Our Story Artist: David Feiten

Dave shot Abe Lincoln — well, Abe’s Disneyland robot at least. Regale in this and other fun anecdotes from our tallest and most electrified artist.

Cetati Studios’ Story Artist David Feiten is an award-winning animation professional with decades of experience in numerous phases of cinematic story-telling. His middle name is Crockett as his parents let his older brothers choose his name. It is either ironic or serendipitous (or both) that Davy Crockett Feiten, who shares a name with the beloved Walt Disney TV show characterization of the historical Crockett, later worked for Disney on iconic films and also ran Disney animatronics worldwide.

David Feiten was a Navy brat whose family moved every two years or so. He called his birth state Maryland home as well as Tennessee, Virginia and Colorado. Neither of Feiten’s parents were particularly artistic, but he started drawing on his own which lead to recognition of his talents.

“I went to a Catholic school and entered an art contest and the nuns were really impressed. They called up my parents and said they wanted to talk to them. My parents thought I was in trouble. When they showed up, the nuns said ‘No, there’s nothing wrong. He’s just a really good artist and we don’t have a good art program here.’ They recommended that I transfer to a certain public high school that had a great art program. My father thought ‘Oh, this is great. It’s going to save me a lot of money. Let’s do it!”

The Disney animation program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) is where Feiten began to really learn his craft. He was hired by Disney and worked on the 1981 film “The Fox and The Hound” as a “clean-upper” and “in-betweener.” There he worked with some of “Disney’s Nine Old Men,”  the core animators behind such iconic films as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Pinocchio” and numerous others.

“Guys like Eric Larsen, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Herbie Ryman–those were top artists and I leaned the most from them, especially Marc Davis. When you are around a lot of artists that draw very well, it pushes you to draw better.”

Feiten was later hired at Walt Disney Imagineering to animate their animatronics. His experience playing with erector sets as a kid and later wiring remodeled homes, working on cars and doing effects for haunted houses paid off as Feiten had a leg up on others when it came to working in that specialized field.

“They wanted someone with an ability to draw and animate, but I also had a good engineering background. I studied engineering and architecture in high school and knew a lot about mechanics from working on cars. The hardest part wasn’t understanding how the figures were built, it was understanding the computer. Back then we had a giant IBM computer that took up a whole room and there were cables running all the way to the ride or attraction. If you had to fix something, you had to drive all the way back to the building.”

Eventually, Feiten became Chief Animation Producer for Walt Disney Imagineering and oversaw all their animatronics worldwide. Then one day, a then-new kid on the animation block named Pixar came calling. Feiten knew Pixar animator/director/producer John Lasseter from CalArts as well as others who worked at the fledgling digital animation company, and they offered him a job on the spot.

“That meant I would have to quit my job at Disney Imagineering which was a little hard to do, but I was so impressed by Pixar that I decided to move up there and take a huge pay cut. I saw what they were doing as the future of animation. When I was at CalArts we joked that eventually everything was going to be done with computers, but we couldn’t imagine it and it looked amazing.”

For the first groundbreaking “Toy Story” film, Feiten was hired as an animator and made the now-iconic characters come to life on several well-known scenes. These include the scene when toy abuser Sid Phillips took Buzz Lightyear, Woody and an alien home after winning them in a crane game and placed the alien on his dog’s snout who then went to town on it. In “Toy Story 2” and “A Bug’s Life,” he wore two hats and worked on both storyboards and animation.

After Pixar, Feiten moved on to Rhythm & Hues (who had won Best Visual Effects for “Babe”) and worked on numerous films including “X-Men,” “Cats and Dogs,” “Stuart Little” (1 and 2), “Daredevil,” and “Men in Black II” among others. He then did work for Universal Studios for their Jurassic Park ride and other rides in Florida, and at DNA Productions, Inc. he worked with current Cetati Studios Supervising Director Ken Mitchroney on “The Ant Bully.”

“I worked with Kenny on “The Ant Bully” as a storyboard artist. He called me up and asked me if I wanted to do storyboarding at Cetati Studios. Right now I’m working on two robots interacting with each other–one is futuristic and the other is square and rusty and starting to fall apart. Kenny gave me that because he knew I worked with animatronic robots.”

Telling stories visually, using many different formats, is Feiten’s specialty. He also has a flair for retelling amusing anecdotes about his time in the industry–especially ones about animatronics gone wrong. One such tale involved the press getting a sneak peek at the Abraham Lincoln attraction at Disneyland where the faux 16th president had been outfitted with new software making him the most sophisticated animatronic at that time.

“I ran the show and everyone liked it and then they started asking questions like could I move his head and I did that and they weren’t that impressed. So they asked if I could have him stand up or sit down in his chair. I said yeah I can do that. Now, they were all sitting behind me and when I turned around, I accidentally pushed the wrong button. Lincoln slammed into the chair, breaking it, fell over backwards and snapped something in his chest breaking oil lines so it looked he was bleeding. Suddenly someone yelled ‘Lincoln’s been shot!’ Then the press said ‘Okay, we have what we need, thank you!’ and left. They were filming it, but I’ve never seen that footage. I think Disney asked them to please not put that on the news.”

For  more information about Cetati Studios’ storyboard wizard David Feiten visit his website http://www.davidfeiten.com and his IMDb page https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0270792.