If hand-drawn animation ever needed a boost at Disney, now is the time. Perhaps “Once Upon a Studio,” the hybrid short that focuses on 2D in a multi-character crossover, is the first baby step. But even if it’s just a temporary boost to the 100th anniversary, it’s cause for celebration when 543 newly animated characters (mostly hand-drawn) jump out of their photos in Roy E. Disney Animation’s live-action building to burst through to roam the halls. Meet outside for a group photo.
The short film will premiere on October 15 during ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration.” The film will not be screening before “Wish,” but will have an Oscar-worthy performance at El Capitan in Hollywood.
“Once Upon a Short” was directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy (“Once Upon a Snowman”), who developed the idea for eight months during the COVID-19 crisis before pitching it via Zoom to Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee from Disney Animation and screenwriter of “Once Upon a Short.” “Wish.” In addition to presenting storyboards, Abraham even sang “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Lee was emotionally moved and immediately gave the short film the green light.
“We thought of something that really just celebrates history and legacy and uses the characters from the past that people have come to know and love,” Correy told IndieWire. “And in those eight months, we didn’t know if it would work because there was hand-drawn animation and live-action CG animation with over 500 characters [from more than 85 features and shorts]. As Disney fans, we just created what we wanted to see for the 100th year.”
The short (which features all 40 surviving voice actors, along with soundalikes and some archival voices) begins with artists leaving the animation building, including Disney legend Burny Mattinson (who worked on hand drawings at the studio for 70 years before he passed away). February 2023) turns to a young black animator and remarks, “Boy, if these walls could talk.” Mickey and Minnie emerge from their photos to round up the gang. Next we see Bambie, Thumper and Flower show up; and Peter Pan appears alongside Minnie and the cast of “Bolt.” He says “Here we go” (voiced by Bobby Driscoll from the original 1953 film) and runs away.
Among the highlights: Moana gets splashed while catching a falling flounder from The Little Mermaid; a stuck Winnie the Pooh needs Christopher Robin’s help to pull him out; Dalmatian puppies from “101 Dalmatians” watch “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia”; Antonio from “Encanto” runs down the hallway surrounded by Pua from “Moana”, Pascal from “Tangled”, Meeko from “Pocahontas”, Cri-Kee from “Mulan” and tailor thrushes from “Cinderella”; the fairies from “Sleeping Beauty” argue over the color of the landmark hat on the building outside, along with Jock and Trusty from “Lady and the Tramp”; and Donald Duck is desperate as he waits in the elevator for Flash, the sloth from “Zootopia.”
“It was a big mystery figuring out these characters and situations,” Abraham told IndieWire. “The first thing I drew was Winnie the Pooh, who was stuck in this picture, and then Christopher Robin, and I’m trying to pull him out because of course he would get stuck. We were in the room drawing sketches and we had a whiteboard full of names and scenes like Kaa [from ‘The Jungle Book’] hypnotizing Clarabelle [Cow], and who could hit Kaa on the head and how would that be funny? “Well, Rapunzel uses that frying pan in Tangled, so it would be funny if she hit him in the head.”
Technically, in addition to the CG character and VFX pipelines, Disney also had to set up a 2D pipeline for the hand-drawn characters. Disney legend Eric Goldberg (who, among other things, recreated his Genie from “Aladdin”) supervised the 2D animation with help from other hand-drawn veterinarians and five 2D apprentices from the internship program. Not only did this require full integration of animation and live action, but every animated character had to be rendered exactly as they appeared in their films.
“It was the cleanup line for them,” Abraham said. “Because when you look at ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ you’ll have this wonderful, perfect, colored ink line. And then when you get to the ’60s and ’70s and you talk about “101 Dalmatians,” “The Jungle Book,” “Robin Hood” and “The Aristocats,” they were all copied lines, so they’re really sketchy. And so we wanted to make sure that we held on to those blind characteristics that we consciously chose to have back then. When we had doubts or needed a character reference, we just went back and looked at them [model sheets] and the film and study them.”
The most ambitious hybrid technique, however, was having Chernobog, the giant demon from Night on Bald Mountain, come out of the TV and scare the puppies. To make this work properly, they shot the live-action plate and then integrated the placement of the puppies with the foreground elements and scaled the demon correctly to break the proscenium. They then took an HDR shot of the entire set to recreate the lighting in the computer for a marriage of CG and 2D.
“You get an instant sense of nostalgia when the puppies sit and watch TV just like they did in the original film,” Correy said. “And you get the great music and then a bunch of random characters like the characters from The Wind in the Willows and Mowgli [from ‘The Jungle Book’]Flynn Rider [from ‘Tangled’]Sven and Kristoff [from ‘Frozen’]. And when the puppies run away in fear, they knock Scrooge Duck over and drop Robin Hood and Little John. So it’s fun to find these intersections of characters.”
“Once Upon a Studio” premieres as part of ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration” on October 15 at 8 p.m.