Drawing on New Image : For the CalArts animation students, the Disney connection is a double-edged sword. Now efforts are being made to cut the department’s isolation from the rest of the school.


More than 300 CalArts animation students packed a screening of Disney’s new film “Aladdin” the other night. They didn’t attend merely out of admiration.

John Musker, the movie’s co-producer and co-director, came from the institute’s character animation department. So did several of his supervising animators. So did more than 50 other animators who worked on the film.

The connections don’t stop there. It was the Disney family that paid $36 million to build the Valencia campus in 1970. And it was for the benefit of the Walt Disney Co. that administrators created the character animation curriculum, with its heavy dose of Disney-style techniques.


“Everyone knows that Disney set up this department,” said Miles Thompson, one of the students who attended the screening. “Everyone thinks this is a foot in the door.”

In fact, the Disney connection draws students to the department and has made it nationally prominent. But the relationship can be double-edged: some at the institute worry that its courses will be perceived as merely a studio farm team, a training ground for high-paid draftsmen willing to do the grunt work to produce Disney features.

“The knock is that CalArts people have great wrist talent and nothing more,” said Dan McLaughlin, who directs UCLA’s animation workshop.

Such criticism has stung a school that is known for cutting-edge work in dance, painting and music.

“We’re an art school, not a trade school,” said Glenn Vilppu, the acting director of CalArts’ character animation department and a former Disney employee. “Our students are trained as filmmakers.”

Vilppu lists former students who don’t work for Disney: various “Ren & Stimpy” animators and a handful of directors for “The Simpsons.” Tim Burton started with Disney but went on to direct such live-action films as “Batman,” “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

Still, any discussion of CalArts animation inevitably returns to the subject of Disney.

“It was almost like the NFL draft,” recalled Musker who, like many students, was hired away from the institute before he had a chance to graduate. “Disney would look at the students’ work and pluck people out.”

CalArts opened as a daring experiment, a school that had grown out of the ‘60s and sought to make its own rules. Walt Disney envisioned a place with no walls between the various arts. Students would invent new forms by blending old ones: music with painting, film with dance. He died before the realization of this dream, but his family carried on with his intentions.

Jules Engel, an abstract artist and filmmaker, was summoned to create animation courses at the fledgling art school. “They told me they wanted something that would open up all avenues for animation,” Engel recalled. He designed the experimental animation department and remains its dean more than two decades later.

Among the students who have emerged from that department are Thom Mount, who produced the 1988 Mel Gibson film “Tequila Sunrise,” and Caroline Heyward, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 1983 animated film “The Sound of Rain.”

But the avant-garde and often abstract work emanating from such students was not the sort of thing that could be incorporated in a traditional Disney film. Students and professors from that era recall that the studio was low on animators at the time and anxious for the school to fill the gap.

“I had a bit of pressure from outside about that,” Engel said. “Not to be naming names, but they felt inasmuch as Disney put up all the money for this place, we should satisfy their needs.”

So, in 1974, CalArts created the separate character animation department and tailored the curriculum, at least in part, to the Disney style of classical drawing and full-character action. Continuing donations from the Disney family have helped make this new department one of the largest and best equipped in the country.

“We definitely had a focus in what we were being trained for,” said Dave Pruiksma, who attended CalArts in 1979 and now works as a supervising animator for Disney. “All the classes were taught by Disney animators. It was like getting in touch with this incredible legacy. They would tell anecdotes about the studio and talk about Walt Disney as if he were still living.”

This focus created something of a rift among a student body that prided itself on iconoclasm. During the early years of CalArts, reports of sex, drugs and nude swimming on campus overshadowed artistic exploits. According to newspaper reports, the Disney family grew so frustrated and embarrassed that they offered USC, then Pepperdine, $10 million to take the institute off their hands.

“The people in animation were a lot more strait-laced than the uninhibited fine artists,” Pruiksma recalled.

It was an odd position for a department that was, in physical terms, located at the very heart of the maze-like campus.

“Disney was looked upon by the other students with this weird mixture of dislike and hate. We were looked upon as a trade school in the midst of this highfalutin art school,” Musker said. “So we banded together.”

Such isolationism served the department well. The students say they drove each other and learned from each other. From these early years, a web of former students has moved into the industry.

Sixty-seven of them worked on “Beauty and the Beast.” Others inhabit animation houses such as Film Roman, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. Current graduates encounter a network by which they can find work.

Yet, ironically, the character animation department was missing out on Walt Disney’s dream, his notion of blending the arts.

Vilppu oversees the character animation department with a casual benevolence, referring to his students as “wacky guys.” He says one of his most important tasks is to bolster the confidence of young men and women who “were considered jerks in high school. They drew cartoons and no one took them seriously.”

As acting director, he has sought to tear down the walls that were built between his and other departments.

And he is re-emphasizing an overall approach to animation. As in other such programs around the country, CalArts animation students learn every aspect of making an animated film, from developing a story and characters to shooting, sound mixing and editing.

Another thing hasn’t changed: young animators still enroll at CalArts in hopes of landing a job at Disney. The studio, for its part, has a policy against discussing its relationship with CalArts or any of the other animation schools from which it recruits. But that doesn’t change what the students think.

“When I came out of high school, all I knew was Disney,” said Eric Koenig, a third-year student. “A lot of us are Disneyites.”