Disney's First Crop Of Trained Animators, Profiled

The first generation of animators to attend Walt Disney's California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s is profiled in Vanity Fair magazine. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Nancy Beiman, who was part of that first class.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You are sure to know the work of a small group of Disney animators who were on the top of their game in the 1930s. They were known as the Nine Old Men, and they produced iconic films like "Snow White" and "Pinocchio." But when the old men really became old and were nearing retirement, there was no new talent to take over. One of Walt Disney's last acts was to establish the California Institute of the Arts, a school intended to replenish the Disney staff. The first generation of animators to attend Cal Arts in the 1970s is profiled in the newest issue of Vanity Fair magazine in an article called "The Class that Roared." Among the students were John Lasseter, who directed "Toy Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

TIM ALLEN: (as Buzz Lightyear) To infinity and beyond.

MARTIN: Brad Bird - you may have heard of the television show he created.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIMPSONS THEME SONG)

MARTIN: Tim Burton, whose works include "A Nightmare before Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS")

CHRIS SARANDON: (as Jack) Forgive me, Mr. Claus. I'm afraid I've made a terrible mess of your holiday.

ED IVORY: (as Santa) Bumpy sleigh ride, Jack.

MARTIN: And Nancy Beiman was there too. She's done animation for films like "A Goofy Movie" and "Hercules." When I spoke with her this past week, she told me about the room where her class spent a lot of their time.

NANCY BEIMAN: We used to joke about it as having no windows and no door, like the haunted mansion. And we were pretty much on our own for large portions of the time, simply because of the immense amount of work we had to do. But the training was excellent. Our teachers were outstanding. And it was incredibly tough because these were people, most of them, from industry who did not treat us as students. They treated us as trainees.

MARTIN: You were just one of two women that very first year, and by the second year you were the only woman in the program.

BEIMAN: It was a lot of teasing, a lot of jokes, and you had to take it basically. It was something everybody did to each other. And I guess I was treated as one of the guys. But as far as being female in the class, there were a couple of incidents. One student had a poster - a nude one of Suzanne Somers - and he put it over his desk. And Jack Hanna, the teacher, came in and said, oh, who's that? And the student said, oh, this is Nancy. So, I said, oh, that's before I got my nose fixed. So, you sort of had to develop this jocular response to them. I wouldn't call that serious hazing. It was just something that you got.

MARTIN: Did your teachers, did your instructors inadvertently put more pressure on you as a woman?

BEIMAN: Only once. The life drawing teacher, Elmer Plummer, who was a marvelous teacher, used a technique that you would not be allowed to do today. He came up to me, took me aside, I guess, after about six or seven months first year and said, you're not drawing as well as the boys.

MARTIN: Was that true?

BEIMAN: Well, I was furious but not at him. He was absolutely right. So, I worked very, very hard. I was putting in 10 pages a day in my sketchbook. I would study anatomy. I would go to sketch all the time, and I got better - which is what he wanted - but you can't do that today.

MARTIN: It was a tough program. The dropout rate at that time was around 30 percent. Is that correct?

BEIMAN: We lost 30 percent in the first year, yes, and that was mostly because of, again, the workload. The second and third years were a little different. We had people being hired before they graduated. But, yes, it was a pretty even dropout rate. I don't know about other classes, but our cohort was down to seven or eight people by the end of the year, so small that they put the next class in with us. That's how Tim Burton got to be in the same classroom with us. And he would pull all sorts of crazy stunts, which were a lot of fun.

MARTIN: One of the classrooms where you studied has become known more widely because of the animators who were in your class, some of whom have embedded that classroom number - A113 - in the animation that they do as kind of an inside practical joke. I wonder if you ever do that. Do you ever use your animation to make inside jokes, to reference friends or even characterize yourself in some way?

BEIMAN: We call it cheap immortality. If we caricature each other, we caricature ourselves. I have been caricatured in a movie that I had nothing whatever to do with by Tim Burton. The movie is "Nightmare Before Christmas," and I caricatured as Shock, the little witch. But that's how I looked around 1976 - the long nose, the heart-shaped face and all, and the hair, although he made it a bit more spiky.

MARTIN: As a student in that first class of animators at Cal Arts, did you sense that you were taking part of something special?

BEIMAN: When I was accepted into the program, I asked Jack Hanna how many other people would be in my class. And he said 21. I said I didn't think there were 21 people in the United States who were interested in doing this. A lot of us were told you are idiots, this is all going to be done by computers by 1980, you will not have a job, you will not have any career or future. Now, my parents were not like that. They were so happy when I was accepted to a Disney school, they threw a party. But the art school in particular did not have a high opinion of us and we were called the trade school. So, the attitude was we were kind of stuck in the basement because they didn't know what to do with us. So, we were little mutants running around this crazy art school.

MARTIN: Nancy Beiman is a director and author and a professor of animation at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada. She joined us from studios on Sheridan's campus. Nancy, thanks so much for talking with us.

BEIMAN: Thank you so much for the invitation, I am very honored.

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