Learning In The Flesh: Why Disney Sends Its Animators To Life Drawing Classes

For 82 years, Disney’s in-studio life drawing classes have helped evolve its animated characters. But as increasing reliance on computers lures young animators away from classical drawing, three of Disney’s current master teachers are reminding them why figure drawing is still crucial.

Since 1932, Disney has been the only entertainment studio to continue an unbroken tradition of offering free life drawing classes for its artists within its studios. The idea is that understanding and capturing the anatomy and sense of motion from a live model improves animated drawings and gestures.


In the ensuing decades–while other animation and visual effects studios in the U.S. and Europe intermittently followed suit, pending budgets–Disney’s classes have not only continued unabated, but expanded beyond features to its TV animation, theme park, consumer products, and straight-to-DVD divisions.

Continuing that tradition today are master teachers Karl Gnass, Mark MacDonnell, and Bob Kato. Collectively, they teach daily life drawing of both nude and costumed models to help animators better understand the fundamentals of the human form, how clothing and gesture inform character and intent, and how to infuse spirit and intent into their figures.

(L-R) Dan Cooper, Mark McDonnell, Karl Gnass, and Bob Kato before their panel at WonderCon.Photo by Susan Karlin

However, increased reliance on computer modeling and algorithmic rendering, along with the explosion of web-accessible photo references, stand to undermine that “study the source” attitude. These teachers, along with Disney visual development artist Dan Cooper, have teamed–at WonderCon in May, and next at San Diego Comic-Con on July 27 (in panels moderated by yours truly)–to drive home the importance of ongoing classical drawing among aspiring and professional animators.


“You can draw animation and gesture without life drawing, but life drawing skills give you proportion, structure, perspective, and a certain vitality through rhythmic gestures,” says Gnass, a former Disney TV storyboard artist who has taught at Disney since 1995, as well as DreamWorks Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and Nickelodeon, among others. “You can’t achieve dynamics without bones and structure, and in order to have structure you need to study it. From there one can extend out in any direction towards any style.”

Cooper, who’s worked on Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and the upcoming Zootopia, has studied with Gnass for nearly two decades. “Many young artists are looking for an easier way out and study styles of existing animators, as opposed developing their own,” he says. “Doing something that involves the figure, you want to have it based on a little reality as opposed to a stylization or distortion of someone else’s truth. That’s like getting information secondhand. You need to do the same thing they did, which is to work from live models and find your style.”

Illustration by Karl Gnass

How They Teach


Unlike traditional three- and six-hour public classes, which they do teach–Gnass and McDonnell at the Animation Guild in Burbank, McDonnell at the California Art Institute in Pasadena, and Kato at The Drawing Club in Glendale and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena–Disney sessions run up to 2.5 hours with 5 to 10 minute model poses, enabling artists to drop in during limited breaks to work on their own projects, flesh out characters for current and upcoming Disney projects, and practice or get help with figures.

“It’s kind of like being an athletic trainer for a pro team. They have the ability; I have to keep track of their ultimate fitness,” says Kato, a former editorial illustrator who has taught at Disney since the mid-’90s. “Sometimes people are trying to figure out something, sometimes it’s what they want to do, not what they’re being paid to do. All day, they’re seeing the director’s vision come to life. Now, they take an hour during the week to do whatever they want–practice gestures or movement or test new ideas. Some guys are in the blue-sky phase–working on the concept level of a still developing film. They’ll come up with ideas in the workshop and bring them into a meeting.”

Bob Kato, framed by his artwork in his Drawing Club workspaceCourtesy of Bob Kato

“I try to teach fundamental ideas that help people understand the whole enterprise of drawing better in a more inclusive way–not learn my way, but learn,” says Gnass. “I have to approach each person at their specific level, otherwise I’d be railroading them with the teaching. Animators feel like these classes stimulate their creativity, because of what it takes to refine those skills. They’re creating more neurological pathways for better imagination.”


Cooper leverages those skills to other aspects of his art. “Drawing from life keeps me loose, fresh, and accurate. I find that when I’m not doing it, I draw more stiffly and tend to compartmentalize,” he says. “My work for Disney is more environment-based. But it still involves construction, rhythm, shape design, and how shapes are related to one another. It’s the same, whether you’re designing an environment or piece of a body.”

Mark McDonnell (seated) demonstrates for several Disney students and model Jonnathon Cripple (far left).Courtesy of Mark McDonnell

McDonnell has taught costumed character and gesture drawing at Disney for the past six years. “Lots of times, I’ll tweak it to the production going on. If I know what costume is being worn by a certain character, I’ll talk about the history behind the costume,” he says. “The symbols and shapes can be just as important as the design of the pose. The idea is to convey something about the culture and character without the narration.” If the projects are varied, “I’ll sit with them, one by one, and talk about what their want to improve or figure out. A lot want to do graphic novels to turn into a movie or TV show. I’m training them using the model, but then they go home and work on their own projects using the principles I’m talking about.”

Grounding a figure in reality makes for a more believable caricature or exaggeration. But what might be an obvious concept today wasn’t regarded in animation’s infancy. “All you have to do is look at the 1930s cartoons and early stages of animation, with their rubber hoselike legs, as examples of not having life drawing,” says Gnass. “While they’re very kinetic, if the artists were going to get more serious about it, they had to start learning skills.”

Mickey Mouse debuted in the 1928 Steamboat Willie.

How the tradition began

The Disney life-drawing classes began in 1932 with an artist named Art Babbitt, who developed Goofy, the Queen in Snow White, Pinocchio’s Geppetto, and the dancing mushrooms in Fantasia, before leading a movement to make Disney a union shop. Babbitt, who often studied live action footage to better illustrate motion in his animated characters, began hosting uninstructed life drawing sessions with nude models at his home. Word of mouth spread until Disney got wind.

“When Disney found out, he brought it to the studio. He didn’t want it to get out that there were naked ladies at his house,” laughs Babbitt’s widow, Barbara, who demurely offers her age as “flirting with 90.”

An early life drawing session in Art Babbitt’s home. Courtesy of Barbara Babbitt

Over time, Disney hired Don Graham, who taught at an art school that became the California Art Institute as its first master teacher of the Disney animators. The classes multiplied and included trips to the zoo.


Graham, who passed away in 1976, is credited with inspiring the craft of the Disney animators, like the fabled Nine Old Men, during animation’s golden age during the early 1930s to the early 1940s in ways never thought possible,” says Jake Friedman an art and animation professor at Mercy College in New York and former Nickelodeon and Disney Channel animator, who is writing a book about Art Babbitt. “Walt credited their in-studio art sessions as the secret ingredient to strengthening their art skills.”

(L-R) Barbara Babbitt and Jake Friedman at Babbitt’s Hollywood Hills home.Susan Karlin

Creating more believable characters

What live models bring to the table that photo reference doesn’t, is an energy and life force that artists access in order to elevate a drawing that’s technically accurate to one that seems to interact with the viewer.

“Character comes from within, not just point of view and intent, but through the physicality and exploring what the characters are feeling,” says Gnass, who has also worked on character breakdowns and expressions for Stuart Little and Harry Potter. “It’s easy to rely on motion-capture and images synthesized from external moving points in a computer. But copying the outside image is not creating from the inside out. Life drawing connects you to the real physics of movement, instead of fantasy physics, so you have something tangible and reliable as your source material.”


That underlying intent especially comes into play in commercial animation. “With Disney, design really matters,” says McDonnell. “It’s very character specific, because you’re selling that character in merchandise, which has to immediately project a look or brand. Animation requires poses that convey at a distance, so the soul of the character needs to come from the interior.

“You study anatomy structure and muscle tissue to understand how the machine works, but then filter it through a storytelling form by exaggerating the poses and projecting intent,” he adds. “That’s what visual entertainment is really–heightened reality.”

Development rendering of Wreck-It RalphArtwork by Dan Cooper

The deception of computers

The increasing reliance on computers and digital modeling tools in animation can insidiously deteriorate such skills if artists aren’t careful, because the technology encourages more of a surface rendering than getting at the soul of a character.


“3-D art often suffers from a lack of those skills by the practitioners,” says Gnass. “They’ve become accustomed to manipulating a virtual reality puppet without the skills of a puppeteer, attention to natural movement. I’m finding that many of these digital artists attend my classes to see if they can get at some of the secrets behind the sense of movement and authenticity through studying the human structure.”

Karl Gnass teaching at the Animation GuildCourtesy of Karl Gnass

Digital artists have to remember that the creative process is more than just mastering the technical elements of software manipulation. “Understanding when a figure is correct also helps you understand why a drawing isn’t working,” says Kato. “You don’t draw to become an animator, you draw to become an artist, and see the world and its stories through that lens.”

Approaching all types of animation as an artist, rather than a master of technical requirements offers a versatility. “I see a lot of people who might be really good at a specific job, but when they have to move to a different production and change styles, they have trouble,” says McDonnell. “No matter what the end product is–TV, features, video games, storyboards, visual development, or digital animation–the ideas and thoughts behind it are the same.”


Check out the slide show for samples of everyone’s artwork and their recent WonderCon panel:

Update: Here’s the Comic-Con panel:



About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia


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