How Disney Legend Mark Henn Created the First Donald Duck Short in 63 Years | Video

Donald Duck turns 90 this year, his birthday celebrated by activations in the Disney theme parks, new product lines and, perhaps most excitingly, a new animated short starring the short-tempered fowl — the first new Donald Duck short in 63 years. “D.I.Y. Duck,” which you can watch now (see above), was the brainchild of longtime Disney animator Mark Henn. He officially becomes a full-fledged Disney Legend later this summer. As it turns out, he wasn’t even thinking about Donald’s birthday when he embarked on the short.

“What often happens in the cycle of production at the studios, there’s up and down times — you’re busy and then you’re not busy and you’re busy. It basically grew out of one of those downtime periods,” Henn said. The animator, whose history at the company is as wide as it is impressive, has always appreciated the Sensational Six (that’d be Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Minnie, Daisy and Goofy).

One of his first gigs at the company was animating Mickey Mouse for 1983’s “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” and he would go on to animate a number of Disney Princesses — which would cause former film chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to dub him the “Julia Roberts of animation.” He also helped supervise Disney’s Florida animation unit and, yes, appear as himself on that episode of “Full House” where the Tanners visit Walt Disney World. He’s done it all and has a unique affinity for Disney’s old-school core characters.

In fact, during that downtime, he thought about the “How to Stay at Home” shorts that he worked on with Eric Goldberg during the pandemic. Those starred Goofy, who was dealing with the new realities of lockdown. He also thought about the traditional animation training program that Walt Disney Animation Studios had recently started, with five young and hungry animators at his disposal.

“I started just playing with the idea of a short project that largely would give them a chance to cut their teeth on production,” Henn said. “I thought, Well, we haven’t done Donald in a long time.” Henn described the making of the short in Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland terms — “just put on a show” — in the background of the massive projects churning through the studio.

The team had animated one scene, in fact, before Henn and the apprentices got called into another project, Trent Correy and Dan Abraham’s “Once Upon a Studio” — a 9-minute short that required a great deal of new hand-drawn animation. Henn and the team sprung into action.

They started working on the Donald short again, but had to pause once more for some additional legacy projects, most likely for the theme parks. Henn often finds himself animating or reanimating sequences for things like the nighttime projection shows at the parks. “This all took maybe nine months total, given the fact that we had a few starts and stops,” Henn said.

Henn, as much an animation historian as an animator, said that he didn’t even realize 2024 marked Donald’s birthday (with it specifically falling on June 9).

“Somebody at some point when I told him that I was playing with this idea, said, ‘Well, you know, he’s going be 90 in ’24.’ I was like, ‘Oh, perfect.’ It just happened,” Henn said. “The studio did not call for this.”

Henn borrowed from Donald’s past to cement his future — he used audio from Clarence “Ducky” Nash, who was the original voice of Donald. (Nash died in 1985 at the age of 80; like Henn, he became a Disney Legend in 1993.) And the music for “D.I.Y. Duck” is a fascinating hodgepodge of elements from earlier Disney scores, including cues from “Alice in Wonderland,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella.”

“I just love the idea of creating a traditional Donald Duck short, which, in our research, we started digging into it and finding out that the last Donald Duck shorts ended in the early 1960s,” Henn said. He noted that Donald still appeared in things, like “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “Fantasia 2000,” but never had a short all his own. “I just wanted to have fun with it and create a classic feel but that had a contemporary storyline that I think people today could identify with, and Donald definitely could identify with in his timeless fashion as a character.”

Originally, Henn toyed with the idea of Daisy giving him a list of things to do around the house. It ended up being too complicated, so Henn simplified it to Donald just trying to replace a lightbulb. “It gets way out of hand, as is typical of Donald,” Henn said.

Part of the “classic” nature of the short was Henn having to “identify which era look you want.” Donald, like the other characters, has physically evolved over the years. Henn decided the “sweet spot” for the character was the 1940s and ’50s. Gone was the long duck bill that he sported at the beginning, along with a refined costume.

“The simplified outfit, no buttons on his tunic,” Henn said, which also helped the animators out. (Originally, Donald had four buttons.) Henn looked at those earlier shorts to figure out how complicated the direction was and how many effects there were. “I probably put myself more through a Donald bootcamp than I did the kids,” Henn said in reference to his younger animator apprentices.

What makes “D.I.Y. Duck” even more special is that it’s Henn’s swan song at the company. He retired from Disney earlier this year, shortly before his 66th birthday. “At this point, I was out of the game, then I was back in the game,” Henn said, referring to Disney’s transition in the early 2000s to computer animation, followed by projects like 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” and 2011’s “Winnie the Pooh” (both worked on by Henn).

“I’m kind of looking forward to getting out of the game again,” he added. But before he’s totally out, he admits he’s got a few things to take care of first – he’ll screen “D.I.Y. Duck” at the Annecy Animation Festival later this week, in what’s incredibly the first time he’s been to the festival, and he’ll become a Disney Legend at this year’s D23 in Anaheim. Henn will join Disney Legends including Harrison Ford, James Cameron, Angela Bassett, Imagineer Joe Rohde and John Williams, to name a few.

“It’s a little surreal,” Henn said of his time at Disney finally coming to an end. “Sometimes it’s sad that it’s over.” He said he sometimes thinks back to when he came to Disney in the early 1980s, when some of Walt’s Nine Old Men were still overseeing what remained of the fabled animation unit – folks like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larson.

“At some point they made the decision to pass the baton to our generation, who happily took it up. And now I’m kind of in that same position,” Henn said. “It’s bittersweet. I’m very, very pleased with what I’ve been blessed to do with Disney Animation, very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and what I’ve been a part of. But it’s a little sad knowing that now it’s going in the rearview mirror. I guess in some sense I’ll always be a part of it. And this was just a nice little cherry on top to be able to finish the short. And have it rolled out there for everybody to enjoy, hopefully.”

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