Walt Disney once said…” Let’s not lose sight of one thing; that it all started with a Mouse” and while this poignant statement may be true, the real success of Disney’s company was Walt’s success in taking the primitive medium of animation and transforming it into a highly developed art form. When Walt first started his company, animation was in its infancy and was at best crude. Characters at the time had no personality and were merely stick figures that danced across the screen. Early audiences did not take the “Cartoons” seriously and no one thought they would amount to anything more than fillers for the main attraction.
But Walt was a visionary and saw the potential of this new medium, and realized that when refined and perfected, audiences would embrace it. And, as successful as Mickey Mouse became, it was all due to Walt’s refinement of the art of animation. When Disney’s then named MGM Studios opened on May 1, 1989, it had a wonderful attraction showcasing the art and history of animation called “The Magic of Disney animation”. This attraction began with guests watching a movie named ‘Back to Neverland’ that was narrated by Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams, where they explained the animation process beginning to end. Guests were also treated to a second movie showing clips from classic Disney animated features. There was also an animation studio where guests could watch animators drawing on their tables, while a recorded spiel explained what was going on.
But there were dark clouds on the horizon. Ever since Disney broke bread with Pixar in 1991 to produce computer animated films, first being “Toy Story” in 1995 and a string of highly successful follow-up features, Disney believed that the future was in computer animated films, and that traditional hand drawn animation was losing out to computer generated films, thus accounting for its losses at the box-office. Pixar and DreamWorks were now producing box office hits, once the realm of Disney alone; something had to be done. Starting in 2000, massive layoffs in the animation departments began. From a staff of over 2400, it was whittled down to 600. Disney converted its Feature Animation Studios into all CGI studios, prompting more layoffs selling off its traditional animation equipment. Disney’s last movie to use traditional animation was “Home on the Range”, released on April 2nd, 2004. The animation studio in the Studios was closed in 2003, the one in Paris in 2004, and Disneytoons in Australia in 2005, these facilities now at Disney’s Burbank studios.
Although the Disney Animation Studio is now gone, guests can still experience the animation Academy, located at the foot of Mickey Avenue in the animation Courtyard. You enter the courtyard through a large terra-cotta archway reminiscent of the grand entrances to Hollywood’s studios in its heyday. (See if you can find the Hidden Mickeys on either side of the Arch!) The Academy consists of three parts…The Animation Gallery, the “Drawn to Animation” film, and the very popular “Animation Academy” itself where under the tutelage of a Disney artist, you are taught to draw your favorite Disney character. The Animation Gallery is more just a gift shop; here you can purchase some wonderful pieces of Disney art and animation. There are art posters, porcelain pieces, one-of-a kind pictures and prints. You can watch Disney artists at their desks drawing many of the items that are available for purchase. You can even order custom made picture frames. You can literally spend over an hour just browsing around looking at treasures that are here.
Walking through the animation gallery, your next stop is the animation Academy. As you walk through the two ante rooms, take time to observe the wonderful artwork on the walls, depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the Academy, a classroom of about 50 guests will learn to draw one of their favorite Disney characters and a Disney artist will walk you through the steps. This is the most popular part of the attraction. The class is very easy and a lot of fun, and the artist will critique your drawing and make suggestions, and you can ask questions! And the best part, you can take your drawing home with you. I spoke to one of the artists and they said there are 10 full time artists that teach the class and three senior artists that will test new artists in the proper way, the Disney way to draw. Many of the senior artists studied under the legendary Disney Artist Ralph Kent, who worked directly under Walt Disney. He was a Disney Design artist and the creative head of the Disney Design group for Disney Merchandise, making sure all those characters you see on cups, T-shirts, etc. are up to standards. When the artists pass the tests, they will give the classes. There is one artist to a class and a maximum of 50 guests. When you enter the classroom, you’ll find lighted artists tables, drawing paper and pencils. But notice there are no erasers on the pencils, that’s because you’ll be taught to draw without using one! Also observe on the walls all the model sheets, showing how the characters are drawn. In the beginning, the classes were only about 10 min. long, and the only characters drawn were the Fab five. Today the classes are approximately 30 min. long, and the list of characters are now about 40. In addition to the Fab five, you have Jiminy Cricket, Buzz, Tinker bell, Stitch and many more. The choice of characters is determined by the artist teaching the class.
Other activities in the animation Academy building are Meet and Greets where you can say hi to Mickey, Winnie the Pooh, and characters from the Incredibles. In the booth entitled “You’re a Character” you can talk with Lumiere (from beauty and the beast), who will ask you a series of questions to help you decide what kind Disney character you most resemble. At the digital ink and paint station, you can create your own work of art by coloring an animated scene. In the soundstage, you get to experiment with different sound effects and add them to your own soundtrack for a scene.
The third part of the attraction is a film called ‘Drawn to animation” You enter this part of the attraction on the left side of the Academy. A cast member will ask you how many in your party and then you will enter a small movie theater. Inside the small theater, you’ll notice the walls festooned with all kinds of artifacts, all related to Disney animation. You will see a short ten minute film starring Mushu, from the classic Mulan. The cast member, and several other artists on an adjacent movie screen interacts with Mushu on the screen, where it is explained how a Disney character is developed (Mushu in particular) and comes to life. The film is funny and entertaining, but only scratches the surface on how the characters are developed.
The one thing I like about the animation Academy is that you can visit one or all three parts of the attraction. You can literally spend several hours just walking around; and many guests retake the drawing class, sometimes two or three times a visit! All guests visiting Disney’s Hollywood studios should make it a point to visit the Animation Academy. Animation was and always will be the heart of the Disney Company. And there’s no better way to experience the rich history and heritage of the medium that Walt Disney himself had perfected.