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March 13, 2024

Toward a common future: Disney and CIA build on a shared past

Animation chair Anthony Scalmato ’07, right, led CIA students to the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California while the group was in town to participate in the 2019 CTN Animation eXpo. Submitted photo.

By Carlo Wolff

The relationship between the entertainment giant that brothers Walt and Roy Disney founded in 1923 and the Cleveland Institute of Art, which was founded in 1882, continues to bear fruit for both.

People who attended and/or graduated from CIA have worked for the Hollywood-based firm since its formative years and continue to do so as Disney celebrates its centennial with TV specials, re-releases of The Lion King and Moana, and upgrades to Disney resorts and theme parks.

Early Days
Among the early Disney animators associated with CIA are David Hilberman, who attended the school in the early 1930s, and Grace Bailey, an inker who studied at the Cleveland School of Art, CIA’s predecessor, in 1922.

In 1936, Hilberman joined Disney as an assistant animator and shortly began work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first animated feature film produced in the United States. A Communist for a time, Hilberman fell out of favor with Walt Disney in the early 1940s because of his increasing involvement with union organizing that led to the 1941 Disney strike for better wages.

Bailey headed the Ink and Paint Department at Disney from 1954 to 1972. She was vigilant about keeping the company’s color palette fresh and worked on such early Disney efforts as “Silly Symphony,” a series of shorts that began in black-and-white but evolved into color.

Ambrozi Paliwoda ’32 and his classmate Ethel Kulsar also worked on Disney classics. Paliwoda was an Honors graduate that Disney executive Don Graham, who had taught at CIA, hired for his fine arts background. Besides Snow White, Paliwoda worked as an animator on Bambi and Sleeping Beauty and as an assistant animator on Pinocchio. He also helped create Pinocchio’s buddy, Jiminy Cricket. Kulsar was the first female storyboard artist on Fantasia and was a background and character designer on its celebrated “Nutcracker Suite” sequence.

Contemporary Connections
Modern-day CIA alumni have kept the tradition of working at Disney going into the 21st century. One of them is Zharia Rahn ’21, a prop designer for Disney TV.

Rahn began three years of work at Disney as an intern in spring 2021, just after she graduated from CIA. She’s particularly proud of her work on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, a Disney TV series, but it was her work on The Owl House, another Disney TV show, that affirmed Rahn’s affection for her employer. Working on Owl reminded her how global Disney is.

“It was really interesting collaborating with all of these insanely talented artists from all over the world,” she says. “We were all coming together and hyping each other up. It was just such a positive experience working with them. It really just felt like a bunch of kids making a cartoon.”

Rahn credits CIA for teaching her the fundamentals, adding her work as a teaching assistant immersed her in the necessary software, especially Photoshop. “I think CIA was very good at teaching me how to draw perspective and how to actually get my brain into artist mode, how to see something,” she says.

Technology also was a lure for Zack Petroc ’97, a Disney shorts director and writer. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, one of the first blue-screen films, drew the CIA Sculpture major to Los Angeles with only $300 to his name and a friend he could stay with. To his happy surprise, a single interview paid off, landing him work on that pioneering film.

In combining live actors with computer graphics, Sky Captain opened Petroc’s eyes to new technological possibilities.

Petroc has been a model supervisor for Disney Feature Animation. He worked on Big Hero 6, which won an Oscar in 2015 for Best Animated Feature, and his work on its Baymax character garnered a Visual Effects Society award. He’s been with Disney since 2009.

“Typically, the visual effects industry is project-to-project,” Petroc says. “It can be very hit-or-miss, and you’re at the whim of the economy and how everything else is doing. But at Disney, you roll from one film to the next because they always have a consistent pipeline of projects in place.” To Petroc, the keys to Disney culture are security, flexibility, variety and collaboration. Not to mention creativity.

“When I was at CIA, we would have root critiques, and they didn’t pull any punches,” he says. “At Disney, it’s a similar process, where you are creating a piece of art with a directive in mind, and throughout that process you gather with a group and the art is critiqued. You have to know how to work in that kind of environment. I think that was the thing that helped me most coming out of CIA.”

Keeping Current
In 2005, Kevin Geiger ’89 made history as computer graphics supervisor on Chicken Little, Disney’s first fully computer-animated feature film.

Geiger, who spent 15 years with Disney in Burbank and Beijing, is partner, head of production at tellretell, a Taipei, Taiwan-based animation development and production company.

Disney and CIA both have “open, creative environments, diverse cultural demographics, and a commitment to excellence,” he says.

“Be open to new ideas, new tools, new ways of working, and new reasons for working,” Geiger advises students considering animation as a major and a career. “Study what came before you, be aware of what’s around you, have a vision for where you want to go and pivot as you like.”

When CIA named associate professor Anthony Scalmato ’07 chair of its Animation department, one of his goals was to connect students to industry, and not just film. He wants to broaden their view of the field, which, beyond TV and movies, is used in gaming, mobile phone technology, on TikTok and more.

Outside his office is a wall Scalmato uses to remind students of the ties between Disney and CIA. It features framed biographies of animators who joined Disney from CIA when the entertainment company was young and animation sprang from the tip of a pencil. There are movie posters for Snow White and Pinocchio and a string of subsequent blockbusters.

The wall is a good reminder of an important legacy.

“I like history,” Scalmato says. “I like the ties to CIA because I’m a CIA graduate. That’s why I started hanging up the posters. I really want to build a sense of pride that you’re going to school learning where all these prominent people have come from. It’s all about building the community.”

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