The Making of Disney’s ‘Once Upon a Studio’: From a Taco Bell Parking Lot to (Potentially) Oscar Night | Exclusive Photos

Directors Trent Correy and Dan Abraham talk TheWrap through the production of the beloved short film


Disney’s “Once Upon a Studio” is a short film that brings together almost all of the stars of its animated features and shorts (sometimes in blink-and-you’ll miss them cameos), as part of one heart-tugging extravaganza. The story is straightforward: for its 100th year, the characters are gathering together for a “group photo” outside of the iconic Walt Disney Animation Studios “hat building” in Burbank, California (designed by groundbreaking post-modern architect and former Disney board member Robert A.M. Stern). It is simple and sweet, showcasing truly breathtaking animation and encapsulating the specialness of the 100th anniversary of the company better than almost anything else.

Since the short premiered at Annecy last summer, it has played on ABC, is available to stream on Disney+ and has racked up, as of this writing, over 2.2 million views on YouTube – in just two weeks. It’s also been shortlisted for the Best Animated Short Oscar.

“Once Upon a Studio” is so effective that you imagine it being the product of some edict from on high, mandated by faceless corporate entities as part of the cross-company celebration. Which makes it so surprising that the short was actually hatched, in secret, in the parking lot of a Glendale Taco Bell by two passionate Disney animators – Dan Abraham and Trent Correy.


“It was during COVID so we couldn’t get near each other. We would go to Taco Bell. We would take our cars and go through the drive-thru. We would park next to each other in the parking lot and roll down our windows and eat our tacos and talk,” Abraham told TheWrap.

At this point the short was still in the brainstorming stage. “I kept saying to Trent, ‘This is never going to get made. We’ve got live-action, CG and hand-drawn. And we have over 500 characters.’ It’s so easy to say no, instead of saying yes and figuring out how to do it. And nobody was asking for this,” Abraham said.

Finally they worked up the courage to pitch the short to Jennifer Lee, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Abraham said it was one of the most memorable days of his life – Lee started sobbing, her glasses perched atop her head. She looked at Correy and Abraham and told them, “I don’t know how, but we have to figure out how to do this.” A month and a half later, they pitched the short to the studio. And even though it was still very rough, it elicited a big response.

Captain Hook

“When they saw what we were doing, everybody was just coming up to us – people we knew, people we didn’t know, saying, ‘I’m on another movie right now. But I just need to touch it, I just need to be part of it,” Abraham said.

And they engaged with the studio, soliciting advice from anybody who wanted to give notes.

“We sent out a Google sheet to the whole studio. I said, ‘Let us know your favorite characters. Let us know if you have interaction ideas. Let us know what you’re passionate about,’” Correy said. “I think a couple of things came from that – one was we realized everyone has a different favorite movie. ‘Black Cauldron’ might be someone’s favorite, or short ‘Flowers and Trees’ might be someone’s favorite. We learned pretty quickly that, Oh, we have to represent all of our features and some of our shorts and the size character.”


After assembling a rough version of the short in storyboard form, they realized they had too much. The short was clocking in at more than 12 minutes, pushing the very definition of a short and making the producers very worried. They trimmed it back (it now runs at around 9 minutes), not that they are sad about the cuts. “We walked away from the project thinking we got way more than we asked for,” Correy said.

Eric Goldberg, the animator behind the Genie in “Aladdin” and Phil in “Hercules” (among many others), was made head of hand drawn animation and oversaw a small team of hand-drawn animators. He is also an animation historian who can tell you which of the Nine Old Men animated which shot in any classic Disney movie. “He would check in on the clean-up and make sure that the clean-up line reflected the era that it was from. And you know, we were we were very particular about that. But Eric made sure that it happened,” Abraham said.


They also had to figure out the size of every character, especially since they were going to be standing next to each other. “That was tricky. We would talk about that stuff –like Scrooge McDuck next to Tiana,” Abraham said. “Or Mickey next to Winnie the Pooh. Well, Pooh is a teddy bear, so according to Christopher Robin’s height … he stuff that we talked about was sort of ridiculous.”

Another topic of conversation: what characters to actually include. For instance Robin Williams’ lost boy character from the Magic of Disney Animation attraction at the former Disney-MGM Studios theme park was included, since it was animated by a Disney Animation studio (then known as Disney Feature Animation Florida). Disney animator Michael Woodside sent in a note to the big document saying that he grew up in Florida and his mom would drop him off to Disney-MGM Studios and he would stand at what they would call the “fish tank” and watch animators draw. “He said this was the character that made him want to get into animation,” so in Williams’ lost boy character went.

Roger Rabbit was not included because technically he wasn’t animated by Disney but by a Richard Williams’ splinter unit in England. (Later Roger Rabbit shorts were animated by that Florida outpost.) Some character models, like from Disney’s 2000 film “Dinosaur,” had to be rebuilt from scratch. “They all had to be rebuilt really because the technology just wasn’t there anymore. We had to go back in, which was cool to see them brought back to life again,” Abraham said.

“Ichabod Crane is my favorite,” Abraham said about their most beloved character appearance. And what makes that moment even more special is that Correy animated that moment, complete with Ichabod nearly losing his head, and Abraham did the clean-up.


They also had to figure out how the characters would speak. “Every single person we went out to said yes,” Abraham said. “So many of them talked about what a gift it was to be that character with Disney and like Richard White, who voiced Gaston, would go to children’s hospitals and spread that joy. It meant so much to us to bring these characters to life again. But everybody that came in and was a part of it had such similar stories. It touched us so much.” James Woods, who voiced Hades, appears briefly in the finished short but spent an hour in the recording both with Abraham and Torrey. “He was so into being Hades,” Abraham said.

Richard Sherman, who composed “Feed the Birds” with his brother Robert, was even recruited to play the song in the short. Not only that, but they recorded Sherman playing the piano in Walt’s office, which he would do for Walt every week when Walt was still alive.

In terms of integrating the CG and traditionally animated characters, the goal was simple. “You want them to live together in the environment and with each other. That was the big goal, not to do anything fancy,” Correy said. “We just want them to look just as they did and live together. And the whole team figured it out.”

There was eight months of development and about a year and a half of production, including a live-action shoot at Walt Disney Animation Studios, according to Correy and Abraham. The short was finished a few weeks before its big debut at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, where it went over like gangbusters. (John Musker, the filmmaker behind “The Little Mermaid” and “Treasure Planet,” among others, was in my row at the screening. He seemed thrilled.)

What has the reception been like for the filmmakers behind “Once Upon a Studio?”

“It’s been an unbridled joy,” said Abraham. “Dan and I spent a good chunk of the holidays just texting back and forth,” added Correy. You can tell that they are both so thrilled with how the short came out and the privilege that goes along with it that they could talk about “Once Upon a Studio” forever.

Honestly? Same.


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