Man vs. Machine: Disney Artists Take on Robots

From L to R, Disney Television Animation’s Craig McCracken, Sam Levine, Dan Povenmire, Lisa Salamone-Smith, Eric Coleman, Daron Nefcy, and President of Disney Channels Worldwide Gary Marsh. Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

From the outside, Disney’s Television Animation studio doesn’t look like much. There’s no giant wizard’s hat out front like the Feature Animation building or seven stone dwarves holding up the roof like the Team Disney building on the Burbank lot. Driving through the gate and into the parking lot of the nondescript brick building in an industrial part of Glendale, you’d never know that it’s currently the home of some of the company’s most creative and prolific talents. At least, not until you step inside.

The small lobby is filled with computer screens showing clips and promos from many of the shows in production: Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia the First, Gravity Falls, and the phenomenally popular Phineas and Ferb. Up one flight, down the hall and just past the cereal bar there’s a unique space that serves as an in-house art gallery, where staff members are invited to show original pieces they’ve created in their spare time. The art is periodically rotated and usually centered around a theme. GeekMom was invited to the opening reception for the latest exhibition, titled “Man vs. Machine: The Robot Show,” where some of the biggest names in the world of television animation mingled and appreciated the work of their colleagues.

Kimberly Mooney, manager of development at Disney Television Animation, explained that the rotating gallery was always imagined as a part of the studio’s office space from the very beginning. “It goes all the way back to when this building was being renovated and built for us to be an animation studio,” she said. “We wanted a dedicated space where we could showcase the artists’ art, their personal artwork. It helps to establish that real sense of community we have here.”

Alex Rosenberg, an assistant at the studio, added that everyone is welcome to submit work to the shows, even if they’re not professional artists. “Eric Coleman, our SVP, actually put in a piece this time,” she said. “And we have work from people who are in tech and a coordinator on our current series side who did one. We have writers who submitted pieces. It’s a really nice way to showcase the talent that’s here at TVA and celebrate artists who are outside of what we normally define as artists.”

DAN POVENMIRE (CREATOR/CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "PHINEAS AND FERB")
Povenmire with his piece “Girl vs. Machine.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire contributed “Girl vs. Machine,” a drawing of his two daughters taking on a massive wave of technology with a pair of slingshots. “The theme was ‘Man vs. Machine’ and I was thinking about it for a while and I was like, ‘Screw it, I should just do “Girl vs. Machine” and then I can put my daughters in it and then I’ll have a place to put it when I’m done with it,” Povenmire said. “And they love it. They’re like, ‘That’s us!’ And they like looking at all the little things in there and trying to figure out what they are. Like, ‘Oh, there’s our Zoomer dog. That’s our boom box!’ I put a lot of other stuff in there too. I was basically just doodling for a day.”

He enjoys the opportunity for self-expression the gallery offers and the chance to see what the other Disney artists are all about. “We’re all in the same building but everybody who is working on a show is really working on one piece of art that they’re all doing together,” he said. “It’s a big, collaborative piece of art. And nobody gets to see what these people actually think of themselves if you just say, ‘Hey, go off in a direction.’ I love seeing the kind of stuff that people do at home. It sort of gives you a different feel for them. And it’s gotten so I can tell different people’s art, though it’s nothing like what people do here.”

I also got to chat with Craig McCracken during the event. He’s currently the creator and executive producer of Disney Channel’s Wander Over Yonder, but you might also be familiar with his earlier creations The PowerPuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. His piece, “Taishi,” features a graphic, 70s-inspired profile of a humanoid robot with flowing yellow and orange locks.

CRAIG MCCRACKEN (CREATOR/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "WANDER OVER YONDER")
McCracken and his robot “Taishi.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

I asked McCracken which piece in the show was his favorite. “I’m leaning toward Alex Kirwan’s,” he said. “He’s my art director on Wander and he built a model of a very obscure robot from a Donald Duck cartoon. It’s like so inside baseball because he’s in this one specific Donald Duck cartoon. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to make a sculpture of that.’ I’m like, ‘I think only you and like 10 people in this building are going to know who that character is and appreciate it.’ But if anyone would, it’s the people here.”

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