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DISNEY'S MAGIC SCHOOL : CalArts Students Are at the Core of the Animation Boom

October 30, 1994|CATHERINE JORDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may be the best investment Walt Disney ever made.

Not the mouse who grew to become an American cultural icon, nor the soggy Florida swampland that cost Disney about $185 an acre in 1964 and is now worth more than $1 billion as the home of Walt Disney World.

Disney's masterstroke may have been his founding of a private arts college that squats in relative obscurity among the brown, dusty hills of Valencia about 50 miles north of Los Angeles.

Conceived three decades ago, partly as a clever way to funnel an army of skilled animators into the Disney studios, California Institute of the Arts has spawned a generation of students who have become the creative nucleus of the Disney empire--responsible for animating the long-locked princesses, chubby lion cubs and other characters that have brought the company billions of dollars in entertainment and related merchandise revenue.

If there's one elusive ingredient vital to the incandescent Disney magic, CalArts is it.

As Walt Disney Co. continues to dominate the animated film business with hits such as "The Lion King" and "Aladdin," CalArts alumni continue to dominate its animation ranks.

More than 50 CalArts graduates contributed to "The Lion King," which has grossed $267 million domestically so far. The co-producer and co-director of 1992's "Aladdin" came from CalArts, as did more than 50 other animators on the film.

More CalArts grads were behind the 1993 movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas," including producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick. Nearly 70 CalArts alumni worked on "Beauty and the Beast." More are now at work on "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Fantasia Continued."

These feature films have helped ignite an industrywide boom in animation and become Disney's financial core. While attendance at the firm's theme parks lags--the Euro Disney investment is undergoing a massive refinancing effort amid losses of more than $550 million--and its live-action record is mixed, animated movies and ancillary products have driven revenue to record levels of $7.36 billion for the first nine months of 1994.

Since 1989, the year of "The Little Mermaid," Disney's filmed entertainment revenue has swelled from $1.59 billion to $3.67 billion in 1993, and product sales have more than tripled, from $411 million to $1.42 billion. Today, "animated products affect about 30% of Disney's (annual) cash flow," says Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst at Merrill Lynch in New York.

Exactly how big a contribution CalArts makes to Disney's bottom line is nearly impossible to measure, and both Walt Disney Co. and the school like to play down their interdependence. Disney executives point out that they also recruit from Sheridan College in Toronto and Ringling Brothers School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., among others.

CalArts emphasizes that many of its graduates migrate elsewhere for work and that animation artists represent only about a fifth of the school, which is also highly regarded for its programs in live-action filmmaking, fine art, music, dance and theater.

But both CalArts and Disney acknowledge that the longtime bond between them has grown into a powerful synergy that keeps Disney well at the forefront of the animation business--and brings CalArts money, cachet and connections.

Walt Disney Co. Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney, whose father, Roy O. Disney, took over CalArts' construction upon younger brother Walt's death in 1966, says CalArts has had a "huge amount" to do with the studio's ability to produce one highly profitable film after another.

CalArts students "have such good groundwork that they can start out at a much higher level in the art than someone coming in from the outside," says Disney, who along with recently deposed Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Animated Features President Peter Schneider, is credited with the revival of animation at Disney.

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CalArts opened its animation department in 1972 and graduated its first animation class in 1976. But the dynamic partnership didn't fully gel until the mid-1980s, when CalArts hit its stride academically and Disney emerged from a long companywide downturn that had depressed earnings and resulted in a series of dismally performing animated films such as "The Black Cauldron."

At the time, Disney leaned on the school simply to provide warm bodies. Roy E. Disney says that when he rejoined the company during a dramatic management coup in 1984, "there was a bit of an exodus" in the animation department. "We had to go to CalArts and say, 'Who wants to come and work?' "

The beginning of the resurgence was "The Little Mermaid" in 1989, which critics said recaptured the Disney magic and which drew millions of moviegoers.

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