The Beautiful Failure of Walt Disney’s Burbank Studio

In the late-1930s, Walt Disney enlisted German architect and industrial designer Kem Weber to design a state-of-the-art animation studio from scratch. Weber oversaw every detail of the new Burbank studio from the exterior architecture of the buildings to the Streamline Moderne design of the furniture, desks, and appliances, to the custom typeface used on the studio’s signage.

Yesterday, Hans Bacher posted a fantastic series of images I’d never seen before that show Weber’s layouts of the different spaces in the Burbank studio. You can also see some of Weber’s furniture at the Blue Sky Disney blog.

The Burbank studio wasn’t the smashing success that Walt had envisioned, however. It felt cold and sterile to the artists who were accustomed to the cramped and comfortable charms of their old Hyperion digs. Animator Fred Moore complained to Ward Kimball one afternoon shortly after moving into the Burbank studio, “No distinction in the rooms.”

But more than the lack of charm, the Burbank studio’s ostentatious in-your-face luxuriousness suggested a certain tone deafness on Walt Disney’s part. It rankled the hundreds of artists who were struggling to get by on $15-per-week salaries, and who now realized that the company cared more about its films than the well-being of its rank-and-file employees. It hardly mattered to the artists that Walt had had to borrow money from the banks to pay for the construction of the studio. Labor tensions began to escalate just months after artists moved into the studio, and within 18 months, the nasty Disney strike that threatened to destroy the entire studio had begun.

Walt had miscalculated the desires of his artists. He thought they wanted a state-of-the-art facility to create animated films. The average Depression-era artist, however, would have been happier with a few extra bucks per week so that he/she could afford food and housing. Managing the competing interests of studio owners and artists is still a struggle in today’s animation industry, which is why the construction of Disney’s Burbank studio remains an especially instructive moment in the art form’s history.


  • Robert Fiore

    I dunno, you look at that animation building (from the outside, anyway) and it still looks beautiful, and it still looks like it could have been built yesterday, and it still makes the newer buildings around it look all the more like kitsch. You will also note that in later years people with more clout at the studio booted the animators to Glendale and took it over for themselves.

  • skent

    artists will always find something to moan about with stuff like this. I’d consider it a privilege to work in such surroundings(and on such films).

    Amidst all the uncertainty of the depression, this was a bold move and showed a long-term commitment to animation.

    • AmidAmidi

      “Moaning about stuff like this…” You mean, moaning about not being paid a living wage? I’m sure that the majority of artists would consider it more of a privilege being paid enough to eat food than the privilege of working in a studio like this.

      • Skent

        No, moaning about stuff like how the new studio doesn’t have the charm of the old. I was making no comment on the strike.

        • http://profiles.google.com/andreakhaid Andrea Haid

          It’s understandable though that the artists felt frustrated to see that the studio could afford to build that new studio. The fact that it didn’t have the less luxurious nature of the old studio was a clear visual demonstration of the wealth of the studio versus the low wages of the employees.

      • Robert Fiore

        It’s something of an oversimplification. The people Disney valued, particularly animators, could be paid very well, the people he saw as interchangeable were paid something closer to subsistence. There’s no question that the extravagant spending on the studio vs. the poor wages for the rank-and-file contributed significantly to the atmosphere that produced the strike, and Walt never had the enthusiasm for animation after the strike that he had before. As for it being a “failure,” some awfully fine work was done there, such as Dumbo, Bambi (underrated in may opinion), some very inventive shorts when the house style loosened up a bit after the war. If the atmosphere of the building was less convivial than one would like it certainly wouldn’t have been the first or last time modern architecture had that result. The labor strife would have had far more profound effect on the atmosphere at the studio than the architecture. There were altogether too many forces at work in the industry and the world at large to make the building itself a central issue.

  • Shazbot

    From all reports, Walt built that studio FOR HIS ARTISTS, not to glorify himself. If anything, he was overly paternal towards his employees. He even thought about building housing for his artists, creating a utopian community, like Milton Hershey did for his workers (this was when Walt was a bit more left-of-center in his thinking, which was more social than political). That’s why he was so shocked and embittered by the studio strike. He thought he was doing his best by his artists. People can debate about his actions, but his motives, in my view anyway, were pretty much above reproach.

  • Larry

    And today the number one spot on Kim Weber’s organizational chart above is inhabited by paying tenant Shaun Cassidy!

  • Steve Segal

    This is exactly what happened in a small way at Pixar. After Toy Story, Steve Jobs wanted to make our cubicles more sleek and modern, but all the artists had decorated our funky hand made cubicles. It felt like everybody hated those modern ipod-esque cubicles and John Lasseter interceded so we kept our cubicles with character, at least until the move to Emeryville.

    • http://www.twitter.com/pauljeremiah Paul Jeremiah Hayes

      So I guess Steve got his way in the end.

      • http://www.facebook.com/JuurianChi Juurian Chi

        Steve Jobs always wins.
        :D

  • Animation historian

    Perhaps not everything needs to be viewed through a socialist prism. Perhaps the new plant was built to increase efficiency since the Hyperion studio had grown like topsy with crews working in rented bungalows up the street, the Bambi unit on Seward in Hollywood and no more space on the lot in which to build additional structures. i would hardly call the desire for efficiency or even elbow room, tone deaf. Especially considering that the coffee shop above was free to employees when it was built and one could even call up and place orders that would be delivered to your room. it was shut down when employees continually abused the privilege.

    • Funkybat

      I’m also curious as to what constituted “abuse” of the free employee coffee shop. Were animators hoarding food and taking it home to their families in lieu of grocery shopping? Were people having stuff delivered to their desks ten minutes after having received a delivery?

      Either the coffee shop was free or it wasn’t. I have to wonder how much “abuse” actually occured, perhaps it was just a cost-cutting move.

      • Animation historian

        Abuse meant spending too much time at the coffee shop and not getting work done.

  • Anonymous Guy

    Walt was a genius, but he wasn’t perfect.

  • http://animationanomaly.com/ Charles Kenny

    As usual, things are more complicated than they first appear.

    The Burbank facility was built using the profits from Snow White. As was his way, Walt went far and above what would have sufficed (and what could easily have been paid for with said profits.)

    Banks only like to give loans if the collateral is sufficient enough to retrieve their money if things go bad. Ergo: you can get a loan to build a new studio but not to pay employees. Profits from Snow White could have raised wages, but only temporarily. In any case, the war would have brought about the redundancies eventually and with higher wages in effect, you can be sure more people would have had to be let go.

    Secondly, (and someone may have a second opinion on this) but the studio structure meant an unofficial yet real division into two camps: Walt’s and Roy’s. The former’s arbitrary rewards structure is what resulted in many of the grumblings of staff and hence the cause of the strike. In contrast, when forced to trim costs, Roy treated his staff as equals and although his 10% pay cut undoubtedly was not welcomed, the fact that everyone was in the same boat did much to ally any begrudgery.

    As a coda, it’s interesting to note how the pain of the day that animators were booted out of the building back in the 1980s is still very much remembered as symbolic of the darker times for animators at the studio.

    • Glenn

      Thank you.

  • Glenn

    Walt was not a millionaire at the time.

    • J Kurtti

      In 1940 Walt had a housewife, a butler, a cook, and a nanny. He lived in a 6,000+ square foot home that was worth over $40,000 (compared to the 1,050 square foot house worth $2,200 that was the typical American family home). He also had common stock in Walt Disney Productions that was valued at over $2,000,000. By any reasonable definition Walt was a millionaire many times over.

      • Jeff Kurtti

        This posting, by the way, is not by me. I only post under my full name.