When Disney Animation colleagues Trent Corey and Dan Abraham stepped into work one morning, they knew it wasn’t going to be just another morning at the studio. Back in early 2021, the both of them had been hard at work quietly putting together a pitch for their boss and Disney Animation’s chief creative officer, Jennifer Lee, on what was a ‘passion project.’
“We really didn’t think it would be turned into anything, but we knew it was special,” said Abraham during the early press preview of that project. Added Corey, “It was our dream project and hoped it would be Jen’s dream, too.”
Both Abraham and Corey already had both relational and creative capital built up at the studio, having worked as director on a previous Disney animated short, “Once Upon a Snowman” featuring “Frozen’s” Olaf.
Thinking about their next project, they both had the foresight about The Walt Disney Company’s 100th anniversary and wanted the project to honor that long list of Disney animators that made the films that built their studio and ultimately the foundation that the entire Disney company stands on today.
Both of them then took the following eight months to put together their pitch that included a simple story of Mickey Mouse rounding up the gang of animated characters from all of the studio’s films for a ‘family photo’. Using some Disney magic, these characters leap off the photos that are posted in and around the Roy E. Disney Animation building that houses the animation studio on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, Calif.
It was during the directing duo’s lunch breaks and off time (which included time in their separate cars outside a local Taco Bell) that they put together the story beats, drew storyboards, and wrote gags of how the characters would interact with each other. “It’s wild to us that this would be the first time that Donald Duck would meet Baymax,” said Corey. “We wanted to show reverence, but we also wanted the interactions to be true to who the characters are,” added Abraham.
Further, both Abraham and Corey wanted the animation to also be the stars in the short, which also posed a unique technical challenge to the animation teams. Since this would be the first time these characters would inhabit the same world (and our ‘real world’ as well), the directors wanted to keep the artistic look and style of the characters that was originally seen in their films.
“From hand-drawn details to colors, it inspired us and in itself is art. To keep those details means to honor and also keep our interactions as an audience the same, too,” said Corey.
Altogether, “Once Upon a Studio” features 534 Disney Animation characters from 85 Disney Animation feature-length and short films. Additionally, legendary Disney animators like Burney Mattinson, Mark Henn, and Eric Goldberg helped make and make cameos in the film. Disney Legend and songwriter Richard Sherman also returned to Walt Disney’s office to play “Feed the Birds” on Walt’s piano for the short as well.
It was finally time to pitch to Jennifer Lee, which took place via Zoom and made both Abraham and Corey extra nervous since they wanted to make sure they could convey the idea fully and with passion.
At the end of the pitch, however, the duo recalled Lee simply stepping away from her computer. “She didn’t say a word when she left, but she was wiping away her tears and told us that we got everything right,” said Abraham. “Then she said, “I don’t know how, but we have to make this,”” said Corey.
It was a dream come true Disney moment for Corey and Abraham to get that validation for their hard work, but the real honor was to be able to create something that celebrates so many things that they and so many others deeply love.
“Everyone has their own unique connections to Disney and Disney Animation, and that includes us artists who get to go to work and create everyday,” said Abraham. “I hope that this short honors that legacy, this company, and most importantly, inspires the artists that will come after us in these next 100 years,” said Corey.
Disney Animation’s “Once Upon a Studio” will debut on ABC Network on October 15, 2023. Check local listings.
Our special thanks to Dan Abraham and Trent Corey for contributing to this story!