There’s been a trend on the interwebs
of sites passing off information that’s been hidden for years – usually
stowed away in antique technology like ‘books’ or ‘magazines’ – as
news. Who am I to buck the trend? Instead of pretending that this stuff
is news I’ll present it to you as interesting bits of info that you may
have never learned otherwise. It’s not news, but it’s probably news to
This probably isn’t remotely new for anyone who follows Disney or Pixar closely, but with the release this week of the excellent documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, about how Walt Disney Animation came back from the brink of disaster in 1984 to create a run of classic cartoons, I thought it was interesting to spotlight.
In the late 70s and early 80s Disney animation was completely moribund. The division was being drastically cut, with fewer and fewer animators working in the historic Animation Building on Disney’s Burbank lot – and actually they would soon be moved off the lot into a series of decrepit warehouses in nearby Glendale.
Disney was struggling in general at the time – a hostile takeover loomed – but Animation had it worst. Ironically the ranks of Disney Animation were full of clever young geniuses, but they never got a chance to shine. Tim Burton was a gnomish little kid working on designs; Don Hahn, who would one day usher Beauty and the Beast to a Best Picture Oscar nomination, was just barely hanging on. And future Pixar leader John Lasseter was looking way into the future… until he got fired.
Lasseter was an animator at Disney who saw the potential computers could bring to animation. At the time the studio used Ub Iwerk’s old multiplane camera, which had four planes of glass onto which various aspects of the image could be placed and animated, creating cartoons that had depth (you can still see that old camera today at the Disney lot). Lasseter’s big idea was to use computer generated graphics to create the backgrounds and then have traditional Disney character animation placed on it.
Working with Glen Keane, Lasseter jumped in to a test of the process, choosing Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which Disney had been considering doing as part of a larger adaptation of Sendak’s work. The test was wildly successful, but Disney Animation at the time was stodgy and procedure-bound. Lasseter’s superiors, especially old animation administrator Ed Hansen, turned it down – and then fired the young animator for bucking the system.
Not long after Lasseter was let go Disney’s animation department experienced a sea change, with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider coming aboard and shaking up the old ‘What would Walt do?’ mindset. By the end of the 80s Disney was pioneering computer imagery in cartoons anyway – 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under would use the studio’s new CAPS system, which digitally colored and composited images, as well as being the first feature cartoon to use CGI sequences. But while Disney came around to where Lasseter had been in 1983, he was up in Northern California with Pixar, only five years away from forever changing animation with Toy Story.
Here’s the animation test that got Lasseter fired: