Walt Disney Animation Studios turns 90 in colorful fashion

Walt Disney, center, with Bob Gibeaut, left, head of the camera department, and Bob Broughton.
Walt Disney, center, with Bob Gibeaut, left, head of the camera department, and Bob Broughton.

On Oct. 16, 1923, Walt Disney and his brother Roy began the Walt Disney Co. inauspiciously in the rear of a small office at the Holly-Vermont Realty in Los Angeles. It was there that the young brothers, who paid $10 a month for the modest space, began producing their live action/animated series of shorts known as the “Alice Comedies.”

Ninety years later, Walt Disney Animation Studios is a slightly larger and more lucrative operation. Its 53rd animated feature, “Frozen,” just knocked “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” off its box office pedestal and has brought in more than $134 million domestically since its opening on Nov. 22.

And the new animated short that plays in theaters with “Frozen,” called “Get a Horse!,” combines the vintage hand-drawn 2-D, black-and-white style of the early Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons — even using Disney’s voice as Mickey — with computer-generated 3-D color.

The studio is throwing itself an invitation-only party Tuesday night at the Disney Legends Plaza at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank to celebrate the anniversary. Guests and speakers include John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios; Ed Catmull, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios president; and Disney filmmakers, artists and vocal talent.


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Lasseter said of Disney: “His work was so beautiful and there was so much heart with appealing memorable characters. He was constantly pushing the technology of the storytelling and the music was so integral and special. More than any other film producer in history, what he produced is timeless. When you see up on the big screen a restored version of, say, ‘Bambi,’ there is nothing about it that’s dated.”

And it was Disney who inspired Chris Buck, who directed “Frozen” with Jennifer Lee, to become an animator.

“The very first movie I saw in the theaters was ‘Pinocchio,”’ said Buck, who began at the studio in character animation on 1981’s “The Fox and the Hound.” “I fell in love with that movie, the characters and the music. I think what it did for me most was take me on such a journey. It took me on a roller coaster of emotions. To me as a kid I thought: If ‘Pinocchio’ could survive all of that, then I can survive some of my day-to-day issues.”

Both Lasseter and Buck trained with several of the veteran animators — affectionately known as the Nine Old Men — who worked with Disney on landmark animated features including 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” 1940’s “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio,” 1941’s “Dumbo’ and 1942’s “Bambi.”

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“Chris and I both went to CalArts in the character animation program,” said Lasseter. “We were taught by those great Disney artists that they had pulled out of retirement. These were the guys who helped Walt Disney kind of create this art form of animation. They were there from the beginning. And when we first went to the Disney studio, many of those Nine Old Men were still working. Now I recognize exactly what they were doing. They were handing the torch to us.”

The animators, he said, “would sit and talk to us for hours, teach us and tell us stories. I devoured every story. I realized that so much of my career and skills as a leader has come from those stories about how they worked with Walt Disney.”

Buck recalled with much affection being trained by Eric Larson, who created the character of the cat Figaro in “Pinocchio.”

“Here I was working with this man I idolized,” said Buck. “He was my mentor when I first started as a trainee. I think for me it was really the connection to Walt. I look on that as a very, very special time.”

Just as the torch was passed to them, Lasseter and Buck are continuing Disney’s legacy with young animators.

“When Ed and I came in 2006 to start leading the studio, I turned to all the artists and said I want you to aim high,” Lasseter noted. “I want to you to aim higher than you possibly think you could reach, because Walt Disney’s name is going to be on this picture. We have to make movies worthy of having his name on these films.”