"Sleeping Beauty" (1959) Disney's last hand-inked animated feature. From its release until the introduction of digital ink and paint, Xerography prevailed in House of Mouse long-form cartoons.
There were two dark periods of job losses for employees of Disney Feature Animation.
The first was in the time of the founder, Walt Disney; the second happened at the tail end of "The Second Golden Age" of Disney hand-drawn animation, when Michael Eisner wielded the scepter inside the kingdom.
Regarding the first: The 1950s was a time of expansion for Walt Disney Productions. After a tenuous corporate existence in the 1940s, the company successfully expanded into live-action production (Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc.), television (Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro) and a cutting-edge amusement park, but its core competency -- animation -- was getting cut back. Shorts were phased out in the second half of the fifties due to rising costs, and Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney Production's wide-screen animated epic from 1959, was so expensive that it failed to turn a profit.Disney veteran Dave Michener, an assistant animator at the time, told me:
I remember seeing Walt down in front of the animation building just shaking his head, saying "What happened?"
Shortly after, the department had 2/3 of its staff cut, going from over 500 artists to 160. The feature immediately after Beauty was 101 Dalmations, and cost a fraction of what the wide-screen fairy tale was produced for. (Walt Disney hated the look of Xerox and much preferred hand-inked cartoons, but he knew he had to reduce the budgets of his animated features, and so swallowed his dislike.)
What happened to the artists who were let go? For many, fast-growing Hanna-Barbera was their next destination. Don Lusk, a Disney employee for almost thirty years, move to H-B and directed TV cartoons for the next quarter century. Iwao Takamoto, longtime assistant to Milt Kahl, departed Disney to become a top Hanna-Barbera character designer.
A smaller animation crew, turning out a cartoon feature every 3-4 years, was the norm for Walt Disney Productions over the next quarter century, at which point Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg stepped into the Disney wheelhouse and the pace of production quickened. By the 1990s, staff had grown to over a thousand people and the company was turning out a full-length feature every year.
This happy reality lasted a decade. For a time, each new feature made more money than the one before. But by the time Pocahontas was released in 1995, the trajectory was down instead of up. Audiences fell in love with Pixar's CGI animated features; the grosses of hand-drawn product continued to fall.
Comedic cows starred in the last animated feature from Disney Features "Second Golden Age" ...
The second Disney Animation blood-letting: As a new century loomed up, the red ink inside Disney Feature Animation was sloshing higher .. and alarms sounded inside executive suites. A lot of Disney animation artists, many employed at Disney Feature Animation for decades, were laid off in waves between 2001 and 2003, when Home On The Range completed production.
It was an era similar to the late '50s, but it went on longer. Disney employees had suspected change was coming, but management assured people: “Oh, we’re going to keep making hand-drawn features”, even as the company cut wages. People could see that CGI features like Shrek and Monsters, Inc. were killing at the box office, while Atlantis and Treasure Planet were not. Yet artists were hopeful, based on what they were being told.
But then significant pruning of animation staff commenced, and the company line became “Oh, we’ll be making fewer hand-drawn features, but we’ll still be making them.” Animation President Tom Schumacher held meetings with staff offering reassurances to survivors of the initial rounds of layoffs.
And the company’s tune changed yet again. The Higher Ups decided that Home on the Range would be the last hand-drawn feature out of the Burbank studio and the refrain of “We’ll still be making them” changed to “We’re done, thank you for services rendered, drive safely.” (Two more hand-drawn features would ultimately done after HotR during the Lasseter-Catmull era: The Princess and the Frog and Winnie-the-Pooh. Neither performed as well as CGI features at the box office and it doesn't look as though more hand-drawn features will go into production anytime soon.)
As in 1958-59, there was an abundance of pink slips, but not everybody was let go. Some animators on traditional features retrained to be CG animators. But many wanted to keep drawing, not become “digital puppeteers”, so a number of employees shifted to design work or storyboarding, some in the feature division but many in television animation studios around town.
The early oughts marked the most recent “animation recession” in Los Angeles-based cartoon studios. Today, animation employment is near all-time highs. Even though live-action movie employment is on hold because of the pandemic, much of the animation industry continues to work at home.