Big boxy buildings without windows dot the Walt Disney Studios lot, looking like aircraft hangars or giant building blocks. What’s inside? Maybe an underground pit holding a pirate bayou, maybe special-effects wizards attaching motion-capture sensors all over an actor – but unquestionably a whole lot of Disney history. From 1939 to 2013, Disney has been using the sound stages on its lot to create movie (and TV!) magic. The number of stages has increased over the years, and the ways they’re used has changed drastically with filmmaking trends and technology, but every sound stage ever built on the lot is still in use today. Let’s take a look inside!
Animation Sets the Stage
According to Disney Archivist Becky Cline, Disney began with only a single sound stage at the original Hyperion Avenue location in Los Angeles. That stage was mainly used for recording music and sound effects to use with its main product at the time – cartoons. When Walt moved the Studio to its current location in Burbank, she says, “it was a state-of-the-art animation plant. The other Hollywood studios were created with the intention of making live-action films, but at Disney every building was linked to the animation process. And that’s why one of the earliest stages built here was Stage A, the orchestra stage, which opened in 1940. It was intended purely for recording sound, and that’s been its purpose ever since. Louis Prima performed there with his band for ‘The Jungle Book’ soundtrack!”
Stage 1 was also completed early on. This was the first stage on the lot intended for recording live-action because, as animation grew in sophistication, so did the possibilities of using film. Animators used live actors caught on film as reference to create more realistic movements for films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Dumbo.” The Studio also began experimenting with amalgamated films that combined live-action and cartoon, resulting in film like “Make Mine Music” and “Saludos Amigos,” and perhaps the finest example of this technique ever made – “Fantasia.” Live-action for all of these films was shot on Stage 1, including the “conductor” sequences in “Fantasia,” showcasing maestro Leopold Stokowski.
Disney at War — and on TV
The world was changing throughout the ’40s, so the Studio changed with it. During World War II, Stage 1 assisted the war effort when the U.S. Army moved onto the lot and commandeered it as an anti-aircraft facility! And after the war, Walt Disney embraced the dawning potential of TV. Stage 1 was used to film Walt’s early television specials, and then became the home of the original “Mickey Mouse Club” show in 1954.
Television was important in the history of the Studio’s next soundstage as well, when Walt was contacted by Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame. To mitigate the cost of building Stage 2 in 1947-49, Walt Disney rented out the new stage to producer/actor Jack Webb. Webb’s series “Dragnet” filmed there from August 1952 until February 1955. But Stage 2 came into its own in the mid 1950s, with the Studio’s new endeavor – entirely live-action films. It was larger than Stage 1, which made it possible to shoot more lavish productions like “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” and “Mary Poppins.” Because Stage 2 held the massive Cherry Tree Lane set for “Mary Poppins,” it was dedicated as the Julie Andrews Stage in 2001.
Effects Get Special
Disney’s first completely live-action feature film made on the Studio lot, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” required something else – water, and lots of it. Stage 3 was built in 1952 with a water tank under the floor, specifically for that film. Divided into two sections, the tank has an eight-foot-deep section perfect for capturing battles between submarines and giant squid, and a three-foot-deep section with windows and camera ports so it can be used for special effects. Although it was originally intended for underwater photography for the likes of “Island at the Top of the World,” it has also seen new uses over the years for sophisticated effects and computer motion-control sequences, notably in the ground-breaking “The Black Hole.”
In the decades that followed, movie studios began pushing the limits of special effects and trick photography, and Disney was a pioneer there. Stages 4 and 5 were originally one stage the same size as Stage 2, but were divided in 1988. Although they are now used primarily for TV production, at one point this was the go-to stage for effects photography, most notably used for “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” Becky explains, “They did forced-perspective photography to make full-sized people look little. One actor would be close to the camera and the others would be way back so they’d look tiny by comparison. They had to light the stage brightly to be able to see the people in the back clearly – so brightly that one afternoon they overloaded the electrical grid and blacked out the whole city of Burbank! It also got really hot in there, so they had special panels to vent the heat from the lights. Temperatures in there have reached 136 degrees.”
Today and Tomorrow
The final additions to the Studio family of stages are 6 and 7, state-of-the-art TV stages, which opened in 1997. In the heyday of on-the-lot production, the sound stages were in constant use. “For a big movie, we’d use every stage – for ‘Mary Poppins’ one stage had a green screen where she was flying, another one had Cherry Tree Lane, and then we’d use a third set for effects shots,” explains Becky. “The last film to use most of the stages simultaneously was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.’ I remember walking into Stage 5 and seeing a set for the scene where Captain Jack is delirious – there were huge Jack Sparrow dreadlocks hanging on one side of the stage, it was pretty surreal!”
Location filming has become ever more common, so today Disney’s sound stages are most often used for television production. “We’re a very small studio on the scale of movie studios, because we were originally meant to be an animation factory,” Becky says. “Still, every sound stage ever built on the Disney lot is still in use, and still used for its original purpose.”
From capturing the voice of Mickey Mouse to creating the watery bayou of “Pirates of the Caribbean” (shot in a pit excavated beneath Stage 2), Disney’s sound stages have hosted every stage of the Studio’s creative evolution, and who knows what they will hold in the decades to come? Inside those big plain-looking buildings is a world of Disney entertainment waiting to be imagined.