The Disney Art School - Part One

By David Johnson

 

 

 

 

The 1930s have often been said to be the Golden Age of Disney Animation. Part of the reason stemmed from the Depression itself with so few job openings in the art market whatsoever while Disney opened his doors not only to artists but to musicians, technicians, engineers as well as to artists of all sorts and descriptions. There is another, less conspicuous, but one whose influence extended far beyond that glorious period. From 1932 until nearly the end of the decade one of the most unique art schools ever organized anywhere flourished on the Disney lot at the fabled Hyperion Studio. Headed by a former engineering student from Stanford University named Donald Graham, this endeavor would, more than anything else, propel the Disney artists into the realm of Walt’s dream for a feature-length cartoon and all of the requisites such an endeavor would require. That an art school of any dimension would exist in a cartoon studio was at the time unheard of - that it succeeded so completely under the masterful Graham is nothing short of miraculous. All of which is again a tribute to Walt’s far reaching and intuitive grasp of getting exactly what he was searching for.

The superiority of the Disney product, by 1934 a recognized fact, is generally thought of in terms of artwork. This, however, was only the tip of the iceberg. Walt encouraged, rather, demanded an analytical approach to thinking by everyone, something other studios would have trouble understanding let alone implementing. Such an attitude is illustrated by the following handout, probably intended for directors and animators but most likely distributed to everyone, in the typical early Disney fashion. Although there is no by-line, it was surely written, if not at least in part by Walt himself, closely according to his specifics.

The need for analyzation of every problem in animation mechanics is all-important. In practically all problems which can arise a simple application of logic will point the way to solution. In many cases of scenes incorrect technically, the logic which has not been applied is of such a simple nature as to make it seem ridiculous to think that someone of average intelligence could miss its application. And, it is not carelessness that causes those things to be missed; it is purely lack of analysis. The people coming into contact with that problem have not used their faculty of deduction to find the simple, basic logic that determines whether or not a given problem will work.

At Disney's, then, talent wasn't enough. One had to think as well. As hard as it is for us to imagine the above sitting on the desk of a cartoon animator, the same thoughts, no doubt, went through many an artist's mind. Yet at Disney's, the unusual became the norm. And it all added up to a product that kept competitors in angry but generally conceded awe. As veteran animator Dick Lundy once told the author:"Our cartoons were better than any of the other studio's. And when dialogue came in, we had better dialogue. We went by inflection and accents of the track in order to animate. [For example, in the 1934 Silly Symphony Grasshopper and the Ants, the Queen says:] `You'll change that tune when winter comes, and the ground is covered with snow.'- there's only two accents [which, in turn are the basis for the two major physical peaks used in animating that particular phrase]. And we talked from the feet on up. It wasn't like modern day - all head movement, or mouth only."

Nor was it only unlike "modern day." Even then "I'd been seeing for several years his work get better and better and ours (i.e. Fleischer, Iwerks, and Van Bueren) wasn't,” said animator Shamus Culhane in another interview with the author. “Everybody's outside was the same old junk. One of the things about Walt's movies [that] are different from other pictures made at the time is that he would pile in things that you'd never see if you saw the picture once. But if you saw it two, three, or four times, then you kept finding things in it." Not only was the Disney product leagues ahead of any competitor by the time Snow White was announced, many of his films were spoken of in terms reserved for fine art and Disney as the Rembrandt of cartoons. Fortune Magazine of November, 1934, had this to say:

The Silly Symphony has claims to the dignity of art with which few other products of the Hollywood inferno can compete. First of all it is simple, at a time when all other entertainment in America's theaters is designed for a disillusioned and sophisticated audience. It gives pleasure; it appeals to your simplest emotions, whereas most other films cater to the complex emotions born of this troubled time: your prejudices, your desires, or your curiosity. Moreover it is moral: with a deft touch that gives no offense, it builds its themes upon the basic distinctions in human behavior which have guided the common man since he emerged from savagery. Courage overcomes wickedness and fear; industry triumphs over dalliance; false ambition gives way to resignation. And finally, the Silly Symphony is an avenue of escape from the world's confusion. Therein it follows the most enduring formula for art. Music, painting, the dance, and the literature of simple people: all these are created to divert man from the cares of a complicated life, and all these are combined in Disney's films.

Such praise is high enough. But considering its origins and the rather crude efforts of barely five years earlier, Walt Disney had definite reasons to be proud. "What was happening was really marvelous here. If you take Steamboat Willie which started in 1928 and look at the time [when Snow White was going into production in 1934], you're talking about six years from this very primitive thing to putting a film like Snow White on the screen that had emotion, believability, a heart, everything - here people were crying at the same drawings with the same technique that was this little simple-minded thing that was Steamboat Willie."

Marvelous maybe, but what was really happening there? Walt's innovations, of course, speak for themselves and are tangible enough. But beyond even that, there is a more comprehensive, if largely unknown, answer to such a question.

Don Graham, a former engineering student at Stanford University is responsible, probably more than any other single individual besides Walt himself, for bringing Disney's dream of animation as an art form to reality. For nearly a decade, he personally supervised artists at the studio in what became known as the Disney Art School, probably the most unique place of instruction to be found anywhere on the globe. Beginning in late, 1932 and using his own methods, he would, within a relatively short time, create a staff that was the envy of the entire world, ready to tackle anything.

The origins of this remarkable program go back to 1931, when Walt had thought his artists would benefit from added training and originally drove some of them to and from night-time life drawing classes at LA's Chouinard Art Institute (and, according to his daughter Diane, paid for as well). Soon after the arrival of a former East-coast animator, Art Babbitt in 1932, life drawing sessions were informally held at Babbitt's newly-purchased home in the rather swank area called French Village, near Hollywood Bowl. With the prospect of a live female nude model, word spread rapidly, resulting in standing room only by already the second session. Word also spread to the head office where Walt's sense of propriety and Babbitt's bon vivancy found their compromise in the use of the studio sound stage instead, with the bonus of free art materials and models paid for by Walt. The latter's tab, however, was soon to increase - considerably - as an instructor from Chouinard, a certain Don Graham, was duly installed as the studio's official teacher when classes formally began on the evening of November 15, 1932. Such an installation would never be regretted by Walt, even as he was paying, by mid-decade, a whopping $100,000 annually on this art school endeavor alone, out of his own pocket. Other cartoon producers snickered. Walt began producing masterpieces.

The selection of Graham proved to be one of the most fortuitous moves Walt ever made and is, co-incidentally, a good example of his unusual skill at utilizing, extracting, and motivating results from the least likely sources. For Graham, who had never before worked in the animation field, turned out to be not only an ideal instructor with his unparalleled knowledge of the art of drawing and art history or even in his mastery as a superb draughstman. He was able to impart this knowledge to his "students" and inspire them to think for themselves in terms relating to their own medium in a way that left many with life-long impressions and continual growth. Walt had, indeed, hit the jack-pot.

Originally, classes were held once a week, always after work, on the sound stage. Soon this was expanded to twice weekly while Graham began finding himself more at Hyperion Avenue than at Chiounard's. By 1934, a building across the street was bought and quickly became known as the Annex and which served for both the art classes (at night) as well the relatively new inbetween department (inbetweens are the drawings done intermediary to the animator's key poses - known as "extremes"). It wasn't long before Graham became a full-time employee with classes now held every night and many days as well. By mid 1935, Gene Fleury (later an important addition to Warner Bros.) and well-known water colorist Phil Dike would assist Don in his presentations. All artists were required to attend at least one three hour class per week.

With the physical expansion of the art school came a corresponding growth in its curriculum. What began as mainly a life drawing class for under-schooled artists would eventually become a vast training program, encompassing all aspects of art and animation. Topics were as varied as possible, ranging from the physics of light to color composition to a multi-sessioned round on drapery. Even music and the psychology of humor in the cartoon were not considered too esoteric for inclusion. Guest speakers would include such luminaries as the Mexican/French muralist Jean Charlot, animal specialist Rico Lebrun, and Frank Lloyd Wright whose lecture, incidentally, was a disappointing embarrassment due to his mistaken idea that, since he was lecturing to a group of cartoonists, it should be funny; it wasn't. All were encouraged to watch every kind of media: foreign as well as domestic films (where Don advocated seeing one film "two or three times, rather than many movies just once"), ballet, theater, and sports. Nothing was too unimportant to pass up.

Shamus Culhane, in his book Talking Animals and Other People, speaks at great length about Graham and his obviously profound influence. Extremely patient, articulate, and with an excellent memory, Don could break down a complex drawing problem into understandable components. To Shamus, Don Graham was "probably the greatest art teacher of our time. Unlike the average instructor, he also had great talent as a draftsman. His drawings looked like the work of some of the Italian masters in their grace and power. The range of his knowledge was incredible, one minute discussing Cézanne and his point of view, the next showing us a Giotto where he'd tried to make a simulation of animation by painting four angels in poses like inbetweens, all leading up to a key pose." However, some thought Don and even the whole training program produced an effect opposite from that intended. One animator confessed: "After a while I got so I was afraid to draw an elbow. I thought there was too much emphasis on anatomy for cartoon drawing."

Don Graham certainly was unique, whatever the individual consensus, and for most a source of constant support and stimulation. In the words of veteran animator Marc Davis: "A true scholar of the art of drawing [who] knew as much about art as anybody I've ever come in contact with. Don gave so much and offered so much and not too many people realize that. [Don] was a very inspirational man. He taught a sense of graphics - how to put things down. He taught you to see things like what was flat on a piece of paper and what had dimension on a piece of paper and how to do that and how to stage things, in regards to living creatures." This alone would have left Walt's artists with plenty to chew on. But Don went much further and (no doubt with Walt's prompting) "taught the animators to explore the possibilities of each character's emotions in a given situation, then add the factors of the character's mental set and his physical characteristics. Only after all these elements were analyzed and evaluated by the animator could he [the animator] make his contribution. He would call into play his drawing ability, his ability to caricature action, and his ability to predict the possible reaction of the audience to a scene. He was expected to sense when to modify the vigor of his animation if the following scene peaked to a gag. This kind of complex planning was completely foreign to the approach other studios had to animation during the early 1930s."


  1. The mimeographed three-page handout is entitled Discussion of Exposure Sheet - Cell Levels (no date).
  2. Interview with veteran animator Dick Lundy, winter, 1990.
  3. Interview with Shamus Culhane.
  4. Interview with animator Marc Davis, winter, 1988. At the time of Snow White, Marc was Grim Natwick's assitant and would later be honored by inclusion in Walt's elite group of animators known as the "Nine Old Men."
  5. According to Babbitt (in his interview with the author in Winter 1988), it was fellow animator Hardie Gramatky who suggested Babbitt speak to Walt about the possibility of gaining Graham's services, someone Gramatky thought highly of. At the time, Babbitt was merely the class monitor and there was no instuructor. See Culhane, op cit. p. 116, for Babbitt's letter to Culhane describing the details. In Don Graham's own words: "First it was just two evenings a week, with some twenty or thirty men each evening. In a matter of three or four weeks, it became necessary to divide these classes...The attendance during these [first] two years averaged better than fifty men a session."
  6. "Other studios wouldn't even pay a nickel, not one cent!" on such a venture. Interview Shamus Culhane, September, 1987.
  7. All work at the Annex were under the despotic (and probably psychotic) tsar, George Drake, who was one of Walt’s rare miscalculations.
  8. Even pros like Grim Natwick, who by then had drawn thousands of life studies, made up part of the audience. Said Grim: "I went just because I enjoyed drawing from a live model - just as long as you have a model hired by somebody else. Walt wanted everybody to learn how to draw better and always hoped, I guess, that he could have been in there doing the drawing himself."
  9. Albert Hay Malotte, the American composer, briefly served on the studio's music staff and once lectured on the Relation of Music to Animation. He would leave both studio and anonymity behind in 1937, when his famous setting of The Lord's Prayer quickly made one forget all other versions. As to the lectures on Psychology of Humor in the Cartoon Medium given by UCLA's professor Karl Markovin, see further Chapter Six.
  10. Class on Action Analysis, Thursday, March 12, 1936.
  11. Culhane, op cit. p. 133.
  12. Interview with animator Dick Lundy, Winter, 1990.
  13. Interview with Marc Davis, Winter, 1988.
  14. Culhane, p.137.

This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson’s permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.