he Walt Disney name carries more goodwill around the world than any brand. If you were to wish upon a star that the whole world be a Disney World, you would be among many others. Walt Disney was creative beyond measure, but he was also one of the great entrepreneurs of his generation. It is sometimes hard for people to think that the giant Walt Disney Company of today was once a struggling small business with some good ideas, some practical skills and a lot of energy to try and make a dream come to life. That time was around the start of the Great Depression, when Walt Disney Studios was making a living with Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons.
Some of those cartoons had been landmarks, “Steamboat Willie”, the first cartoon with sound, and “Flowers and Trees”, the first cartoon in color. But all of the cartoons were ‘shorts’, cartoons only a few minutes long that did not generate the kind of revenue of a feature length movie. Back then, TV didn’t exist, so cartoons only made money in movie theaters. Walt was perhaps the first animator to cash in on licensing his cartoon characters’ appearance on merchandise, things such as the Mickey Mouse watch that was popular for decades, but even the money earned from merchandising was not going to sustain the studio for the long haul. Walt knew he had to become a real movie producer who could attract the same ticket sales as major Hollywood movie studios such as MGM and RKO. To rival those companies, Walt would create feature length cartoons.
The decision to produce features propelled an important transformation at Walt Disney Studios. Walt did not think he could simply extend his shorts in their present form and hold people’s attention for over an hour. The art was just not good enough. To create feature length cartoons – animation, that is – Walt needed to improve the state of the art dramatically. He had used technology to improve cartoons (sound and color) and he would continue to explore technological improvements forever, but more than anything else he needed to improve his cartoonists. He needed to improve their eyes, hands, and minds. He needed his cartoonists to become artists.
Walt’s first step toward turning his cartoonists into artists began in 1931 when he arranged for them to study art at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Walt paid the tuition and even drove his people to and from the classes when they did not have the means to get there themselves. Walt was going to develop artists for his studio, and his commitment to that goal was a personal matter. People who’d spent a life as cartoonists were going to need to unlearn their habits and styles; people who were newer to animation were going to need to ignore the history of cartoons, even the recent past, and start to think as fine artists; people who’d been to fine art school were going to need to learn how to apply their talent to commercial animation. People who couldn’t evolve were going to fall by the wayside. This transformation was not unlike that of art history itself, like the transformation from naive figures to renaissance ideals. Natural movement and rich backgrounds were to replace stick figures and blank space. The audience needed to see characters similar to themselves, they needed to see reality amidst the fantasy.
In 1932 the Walt Disney Studios began to build its finances and Walt was able to organize a Disney Art School. He hired Don Graham to run the Disney Art School, which first held classes at homes and later at the Walt Disney Studios. Graham had been teaching the Disney people through Chouinard’s, so the change was more one of commitment and proximity than principles. The change in the quality of Walt Disney Studio animation from 1932 onward put the studio far beyond its peers, and that progress allowed Walt to undertake the leap into feature length animation. The first feature project would be Snow White, and the artistry Walt required for Snow White would need to be pushed further.
t’s December, 1935 and Snow White, a project that would eventually use 1.5 million pencil, ink, and watercolor drawings, was in early development. To create Snow White, and a studio that could continue to produce similar features, Walt hired 300 new people, who were mostly young art school grads, and gave Don Graham the mission to turn them into Disney artists. Graham was also to retrain the older animators in the new style emerging at Disney. In the Disney archives there is a remarkable memo from Walt to Don Graham that outlines Walt’s vision for the Disney Art School and the kind of artists it had to produce. Walt described a curriculum and skills to be developed, he identified current studio people who could lead classes for the others, he waxed about caricaturists outside the studio whose work could be a model. Walt knew what he wanted in his features and knew what he needed to do to get it from his people. He was not worried about the investment, which would be substantial, he was striving for quality, for artistry, and to develop a studio that would create durable masterpieces.
The Disney Art School taught new animators, referred to as novices, in classes held all day every day. As novices improved, they would move gradually into real work for the studio. A day here and a day there until their work rose to Walt’s standards and they could become full-time animators. Older animators, the ones who needed retraining but were familiar with producing animation, were required to take at least one night class at the school. Walt spent his own money to support this novel and robust training program, and by 1935 the school was costing $100,000 per year. Meanwhile, other cartoon companies weren’t spending anything on training.
A key trait of Walt’s ideal animator is that he would understand natural movement. Toward that end, Walt also created a zoo at the studio so animators could study the movement and expression of live animals as they had studied live human models before. Animals had been an important part of Disney cartoons, but feature animation would require the animals to act and use body language much more convincingly. Later, to prepare his artists for the feature Bambi, Walt hired animal artist Rico Le Brun to lead art classes, and also dispatched a crew to Maine to film forest scenes in a variety of weather and light conditions for the artists to study.
Snow White was released in 1937, six years and hundreds of thousands of Depression era dollars after Walt began his art school program. The artistry in Snow White was far beyond anything the audience had seen before and the movie grossed $8 million Depression era dollars at the box office, the largest sum of any movie in 1937. Before feature length animation, the Disney Studio was happy to earn $15,000 for a cartoon short. The impact of Walt’s art school on the final cut of Snow White was everywhere on the screen. The characters, backgrounds, props, and action were so fantastic that one needed to watch the movie several times to begin to see it all. Leaves in forty shades of green, water flowing and rippling and bubbling in a familiar way, people dancing, animals prancing, and spectacular light and shadow effects. Walt’s vision of animation was solidified with the subsequent feature releases of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. This group of movies completely transformed the notion of animation from the crude geometry and movement of cartoon characters to the rich and refined sequences of paint, light, motion, dimension, and drama seen in the finest halls of art and cinema. Walt’s investment to train and develop his artists in the name of quality had been returned many times over, and his example of transformational leadership in his company’s early history contributed enormously to his legend.
Photos by Joe Penniston.
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (DVD), Jean Pierre Isbouts; “The Disney Art School,” David Johnson; Disney’s Art of Animation, Bob Thomas; Talking Animals and Other People, Shamus Culhane; Disney’s World, Leonard Mosley; Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy, Adrian Bailey; “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Andrew Boone.