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Magic of Disney Animation

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Some of you may be confused as to why we're looking back at an extinct attraction that is still at the Studios, but we're talking about the original version of the Magic of Disney Animation that was in existance back when the Disney-MGM Studios was a center of real film production. It offered a tour that really took you inside the "magic" of creating a Disney film and showcased the many steps of feature length film animation from concept to charisma. Let's take a look back at the original version of this attraction that is no longer at the Studios anymore.

In 1988, Walt Disney Imagineers approached BRC Imagination Arts to assist them in creating a tour through a working animation studio built at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park. Their goal was to make the production experience accessible to viewers without disturbing the artists and that certainly was a challenge. For "The Magic of Disney Animation," BRC and the Disney Imagineers decided to move approximately 1000 guest through the exhibit per hour. The experience begins in a movie theater (each theater holds approximately 250 audience members), then moves through all the departments of an animation studio--storyboard, layout, character animation, etc.--in elevated tiered passageways that allow both the visitors to view the animators and the animators, if they desire, to view the visitors.

Guests would line up, as they do today, in the entrance area that you enter via the Animation Theater. The queue snaked through a number of switchbacks that featured artwork from some Disney films. Once a tour commenced, guests would enter the Disney Animation Theater, where they would see a hillarious eight-minute film in which Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams explain animation basics. The film, directed by Jerry Rees, (Brave Little Toaster) was created in-house at BRC by a crew of Los Angeles-based freelancers. The film starts with a tourist wearing a Goofy hat (Robin Williams) is chosen by Cronkite to help learn about animated films. They demonstrated the art of film production in a faux Peter Pan sequel entitled "Back to Neverland" and starred Williams as a Little Lost Boy. In the film, Cronkite takes Williams through the process of how an animated film is made. Robin suggests the film be called Peter Pan: First Blood, but the title was voted down. Robin Williams discovers the potential range of animation: "Hey," he proclaims as he's redrawn into a familiar rodent, "I can be a corporate symbol!" Meanwhile, we learn about cel-making, layout artists, story boards, background artists, cleanup artists, sound effects, and more. Little Robin is happy to be in the film, until Cronkite drops Robin into a background painting of a pirate ship, where Robin runs into Captain Hook himself. Hook wants to know where Peter Pan is hiding, but Tinker Bell shows up to save Robin from the clutches of Captain Hook.


From the theater, you follow walkways with windows overlooking the working animation studios, where you see real Disney artists at their drafting tables doing everything you just learned about. Their desks are strewn with finished drawings of Simba, Scar, Aladdin, Genie, and other famous characters, and you can peer over their shoulders at soon-to-be-famous characters.

Meanwhile, Robin and Walter continue their banter on overhead monitors, explaining the processes as you saunter from story room, where animators develop story lines. These real animators were added in 1995 to help promote some of the films being produced at the Studios. Guests would proceed to the drawing boards, where ideas metamorphose from sketch to colorful characters; to the cleanup room, the special effects area, and the special camera that transfers drawings to cels. To produce one 24-minute film, the 70-plus members of the animation team must create 34,650 drawings and add scenes from at least 300 background paintings.

The final film on the tour is a continuously running video called "Animators on Animation". This film was an interview/documentary with famous Disney animators delving into the reasons why these artists chose animation as their life long careers. "You believe the character is alive," confesses one of the animators who so identify with their characters that they can take on their personalities. As an example, you'd see a low-key animator litterally turn into the blowsy, evil Ursula from The Little Mermaid right before your eyes.

Upon completion of the tour there's a valedictory quip from Robin Williams, and you head into the Disney Classics Theater for a presentation of the best moments from animated films. It's fascinating to see the evolution of the art from the bright colors and straightforward drawings in Snow White and Pinocchio to the rainbow hues and complex panoramas of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Best of all, you know that here the characters always will live happily ever after.

After the film, guests would then move into a museum-like display of famous Disney animation projects. This original version ran from when the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989 until it closed on September 30, 2003 to be replaced by an iteration of the attraction much closer to the one we know today.

Image courtesy of 2719 Hyperion