Welcome to Burbank, Florida

A look inside Disney’s Florida studio.

(Originally published in Animato #19, Winter 1990.)

The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, which joined the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World last May, is a place where pieces of movie legend – from Dorothy’s ruby slippers to the piano on which Sam played it again to Hollywood Boulevard itself – have somehow magically landed in central Florida. Tucked in one corner of the place is one of the most significant Hollywood icons that has made the trip: an animation studio making Disney cartoons with classic characters like Mickey Mouse and new stars like Roger Rabbit.

While the attraction opened its doors to Disney World visitors only this year, in one sense its roots stretch back to the 1930s, when Disney first began having to explain that it did not offer tours of its animation studio. (An earlier stab at addressing this problem grew from a proposed playground on the Burbank studio property into Disneyland.) Planning for the Disney-MGM Studios project began not long after the present Disney studio management led by Michael Eisner assumed power, and the resulting park combines facets of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center into a theme park which complements its two neighbors on the Disney property (If the Magic Kingdom’s greatest appeal is to children, and EPCOT is of particular interest to grownups, Disney-MGM seems to be aimed most squarely at teenagers and young adults. Of course, all three parks are perfectly capable of captivating visitors of any age.)

The park’s attractions range from the purely fanciful–a Hollywood Boulevard inspired more by every movie fan’s dreams than the actual street, an elaborate ride through great moments in film history – to a working film production center where visitors can discover how movies are made. It is here that the animation studio tour is located, along with a “Backstage Movie Tour” built around soundstages and sets where live  action television programs, movies, and commercials are filmed.

The animation building really holds two intertwined operations: a Disney-MGM Theme Park attraction – “The Magic of Disney Animation” – and an animation studio – Walt Disney Animation Florida – that will be producing animated shorts and featurettes as well as other special projects. The attraction, which makes the actual animation studio the centerpiece of an experience that includes films and an art exhibit, does a fine job of taking visitors behind the scenes of Disney animation. While there is humor, in the form of a film and several short video presentations featuring Robin Williams, the overall tone is scholarly, almost reverent; the mood is reminiscent of Frank Thomas and Oliver Johnston’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life or one of the other big art books on the studio’s work. (Interestingly, the animation studio tour is much more serious and less glitzy than the live-action studio tour that sits next door on the Disney-MGM lot.)

Walt Disney Animation Florida’s staff had to be built from scratch, a not-inconsiderable task given that the state does not have a natural abundance of professional animators. (Although once upon a time there was another major animation studio in the state; see this issue’s “Koko Komments” for more information on the Fleischer studio’s period there.)

The staff includes eight animators from a variety of backgrounds: Mark Henn came to the studio after contributing to every Disney animated feature from The Fox and the Hound to The Little Mermaid (for which he animated many of the title character’s scenes). Brigitte Hartley arrived a veteran of the London TV-commercial industry and an animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And Alex Kuperschmidt has been working as an artist at Walt Disney World for several years, including as an animator for a small animation group which has since been disbanded. The staff also includes artists “on loan” from the California studio for special projects, like Mark Kausler, whose past credits range from Yellow Submarine to early Ralph Bakshi features to Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters; he put his experience from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Tummy Trouble to use during several months at the studio spent working as an animator and storyman on the studio’s first theatrical cartoon, Roller Coaster Rabbit.

Much of the staff is made up of young artists new to the animation business, many of them graduates of Disney’s California studio’s internship program. Disney Animation Florida has also begun its own apprenticeship system, drawing on students from five art schools across the country, including CalArts and Sarasota, Florida’s Ringling School of Art and Design. Ten to fifteen seniors and juniors participate in each training session, working independently at first, and eventually graduating to inbetweening and other production work on the studio’s films. Some of the best artists who have completed the program are offered positions as assistants; some of the most promising assistants are being groomed to become animators on future projects. “They’re all wildly talented as artists,” says Brigitte Hartley of the students in the program, “It’s great to have that around.”

The facilities these artists work in are new, nicely-equipped and organized, and attractive. “Well, it’s such a beautiful studio,” Mark Kausler says “It’s just a great place to work, a beautiful environment.” The studio, with a staff of about eighty, is small in comparison to the California Disney facilities, and compact enough that visitors can peer into each department from story to editing without tiring their feet. Mark Henn comments that “It’s nice being in a smaller group like this, where everything is at your fingertips: Camera, editorial…everything is close at hand. Being a tight group like this, hopefully you’ll have better communication, which is a major problem not just in animation, but in any business of this size.”

There is also the odd fact that, unlike any other animation artists in history, these ones work under the close inspection of hundreds of Florida tourists. (Not every nook and cranny of the studio is visible to guests, but neither are there great amounts of space that aren’t apparent to them.) The studio is soundproofed off from the visitor area, so sound isn’t much of a problem, except for video monitors that continuously play the Walter Cronkite-Robin Williams loops. Some of the employees have taken to shielding these out with the help of Walkman-type tape players. Most artists adjust quickly to the faces watching them; their communications with visitors are mostly limited to a few funny signs taped to the window and the occasional suction cup-tipped dart shot at the glass.

Having decided to operate a cartoon studio as part of the Disney-MGM Theme Park, Disney was faced with the question of what to do with the animation it produced. At first, the plans were for the studio to make theatrical featurettes starring Mickey Mouse and other classic Disney characters, something the studio had intended to do ever since the success of Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983. Using Mickey and his crowd would serve another purpose: audiences are probably more interested in seeing artists at work on cartoons with famous characters than new ones they aren’t familiar with.

The studio will be doing this: its second major project is a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper with Mickey in both title roles and many of his friends in the supporting cast. During the Summer of 1988, however, Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened and caused a sensation, and suddenly Disney had its new star in decades who was perfectly suited to short-subject parts. And so Disney Animation Florida’s first project for theatrical release became Roller Coaster Rabbit, a seven-minute Roger Rabbit cartoon which will reportedly open with Touchstone’s Dick Tracy next Summer. One Roger short, Tummy Trouble, had already been produced in California, with some ink-and-paint work done in the Florida studio; both it and Roller Coaster Rabbit were directed by Rob Minkoff.

Roller Coaster Rabbit’s story was conceived and storyboarded in California, along with Tummy Trouble and three other Roger stories which may be animated in the future: Hare in My Soup, Pressed and Impressed, and Beach Blanket Bunny. (The animation tour’s story room, incidentally, is the one area that is at this time a mock-up rather than a real, operating facility; The Prince and the Pauper was also storyboarded in Burbank.)

The cartoon takes Roger, along with Baby Herman and his mother, to a county fair, the atmosphere of which Mark Kausler compares to the animated sequences of Disney’s So Dear to My Heart. As in Somethin’s Cookin’ (the Roger short that opened Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Tummy Trouble, the storyline concerns Roger’s hapless attempts to save Herman and himself from perilous situations, of which the fair proves an extremely rich source. Roger pursues the baby through a dart game and shooting gallery, around a ferris wheel (in a scene that may not make it into the final film), and into the bullpen home of a bull who resembles a more belligerent cousin of Disney’s version of Ferdinand. The climactic scene comes when Roger and Herman find their way onto the title’s roller coaster, which is computer animated a la the clockwork scene in The Great Mouse Detective; and as in Tummy Trouble, there is a surprise ending incorporating live-action footage. (During the cartoon, Jessica Rabbit makes a cameo as the operator of an understandably-popular kissing booth.)

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s animation and Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit is done in the style of the mythical Maroon Cartoons studio, which Alex Kuperschmidt describes as “taking the best of American cartoon forms and combining them all in one…a hybrid of Tex Avery’s sensibility with a Disney quality.” Avery’s influence is felt in the visual style – the look somewhat resembles that of his early films for MGM – but most importantly in the; films’ gags. Every time Roger Rabbit does a take, it’s a loving tribute to Tex Avery and his importance in the history of American animation.

But Kausler says that the exaggerated gags are “the only thing that’s survived from the forties. Everything else is like a feature; Roger is really a feature character. Not just a crazy little character like Droopy or the buzzards in What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard [Tex Avery, 1943], which he somewhat resembles. He’s got a little more depth to him than that.” (Although Brigitte Hartley, whose work on Roller Coaster Rabbit focused on Baby Herman, laughs that she “worked on Roger in the film [Who Framed Roger Rabbit], but he’s become too wacky. I can’t keep up with him.”

The production process on the short, too, bears little resemblance to the traditiona1 cartoon-making system, in which budgets were tight and the story was planned down to the last detail before animation began. Mark Kausler estimates that only one out of every four animation drawings done for Tummy Trouble ended up on the screen, and suspects the ratio on Roller Coaster Rabbit to be similar. “It’s much more of a live-action approach,” he says. “They think in terms of shooting ratios, how much stuff can be done over, rewrites at the last minute, just like in live-action filmmaking.”

Mark Henn agrees, and notes Walt Disney Studios’ Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s influence on how Disney animation is produced in both California and Florida. “It’s a kind of a hybrid of live-action and the way Disney used to make films. Knowing that in one sense nothing is ever locked, and there’s always room for improvement, but with this hurry-up, we’ve-got-to-get-it-done-yesterday kind of pace. In a lot of ways, it’s good, because you don’t have to wait four or five years to see your finished work. You don’t spend so much time on it that you lose your objectivity.”

The work pace is much brisker on the Roger cartoons and new features than the leisurely gait that Disney animation had settled into in the 1960s and 1970s, but in many ways the attention to detail on Roller Coaster Rabbit is exceptionally high. (The Roger shorts are by far the most expensive short cartoons ever produced.) Mark Kausler: “Everything is on a higher level. The cleanup is a lot more refined; they don’t just take the animators’ drawings and Xerox them. It goes through a whole different stage: the cleanup people have to make it very, very precise, and add all the little things – like his pants cuffs falling through, what happens to his ears and hair, the amount of delay on every part of his body. Essentially, you’re using two sets of animators for every scene.”

This painstaking work pays off: while the animation is filmed using the Xerox camera, which usually results in a rougher line quality, Roller Coaster Rabbit has a slick, hand-inked look straight out of the 1940s.

While much of what’s new about the approach to production taken on the cartoon is also taking place on the Disney animation features, there are some notable differences. On the features, animators are typically “cast,” with each animator spending most of his or her time on a particular character’s or characters’ appearances throughout the movie. Animation on the Roger Rabbit cartoons however, is assigned primarily by scene, with each animator being responsible for a scene and all the characters in it.

Mark Henn draws some further contrasts between animating on a Roger short and his work on the features: “It’s a very different style of animation. It’s very broad; it’s very action-oriented, very fast-paced. It’s kind of as if you were taking a very well-known dramatic actor and putting him in a comedy role, or vice-versa. It’s putting on a slightly different hat for me, which is good; I like the challenge of doing something different.”

“It differs from the other studio in that our organization is a little primitive, compared with California,” notes Kausler. “We’re still developing, and we don’t really have a smooth, efficient way to work, because we haven’t done enough pictures yet. I think when we get more production in, we’ll finally get it up to speed where everybody’s comfortable. Right now we’re going in fits and starts.” (At this time, the Orlando studio’s work must be approved in Burbank, necessitating plane trips back and forth for the directors and a certain amount of further delay.)

Chances are that the studio will get the opportunity to achieve the development Kausler refers to: attendance figures at Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park are said to have surpassed even the company’s immodest expectations, and that The Magic of Disney Animation attraction and Disney Animation Florida will be around for many years to come seems assured. Exactly what the studio will be doing is harder to say. There are as of yet no long-term plans (no public ones, anyway), and what projects the studio gets is likely to depend on what needs doing at any given time.

The immediate future, after Roller Coaster Rabbit and The Prince and the Pauper, will probably include more featurettes starring Mickey and the gang, and perhaps more Roger Rabbit cartoons, if Disney and Spielberg choose to continue their collaboration on the character. As the need arises for commercials and other special projects involving Disney characters, they may be done there as well; a McDonald’s ad featuring characters from The Little Mermaid was the first job completed at the studio.

There may also be some work on feature films: the studio has already helped out on the the ink-and-paint for The Little Mermaid (and received its own set of credits in the film for doing so). Mark Henn will be doing some animation from Florida on The Rescuers Down Under, in addition to his work on The Prince and the Pauper, and studio officials have reportedly considered using the Florida studio as a unit on upcoming features.

The ultimate project for the studio, of course, would be a feature film of its very own. Such a task would require major expansions of both the staff and the studio facilities, neither of which is currently planned. Mark Henn for one, would like to see it happen, and calls it his long-term goal.

A Disney animated feature produced entirely in a state other than California is an odd thought, but no odder than the mere idea of a Disney studio outside of that state would have been a few years ago. Florida won’t even be the only home of a satellite Disney cartoon studio: the company recently announced plans for a second Disney-MGM park at Euro Disneyland outside of Paris, which will also have its own animation facility

Whatever the future holds, there will be a lot of cartoon fans watching with interest what goes on at Walt Disney Animation Florida. And possibly ducking a well-aimed plastic dart shot in their direction.

Sidebar: The Magic of Disney Animation: A Guided Tour

The first thing visitors to The Magic of Disney Animation lay their eyes upon when entering the attraction is an imposing case filled with thirteen of the Academy Awards the Disney studio has won for animated films over the decades. The case is the centerpiece of a small but impressive museum of Disney animation art and other memorabilia from the studio’s origins to The Little Mermaid, the contents of which will change every six months.

The gallery also serves as a waiting area for Back to Never Land, a film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams that introduces visitors to the basics of animated-film production. This film is a delight which, like the attraction as a whole, entertains and educates in equal parts. Williams gets changed into an animated character – one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, to be exact – as Cronkite briefly explains each step of the animation process. The film’s animation, directed by Jerry Rees, is a nicely-done pastiche of the Peter Pan style. Williams is hilarious, and Cronkite is an agreeably avuncular host whose demeanor and voice bear a startling resemblance to those of another Walt who used to give similar presentations about Disney animation on TV. (Back to Never Land was, incidentally, produced outside the Disney studio by Bob Rogers.)

After the film is over, visitors enter the animation studio tour itself, which is conducted along a raised, glassed-in area from which each studio department can be viewed in sequence. The tour, accompanied by video monitors playing further Cronkite/Williams explanatory material, is almost unique among Disney theme park attractions in that it is self-guided; visitors are invited to stay as long as they wish and watch artists and other employees at work. Stops on the tour include story, animation, clean up, effects, backgrounds, photocopying process (aka Xerox), paint lab, ink and paint, camera, and editing. The studio is on a staggered work schedule, so that visitors will find employees at work during most of the park’s open hours, including nights and- weekends, although animation and ink and paint are the only two departments in which workers are almost always visible. These are also the departments in which park guests are most likely to want to take their time: watching the artists laboring over animation and cels for films which won’t be released for many months is fascinating, and like most animation studios, the place is filled with gag drawings, memorabilia, and other interesting clutter that’s fun to take note of. (Animation fans are especially likely to want to linger in the place and take in the little details to be seen, like model sheets, copies of books on the work of Disney and other studios, and even, on one artist’s desk, an inscribed sketch of Bugs Bunny by Chuck Jones.)

At the end of the touring area is a small theater area in which a video program featuring film clips and interviews with Disney animators is shown; like the art display, it also serves as a painless waiting area, this time for a concluding film show of classic Disney animation clips in an adjacent theater. (As is common with such compilations, the film – which oddly ignores the short subjects almost entirely in favor of brief snippets of the animated features -is not terribly satisfying. It would be nice to see it replaced with a complete Disney short, which might change on a rotating basis.)

From there, visitors exit back into the Disney-MGM park, by way, if they choose, of an elegant shop which sells mementos including books, posters, and greeting cards, authentic animation paper and pencils, and production art and limited-edition cels costing thousands of dollars. (Animation fans with long memories may grow nostalgic for the long-gone days when Disneyland’s Art Corner sold choice cels from the 1950s features for a few dollars apiece.)

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