Walt Disney Animation Studios

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Walt Disney Animation Studios
Type Division of Walt Disney Studios
Industry Motion pictures
Founded October 16, 19231
Founder(s) Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney

2100 W Riverside Dr.2

Burbank, California, United States
Key people Edwin Catmull (President)
John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer)
Andrew Millstein (General Manager)
Products Animated films
Employees 800+
Parent The Walt Disney Studios3
(The Walt Disney Company)
Divisions DisneyToon Studios45
Website disneyanimation.com

Walt Disney Animation Studios, headquartered in Burbank, California6 (formerly known as Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Productions and Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio), is an American animation studio which creates animated feature films, short films, and television specials for The Walt Disney Company. Founded on October 16, 1923,1 it is a unit of The Walt Disney Studios. The studio has produced 53 feature films,7 beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and its most recent being Frozen (2013).

Originally founded as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and later incorporated as Walt Disney Productions in 1929, the studio was exclusively dedicated to production of short films until expanding into feature production in 1934. During The Walt Disney Company's corporate restructuring in 1986, the studio officially started operating under the name Walt Disney Feature Animation. It took on its current name in 2006, when it was folded under The Walt Disney Studios alongside Pixar Animation Studios, which was acquired by Disney in the same year.

For much of its existence, the studio was recognized as the premier American animation studio; it developed many of the techniques which became standard practices of traditional animation, such as the multiplane camera.8 The studio also pioneered the art of storyboarding, which is now a standard technique used in both animated and live-action filmmaking.9 The studio's catalog of animated features are among Disney's most notable assets, and the stars of its animated shorts—Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto—have gone on to become recognizable figures in popular culture, as well as becoming mascots for The Walt Disney Company as a whole.

Walt Disney Animation Studios, today managed by Pixar heads Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter, continues to produce animated features using both hand-drawn and computer generated imagery techniques. Their 54th feature, Big Hero 6, is currently in post-production and set for release on November 7, 2014.


1920s: Foundation and early years

Kansas City, Missouri natives Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Los Angeles in 1923, producing a series of silent Alice Comedies short films featuring a live-action child actress in an animated world. The Alice Comedies were distributed by Margaret J. Winkler's Winkler Pictures, which later also distributed a second Disney short subject series, the all-animated Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, through Universal Pictures starting in 1927. The Disney studio was set up in storefront offices on Kingswell Avenue in downtown Los Angeles until early 1926, when it moved to a new building, the Hyperion Studio, built for the company on a lot at 2719 Hyperion Avenue & took on the name The Walt Disney Studio.

After the first year's worth of Oswalds, Walt Disney attempted to renew his contract with Winkler Pictures, but Charles Mintz, who had taken over Margaret Winkler's business after marrying her, wanted to force Disney to accept a lower advance payment for each Oswald short. Disney refused, and as Universal owned the rights to Oswald rather than Disney, Mintz set up his own animation studio to produce Oswald cartoons. Most of Disney's staff was hired away by Mintz to move over once Disney's Oswald contract was done in mid-1928.

Working in secret while the rest of the staff finished the remaining Oswalds on contract, Disney and his head animator Ub Iwerks led a small handful of loyal staffers in producing cartoons starring a new character named Mickey Mouse. The first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, made only mild impressions when previewed in limited engagements during the summer of 1928. For the third Mickey cartoon, however, Disney produced a sound track, collaborating with musician Carl Stalling and businessman Pat Powers, who provided Disney with his bootlegged "Cinephone" sound-on-film process. Subsequently, the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, became Disney's first cartoon with synchronized sound, and was a major success upon its November 1928 debut at the West 57th Theatre in New York City. The Mickey Mouse series of sound cartoons, distributed by Powers through Celebrity Productions, quickly became the most popular cartoon series in the United States. A second Disney series of sound cartoons, the Silly Symphonies, debuted in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance. Each Silly Symphony was a one-shot cartoon centered around music or a particular theme.

1930s: Silly Symphonies and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In 1930, disputes over finances between Disney and Powers led to Disney's studio, reincorporated on December 16, 1929ChWDC 1 as Walt Disney Productions, signing a new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. Powers in return signed away Ub Iwerks, who began producing cartoons at his own studio.

Columbia distributed Disney's shorts for two years before the Disney studio entered a new distribution deal with United Artists in 1932. The same year, Disney signed a two-year exclusive deal with Technicolor to utilize its new 3-strip color film process. The result was the Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees, the first full-color animated film. Flowers and Trees was a major success, and all Silly Symphonies were subsequently produced in Technicolor. The 1933 Technicolor Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs became a major box office and pop culture success, with its theme song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" becoming a popular chart hit.

In 1934, Walt Disney gathered several key staff members and announced his plans to make his first feature animated film. Despite derision from most of the film industry, who dubbed the production "Disney's Folly," Disney proceeded undaunted into the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which would become the first animated feature in English and Technicolor. Considerable training and development went into the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the studio greatly expanded with established animators, artists from other fields, and recent college graduates joining the studio to work on the film. The training classes, supervised by the head animators such as Les Clark, Norm Ferguson, and Art Babbit and taught by Donald W. Graham, an art teacher from the nearby Chouinard Art Institute,10 had begun at the studio in 1932 and were greatly expanded into orientation training and continuing education classes.10 In the course of teaching the classes, Graham and the animators created or formalized many of the techniques and processes that became the key tenants and principles of traditional animation.10 Silly Symphonies such as The Goddess of Spring (1934) and The Old Mill (1937) served as experimentation grounds for new techniques such as the animation of realistic human figures, special effects animation, the use of the multiplane camera, an invention which split animation artwork layers into several planes, allowing the camera to appear to move dimensionally through an animated scene.

Walt Disney introduces each of the Seven Dwarfs in a scene from the original 1937 Snow White theatrical trailer.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost Disney a then-expensive sum of $1.4 million to complete, and was an unprecedented success when released in February 1938 by RKO Radio Pictures, which had assumed distribution of Disney product from United Artists in 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was briefly the highest grossing film of all time before the success of Gone with the Wind two years later.

During the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, work had continued on the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series of shorts. Mickey Mouse had switched to Technicolor in 1935, by which time the series had added several major supporting characters, among them Mickey's dog Pluto and their friends Donald Duck and Goofy. Donald, Goofy, and Pluto would all be appearing in series of their own by 1940, and the Donald Duck cartoons eclipsed the Mickey Mouse series in popularity. The Silly Symphonies, which garnered seven Academy Awards, ended in 1939, replaced by a series of irregularly released Walt Disney Specials shorts.

1940s: New features, strike, and World War II

The success of Snow White allowed Disney to build a new, larger studio on Buena Vista Street in Burbank, where The Walt Disney Company remains headquartered to this day. Walt Disney Productions had its initial public offering in 1940, with Walt Disney as president and chairman and Roy Disney as CEO.

The studio launched into the production of new animated features, the first of which was Pinocchio, released in February 1940. Pinocchio was not initially a box office success.11 The box office returns from the film's initial release were both below Snow White's unprecedented success and below studio expectations.1112 Of the film's $2.289 million negative cost—twice the cost of Snow White—Disney only recouped $1 million by late 1940, with studio reports of the film's final original box office take varying between $1.4 million and $1.9 million.11 However, Pinocchio was a critical success, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Original Score, making it the first film of the studio to win not only either Oscar, but both at the same time.

Walt Disney acts out a storyboarded scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a segment of Fantasia (1940), for its on-screen stars, host Deems Taylor and conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Fantasia, an experimental film produced to an accompanying orchestral arrangement conducted by Leopold Stokowski, was released in November 1940 by Disney itself (without the assistance of RKO, who declined to distribute the film) in a series of limited-searing roadshow engagements. The film cost $2 million to produce while the combined average receipts from each roadshow was around $325,000, which placed Fantasia at an even greater loss than Pinocchio.13 RKO assumed distribution of Fantasia in 1941,14 later reissuing it in severely edited versions over the years.1516 Despite its financial failure, Fantasia was the subject of two Academy Honorary Awards on February 26, 1942—one for the development of the innovative Fantasound system used to create the film's stereoscopic soundtrack, and the other for Stokowski and his contributions to the film.17

Much of the character animation on these productions and all subsequent features until the late 1970s was supervised by a brain-trust of animators Walt Disney dubbed the "Nine Old Men," many of whom also served as directors and later producers on the Disney features: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, and Marc Davis.18 Other head animators at Disney during this period included Norm Ferguson, Bill Tytla, and Fred Moore. The development of the feature animation department created a caste system at the Disney studio: lesser animators (and feature animators in-between assignments) were assigned to work on the short subjects, while animators higher in status such as the Nine Old Men worked on the features. Concern over Walt Disney accepting credit for the artists' work as well as debates over compensation led to many of the newer and lower-ranked animators seeking to unionize the Disney studio.19

A bitter union strike resulted in mid-1941, which was resolved - without the angered Walt Disney's involvement - in Walt Disney Productions being set up as a union shop.19 The Disney strike and its aftermath led to an exodus of several animation professionals from the studio, from top-level animators such as Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla to artists better known for their work outside the Disney studio such as Frank Tashlin, Maurice Noble, Walt Kelly, Bill Meléndez, and John Hubley.19 Hubley, with several other Disney strikers, went on to found the United Productions of America studio, Disney's key animation rival in the 1950s.19

Dumbo, in production during the midst of the animators' strike, premiered in October 1941, and proved to be a financial success. The simple film only cost $950,000 to produce, half the cost of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio, and two fifths of the cost of Fantasia. Dumbo eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release.20 In August 1942, Bambi was released, and as with Pinocchio and Fantasia, did not perform well at the box office. Out of its $1.7 million budget, it only grossed $1.64 million.21

Production of features was temporarily suspended due to World War II, after the release of Bambi. Reasons for the halt in feature production included the drafting of several Disney animators, the European market was cut off by the war, and the necessity of the studio to focus on producing wartime content for the US Army, particularly military training and civilian propaganda films. From 1942 to 1943, 95 percent of the studio's animation output was for the military.22 In a step to keep the studio alive, Walt Disney ordered the production of "package films": low-budgeted animated films composed of short subjects with bridging material. These films were Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The studio also produced two features, Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), which were a combination of animated and live-action footage. Shorts production continued during this period as well, with Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto cartoons being the main output accompanied by cartoons starring Mickey Mouse, Figaro, and in the 1950s, Chip 'n Dale and Humphrey the Bear.

In addition, Disney began reissuing the previous features, beginning with re-releases of Snow White in 1944,23 Pinocchio in 1945, and Fantasia in 1946.24 This led to a tradition of reissuing the Disney films every seven years, which lasted into the 1990s before being translated into the studio's handling of home video releases.23

1950s: Return of features, end of shorts

In 1948, Disney returned to the production of full-length features with Cinderella, a full-length film based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault. At a cost of nearly $3,000,000, the future of the studio depended upon the success of this film.25 Upon its release in 1950, Cinderella proved to be a box office success, with the profits from the film's release allowing Disney to carry on producing animated features throughout the 1950s.26 Following its success, three features, each of which had been halted in development during World War II but were resumed in the late 1940s, were completed and released: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp. In addition, an ambitious new project, an adaptation of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" set to Tchaikovsky's classic score, was begun but took much of the rest of the decade to complete.

Alice in Wonderland, released in 1951, met with a lukewarm response at the box office and was a sharp critical disappointment in its initial release.2728 Peter Pan, released in 1953, was, on the other hand, a commercial success and the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1955, Lady and the Tramp was released to higher box office success than any other Disney feature from the studio since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,29 earning an estimated $7.5 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1955.30 Lady is significant as Disney's first widescreen animated feature, produced in the CinemaScope process,29 and was the first Disney animated feature to be released by Disney's own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution.

By the mid-1950s, with Walt Disney's attention primarily set on new endeavour such as live-action films, television, and the Disneyland theme park,18 production (though not final approvals) of the animated films was left primarily in the hands of the "Nine Old Men" trust of head animators and directors. This led to several delays in approvals during the production of Disney's Sleeping Beauty,18 which was finally released in 1959. At $6 million,31 it was Disney's most expensive film to date, produced in a heavily stylized art style devised by artist Eyvind Earle31 and presented in large-format Super Technirama 70 with six-track stereophonic sound.31 However, the film's large production costs and underperformance at the box office resulted in the studio posting its first annual loss in a decade for fiscal year 1960,32 leading to massive layoffs throughout the studio.33

By the end of the decade, the Disney short subjects were no longer being produced on a regular basis, with many of the shorts divisions' personnel either leaving the company or begin reassigned to work on Disney television programs such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland. While the Disney shorts had dominated the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) during the 1930s, its reign over the award had been ended by MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoons, Warner Bros' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and the works of United Productions of America (UPA), whose flat art style and stylized animation techniques were lauded as more modern alternatives to the older Disney style.34 During the 1950s, only one Disney short, the stylized Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, won the Best Short Subject (Cartoons) Oscar.35

The Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and Goofy shorts had all ceased regular production by 1953, with Donald Duck and Humphrey continuing and converting to widescreen CinemaScope before also begin discontinued in 1956. Disney shorts would only be produced on a sporadic basis from this point on, with notable later shorts including Goliath II (1960), It's Tough to Be a Bird (1969), The Small One (1978), Runaway Brain (1995, starring Mickey Mouse), and Paperman (2012).

1960s: Walt Disney's final years

In 1961, the studio released One Hundred and One Dalmatians, an animated feature which popularized the use of xerography during the process of inking and painting traditional animation cels. Using xerography, animation drawings could be photo-chemically transferred rather than traced from paper drawings to the clear acetate sheets ("cels") used in final animation production. The resulting art style—a scratchier line which revealed the construction lines in the animators' drawings—typified Disney films into the 1980s. The film was a success, being the tenth highest grossing film of 1961 with rentals of $6.4 million.36

The Disney animation training program started at the studio before the development of Snow White in 1932 eventually led to Walt Disney helping found the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). This university, formed via the merger of Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, included a Disney-developed animation program of study among its degree offerings. CalArts became the alma mater of many of the animators who would work at Disney and other animation studios from the 1970s to the present.

The Sword in the Stone was released in 1963, and was the sixth highest grossing film of the year in North America with estimated rentals of $4.75 million.3738 A featurette adaptation of one of A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released in 1966, to be followed by several other Pooh featurettes over the years and a full-length compilation feature, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was released in 1977.

Walt Disney died in December 1966, ten months before the studio's next film, The Jungle Book, was completed and released.39 The film was a success,40 finishing 1967 as the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year.41

1970s: Decline in popularity

The studio began the 1970s with the release of The Aristocats, the last film project to be approved by Walt Disney himself. In 1971, Roy O. Disney, the studio co-founder, died and Walt Disney Productions was left in the hands of Donn Tatum and Card Walker, who each served as both chairman and CEO in overlapping terms for the rest of the decade. The next feature, Robin Hood (1973), was produced with a significantly reduced budget and animation repurposed from previous features.42 Both The Aristocats and Robin Hood were minor box office and critical successes.

The Rescuers, released in 1977, was a success exceeding the achievements of the previous two Disney features. Receiving broad critical acclaim, commercial returns, and an Academy Award nomination; it ended up being the third highest grossing film in 1977 and the most successful Disney animated film since The Jungle Book. The film was reissued in 1983, accompanied by a new Disney featurette, Mickey's Christmas Carol.

The production of The Rescuers signaled the beginning of a changing of the guard process in the personnel at the Disney animation studio: as veterans such as Milt Kahl and Les Clark retired, they were gradually replaced by new talents such as Don Bluth, Ron Clements, John Musker, and Glen Keane. The new animators were culled from the animation program at CalArts and trained by Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston. In 1979, dissatisfied with what they felt was a stagnation in the development of the art of animation at Disney, Bluth and several of the other new guard animators quit to start their own studio, Don Bluth Productions, which became Disney's chief competitor in the animation field during the 1980s.

1980s: "Rock bottom" and return to prominence

Roy E. Disney (Chairman, 1985–2003), nephew of Walt Disney, was a key figure in restructuring the animation department following the reorganization of the Disney company in 1984

Delayed half a year by the defection of the Bluth group,43 The Fox and the Hound was released in 1981 after four years in production. The film was considered a financial success by the studio.

Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, became president of Walt Disney Productions in 1980 and CEO in 1983. After a series of corporate takeover attempts in 1984, Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O. and nephew of Walt, had Miller ousted and brought in Michael Eisner as Disney's new CEO, and Frank Wells as president. Eisner in turn named Jeffrey Katzenberg chairman of the film division.43 Already near completion when the Eisner regime took over Disney, 1985's The Black Cauldron represented what would later be referred to as the "rock bottom" point for Disney animation.43 An expensive (the studio's most expensive to that point at $25 million) Super Technirama 70 production with a darker fantasy tone than previous Disney works, Cauldron was the first film fully in the control of the new guard of Disney artists, and was a critical and commercial failure. The film's $21 million box office gross led to a loss for the studio, putting the future of the animation division in jeopardy.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, the significance of animation to Disney's bottom line was significantly reduced as the company expanded into further live-action production, television, and theme parks. As new CEO, Michael Eisner strongly considered shuttering the feature animation studio and outsourcing future animation.43 Roy E. Disney intervened, offering to head the animation division and turn its fortunes around.43 Named Chairman of feature animation by Eisner, Disney appointed Peter Schneider president of animation to run the day-to-day operations.43

Wanting more room for live action production, Disney executives moved the animation division in 1985 from the Disney studio lot in Burbank to a set of warehouse facilities in nearby Glendale, CA.43 The animation studio's next feature was The Great Mouse Detective, begun by John Musker and Ron Clements as Basil of Baker Street after both left the Black Cauldron production team. Released in 1986 as the first movie under the Walt Disney Feature Animation name,44 the film was enough of a critical and commercial success to instill executive confidence in the animation studio.43 Later the same year, however, Universal Pictures and Steven Speilberg's Amblin Entertainment released Don Bluth's An American Tail, which outgrossed The Great Mouse Detective at the box office and became the highest-grossing first-issue animated film to that point.45

Katzenberg, Disney, and Schneider set about changing the culture of the studio, increasing staffing and production so that a new feature would be released every year instead of every two to four.43 The first of the releases on the accelerated production schedule was Oliver & Company in 1988, which featured an all-star cast including Billy Joel and Bette Midler and an emphasis on a modern pop soundtrack.43 Oliver & Company opened in the theaters on the same day as another Bluth/Amblin/Universal animated film, The Land Before Time; however, Oliver outgrossed Time and went on to become the most successful animated feature to that date.4346

While Oliver & Company and a new feature, The Little Mermaid, were in production, Disney collaborated with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and master animator Richard Williams to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a groundbreaking live action/animation hybrid directed by Robert Zemeckis which featured licensed animated characters from other animation studios. Disney set up a new animation studio under Williams' supervision in London to create the cartoon characters for Roger Rabbit, with many of the artists from the California studio traveling to England to work on the film.43 A significant critical and commercial success, Roger Rabbit won three Academy Awards for technical achievements and was key in renewing mainstream interest in American animation. Other than the film itself, the studio also produced three Roger Rabbit shorts during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A second satellite studio, Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida, opened in 1989 with 40 employees. Its offices were located within the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, and visitors were allowed to tour the studio and observe animators at work.47 The same year, the studio released The Little Mermaid, which became a keystone achievement in Disney's history as its largest critical and commercial success in decades. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who'd been co-directors on The Great Mouse Detective, Mermaid earned $84 million at the North American box office, a record for the studio. The film was built around a score from Broadway songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who was also a co-producer and story consultant on the film.43 Mermaid won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Song and for Best Original Score48

The Little Mermaid vigorously relaunched a profound new interest in the animation and musical film genres. Mermaid was also the first to feature the use of Disney's Computer Animation Production System (CAPS). Developed for Disney by Pixar,43 then a small animation and software development company, CAPS would become significant in allowing future Disney films to more seamlessly integrate computer generated imagery and achieve higher production values with digital ink and paint techniques.43 The Little Mermaid was the first of a series of blockbusters that would be released over the next decade by Walt Disney Feature Animation, a period later designated by the term Disney Renaissance.

1990s: Disney Renaissance

Walt Disney Feature Animation logo from 1997 to 2006.

Accompanied in theaters by the Mickey Mouse featurette The Prince and the Pauper, The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was Disney's first animated feature sequel and the studio's first film to be fully colored via computer using the CAPS system.43 However, the film did not duplicate the success of The Little Mermaid.43 The next Disney animated feature, Beauty and the Beast, had begun production in London, but was moved back to Burbank after Disney decided to shutter the London satellite office and retool Beauty into a musical-comedy format similar to Mermaid.43 Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were retained to write the song score, though Ashman died before production was completed.43

Debuting first in a work-in-progress version at the 1991 New York Film Festival before its November 1991 wide release, Beauty, directed by Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, was an unprecedented critical and commercial success, and would later be seen as one of the studio's best films.49 The film earned six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, a first for an animated work, winning for Best Song and Best Original Score.5051 Its $145 million box office gross was record-setting, and merchandizing for the film—including toys, cross-promotions, and soundtrack sales—was also lucrative.52

The successes of Mermaid and Beauty established the template for future Disney releases during the 1990s: a musical-comedy format with Broadway-styled songs and tentpole action sequences, buoyed by cross-promotional marketing and merchandizing designed to pull audiences of various ages and types.52 In addition to John Musker, Ron Clements, Kirk Wise, and Gary Torusdale, the new guard of Disney artists creating these films included story artists/directors Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, Chris Sanders, and Brenda Chapman, and lead animators Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Nik Ranieri, Will Finn, and many others.52

Aladdin, released in November 1992, continued the upward trend in Disney's animation success, earning $504 million worldwide at the box office,53 and two more Oscars for Best Song and Best Score.54 Featuring songs by Menken, Ashman, and Tim Rice (who replaced Ashman after his passing) and starring the voice of Robin Williams, Aladdin also established a new trend of hiring celebrity actors and actresses to provide the voices of Disney characters, which had been explored to some degree with The Jungle Book and The Aristocats, but now became standard practice.

In 1994, Disney released The Lion King, an all-animal adventure set in Africa featuring an all-star voice cast which included James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, and Jeremy Irons, and songs written by Tim Rice and pop star Elton John. The Lion King earned $768 million at the worldwide box office,55 to this date a record for a traditionally-animated film,56 earning millions more in merchandizing and promotions.

Aladdin and The Lion King had been the highest-grossing films worldwide in each of their respective release years.5758 With animation becoming again an increasingly important and lucrative part of Disney's business, the company began to expand its operations. The flagship California studio was split into two units and expanded, and ground was broken on a new Disney Feature Animation building located on the Disney lot in Burbank, which was dedicated in 1995.52 The Florida satellite, officially incorporated in 1992,59 was expanded as well, and one of Disney's television animation studios in Paris, France—the former Brizzi Brothers studio—became Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris, where A Goofy Movie (1995) and significant parts of later Disney films were produced.43 Also, Disney began producing lower cost direct to video sequels for its successful animated films using the services of its television animation studios under the name Disney MovieToons, later DisneyToon Studios.52

Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) were also box office successes, but did not do as well as the films of the early '90s (commercially and critically). Pocahontas received Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Original Song.60 The studio then produced the last three animated films; Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). Tarzan won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.61 In October 1999, Dream Quest Images, a special effects studio previously taken by The Walt Disney Company in April 1996 to replace Buena Vista Visual Effects,62 was merged with the computer-graphics operation of Walt Disney Feature Animation to form a division called The Secret Lab.63 In the same year, the division started the production of Dinosaur.

2000s: Second decline and rebound

Competition from other studios drove animator income to an all time high, making traditionally animated features even more costly to produce. Beginning in 2000, massive layoffs brought staff numbers down to 600 employees. That same year, Fantasia 2000, a sequel to Fantasia, Dinosaur, and The Emperor's New Groove, were released. Dinosaur was a box office success, but the other two both had a weak financial reception. The next film from the studio, Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), was not received well commercially or critically. As a result, The Secret Lab division was closed.64 Released two animated features Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet in 2002. While the former was a financial success, the second was a box office failure and led to financial losses for the studio.

In 2003, a reorganization of the animation units promoted by Disney resulted in Walt Disney Feature Animation being transferred to The Walt Disney Studios,3 and DisneyToon Studios control transferred to Walt Disney Feature Animation management.5 That same year, Brother Bear was released to moderate success at the box office, but received mixed to negative reception. Noting the growing success of studios that relied on computer animation like Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios, Disney, led by executive Bob Lambert,65 announced that it would convert Walt Disney Feature Animation into a CGI studio, performing more layoffs and selling off all of its traditional animation equipment.

On January 12, 2004, Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida was shut down,47 and was partially turned into a walk-through attraction, and into theme park management offices. On April 2, 2004, Home on the Range was released as the last traditionally-animated film until 2009, and turned out to be a commercial flop. In 2005, Chicken Little, the first computer-animated film from the studio, was a moderate success in the box office, but became one of the worst-received entries in the canon.

In January 2006, Disney acquired Pixar,66 and as part of the acquisition, executives Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation as President and Chief Creative Officer, respectively.67 In 2014, a visibly emotional Lasseter would later recall (at the celebration after Frozen won two Oscars) that there had been discussions back in 2006 about closing Feature Animation as redundant since Disney now owned Pixar: "There was talk of closing this place, [a]nd we said: 'Not on our watch. We will never allow that to happen.'"68 Earlier, in a 2012 interview after acknowledging such discussions had occurred in 2006, he added: "We were determined to save the legacy of Walt Disney's amazing studio and bring it back up to the creative level it had to be. Saving this heritage was squarely on our shoulders."69

To maintain the separateness of Disney and Pixar (even though they now shared common ownership and senior management), Catmull and Lasseter "drew a hard line" that each studio was solely responsible for its own projects and would not be allowed to borrow personnel from or lend tasks out to the other (no matter the severity of the crisis).7071 That rule ensures that each studio maintains "local ownership" of projects and can be proud of its own work.7071

Catmull and Lasseter also brought to Disney an important idea they had developed at Pixar, the notion of a "filmmaker-driven studio" as opposed to an "executive-driven studio." This meant abolishing Disney's prior system in which a director was forced to constantly respond to a huge number of often contradictory "mandatory notes" from many layers of development executives above the executive producers, in favor of a system closer to peer review where the notes come primarily from fellow producers, directors, and writers.6972

Furthermore, under the command of Lasseter, Circle 7 Animation, a unit previously formed to create direct-to-video sequels to the Disney-owned Pixar properties,7374 was shut down, and 80% of the Circle 7's employees were transferred to Feature Animation.75

In a change of strategy, Lasseter renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation to Walt Disney Animation Studios,76 and re-positioned the studio as an animation house that does both traditional and computer-animated projects. In 2007, the studio released Meet the Robinsons, which obtained a cold response at the box office. DisneyToon Studios was also restructured and began to operate as a separate unit.77 The next film, 2008's Bolt, had the best critical reception of any Disney animated feature since Lilo & Stitch, and became a moderate success.

The Princess and the Frog, the first 2D-animated film in five years, was released in 2009 to positive reception and was also nominated for three Academy Awards, including two for Best Song. Its box office performance—a total of $267 million earned worldwide against a $105 million production budget—was seen as an "underperformance;" the "Princess" aspect of the title was blamed, resulting in future Disney films then in production about princesses being given neutral titles: Rapunzel became Tangled and The Snow Queen became Frozen.7879 Though the directors of Tangled later disputed reports that the title change was a marketing decision.80 Also in 2009, WDAS produced the computer-animated Prep & Landing television special for the Disney-owned ABC television network.

2010s: Resurgence

After the release of The Princess and the Frog, the studio entered production of a new fairytale film with a new twist; a CGI adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's "Rapunzel" tale. Tangled was released in 2010, and became a blockbuster hit. The film earned $591 million in worldwide box office revenue, and became the second most successful film of the studio for three years, but was later surpassed by Frozen; it was well received by critics and audiences alike, and was nominated for a number of accolades, including Best Original Song at the 83rd Academy Awards.

Winnie the Pooh followed in 2011 and was critically acclaimed, but received modest returns at the box office. Wreck-It Ralph was released in 2012, to critical acclaim and commercial success; winning numerous awards, including the Annie, Critics' Choice, and Kids' Choice Awards for Best Animated Feature Film and receiving Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.81 The film earned $471 million in worldwide box office revenue.828384 In addition, the studio won its first Academy Award for a short film in forty-four years with Paperman.85 Directed by John Kahrs, Paperman utilized new software developed in house at the studio called Meander, which merges hand-drawn and computer animation techniques within the same character to create a unique "hybrid." According to Producer Kristina Reed, the studio is continuing to develop the technique for future projects,86 including an animated feature.87

In 2013, the studio laid off fewer than 10 people out of a staff of more than 800.88 Because some were hand-drawn animators, there was exaggerated speculation on some animation blogs that the studio was abandoning traditional animation, an idea that the studio dismissed.89 That same year, Frozen, a CGI adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen tale, was released to widespread acclaim and became a blockbuster hit; it was the 1st Disney animated film to earn over $1 billion in worldwide box office revenue 819091 and it is currently the highest-grossing animated film of all time, surpassing Pixar's Toy Story 3. Frozen also became the first film from Walt Disney Animation Studios to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.92 In addition, Get a Horse!, a new Mickey Mouse cartoon, which combines both black-and-white hand-drawn animation and full color CGI animation, was also released. The studio's next feature, Big Hero 6, a CGI comedy-adventure film based on Marvel's Big Hero 6 comics, is set to be released on November 7, 2014.



John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer, left) and Edwin Catmull (President, right).

Walt Disney Animation Studios is currently managed by Edwin Catmull (President), John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer) and Andrew Millstein (General Manager).6793 Former presidents of the studio include David Stainton (January 2003 – January 2006), Thomas Schumacher (January 2000 – December 2002) and Peter Schneider (1985 – December 1999).4

Other people who also exercised much influence within the studio were Roy E. Disney (1985–2003, Chairman, Walt Disney Feature Animation), Jeffrey Katzenberg (1984–94, Chairman, The Walt Disney Studios), Michael Eisner (1984–2005, CEO, The Walt Disney Company), and Frank Wells (1984–94, President and COO, The Walt Disney Company). Following Roy Disney's passing in 2009, the WDAS headquarters in Burbank was re-dedicated as The Roy E. Disney Animation Building in May 2010.94


Walt Disney Animation Studios' current headquarters, The Roy E. Disney Animation Building, is located in Burbank, California across the street from the main Disney studio lot.

Since 1995, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been headquartered in the Roy E. Disney Animation Building in Burbank, California, across the street from The Walt Disney Studios, where the original Animation building (now housing corporate offices) is located. The Disney Animation building's lobby is capped by a large version of the famous hat from the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Fantasia.

From 1985 to 1995, Disney Animation was previously headquartered in the nearby city of Glendale, just east of Burbank. Previously, feature animation satellite studios were located around the world in Paris and at Disney's Hollywood Studios, one of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World, Florida, before being shut down in 2004. The Hollywood Studios building survives as a show and tour called The Magic of Disney Animation.


Feature films

Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced animated features in a series of animation techniques, including traditional animation, computer animation, and animation combined with live action scenes. The studio's first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released in 1937, and the most recent film, Frozen, was released in 2013. Their upcoming film, Big Hero 6, is set for release on November 7, 2014.

Short films

Since Alice Comedies in 1920s, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced a series of prominent short films, including the Mickey Mouse cartoons and the Silly Symphonies series. Many of these shorts provided a medium for the studio to experiment with new technologies that they would use in their filmmaking process, such as the synchronization of sound in Steamboat Willie, the integration of the three strip Technicolor process in Flowers and Trees, the multiplane camera in The Old Mill, the xerography process in Goliath II, and the hand-drawn/CGI hybrid animation in Paperman and Get a Horse!


Parks and resorts

Walt Disney Animation Studios has occasionally collaborated with Walt Disney Creative Entertainment and Walt Disney Imagineering to create attractions for various Disney theme parks and resorts. Some of these attractions are:

Video games

Walt Disney Animation Studios has occasionally collaborated with Disney Interactive Studios to create video games which are based on the studio's films. Some of these video games are:

Associated productions

Walt Disney Animation Studios has occasionally collaborated with other studios to assist in the production of some animated and live-action features. These films are:

See also

Documentary films about Disney animation


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