Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Walt Disney. Go here for previous Original Creators.
Tomorrow, the Disneyland theme park in California celebrates its 57th birthday. Ray Bradbury was a fan (especially of the robots), Steve Martin worked there as a teenager, and countless other people have wandered around its fantastical-worlds enjoying its recreational simulacra. The man behind its conception was Walt Disney, a giant of the animation world and also a controversial figure, shrouded in urban myth and Illumanti conspiratorial whispers. But, beyond his hand in creating a New World Order or being cryogenically frozen, he was an animator and storyteller who had a huge impact on 20th century American culture and the world of animation.
These days, the name Disney, in an entertainment sense, has become synonymous these days with saccharine tween fare in the form of Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and their successive clones. But before the downfall, Uncle Walt was a pioneer, laying the foundations from which today’s animation industry would be built upon—and he was also an experimenter who utilized the newest technology to bring his creations to the screen.
And his legacy lives on, not just in the flashy theme parks, but also with the cutting edge entertainment of Pixar—who The Walt Disney Company bought in 2006—and the endless animated shorts that appear on Vimeo and YouTube, now rendered using computer software rather than the hand-drawn techniques used in the early 20th century. His most famous creation, Mickey Mouse—probably the most recognizable fictional character on the planet—was introduced to the world in the silent short Plane Crazy in 1928. It failed to impact, so Disney followed it up with Steamboat Willie which had sound and was a massive success. It was the first time a cartoon synched with sound proved so successful, and with it, an industry was born.
After creating Mickey and the Silly Symphonies series, Disney looked into making the feature film Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. The success of this movie won Disney an Academy Honorary Award Oscar, in the form of one full-size statuette and seven mini ones, and lead to the establishment of the Walt Disney Studios HQ in Burbank, California. It also ushered in the Golden Age of Disney animation with Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi to follow.
Flowers and Trees (1932)
Disney loved to use the latest technology in his work and this short from 1932 was the first commercial full-color cartoon using the three-strip Technicolor process. It not only won Disney his first Oscar, but also won the first ever Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects. In this respect, this seven minute animation not only pioneered the use of new coloring techniques, it also established animation as a format worthy of accolade in the Hollywood mainstream.
Snow White and The Seven Dwarves (1937)
This film made a lot of firsts, from first full-length hand-drawn animated feature in film history, to the first to be produced in America, to the first to be in full color. The film used a multiplane camera built by William Garity, where images go past the camera at varying speeds and distances from each other to create a kind of 3D effect. The camera was also a labor-saving device, because by using different planes of glass stacked on top of each other it meant that the animator could re-use parts of the artwork that were not in motion: backgrounds, foregrounds, and so on. After its nationwide release in 1938, it went on to make $8 million and has been recognized by the AFI as being the greatest American animated film of all time.
Not only did this use Disney’s multiplane camera but also an early stereo surround sound system called Fantasound, again built by William Garity. Disney’s ambition was to create an animated concert with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the centerpiece, augmented by the Fantasound system to give you the feeling of being in a concert hall. The idea of creating visual sound is something we’re very familiar with now, but at the time it was incredibly innovative to match abstract imagery with classical music. Or any music. It was the most intellectual of his animations and it failed at the box office, only later being regarded as a classic.