Did you know that Walt Disney Animation Studios is turning 100 this year? To celebrate, Vital Thrills took part in a special presentation surrounding Disney Animation’s latest short film, Once Upon a Studio.
Directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, who most may know from their Disney short film, Once Upon a Snowman, featuring Frozen‘s favorite (and only) talking snowman, had their luck cut out for them in creating this incredibly nostalgic and heartfelt homage to the studio. But anything is possible if you just believe, and the magic of Disney and imagination persevered in the end.
Once Upon a Studio takes us to the end of a typical workday at Walt Disney Animation Studios. All the workers are leaving the studio, with the last person to leave being the late Disney Legend Burny Mattinson.
Before he shuts the door, he says, “If only these walls could talk,” before leaving for the day. As soon as the coast is clear, Disney characters of all kinds come to life to get ready to commemorate the 100th anniversary. It’s an adorable short film, but quite a task to throw together.
Honoring ten decades worth of animation talent and mastery is no easy feat, especially with how much animation has changed in a hundred years. “A hundred years of history is so hard to encapsulate in eight and a half minutes,” said Abraham during the presentation.
“Every person that’s ever worked at this studio should be in the credits because we’re standing on the shoulders of greatness… There’s so much history and there’s so [many] people. So, we focused on the characters, but we tried to also pay homage to the artists, as well.”
This homage was taken by focusing on incorporating both the original 2D animation style with the more current 3D style used in most animation today. With 543 characters from over 85 Disney features and short films making an appearance, that was the logical decision to home in on given the evolution of Disney’s animation and artistry dating back to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
“It was never really a discussion,” shared Correy when the decision came to incorporate hand-drawn and CG animation styles. “What was discussed is that we really wanted the characters to be hand-drawn on paper, and the CG characters to look like they do in the films and living in that environment together.”
The biggest topic of discussion surrounding this task? Correy answered: “How do we make them look just as they did in their original form, but live in this world together with this set?”
The process was not without its challenges. “We had some challenging problem to solve integrating our hand-drawn 2D animation with our CG animation into live-action background plates. In some cases, we had to scan the room and environment to college digital data so that we could rebuild the room virtually,” shared producer Bradford Simonsen.
The melding of two different styles, which also incorporate entirely different technologies and techniques, meant that there were going to be many bumps in the process. “Because technology changes so rapidly, we also had to rebuild CG character models from ‘Tangled’ backward to ‘Chicken Little’ so they would work in our current pipeline,” said Simonsen. However, like with many Disney shorts, the team was eager to learn on the go, with the experience likely able to aid in future projects down the pipeline.
Creating the characters and bringing them to life for Once Upon a Studio proved to be a daunting task, but that wasn’t all that the team had to deal with. There was the matter of bringing in voice talent to capture the energy, spirit, and vocal tones of much-beloved Disney characters. And, with some voice actors no longer with us, the team had to find people who could replicate voices for characters like the Genie and then some.
Don’t worry. They assured all of us at the presentation that they did not incorporate AI to digitally recreate voices. Many voice performers came in to record new dialogue for the short, with a handful reprising previous Disney roles.
Surprising everyone in the room was the knowledge that Disney’s lucky charm, Alan Tudyk, had only voiced the Mad Hatter in Once Upon a Studio. Given his history voicing anything Disney has thrown at him, him recreating the Mad Hatter and only the Mad Hatter for the short boggled the mind. Just like the Mad Hatter would have wanted.
The Tudyk of it all aside, having actors come in to reprise roles turned out to be a spot of joy for the team. “We were so lucky that everyone we reached out to that’s still with us came back,” said Correy, opening the discussion on how the team tackled recreating voices of those who’ve left us.
“We got our best soundalikes that we possibly could,” shared Abraham. When it came to recreating those voices, Abraham and Correy were “persnickety” as they put it about making sure the characters sounded exactly like what had been recorded previously.
With only seconds dedicated to individual characters, capturing that exact likeness was essential in activating the nostalgic notes the short needed. “They needed to look and sound exactly how you remember them, and that was very important to us,” said Abraham.
The team didn’t just rely on freshly done audio recordings to capture the characters. They also dove into the Disney vault to bring lines from films that were perfect as is. “There are some lines in there that are actually taken from the original film. So, whenever the line was exactly the same from the original film that it came from, we picked that line out,” said producer Yvett Merino.
One voice that had to be utilized, according to Abraham, was Cliff Edwards’ rendition of Jiminy Cricket. Recording a new take of the character did not fit into the masterplan. “I didn’t want to get a soundalike,” said Abraham, “so, they had to strip away the music from the original recording digitally. Some scientist masterminds were able to figure that out.”
Whether credit can be given to masterminds, the artists, or Walt Disney magic, whose to say? When it comes to the completed version of Once Upon a Studio, it is clear that due to the groundwork that previous generations of animators, and Walt Disney himself have laid down since the beginning, that Walt Disney Animation Studios would not be what it is today without their efforts.
The 8 ½ minute short is only a microcosm snapshot of the past century of what all the animation studio has accomplished, and serves to showcase the bright future the studio has ahead for it.
Once Upon a Studio will have its first public showing on ABC Sunday, October 15, 2023, as part of The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration. You can watch the trailer below.
Sarah Musnicky is a freelance writer and self-described workaholic. She loves fantasy and sci fi and will admit having dual loyalties between Star Trek and Star Wars as well as Marvel and DC. When she’s not being socially awkward, she is in a corner obsessing over dragons, cute things, and a need to master all languages on the planet. She would like to be a professional blanket burrito when she reaches the peak of maturation.