The Amazing Disney Peg System

They’re called peg bars and at one time they were an integral part of the animation process. If you’re one of the dedicated diehards still producing hand drawn traditional animation, you’re already well acquainted with this little metal bar. The peg Bar was a part of the animator’s disk and it was critical in keeping our pencil drawings in perfect registration. I would imagine those creating digital animation today would consider this ancient device a relic from the distant past. Check out the photograph down below and tell me if you see the difference. The pegs on the Disney peg bar doesn’t match the Acme bar because they’re a little closer to the center peg. I hardly need say this - but the Disney system was superior to the Acme system.

When I was a kid, I taught myself animation because there was no way to learn this fascinating medium unless you did it on your own. Aside from Walter T. Foster’s excellent little book on the cartoon process there was little else available. As a matter of fact, I first learned about the peg bar from the Walter T. Foster book on cartoon animation. With the help of my intrepid Grandma, we constructed an animation camera stand complete with animation peg bars that I fabricated myself. I found most of the basic stuff needed at our local Santa Barbara hardware store. Once I had the necessary tools, I began the creative process of making my own animated cartoons. I was so in love with cartoon animation, I was already a cartoon maker while still in middle school.

Arriving at Walt Disney Productions in the late fifties, I was finally introduced to a real professional animation peg system. And, not just any peg system. Walt Disney and his team of remarkable animation artists used a system unlike the other filmmakers in the cartoon business. Naturally, it was simply called, The Disney Peg System and animation mechanics were calculated in, “hundreds.” The Acme Peg System used by the outside studios calculated their camera moves in inches. This made our Disney system far more precise when it came to mechanics under the camera. Young animation professionals like my colleagues and myself were schooled in, “Disney Mechanics” and had to become knowledgeable if we one day hoped to become animators. My first lessons in Disney mechanics came from Freddy Hellmich, and I still remember him helping me fill out my exposures sheets. Naturally, I had to learn how to calculate pan moves and other camera mechanics. Should we tyro animators find ourselves stumped, we could always trek down to Scene Planning on the first floor of the Animation Building. There, we would received help from Bob Ferguson and the amazing Ruthie Thomson who ran the department. I’ve often said, Ruthie was our computer before computers were invented. Whatever the technical problem, Ruthie could usually solve it.

It was now the nineteen eighties and the Disney Company found itself under new management. Our leaders, though well intentioned made a naive mistake. As outsourcing began, there was a need for compatibility. Most studios utilized the Acme Peg System which would not mesh with the Disney. Consequently, the Disney system was abandoned and the premier animation company began to play by the rules of our competitors. On the surface it would seem a wise move to “become like everybody else.” To use the system everybody else uses. However, if you had any understanding of Disney culture you would realize Walt Disney never wanted to be like, “everybody else.” Walt Disney wanted no less than the absolute best, and that’s the way he ran this amazing enterprise. Of course, all this means little today in an industry where all production is digital. The humble peg bar is a relic from another era, but hopefully it’s also a metaphor. Walt Disney did things for a reason and he was usually right. Eager young managers hoping to make a name for themselves might give this some thought before they decide to trash more of the Disney Legacy.

It may be a moot point today, but the Disney Peg System was the finest in the cartoon business. It's little wonder that clueless managers decided to abandon what Walt had put in place decades ago.

It may be a moot point today, but the Disney Peg System was the finest in the cartoon business. It's little wonder that clueless managers decided to abandon what Walt had put in place decades ago.