How do you meaningfully celebrate a century’s worth of beloved features and shorts? That question was top of mind in the fall of 2021, when Dan Abraham and Trent Correy would meet in a local Taco Bell parking lot to brainstorm ways to honor Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 100th anniversary. This was the definition of a passion project, as no one had assigned them such an ambitious project (or even knew they were working on it, for that matter). Over a span of eight months, the two would continue to meet in secret, anytime and anywhere they could, as they developed the all-new original short Once Upon a Studio.
“In 2019, Dan and I worked on an Olaf short called Once Upon a Snowman. We directed it together, and that was actually our first time meeting each other,” Correy recalls. “Dan comes from story and I come from animation, so it seemed like a really good fit. We had a genuinely great time making that short, and we came out on the other side thinking, ‘How do we work together again?’ As we went on different paths—I went off to work on the Zootopia+ series, and Dan went off to work on the Baymax! series—we started talking about how to recreate that experience. We started sharing ideas about what inspired us and what we’d like to do together. And then we realized very early on that the 100-year anniversary was upon us and that that our studio was making Wish—which, as a feature, celebrates the future of Disney—but there was nothing yet planned to look at the legacy characters and what inspired us to become animators. So, that’s kind of where this started.”
After months of ideating in their spare time, the collaborators pitched their concept to Jennifer Lee, Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “She had no idea what it was,” Abraham says. “Because the pandemic was still going on, I tapped through all of our storyboards on Zoom and presented this idea to her. After I was done, she stood up and left the camera. Trent and I looked at each other like, ‘Oh, no… What is happening?’ When she came back, her glasses were on top of her head, and she wiped away a little tear. She said, ‘I don’t know how, but we have to figure out how to make this.’ Trent and I were just beside ourselves! We couldn’t believe it. It felt like such a long shot to work on something for that long—and on something that no one was asking for. It felt so amazing.”
Of course, now that they’d been greenlit, they had to fast-track the production process.
“There are hundreds of characters in this short, which includes hand-drawn elements, CG elements, and live-action plates,” Correy explains. “We knew we were swinging big, and we knew that the 100th year was getting closer—and we all know how long animation can take. If we wanted to do this thing, it would need to happen quickly. Thank goodness Jennifer Lee said yes to our pitch in that moment. We got started very quickly after that.”
Next, Clark Spencer, President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, announced plans for Once Upon a Studio internally during a year-end town hall meeting. Feeling inspired, both Yvett Merino and Bradford Simonsen pitched themselves—and each other—to produce the short. “Separately, Brad and I emailed Clark and said, ‘Hey, I need to work on this,'” Merino says. “I didn’t know then that Brad had basically written Clark the same email I did. By the end of January, we were working on the short and just starting to put everything together.”
Virtually everyone in the studio shared Abraham, Correy, Simonsen, and Merino’s passion for Once Upon a Studio, which brings together 543 characters from more than 85 feature-length and short films. Because the hand-drawn, CG, and live-action elements all need to interact, the producers assembled an expert team to support the short’s technical needs. According to Correy, “I didn’t anticipate that we would have so many people coming up to us, emailing us, texting us, or Slacking us to say, ‘I just need to be a part of this thing.'” Abraham adds, “We found out very quickly just how much these characters mean to the people in the building; characters like Ariel, Mulan, and Pinocchio feel like part of their families. Everyone came out of the woodwork, and it was joyous to see all that enthusiasm.”
Fans will get to see Once Upon a Studio when it makes its broadcast debut Sunday, October 15, as part of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration!. With all-new hand-drawn and CG animation, Once Upon a Studio will celebrate 10 decades of storytelling, artistry, and technological achievements—all with a dash of Disney magic.