THE BLOG

What Is It Like to Be a Disney Animator?

06/01/2015 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

What is it like to be an animator for Disney?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Answer by Pat Roberts, Former Disney animator

My time with Disney was 15 years ago, so things may have changed.

At first I was extremely stressed out. I was working at the best of the best. I ended up getting an ulcer in the first two months I was there.

I got to work with some amazing people, and Disney encouraged us to learn and develop while there. They provided free art classes and had some excellent lecturers come and give presentations.

The animator employment contract gave Disney ownership of anything I created at work or at home, while awake or asleep, including my dreams.

We could check out footage from the Disney vault. This was before video was readily available on the internet, so it was a real treat. There were some amazing shows that hadn't been seen since the original airing decades ago.

Every floor had a well-stocked art supply room and artists could take any supplies they wanted, even if it was just to decorate their cubicle.

The Northside facility was the former home of Skunk Works. Cell phones couldn't get a signal in many areas due to shielding in what was left of the original structure (or so we were told). One day we saw two guys in hazmat suits servicing what we all though were air conditioners. It turns the equipment was part of a steam pumping system. The ground under the facility was toxic so steam had to be pumped through it for the next 10 years to destroy the toxins. The toxin was residue from some chemical used on the skin of stealth aircraft. A few days after the servicing this text was added on the front entrance window:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Employees were concerned and called the trade Union (Disney artists must be members of IATSE / MPSC) Disney conducted a survey of the building as well as check EMR levels. I don't think they found any chemical issues, but they did move some desks away from windows and added some shielding to block out EMR coming from high power lines.

We had two Cray SV1s in the machine room in the basement. They were used for busing. We had racks and racks of SGIs for rendering, and some tape archive octagon pod with a robotic arm inside that did backups. For permanent archive at the end of production, our working directories were backed up to CD-ROM. I don't know how many CDs were used in total, but I saw at least 3 pallets of CD-Rs.

There was an ergonomics department you could call if your workstation was uncomfortable. They would come out and adjust your chair and desk to your body, add footrests, armrests, headrests, and change out your keyboard or mouse. Disney provided the nicest workstation desks I've ever used. I believe we had Biomorph desks, and we had Aeron chairs, with dual SGI CRT monitors and SGI Indigo2 workstations. The entire setup cost several times more than the car I owned at the time. We were the first people to use Maya in a production, starting with version 0.8 betas. We also used Avid Media Illusion, Side Effects Houdini, Renderman, and a whole bunch of custom software.

We could buy employee-only Disney merchandise in the studio Disney store, and we were also given exclusive employee-only Disney merchandise that was valued by collectors. Disney stuff is so collectible we could sell our employee newsletters and one employee even kept and sold his paycheck envelopes to a Disneyana collector.

As a supervising animator, I got a family silver pass that let me and 3 others into Disneyland. It also gave me a discount on anything the park sold. My office-mate bought so much art from the Disneyland art gallery we used to joke they should pay him in Disney dollars. Years later he sold all his Disney artwork for about twice what he paid for it.

The crew was separated into two groups: artists and overhead (management and administration). Overhead were not allowed to yell at the artists, no matter how much the artist might deserve it.

Fridays at 4PM there was a crew get-together with live music, snacks, beer and wine. (I would doubt this still happens due to liability.)

There are photos of Walt Disney all over the lot. Most of them originally had Walt smoking a cigarette, but all the cigarettes have been airbrushed out. Sometimes it makes his hand position look odd.

The studio lot has a cool Disney museum with lots of exhibits, many of which are old products with licensed characters on the packages, like Donald Duck Orange Juice from the 1940s.

As one of the first studios to offer family benefits to same-sex couples, Disney had a lot of gay employees. This isn't really a big deal now, but back then it was ironic that many groups with anti-gay stances pointed to Disney as a source for wholesome family entertainment. Though in one review of the film I worked on, Disney was called "a company run from top to bottom by sodomites."

There were a lot of really talented people, some with quirky personalities. There was an artist who would steal company stuff, but really mundane things, and he was terrible at hiding it. He would walk out of the building with a bag of large plastic drinking cups up each sleeve of his jacket, or his jacket full of toilet paper. There wasn't anything special about the stuff he took- it didn't have a Disney logo, just normal office supplies. He was a very highly paid artist, so he likely wasn't hurting for plastic cups and TP at home. One employee party we watched him make about 6 trips from the kitchen to his car with plastic cups up his sleeves. Disney security knew he was doing it, but Disney takes a very non-traditional approach to managing its artists. If you did good work, weren't (too) disruptive, and got your work done on time, Disney accommodated your idiosyncrasies. They acknowledged that artists can be quirky, especially brilliant artists, and Disney had more content, brilliant artists under its roof than anywhere else I've worked.

During staff meetings they sometimes would serve fresh-baked cookies or ice cream sandwiches.

I got to learn a lot of fun Disney history. One of my favorite stories was about the day Walt Disney opened the south side lot near Warner Brothers. He was giving a tour to journalists and one asked "How many people work here now?" Walt answered, "about half."

If an artist was unhappy and tried to force Disney to fire them, which meant Disney had to buy out the artist's contract, the artist was assigned to a special work room that wasn't part of any production. It was away from the animation studios and the lot, in an administration building. A guard at the door would check people in at 9AM, The artists had a cubicle with a computer but no phone or internet connection. They were assigned useless, mundane tasks like 'build a bunch of 3D rocks'. They had an hour off for lunch and could leave at 6pm. No parties or silver passes. The kept disruptive artists there until their contract expired or they could get rid of them on favorable terms, such as breach of contract for not showing up for work on time.

Disney security was amazing. There was a family party at the beginning of the production. There were probably 1,000+ people there. The guy in charge of front desk security at our building, who was one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet, remembered the names and faces of everyone's spouse and kids, even though he'd only seen them at the front gate when they entered the party. Almost two years later, near the end of production, my wife was dropping off something to me at work. He called and let me know she was there, but I got to the lobby before she was in the building. I asked how he knew she was there and he said, "oh, I recognized her on the security camera."

If you're interested in seeing what a production meeting was like at Disney, try to find the original 84-minute version of the documentary The Sweatbox. This documentary is about "Kingdom of the Sun", which later was renamed "Emperor's New Groove". It was shot about the same time as I was there and shows a number of production meetings.

As far as internal politics, Disney wasn't much different than other animation and effects houses, except they did treat their animators better and the facilities were exceptionally nice. The perks were excellent as well. They know 'employee only' Disneyana is valuable, so they give the employees some nice things that don't cost much but they know will be valuable. They gave everyone on our production a reproduction maquette from Tarzan. They publicly released a set of 5, but only gave employees the 6th one, and it was numbered and limited. The day after they handed them out a fellow employee sold his for $900 on eBay. Disney also made hand-painted animation cells that were offered for sale only to employees.

More questions on Quora: