Making a short that covers 100 years of the legacy of Walt Disney Animation Studios is an incredibly daunting task, and yet, directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy were able to pen a love letter to the visual storytelling medium while also honoring the studio that brought us some of our favorite and unforgettable stories that helped shape our childhoods and future generations in their new short, Once Upon A Studio. And in our interview with Abraham and Correy, along with producers Yvett Merino and Bradford Simonsen, we get into finding out how they fit a centuries worth of our favorite characters and films into one eight-minute short, which characters almost didn’t make the cut and more.
As much as Once Upon A Studio is a love letter to all things Walt Disney Animation Studios, it is also a tribute to the legendary Burny Mattinson, the Walt Disney Company’s longest-serving employee of 70 years. And fans will have an opportunity to see the late animator in the short as well as some of his works in the short which debuts later tonight.
The Nerds of Color: So, this was an incredibly moving short that spotlighted some of our favorite characters from films, shorts, and other features. And because this featured so many characters throughout the studio’s history, can you talk about the audition process for these character to appear in the short?
Correy: Of course. Yeah. I mean, we knew from early on pitching this that we wanted to represent all 62 feature films and shorts in between. So we had, we had a list up in the story room, and we wanted to make sure every character was represented.
Now, the short centers on Mickey trying to gather all of the characters into one place for a studio picture. That in it of itself is a difficult task. So how did you decide which characters would go together and how they would interact with each other?
Abraham: We just started coming up with gags and moments that were funny or poignant. Who were the best characters to sort of mesh together and to have together and we would show each other our ideas? And if they made us laugh, then we’re like, okay, good. It was basically just a bunch of what would we like to see? And, the very first thing I drew was Winnie the Pooh stuck in his in his picture frame, and Christopher Robin, and again, pulling them out. Using the Disney Rolodex in our heads coming up with gags and stuff around the studio.
Music is such an essential part to the storytelling for any film or short, and here it connects with the audience emotionally but also creates a feeling of nostalgia. How did you figure out a way to use the songs and themes without having it takeaway from the story that you wanted to tell?
Abraham: I mean whatever felt right for the moment like “Feed the Birds” we had in there from the get go. We knew with our wild Mickey moment, it was going to be a real sort of tender, heartfelt beat. And there’s no better song than feed the birds that was Walt’s favorite. And so that had to be there. And then “You Can Fly” with Peter Pan, use that same song from Peter Pan when you’re flying just to take you right back to that moment. Like let that nostalgia wash over you.
Correy: Yeah, and I think within that there was a balance of spacing those apart so never felt like it was just all reuse and that our composer Dave Metzker came and and stitch those all together. And there’s little hidden moments throughout the short to where you use little chords or certain instruments that were used in original scores to just subconsciously remind you of different music and those eras in film.
Being at the studio for as long as you have, what is it like to see its evolution both in animation and visual storytelling, and take that experience to celebrate such a milestone?
Merino: What a unique position that I’m in right now. Like, what a unique moment to be at Disney Animation. I remember, when I started, I was assistant and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And they were releasing, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And I was like, wow, this is amazing. And to sit there and witness, as you said, the evolution of the studio, the growth of the studio as it grew in, in storytelling and in what these films are, it’s been, it sounds corny, but truly a gift to be able to be a part of it for this long.
I started I started in production years later, so my first film was Tangled. To kind of watch that whole time when it was Tangled, Bolt, and, Wreck-It Ralph, and just watch the growth of the films, I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, that’s so cool that I’m here.’ And then to be here for the 100, such a milestone in any company, but to be here for Disney Animation’s 100th anniversary, and then to be partners, it all kind of grows for me. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna keep quiet. So they think that I’m working hard.’
Because there are so many characters to fit into one eight-minute short, I was wondering if you had to fight for any to be in it or were there any characters you almost forgot about and suddenly remembered to add?
Merino: You know, who made it at the last minute?
Merino: The White Rabbit. And only because not because we didn’t want him. It was just really, how do we fit the how do we fit him in? And then he was on our board of like, we got to figure out a way, and then we were laying out that last shot, and the guys were like, “I think we can get them in.”
Simonsen: Yeah, and we were running out of resources, like everybody was everybody was working so hard. And that’s a hand drawn character. So we got incredibly lucky, one of our apprentices, Tyler Pacana – the guys were like, ‘Hey, we think Tyler can get this done. But we’re not sure. Let’s go talk to him about it.’ And then Tyler, was like, ‘Yeah, I think I could do it. I think I can do it.’ And then so literally, we’re racing to the end and the shots finally [done]. And then as it’s in comp, it’s like ‘Tyler got it done! Tyler got it done! He put the White Rabbit in.’ Yeah, that was one of them.
Once Upon A Studio, a new Original short film, premieres on ABC during “The Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration!” on October 15, 2023 at 8/7c. It will then be available to watch on Disney+.