By Zoe Chevat
Fresh from our morning at the ARL, we were greeted in the lobby of Disney’s whimsical animation building by Stephanie Morse, Talent Development Coordinator. Ms. Morse, who served as our tireless guide on a very tight schedule, ushered the nominees into the screening theater for a quick introduction. Then, leaving the lunchtime crowd to watch the nominated shorts, our band set out on a fast-paced tour of the neighboring Disney lot.
Just across the road from the more visible Animation building, the Disney campus resembles nothing so much as university grounds, a purposeful likeness important to Walt himself. Disney has prided itself on maintaining an atmosphere of learning within its walls, and a warm feeling certainly suffuses the sunlit walkways, an image that is a far cry from the imposing figure the powerful company sometimes cuts to outsiders. Walking past the soundstages where live-action Disney standards like Mary Poppins were shot, we came across the first building to house Disney’s company, a house reconstructed and brought with Disney and his partners from the studio’s humble beginnings in Silver Lake. After a quick photo-op by the misleading, but iconic, crossroad sign, we passed through what was once the animation building. Stephanie explained that the original studios were built in wings, with a receptionist at the front, a construction style that led Disney to joke to his father that, if the studio went under, the site could always be renovated into a hospital. Of course, this pessimistic plan B has never been necessary.
In the basement of this now administrative building, we passed through the former storage unit deemed "the Morgue". An underground passage of file cabinets lines the underground tunnel that once led animators to the Ink and Paint studios used to hold many of the production materials since rescued by the ARL. The cabinets now contain office supplies.
We emerged from Ink & Paint and headed swiftly over to Legends Plaza, site of Disney's corporate offices. The structure's fanciful facade is structured like a cartoon Parthenon, with robust caryatids of the Seven Dwarves holding up the geometric concrete facing. The plaza itself is worth wandering around, as its pillars host memorial plaques to the animators, actors, composers, and administrators who have made a significant imprint on the company's history. Their imprint is both figurative and literal; many plaques have the hand prints of their honorees. The nominees spent a little time reading off familiar names, trying handprints on for size, and looking for the tiny Gus-Gus hidden in the extra-large replica of the Legends trophy given to each honoree.
Time was running short, so we made our way through a couple more stops. Though the majority of its artifacts are kept at the ARL, Disney keeps some memorabilia, and live-action props, on display at the site's museum room. In a glass hallway just outside the archive's doors is the famed multiplane camera used on many Disney productions of the past, yet now rendered obsolete by digital technology. Stepping inside the archive room, we came face-to-face with a full-sized sculpture of a frozen Mr. Tummus from The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as the infamous wardrobe from the same series. Other iconic props are housed in display cases along the walls, along with early glass plates, and correspondence and sketches signed by Walt himself.
Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the screening theater for another Q&A with Disney's crew. A mix of old hands and new recruits stayed to ask questions of the nominees, particularly interested in Brandon Oldenburg's compelling story behind the founding of the studio that made The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris. In fact, one of the project's animators happened to be in the audience, having moved to SoCal to take place in Disney's trainee program. Brandon was quick to grab him from the audience and force him into the lineup in front of his peers. In animation, the law of the land remains credit always where credit is due.
Lunch had its share of familiar faces, as the nominees were introduced to current producers, directors, and art directors, who gave a little taste of what their paths to Disney have been like. Some faces were very familiar to the nominees, as A Morning Stroll producer Sue Goffe took the time to become reunited with a former colleague, Eric Goldberg. I was honored to spend much of our sunny siesta talking to John Musker, producer, director, and writer on films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and the more recent The Princess and the Frog. Both Musker and several younger artists told of their struggles with watercolor in an outside painting class, another example of the prevailing spirit of continued learning. Though both the nominees and our hosts spoke of various difficulties and technical snags, parr for the course in animation production, the mood was exuberant. Such an enthusiastic atmosphere carried over into the group's perusal of a just hung show in the studio's gallery, a retrospective of the personal work of colorist Walt Peregoy.
Soon enough came that special portion of the day, where resident animators gave us a peek at two current projects. So special that, naturally, we're not allowed to disclose any details here. I will say, as I said of other studios visited, that it's refreshing to see an established giant like Disney trying out something new, even if it's a light stretch. It's only through the implementation of new ideas, and the incorporation of young talent, that big studio animation can continue to move forward. Seeing the Oscar shorts nominees, who live by a far looser rubric, sharing ideas and stories with their mainstream counterparts, gives one hope that they may yet meet, somewhere in the middle.