Although the Silent Era animators would marvel at the technical brilliance of Winsor McCay, few thought to grow their skills through formal art training just to animate better. They knew enough to get a check and that was it. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that young artists like Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas first began showing Walt Disney a portfolio to get a job.
In 1931, Disney animator Art Babbitt began to have informal drawing classes in his house. Artists there passed a hat to pay the model. By the second session he had standing room only. Walt Disney heard about it and decided to move the sessions into the studio annex and make them official. In part he was worried about any bad press getting into the papers about his animators hanging out all night with nude models. Remember, in these days, an artist was ordered by law to post a sign on his door that read A.I.R.: artist in residence. That warned decent neighbors that there was a fellow inside with undressed people and bongo playing and such goings on. And, by reputation, young Art was a bit of a stud-muffin with the ladies. Walt wanted no gossip about his place.
Walt was soon driving artists in his jalopy to classes at the Chouinard Institute started by Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard in 1932. It was in downtown Los Angeles by Westlake Park, later named MacArthur Park for the famous general. Then he started bringing one of their drawing teachers, Stanford’s Don Graham, up to the studio for art instruction. Marc Davis recalled how on one Thursday a month Walt treated his artists to an art cinema on Fairfax to see the latest European avant-garde art film, like Un chien andalou
, and discussed it afterwards.
For many of the veteran animators like Babbitt and Jimmy Culhane, this was the first formal art training they ever tasted. For the rest of their lives, they spoke highly of Don Graham's inspirational teaching skills. Besides the top artists, there was an entry level drawing program under an imperious taskmaster named George Drake to create new inbetweeners for the cleanup department. Disney offered drawing classes that greatly increased the quality of the studio’s work. Luminaries visited, like Frank Lloyd Wright who loved Fantasia’s visuals, but criticized the music. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
By 1941, Walt Disney was paying $100,000 a year for the classes alone, which the other animation producers thought absurd. These programs made the overall quality of the studio’s work grow by leaps and bounds. It was the key ingredient to Disney’s studio outdoing every other studio in the world in terms of quality. Walt Disney arranged for more famous artists like Rico LeBrun and Jean Charlot to come and address his crew. When the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright saw Fantasia
he commented, “I love the visuals, but why did you use all that stale, old music?” But the programs were interrupted by the strike, the Second World War and the tough post war times afterwards.
Artists returning from World War II had the ability to attend college on the Rankin G.I. Bill to improve their skills. Some of them now saw teaching as an opportunity to pass what they learned to a new generation. Animation began to be taught in schools.
In 1946, Bill Tytla’s assistant at Disney, William Schull, started an animation course at the University of California, Los Angeles that became the UCLA Animation Workshop. Like many animation artists of that time, Schull was inspired by what we now call the UPA Revolution. Many wanted to explore new ways of storytelling and new abstract styles beyond realism, what they called the same old “cat-chases-the-rat” stuff.
The first film school in the U.S. had been set up in 1929 at the University of Southern California. Silent movie stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks added funding and early lecturers and presenters included Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. As early as 1942, IMAX pioneer and Disney animator Les Novros taught, “The Principles and Mechanics of Animaton.” Herb Kosower taught film graphics at USC in the ‘60s, and, in the ‘70s, a few graphic animation courses were taught by Gene Coe. Today, Tommy Trojan offers a major program in the department they call The John Hench Department of Animation and Digital Arts — DADA. After the war, Disney instruction still continued on at the Chouinard Art Institute. Disney legends Don Graham and animator Marc Davis taught classes, but teamed with radical, iconoclastic young teachers like Bob Kurtz. Bob once said, “If there is a Heaven, I want there to be a Chouinard there.”