Walt Disney Animation Studios is the name of the flagship animation studio of The Walt Disney Company.
1923-1928: Origins & Early Years
Kansas City, Missouri native 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, starting in 1927 through Universal Pictures. After the first year's worth of Oswalds, Walt Disney went to New York to renew his contract with Winkler Pictures, but Charles Mintz, who had taken over the business after marrying Margaret Winkler, attempted to force Disney to accept a lower advance per short. Disney refused, and Mintz began set up his own animation studio to produce Oswald cartoons, having signed up most of Disney's staff to come under Mintz' employ after Disney's contract was done. 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 remaining 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 ipressions when previewed in limited engagements during the summer of 1928. For the third Mickey cartoon, however, Disney collaborated with musician Carl Stalling and businessman Pat Powers (businessman, 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 earlier Mickeys had soundtracks created for them as well, and all future Mickeys were produced in sound. The Mickey Mouse series, distributed by Powers through Celebrity Productions, quickly became the most popular cartoon series in the United States.
1929-1934: Sound Cartoons & Snow White
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. In 1930, disputes over finances between Disney and Powers led to Disney's studio, reincoporated the year before as Walt Disney Productions, signing a new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures, and Powers signing away Ub Iwerks, who bean producing cartoons at his own studio. Columbia distributed Disney's shorts for two years before Walt Disney began production on his first feature-legnth animated film in 1934. 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, with Silly Symphnies such as The Goddess of Spring (1934) and The Old Mill serving as experimetation grounds for new techniques, including the animation of realistic human figures, special effects animation, and the use of multiplane camera, an invention which split animation artwork layers into severla planes, allowing the camera to appear to move dimensionally through an animated scene. Snow White cost Disney a then-expensive sum of $1.4 million to complete, and was an unprecedented success when released in February 1938, becoming the highest-grossing film of that time.
1935-1949: Pinocchio, Fantasia & WWII
Buoyed by Snow White's success, Disney began developing and producing more features. The second Disney feature, Pinocchio, Snow White was followed by Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, neither of which was a financial success when first released. Much of the character animation on these productions and all subsequent ones until the late 1970s was supervised by a braintrust of animators Walt Disney dubbed the "Nine Old Men", many of whom also served as directors on the Disney features: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, and Marc Davis. 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 at the studio worked on the features. A bitter union strike in mid-1941 resulted in an exodus of several animation professionals from the studio, from top-level animators such as Art Babbitt and Bill Tylta to artists more known for later works such as Frank Tashlin, John Hubley, Maurice Noble, and Walt Kelly. The inexpensive Dumbo, was released just before the United States' entry into World War II in 1941 and became a box office success, while Bambi did not see release until mid-1942. Work on Bambi's intended follow-ups Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan was put on hold, and the entire Disney studio instead focused on shorts, military training films, and war propaganda such as the live-action/animated feature Victory Through Air Power (1943). Beginning with Saludos Amigos in 1943, the Disney studio began producing inexpensive "package films": features made up of one or more short subjects tied together by live-action or animated framing material. Other features in this vein included The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Song of the South (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
The feature animation department was downsized considerably after the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and a transition from hand-done inking of cels to xerography. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was Disney's first feature to make use of xerography, which used Xerox technology to help speed up production time. In 1962, Walt Disney shut down the studio's short subject department, focusing its attention mainly on television and feature film production (the studio would periodically produce featurettes and shorts on a sporadic basis, including films starring Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Roger Rabbit).
1963-1966: Walt's Death
1970-1986: Post-Walt, Rival studios & Corporate reconstruction
After Walt Disney's death in 1966, the animation department continued with the films The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973). During the production of Robin Hood and The Rescuers (1977), the aging members of the Nine Old Men began training replacements in anticipation of retirement. Led by Eric Larson, the training program would bring artists such as Don Bluth, Glen Keane, John Musker, and Ron Clements to the forefront of the studio's talent roster. Following two films with a mix of the younger and older animators, The Rescuers (1977) and the live-action/animated Pete's Dragon (1978), 11 of the younger animators, led by Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy, all resigned, claiming that the Disney animation studio had lost its way. Bluth went on to found his own studio, Don Bluth Productions, which produced its first film, the mildly successful The Secret of NIMH, in 1982. Don Bluth Productions became Disney's main competitor in the animation industry during the 1980s and early 1990s. During the production of Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), the aging members of the Walt Disney studio's longtime core group of animators, known as the Nine Old Men, began training replacements in anticipation of retirement. In 1979, during the production of The Fox and the Hound, 11 members of the new guard of animators, led by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy, left the Disney studio, wanting to produce movies they felt were more in line with the style and quality of movies of Disney's golden years of the 1930s and 1940s, left Disney, taking 11 Disney animators with him to start his own rival studio, Don Bluth Productions. With 17% of the animators now gone, the release of The Fox and the Hound was delayed six months to June 1981. Don Bluth Productions eventually became Disney Animation's main competitor during the 1980s and early 1990s. The remaining old guard Disney animators retired after the production of The Fox and the Hound (1981), and the new animators - including newer recruits such as John Lasseter (who joined Pixar Animation Studios after being fired from Disney in 1983) and Andreas Deja - forged ahead on their own. Walt Disney Productions underwent a major shakeup in the 1980s after narrowly escaping a hostile takeover attempt from Saul Steinberg. Michael Eisner, formerly of Paramount Pictures, became CEO in 1984, and was joined by his Paramount associate Jeffrey Katzenberg, while Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., became president. After the disappointing box office performance of the 1985 PG-rated animated feature The Black Cauldron, the future of the animation department was in jeopardy. Going against a thirty year studio policy, the company founded a TV animation division, and considered shuttering its legacy animation studio. In the interest of saving what he believed to be the studio's core business, Roy E. Disney persuaded Eisner to let him supervise the animation department in the hopes of improving its fortunes. Eisner agreed, making Roy E. Disney chairman of the newly reorganized Walt Disney Feature Animation. Peter Schneider became the first president of Feature Animation at the studio.
At this time, the entire animation staff was moved out of the Animation building on the Disney studio lot in Burbank, which was instead occupied by management and television production staff. The animation staff relocated to the Air Way complex, a former air hanger 20 miles away in Glendale.
The next feature for the restructured WDFA team 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, the film was a moderate box office success. Later the same year, Universal Pictures 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. Two years later, the studios released Oliver & Company and The Land Before Time on the same weekend. The latter's opening weekend gross of over $7,526,000 broke all records, becoming the top grossing opening weekend for an animated feature. The film out-grossed An American Tail and became the highest-grossing animated film at that time.   In 1988, Disney collaborated with Steven Spielberg, a long-time animation fan, to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit a live action/animation hybrid which featured animated characters from several 1930s/1940s studios interacting with live actors. The film was a significant critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards and renewing interest in theatrical animated cartoons. Several WDFA members were loaned out to Richard Williams and Dale Baer's animation teams to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
1989-1999: The Renaissance era
Disney had been developing The Little Mermaid off and on as an animated property since the 1930s. By 1987, after the success of Roger Rabbit, the studio decided to make it into an animated Broadway-like musical. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who worked on Broadway productions such as Little Shop of Horrors wrote the songs and score for the film, with Ashman also producing and heavily involved in the story development process. The film was released on November 17, 1989 and garnered a higher weekend gross than Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend. It went on to beat The Land Before Time's record and became the highest-grossing animated film at that time, earning $89 million at the US box office. Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success and received two Academy Awards, for Best Song and Best Score.
The Rescuers Down Under was released one year later (sequel to the 1977 Rescuers). The Rescuers Down Under was a box office dissappointment, notable for use of CAPS, first 100% digital film. Then came Beauty and the Beast, released in 1991, often considered to be the crown jewel of not just the Disney Renaissance but of all the Disney animated films. It was the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, an accomplishment which has not been match since Pixar's 2009 film Up although it lost out to The Silence of the Lambs. However, the film won Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) at the Golden Globe Awards and won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. The film was dedicated to Howard Ashman, who died earlier in the year , before the film's release. It became the most successful animated feature in motion picture history up to that time, with domestic box office revenues exceeding $140 million. As of 2009, ties with Disney/Pixar's WALL-E for the record of animated film with most Academy Award nominations (six). Aladdin and The Lion King followed in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Both films were highest worldwide grosses of their release year, but The Lion King became the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time and remains the highest grossing traditionally animated film in history. Along with that, the films won Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast. Howard Ashman wrote several songs for Aladdin before his death, but only three were finally used in the film. Tim Rice joined the project and completed the score and songs with Alan Menken. Tim Rice went on to collaborate with Elton John in The Lion King.
Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were also in the Disney Renaissance. Despite mature subjects and appealing more towards adults than children both were box-office successes and received general approval and acclaim. Pocahontas received two Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Original Song for Colors of the Wind. Both were successful with songs written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. (Pocahontas was into a critical success, Hunchback was not a commercial success; Although Pocahontas was met with Mixed reception, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was met with favorable reception) Disney continued on with successes from Hercules with songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel, (Hercules was not a success) Mulan with score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, and Tarzan with songs by Phil Collins.
2000-2004: Post-Renaissance era
By 2000, the Disney Renaissance had come to an end. Disney continued to release small successes such as Dinosaur, The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but also suffered box office bombs with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. The other films, Fantasia 2000, Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear received critical acclaim and were box office successes.
However, the expansion coincided with a decline in both revenue and quality of the department's output. Competition from other studios drove animator salaries to a high level, making traditional animated features a costly proposition, and beginning in 2000, massive layoffs brought staff numbers down to 600. Deciding that the reason for its unsuccessful box office draw was the fact that they still used traditional animation methods in a time when Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Pictures and Blue Sky Studios were producing highly successful CGI films, Disney converted WDFA into a CGI studio, performing more layoffs and selling off its traditional animation equipment. The Paris studio was shut down in 2003, and the Orlando studio followed suit in 2004, which was turned into an attraction.
2004-2008: Pixar and Lasster takes charge
Despite Pixar's 2006 acquisition by Disney, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios continue to maintain separate studios and release their films under separate banners, with former Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter serving as both studios' president and Chief Creative Officer, respectively. Both were brought in to reinvigorate the Walt Disney Animation Studios, whose prestige had been flagging over the last six films The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Walt Disney Animation Studios once announced that Home on the Range would be the last 2D-traditional animated film. From Chicken Little onwards, all future Walt Disney Animation Studios films were said to be animated with CGI. This order would only be reversed five years later with the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog. The films in between Home on the Range and The Princess and the Frog (Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt) were done in CGI (mention these in order).
Today, the Disney Studios create primarily computer-animated features. In 1995, Disney partnered with Pixar to create Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature. Today much of Pixar's films have garnered the same box office results and critical acclaim that 1990's Disney Renaissance films had, such as Finding Nemo and Wall-E. In 2005, Chicken Little, the Disney Studios first full CGI animated feature, received mixed reviews from critics though it performed well at the box office, as did their second CGI feature in 2007, Meet the Robinsons. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for US$7.4 billion, and promoted Pixar's co-founder John Lasseter to oversee all of Disney's animated projects. In 2007, the studio released the animated short How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. In 2008, Disney's first CGI feature made after the Pixar acquisition, Bolt, was released to critical acclaim and modest box office success.
2009-present: The New era
In late 2009 DisneyToon Studios, the former television animation satellite studio with previous operations in Australia, Paris and Burbank was rolled into Walt Disney Animation Studios as a division focussed on direct-to-video features based upon Disney Consumer Products franchises, television programs, and original properties.
In March 2010, Disney released a feature length documentary called Waking Sleeping Beauty. The film chronicles the events of Disney Animation Studios during the late 1980s to mid 1990s. It features topics such as the Disney Renaissance, and it includes early footage of notables such as Tim Burton, John Lasseter, and Roy E. Disney.
The following year, Disney animation released it's first hand-drawn film since 2004's Home on the Range: The Princess and the Frog. The film reached critical acclaim but the box office was lower than the studio expected bringing in $267,045,057 worldwide. In 2010, the studio released Tangled. The film gained a widespread of positive reviews and a box office hit. It is also the most expensive animated film ever made costing $260m, but got over $591 million worldwide. In 2011, the studio released Winnie the Pooh. Due to the film being released on the same date as another highly anticipated feature, the film's box office was low, however the film gained universal acclaim and became the best reviewed animated film of 2011. Along with the film, the studio released the short The Ballad of Nessie with it. On November 2, 2012, the studio would break the box-office record for the most money made on opening weekend for the entire Disney animated canon with the computer animated Wreck-It Ralph, along with the short Paperman. The studio plans to release Frozen, its' 53rd full-length animated film (and the fifth in the canon to be done with CGi animation), on November 27th, 2013.
In April 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios laid off fewer than 10 people out of a staff of more than 800. Because a majority of them were hand-drawn animators, there was exaggerated speculation on some animation blogs that the studio was abandoning traditional animation once again, an idea that the studio dismissed.
The Animation studio is noted for creating a number of now-standard innovations in the animation industry, including:
- The multiplane camera (for Snow White, but first used in the Academy-award winning short "The Old Mill")
- The realistic animation of special effects and human characters (for Snow White)
- Advanced composition processes to combine live-action and animated elements using color film (for The Three Caballeros)
- The use of xerography in animation to transfer drawings to cels as opposed to ink-tracing (developed for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but first tested in a few scenes in Sleeping Beauty and first fully used in the Academy-award nominated short Goliath II)
- The use of all-digital methods for painting, compositing, and recording animated features with CAPS (Computer Animation Production System)
- The technique for rendering animations in a painterly style (Tangled)
- The technique for blending traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI animation with Meander (Paperman)
- Among its significant achievements are:
- The first animated feature in Technicolor (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
- The first major motion picture in stereophonic sound (Fantasia)
- The first animated feature in CinemaScope (Lady and the Tramp)
- The first large format animated film (the 70 mm Sleeping Beauty)
- The first Disney animated feature to use computer-generated imagery (The Black Cauldron)
- The first Disney animated feature making heavy use of CGI computer animation (Oliver & Company)
- The first Disney animated feature to use digital coloring (The Little Mermaid, which introduced Disney's CAPS process)
- The first feature film to be shot using a 100% digital process (The Rescuers Down Under, CAPS)
- The first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the only nominee for Best Picture to be traditionally-animated (Beauty and the Beast)
- The first animated feature to gross $200 million, and the highest-grossing film of 1992 (Aladdin)
- The highest grossing traditionally-animated film of all time (The Lion King)
- The largest film premiere with over 100,000 viewers (Pocahontas)
- The most expensive animated film ever made costing $260m (Tangled)