On April 4, 2003, Glen Keane, one of the Walt Disney Company's most respected animators, summoned about 50 of his colleagues to a third-floor conference room on the lot here in California to discuss the war brewing at the studio. Disney's animators had settled into two opposing camps: those who were skilled in computer animation and those who refused to give up their pencils.
Keane, a 31-year veteran who created the beast from Beauty and the Beast and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, was a Disney traditionalist. But after a series of experiments to see if he could create a computer-animated ballerina, his opposition softened. So he invited the 50 animators to discuss the pros and cons of both art forms, calling his seminar "The Best of Both Worlds."
For an hour, Keane painstakingly ticked through the pluses and minuses of each technique while the other animators listened quietly. After a few tentative questions, the crowd burst into chatter, as animators shouted over one another, some arguing that computers should not replace people while others expressed fears that they would be forced to draw by hand.
In a recent interview, Keane recalled that Kevin Geiger, a computer animation supervisor, then stood up and demanded of him, "If you can do all this cool stuff that you're talking about -- that you want to see in animation -- but you have to give up the pencil to do it, are you in?" Keane hesitated before answering: "I'm in."
Three weeks later, the company's animators were told that Disney would concentrate on making computer-animated movies, abandoning a 70-year-old hand-drawn tradition in favor of a style popularized by more successful, newer rivals like Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation. The results were nothing short of a cultural revolution at the studio, which is famous for the hand-drawn classics championed by its founder Walt Disney, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Peter Pan.
This November, some two and a half years after that decision, Disney will release Chicken Little, the first of four computer-animated films being developed at the newly reorganized studio. The company is hoping that this movie, along with others like Meet the Robinsons, American Dog and Keane's Rapunzel Unbraided, will return a reinvigorated Disney to its past glory.
There is a lot more than pride, however, riding on their success. Animation was once Disney's heart, a profitable lifeline that fed the company's theme park, book and home video divisions. And reviving profits is as essential to Disney these days as regaining its storied reputation.
Just last week, the company said it expected its studio to lose as much as US$300 million in the fourth quarter because of poor performance in its live-action division. Overall, the Disney Co had net income of US$2.27 billion in the first three quarters of fiscal 2005 on the strength of its ABC network and its ESPN sports cable channel.
"From a psychological standpoint, Chicken Little is very important for Disney," said Hal Vogel, a financial analyst who has covered Disney for years. "Everything is touched by animation and if they don't refresh it, it becomes frayed at the edges."
The box-office numbers show how far the sky has fallen. The studio reached the height of its most recent popularity with the 1994 release of The Lion King, which brought in US$764.8