The Hunchback of Notre Dame

On a chilly November morning in 1993 my Disney colleagues and I gathered in a Glendale meeting room. We were not alone. In the room were the Disney bosses, Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Edward Disney and CEO, Michael Eisner. Can you imagine the tension in the room?

Art Director, Dave Goetz began his pitch. “14th century Europe, a dark and dreary time. A time of hopelessness. A time of…” Before Dave could finish his sentence, Michael Eisner blurted out, “EuroDisney!” Suddenly, the room exploded with laughter and the tension was broken. Should you not remember your Disney history, let’s just say the Disney theme park project in Paris had not been going well. However, it was clear that the big Disney boss, Michael Eisner was willing to laugh at himself. However, it was time to get back to the business of pitching a new animated Disney motion picture. A movie totally different than anything we had tried before. Hardly a story about princesses and bunny rabbits, this story would push the animated filmmakers in a bold new direction. What were we proposing, you might ask? An animated adaption of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Much like the despised, ugly hunchback, Disney animation had been lacking in respect for years. Without the support of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney, the animation department had found itself with an uncertain future. When new management came to Disney in the early eighties, animation was deemed costly and unprofitable. Without the support of Roy Edward Disney, the entire unit could have - and would have been placed on the chopping block. Finally, the beleaguered department was dumped into the hands of film chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg. It was either fix it - or get rid of it. The artists rose to the challenge and worked harder than ever. Under the chairman’s new leadership animation was given a reboot and what was to follow proved to be amazing. “The Little Mermaid,” Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were all critically acclaimed and profitable as well. Bolstered by incredible success, the Disney Animation Department suddenly had the feeling they could do anything.

In spite of the considerable religious overtones, the motion picture was given a green light for production to begin. The small team of development artists began preparing for the move to our new production facility, a large warehouse on Airway Street in Glendale. As the Disney story and layout team moved into the new quarters we decided our building needed a name, so one was given. It was a name more than appropriate for our animation production. Our building was called, Sanctuary. As the team settled in, I made it a point to learn the names of our new colleagues. Because Disney was already knee deep in production on another film, we had to recruit a number of new (new to Disney in any case) animation staffers to round out our team. Some of the animators were Canadian, while others, such as James Baxter relocated from the UK. Finally, two talented brothers named Paul and Gaetan Britzzi joined our production. Interestingly enough both came from the very city where our story takes place. That’s correct. Unlike the rest of us, the Britzzi brothers actually lived in Paris France. No doubt about it, this was going to be interesting. I’ll tell you all about it in part two, okay?

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.