The Disney Animation Burn Books

Juvenile, profane, penile and potty obsessed rants against authority…

The artists attached to the story development department I managed for Disney from 1985–1992, during the so-called “2D Renaissance”, were true free thinkers. You didn’t manage them, per se, you tried to create an environment where the best ideas and gags could emerge. These insanely talented people all went on to have remarkable careers as directors, and are all still working today: Kelly Asbury (Shrek), Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), Kirk Wise (Hunchback of Notre Dame), Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast), Kevin Lima (Enchanted), Rob Minkoff (Lion King) and Brenda Chapman (Brave). We put a bunch of rebellious, outspoken, opinionated, and ambitious young artists in a bullpen in a former Burbank airport building behind Disney Imagineering in Glendale, and this is (some of) what happened there.

I’m not sure who started it, but their banter, put downs and satirical cartoons were collected and placed on a big wall board. At the end of the year, creative services manager Greg Blair would take them down and make photocopies of what I now call “The Feature Animation Burn Book”. I was recently reunited with these amazing books by animator and story man Kevin Harkey, whose words are included here as well.

These little “books” are juvenile, profane, penile and potty obsessed rants against authority and being a working stiff. In other words, they are all kinds of awesome!

A random page from the Disney Animation Burn Books (1988–1990)

I recently showed the full set of the Burn Books to Disney Theatricals President (and former Animation producer) Tom Schumacher. “I’m not sure I should be touching these,” he said, reverently. “Human resources would probably fire everyone in here”.

The burn book gives new meaning to the phrase “circle jerk”

A lot of development work consisted of working on material collaboratively, and watching it be destroyed, collectively, and then starting over.

Gary Trousdale made cutting and brilliant cartoons in the tradition of the legendary Sergio Aragones.

Often artists expanded on their colleagues’ works. Sometimes they topped them with a completely new, better idea. In front of the producers. Oooof.

Story man Ed Gombert, waiting to get hammered by “the mallet squad”.

The “story men” (and woman, Brenda Chapman) pitched their story boards with a pointer and elaborate body movements and hilarious voices. Often they impersonated celebrities like Robin Williams. Because these boards were by definition works in progress, enthusiastic presenters were often hammered during the critique that followed the pitch. The late, great Joe Ranft was probably the best pitcher I ever saw. He had the ear of a mimic, was a skilled improv performer (and magician), and master storyteller.

Often a studio head seems to give contradictory directions.

Here’s another brilliant Trousdale original. It shows the studio’s head honcho Jeff Katzenberg bragging about work he is genuinely proud of, while unseen in the background he’s busily undermining the foundation of that same work. I have always thought animation, because of its long and deliberate production pace, was more of a producer’s medium than live-action pictures. I think that’s what led Katzenberg to focus on animation exclusively.

“Our jobs as executives,” said Disney Television President Rich Frank, “is to say no, and be said no to.”

The job of a studio executive is inherently insecure. It’s nice to see the guys understood our position.

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