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Insider Report: D23’s Destination D Tour of Disney Animation Studios–PART 1

Please welcome to the blog Cara Richards.  Cara attended D23’s Destination D with a diamond ticket and graciously offered to share her experiences with the WDW Radio family.  In her first of two-part coverage, Cara details the first part of her tour of the Disney Animation Studios.  Welcome and THANK YOU, Cara!!

by Cara Richards

On the weekend of August 11th to 13th 2012, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend D23’s annual Destination D convention at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim – the theme for 2012 was ’75 Years of Disney Animated Features’.

Unlike previous Destination D’s, the 2012 event had a choice of ticket levels open to D23 members.  The basic ticket included the two main days inside the hotel (including fantastic panels featuring Disney celebrities such as Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Tony Baxter, Dick Van Dyke and Alan Menken to name just a few).  But for the first-time, a premium level (Diamond) package was offered to a select number of D23 members who were quick on their computers when tickets were released earlier in the year.  I was one of the lucky few who managed to secure one of these special passes at an additional cost and as a result, had one of the most exciting Disney trips of my life.

Lou hosted a great panel on show number 287 covering the details of days 1 and 2.  I ‘m excited to share with you what the Diamond ticket holders were treated to on day 3 – Monday 13th August.  So hold on to your mouse-ears as you come along on an exciting journey to Burbank, California…

Before we board the Mouse-ka-Bus and head in to the hustle and bustle of tinsel-town, a few details about what Diamond ticket holders had to look forward to on the first two days.  We were treated to a Destination D shoulder bag, which included our welcome pack for the weekend – a Sleeping Beauty sketch book and pencil, a ‘How To Draw Jiminy Cricket’ character model guide, a Tinker Bell lithograph, a set of Destination D buttons and a Cast Member style name badge.  All lovely souvenirs.  In addition to this, we were given early entry in to the merchandise hall – so first pick of the goodies on offer! – and we also had the first five rows of seats in the main ballroom reserved for us, so that we could avoid having to queue for seats between dining breaks.  A small meet and greet was also organized on the Saturday afternoon, where I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Don Hahn, Dave Smith, and Bill Rogers.

So, moving forward to Monday, we were scheduled to meet bright and early at the Disneyland Hotel where a grab and go breakfast was waiting for us along with two large coaches, which would transport the 100 or so of us to the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.  On the way, we were entertained with some vintage episodes of Disneyland, specifically about animation techniques which got us all in the mood for the tours to come during the day.

Upon arrival at the Disney Animation Studios, we were issued with stickers featuring one of four different Disney characters (I was Donald Duck!) and from here we were invited to enjoy some fresh fruit and pastries before being taken inside the main building to be split in to our different tour groups.  Before heading off, Darrin Butters (who has worked on a plethora of Disney animated movies, including Tangled, Prep and Landing, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Dinosaur) met with us and showed us the trailer for the new ‘Wreck-It-Ralph’ movie (which he has also done animation for).  We were then ushered off to our first location – the Story room.

We were sat down in a large meeting room and told about how the ideas for new animated stories are decided upon, much of which is done in the form of a brain-storm with no idea being dismissed.  Everybody is encouraged to suggest characters, plots, storylines and we even had a go at doing this ourselves, with the other groups later in the day adding to our suggestions in the hope we could put together a whole story plan by the end of the tour.  A member of the Disney story department then showed us how a story-board would be presented to an animation team and we got to see some actual storyboards from Wreck-It-Ralph (the scene where Ralph and Vanelope are arguing on the candy tree in Sugar Rush).  The cast-member who presented this scene to us did voices and actions and had a similar enthusiasm as can often be seen in old movie footage of Walt with his own team of animators decades ago.  Nowadays, most storyboard sessions are done through a computer, but it was nice that we were given an opportunity to see how it would have been done in the more traditional method.

Our next stop was at Pre-Vis and on our way we passed through a corridor where Studio Cast-Members were being encouraged to display their photographic skills.  The theme for this month was architecture and there were many impressive shots lining the walls of buildings and structures from all over the world.  Already we could see that this was a very creative building where EVERYBODY is given an opportunity to show off their talents.

The Pre-Vis presentation was done inside the actual blue sorcerer hat (which you can see from the building entrance).  It was designed to be Roy E Disney’s office and due to his extensive smoking habit, he even had a state-of-the-art air filtration system installed to get rid of the excess smoke – however, he decided to give-up smoking before he had a chance to try it out!  It was exciting to be in his office and the information we were given about Pre-Visualation was really interesting.  We got to see the different styles and themes used through the different worlds appearing in the new Wreck-It-Ralph movie and were shown how colour and design can convey the mood of a scene.

Next stop was the room where dailies are run for all the animated movies.  Here, the director and his team will sit for up to eight hours reviewing the days’ work and analysing it frame by frame.  We got to sit down in the director-style chairs and see some unfinished footage from Wreck-It-Ralph (are you seeing a theme here at all?) and the cast-members explained how as  a team they would discuss which pieces of the animation needed to be improved on and batted about ideas on parts that weren’t working.  This is also where positive feedback is received and where sections of the film can be built upon, eventually turning it in to the polished movie that we expect from a Disney production.

After leaving the screening room, we walked past some of the offices in the building (many of which are customized with shelves and shelves of stuffed toys, macquettes and custom art – all Disney of course) and made our way to ‘The Pod’.  This area of the studio is changed up every time a new feature is in production and true to the theme of our current tour, this time the pod was made up to feature the adventures of Wreck-It-Ralph.  The entrance to The Pod was made to look like an arcade doorway and there were even old 80s video game systems (including Pac-Man and Space Invaders) adorning the entrance.  Inside, there were bean-bag seats, foosball tables and vending machines where cast-members could relax between shifts.  A couple of tables were laid out featuring Sugar Rush scenes from Wreck-It-Ralph, made from real candy and there was art-work EVERYWHERE – a real feast for the eyes for any Disney animation fan.

Next, we followed some paper-planes which were suspended from the ceiling (in honour of the new short Paperman – which by the way is AWESOME!) and headed downstairs in to the belly of the building.  Our next stop was the voice-recording department.  For me, this is an area of Disney animation that I find fascinating.  We were given the opportunity to star as either Ralph or Vanelope and read some lines from the movie, doing our best to sync our voices with the animation on the screen.  In pairs, we were taken in to the recording booth and did our best Disney voices.  What a fun opportunity!  In a real-life situation, the voices are recorded BEFORE the animation, giving the animators prompts for facial expressions and movement in their work.  It was mind-blowing to think of the dozens and dozens of actors who have passed through this doorway and applied their voice-talents to so many wonderful Disney movies in the past.

As we walked down the corridor to our next location, we got to see a brief history of Disney animation in the form of sketches on the walls.  There were also a number of large ‘flip-books’ where our tour guides encouraged us to look at some of the wonderful work by animators such as Glen Keane and Frank Thomas.

Our next stop was in Rigging.  We were all sat down in front of PCs where we were presented with a large computer model of Disney’s latest hero (or bad-guy depending on how you look at it!) – Ralph.  We were given a brief lesson on how to animate him and were shown how to manipulate his body to put him in to different positions and change his facial expressions.  This was the ACTUAL Ralph computer model that the animators used when making the movie and after our brief lesson, it was fun to see what crazy positions other D23 members had put their Ralph in to – mine ended up looking like he was break-dancing!

We were told by our tour guides, as we left the Rigging room, that ALL employees at the Disney Studio are given the opportunity to take part in art-programs (regardless of what department they work in) and amongst other things, there are art classes held every day at the studio, where cast-members are encouraged to join in and perfect their techniques or learn new skills.  We got to see one of these class-rooms, where live models feature regularly; it which was decked out with easels, benches and a variety of art materials including paints, pastels and clay.

It was now time for us to go back downstairs and meet the other people who were touring the studios with us.  We got down to the ground-floor via an amazing stairwell where employees are encouraged to graffiti the walls!  There were sketches and doodles everywhere.  Some were Disney related, some featuring other well-known non-Disney characters (such as Warner Bros and The Simpsons/Futurama).  Many had witty comments or anecdotes written next to the art.  It made for fun reading as we headed back downstairs.

Back in the main lobby of the studio, we were guided en-masse in to the Studio Theater where Darrin Butters was waiting for us with goody-bags and a slide-show of photos of us on the big screen.  Our gifts included a Wreck-It-Ralph movie poster and postcard, a Paperman art-book, a Winnie The Pooh mug and a framed photo of the entire tour group taken outside the Animation Building when we had arrived that morning.  This was all bagged up in a Disney Animation Studios branded tote with a vintage-style Mickey Mouse button.  After asking us all whether we had enjoyed our time (a resounding YES! from everybody of course), Darrin proceeded to read out the completed story which we had as groups, written in the Story Board room over the course of the morning.  I can’t even remember much of the plot as it was so bizarre, but suffice to say it included a teddy bear, life-time passes to the parks and an evil roller-derby girl – very random!

In my next post, I’ll tell you about the afternoon session of our day at the Disney Studios.

Check back on the blog tomorrow to learn about Cara’s experiences in the afternoon session!