Ideally timed to Disney’s centennial, a short film entitled “Once Upon a Studio” assembles 100 years’ worth of animated characters from the company’s vaults for a group photo outside Walt Disney Animation Studios headquarters in Burbank, Calif. That’s the building, shaped like Mickey Mouse’s conical blue hat from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where the walls are lined with images from a century’s worth of iconic toons.
Conceived and directed by Trent Correy and Dan Abraham, the project involves a live-action walkthrough of the place where the magic happens — that is, where much of the work on Disney’s animated features is done. But there’s an extra sprinkling of magic here, as cartoon characters leap out of their frames and wander the halls where they were originally drawn or rendered.
That hybrid style, where animation embellishes live-action footage, was first implemented by Disney on 1946’s “Song of the South,” and here serves to suggest that the toons have a life of their own. Correy and Abraham hatched the idea during the pandemic, workshopping it over meetings in fast-food parking lots, not realizing how difficult it would be to pull off. Since Disney switched to computer animation on 2005’s “Chicken Little,” CG favorites had to coexist alongside the hand-drawn princesses and heroes who’d come before.
“Trent and Dan wanted these characters to look and move as they always have,” explains animator Eric Goldberg, who first joined Disney in 1990 and now works with the Creative Legacy team, which ensures that ongoing appearances by classic Disney characters in various media (from Cirque du Soleil shows to TV spots) honor the original spirit.
“They weren’t going for a Roger Rabbit style, where the hand-drawn characters are lit and sculpted in a dimensional way. They wanted to leave the drawings looking like drawings,” says Godlberg, who personally oversaw a number of Ward Kimball parts, including Mickey, Minnie and Jiminy Cricket. “There are certain characters who were created during Disney’s Xerox period, like in ‘The Jungle Book’ or ‘101 Dalmatians,’ and we saw to it that we made a Xerox style line for those characters in cleanup so that they absolutely looked authentic.”
Others, like Goofy and Donald Duck, have appeared in dozens of different forms over the years. That meant the team had to decide on the definitive version to use for the project. For Walt’s most famous star, they settled on “Mickey’s Birthday Party,” a color short from 1942.
But reviving the characters wasn’t strictly a visual challenge. The team also brought back as many of the original voices as they could, from Jeremy Irons (as Scar) to Broadway star Judy Kuhn (who returned to do the singing for Pocahontas), and got permission from Robin Williams’ estate to use the Genie from “Aladdin.”
For the final shot, where 543 classic Disney characters assemble in front of the Animation Building, dozens of dalmatian puppies appear alongside human-scale princesses and the giant Tuk Tuk from “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Lighting supervisor Daniel Rice had to find a way that illuminate all the hand-drawn and CG characters so that they look as if they’re sharing the same space; , designing it so those standing out front cast shadows on the familiar faces behind them.
The project also includes a special cameo by one of the studio’s live-action mascots, Burny Mattinson, the beloved animator (and director of “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”) who died passed away earlier this year, bringing to an end a 70-year career at Disney.
Says Goldberg: “Burny was our link with the Disney legacy, because he worked on so many of these iconic films. He worked with the animators and the designers who actually created these things, and he went on to surpass them.”
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