So, I have to tell you about this awesome doc I saw the other week: Waking Sleeping Beauty. Briefly, Don Hahn, producer of so many great Disney flicks, including the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast, narrates a fantastic tale of the studio’s renaissance during the mid-eighties to the early nineties. If this movie plays at a local film festival or is available online, it is worth a look. Even if you aren’t an old-school Disney fan (and if you don’t gush over Ariel’s “Part of Your World” I don’t know what’s wrong with you!), the movie is an object lesson on creativity.
How did a studio that was considered over by the eighties regain its footing and become a global phenomenon, producing a string of timeless classics? Here are a couple of lessons I gleaned from Don Hahn on how to hang in there and make the workplace and myself more creative.
1. A New Office
Early on, Hahn mentions the move from animation’s old digs in Burbank to Glendale. Many animators thought this was Disney’s death knell, but it turned out to speed things along. Instead of offices, there were cubicles, encouraging stronger collaboration among employees. The original building in Burbank had been around since the thirties; obviously it’s difficult to find new energy overshadowed by so much history. The offices in Glendale gave animators a chance to spread out, try new things, and define what the company meant to them.
2. The Gong Show
Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the new talents brought in to lead the studio in the eighties, instituted these meetings to draw out the creativity of the animators and other employees. Anyone could pitch a concept, and if it sounded good, that animator, story person, whoever, would get to develop it. This seemingly democratic idea, like any good variety show, pulled from all levels of talent, leading to a richer pool of ideas. Where else did The Lion King come from? How about The Little Mermaid? Convinced this is a good idea yet?
3. New Techniques
Disney experimented with CGI in The Rescuers Down Under, the first big studio to do so. The reason the ballroom scene in Beauty is so beautiful is the amazing CGI employed to create an almost three-dimensional experience. Oh, and they invested in a little company called Pixar, which no one heard of again.
Hahn mentions early on the opening of another studio in London during the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While this could backfire and make the LA animators feel unloved, instead it sharpened their focus and forced them to work a bit harder to keep up. The great stuff going on in London was only matched by the amazing work in Glendale.
5. Fresh Talent
Broadway vet Peter Schneider signed onto Disney Animation in 1985 as president. This, and the addition of new staff culled from Cal Arts, caused quite the shake-up. Hahn talks about a generational rift at the studio. As the older animators retired, a new crew came to replace them, some, like Schneider with varying backgrounds, like the theatre. Katzenberg, a fiercely competitive CEO, pushed his employees to the limit, expanding not only the ranks of animators, but also their expectations for the company. It was a combustive mix, one that would be successful through a ten-year span, but would come to poison the company by the mid-nineties and hasten another decline in animation that has lasted until a bit before this decade at Disney.
6. Story, Songs, and Heart
I am a sucker for Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s work as songwriters on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. There is a tendency in writing about studios to overestimate the role of one member of the company, but their work, their creativity, and their songs did something to change the House of Mouse. They weren’t just writing songs for those grand musicals, through their music they were creating characters, adding depth and humor, investing emotion, and connecting a new audience to a beloved tradition of animation. I want to end this post with one of my favorites from their collaboration; a song from Aladdin that never made it that still gives me chills.