For many, working for Disney is a lifelong dream, and fans around the world look at the most successful Disney icons and wonder how they got their start!
You may be surprised to know that a trove of Disney directors, animators, and yes, even LEGENDS, all went to the same college! It’s no coincidence that California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, happens to be an unofficial hotspot for Disney talent! Today we’re taking a peek at the place that started the careers of so many Disney superstars — and checking out some hidden Disney details.
Why are there so many successful CalArts alumni working at Disney?
CalArts, which is located in Valencia, California, was actually founded by Walt and Roy Disney back in 1961. Back then, it was a merger between two art schools in the area and became an official college in 1970. Walt’s vision was to create a school where emerging artists could hone their craft in a “community of the arts.” Walt wanted the school to be built around real-world experience as opposed to the traditional academic setting.
Since the college opened, it has been a hotbed for producing talented artists across multiple disciplines. But many know CalArts to be one of the best ways to get a foot in the door at Disney. The school quickly became known as “Mickey Mouse U.” for its outpouring of Disney elites. Its close proximity to the Disney headquarters in Burbank and Glendale also helped!
You may have seen a nod to this influential school from its alumni in a HUGE number of projects — both Disney-related and not! Ever heard of the A113 easter egg? This tradition became popular among CalArts grads to hide the term A113 in television and film productions as a nod to the graphic design and animation classroom that all of these grads went through at CalArts.
Some of CalArt’s most notable alumni
While there are countless names on the list of CalArts alumni who have gone on to have successful careers with Disney (too many to include in just one post!), there are a select few who have truly stood out and become icons in the film industry at large. Some of these alumni have even gone on to become Disney legends!
Many Disney fans know the work of Tim Burton very well! Although most of his work has been outside of Disney, his work as the producer of The Nightmare Before Christmas remains to this day a revolutionary feat in stop-motion animation! But his career with Disney spans much further than one film!
Burton was scouted out by Disney when the animated short he worked on while at CalArts, Stalk of the Celery Monster, caught their attention. He was offered an apprenticeship at Disney where he worked on Fox and the Hound, TRON, and The Black Cauldron. This was followed up with a stop-motion animated short Vincent, which brought Burton’s unique style front and center.
His first full-length feature film with Disney, Frankenweenie (no, not the animated 2012 film he ALSO made with Disney — this was a different 1984 version!), actually resulted in him getting fired from the Company as the film was considered too dark and scary for children. Even when Burton returned to Disney to produce The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was produced under Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures due to its darker nature.
Burton has continued to have a working relationship with Disney to this day, which has included that animated re-make of Frankenweenie in 2012!
Glen Keane graduated from CalArts in 1974 and started working for Disney that same year. Since then, he has gone on to work on classic Disney films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan, and, more recently, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. He was inaugurated as a Disney Legend at the 2013 D23 Expo.
Fun fact — did you know Glen Keane has art in his blood? His dad was Bil Keane — the creator of the Family Circus comic strip — which Glenn’s brother, Jeff, still creates. Glen’s daughter Claire also got involved in filmmaking. You know all those whimsical paintings and drawings Rapunzel creates in Tangled? Those were her artwork!
Joe Ranft joined Disney in 1980 and worked in their animation department for over a decade. He worked on films such as Oliver and Company, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. In 1991, Ranft was hired by Pixar as their head of story. He worked on every single film produced by Pixar until his untimely death in 2005.
Like many other creative contributors at Pixar, he got involved in other elements of the films he helped create. In this case, Joe enjoyed contributing as a voice actor! You might recognize his voice as Wheezy in the Toy Story films or Heimlich in A Bug’s Life (“Oooh! A little butterfly!!”). He even voiced a character in another CalArt’s grad’s production — he was the voice of Igor in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas!
Brad Bird is a multi-talented filmmaker who was actually awarded a scholarship by Disney to attend CalArts. After graduating he began working for Disney, but he was ultimately fired for criticizing upper management for not taking enough risks.
Years later he was hired by Steve Jobs to work at Pixar. His biggest accomplishments include two Academy Awards for The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
He also went on to create a couple of notable live-action films including one of the Mission: Impossible movies and the 2015 Disney film Tomorrowland. He also serves as part of the “Brain Trust” at Pixar of creatives who oversee all their films AND he’s lent his voice to a famous character you might not realize was him — Edna Mode from The Incredibles (“NO CAPES!”).
You may not know who this next guy is from looks alone but we guarantee you’ve heard him. He’s responsible for over 100 film and television scores including The Simpsons theme, the score for Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman, and so much more. He attended CalArts at the same time as Tim Burton…well, kind of.
While Danny Elfman technically never officially enrolled as a student at CalArts, he started sitting in classes and befriended a number of students, including Tim Burton. Ever since, Burton has used him as the primary composer for most of his films, including The Nightmare Before Christmas. Elfman was also the singing voice of Jack Skellington in the film! He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2015.
Even MORE Successful CalArts Alumni
There are way too many alumni to list who have gone on to have successful careers with Disney. But this list should give you an idea of the long-standing reputation of CalArts to produce some of Disney’s best and brightest artists.
School of Art – Graphic Design
Amanda Lui (BFA 14), graphic designer, Walt Disney Imagineering
School of Film – Character Animation
Mark Andrews (BFA 93), animation writer-director (Brave) — Academy Award
Chris Buck (78), animation writer-director (Frozen) — Academy Award
Brenda Chapman (BFA 87), animation writer-director (Brave, The Prince of Egypt, The Lion King) — Academy Award
Pete Docter (BFA 90), animation writer-director (Inside Out, Up, Monsters, Inc.), Pixar Brain Trust — 2 Academy Awards
Ralph Eggleston (86), animation writer-director (For the Birds), production designer (Inside Out, WALL·E) — Academy Award
Mike Giaimo (78), animation art director (Frozen, Pocahontas)
Jennifer Hager (BFA 05), animation supervisor (Zootopia)
Don Hall (BFA 95), animation director (Big Hero 6) — Academy Award
Minkyu Lee (BFA 09), visual development artist (Big Hero 6, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph), writer-director (Adam and Dog)
Rob Minkoff (83), animation and live-action director (The Lion King, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, The Forbidden Kingdom)
Rich Moore (BFA 87), animation director (Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph, Futurama) — 2 Primetime Emmy Awards, Academy Award nomination
John Musker (77), animation writer-director (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) — Academy Award nomination
Shane Prigmore (99), character designer and visual development artist (The Lego Movie, The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon, Coraline), VP of Creative Affairs, Disney Television Animation
Alonso Ramirez Ramos (BFA 10), character designer, storyboard artist (Gravity Falls, Mickey Mouse) — 2 Primetime Emmy Awards
Peter Sohn (BFA 99), story animation director (The Good Dinosaur), voice actor
Andrew Stanton (BFA 87), story animation and live-action writer-director (Finding Nemo, WALL·E, Finding Dory), Pixar Brain Trust — 2 Academy Awards
Genndy Tartakovsky (cer. 92), story animation writer-director (Hotel Transylvania), creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars — 3 Primetime Emmy Awards, Winsor McCay Lifetime Achievement Award
Gary Trousdale (82), story animation writer-director (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Kirk Wise (cer. 85), story animation writer-director (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
School of Film – Experimental Animation
Henry Selick (MFA 77), stop-motion animation director (Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas) — Academy Award nomination
School of Theater – Performance
Michael Jung (MFA 94), director, VP of Theatrical Development, Walt Disney Imagineering
Paul Reubens (73), screen actor, creator of Pee-wee Herman and Pee-wee’s Playhouse — 3 Primetime Emmy nominations, also the voice of R3X on the original Star Tours and DJ R3X in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge!)
When it comes to a career at Disney, there are MANY ways to get your foot in the door! The school was created specifically to produce well-rounded artists — just like what Disney is looking for in its hires! It’s clear that many of the students that make it through the programs at CalArts are primed to go on to careers with Disney. Saying you attended the school Walt Disney had a hand in creating certainly helps!
Looking ahead to the future of Disney films, check out our full list of Disney moves coming out in 2021!
Are you a Disney history buff? How many of these CalArts alumni did you know about? Let us know in the comments!