Disney school for animators -- keeping legendary skills alive

Mickey Mouse is headed for school next month. He won't be attending just any classroom, however. He'll join a group of handpicked artists in a first-ever animation school set up by the movie studio that has been synonymous with animation for more than 50 years -- Walt Disney Productions.

The 14 young artists, culled from hundreds of applicants across the country, will take up sketch pads and pencils, Aug. 31 -- and a lot of other tools, as well -- for schooling in the legendary Disney way with the animated screen.

The question of how to pass animation skills from one generation of artists to another was first raised at the Disney studio in the late 1960s, when the veteran artists who had created side by side with Walt Disney since the early days in the 1930s began to think about retirement -- and the studio was forced to think about the creative void that would be left.

The first answer for bridging the animation gap was Disney's Talent Development Program, set up in 1970 to bring in promising artists for a two-month apprenticeship. But though that program attracted 150 trainees out of 20,000 applicants in 10 years, the studio was dealt a serious blow in 1979 when a block of young animators -- complaining that the older artists simply weren't passing on the most important Disney ingredients -- bolted from the Burbank lot and set up a competing animation studion of their own.

Today, the Disney animation staff is hoping that the animation school, with its more formal structure and broader curriculum, will be the key to doubling the animation department's current staff of 22 animators. They also hope the school will help spark some of the old disney magic that has seemed to elude the studio in recent years.

"We're trying to rekindle the feeling that was here in the '40s, a feeling of excitement and innovation," explains Don Hahn, training supervisor of the new school. "There's a big rediscovery-of-the-wheel-type process going on right now. We're plowing through the archives trying to find out anything we can about how it used to be done."

"The biggest challenge for us," he continues, "is regrasping the knowledge that was once here, learning what used to be able to be done as well as learning the state of the art today."

For the first time ever, Disney animation staffers are hoping to pin down the art of animation through the printed word -- in handbooks to be designed especially for the animation school. The young students, who are coming from as far away as New Jersey, will also have access to all the millions of animation scenes filed in the studio's research library. Many of the students will be coming from nearby California Institute of the Arts, a Disney-supported art school which offers an animation program.

Classes to be offered in the eight-week, eight-hour-a-day program (which will be offered two or three times a year) range the artistic and technical spectrum from life drawing and animation techniques to the mechanics of camera movement. In addition, students will attend sculpting classes to help the budding animators think in three-dimensional terms; dance classes to help thel understand movement; and acting classes to help the artists understand how to make their cartoon characters act realistically. ("Animation," explains one studio staffer, "is really acting on paper.")

Although the advent of computers has meant the introduction of some labor-saving devices, animation today is still largely what it was in 1937 when "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first animated feature film, was introduced -- a hand-drawn art.

Each character in every second of an animated film requires 24 drawings. For an 83- minute, $12-million film like the recently released "The Fox and the Hound," 24 animators created 360,000 drawings. Each animated feature film takes four years to make -- a production schedule Disney is hoping to step up by splitting an increased staff into two groups that will work on separate films to be released at staggered, two-year intervals.

Even as the studio plans for the future, however, it is crowing over the present. "The Fox and the Hound," largely the work of several of the younger Disney animators, has drawn high critical praise for its style and story. Already, the same younger crew is at work on a Disney version of "A Christmas Carol" -- a 35-minute film set for release in 1982 which will mark Mickey Mouse's first appearance on screen (in a new production) since the 1950s. And not to be outdone by the special-effects wizardry of the "Star Wars" genre, Disney is planning its own science fiction saga, "Tron."

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