Interview: “Once Upon a Studio” Directors Trent Correy and Dan Abraham Geek Out Over Disney Animation History

Trent Correy and Dan Abraham can return to Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank with good news from Annecy Festival. Their latest short, Once Upon a Studio, was screened twice and enthusiastically received both times. Honoring the 100th anniversary of the studio that began with the Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before striking gold with Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and everything since, the short is a true labor of love for its creators. And, after getting goosebumps watching it twice, I had the honor of speaking with the directing duo about their latest creation.

(Annecy Festvial/G. Piel)

(Annecy Festvial/G. Piel)

Alex: I feel so lucky to have seen Once Upon a Studio twice now, at the Annecy Festival opening ceremony and then again in the Wish panel. The short was warmly received at the opening ceremony, but today’s audience was something else. It was a crowd of dedicated Disney fans, and they gave you a standing ovation that wouldn’t stop. I noticed you both tearing up. What’s going through your heads now that you’ve screened the short twice?

Trent Correy: Oh, man. Since we started working on the short, it is supposed to be a thank you and a love letter. To know that today the audience was filled with a room that loves the medium of animation, they love Disney, and they love 2D and CG, to share it with that group, and then to get that warm welcome…

Dan Abraham: We're super fans of the characters and all that, but the audiences, too. And so, to get that response, to me, it's like, oh, we got it right for them. That the characters looked and felt and acted like they're supposed to. That's what I took away from it. And that was overwhelming because we worked really hard to do just that, because of our love for the characters. But everybody, they feel a different way about different whatever, but it felt like collectively like, "Okay. Okay, good." Because we also got some wonderful reactions from the people within our studio. And they're geniuses in their own right, and they gave us the accolades and stuff that we got it right as well. It's overwhelming because we've worked really hard to do a just tribute.

Trent Correy: Yeah, the whole team from top to bottom. Just everything from layout and placing the characters, to clean up and making sure that line quality is right. There were so many pieces. Ink and Paint and the way they were lit in the shot, and the way it sounded, the sound effects. So many pieces that got it right. And everyone just had the same mission to bring it together.

Alex: Today, Eric Goldberg said there's more than 500 characters in the short. How do you choose who gets to be featured? How do you make the sacrifices of who does and doesn't get to come to this party?

Dan Abraham: Well, we wanted everybody, but that's just not possible. We do have over 500 characters. And every main character from every film is represented, and then a bunch of the shorts. And then we would just come up with gags and ideas and mashups between characters and situations and what would flow into the next thing. And we kept going on and on and on until finally we had a list, like, "You know what? We don't have this movie represented very well yet, where can we get that character?" And we would have a very short list of…

Trent Correy: Yeah, it got shorter and shorter.

Dan Abraham: Yeah. We still, to this day, you'll see Stitch, and you'll see Ariel, and you'll see the Beast and that, but there's somebody out there that loves Johnny Appleseed. And there's somebody that loves Gurgi and Chicken Little, and they don't get to see those guys very much. So we wanted everybody to see their pals because that's what this was. It's a family reunion that hopefully you want to go to.

Trent Correy: And we learned that early on. We had sent out an email to the whole studio at Disney Animation and said, "We're working on this thing. We want to have all of you. Let us know who your favorite characters are and why. And if you could see them in the short, how would you see them?" And what we learned from that was everybody has a different character, a different movie. It depends on when you grew up. It depends on how old you are. Depends on when you watched it, how you watched it, and what family member you watched it with. And if we did our jobs right, when you see that character on screen, it will bring you back to that moment in your life, and the joy you felt at that time.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of deep cuts. The deepest that I've spotted is Robin Williams’ Lost Boy from Back to Never Land from the old animation studio tour in Walt Disney World. What would you say is the deepest cut in the short?

Dan Abraham:That's probably it.

Trent Correy: That might be one of the deepest cuts. And there are fun stories in every shot, in terms of the artists involved and who worked on it. And there are tons of stories, but that might be, in terms of just the character, the deepest.

Dan Abraham: And I love sticking the Ugly Duckling in there. He's in the last shot and things like that. Hopefully, somebody's going to go, "Who's that little duck?" And then try to figure that out. We have skeletons from The Skeleton Dance. It was so much. We're such Disney nerds, we had our pages and pages and pages of lists of getting these characters in there.

Trent Correy: And I'll say, it was really hard to stop wanting more characters in there. There was some point in the production where they were like, "No more, Trent and Dan. Pencils down." And we're like, "What about, just one more."

Dan Abraham: We did do that we're like, "We just got to get…"

Trent Correy: "Just one more." Yeah. It was really tough.

Alex: Well, in addition to all of the character cameos, on second viewing, I couldn’t help notice that both of you are in the film, too. Did you want to be on camera or did someone twist your arms?

Trent Correy: Yeah, we were free labor. I think that's why. No, the best thing about that shot is, of course, Bernie [Mattinson]. And I just want to point out that for a second, because Dan in the original boards had drawn Bernie from day one, and we knew we wanted Bernie Mattinson in there.

Dan Abraham: Yeah. He was in it for months before we even asked if he wanted to be in it. And then when we did, he was like, "Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah, sure." And then when we were like, okay, all these people are exiting, and Bernie and the intern are the last ones. Well, everybody's holding the doors open for them. And Trent was like, "Oh, we should hold the doors for them." And I'm like, "Oh, yeah. Yeah, why not? That'd be fun."

Trent Correy: And I only ruined one take by looking right at the camera and ruining Bernie's perfect shot. And he just delivered that line so beautifully.

Dan Abraham: We're artists. We can be leaving for the day.

Trent Correy: Yep.

Alex: There’s a famous quote from Walt Disney that he said while making Mary Poppins about how the studio was using every trick they’d ever learned before to make that picture. Did you ever feel like you were doing that again with this short, since it blends live-action, hand-drawn, and CG elements?

Dan Abraham: Oh, yes. Well, this short, we knew we were swinging for the fences when we pitched this to Jennifer Lee. The whole time I kept saying, "This is never going to get made." We've got live-action, CG, hand-drawn, over 500 characters in this thing. How are we going to do this? It's an easy thing to say no instead of saying yes, and trying to figure out how. But, she said, from the get-go, we have to figure out how to do this. So, it required a lot of tricks every step of the way, but we got our hand-drawn on paper, for the most part. There's some digital. Everybody was just so invested in getting it right, and making the characters true to their original films and all that.

Trent Correy: And we had the benefit of working with all the departments that are problem-solving the whole way through as they do it. Disney Animation, the technicians, the artists working together. And someone like Eric Goldberg, who's worked for such a long time, and has worked on hybrid stuff before, bringing that knowledge. So, it is just everyone pulling together.

Dan Abraham: You lean on the people smarter than you and the people that have their specialties, and they were just so dedicated to, like, "Okay, we got all this stuff lived in the same world, how are we going to pull it off?"

Trent Correy: And it was never really questioned. I think people believed in the project and the story generally. When we pitched to [Jennifer Lee], it was in the pitch. It was live-action, CG, hand-drawn on paper with a pencil, returning voice cast, and she said, "Okay, we have to do this, and we'll figure it out."

Dan Abraham: I saw the fear in her eyes. She had tears in her eyes, too, from the pitch.

Trent Correy: The tears covered the fear. Tears of fear. But, that's the legacy of Disney, right? It's like, find a problem and innovate and that's-

Dan Abraham: Much like Mary Poppins. Oh, and we got the penguin in there.

Alex: Yeah. With the plate of spaghetti from Lady and the Tramp. He is actually serving someone. I love that. You reuse some voice recordings from the past in addition to having some actors come back to record new dialogue. Genie says some lines that I don't remember hearing in Aladdin. Robin Williams famously had a lot of unused improvised audio from his recording sessions. Is that where his new lines come from? How many hours of recordings did you comb through?

Dan Abraham: No one else has asked us that. 16 hours of video footage, which was so fun to sit through. And every time he would say something that, in my Disney rolodex, they didn't use in the film, I would write it down, and we would figure out, okay, what's he going to be saying to Olaf, and how's that going to go? That was so much fun. I kept a daily journal about who I met, what I got to do, because every day we would look at each other and say…

Trent Correy: "Is this for real?"

Dan Abraham: … "I can't believe we're doing this." And those audio things you speak of, whether it's voice or a musical cue or a sound effect. On top of the images and the 2D and the CG together, just bring you right back to that moment. It's amazing to hear Robin Williams again.

Trent Correy: That's why we were really specific with all of that stuff. When Prince John puts his crown on in the mirror, that's the sound effect from Robin Hood, when it does that. And we wanted to have audio clips from the original, because in this moment, it was going to fit perfectly. So we're like, let's not get a new person in to rerecord. Let's use it, because it's only a second, and it's got to take you right back.

Alex: This is a very technical question. The hand-drawn characters look like they’re on celluloid that was filmed. They don’t look like CAPS or digital paint, they feel like they were inked and painted. How did you achieve that look? There almost seems to be a filter applied that makes them feel of the era of their films.

Trent Correy: There are a few things, and really it just came down to, we kept saying this in every department, is these characters should look just like they did in their original films, but live in the environment, and live with the CG characters. So again, with the animation, how they moved, the cleanup of how that cleanup line looked. If it was the Genie, it was the [Al] Hirschfeld ink line. And if it was the characters from the sixties, like Merlin, it was a rough line. So we did that. And then the lighters, the genius lighters, once it was all inked and painted, I did very simple things to set them in the world. Very simple gradients and lighting choices, and just ways to push their depth in the scene to make them live together. But, when we first saw those scenes lit, and they were working, and the characters were working together with the live-action…

Dan Abraham: It was such an amazing moment, a relief, because we had this vision of the simplicity of not going too much with tones and highlights on the cell characters. Like you say, because then they wouldn't look like they did in their movie. And by putting that gradation of shadow, just the hint of it, it really helps set them in that environment. And we're like, “Oh, it's going to work. We don't have to search and search and search and search. The idea we had, it actually worked.”

Alex: It paid off really well. For my final question, it was revealed today that when “Feed the Birds” plays as Mickey looks up at the portrait of Walt Disney, that not only is it Richard Sherman playing the piano, but it was recorded on the piano in Walt Disney’s office. The same one he pitched the song on. The same one he would play it on every Friday afternoon at Walt’s request. You’re both Disney geeks. When you think about your careers thus far, does anything top that moment?

Trent Correy: That moment, it was such an organic process that came out of the blue. I'll tell it from my perspective, because Dan boarded the Mickey Walt moment, and just one time, he got it more or less on the first pass. Dan had a great vision for this idea, and Mickey seeing himself in a reflection on Walt there. [Dan] had pitched “Feed the Birds.” And, because you knew the history of it, we had it in the cut, and we met one of our music leadership in the hallways. He’s walking down the hall, and he said, "You ever think that we could just have Richard Sherman perform it?" And we're like, "What? Is that possible?"

Dan Abraham: And him at 94 years old, and then he said, "And what if we film it in Walt's office?"

Trent Correy: And then when they booked it, they're like, "And it's a Friday afternoon when he used to play for Walt." We're like, "It's too much." Tell us next week, we can't take any more.

Dan Abraham: I had a friend recently come visit me for lunch at work, and we were walking through the Disney lot there in Burbank. And he said, "Hey, do you have a favorite memory that's happened here on the lot?" And I go, "Yeah." I said, "I can't tell you what it is yet." But, I pointed up to Walt's office, and I said, "But that's where it took place."

Alex: That’s so awesome. Thank you both so much for your time.

Once Upon a Studio premieres November 22nd alongside Wish, only in theaters.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).