Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dueling Disney: Fantasyland Face-off

Perhaps no other land is more cherished by children than Fantasyland, for it gives them a chance to step into and experience some of the very films they were raised on (whenever Walt’s classics get mixed in with their library of Pixar titles). Each Fantasyland can call its resort’s most iconic structure its entrance, and each Fantasyland is replete with magic, charm, and whimsy. From flying elephants to swords embedded in stone, both of the American Disney parks’ Fantasylands capture the imagination of children from all over the world.

But the question is, as it always is on Dueling Disney… which one is better?

Fantasyland Face-off


Friday, April 19, 2013

2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire--Part Two

Part One of the recap of David Lesjak’s 2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire left off at the tail end of the 1920s. Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies were both big successes, and things were looking very promising for the studio on Hyperion. But the new decade would bring an immediate and unwelcome change.

In January of 1930, Ub Iwerks, Walt’s friend for over ten years, left Disney’s Hyperion Studio. It was a big blow to Walt. Ub after all was one of the very few animators who stuck by him when Charles Mintz hired away nearly his entire staff. Ub wanted to start his own studio, however. So he joined Pat Powers (who had just had his own falling out with Walt) and started a studio under his own name. Powers had the capital, as most of his financiers felt Ub was the main reason for Disney’s success. While Ub did play an integral part in the studio’s early success, and was himself a hugely talented individual, the financiers were incorrect.

The Hyperion Studios pressed on, and even began to expand. A huge “Walt Disney Studios” sign was added to the property, complete with a smiling Mickey Mouse.

Photo courtesy of

Despite Mickey’s fame, the sign actually caused some of the locals to assume that the Hyperion lot was some sort of a “mouse studio.” Because of this, many of them would toss stray cats over the walls. Walt seized an opportunity to pose with some of Hyperion’s cutest new residents.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

David also shared more examples of the special talent we learned about his crew in Part One of this recap: Looking at a photo of an animator and figuring out what exactly they were working on. Really cool stuff.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

In addition to the recent influx of stray cats, the Disney Studio was about to receive another kind of influx: the cash-flow kind. In 1932 Walt received a call from a gentleman named Herman "Kay" Kamen, a successful Kansas City advertiser. Kamen had a vision of putting a Disney character into every home in America. His ingenuity and commitment to quality pleased Walt, and on July 1, 1932, Walt and Kamen signed a contract at Hyperion. (For more on Walt and Kay Kamen, please check out The Rise of Disney Marketing).

Walt (3rd from left) with Kamen (3rd from right)
Photo courtesy of

More expansion came in 1932. Hyperion was also about to be the birthplace of another animation first. “So Technicolor, about that time came out with the three-color… the film absorbs the color in the right proportion… now that was it,” Walt said. “Now when they came to me with it, and I saw the three colors, and I saw it all on one side of the film, I was very excited about it. It was expensive. I wanted to go right away to color." Walt was so excited about this new process, they stopped production on the black-and-white Silly Symphony they were working on at the time, Flowers and Trees, and started completely over in color. Flowers and Trees would become the first animated short to ever win an Academy Award (Best Short Subject, Cartoons), as well as the first film of any kind to utilize the Technicolor three-strip process.

Photo © Disney

Another first at the Hyperion Studio was the art of storyboarding (as we know it today). This was utilized in Disney’s next Academy-Award winning short, The Three Little Pigs (1933). Pigs was so popular, it outlasted many features during its initial run. It was around that time Walt was treated to a beautifully remodeled office, as the studio expanded again.

More expansion occurred in 1935, and work on the first feature-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in full swing. David showed us a photo of some of the jars of paint used. All told, over 1500 hues were used in Snow White.

In the fall of 1935, an apprentice animator’s building was built across the street from the main studio. The building was referred to by some as the “Annex,” or, “Incubator.” Back in November of 1932, Walt hired drawing instructor Don Graham to teach the first art classes at Hyperion. Instruction initially took place at the soundstage, but by 1936, was moved to the Annex. Both human and animal models provided inspiration during the studio-sponsored art classes. Animator Jack Kinney recalled:  “We had two or three night sessions a week, with live models. We studied life drawing, composition, quick sketch, animals of all kinds, and action analysis.”

In 1936, business was booming, and Walt needed more artists. The studio placed an ad in Popular Mechanics.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

The studio kept on growing. New technologies were being implemented as well. While some versions of a multiplane camera existed before 1937, the “definitive” version was created by animator Bill Garity. It was first used on the Silly Symphony The Old Mill, which went on to win the Academy Award for best animated short film. The camera was also utilized in Snow White, which in 1938 brought in enormous dividends for the Walt Disney Studios.

By 1939, there was no more room to grow. Walt took advantage of the financial windfall brought on by Snow White, and constructed a huge, state-of-the-art studio on South Buena Vista Street in Burbank. Some of the buildings from Hyperion were actually transported to the new property. Most of them met a grizzly fate at the hands of a bulldozer, however, just months before Walt’s untimely passing in December of 1966. Today, the only remaining Disney-related building from the Hyperion neighborhood is a duplex that resides on Griffith Park Boulevard.

“The span of twelve years between Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey with sound, and Fantasia, is the bridge between primitive and modern animated pictures. No genius built this bridge. It was built by hard work and enthusiasm, integrity of purpose, a devotion to our medium, confidence in its future, and, above all, by steady day-to-day growth in which we all simply studied our trade and learned.” 
~ Walt Disney

Walt had about 12-16 employees when the studio first opened in 1926. By the time they moved to Burbank, he had about 1500.

After David's presentation, he joined us in Gallery 6 of The Walt Disney Family Museum for The Disney Project's first official meet-up. While there he and I snapped a pic.

Hangin' with David

I’d like to thank David Lesjak and his research team for the work that went into this utterly engrossing presentation. Special thanks to David in particular for sharing some notes and providing some photos, helping to assure this recap would be as rich and accurate as possible. Those early days in the Hyperion Studio broke new ground for animation, paved the way for the entire art form, and set the standard for animated films as we know them today.

Friday, April 12, 2013

2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire--Part One

On Saturday, March 23, I attended a presentation at the Walt Disney Family Museum titled: 2719 Hyperion Avenue – Foundation of an Empire. The Walt Disney Studio 1925-1939. Historian David Lesjak provided an amazing look into the history of the studio in which some of animation’s greatest creations were born.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

On July 6, 1925, Walt and Roy Disney put a $400 down payment on Lot 21 at 2719 Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. The $600 balance was paid just a few weeks later on August 1. On January 15, 1926, the Disney brothers acquired their first building permit, which listed the value of the construction work as $1,500. When the Disneys purchased this lot, the only other businesses on the block were a Shell gas station and the JW Klein organ factory. It was quite a sparsely developed area.

1925 - before Disney moved in
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

The early property consisted of: The Walt Disney Studio, a stage for the Alice Comedies, a car shed, and horseshoe pits. According to artist Wilfred Jackson, Ub Iwerks was the studio’s premier horseshoe thrower.

After Disney moved in - early layout of the studio
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

This photo was taken in 1933 and NOT at Hyperion, but it's still Ub horeshoein' away!
Photo courtesy of

After showing us a rendering of the layout, David then showed us a fun photo of the boys clowning around. He followed that up by showing us how the studio’s interior was broken up. A partition ran down the center of the workspace from the front to the building to the back: animators on one side, ink and paint on the other. Roy’s office was on the right of the main entrance, Walt’s, the left. At some point in 1928, there was a little reorganization: one section became devoted to Mickey Mouse cartoons, and the other was devoted to the Silly Symphony series. Then he showed us a photo of the first standalone building's exterior. The Film Daily Cavalcade magazine referred to the studio as: “…a neat little green and white studio on two or three acres of weeds…[consisting] of one big room for the artists, [and] a cubby hole apiece for Walt and Roy.”

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

It was around this point in the presentation that we discovered an amazing talent members of David's research group possessed. They could take an old photo of a young animator, and based on even a partially finished drawing, discern which project he was working on at the time. Hence, they were also able to determine the rough date of the photo. The ability to identify films from the few visible lines on some of those cells was astounding, and the audience reacted favorably each time David presented an example.

How cool is this?
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

We got to see a photo of Walt’s first camera that he purchased at Peterson’s Camera Exchange in Los Angeles for $300. David then started talking about Walt’s unceremonious split with Universal distributor Charles Mintz. The split occurred not long after the film The Jazz Singer premiered, which wowed audiences everywhere with its fully synchronized dialogue. Walt knew that he needed to utilize this new technology for his future star and studio savior, Mickey Mouse. In talking about that first experiment with sound, Walt recalled, “The boys worked from a music and sound-effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune, the rest of us in the sound department bammed tin pans and blew slide whistles on the beat. The synchronization was pretty close.” Walt and his boys knew they were on to something. Walt’s creative partner Ub Iwerks commented, “I have never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it.”

The October 2, 1928 edition of The Film Daily (a leading source of news on the film industry) boasted the headline: Disney Makes Sound Cartoon. Studio employee Bill Garity, perhaps best known for his pioneering efforts in sound and camera techniques, remarked years later, "We've done things...most of them Walt's ideas, that looked impossible at first." The end of 1928 was certainly an exciting time at the burgeoning studio. David shared a New York Times review of Steamboat Willie, of which they wrote, “an ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun. It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality."

Bill Garity
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

The next photo Dave shared was that of the Powers’ Cinephone truck, which was basically one half of the Disney recording fleet. The cramped quarters at the studio meant the Disney Film Recording Corporation had to be stationed in a small office at the Tec Art Studio in Los Angeles. The corporation began doing business approximately April 1929. This division of the studio began operations before it was incorporated on December 16, 1929, and was liquidated December 5, 1935.

Half of the Disney recording fleet
Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

In August of 1929, Disney’s first Silly Symphony premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater. The Skeleton Dance was an instant hit, although the road to its creation was a little bumpy. Walt had tapped his friend from Kansas City, Carl Stalling, to do the short’s music. Walt and Stalling didn’t always see eye to eye, though. Walt believed the music should follow the action on screen, and Stalling felt music comes first, and the action second. They were able to work smoothly when it came time to think of a name, however. “For a name or title for the series, I suggested not using the word ‘music’ or ‘musical,’ as it sounded too commonplace,” Stalling recalled. “But to use the word ‘Symphony’ together with a humorous word. At the next gag meeting, I don't know who suggested it, but Walt asked me, ‘Carl, how would Silly Symphony sound to you?’ I said, ‘Perfect!’”

The December 7, 1929 edition of Motion Picture News featured a Disney ad that showed many things for the last time. Out of "Produced by Walt Disney," "drawn by Ub Iwerks," "recorded on Powers Cinephone," and "booked through Powers’ Celebrity Productions," only Walt's name would remain past that point. Ub would leave Disney to start his own studio the following month. Disney would eventually switch to the RCA Photophone system for sound recording, and Columbia would begin distribution of all of Disney’s cartoons within two months.

Photo courtesy of David Lesjak

David wasn't done by a long shot at this point, so please check back soon for Part Two of this recap, where he delves into the 1930s and the huge changes that befell the studio.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dueling Disney: Disney Mountain Range–Part Two

After our last duel on Disney Mountains, we left you in a bit of a cliffhanger. You know…because we were talking about mountains. You see what we did there? Cliffhanger? Mountains?


We didn’t get a chance to talk about the last three mountains on our list. So, this week, we are back again to determine who will win the crown of having the ultimate mountain range! We bring the last few mountains to the table: Splash vs Splash and Everest vs Matterhorn! Let the great expedition begin!…

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Disney Project Podcast--Episode 6: The Don Hahn Interview

In early March, legendary producer Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) came to The Walt Disney Family Museum to give this presentation. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to chat with him upstairs. We talked about just some of his many interesting experiences working with The Walt Disney Company, and he actually gives me "greatest question ever asked" honors! Don only had a few minutes, but he gave a great and fun interview.

Listening to Don's awesomeness
Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum

Your listening options are: iTunes, the direct podcast’s page, or via the window below. Enjoy!