Glen Keane was the first CalArts graduate to start in Disney Animation, but Darrell Van Citters was the first student to graduate from the CalArts Character Animation program. He was hired by Disney in 1976. Brad Bird, John Musker, and Jerry Rees were made offers they couldn’t refuse and left CalArts before graduating – starting at Disney in 1977. Henry Selick studied in the Experimental Animation program at CalArts and stayed on to get a Master’s degree in Character Animation. He also started at Disney in 1977. They all had grand visions of what it would be like to work at Disney. The reality proved to be a bit different.
Most of the Nine Old Men had retired. Experienced long-service animators such as Art Stevens and Ted Berman were passed the mantle, but they didn’t know how to lead a creative group such as the young CalArts grads. The CalArts hires were cocky and anxious to make films.. and they were happy to set their own agenda. Musker started at Disney in May 1977 – in the week that ‘Star Wars‘ opened. They thought that ‘Star Wars‘ and ‘Superman‘ were films that Disney should have made.
They found Ted Berman’s pep talk at the announcement of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ a little underwhelming – he said something like, “They expect us to make a movie, so we’re going to make a movie. I don’t think the plant will be open long enough for us to finish it, but we’ll start making the movie… I guess.” Don Bluth had both leadership ability and vision. He was charismatic and was cultivating a following.
The CalArts hires were very loyal to Eric Larson, one of the last of the Nine Old Men still working at the studio. It had been understood that he would be directing the upcoming special short film, ‘The Small One.‘ Concept art and story drawings were pinned up in the story room on Friday evening, but on Monday morning the drawings were gone and Bluth had been named as the director. The relationship between the CalArts group and Bluth became strained. At some point, Bluth came into the office shared by Musker, Rees, and Bird to air grievances. The conversation didn’t go well and as things escalated, Bluth said, “This place is a rats’ nest of innuendo and rumor!” The group thought of that as a ‘badge of honor.’ Andy Gaskill presented them with an air-brushed sign saying, ‘RATS NEST,’ which they hung proudly above their office door.
On Don Bluth’s birthday – September 13, 1979 – he, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy handed in their resignations. The next day, eight more artists resigned. Following the departure of Bluth, Ron Miller held a meeting with the Animation staff and started his speech, “Now that the cancer has been excised…” In fact, there were still issues within Disney Animation.
The Rats Nesters (Brad Bird, Dan Haskett, Bill Kroyer, John Musker, Jerry Rees, and Henry Selick) continued to express their opinions freely… and most were gone from Disney within two years.
CTN Animation Expo sponsored a ‘Rats Nest Reunion’ in 2015. The panel was hosted by Tom Bancroft – stories were shared and John Musker showed many of his caricatures and gag drawings from that time.