Student looking at drawings in the Disney - The Magic of Animation exhibition at ACMI
Stories & Ideas

Wed 16 Jun 2021

Susan Bye

Susan Bye

Senior Producer, Education, ACMI

In creating the best experience for our Kids' Trail, our Education team drew on unique insights and perspectives from the most discerning Disney aficionados – kids themselves.

My favourite movie is The Little Mermaid. I like it because when I was a baby, I wanted to be a mermaid. I like water and I like the song ‘Under the Sea’!

Sophia, St Albans Heights Primary School student

Being a member of the Education team at ACMI is endlessly rewarding. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of all is what we learn from students visiting our museum and engaging in our programs. Primary students in particular have a great capacity to interpret a work uniquely, offering new and sometimes surprising insights. The secret is to give them the time and opportunity to slow down to engage deeply and actively with moving image works and ideas.

Ellen Molloy (Producer, School Programs) and I had this in mind when working with Senior Curator Fiona Trigg to plan and develop the Kids’ Trail for the Disney: The Magic of Animation exhibition. There are few people – young, old or somewhere in-between – who don’t have a Disney Animation touchpoint of some kind, and our intention was to help young visitors build on their previous experience of Disney animated films. We wanted the trail to encourage a slower, more focused and thoughtful journey through the exhibition. We also saw the trail as an opportunity to foreground the perceptions that young people bring to their experience of the Arts. So, along with providing nuggets of information about Disney’s creative processes and prompts, we were keen to share unique insights from students about selected artworks from the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Disney: The Magic of Animation reveals the artistry and ideas behind many of the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ greatest animations. It features original paintings, sketches and concept art sourced from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) in Los Angeles, California. The ARL has been developed as a reference for Disney artists and animators who can learn from the creators of the past and be inspired by previous creative solutions. Its contents are for internal use and are rarely on public display.

In the video below, Mary Walsh (Managing Director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library) spoke to the A.V Club about the function and purpose of the library.

Students are endlessly fascinated by the ideas that drive the creative process, as well as the process itself. What a privilege it is to be invited behind the curtain of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, an inner sanctum usually reserved for Disney artists and animators. However, young people – and many adults – often need help to actively connect with two-dimensional framed artworks, and the concepts and ideas they express. This is where the Kids’ Trail comes in, and to make sure it would work for our target audience we needed some young people to help us in our planning process.

ACMI has an ongoing – and very rewarding – relationship with St Albans Heights Primary School (SAHPS), so we put out a call for a class that would like to workshop the exhibition with us. And we were so lucky. Dylan Reithofer (Mr. R) offered to share his Year 3-4 class with us, generously carving out two 45-minute sessions from his learning program, albeit last thing on a Friday afternoon. Being 2020 and in the time of COVID-19, our workshops would be delivered via Zoom – not quite the dream learning scenario, but still, lots of fun. The plan was as follows: the students would get a VIP sneak preview of the artworks in the exhibition, and we would get to see the art of Disney animation through the eyes of the Kids’ Trail’s target audience.

We began our first session with a short sharp introduction to what animation is and how it works. This is also how the Disney: The Magic of Animation exhibition begins, with spinning zoetropes teaching visitors about the basics of animation when they first enter. In our SAHPS workshop, we kicked off with flip books before moving onto the traditional cel animation process that established the Walt Disney Animation Studios as a household name. One of the students, Andrew, explained this process in the following words: “Animation starts off as a drawing. Then they start to move it, and they keep moving it until it starts to look like an actual moving picture.” His explanation has been included in the exhibition for others to think about.

To introduce the basic principles of animation and the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ pioneering approach to creating “the illusion of life”, we showed Mr. R’s class the impressive point of view shot from the Mickey Mouse animation Plane Crazy (1928). This is the first camera move ever used in an animation, yet­­­ the students were unmoved. Seen through eyes used to colourful high definition 3D animated films, Plane Crazy just looked “old” and “basic”.

The students were more impressed by the colour and drama of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from Fantasia (1940), especially as the Mickey in this renowned segment more closely resembles the character they know and love. We were also able to get the students fired up about the (brilliant) animation of water in this sequence. Over the decades Disney has made animating water a mark of pride, so it was great to get students thinking about this ongoing animation challenge, and the creative problem-solving it has generated over time.

This was just a warm-up for the primary purpose of the workshops: exploring the artworks and production design materials that are at the heart of the exhibition. Our goal was to use the insights from our Years 3-4 focus group to help other young people understand how the Walt Disney Animation Studios artists and animators create drawings and artworks to capture the essence of character, story and emotion.

We began by selecting some of the artworks featured in the exhibition and encouraging students to look carefully at them and then share their ideas. Working together, and supported by questions designed to encourage visual thinking, students dazzled us with their insights. For instance, when responding to one of Tyrus Wong’s exquisite impressionistic artworks created for Bambi (1942), the students were fascinated by the golden sunlight that lights up the tree in the foreground of this picture, describing it as a “miracle tree”.

The expressionistic artwork for The Lion King (1994) was a standout, partly because so many of the students know the film, but mostly because of the artworks’ drama and intensity. Students were especially captivated by Kelvin Yasuda’s depiction of the fight between Simba and Scar as a dramatic shadow play taking place within a world of smoke and flames. For Kenny, “the shadow looks like dragons”, an observation that draws out the expressionistic drama communicated in Yasuda’s artwork.

After working together as a class, the students were given some time to develop individual responses to selected artworks, an activity that confirmed their capacity to think visually, if given the time and the opportunity. Just asking students to pinpoint the elements of an image that stood out for them and that they particularly liked garnered a range of thoughtful responses. Kaden revisited the discussion around Tyrus Wong’s “miracle tree” and wondered whether it might transform (“turn into something”). Anna noticed the way the artist used “lines for shading” in this image of Bambi (below).

Bambi (1942), Disney Studio Artist, Story Sketch, coloured pencil and graphite on paper. © Disney

Sophia responded to the strangeness of Alice in Wonderland's (1951) Cheshire Cat: “That cat is creepy, but I like the smile and the way his pink colour stands out.” And An noticed Scar’s green eyes and wondered if the character designer chose this colour to communicate jealousy.

We also asked students to tell us about their favourite Disney animated films and, once again, we found the responses illuminating. Frozen (2013) has a special place in Nhi’s heart because it was the first movie she ever watched. For Evana the colours and happy ending of Beauty and the Beast (1991) make it a favourite. An is a fan of Moana (2016), loving its music, dramatic tension (“There are parts that make me nervous, but I like those parts”) and Moana’s “happy spirit”. Big Hero 6 (2016) got a lot of votes. Kaden considers it “the world’s best Disney movie” because of the characters, Kenny likes the dramatic storyline and blend of humour and action, while Paolo and Moses respond to its pathos. We felt that Moses’s mini-review captured the essence of Big Hero 6, and it can now be viewed on the wall of the gallery: “My favourite movie is Big Hero 6. I like it because of the characters. It has cool actions and details. And I’m up for a sad movie.”

After our time with Mr R’s class came to an end and we began collating all the riches we had gleaned from the SAHPS students, we realised we were a bit light on responses to films from Disney’s middle period. We had skipped from Alice in Wonderland (1951) directly to The Lion King. Fortunately, we were able to recruit another group of Years 3-4 students to fill the gaps. This time our focus group came from Bell Primary School.

These students dug deep into production and character design for One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). As attested by the excitement generated by the release of the live-action origin story Cruella (2021), the eponymous Disney Villain has become a cultural icon, and the students overflowed with interpretative commentary around the design of her character and what it communicates. In these images (below) you can see some of their ideas written up on the whiteboard.

Photo of students' thoughts on Cruella's character (1)
Photo of students' thoughts on Cruella's character (2)

In the event, we used Xanthe’s observation that the wonderful concept artwork depicting Cruella’s car, with its fierce, blazing headlights and bat-like chassis, is an extension of her monstrous character.

Several Bell Primary students revealed themselves to be veritable Disney animation aficionados, and their analysis of Cruella branched out into a more generalised discussion of Disney Villains. Louise observed that Disney Villains are often “very over-dramatic. They make them extra-extravagant because it’s so exciting”. In designing the exhibition trail, we applied her astute observation to the characterisation of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959).

In working with students at St Albans Heights and Bell Primary Schools to unlock the artistry of Disney animation, we have been reminded anew of why and how this studio has accrued its legendary status. If you are bringing young people to the exhibition, give them the time to engage with the Kids’ Trail and highlight the insights shared by young learners. You can also download an activity sheet that encourages a range of creative responses. If you are a teacher or wanting to explore animation with your young people at home, you should also have a look at the Disney: The Magic of Animation education resource and check out the diverse opportunities it offers for creative thinking and learning.

– Susan Bye

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