I haven't taken the time (nor have I had the time) to write a "animation story" for about a year and a half! If you look back at some of my earlier Journals you can find some of the 'animation story' series. Anyway, this is one I have been meaning to write for some time since its kind of the final "chapter" to a series I started called "Breaking into Disney". Its the story of when i first started working for Disney animation at the just built Disney/MGM studios in Florida back in 1989. (If you want to review, here's the link to pt. 2, my Disney internship story: [link]
As I mentioned in the earlier posted Journal, my twin brother, Tony, and I had just gotten selected (along with about 10-or so-other interns) to move from California to Florida to help staff the new (just built, but not opened yet) Disney/ MGM animation tour studio (later to be called Walt Disney Feature Animation, Florida). We were 20 years old and leaving the place we grew up (California) and our family /girlfriends behind to live on our own for the first time (if you don't count CalArts dorm rooms). Along with that, we had to buy a car, find an apartment (we lived together for the first 6-8 months, till I got married), and start a new job at a new Disney studio! It was stressful but exciting as anything!
First, a little background on the Disney Florida studio:
All the way till opening the doors of the Disney Florida studio, Disney didn't know what they wanted to do with that studio. First and foremost, they needed a "working studio" for the animation tour that was going to go through there everyday 365 days a year. Because the studio was designed to have windows all along one side of the wall, the Florida studio got the nickname of "The Fishbowl" even before we left CA. The animators in CA couldn't understand why any "serious animation artist" would want to work in a place where people would watch you work all day long. On top of that, Disney wasn't sure what we should work on. Early on, they thought they would just staff the studio with animation students and some "fake animators" that would be training managers essentially. We would work on "tests" and 'busy work' so it looked like stuff was happening- for the tourists. It was intimidating as a young animation student, to roll the dice and say yes to working at the Florida studio with so many nay sayers at the California studio. These were the experienced masters, the guys we looked up to that were just (at the time) finishing up the animation on "The Little Mermaid", which looked like it was going to be a huge hit! Tony and I wondered if we were throwing our careers away if we left what was obviously the MAIN studio to go off and work at this little studio tourist attraction in the swamps of Florida! For that reason, many of us that moved there thought we would only stay for a year or two. Get your feet wet, then move up the "big leagues"- to the Calif. Disney studio. That's where it all happens. (NOTE: That way of thinking didn't go away for many years. It took our "little animation studio that could" a good 6 or 7 years to convince the Ca studio management that we could make our own feature films instead of just working on pieces of their films. In the meantime, we all fell in love with living and working in Florida so many people stayed for the long run.)
At some point before the start of our internship, Michael Eisner (the CEO of Disney back then) made the decision- he wanted an actual, working studio in Florida. It wasn't important to him what we did though. "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" had come out the year before, and we were a small studio (only about 40-60 people in the beginning) so animated shorts made sense to the suits at Disney. They decided we would do a Roger Rabbit short and then probably move on to making Mickey Mouse shorts. Our first project was to be a Roger Rabbit short cartoon. It was called "Roller Coaster Rabbit". But even that didn't go right. The short had story problems and wasn't completely ready to go when we all go set up in the studio. So, Disney threw us another short project: The Little Mermaid McDonald's commercial (Mermaid was about to come out and McDonald's-at the time- always did a toy tie-in to the Disney films, and always did a new commercial to show off the new Disney film Happy Meal tie-ins)
To back up a little though, Tony and I reported to work early so we could see the studio for the first time. One of the training managers gave us a tour and we were blown away. They had custom-made the animation desks and other furniture all to match the style of the original 40s Disney animation desks in CA. All the chairs and side pieces of furniture were top-notch. The lamps, everything, was in a retro 30s/40s style. It looked awesome! As soon as you walked into the studio you could look across the room to a wall of glass and HUNDREDS of people watching you! All day. (Back to that in a bit.) One of the first things we discovered was that Disney was going to bring back the old 'shorts unit' studio system much like the animators of the forties would have worked back in the days of the Donald Duck or Mickey shorts. They had set up desks in groups of 3 "pods". Meaning, three desks in a row. At the front desk would be the animator, the second desk behind him would be the Assistant Animator, and the third desk behind the assistant would be the Inbetweener. The idea was that that group would be in close contact and that the flow of a scene was made easier since it was literally passed back to the next guy. Since Tony and I scored exceptionally well in our internship, we were made Assistant animators on day one! Our other intern peers were all made inbetweeners. That meant someone I went through the internship with was going to 'work under me'. That was an odd way to start a new job. The cool thing, though, was that Disney had decided that since the majority of the Florida studio was going to be staffed with new, just out of art school, young artists, then they would pair them up with at least one experienced animator or Assistant animator. A few experienced Assitant animator clean up people as well as experienced animators had decided to move to Florida and help start this new studio. That first day, Tony and I were excited to hear who we had been paired up with. The manager showed us the seating list and there I was at the second Assistant Animator seat, with a good friend Trey Finney (if I remember right) behind me as inbetweener and in front- MARK HENN! One of the world's best animators was going to be my mentor/animator! I was thrilled. Tony got another good animator, Dave Stephen, who had worked on Scuttle in Mermaid. Tony was excited too. Both Dave and Mark were known to be very "rough" animators- meaning very sketchy drawings- and since our job was to do cleaned up, on model drawings over their KEY drawings, that meant we were going to have our work cut out. (Our keys would then get handed over to the inbetweener to add drawings INBETWEEN (thus the name) the key drawings we did to flesh out the movement and timing more. I'm not going into it the process of animation here because this is already a long Journal.) Besides lerning a ton about animation, clean up, and drawing in general from Mark Henn through the years, another great part of working with him was that he got all the best scenes. Assisting him meant that I got to work on his drawings of all the best characters and scenes so it was always exciting to see what would wind up on my desk!
Because of the tour being there all the time, just standing in the studio talking to someone felt odd because people were watching. In the beginning, it was hard not to shake the feeling that you should be doing something useful all the time since people paid to come see you work. The heads of the studio actually encouraged us to have rubber band fights and socialize a little bit because they knew it was good for our creative juices and not to feel so structured. They even made it part of the announcement on the other side of the glass. The Disney Tour guides, if they saw a rubber band fight break out, would say "Oh, you're lucky, this is a rare occurance, a rubber band fight has broken out among the artists! This pastime dates back to the early days of animation and has a long history at Disney animation!" HA. The tour ate it up.
After the Roger Rabbit short, the Disney CA studio fell behind on the film "The Rescuers Down Under", so we were quickly thrown onto a number of sequences in that film. Tony got to work with Dave on the albatross character (Orville?) and I worked with Mark on Bernard, Bianca, Cody and McLeach. Mark was not only one of the top animators but he was also the fastest in both Disney studios. He could do the work of about 3 top animators! Because of that, I had to work extra hard but even then, I would get behind and have to give Mark scenes to other assistants and inbetweeners to help out. He was a mini studio all by himself! Mark would give me little things to animate from time to time (mostly because I bugged him to give me stuff). On Rescuers Down Under, I got to do my first (uncredited) animation at Disney: the scene were McLeach's foot kicks the pot of boiling water. It was a scene that was "cast" to Mark, but he wanted to go onto other (more important) scenes so he tossed it to me. I probably redid that scene 5 different times with Mark telling me how it could look better after every pass! After helping CA Disney out on Rescuers, they saw that our studio did good work- as good as was being done in CA. So, more features came and we did pieces of Aladdin, The Lion King (lots of diff parts but one sequence "Just Can't Wait To Be King" was done entirely in FLorida), Pocahontas, Atlantis (very little, it was just me and another animator), Hunchback, and maybe a few I forgot. We also did a few shorts (another Roger short "Trail Mix-Up" is also one of my early animation films), commercials, and special projects for the theme parks. I even got to animate Tinkerbell for a Disney World parade float. It was always something new in Florida.
To sum up, our studios first feature film that was made entirely in Florida was MULAN. It was a great film that we all threw ourselves into for about 2 and a half to three years. We were so proud of that film. Disney saw that it was good and let us keep doing more films all to ourselves so we also did "Lilo and Stitch" and "Brother Bear" out of that studio. (Note: I didn't work on Lilo, unfortunetly. I left the studio for a couple years to work for Big Idea Productions on Veggietales- something I was passionate about doing. I came back for the end of Brother Bear to help finish up that animation.) Our little Florida studio grew from that original 40ish people to about 450 people through those 12ish years! Disney shut the studio down in 2003 and layed off all 450 people! (A couple went to work at the CA Disney studio, but only a handful.) Everyone went in different directions and different studios. I came here to live and work in Nashville, TN (by choice, I love it here.) It was a sad ending to a studio that was really at its prime. The death of the Florida studio and the "death" (not completely, but close) of traditional animation went hand in hand. Still, we did some great work and made life-long friendships.
I hope you all get a chance to have that in your lives and careers!
God bless, Tom B.