By Sam Kashner
The great renaissance of animation (Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ratatouille, etc.) has come almost entirely from one now famous group of students at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s. As students, they owed it all to Walt Disney, but as pros, many hit a wall at Disney’s studios. Sam Kashner hears from a band of misfits who learned from the best and couldn’t give anything less.
It was a staggering number. In November 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that directors who had been students in the California Institute of the Arts’ animation programs had generated more than $26 billion at the box office since 1985, breathing new life into the art of animation. The list of their record-breaking and award-winning films—which include The Brave Little Toaster, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, Pocahontas, Cars, A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, Corpse Bride, Ratatouille, Coraline—is remarkable. Even more remarkable was that so many of the animators not only went to the same school but were students together, in the now storied CalArts classes of the 1970s. Their journey begins, and ends, with the Walt Disney Studios. As director and writer Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) observes, “People think it was the businessmen, the suits, who turned Disney Animation around. But it was the new generation of animators, mostly from CalArts. They were the ones who saved Disney.”
In late 1966, Walt Disney lay dying. One of his last acts before succumbing to lung cancer was looking over the storyboards for The Aristocats, an animated feature he would not live to see. The Walt Disney Studios, the wildly successful entertainment empire he had founded with his brother, Roy O. Disney, as the Disney Brothers Studio, in 1923, was beginning to lose its way. Its animated films had lost much of their luster, and Disney’s original supervising animators, nicknamed the “Nine Old Men,” were heading for that Palm Springs at the end of the mind, either retiring or dying. Read more .