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.


  1. Thanks for the write-up Keith! I'd also like to give a huge shout out and thank you to members of the Hyperion Club - my core group of researchers who've added their expertise, opinions, and creative talents to this continuing project. They've done a lot of work on this project to discover some of the forgotten history of Walt Disney's Hyperion Avenue Studio: Paul Sorokowski, Gunnar Andreassen, Hans Perk, Dave Smith, and Timothy Susanin. Thanks are also due to Diane Disney Miller, Ron Miller, Michael LaBrie, Mary Beth Culler, John the AV expert, and the rest of the staff of The Walt Disney Family Museum - you all made my trip to San Francisco memorable beyond belief.

  2. I also meant to say as well, thank you to everyone that bought a ticket and attended the presentation. I appreciate your interest and support!

    1. Thank YOU David for the great presentation, as well as providing some of your notes/photos for my recap!