Monday, December 05, 2005


Walt Disney was born on this day in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois.

The man who revolutionized the art and business of animation lived an austere childhood, moving around the Midwest as his stern father, Elias Disney, failed at one career after another. Walt found solace in drawing, and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute while he was still in high school. At 16 he went to France as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross, and upon his return pursued a career in art over his father's objections, taking an apprenticeship at a commercial art studio in Kansas City.

There he met another young artist, Ub Iwerks, and the two 18 year-olds launched their own commercial art studio, which folded after a month. Together they worked at a film ad company, making crude animated commercials for movie theaters using jointed cut-out figures, but they longed to produce more sophisticated animation, like the films they saw by masters such as Winsor McCay. The two essentially taught themselves advanced animation technique by studying Carl Lutz's book Animated Cartoons (1920) and the human and animal motion photos of Eadward Muybridge, and began making animated films at night after work using a borrowed camera.

Their films sold fairly well to local theaters, so they formed the Laugh-O-Gram Company to produce short animated cartoons. This venture, too, soon failed, so Disney and Iwerks set out for Hollywood, where Disney, in partnership with his brother Roy (who was convalescing from tuberculosis in Los Angeles) and with Iwerks' creative help, formed the Disney Bros. Studio, producing a series of short films combining live action with animation -- the Alice films (1924-26). The Alice series succeeded, allowing Disney to move into a larger studio and hire more animators. His next animated series, demanded by his distributor Charles Mintz, featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927), a character designed by Iwerks; by 1926, Disney had given up drawing for production duty. After a year, Disney feared that quick, cheap animation was in danger of growing stale with movie audiences, and desired more money from Mintz so that he could produce more elaborate cartoons. Mintz balked and underhandedly hired away all of Disney's animators except Iwerks, effectively stealing Oswald away from Disney.

Disney bounced back, however, creating a new character, Mickey Mouse (a name suggested by Disney's wife, who disdained Disney's original choice, "Mortimer"), on a train ride back from seeing Mintz in New York. Disney made two silent cartoons featuring the jaunty, big-eared mouse (Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, both 1927) before starring him in the first popular animated cartoon with sound, Steamboat Willie (1928, with Disney himself providing Mickey's voice -- it should be noted that Max and Dave Fleischer had been experimenting with sound cartoons since 1924). Steamboat Willie was a smash, saving the Disney Studio from Mintz's attempted sabotage.

From 1928 to 1940, Disney became the preeminent producer of animated cartoons in the world, and through his creative vision transformed the art. As Mickey Mouse became more popular (followed by the beloved characters of Donald Duck and Goofy), Disney launched his Silly Symphony cartoons during the 1930s, creating musical mood pieces unlike anything produced by the other studios -- a genre of cartoon which reached its apotheosis with his classic, controversial animated feature film, Fantasia (1940, featuring Leopold Stokowski and the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Beethoven and others).

The idea of an animated feature was a Disney original: he risked his personal finances, reputation and all of his company resources producing the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The film was a box office success, and earned Disney a special Oscar for screen innovation (he received one tall one and 7 miniature Oscars): the film made copious use of the multi-plane camera technique to simulate depth in a one-dimensional medium.

In 1941, a strike by animators severely crippled Disney's studio. While much of the strike was economic, some of the strikers complaints were artistic, as they voiced their opposition to Disney's insistence on a naturalistic drawing style. While Disney traveled to Latin America on a goodwill tour at the request of U.S. Inter-American Affairs chief Nelson Rockefeller, the strike was settled, but Disney lost a number of his key animators to an artist-formed company, UPA, and the free-and-easy creative atmosphere at the studio was never the same afterwards.

Disney's reaction to the strike was in part political: his political conservatism had been creeping into his art for some time. Following the strike, which he denounced as Communist-inspired, Disney's work became known for its patriotic, wholesome feel, and over the years the name "Disney" became synonymous with the concept of "family entertainment" -- movies and TV shows which eschewed the trends toward suggestive sex, explicit violence and liberal politics. In 1954, Disney launched a long-running TV series, Walt Disney, which he hosted until his death (his benign face becoming a weekly fixture in American homes for a decade), and in the following year revolutionized the concept of the amusement park when he opened his 160-acre "Disneyland" in Anaheim, California.

Years after his death on December 15, 1966 in Los Angeles (following surgery to remove a lung tumor), Disney's little cartoon studio had become a worldwide entertainment conglomerate -- following Disneyland with a larger, more elaborate resort in Orlando, Florida called "Disney World" in 1971; producing mainstream movies as well as new animated features; and eventually acquiring such diverse enterprises as ABC Television, the California Angels baseball team and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team. It is now indisputably a corporate behemoth -- a far cry from Walt and Roy's shoestring operation.

Disney was always interested in scientific innovation, but there is no truth to the persistent legend that Disney's body was cryogenically frozen; he was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.

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