Inside Walt Disney Animation Studios – A Photo Tour

We visit the Burbank, CA campus.

by | February 13, 2009

Walt Disney Animation Studios

Welcome to Walt Disney Animation Studios headquarters in Burbank, California. Adjacent to the main Walt Disney studios lot where the live-action magic happens, and opposite the ABC building, this is Disney’s most striking architectural creation. It’s the house that the mouse built, with Mickey’s tall, blue Wizard hat dominating the building’s exterior and reminding all who pass through the front doors of the century’s worth of history upon which Disney is founded.

But the staff of Walt Disney Animation Studios is looking to the future, not the past, as Rotten Tomatoes is invited to tour the studios. In April 2006, Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were respectively appointed President and Chief Creative Officer of the studios with a clear goal front of mind: to return the studios to their place as a factory of feature film classics.

Bolt is their first release in charge of the studios, and its Certified Fresh Tomatometer suggests they’re well on their way to achieving that goal. Join us as we find out how the Pixar effect is rubbing off inside Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

The building’s unusual architecture continues into the bright lobby, where artwork from Bolt dominates the walls, and marketing materials colour the reception area. So far so Pixar, at least in the studio’s approach to promoting their current release with striking visuals. A collage at the back of the lobby, including a frame on a particularly recognisable white glove, reminds you you’re at Disney, though, and around the corner the WDAS screening room – shockingly bereft of 3D projection – is decorated with the familiar mouse ears logo.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

As you ascend into the production areas you start to get a sense of how important it is that all this art is on display. Internally, the building is pretty drab, like any other office building. Storyboards and concept sketches from productions in progress – predominantly from Bolt but plenty from The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel – make the artists feel at home and warm the environment. But for us the greatest sight is original pencils and cels from classics of Disney past, as far back as Snow White, which turn the entire building into an art gallery.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

The Pixar building has been constructed so that the lobby atrium contains all lunch facilities and encourages staff from all departments to mix and socialise at lunch and break times in a free-flowing creative environment. It’s a philosophy Lasseter has tried to recreate with the Caffeine Patch at WDAS – centrally located, there’s comfortable sofas dotted around, art from all working productions and, of course, free-flowing coffee. The “Pods” – self-contained offices decorated by productions to house their artists – seed straight to this area.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

In most corporate buildings you’d imagine the boss’s office would be pretty hard to find. Not so John Lasseter’s office at WDAS – his glass cube is right off the Caffeine patch, and full of art from his favourite Disney animations and Pixar projects. He and Catmull split their time between WDAS in Burbank and Pixar further north in San Francisco, and by all accounts seem pretty accessible to their staff – more than once we caught Lasseter milling in the Caffeine Patch chatting to animators. And giant hamsters.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

The next project from the studio, and thus the most fully-formed when we visit (Bolt excluded), is The Princess and the Frog. We’re brought into the production’s Pod – decorated with crocodiles and Mardi Gras beads to bring a New Orleans feel – and given some background on the plot. We’re also shown, but sworn to secrecy on, a vast collection of art from the film. Suffice to say, it’s very exciting stuff, and there’s an energy in the Pod that makes us keen to see the film. The entire building seems abuzz with the thought that a proper Disney 2D fairytale animation is in production, and there’s a clear hope that The Princess and the Frog will prove that there’s still a place for hand-drawn animation in a digital world.

Bolt is in cinemas now. If you missed our tour around Pixar in San Francisco, check it out here.

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