You enter the Disney studio through one of three gates. The internal circulation system is based on a grid of streets like a midwestern city. A grid roadway pattern is logical and makes finding your destination easier.
The two main streets on the Disney lot street grid are Mickey Avenue, which runs north south, and Dopey Drive, which travels east west.
The internal roadways are very narrow curb-to-curb. A narrow road naturally promotes traffic calming and encourages walking, bicycling, or small carts to be the preferred method of travel. Moving around Walt’s studio would be a pleasure unlike the experience one found other movie studios in the area. The parking areas were pushed to the edges of the property.
The buildings are set back from the interior streets and lined with grass lawns and oak trees. Even the utilities were placed underground and hidden from view. The entire studio feels very intimate and welcoming.
At the center of everything, both physically and psychologically, is the Animation Building. The architectural language for the building was based on the popular Streamline Moderne style. Streamline Moderne emulated the sensation of speed, efficiency, and modernity in a distinctly American way. Walt wanted to build an efficient and functional movie making machine and what could be more functional than an architectural style that reminds people of an aerodynamic train or an airplane? The principles behind Streamline Moderne would successfully express Walt’s intentions for the facility.
The design of the animation building captures architect Louis Sullivan’s advice that, “A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions.” Overall, the massing of the buildings features horizontal elements and clean lines. The buildings repeat various elements throughout the studio campus, which creates a sense of order and harmony. As stated earlier, this is a design pattern called alternating repetition.
In keeping with modernism, there is a lack of architectural detail. The Animation Building relies upon thoughtful use of exterior materials such as the flat ground floor bricks that are held together with recessed mortar and arranged in pairs, one on top of the other. The result is that the building does seem to hug the ground.
The Californian desert inspires the color palette for the exterior of the Animation Building. The terracotta, cream, and green building colors are arranged in a gradient. However, this choice was not only beautiful but also functional. Walt wanted the color of the exterior to calm the eyes for artists who are looking at saturated colors throughout the workday.
The windows of the Animation Building are oriented to face true north. It has been known for centuries that north light is the best for artists because they get constant light with a silvery type quality that brings out the cool, purplish, greenish atmospheric colors. When windows face north, the quality of the light tends to be shadowless, diffuse, and neutral or slightly grayish most of the day and year. The animators and color stylists could paint all day and the subject would not change. The windows were fitted with special metal awnings that could be adjusted by the occupants of each office. Even today, the north facing windows of the Animation Building continue to remain unobstructed and let in the natural light.
The view below the north facing windows has changed considerably over the years. Originally, an earthen berm was built to hide the view of Alameda Avenue. When the Team Disney Building was erected, a reflecting pool was installed. Today, the reflecting pool has been paved over and the plaza has been dedicated to tributes for Walt, Roy Disney, and the other Disney Legends recipients.
The filmmaking process starts on the third floor of the Animation Building with Walt and the storymen. Walt’s office suite was located in wing 3H on the third floor of the Animation Building in the prime Northeast corner. The suite was made up of a formal office as well as a working office. There was also a small kitchen as well as an apartment where Walt would occasionally spend the night. He enjoyed the apartment so much and found it so useful that he decided he would create the same type of living quarters on top of the fire station at Disneyland.
The storymen would hand off their work to the layout men and directors who were located on the second floor. Then the work would be divided up and the hundreds of animators on the first floor would go to work. In the basement were test cameras where the dailies could be shot and sent back up to the animators for their review.
When the animation cells were ready, they were transported in underground tunnels to the Ink and Paint Building across the street on the east just below Walt’s view. The tunnels allowed the delicate drawings to move from one phase of production to another without concern for the weather. Once the cells were painted, they would continue moving south toward the Camera and Cutting buildings.
The Burbank studio was designed to provide the artists all the comforts of home. There was a snack stand, barber, cleaners, a buffet-style restaurant, and health club. Every part of the facility was air-conditioned by a custom made General Electric system. This was a very rare thing at the time and was good for the artists comfort as well as keeping dust off the painted celluloid sheets.
This attention to detail was not just Walt being a benevolent boss; it meant that his artists really had no reason to leave work. The Disney studios work environment was unique at the time but it would become the prototype for modern day high-tech companies and other high performance organizations after World War II.