What Every Animator Can Learn From the Top Animation Studios of All Time

The most influential and famous animation studios in the world have created many movies. If you are wondering about the history of top animation studios and are looking for some tips on how to manage your own animation studio in the future, then this blog post is for you.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

Image from Deadline

Walt Disney Animation Studios is located in Burbank, California, USA. The studio has more than 800 employees.

The studio uses 2D Animation and CG Animation. Its highest awarded film is Frozen with 72 awards. Its highest-grossing film is also Frozen at $1.287 billion.

According to Bloop Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios was made as a division of Walt Disney Studios. They wanted to create animated feature films, short films, and television specials. It was first named Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, then became the Walt Disney Studio, then Walt Disney Feature Animations in 1986, and finally, Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006. During this time, Disney also officially acquired Pixar Animation Studios.

The studio was founded in 1923. Walt Disney and Roy Disney started producing Alice Comedies shorts, which featured a live-action girl who interacted with an animated world. 

Melissa Hauprich’s YouTube video on Disney’s brief history mentions that in 1927, Walt Disney created a cute and funny character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Disney produced 26 cartoons about him. Unfortunately, their distributor took away their rights to the character and even their animation staff. 

Later on, Walt Disney was able to make a new character. Perhaps you’re familiar with him: His name is Mickey Mouse. Disney created some silent cartoons starring the mouse, but they didn’t sell. In 1928, Disney’s third Mickey Mouse cartoon titled “Steamboat Willie” was released and became known as the first sync sound cartoon.

Bloop Animation’s article on the studio’s history mentions that in 1930, Disney’s Silly Symphonies became distributed by Pat Powers through Celebrity Productions. There was a financial dispute between Powers and Disney, which led Disney to find a different distributor and sign a contract with Columbia Pictures. 

In 1937, Walt Disney released a feature-length animated film:Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which became a box-office hit. It became the very first animated film in English and Technicolor.

According to Bloop Animation, during World War II, it became hard to acquire equipment and materials, and people didn’t have the budget to go to the cinema, so Walt Disney produced animated military training and propaganda films for the US Army. 

In 1940, Disney released Bambi, Pinnochio, and Fantasia, which were total box-office failures. Hauprich mentions in her video that many animators went on a strike and left the company due to a strict hierarchy among animators. In 1941, those animators with higher ranks earned $300 a week, while those in lower ranks earned only $12 a week.

Later on, they made Song of the South and So Dear To My Heart, which were two live-action/animated hybrid films. In 1948, the studio made another feature-length animated film: Cinderella, which was a success, and at the time, it was the highest budgeted film in Disney history.

The revenue from Cinderella allowed the studio to make more movies like Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and Peter Pan. According to YouTube’s Imaginerds’s brief history of Disney animation, throughout the next 3 decades, the style of Disney animation was developed with their use of xerox machines. Drawings were copied onto cellulite sheets.This was used in 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book.

Leadership was passed from Disney’s Nine Old Men to other animators in the studio. In this era, movies such as Aristocats, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh, and The Rescuers were released. They didn’t do well in the box office. 

With Disney animators’ attempt to continue the Disney legacy, the animators decided to make an animated fairytale movie: The Little Mermaid in 1989. This began the Disney Renaissance period, which lasted until the late ’90s and included movies like: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tarzan.

According to Neva Guthrie’s video Walt Disney’s wish to build a family theme park came true in 1955 when Disneyland opened. He wanted both parents and children to have fun together. With the success of Disneyland, Walt wanted to create a larger park and purchased land in Florida. Disney died before the amusement park in Florida, Walt Disney World opened. His brother completed the park and named it after him. Now Disney has hundreds of theme parks, hotels, and resorts across the globe. 

In 1979, dissatisfied with the production of films, animator Don Bluth and other Disney animators left to form a studio of their own called Don Bluth Productions. This caused a delay in some film productions and both Don Bluth and his team became Walt Disney Studios’ biggest competitor during the 80s. 

When Bob Iger and John Lasseter became executives of Disney, Pixar introduced CGI to Disney. As Disney tried to adjust from hand drawn animations to CGI, they went through a transition period of having not-so-popular movies.

Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and then released more films using CGI, which they tried to perfect. They produced films like Bolt, Princess and the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, and so many more. 

Top Lesson From Walt Disney Animation Studios: Never let failure stop you from trying to succeed

Disney never stopped creating shorts and films during the times when the studio had fluctuating revenues and during World War II.

The studio lost many employees and encountered financial problems, but the animation studio consistently adapted, using new technologies and different ways to tell stories to bounce back and gain success, producing movies that people of all ages from around the world have come to love.

Pixar Animation Studios

Image from Fandom

Pixar Animation Studios is located in Emeryville, California, USA and has about 600 employees.

It was founded on February 3, 1986 by Steve Jobs, Edwin Catmull, and Alvy Ray Smith. They use CG animation.

Pixar’s highest awarded film is Inside Out with 76 awards. Meanwhile, its highest grossing film is Toy Story 3 at $1.063 billion.

According to WatchMojo.com, from the beginning, the company focused on using technology that allowed animators to work with computer graphics. Dr. Alexander Schure, founder of New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), built the Computer Graphics Lab in 1974. They worked on a CG animated film titled The Works, but were unable to finish it due to lack of funds. 

Bloop Animation writes that Edwin Catmull was part of the Computer Graphics Lab team. Catmull started working with Lucasfilms in 1979 and launched the Computer Division of Lucasfilm. Alvy Ray along with Edwin Catmull created a 3D rendering program, Renderman, which became essential for Pixar Animation Studios.

Later on, Catmull and Smith worked with Industrial Light & Magic, a motion picture visual effects company founded by George Lucas, where they made the 3D Genesis Effect scene inStar Trek II: Wrath of Khan. George Lucas turned the group into an independent company to prevent the loss of their employees.

Lucasfilm was facing large financial losses, so Lucas brought in Doug Norby as president. Norby told Catmull and Smith to do some deep layoffs in the Computer Division and write a list of names, but Catmull and Smith wouldn’t do it.

Catmull and Smith showed up in the office the next day and came up with a list with only two names on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. Pixar’s employees thanked the two for  valuing their employees and pooled money to send them.

When Steve Jobs became interested in investing into Pixar, George Lucas sold the department to Apple Computer.

In WatchMojo.com’s video, the company was renamed Pixar Image Computers and created hardware, which they sold to government groups and scientists for medical research purposes. 

Disney became a customer of Pixar and used their CGI technology in their own animated movies. 

Pixar made sample animations such as Luxo Jr. to sell their hardware, which led to companies asking Pixar to create CGI commercials for them. Steve Jobs sold the hardware division in 1990.

According to Bloop Animation, Steve Jobs almost sold the animation studio to Microsoft, but he changed his mind when he found out that Disney would distribute Toy Story, Pixar’s first film. In 1995 Toy Story became a hit. Pixar’s CG animation stood out, and they became Disney’s rival. 

A strained relationship developed between Pixar and Disney, their distributor. Pixar thought it was unreasonable that Disney owned all rights to stories and sequels even when they were only in charge of marketing and distribution. Pixar searched for another distributor.

Michael Eisner was replaced by Bob Iger, who then appointed Catmull and Lasseter as presidents of both Walt Disney Animation Studio and Pixar Animation Studio. Steve Jobs became the major stockholder of Pixar and a chairman of Walt Disney Studio. 

Pixar Animation Studios released movies such as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars.

Disney purchased Pixar in 2006. Pixar retained its name and studio. Since, they have released Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University, Brave, Inside Out, Coco, and so many more.

Top Lesson From Pixar Animation Studios: Value and protect your coworkers

Pixar has gained a lot of fame, not only for the movies they make but also for the way the studio takes care of its employees, earning the admiration and respect from everyone who has worked for them.

Blue Sky Studios

Image from YouTube

Blue Sky Studios is located in Greenwich, Connecticut, USA. They use CG animation and have more than 400 employees.

The studio was founded by Alison Brown, David Brown, Michael Ferraro, Carl Ludwig, Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy, and Chris Wedge.

According to Blue Sky Studios’ history on it’s website, in February 1986 the founders of Blue Sky enthusiastically gathered the little money they had to start their own computer animation company. Unfortunately, they lacked funds, equipment, and clients.

The team worked for months without pay in their small office with only three computers, as each member contributed his or her own unique set of skills. After hard work, Blue Sky Studios finally opened a year later in 1987.

Athemocracy’s YouTube video details that Blue Sky Studios focused on visual effects for films and commercials such as M&M’s, Chock Full o’ Nuts, Chrysler, Bell Atlantic, and more. They used their character animation strength for the films Resurrection (1997), Star Trek: Insurrection, and Fight Club (1999). 

In 1997, 20th Century Fox’s effects company, VIFX, acquired Blue Sky Studios. They then worked on visual effects for the films X-Files, Armageddon, Titanic, Blade, and Alien: Resurrection.

Blue Sky decided to focus on CG animation and make their own projects with narratives and characters. This decision resulted in the release of Bunny (1998), their first short film, which earned them the 1999 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

According to Career Animation Review, in 1999 VIFX was sold to Rhythm & Hues Studios, which made Blue Sky focus only on animation. They released Ice Age in 2002, their first CGI feature film. Ice Age received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

The film became a massive success, which inspired them to follow the animation production footsteps of Dreamworks and Pixar. They made more movies such as Ice Age: The Meltdown, Horton Hears a Who!, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Rio, Rio 2, Ice Age: Collision Course, and more.

Top Lesson From Blue Sky Studios: Hard work and teamwork make the dream work

Blue Sky Studios’ founders had humble beginnings and didn’t have enough money, software, and clients to produce films initially, but their passion for making films with visual effects brought the studio to where it is today.

Illumination 

Image from MovieSuperNerd

Illumination, formerly Illumination Entertainment, is located in Santa Monica, California, USA and has around 300 employees. The studio uses CG animation. It was founded in 2007 by Chris Meledandri.

According to Bloop Animation, its highest awarded film was Despicable Me 2 with 12 awards. Its highest-grossing film is Minions at $1.159 billion. 

Chris Meledandri was the president of 20th Century Fox Animation, where he supervised the animation of the films Ice Age, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Horton Hears a Who!, and Robots. In 2007 Meledandri left and started his own animation studio. He made a deal with Universal to produce a film every year starting in 2010. In 2011, Illumination Entertainment bought Mac Guff, a French animation studio. They worked together and made Despicable Me, Illumination’s most popular film. 

After working on Despicable Me, they worked on Hop which was neither a box office nor a critical hit. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly described the film as “Alvin and the Chipmunks with only one chipmunk.”

Years later, the studio produced The Lorax, Despicable Me 2 and 3, The Secret Life of Pets, and Sing

The humor in Despicable Me and its franchise appealed to family movie-goers, especially those with young kids. Illumination embraced this and focused on making adventure-comedy films. And despite bad reviews of their films, Illumination decided to give their fans what they wanted. They produced more Minion products, ranging from children’s clothes, mobile games, bedsheets, food, etc.

Thanks to Meledandri’s strict budget implementation, Illumination doesn’t have many financial problems during their film productions. They always make sure to keep their projects under 100 million dollars, while also not sacrificing the quality of the movies they deliver.

In just a little over a decade, Illumination has become one of the most famous animation studios in the world. It may have gained popularity and success through its Despicable Me franchise, but they will produce more films in the years to come.

Top Lesson From Illumination Entertainment: Don’t let negative reviews stop you from following your passion

Illumination Entertainment may not always receive excellent reviews from critics compared to Disney and Pixar films, but they always manage to receive money and awards. They keep making heartwarming movies that take their viewers on amazing adventures.

DreamWorks Animation SKG

Image from Movies Anywhere

DreamWorks is located in Glendale, California, USA and has 2,700 employees. They use CG animation. Their highest awarded film is Shrek with 38 awards. Their highest grossing film is Shrek 2 at $441 million.

According to Bloop Animation, the studio was founded on October 12, 1994 by film director Steven Spielberg, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music executive David Geffen. They worked together to create Dreamworks SKG. Spielberg brought his animators from his studio Amblimation, while Katzenberg gathered his animation team from Walt Disney Feature Animation. 

The names of the three men became the “S,” “K,” and “G” of the company name.

In 1997 DreamWorks partnered with Aardman Animation to co-produce and release the film Chicken Run. They continued their partnership and made four more films. Dreamworks helped make stop-motion film productions in the United Kingdom, while Aardman Animations helped make CG films in the US. (Bloop Animation)

In 1998 DreamWorks made The Prince of Egypt, which was mostly made with traditional cell animation technology. Antz (1998) was created using computer generated animation. In 2001 DreamWorks Animation released their movie Shrek, which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

In 2004 DreamWorks released Shrek 2 and Shark Tale; after these movies were made, DreamWorks continued to make all future movies with CG animation. 

In 2006 DreamWorks gave Paramount Pictures distribution rights to all their films. In the same year, the partnership between Aardman and DreamWorks ended because of creative differences after Flushed Away was released. 

According to Sweet Animated Films, in 2010, the studio became the very first animation studio to release 3 animated films in one year: How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, and Megamind. In just 5 years, they released 12 movies.

In 2012 DreamWorks bought Classic Media and launched Oriental DreamWorks in China, which is now known as Pearl Studio. 45% was owned by DreamWorks, and 55% was owned by Chinese companies. Through this partnership, they produced movies Kung Fu Panda 3 and Abominable.

In 2015 the animation studio laid off around 500 of its employees, and its executives changed. That same year DreamWorks released Home, but they cancelled other projects that were supposed to be made.

The studio struggled financially after trying to restructure the company and as several of their projects flopped.Consequently, they’ve released only 1 to 2 films per year. Since, the studio has released movies including  Home, Trolls, The Boss Baby, and Abominable.

The studio acquired AwesomenessTV, a group of YouTube channels for teenagers, and they also made DreamWorksTV, a YouTube channel for kids. The studio also built a merchandising division and moved into consumer products such as tablet computers for children, books, amusement parks, walk through attractions, and more experience-based products.

In order to create annuities, Michael Francis, DreamWorks Animation’s chief brand officer said that they need to expand their business to the internet and television. The company now has contracts to produce 1,000+ episodes of original cartoon programs for Netflix.

Top Lesson From DreamWorks Animation: Gain a new perspective and keep innovating

DreamWorks Animation’s biggest competitors in the animation world are Pixar and Disney. Knowing they won’t be able to compete well producing films, DreamWorks diversified how they generate income.

Sony Pictures Animation

Image from Sony Pictures Animation

Sony Pictures Animation is located in Culver City, California, USA and has 50 employees. It was founded in May 2002 and uses CG animation.

Its highest awarded film is Hotel Transylvania, which won 3 awards. Its highest grossing film is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which has grossed $190.2 million.

Sony Pictures Animation was founded when Sony decided to sell the VFX division Sony Pictures Imageworks. Unfortunately, no one was interested in buying it. Sony then split the division into a CG animation studio after their success with Stuart Little 2 and Shrek. Sony Pictures Imageworks made visual effects, while Sony Pictures Animation made animated films.

The studio ended up in the hands of a Hong Kong based studio, Imagi Animation Studios. They made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Astro Boy, an adaptation of the Japanese animated series. Both movies didn’t do well in cinemas and had bad reviews. This may have been due to the fact that Astro Boy wasn’t well-known in their market while Teenage Mutant Ninja had some content not suited for children.

The studio didn’t lose hope and continued making more animated films such as Open Season, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Surf’s Up, which brought the studio great success. In 2007 Sony partnered with Aardman Animations and worked on  Arthur Christmas and Pirates: Band of Misfits.

In 2012, they released Hotel Transylvania, then Smurfs: The Lost Village, The Emoji Movie, and The Star, an animated comedy based on the birth of Jesus. Sony Pictures Animation signed a deal with Genndy Tartakovsky in order to make and direct original films. Later on, they were able to produce movies such as The Angry Birds Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, and Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse.

According to Fandom, the studio produced Go! Cartoons for Cartoon Hangover and also some adult animated content for digital platforms. The studio has many projects in development such as Vivo (2021) and a robot/road trip film titled Connected.

Top Lesson from Sony Pictures Animation: Understand your customers well

Sony Pictures made movies with good reviews, but also movies with bad reviews. What was the difference between both kinds? Sony Pictures Animation’s knowledge of their audience. In some cases, they introduced characters, concepts, and stories which many fans weren’t that interested in and/or familiar with.

However, they had more success when they made movies such as the Hotel Transylvania films and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse because they knew the kinds of stories and ideas that were close to the hearts of their viewers. 

Studio Ghibli

Image from Hypebeast

Studio Ghibli is located in Koganei, Tokyo, Japan and has 300 employees. They use 2D Animation. Its highest awarded film is Spirited Away, which received 53 awards. Spirited Away is also its highest-grossing film.

It was founded on June 15, 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata built Studio Ghibli after the success of their film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. Toshio Suzuki joined the team, and the three of them made films together.

Based on Bloop Animation’s article on the history of animation studios, Studio Ghibli partnered with Disney and let them distribute all their films internationally. Studio Ghibli released Princess Mononoke (1997), which became the studio’s first international hit and earned its very first Academy Award in the Best International Film category.

In 1999 Tokuma Shoten acquired Studio Ghibli. In 2001 Studio Ghibli opened their museum to the public. Their museum had exhibits from their films and animation shorts that they never released. In 2001, the studio also released Spirited Away, which became an international hit and the studio’s highest earning film. With it, they also won their second Academy Award.

They released Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004, and in 2005 Studio Ghibli became an independent studio. They also produced other films such as Ponyo, From Up on Poppy Hill, and When Marnie Was There.

Bloop Animation writes that in 2013, Hayao Miyazaki retired as a director. In 2014 Suzuki announced that Studio Ghibli would reconsider producing new films due to Miyazaki’s retirement.

Fast-forward to 2020: Studio Ghibli confirmed that they are in the middle of working on producing two movies in 2020, one directed by its founder Hayao Miyazaki. 

To this day Studio Ghibli is known for its timeless and unique films as well as the life lessons that can be gained from them such as kindness, going out of your comfort zone, taking care of the environment, being kind to strangers, and loving others.

Although the studio mainly focuses on fantasy, they make films that resonate with current issues. Kids may not understand Studio Ghibli films completely, but each movie has a valuable lesson imparted to its viewers presented in a very imaginative way.

Hayao Miyazaki himself says that he finds inspiration in children for his movies. He observes them and how creative they can be. He says it’s a blessing to be able to get strength and encouragement from children.

Top Lesson From Studio Ghibli: Expand your childhood imagination and incorporate life lessons in your animation

You may not be able to make great movies like Studio Ghibli on your own, but you can definitely employ creative storylines and include valuable life lessons in your personal animation projects and work.

In Closing

There are many challenges in starting and managing an animation studio. There is no one way to have a talented team of animators, earn a lot of money, get good reviews, and have fans who love your work.

Even the most popular animation studios have had failures and difficulties. They’ve struggled with their finances, teamwork, and visions. However, they were able to bounce back by not losing hope, creating good strategies, and persevering.

You can learn from the successes and struggles of the top animation studios as well as your successes and struggles, using them as learning experiences to help you succeed in your future animation projects.

If you learned a lot about animation studios from this blog post, feel free to share it with your family, friends, and colleagues. Also, if you want to continue growing as an animator, don’t forget to download a copy of our marketing handbook and join our free masterclass.

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