eisner for the vacant president position. Instead, tensions between Katzenberg, Eisner, and Disney resulted in Katzenberg being forced to resign from the company that October, with Joe Roth taking his place. He went on to become one of the founders of DreamWorks SKG, whose DreamWorks Animation became Disney's key rival in feature animation with both computer animated films (Antz, 1998) and traditionally animated films (The Prince of Egypt, 1998).
In contrast to the early 1990s productions, the mid-1990s Disney animated features presented a trend of diminishing returns. Pocahontas, released in summer 1995, was a critical and commercial disappointment compared to its predecessors, earning $346 million worldwide while still winning two Academy Awards for its music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The next film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the first of the films partially produced at the Paris studio, performed better critically but grossed only $325 million worldwide. The following summer, Hercules, grossed only $252 million worldwide. The declining box office success became doubly concerning inside the studio as wage competition from DreamWorks had significantly increased the studio's overhead, with production costs increasing from $79 million in total costs (production, marketing, and overhead) for The Lion King in 1994 to $179 million for Hercules three years later. Moreover, Disney depended upon the popularity of its new features in order to develop merchandising, theme park attractions, direct-to-video sequels, and television programming in its other divisions. The production schedule was scaled back, and a larger number of creative executives were hired to more closely supervise production, a move that was not popular among the animation staff.
Mulan (1998), the first film produced primarily at the Florida studio, earned $305 million in worldwide box office. The next summer's Tarzan, directed by Kevin Lima, had a high production cost of $150 million, but earned $448 million at the box office. The Tarzan song score by pop star Phil Collins resulted in significant record sales and an Academy Award for Best Song.
In October 1999, Dream Quest Images, a special effects studio previously purchased by The Walt Disney Company in April 1996 to replace Buena Vista Visual Effects, was merged with the computer-graphics operation of Walt Disney Feature Animation to form a division called The Secret Lab. The Secret Lab produced one feature film, 2000's Dinosaur, which featured CGI prehistoric creatures against filmed live-action backgrounds. The $128 million production earned $349 million worldwide, below studio expectations, and the Secret Lab was closed in 2001.
2000–2005: Second decline
Early 2000s releases
Peter Schneider left his post as president of Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1999 to become president of The Walt Disney Studios under Joe Roth. Thomas Schumacher, who had been Schneider's vice president of animation for several years, became the new president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. By this time, competition from other studios had driven animators' incomes to all-time highs, making traditionally animated features even more costly to produce. Schumacher was tasked with cutting costs, and massive layoffs began to cut salaries and bring the studio's staff – which peaked at 2,200 people in 1999 – down to approximately 1,200 employees.
Fantasia 2000 a sequel to the 1940 film that had been a pet-project of Roy E. Disney's since 1990, was released on January 1, 2000. Produced in pieces when artists were available between productions, Fantasia 2000 was the first animated feature produced for and released in IMAX format. A standard theatrical release followed in June, but the film's $90 million worldwide box office total against its $90 million production cost resulted in it losing $100 million for the studio. That December saw the release of The Emperor's New Groove, which had originally been a musical epic called Kingdom of the Sun before being revised mid-production into a smaller comedy, New Groove earned $169 million worldwide when released in December 2000, though it was well reviewed and performed better on video. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), an attempt to break the Disney formula by moving into action-adventure, received mixed reviews and earned $186 million worldwide against production costs of $120 million.
Downsizing and conversion to computer animation
By 2001, the notable successes of computer-animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks such as Monsters Inc. and Shrek, respectively, against Disney's lesser returns for The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis led to a growing perception that hand-drawn animation was becoming outdated and falling out of fashion. In March 2002, just after the successful release of Blue Sky Studios' computer-animated feature Ice Age, Disney laid off most of the employees at the Feature Animation studio in Burbank, downsizing it to one unit and beginning plans to move into fully computer animated films. A handful of employees were offered positions doing computer animation. Morale plunged to a low not seen since the start of the studio's ten-year exile to Glendale in 1985. The Paris studio was also closed in 2002.
The Burbank studio's remaining hand-drawn productions, Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004), continued production. Treasure Planet was a retelling of Treasure Island in space that was a pet project of writer-directors Ron Clements & John Musker. It received generally positive reviews and an IMAX release but was financially unsuccessful upon release, resulting in a $74 million writedown for The Walt Disney Company in fiscal year 2003. The Burbank studio's 2D departments closed at the end of 2002 following completion of Home on the Range, a long-in-production feature originally known as Sweating Bullets.
Meanwhile, hand-drawn feature animation production continued at the Feature Animation Florida studio, where the films could be produced at lower costs. Lilo & Stitch, an offbeat comedy written and directed by Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, became the studio's first bonafide hit since Tarzan upon its summer 2002 release, earning $279 million worldwise against a $80 million production budget.
Most of the 1990s Disney features had been spun off into direct-to-video sequels, television series, or both, produced by the Disney Television Animation unit. Beginning with Return to Never Land, a 2002 sequel to 1953's Peter Pan, Disney began releasing lower-budgeted sequels to earlier films, originally intended for video premieres, in theaters, a process derided by some of the Disney animation staff and fans of the Disney films.
In 2003, Tom Schumacher was appointed president of Buena Vista Theatrical Group, Disney's stageplay and musical theater arm, and David Stainton, formerly a senior vice president at Walt Disney Feature Animation and later president of Walt Disney Television Animation, was appointed as his replacement. Stainton continued to run Disney's direct-to-video division, DisneyToon Studios, which had been part of the television animation department, though transferred at this time to Walt Disney Feature Animation management.
Under Stainton, the Florida studio completed Brother Bear (2003), which did not perform as well as Lilo & Stitch critically or financially. Disney announced the closing of the Florida studio on January 12, 2004, with the then in-progress feature My Peoples left unfinished when the studio closed two months later. Upon the unsuccessful April 2004 release of Home on the Range, Disney, led by executive Bob Lambert, officially announced its conversion of Walt Disney Feature Animation into a fully CGI studio – a process begun two years prior – now with a staff of 600 people and began selling off all of its traditional animation equipment.
Just after Brother Bear's November 2003 release, Feature Animation chairman Roy E. Disney had resigned from The Walt Disney Company, launching with business partner Stanley Gold a second external "SaveDisney" campaign similar to the one that had forced Ron Miller out in 1984, this time to force out Michael Eisner. Two of their arguing points against Eisner included his handling of Feature Animation and the souring of the studio's relationship with Pixar
Talks between Michael Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs over renewal terms for the highly lucrative Pixar-Disney distribution deal broke down in January 2004. Jobs in particular disagreed with Eisner's insistence that sequels such as the then in-development Toy Story 3 would not count against the number of films required in the studio's new deal. To that end, Disney announced the launching of Circle 7 Animation, a division of Feature Animation which would produce sequels to the Pixar films, while Pixar began shopping for a new distribution deal.
In 2005, Disney released its first fully computer-animated feature, Chicken Little. The film was a moderate success in the box office, earning $315 million worldwide, but not well-reviewed. Later that year, after two years of Roy E. Disney's "SaveDisney" campaign, Michael Eisner announced that he would resign and named Bob Iger, then president of The Walt Disney Company, his successor as chairman and CEO.
Disney acquisition of Pixar and revitalization under Lasseter and Catmull
With Iger in place as the new CEO of Disney, Steve Jobs resumed negotiations for Pixar with Disney., On January 24, 2006, Disney announced that it would be acquiring Pixar for $7.4 billion, with the deal closing that May. As part of the acquisition, Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation as President and Chief Creative Officer, respectively, and the Circle 7 studio launched to produce Toy Story 3 was shut down, with most of its employees returning to Feature Animation and Toy Story 3 returning to Pixar's control.
While Disney executives had originally discussed closing Feature Animation as redundant, Catmull and Lasseter refused and instead resolved to try to turn things around at the studio. Lasseter and Catmull set about rebuilding the morale of the Feature Animation staff. and rehired a number of its 1980s "new guard" generation of star animators who had left the studio, including Ron Clements, John Musker, Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Bruce W. Smith, and Chris Buck. To maintain the separation of Disney and Pixar despite their now common ownership and management, Catmull and Lasseter "drew a hard line" that each studio was solely responsible for its own projects and would not be allowed to borrow personnel from or lend tasks out to the other.
Catmull and Lasseter also brought to Disney the Pixar model of a "filmmaker-driven studio" as opposed to an "executive-driven studio", abolishing Disney's prior system of requiring directors to respond to notes from development executives ranking above the producers in favor of a peer review system where notes come primarily from fellow producers, directors, and writers. Most of the layers of "gatekeepers" (midlevel executives) were stripped away, and Lasseter established a routine of personally meeting weekly with filmmakers on all projects in the last year of production and delivering feedback on the spot.
New name and new films
In a change of strategy, Lasseter renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation to Walt Disney Animation Studios, and re-positioned the studio as an animation house that produced both traditional and computer-animated projects. In order to keep costs down on hand-drawn productions, animation, design, and layout were done in-house at Disney while clean-up animation and digital ink-and-paint were farmed out to vendors and freelancers.
In 2007, the studio released Meet the Robinsons, its second all-CGI film, which was not financially successful, earning $169 million worldwide. That year, DisneyToon Studios was also restructured and began to operate as a separate unit under Lasseter and Catmull's control. John Lasseter's direct intervention with the studio's next film, American Dog, resulted in the departure of director Chris Sanders, who went on to become a director at DreamWorks Animation. The film was retooled by new directors Byron Howard & Chris Williams as Bolt (2008), which had the best critical reception of any Disney animated feature since Lilo & Stitch, and became a moderate financial success.
The Princess and the Frog, directed by Ron Clements & John Musker, was the studio's first hand-drawn animated film in five years. A return to the musical-comedy format of the 1990s with songs by Randy Newman, the film was released in 2009 to a positive reception and was also nominated for three Academy Awards, including two for Best Song. The box office performance of The Princess and the Frog—a total of $267 million earned worldwide against a $105 million production budget—was seen as an underperformance; the "Princess" aspect of the title was blamed, resulting in future Disney films then in production about princesses being given neutral titles: Rapunzel became Tangled and The Snow Queen became Frozen. In 2009, WDAS also produced the computer-animated Prep & Landing television special for the Disney-owned ABC television network.
After The Princess and the Frog, the studio released Tangled, a musical CGI adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's "Rapunzel" tale with songs by Alan Menken & Glenn Slater. In active development since 2002 under Glen Keane, Tangled, directed by Byron Howard & Nathan Greno, was released in November 2010 and became a significant critical and commercial success, and was nominated for several accolades. The film earned $591 million in worldwide box office revenue, becoming the studio's third most successful release to date.
The hand-drawn feature Winnie the Pooh, a new feature film based on the A.A. Milne characters, followed in 2011 and to positive reviews but underwhelming box office. Winnie the Pooh remains to date the studio's most recent hand-drawn feature. Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich Moore, was released in 2012, to critical acclaim and commercial success. A comedy-adventure about a video-game villain who redeems himself as a hero, it won numerous awards, including the Annie, Critics' Choice, and Kids' Choice Awards for Best Animated Feature Film and received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. The film earned $471 million in worldwide box office revenue. In addition, the studio won its first Academy Award for a short film in forty-four years with Paperman. Directed by John Kahrs, Paperman utilized new software developed in house at the studio called Meander, which merges hand-drawn and computer animation techniques within the same character to create a unique "hybrid." According to Producer Kristina Reed, the studio is continuing to develop the technique for future projects, including an animated feature.
In 2013, the studio laid off nine of its hand-drawn animators, including Nik Ranieri and Ruben Aquino, leading to speculation on animation blogs that the studio was abandoning traditional animation, an idea that the studio dismissed. That same year, Frozen, a CGI film inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, was released to widespread acclaim and became a blockbuster hit. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee with songs by the Broadway team of Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez, it was the first Disney animated film to earn over $1 billion in worldwide box office revenue and is currently the highest-grossing animated film of all time, surpassing Pixar's Toy Story 3. Frozen also became the first film from Walt Disney Animation Studios to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film (a category started in 2001), as well as the first feature-length motion picture from the studio to win an Academy Award since Tarzan and the first to win multiple Academy Awards since Pocahontas. It was released in theaters with Get a Horse!, a new Mickey Mouse cartoon combining black-and-white hand-drawn animation and full color CGI animation, as an added attraction. The studio's next feature, Big Hero 6, a CGI comedy-adventure film inspired by Marvel's Big Hero 6 comics, is set to be released on November 7, 2014.
Walt Disney Animation Studios is currently managed by Edwin Catmull (President), John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer) and Andrew Millstein (general manager). Former presidents of the studio include David Stainton (January 2003 – January 2006), Thomas Schumacher (January 2000 – December 2002) and Peter Schneider (1985 – December 1999).
Other Disney executives who also exercised much influence within the studio were Roy E. Disney (1985–2003, Chairman, Walt Disney Feature Animation), Jeffrey Katzenberg (1984–94, Chairman, The Walt Disney Studios), Michael Eisner (1984–2005, CEO, The Walt Disney Company), and Frank Wells (1984–94, President and COO, The Walt Disney Company). Following Roy Disney's passing in 2009, the WDAS headquarters in Burbank was re-dedicated as The Roy E. Disney Animation Building in May 2010.
Since 1995, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been headquartered in the Roy E. Disney Animation Building in Burbank, California, across Riverside Drive from The Walt Disney Studios, where the original Animation building (now housing corporate offices) is located. The Disney Animation Building's lobby is capped by a large version of the famous hat from the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Fantasia. Disney Animation shares its site with ABC Studios, whose building is located immediately to the west.
From 1985 to 1995, Disney Animation previously operated out of the Air Way complex, a cluster of old hangars, office buildings, and trailers on the site of the former Grand Central Airport about two miles (3.2 km) east in the city of Glendale. Today, the DisneyToon Studios unit is currently based in Glendale, with another site in Burbank. Disney Animation's archive, formerly known as "the morgue" (based on an analogy to a morgue file) and today known as the Animation Research Library, is also located in Glendale. Unlike the Burbank buildings, DisneyToon Studios and the ARL are located in nondescript office buildings near Disney's Grand Central Creative Campus. The 12,000-square-foot ARL is home to over 64 million items of animation artwork going back to 1924; because of its importance to the company, it requires visitors to agree to not disclose its exact location within Glendale.
Previously, feature animation satellite studios were located around the world in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France (a suburb of Paris) and in Bay Lake, Florida (near Orlando, at Disney's Hollywood Studios, one of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World). The Paris studio was shut down in 2002, while the Florida studio was shut down in 2004. The Hollywood Studios building survives as a show and tour called The Magic of Disney Animation.
Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced animated features in a series of animation techniques, including traditional animation, computer animation, and animation combined with live action scenes. The studio's first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released on December 21, 1937, and the most recent film, Frozen, was released on November 27, 2013. Their upcoming film, Big Hero 6, is set for release on November 7, 2014.
Since Alice Comedies in 1920s, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced a series of prominent short films, including the Mickey Mouse cartoons and the Silly Symphonies series. Many of these shorts provided a medium for the studio to experiment with new technologies that they would use in their filmmaking process, such as the synchronization of sound in Steamboat Willie (1928), the integration of the three strip Technicolor process in Flowers and Trees (1932), the multiplane camera in The Old Mill (1937), the xerography process in Goliath II (1960), and the hand-drawn/CGI hybrid animation in Off His Rockers (1992), Paperman (2012) and Get a Horse! (2013).
Parks and resorts
Walt Disney Animation Studios has occasionally collaborated with Walt Disney Creative Entertainment and Walt Disney Imagineering to create attractions for various Disney theme parks and resorts. Some of these attractions are:
- Cranium Command, at Epcot
- Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros, at Epcot
- Mickey's PhilharMagic, at the Magic Kingdom, Hong Kong Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland
- Stitch's Great Escape!, at the Magic Kingdom
- Stitch Encounter, at Hong Kong Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios Park as "Stitch Live!"
- Fantasmic!, at Disneyland, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Tokyo DisneySea
- World of Color, at Disney California Adventure
- Disney Dreams!, at Disneyland Park Paris
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, at the Magic Kingdom
Walt Disney Animation Studios has occasionally collaborated with other studios to assist in the production of some animated and live-action features. These films are:
- The Reluctant Dragon, providing the animated segments
- Victory Through Air Power, providing the animated segments
- Song of the South, providing the animated segments
- So Dear to My Heart, providing the animated segments
- Mary Poppins, providing the animated segments
- Bedknobs and Broomsticks, providing the animated segments
- Pete's Dragon, providing animation
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit, providing animation, layout, animatics and storyboards (animation unit only), and special effects
- The Nightmare Before Christmas, providing second-layering traditional animation
- A Goofy Movie, providing story, development, and pre-production
- Toy Story, providing development
- Saving Mr. Banks, providing animation for a short scene recreating an episode of the Disneyland TV show
- Walt Disney
- Disney's Nine Old Men
- 12 basic principles of animation
- Walt Disney Treasures
- Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life
- Modern animation in the United States: Disney
- Animation studios owned by The Walt Disney Company
Documentary films about Disney animation
- A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios (1937, short)
- The Reluctant Dragon (1941, a staged "mockumentary")
- Frank and Ollie (1995)
- Dream on Silly Dreamer (2005)
- Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
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