Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA) is the animation studio that makes up a key element of The Walt Disney Company. The Feature Animation studio was an integrated part of Walt Disney Productions from 1934 (the start of production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) until 1986, when, during the corporate restructuring to create The Walt Disney Company, it officially became a subsidiary of the company. It is headquartered in Burbank, California, across the street from the original Walt Disney Studios in a specialized building that was completed in 1995. Satellite studios once existed at Disney-MGM Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (1989–2003) and the site of what is now the Walt Disney Studios Paris (1995–2002), but those studios were closed in an effort to revive lagging profits by restructuring and recentralizing the division to produce fully computer-animated features solely in Burbank. From 1985 until his resignation in November 2003, WDFA was officially headed by Chairman Roy E. Disney, who exercized much influence within the division. Most decisions, however, were made by the WDFA President, who officially reported to Disney but who in practice also reported to the head of the Disney studios and Disney chief Michael Eisner.
Walt Disney began the move into features in 1934, pulling selected animators away from the short subjects division that had previously been the whole of Walt Disney Productions. The result was the first animated feature in English and Technicolor, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White became an unprecedented success when it was released to theatres in February 1938, and it and many of the subsequent feature productions became film classics. Following the success of the features, Disney expanded his company's operations, moving into live-action features, television, and theme parks. Besides successes like Snow White, Dumbo, and Cinderella, Disney also had the Feature Animation staff create experimental and stylized films such as Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty, which sustained losses and did not recoup their costs until decades after their original releases.
After Walt Disney's death in 1966, the animation department found itself without direction. The animators struggled to regain their footing but created films which were technically polished but told lackluster stories. In 1973, lead animator Eric Larson began an experimental recruitment program to see if new young talent could be found to bring new blood to the industry. This began the training of a whole new generation of animators that would bring animation to new heights and greatly influence the world's popular culture. After honing their craft on a series of fairly modest pictures, these new artists finally found true success again with The Little Mermaid in 1989. A string of successful films followed suit, and Disney expanded WDFA to a total staff of over 2400 by 1999, including employees located at satellite studios in Orlando and Paris — both studios have now since closed, the Orlando studio was turned into a attraction at a Disney theme park, and an entire new Disney theme park was built on the site of the old Paris studio, as was the French WDI field office.
However, the expansion coincided with a decline in both revenue and quality of the department's output. Competition from other studios drove animator salaries to a high level, making 2D animated features a costly proposition, and beginning in 2000, massive layoffs were done to bring the staff back down to 600. Deciding that the reason for its failing box office draw was the fact that they still used traditional animation methods in a time when Pixar and New Line Cinema were producing highly successful computer-animated features, Disney converted WDFA into an all-CGI studio, performing more layoffs and selling off its traditional animation equipment. As of 2004, WDFA's last traditional film was Home on the Range. Its first all-computer animated film was Chicken Little in 2005. Disney continued to release lower-budget traditional films produced by the DisneyToons studio in Australia until 2005, when that studio was shut down as well.
(Note - On February 22, 2006, Jim Hill Media released a report that WDFA is making a slow, but steady return to traditional animation, with the release in 2007 of a new film called "Enchanted", which is a blend of animation and live action. The animated portions are stated to be done in traditional animation. The report further states that IF they decide to return to traditional animation, WDFA would turn out a major film once every 3 1/2 to 4 years, compared to every 6 months to 1 year before. This is due to the fact that WDFA's workforce would be significantly reduced from the number of workers it had since the last traditionally animated production.)
WDFA has occasionally joined forces with Walt Disney Imagineering to create an attraction for a Disney theme park which has required the expertise of Disney animators. Among this select number of attractions are;
- Mickey's PhilharMagic at the Magic Kingdom and Hong Kong Disneyland
- Stitch's Great Escape at the Magic Kingdom
In January 2006, Disney purchased Pixar and began plans to merge Pixar's studio with WDFA. The collective works of both WDFA and Pixar from 2006 will be overseen by former Pixar president Ed Catmull and Walt Disney Studios head Dick Cook.
The Feature Animation studio is noted for creating a number of now-standard innovations in the animation industry, including:
- the multiplane camera (for Snow White, but first used in the Academy-award winning short "The Old Mill")
- the realistic animation of special effects and human characters (for Snow White)
- advanced composition processes to combine live-action and animated elements using color film (for The Three Caballeros)
- the use of xerography in animation to transfer drawings to cels as opposed to ink-tracing (developed for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but first used in the Academy-award nominated short Goliath II)
Among its significant achievements are:
- the first major motion picture in stereophonic sound (Fantasia)
- the first large format animated film (the 70mm Sleeping Beauty)
- the first animated film to apply computer animation ( The Black Cauldron)
- the first film to be shot using Disney's CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) all-digital process (The Rescuers Down Under)
- the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast),
- the highest-grossing traditionally animated feature of all time (The Lion King).