Once Upon A Studio celebrates 100 years of Disney. In this exclusive interview, the creatives reveal the biggest challenges, successes, and more.
Once Upon A Studio is a love letter to Disney animation perfectly timed to the 100 year anniversary of the studio. The short features 543 Disney characters from more than 85 feature-length and short films, welcoming heroes and villains, princes and princesses, sidekicks and sorcerers – in all-new hand-drawn and CG animation. It celebrates ten decades of storytelling, artistry, and technological achievements.
We caught up with the creatives behind Once Upon A Studio to talk about the short and how it celebrates 100 years of Disney. These exclusive interviews include writers and directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, as well as producers Yvett Merino and Brad Simonsen. They reveal the challenges that came along with putting this short together, as well as the successes that they celebrated.
Tears were shed during our conversation, proving just how much they truly put into making Once Upon A Studio.
Choosing The Right Mickey Mouse To Honor Walt Disney
There is a moment where Mickey Mouse honors Walt Disney in the short, and we promise you, if you haven’t already shed tears by this moment, the waterworks will come here. Finding the right length of time to linger on this scene was important. It can’t be too long or too short. It needs to be just perfect. When asked about finding it, Dan admits that we don’t know how much he appreciates that question before Trent immediately credits Dan for the outcome.
“Dan took on that moment and had a vision for that moment and thought a lot about what that moment is. Those moments in our movies, they can be really tough to tackle. Can you overstay your welcome? You don’t say enough, you say too little. You say too much,” Trent explains. “We knew right away that we wanted Feed The Birds to play underneath that moment. We watched an editorial the first time through, and Dan and I looked at each other and we’re like, tearing up like that works. I mean, it was just the right amount. It didn’t really go through the changes we thought it would.”
Dan adds that when he first pitched it to Trent, he thought this was going to be one of those scenes that would need multiple reworking. “If it goes on too long, it gets schmaltzy. And that’s the last thing you want. But if you get out of there too quickly, it doesn’t feel like as big of enough of a moment. But it did work right from the get go,” Dan admits. “One of the parts that we landed on, that was a nice idea all in all, was that the Mickey that we chose for this whole short, because there’s so many different versions of Mickey, right? But we thought, in this Walt moment, wouldn’t it be nice if Mickey took his hat off, and put it on his heart?”
That is how they settled on the Mickey Mouse from Mickey’s birthday party, 1942. Dan says that him wearing the cute yellow hat and blue shirt was perfect, making him a great Mickey to use. “And just to have that moment of him removing his hat felt right.”
“We played a lot with that shot, so it’s very astute of you to ask that, because we actually played with flipping the picture different ways.” Brad adds. “As it cuts back and forth between Walt and Mickey, that reflection of Mickey just sits in there. So you almost get an over the shoulder Mickey feel, but you get his reaction. That was a really nuanced, as that made its way through animation, and then into lighting, it was a super nuanced moment. There’s that honor, and tip of the hat, and then boom, you’re back into the story.”
What Yvett loves about Once Upon A Studio has a lot to do with that timing. “How one shot bleeds into another, into another. It feels very continuous and natural, as opposed to oh, we’re gonna go here, or we’re gonna look at this.”
Bringing Back Original Voices
Bringing back the original voices of so many beloved characters is part of what makes Once Upon A Studio so special. Trent reveals that Auliʻi Cravalho was the first recording, and it was a fun one for him.
“I had worked on Moana so that was so fun to bring her back,” he says. “When she recorded Moana for us, I think she was 15 years old and just turning 16 when it came out. Now, years later, she’s the sweetest, awesome person to have around. And that was all of them. All of them came back with a very genuine love of being part of these projects, and very excited to be a part of this as well.”
“At one point we had a scene where Ariel was in the ladies room, and she was combing her hair with the dinglehopper, but she didn’t say anything.” Dan admits. “Then we’re like, wait a minute, what are we doing? We have to meet Jodi Benson. So we moved her out of the ladies room and gave her part of the song because well, Ariel needs to sing and we needed to meet Jodi Benson.”
For Brad, Jim Cummings as Winnie the Pooh was his surreal voice recording moment. “I literally turned into a four year old. He gave all of us a hug. I was like, I’m getting a hug from Winnie the Pooh. This is crazy.”
Yvett says that one of the biggest challenges of making Once Upon A Studio was the logistics of getting all the voice talent in. She does credit them all, however, because all they knew was it was a short celebrating 100 years and they were in.
“They all said yes. Everyone that we reached out to was excited to come back, which I think speaks to their experience of being a Disney character,” she explains. “When you’re the voice of a Disney character, it’s not a movie that comes and goes, it’s something that actually lives beyond the theater. It’s a part of people’s lives growing up. So yeah, there were a lot of challenges and a lot of zoom records, but record days were our favorite because we were like, Oh, who do we get to meet today?”
Yvett’s absolute favorites to meet? Paige O’Hara and Richard White from Beauty and the Beast. “I was giggly the whole day.”
Honoring Robin Williams’ Genie
Trent explains that they were really lucky to have over forty returning voice casts, but of course there were some that could not return because they are unfortunately no longer with us, one of the most iconic being Robin Williams’ Genie. They chose their moments to reuse dialogue very carefully because sometimes you only get three seconds with a character and they have to look, feel, and sound just like you remember them.
“It was so important to us that we had Robin Williams’ voice,” Trent admits. “We went to his estate right away to make sure they would give us a blessing, and they did. They were excited to be part of this celebration.”
After getting permission, Dan sat through sixteen hours of footage of Robin’s recordings for Genie. “Every time he would say something that I know they didn’t use in the film, because I have a Disney nerd rolodex in my head, I would write down the time code and what the line was,” Dan explains. “We knew we wanted to have a conversation between Olaf and Genie. So I was writing down those lines that we could maybe use from what Robin had said. Like, okay if he says this, then Olaf could say this.”
“We always had Genie, obviously, he’s a very big character for us, and Robin Williams is very important to us,” Yvett adds.
Narrowing Down The Characters To Include
Probably one of the biggest challenges was trying to make sure that as many Disney characters as possible are featured in Once Upon A Studio. “In Disney history, there’s thousands of characters,” Trent explains. “So I know there’s characters that aren’t in there that we wish could be, but in the grand scheme of things, we were trying to represent everything from Snow White to Wish, with some shorts in between. I think the best ideas rose to the top and we represent all those movies.”
“We were constantly trying to add more and more and more characters and our producers were like, okay, stop. We have to finish this thing,” Dan laughs. “There are so many just wonderful characters. We still see Stitch, and we still see Ariel and Cinderella all the time, but there’s somebody out there that loves Chicken Little or they love Johnny Appleseed. So we wanted to let those people know that we see them, and we are with them. We tried to do our best to get as many in there as we possibly could, but certainly we could have added twice as many because there’s still a lot out there. But there’s some deep dives.”
When you watch Once Upon A Studio, you will realize which characters are your favorite because your heart will flutter, or you will get a little teary eyed. Trent and Dan agree, and admit that they got teary many times while working on it.
“We got teary so many times working on this, and seeing these incredible animators bringing these characters to life again,” Dan admits. “It was like seeing old friends on the screen, even when they were just in rough animation form. I remember when James Baxter showed us his Belle and Beast, and it was like, Oh my gosh, they’re still together. They’re still in love.”
“Like Dan said, tears throughout the whole production,” Trent says. “Part of me wishes I could watch this short fresh because the fluttering nature you’re talking about, when it cuts to characters, to me, would be just as a fan of Disney myself. It would be a really fun way to experience it.”
“We’re not even saying that lightly or flippantly,” Dan adds. “There were tears making this short, like constantly. Whenever we would add a new person onto the crew, we’d ask them to say what department they are in and who’s their favorite Disney character. Nine times out of ten that favorite Disney character story led to a little bit of tearing up about grandma taking me to the theater to see The Aristocats for the first time, or whatever it was. It was an emotional journey for the past couple of years, but wonderful, just wonderful, how much these characters mean to people.”
Everything seen in Once Upon A Studio is new animation, whether hand drawn or 3D computer animation. Every character is animated in the way that fans first saw them, and connecting and combining all of these forms of animation, as well as placing them in the actual Walt Disney Animation Studios building, was a process.
“What was the intent from day one was they need to look exactly and feel exactly as they did in their original motion picture,” Brad explains. “So we pulled model sheets from the Animation Research Library, where they keep all those model sheets from every single movie. We’re lucky enough to be able to literally say, Hey, can you pull all these for these characters so that the hand drawn artists have those. We did a bunch of tests to make sure that they’re sitting there, in our world, and the 2D hand drawn and the 3D are connecting correctly.”
Celebrate 100 years of Disney with Once Upon A Studio, and be sure to have tissues handy. Directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy and produced by Yvett Merino and Bradford Simonsen, Once Upon a Studio makes it broadcast debut on ABC on Oct. 15, 2023.
About Once Upon A Studio
An all-star ensemble of beloved characters from Walt Disney Animation Studios come together in “Once Upon a Studio” for a joyful, entertaining and emotional reunion as they assemble for a spectacular group photo to mark Disney’s 100th anniversary.
Featuring 543 Disney characters from more than 85 feature-length and short films, “Once Upon a Studio” welcomes heroes and villains, princes and princesses, sidekicks and sorcerers—in all-new hand-drawn and CG animation—to celebrate 10 decades of storytelling, artistry and technological achievements.
Directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy and produced by Yvett Merino and Bradford Simonsen,
Once Upon a Studio makes it broadcast debut on ABC on Oct. 15, 2023.
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Tessa Smith is a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved Film and TV Critic. She is also a Freelance Writer. Tessa has been in the Entertainment writing business for almost ten years and is a member of several Critics Associations including the Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, and the Greater Western New York Film Critics Association.