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Toon Tuesday: Funky Warehouse Syndrome

Toon Tuesday: Funky Warehouse Syndrome

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Some years ago, I watched helplessly as Walt Disney's animation department was moved out of their old building on the Burbank lot. You see, the new management needed room to expand, and animators took up space. So clearly somebody had to go.

Disney's Animation Studio Burbank
The Animation Building on Disney's Burbank Lot. You can wait around and hope.
But they'll never build anything this perfect again

As you probably already know, Disney's animation department was moved into a "dump" over in Glendale.The animators made do with their new digs. But it was hardly comparable to the "Animation Paradise" Walt Disney had constructed for his Burbank staff. Naturally, there was a lot of grumbling early on, and many were indignant about this new facility being more suited to factory workers than Disney artists. But eventually they settled down and made the best of it.

Looking back on that dumpy Glendale facility, I came up with something I call Funky Warehouse Syndrome. That is, when artists are forced to work in a less-than-desirable location, they sometimes come up with some very good stuff. Consider what came out of that dumpy Glendale studio back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Productions that were not too shabby, if you ask me.

Disney's Glendale Animation Warehouse
Walt Disney Animation Studios was booted off the lot back in 1985 and forced to
set up shop in this warehouse in Glendale. In spite of everything, this is where
Disney Feature Animation would have its creative rebirth

In the late 1990s, I moved north to Pixar Animation Studios to begin development on Toy Story 2. I remember that the Point Richmond studio reminded me of 1970s Hanna-Barbera where artists were allowed to create their own personal workspaces. The Pixar facility was this mishmash of funky rooms and cubicles that seem to be the perfect environment to incubate ideas and come up with creative solutions. Disney's Burbank story rooms were neat as a pin, while our Pixar story room was a chaotic mess of toys, paper and pushpins strewn everywhere. The furniture in the studio screening room looked like cast-offs from a garage sale, and some staffers even brought their dogs to work. Yet this organized mess appeared to work for Pixar's technical geniuses and creative storytellers.

Pixar Story Room Emeryville
This was our main story room while we were developing "Toy Story 2" at Pixar.
While not as elegant as Disney's tidy facilities back in Burbank, we still
managed to do some great work there

Of course, there's always the freaky studio that defies description. I labored in a Newport Beach facility that boasted plush carpeting, custom drapery and fine woods. The studio had a well-appointed kitchen that could have come out of a Martha Stewart episode, and the amenities included a Jacuzzi where one could relax after a long day. However, as nice as it was, this studio never produced a damn thing.

Animation artists have always had the ability to do their best work in the worst of places. I remember a Hollywood studio where artists worked in hallways and basements. One artist moved into a closet for some peace and quiet. In another case (and I swear that this is true), a designer actually moved his desk into the studio Men's Room because the company would not provide him with a private office.

Disney's Hat Animation Building
That hat over the entrance of this building was almost big enough to hold the
egos of the executives who used to work here. Almost

And speaking of funky warehouses ... Walt Disney Animation Studios eventually moved out of that warehouse in Glendale into a brand-new production facility along Riverside Drive in Burbank. In time, this horrid facility became known as "The Hat Building." But it was no animation paradise. Animators worked in closet-sized offices while there was enough space in the hallways to drive a Hummer. On moving day, we discovered our storyboards would not fit on the walls, and the broken front door was an ongoing project. The reception desk took the glare of the afternoon sun until the carpenters jerry-rigged a makeshift solution. So much for the forward thinking of high priced architects. The building's open design with elevated walkways suggested a prison. Which is why this cartoon studio felt more like Alcatraz than Hyperion. If this building was designed for animators, I'll take a warehouse any day.

Animation artists continue to amaze me. Heap abuse upon them, and they continue to give their best. Relegate them to a hovel, and they'll still work their hearts out. I've sketched storyboards in drafty trailers, and animated in kitchens. I've had the luxury of a spacious office in the old Disney Animation Building, and I've worked in cubicles that wouldn't even contain my storyboards. In any case, the work goes on.

Disney's animation artists never did move back into that old building on the lot that used to be their home. They continue to make do with a less-than-perfect production facility because that's what animators do. Perhaps the Walt Disney Company will build a real building for its artists one day. But please don't give us another "Hat Building." I'd much prefer a warehouse instead.

Hyperion Studios
Something like this might be nice

Did you enjoy Floyd Norman's articles about how miserable working conditions sometimes produce great art? Well, keep in kind that this is just one of the many entertaining & insightful tales that this Disney Legend has to share. Many of which you'll find collected in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at all the years that Mr. Norman has spent working in the entertainment industry.

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

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • Speaking as a creative, I think the moral of the story is, it doesn't matter what space creatives are put in, as long as they have the freedom to make it what they need it to be.  Put them in a box, pretty or ugly, and make them conform, and you'll snuff out their creativity.  Give them the freedom to put forth the effort to make it their own, and they will thrive.

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