Animation is more than just a pretty picture. The art form can be used in many ways, from telling a story to providing instruction to making a political statement. I've always felt that one of the most innovative periods for Disney Animation is the wartime era, from 1941 to 1945. During this time, the animation studios were taken over by the U.S. Army, and Disney kept the animators (those who didn't enlist or weren't drafted, that is) employed by making training films in addition to their cartoon shorts and animated features. The training films are generally glossed over by most, because they were made for practical or propoganda purposes and not necessarily as high-end entertainment. Over time, these films have become historical relics, curious little shorts which would only appeal to historians. However, when we watch these shorts with the benefit of hindsight, we can see how the Disney animators continued to provide top-quality product, even with the limitations that were imposed upon them.
The DVD set "Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines" features a special "Training Film Montage" that shows excerpts from the training shorts produced at the studios. I assume that Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment assumed there would be little rewatchability in these shorts, hence only providing a montage. Do note, however, that two training shorts appear in full, but more on those later. Just watching the montage alone, we can see just how fascinating they can be to study from both animation and historical perspectives. The quality ranges from extremely simplistic to intricately plotted, but always containing that definitive look of a bona fide Disney production. Film critic and Disney historian Leonard Maltin provides commentary over the five-minute montage on the DVD. Even watching mere excerpts, we can see how Disney animation is still improving on what was done before, even when they go back to what was done before. Sometimes the animation is ridiculously plain and static, and yet still works.
In this shot from the training short "Thunderstorms," Leonard Maltin notes how the animators re-used the rain effects from 1942's Bambi. This is an excellent example of both the thriftiness of the production, as well as an acceptable use of recycled animation. After all, the realistic rainstorm featured in "Little April Showers" shouldn't be limited to just that one movie. Re-using that animation here helps to enhance the short beyond a mere training video.
"Aircraft Wood Repair" was a restricted short, because it contained information regarding special glue to use on planes. However, I doubt I'll get a call from the U.S. Army for sharing this 70-year-old formula. Maltin notes that even though it seems silly to restrict such information, we have to remember how the United States was not prepared for war. Any information and any material used would be extremely valuable.
This shot comes from "Theory of the C-1 Autopilot, Part One: Basic Principles," an extremely well-animated Technicolor Disney short that talks about how Autopilot works. This was an innovation for the time, and extremely secretive. However, this shot also shows the best example of Disney knowing their target audience. These shorts would be watched by young pilots who would likely be in their early 20's. It takes a serious affair - learning about the autopilot - and throws in some humor as well. In this case, we see what's on a male pilot's mind when his plane is on autopilot. Leonard Maltin surmises that this is one of animator Fred Moore's pin-up girls, which I don't doubt at all. Moore, best known for his 1938 re-design of Mickey Mouse, was famously known around the studio for his drawings of attractive young females, some of which were used in several Disney films - the female centaurs of Fantasia and the young women dancing to "All the Cats Join In" from Make Mine Music are the most prominent examples.
"Rules of the Nautical Road" is a highly-dramatic training film that recreates a naval crash in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The animation showing the two boats crashing together is rather plain. However, the dramatic angles and follow-up are highly-motivational. Of all the shorts featured in the montage, I would have loved to have seen this one in full.
Fortunately, there are two training films that are featured in full on "Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines": "Four Methods of Flush Riveting" and "Stop That Tank!" Of the two, I've always loved "Four Methods of Flush Riveting," and I'm not quite sure why. The 9-minute film is entirely instructional, with a narrator that doesn't pepper in any fun jokes. We don't get any Fred Moore girls either. The animation itself is simple, but remarkably effective as a result. And honestly, the frank nature of the short makes watching the four methods rather entertaining on some level. I've never been in a situation that necessitated doing any flush riveting, but I've seen this short enough times to know the four methods that I could use: Countersink, Double Dimple, Pre-Dimple, and Combination Pre-Dimple & Countersink.
Disney released their "On the Front Lines" DVD in 2004, with a print run of 250,000 (the most for a Walt Disney Treasures set). It comes highly recommended if you can find it at a reasonable price. If not, a quick search on YouTube for "Four Methods of Flush Riveting" should prove to be nine minutes well spent. Remember to always match the method of riveting with the thickness of the sheets!