“Sketchbook,” Disney’s six-part documentary series devoted to the art of hand-drawn animation (streaming April 27 on Disney+), arrives as the studio embarks on the welcome return of traditional 2D — just ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2023. Produced by the team behind “Chef’s Table” and Walt Disney Animation Studios (via executive producer Amy Astley), the series provides an intimate look at six Disney artists and their distinctive talents and passions as they draw favorite iconic characters. It’s more than instructional — it’s a journey into their styles and personalities and overcoming personal obstacles. Story artist Gabby Capili (“Encanto”) draws Kuzco from “The Emperor’s New Groove,” 2D animator-director Eric Goldberg draws The Genie from “Aladdin,” 2D animator Mark Henn draws Simba from “The Lion King,” visual development artist Jin Kim draws Captain Hook from “Peter Pan,” supervising animator Hyun Min Lee draws Olaf from “Frozen,” and story artist Samantha Vilfort draws Mirabel from the most recent Oscar-winning “Encanto.”
“I think people like finding out about people who are associated with the things that they love, and the fact that this medium is so collaborative,” Goldberg told IndieWire. “It wasn’t just me doing The Genie. We had about eight animators and, of course, [directors] Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] and the writers and Robin [Williams] brought a ton to it. And it’s so rewarding to [study] because you get to understand those personal signatures that those artists bring to the characters. And, in animation, it’s more than drawing, it’s about timing and spacing, and how they move.”
Lee said that drawing is a great way to shed light “on all the different aspects of how the films come to be, how the characters come to be, and also how these people become animators. Hopefully, [the series] gives people more interest in the art form.” But she’s particularly thrilled that 2D is returning in a big way after Disney abandoned it theatrically in the wake of 2011’s under-performing “Winnie the Pooh.” “From the student side, it never went away,” she said.
Indeed, 2D has maintained a foothold at Disney. There have been several shorts, including the Oscar-winning “Paperman” (2012), which was an attempt to bring 2D into the 21st century with the advent of the digital line drawing tool Meander, which is still utilized at the studio. And, more recently, there have been experiments with hand-drawn through the Short Circuit program, as well as legacy special projects, including the “Drawn to Life” stage show with Cirque du Soleil at Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs. Additionally, there was the “Moana” hand-drawn moving tattoo sequence supervised by Goldberg. Plus, the studio routinely does development tests and draw-overs on the CG-animated features.
But a larger commitment to hand-drawn animation came at the end of last year with the launch of the first training program in more than a decade by chief creative officer Jennifer Lee and producer-turned-Disney Animation Studios-president Clark Spencer (“Encanto”). Under the mentorship of Goldberg, Henn, Randy Haycock, and Rachel Bibb, there were six trainees selected this year out of more than 2,000 applicants. The 12-month training program encompasses character and effects animation along with cleanup.
“I’ve been campaigning for a long time to train up people in hand-drawn, and, as the CG films became more and more popular, that idea became less and less important to the studio,” Goldberg said. “But now we have an atmosphere and a group of people who recognize that’s part of the legacy here, and to actually have content that requires hand-drawn animation is absolutely great. Thank goodness we have people who can do both here, but to actually commit to training up a new generation is a wonderful thing and I think perfectly appropriate for [us].” Goldberg said plans for upcoming 2D projects run the gamut from legacy to originals to hybrids, and will include features and series.
The emergence of the Disney+ platform factored into reconnecting with the studio’s animated DNA. As a result, they’re in the process of revamping the pipeline digitally, in which hand-drawn will play a role. According to Goldberg, this will give artists the freedom to include 2D wherever they want,
“One thing that excites all of us hand-drawn people is that not everything has to look like traditional outline and cel paint, and we can do things that are different stylistically,” said Goldberg. “The more that we can use the techniques and the principals to give people something they’ve never seen before, is really what it’s about.”
Disney Legend Floyd Norman — who will be honored Friday at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood with a screening and Q&A discussion of “The Jungle Book” — believes the studio returning to its roots is long overdue. “I think there are fantastic things yet to be discovered with this art of animation,” he added. “Perhaps we’ll be doing something more like a hybrid where there might be a combination of hand-drawn and digital together in a film.”
Floyd, who turns 87 in June, recently contributed to the documentary “Mickey: The Story of a Mouse,” tracing the evolution and impact of Disney’s most famous animated character. Directed by Jeff Malmberg (“Marwencol”), “Mickey” premiered at SXSW and will stream on Disney+ in the fall. “I remain very enthusiastic about Disney’s animation unit,” he added. “I’ll be kind of like looking over their shoulder, and I’ll certainly be watching what’s going on in hand-drawn, traditional animation.”