written by Bob Degus
For more than a decade, I’ve been a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Film and Feature Animation Branch. Each year I look forward to our fall screenings where we get to see the finest short animated films from around the world and select the five nominees. It’s like attending the best film festival in the world.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending the day with the filmmakers of three of the nominated shorts — "Oktapodi," "Lavatory Lovestory," and "La Maison en Petite Cubes" — as they were welcomed into and toured the “birthplace” of American animation – Walt Disney Studios. The idea is the brainchild of fellow Academy Member Ron Diamond, who, each year, takes the nominated filmmakers to meet their animation colleagues and peers at the major animation facilities, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Watching this years filmmakers, who traveled from as far away as France, India, Japan and Russia, be greeted, honored and celebrated by 140 plus of Disney’s animators was a singularly emotionally moving experience for me and rates near the top of my experiences associated with the Academy Awards.
The day started quite profoundly with a visit to Disney’s Animation Research Library. This facility is located in Glendale, CA and unfortunately is not open to the public. It houses – literally the entire history of the art of Disney animation, and is used by the current generation of Disney animators to look at the original paper frame by frame drawings and back grounds from the classic Disney films as well as related art objects.
We got to see some of the original drawings from Disney’s first feature "Snow White," and even more exciting was seeing some from "Steamboat Willie" and Oswald the Rabbit. Here was the next generation of 21st century animators looking at original paper pencil art from some of the first animation ever made. For those who don’t know, long before computers, a pencil was an orange-yellow stick with lead in it once used to draw art on something called paper.
From the Research Library we traveled to Disney’s main studio lot and their Animation Building. After a break for coffee, the Oscar nominees were introduced to the packed theater of Disney animators and the nominees' films were screened.
Since we had all already seen the films, we toured the main lot, and saw the original “Hyperion Building” physically moved from Silverlake, where Disney started, to Burbank, (the current location of the studio) and the original Burbank Animation Buildings (now offices).
We had a quick stop at the famous multi-plane camera, no longer used, which gave the Disney films their classic look. The camera had multiple planes or levels that allowed the animators to create perspective similar to that of a live-action camera.
We rushed back to be in time for the screening ending and the nominees answered questions from the Disney animators. After, we all were treated to a lunch where one-on-one conversation could occur.
We then toured the main animation building where Disney has two upcoming films in production, one of which, "Princess and the Frog," marks Disney’s return to classic hand-drawn animation.
What was fascinating for us to learn was that just like on "Snow White," the animators were again using paper and pencils (see above pencil definition) to draw the animation. However, unlike the older films, those pencil drawings are now digitally scanned into a computer and various computer stations at the facility use the scans and act as what would have been called the ink and paint department, creating what we think of as color animation cels, or the in-betweening department (lead animators draw the key or main frames of action and then junior animators fill in the missing action). And effectively, the computer also acts as the camera would have.
Almost all of the details of both films are housed in that animation building, from the story department to production design to what clothes the characters will wear to editorial.
Toward the end of our time together we got to go inside “Mickey’s hat”, and for me that was certainly a high-point of the tour – and I think it would be for anyone living in Los Angeles, as we drive by it so often on the freeway.
The day ended with the Disney animators inviting us to join them for their brief work in-progress screening of about 16 shots that were completed and needed approvals to move onto the next stage in the process.
For obvious confidentiality reasons they asked us not to discuss what we saw at the screening, but I can say that some of the shots were what was called “color finals” meaning the director and other team members were to approve them if they felt they were perfect, others were pencil drawings to approve final movement and then those shots could go to the color department, and the third group was rough sketches of shots at their beginning.
At one point in the screening a color shot was about to be approved as “final” and one of the animators shouted “Wait! There’s a “pop” in the shadow on the final frame of the shot.” And sure enough when they looked at that shot very slowly frame by frame, they discovered that a shadow disappeared one frame or one-twenty-fourth of a second early.
That is the attention to detail that goes into making not only the Disney animated films, but also those of the Oscar nominees.
As to who will win on Sunday for your Oscar pool? There is always an incorrect perception about the Oscars that there is one winner and the other four lose. I really felt yesterday, seeing these nominee animators and their American Disney colleagues together in the same room — that whatever the outcome on Sunday is — they are all winners. It’s not a cliché, because their films, touched and moved a large group of people to become a nominee, and that is what cinema is ultimately about.
The Oscar shorts tour theatrically each year and are eventually available on DVD. I urge you to find the screenings in your city. You will not be disappointed.
Bob Degus Los Angeles