December 5, 2011
2. Walt Disney’s Five Greatest Innovations
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the 20th century’s greatest visionary artist and entrepreneur.
Walt Disney started with little more than talent and ambition and built one of the most powerful entertainment empires known to man. Many people think of him as simply the man who created Mickey Mouse, or as a television host or studio head, but Disney played a vital, hands-on role in his company’s success.
Disney won 22 Academy Awards, an Emmy, and countless other honors for his work. He was also a visionary like few others in history, and he belongs on the list of true American innovators along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs.
In honor of Disney’s birthday, here is a list of five of his greatest innovations. Some of them are obvious, while others aren’t as well known. But all changed the way we view entertainment and art.
(Author’s note: I relied on two books about Walt Disney for this column. Bob Thomas’ Walt Disney: An American Original is more or less his “official” biography, while Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination is a recently published account. Both books are comprehensive and well-written, and I highly recommend them.)
Walt Disney revolutionized animation. Before Disney, cartoons were crudely drawn and poorly animated with weak stories consisting of little more than quick gags. They were cheap and profitable, but Disney took them to the next level.
The earliest animation was the cartoon short, and Disney worked hard to raise the bar. One of the first Mickey Mouse shorts, Steamboat Willie (1928), was the first to synchronize music to animation. It was so successful that the two previous silent Mickey Mouse shorts were rereleased with new soundtracks. Disney went further with music in his cartoons with The Three Little Pigs (1933) by adding a theme song, “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf,” which quickly became a best selling tune.
Disney took short animation to the next level in other ways with his Silly Symphonies series. Flowers And Trees (1932) was the first cartoon in Technicolor, and it won the first Academy Award for animation. Five years later, The Old Mill was the first short to use the multiplane camera, a Disney Studios invention which added an element of dimension to cartoons. The Old Mill also won an Oscar.
After his successes with shorts, Disney decided to expand his animation art to feature length cartoons. Many in Hollywood doubted if strong storylines and more realistic characters would work in animation, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was called “Disney’s Folly” until it garnered critical praise and turned a handsome profit.
Some animated films like Dumbo (1941) and Cinderella (1950) were critical and financial successes, while others like Fantasia (1940) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were less profitable in spite of favorable reviews. During this period the studio also discovered that they could re-release the animated features every seven years, generating 100% profit and making successes out of even the least profitable works.
Just after World War II, when the studio began to branch out into live action films, Disney had the idea to blend live action and animated sequences for Song of the South (1946). It worked so well that the studio tried the technique again with Mary Poppins (1964) and in pictures after Walt Disney’s death like Tron (1982) — which combined live actors with early computer animation — and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
It’s not hard to imagine that, without Disney’s contributions to the medium, we wouldn’t have the rich landscape of animation that we have today, from the studio’s inimitable princess films to the increasing creativity of Pixar.
4. Higher Education
One of Disney’s lesser known innovations — unless, perhaps, you live in California — was his contribution to higher education. Disney was the visionary behind the development of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Disney had a long history of commitment to artists’ training. From the early days of the Disney Studios, he teamed up with the Chouinard Art Institute to hold regular classes taught by masters of various media. Zookeepers often brought live animals in for the animators to learn how to replicate natural movement.
At the same time that the Disney Studio was experiencing unprecedented success in the early ’60s, Chouinard had fallen on hard times. Disney developed a vision for a school that would provide comprehensive arts training. “A school should offer a kind of cross-pollenization that would develop the best in its students,” he said, and he came up with the idea of combining Chouinard with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, another school that was in danger of folding.
After months of research and consultation, Disney felt he had a concept for what would become CalArts. He presented this plan to the public for the first time in a short film (below) that accompanied the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964.
Though Walt Disney would not live to see CalArts’ opening, the school maintained his vision of an interdisciplinary arts education. CalArts opened its doors in 1970 at a temporary location before moving the following year to a permanent campus in Valencia, CA, on land donated by the studio. To this day, CalArts is one of America’s preeminent educational institutions.