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Toon Tuesday : Disney's Night School

Toon Tuesday : Disney's Night School

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Did you know Walt Disney Studios once provided what could be considered the finest animation course ever offered? That's right, kids. If you've shelled out the big bucks for an animation education at such institutions as California Institute of the Arts or Sheridan College, you might be surprised to learn that Disney once provided all this and more at absolutely no cost.

What was this animation course? Well, back in the 1950s, Disney's animation staff included 600 talented artists, most of who were laboring away on "Sleeping Beauty." The rest divided their time on the ABC television show, "Disneyland," or the rapidly diminishing shorts program. Yet, even back then when the Nine Old Men and many others were still going strong, Disney came to realize they would soon need to replenish the ranks if animated film making was to continue.

Walt Disney Studios in 1956, when we were young and no one worried about box office.
Ah, I sure miss those days.

Those of you who know your Mouse House history will remember that Walt Disney encouraged his artists to attend night classes at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Walt Disney even took the time to drive some of his young artists to class in the evening. But now, the Disney Studios was in no need of an outside teaching staff because the company had over time developed one of its own. After all, if you were looking for brilliant animators, gifted layout artists and awesome background painters, where would you go? The Walt Disney Studios had all this talent under one roof.

Though the studio offered this incredible opportunity, few artists took advantage of it. To be fair, most artists were probably beat after a long day at work, and looked forward to going home and being with their families. So despite an animation staff that numbered in the hundreds, only a couple dozen of us decided to attend "night school."

The classes would begin at seven, so that gave all of us a chance to run down to Bob's Big Boy (yes, it was there even back then) for a quick bite. After dinner, we rushed back to the Disney lot to begin another evening of instruction. Most of my classmates were pretty young. The older employees were married and had other responsibilities. The women, as usual, were few in number.

The classes were usually held in one of the large screening rooms on the third floor of the Animation Building. Tonight, our instructor was the talented Joshua Meador, one of Disney's premiere effects animators. Josh was also an accomplished painter, and loved using a palette knife rather than a brush. Meador was also the creator of those wonderful animated introductions preceding Disney's True-Life Adventure series. Josh let us in on the secrets that made Disney's effects animation better than any other studio in town.

We were all smiles back in 1956, because
our animation future never looked brighter.
Animator Jack Foster. Photo by Floyd Norman

On another occasion, our instructor was the great layout artist Ken O'Connor who looked more like a science professor than an animation artist. O'Connor was responsible for the incredible design and layout in the "Fantasia" segment, "Dance of the Hours." Of course, practically all of the original artwork was still available, and Ken took us through every step of the design and development of "Dance of the Hours."

Of course, animation was the main focus of this series of classes. The majority of our class members aspired to be animators one day, so a rigorous series of pencil animation tests were required. I still remember being impressed by the work of young John Sparey, who went on to become a talented animator and is regarded by many as one of the industries' finest. However, I still cringe when I remember my early attempts at animation. I was awful, and I'm glad my future wasn't determined by those early tests.

Not all of Disney's Nine Old Men participated in this mentoring program. However, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston seem to excel at teaching. I remember one evening these two animation greats made it clear that not everyone has the chops to become a director. They made their point by screening a short cartoon called "The Golden Touch" that was directed by none other than the boss, himself. I'm still amazed that Frank and Ollie could take a few shots at Walt Disney without suffering retribution.

I thought I was fairly knowledgeable concerning Disney history, but I still had a lot to learn. Animator Bob McCrea took us through the turbulent years of Disney's struggle to survive as a company. World War II lost Walt half of his film market, and being taken over by the military proved to be a blessing in disguise. For decades the Disney company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and the famous 1941 strike proved to be a college course in of itself.

 As we worked and learned our craft on "Sleeping Beauty,"
no one saw the massive layoffs that would follow that film's release.
Animator Bill Eigle. Photo by Floyd Norman

As you can imagine, this Disney night course was a master class in animation. Those who took advantage of this opportunity were mentored by no less than the finest animation artists in the industry. In time, the pressures of completing "Sleeping Beauty" brought an end to Disney's night school. Now, being at the studio after-hours meant you were probably working overtime.

Those of us who attended "night school" at the Mouse House were a lucky bunch of kids. A day at Disney in the 1950s was pretty darn good. But, I gotta admit, sometimes the nights were even better.

Did you enjoy this detailed look back at the inner workings of Walt Disney Studios circa 1956? Well, just so you know, Floyd Norman currently has three books on the market. Each of which feature this Disney Legend's infamous cartoons that take an affectionate look back at his time in Toontown.

These volumes include Floyd's original collection of cartoons & stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as Norman's two follow-ups to that popular paperback, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • Thank you, Floyd, have been reading these trips down memory lane of yours for a long time now and still loving every one.  I find it amusing that most Disney artists found themselves too tired to attend class after a day's work, but people like Frank and Ollie -- who were no slouches at the drawing board -- not only found the energy to attend, but also to TEACH!  A little extra effort goes a long way, I suppose.  What an amazing time to be at the Disney studio.

  • Hello Floyd and thank you for this trip down memory lane! Say, didn't Disney offer classes previously during the 1940's or earlier? More specifically 1946? I mean of couse the film The Reluctant Dragon.(One of my all time favorites. Robert Benchley is hilarious in that film) I know the classroom footage in that was shot on one of the sound stages. My question is, was Disney actually offering classes in 1946?

    Also everyone I recently purchased an interview with Lillian Disney from the Extinct Attractions Club. Her daughter Dianne Miller and one of the Miller grandchildren are also featured. The interview was circa 1983, opening of Epcot. I was actually surprised at an answer that the family gave regarding moving away from the city concept. Go to the Extinct Attractions web site and click on the DVD list. From there click on "Legends" and click on "Lillian Disney."

  • Floyd,

    I'm amazed I never saw this before.  Jack Foster (pictured in this blog) was my Dad and often spoke of you with great fondness and admiration (both as an artist and a human being).  He passed away in 2006, but he and I talked of you even into his last years.  I wish he could have seen this, or seen his picture in your book (which I just learned of).  I am blown away.

    My Dad was an amazing man and the very fact that he held you in such high regard, speaks volumes for you, as well.  I would love to send you a private note sometime, but I don't know how to reach you.  Perhaps we can make contact at some point.  

    Until then, I wish for you all the best.


    Jim Foster

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