The Studio that Walt Built

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

The Studio That Walt Built

While I may not always answer my e-mail promptly, I definitely read all the mail sent to me, including some comments on a recent column about whether the Disney Studio in Burbank was designed to be converted into a hospital. ("Just the Disney Facts, Ma'am," March 14, 2007).

This is a Disney urban myth that has been around for decades, even though sincere former employees at the Disney Studio told me in all seriousness during interviews that it was indeed a fact.

It is not true. In fact, the Disney Studio was the first animation studio designed specifically to be an animation studio and deliberate choices were made to make it the best animation studio in history.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was so successful that it allowed Walt Disney the opportunity to build a studio specifically designed for animation. The Disney Hyperion studio had become a hodgepodge of buildings, with expansion of animation work necessitating Walt sending employees to nearby apartment buildings to do their work.

In 1938, Walt put a deposit on 51 acres in Burbank and by May 1940, the move to the newly constructed studio was complete. Some staff moved as early as December 1939 into the new facilities.

Walt Disney's biggest concern with his new studio was that each building should be designed so that it would facilitate optimum production. Windows were placed wherever they were needed to help fulfill that function rather than where they would have been traditionally placed to achieve balance or a pleasing exterior design.

The Animation Building was built to house the Story Department, directors, producers, background artists, layout artists, inbetweeners (animators who provide drawings between key poses, so as to provide a flow of movement) and similar personnel. Walt hoped having all these people together, even if on different floors, would help them to coordinate better with each other.

Roy Disney's office, accounting and business department had their own first floor wing. The animators, clean-up artists and inbetweeners were also on the first floor. The directors had suites on the second floor, including a secretary and a separate room with a Moviola (a device that film editors used to view film while editing). Layout men, background artists and the Music Room were also on the second floor. The third floor was Walt's suite of offices, as well as rooms for the Story Department and the music composers.

The Ink and Paint building was built directly across from the Animation Building with a unique addition. There was an underground, all-weather tunnel to connect the two buildings so that artwork could be transported without fear of wind, rain or extreme heat.

Weather was a big concern. Temperature and humidity control are essential for the quality of the work and the comfort of the employees. So, an extensive air conditioning system was installed to help keep the buildings clean to avoid dust or lint on the lens and film. Animator Bill Justice told me he remembered his room stayed a comfortable 73 degrees year-round.

"Every room had a window, with only two people to a room (except for the bullpen). Floors were carpeted and additional light made working conditions a lot better. Each wing also had a secretary who acted as a gate keeper. Doors were locked to control visitors and she would push the button to let you enter the work areas," remembered Bill.

Humidity controls were to help keep the paints from being either too dry or too sticky. Believe it or not, the Disney Studio often mixed their famous paint formulas based on the humidity of the day for ease of application.

All the rooms in the Ink and Paint Building were built with large windows to receive North light only, and the windows were sealed to keep out the dust that might get stuck in the paint. By the way, the air conditioning in the Ink and Paint Building was without recirculation so that the fumes from the paints and chemicals did not become overpowering.

Walt was adamant that he didn't want an "institutional" look very common in other studios, especially for the main Animation Building that was to be 250 feet long.

Frank Crowhurst, who was in charge of construction in 1940, stated: "It is the contention of our architects and engineers that if you have your functions intelligently balanced, the exterior will take care of itself; so our buildings have a balance which we didn't strive for at all. We call it 'Functional Modernism'."

That was true. While the emphasis was on functionalism, the resulting design does appeal aesthetically perhaps due to the contributions of Kem Weber, a proponent of a new style called "streamline moderne."

A furniture and industrial designer, architect and teacher, Berlin-born Karl Emanuel Martin (KEM) Weber (1889-1963) was the primary designer for the new Disney Studio in Burbank in 1939. It is not clear why Weber took the name Weber (weaver), but "Kem" is formed from his name's original initials.

Like his previous designs of the Sommer & Kauman shoe store in San Francisco and the Bixby House in Kansas City, Missouri, the Disney Studio was an "interpretation of the International Style with an emphasis on a more decorative interior." Weber's influences included Egyptian, Mayan, and clean European modernist design.

Capitalizing on the visual trend of the period to design furniture that took on a sculptural quality, Weber's streamlining negated most rightangles. He is probably most famous for his original 1934 "Airline" chair that featured rounded wood corners, an upholstered seat and back, and was shipped flat-packed and unassembled. Even though a limited number were produced, Walt Disney Studios ordered hundreds for their offices. An art director for Barker Bros. Furniture in Los Angeles, Weber also designed modern sets for films and private residences. The Disney Archives have several original Kem Weber conceptual sketches.

Streamline Moderne is characterized by replacing straight lines and jagged angles with curves and rounded edges. The original Animation building is not sharp and square but instead has corners that are curved, and the skylight in the middle of the building was round. Even the counters in the offices had soft, sweeping curves. The furniture also had rounded edges and the handrails on the stairways were curved.

Crowhurst remembered: "We knew a great mass of brick left in its normal color would look too much like an institution." As a result, the designers played around with different color schemes to overcome the challenge of the height and size of the Animation Building.

"It had a lightness and gaiety about it," claimed Crowhurst because a brown was used near the ground, transitioning to a red and then finally, lighter colors at the top.

Even before Disneyland, Walt utilized color to fool the eye in terms of perspective. He didn't want the buildings to appear too tall, which would destroy the small campus feeling he was trying to achieve. So, the designers, instead of using vertical lines on the outside of the buildings, incorporated horizontal lines, resulting in a shortening effect.

The interiors also employed Walt's understanding of color. He stressed that there be no somberness or monotony in the area in terms of color, and also expressed his desire that not all of the wings and floors in the Animation Building be the same color.

Painters applied complimentary shades of blue, gray and umber. However, remember that the building's primary purpose was functionalism. So, gray was used in the rooms where artists would be working with color to avoid reflections of color off the walls that might interfere with their work.

The Animation Building was built facing due north, with wings extending on either side. It was done so that everyone would have a window and that as many rooms as possible would receive non-direct North light.

Always the innovative thinker, Walt made sure the building was constructed as separate units so that it would weave under the stress of an earthquake. Each wing is connected to the central hallway with copper expansion joints, and the long center section is also divided into two units.

Stage One was built in 1940 and the live action sequences for Fantasia were the first scenes to be shot on that stage. Stage Two was built in 1949 in co-operation with Jack Webb, who used the stage to film his Dragnet television series. He moved off the lot when Disneyland was being built because all the construction at the studio was making it too noisy for him to shoot, even though the building was as soundproof as possible with double walls and both hard and soft insulating materials in the walls and ceiling.

Stage Three was built in 1953 for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and contained a large tank for underwater and special effects filming. Stage Four was built in 1958 and first used for filming Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Careful attention was also given to the outdoor environment and landscaping of the studio. Walt knew how tedious and mind-numbing the process of animation can become, which is one of the reasons he encouraged the sandlot baseball games at the Hyperion Studio to recharge the mind and body.

Walt had been a member of the Hollywood Athletic Club. One of the staff members was an ex-Olympic wrestler named Carl Johnson, whom Walt regularly worked out with. When Carl heard that Walt was building a new studio, he suggested a gym so that the employees could keep in shape.

Unfortunately, the plans had already been approved and the main building was already well under construction. Something like that never stopped Walt, so he decided to add a penthouse with a gym, locker room, steam room, barber shop and kitchen. For $7 a month, employees could use all the facilities, sunbathe, and get private workouts from Carl Johnson. Carl's favorite workout used the old medicine ball.

Carl developed arthritis and left the studio in 1949, and passed away in 1952. The penthouse became less of a gym and more a place to play ping pong and poker.

Walt insisted the studio grounds have a park-like appearance conducive to strolling and relaxing. In addition, he made sure there was a volleyball court, ping pong table and a horseshoe tossing area.

Walt was deeply involved in contributing to the overall vision achieved by the designers in creating a studio that was not only designed for optimum production but provided a comfortable atmosphere and a pleasing aesthetic appearance. It was designed specifically to be an animation studio—not a hospital—and for decades, aspiring young animators yearned for a room in the studio that Walt built.