If hand-drawn animation ever needed a jump start at Disney, now’s the time. Maybe “Once Upon a Studio,” the hybrid short where 2D takes center stage in a multi-character crossover, will provide the first baby step. But even if it’s only a momentary 100th-anniversary legacy booster, it’s a cause for celebration as 543 newly animated characters (mostly hand-drawn) leap out of their photographs in the live-action Roy E. Disney Animation building to roam the halls and gather outside for a group photo.
The short premieres October 15 during ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration.” It will not play in front of “Wish” but will have an Oscar-qualifying run at the El Capitan in Hollywood.
“Once Upon a Short” was directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy (“Once Upon a Snowman”), who developed the idea for eight months during COVID before pitching it over Zoom to Jennifer Lee, Disney Animation’s chief creative officer and the screenwriter of “Wish.” In addition to presenting storyboards, Abraham even sang “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Lee was emotionally stirred and greenlit the short immediately.
“We were thinking of something that really just celebrated the history and the legacy and used the characters from the past that people had come to know and love,” Correy told IndieWire. “And for those eight months, we didn’t know if this was going to fly because there’s hand-drawn animation and CG animation with live action playing over 500 characters (from more than 85 features and shorts). As Disney fans, we were just creating what we would want to see for the 100th year.”
The short (which utilizes all 40 surviving voice actors along with soundalikes and a couple of archival voices) opens with artists leaving the Animation building, as Disney Legend Burny Mattinson (who worked at the studio doing hand-drawn for 70 years before passing away in February 2023) turns to a young Black female animator and remarks, “Boy, if these walls could talk.” Mickey and Minnie pop out of their photographs to round up the gang, Next, we see Bambie, Thumper, and Flower appear; and Peter Pan emerges next to Minnie and the cast of “Bolt.” He utters, “Here we go” (voiced by Bobby Driscoll from the 1953 original film), and takes flight.
Among the highlights: Moana gets splashed catching a falling Flounder from “The Little Mermaid”; a stuck Winnie the Pooh needs help from Christopher Robin to pull him out; Dalmatian puppies from “101 Dalmatians” watch “Night on Bald Mountain” from “Fantasia”; Antonio from “Encanto” runs down the hall surrounded by Pua from “Moana,” Pascal from “Tangled,” Meeko from “Pocahontas,” Cri-Kee from “Mulan,” and dressmaking bluebirds from “Cinderella”; the fairies from “Sleeping Beauty” argue over the color of the landmark hat on the building outside, joined by Jock and Trusty from “Lady and the Tramp”; and Donald Duck gets exasperated in an elevator waiting for Flash the sloth from “Zootopia.”
“It was a big puzzle figuring out these characters and situations,” Abraham told IndieWire. “The first thing I drew was Winnie the Pooh stuck in that picture, and then Christopher Robin, and I’m trying to pull him out because, of course, he’d get stuck. It was us in the room drawing sketches, and we had a whiteboard full of names and scenes like Kaa (from ‘The Jungle Book’) hypnotizing Clarabelle (Cow), and who would be able to hit Kaa on the head and how would that be funny? Well, Rapunzel uses that frying pan in ‘Tangled,’ so that would be fun if she conked him on the head.”
Technically, Disney needed to set up a 2D pipeline for the hand-drawn characters alongside the CG character and VFX pipelines. Disney Legend Eric Goldberg (who recreated his Genie from “Aladdin,” among other characters) supervised the 2D animation with the help of other hand-drawn vets and five 2D apprentices from the internship program. Not only did this require total integration of animation and live action, but also each animated character had to be rendered exactly as they appeared in their films.
“It was the clean-up line on them,” Abraham said. “Because, if you look at ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ you’re gonna have this wonderful, perfect, colored ink line. And then, when you get into the ’60s and ’70s, and you’re talking ‘101 Dalmatians,’ ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Robin Hood,’ and ‘The Aristocats,’ it was all xeroxed lines so they’re real sketchy. And so we wanted to make sure that we held on to those sort of blind qualities that were a deliberate choice back in the day. When in doubt, or we needed a character reference, we’d just go back and look at the (model sheets) and the movie and study them.”
However, the most ambitious hybrid technique was having Chernobog, the enormous demon from “Night on Bald Mountain,” come out of the TV and scare the puppies. For that to work properly, they shot the live-action plate and then integrated the placement of the puppies with the foreground elements, and scaled the demon correctly to break the proscenium. Then they did HDR capture of the entire set to recreate the lighting in the computer for a union of CG and 2D.
“You get the nostalgia right away with the puppies sitting just as they did in the original movie, watching TV,” Correy said. “And you get the great music and then a bunch of random characters like ‘The Wind in the Willows’ characters, Mowgli (from ‘The Jungle Book’), Flynn Rider (from ‘Tangled’), Sven and Kristoff (from ‘Frozen’). And then when the puppies run off scared, they knock over Scrooge McDuck and drop down Robin Hood and Little John. So, it’s fun to find those intersections of characters.”
“Once Upon a Studio” premieres October 15 at 8 p.m. as part of ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration.”