The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 1
by, 06-08-2011 at 05:16 PM
Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio on October 16, 1923. Their first studio was in the garage behind their uncle Robert’s place at 4406 Kingswell Avenue in Los Angeles. When they got the chance, they moved down the street into a small office at 4651 Kingswell Avenue. It was not long before their thriving animation studio expanded into the office suite next door.
The studio continued to grow and soon the brothers outgrew the Kingswell facility. They needed more space so they purchased a property at 2716 Hyperion Avenue in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles in 1925. The new studio opened in 1926.
The Hyperion studio quickly became a creative beehive but it grew in an unorganized fashion. The facility sprawled from 1,600 square feet to over 20,000 square feet by 1931. A two-story Spanish Revival building and soundstage joined the original one-story stucco building. Over the years, additional buildings would be added as needed and the studio would grow to more than 73,000 square feet by the time the Disney brothers moved to Burbank.
Along with this rapid growth and success, Roy would insist in 1929 that they rename the company Walt Disney Productions to be a very real reminder as to who was the creative force behind the animation studio.
With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney brothers thought it was time to build a proper animation studio from the ground up. In 1938, they bought 51-acres in Burbank. Frank Crowhurst was chosen Chief Contractor and Bill Garity was named supervisor for the project. They began construction in 1939 and the first members of the Disney staff moved in on Christmas Eve of that same year. The rest of the staff moved in by the spring of 1940.
Walt and Roy’s facility in Burbank would be the first movie studio solely dedicated to the manufacture of animated films. All design decisions would be based on how the solution could enhance the filmmaking process. Walt wanted to provide maximum comfort so that he could encourage creativity and efficiency of his artists.
In press releases, The Walt Disney Company described the Studio as “a self-sufficient, state-of-the-art production factory that provided all the essential facilities for the entire production process.” The first films to be produced in Burbank were Pinocchio and Fantasia.
In Walt Disney: The Triumph of The American Imagination Neal Gabler said, “Walt saw the Studio in psychological terms. From the moment he started talking about the planning of the Studio, he always had in mind the psychological effect of the physical space, because Walt didn’t believe good work came out of tyranny. Studio heads at that time believed…anxiety was the source of productivity. Walt didn’t operate that way. He felt that if people were happy, they would create well.”
One Man’s Vision
Walt tapped Kem Weber to be the architect for his new studio. The name Kem is combination of his given name, which was Karl Emanuel Martin Weber. Weber was born in Germany in 1889. He graduated from the School of Decorative Arts in Potsdam and began to work for Bruno Paul. He worked on the German pavilions for the 1910 ‘Exposition Universalle’ in Brussels and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. That is when he decided to stay in the United States.
His early work was mostly for residential structures in various historic revival styles such as Mayan, Egyptian, and Minoan. He was also the Art Director for Barker Brothers, a large, influential furniture store in the Los Angeles area. Weber also worked as an industrial designer with some of his work shown at the 1928 ‘International Exposition of Art in Industry’ in New York. His design reputation was solidified by his work in the Streamline Moderne style.
Weber may have been the architect but Walt was involved in every aspect of the design. Walt’s priority was on function and not design. He wanted to enhance the movie making process and he would do that through a thoughtful efficient structure. Christopher Alexander said, “Process plays a more fundamental role in determining the life and death of the building than does the design.” The design of the Burbank studio was all about the process.
In a 1940 interview from the Disney Archives, Chief Contractor Frank Crowhurst said, “Walt wasn’t particularly interested in any architectural effects. We have a functional group of buildings… They allow their masses of construction to express style rather than surface ornamentation. It’s no good for me or Weber… or anyone else to try to tell him how a building should look. He isn’t interested.”
For example, to create the perfect animation desk Walt asked Frank Thomas, one of his most trusted animators, to design one based on his experience. Then Walt had Weber refine the design and fabricate the desks. Weber was also responsible for the design of the other pieces of furniture and the unified studio signage. In Building a Dream, Bob Thomas claimed Walt, “planned the Burbank studio down to the contour of the chairs.”
A Machine for Making Movies
Most Hollywood movie studios were a jumble of hastily built soundstages and administrative buildings that doubled as stage sets. They did not call these film factories for nothing. Walt wanted something very different for his creative talent. His studio would be based on an easy to navigate site plan and timeless architecture.
You enter the Disney studio through one of three gates. The internal circulation system is based on a grid of streets like a midwestern city. A grid roadway pattern is logical and makes finding your destination easier.
The two main streets on the Disney lot street grid are Mickey Avenue, which runs north south, and Dopey Drive, which travels east west. At the intersection of these two streets is a very famous street sign. The sign was originally meant to be a temporary prop for the 1941 movie The Reluctant Dragon. At one point, it was given permanent status and it has become one of the most identifiable and photographed spots in the Studio. Upon close inspection, you can see that the figure of Mickey Mouse did not match the Studios standard of the day. It was assumed that the sign would be gone right after filming.
The internal roadways are very narrow curb-to-curb. A narrow road naturally promotes traffic calming and encourages walking, bicycling, or small carts to be the preferred method of travel. Moving around Walt’s studio would be a pleasure unlike the experience one found other movie studios in the area. The parking areas were pushed to the edges of the property.
The buildings are set back from the interior streets and lined with grass lawns and oak trees. Even the utilities were placed underground and hidden from view. The overall effect was less a factory and more like a suburban office park. The entire studio feels very intimate and welcoming.
At the center of everything, both physically and psychologically, is the Animation Building. The architectural language for the building was based on the popular Streamline Moderne style. Streamline Moderne emulated the sensation of speed, efficiency, and modernity in a distinctly American way. Walt wanted to build and efficient and functional movie making machine and what could be more functional than an architectural style that reminds people of an aerodynamic train or an airplane? The principles behind Streamline Moderne would successfully express Walt’s intentions for the facility.
The design of the animation building captures architect Louis Sullivan’s advice that, “A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions.” Overall, the massing of the buildings features horizontal elements and clean lines. The buildings repeat various elements throughout the studio campus, which creates a sense of order and harmony. As stated earlier, this is a design pattern called alternating repetition.
In keeping with modernism, there is a lack of architectural detail. The Animation Building relies upon thoughtful use of exterior materials such as the flat ground floor bricks that are held together with recessed mortar and arranged in pairs, one on top of the other. The result is the building does seem to hug the ground.
The Californian desert inspires the color palette for the exterior of the Animation Building. The terracotta, cream, and green building colors are arranged in a gradient. However, this choice was not only beautiful but also functional. Walt wanted the color of the exterior to calm the eyes for artists who are looking at saturated colors throughout the workday.
The windows of the Animation Building are oriented to face true north. It has been known for centuries that north light is the best for artists because they get constant light with a silvery type quality that brings out the cool, purplish, greenish atmospheric colors. When windows face north, the quality of the light tends to be shadowless, diffuse, and neutral or slightly grayish most of the day and year. The animators and color stylists could paint all day and the subject would not change. The windows were fitted with special metal awnings that could be adjusted by the occupants of each office. Even today, the north facing windows of the Animation Building continue to remain unobstructed and let in the natural light.
The view below the north facing windows has changed considerably over the years. Originally, an earthen berm was built to hide the view of Alameda Avenue. When the Team Disney Building was erected, a reflecting pool was installed. Today, the reflecting pool as been paved over and the plaza has been dedicated to tributes for Walt, Roy Disney, and the other Disney Legends recipients.
Form Follows Function
Architect Louis Sullivan also proclaimed, “Form follows function.” That would be a good way to describe how Walt approached the design for the studio. The layout for the buildings and their relationship to one another is organized to follow the path of production for an animated film.
A re-creation of Walt's formal office once stood in Disneyland's Opera House
The filmmaking process starts on the third floor of the Animation Building with Walt and the storymen. Walt’s office suite was located in wing 3H on the third floor of the Animation Building in the prime Northeast corner. The suite was made up of a formal office as well as a working office. There was also a small kitchen as well as an apartment where Walt would occasionally spend the night. He enjoyed the apartment so much and found it so useful that he decided he would create the same type of living quarters on top of the fire station at Disneyland.
The storymen would hand off their work to the layout men and directors who were located on the second floor. Then the work would be divided up and the hundreds of animators on the first floor would go to work. In the basement were test cameras where the dailies could be shot and sent back up to the animators for their review.
When the animation cells were ready, they were transported in underground tunnels to the Ink and Paint Building across the street on the east just below Walt’s view. The tunnels allowed the delicate drawings to move from one phase of production to another without concern for the weather. Once the cells were painted, they would continue moving south toward the Camera and Cutting buildings.
The Burbank studio was designed to provide the artists all the comforts of home. There was a snack stand, barber, cleaners, a buffet-style restaurant, and health club. Every part of the facility was air-conditioned by a custom made General Electric system. This was a very rare thing at the time and was good for the artists comfort as well as keeping dust off the painted celluloid sheets.
This attention to detail was not just Walt being a benevolent boss; it meant that his artists really had no reason to leave work. The Disney studios work environment was unique at the time but it would become the prototype for modern day high-tech companies and other high performance organizations after World War II.
Next week, we'll continue our little history of the Walt Disney Studios. Until then, keep a good northern light for creativity!
We invite you to join Sam and MiceChat at the Huntington Gardens in July
“LOS ANGELES: INVENTED SPACES OR AUTHENTIC PLACES?”
Presented by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Huntington Library and Gardens
Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the Huntington Library and Gardens
Coffee & Pastries: 9:30 a.m. Colloquium and Lunch: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination. The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – has provided planners, designers and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure. What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented” places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible. A distinguished panel, moderated by author and planner Sam Gennawey, will address these questions.
- David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
- Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
- Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
- Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates
- Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners
Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20
Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington
Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary
[email protected] (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011