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Affection For Animation

Walt Disney did not invent the animated cartoon, of course. It had been known for centuries that rapidly flipping through a sequence of pictures could produce the illusion of motion, and the first mechanical device to employ this technique, called a phenakistoscope, dates from the 1830s. The obvious, at least in retrospect, marriage of the comic strip and film occurred as early as 1911, when a comic strip titled Little Nemo in Slumberland, from the New York Herald, was adapted by Winsor McCay for the Vitagraph film studio. But it was Disney who made animation a major cinematic art form. Disney had a somewhat deprived childhood. After a stint as an ambulance driver in World War I, he got a job as a commercial artist in Kansas City. In 1923 he moved to Hollywood, where he formed a partnership with his brother Roy. In 1928 he released the first animated film to feature sound, Steamboat Willie, which also introduced Mickey Mouse. He soon invented Donald Duck as well.

But Disney’s claim to immortality does not lie with his skills as an artist. In fact they were mediocre. Instead, his genius was as an entrepreneur. He hired the best talent he could find and used it to build an empire based on animation, daring new concepts, and early exploitation of new media, such as television. Disney today, 35 years after its founder’s death, is a major American company. With typical daring, in 1937 Walt Disney risked everything to produce the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With the rise of the double feature, which left less time and attention span for introductory shorts, Disney borrowed $2.3 million from the Bank of America to develop the first-ever feature-length animated film. “Roy was very brave and manly until the costs passed over a million,” he later said. “. . . When costs passed the one and one-half million mark, Roy didn’t even bat an eye. He couldn’t; he was paralyzed.” It turned out to be a huge hit and made Disney a major power in Hollywood. He followed Snow White with Pinocchio and then Fantasia.

The epic animated feature Fantasia opened in New York City on November 14 and reversed the fortunes of Mickey Mouse. Two years earlier Walt Disney’s trademark character had been surpassed in popularity by two more idiosyncratic cartoon colleagues, Donald Duck and Goofy. Eager to revive Mickey’s career, the animator devised a short feature based on Paul Dukas’s 1897 orchestral work The Sorceror’s Apprentice. Enlisting the aid of the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Disney set out to create an elaborate experimental vehicle for Mickey’s talents.

The idea evolved into a featurelength project entitled Fantasia, encompassing eight pieces of classical music, all conducted by Stokowski and interpreted by Disney’s army of animators. The film, which took two million dollars and two years to make, struck Bosley Crowther of The New York Times as “a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one’s senses are captivated by it.” But purists were angered by the film makers’ abbreviations of the composers’ works to fit the pictorial format. “If Beethoven had lived to see the inside of a Nazi concentration camp,” the journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote, “his tormentors might have driven him mad by the performance of Mr. Stokowski and Mr. Disney.”

Fantasia flopped upon its initial release. The highbrow crowd shunned the film, and the mainstream audience seemed scared off by its erudite concept. Subsequent revivals proved more successful, particularly in the late 1960s, when younger people attributed psychedelic properties to the lush combinations of sight and sound.

Animation was very labor-intensive in the 1930s. Every frame had to be drawn and colored by hand (these frames, called eels, are highly collectible today). Since 24 frames flash by every second, a single hour of animated film required 86,400 drawings. People hired to color these frames were expected to do as many as 65 a day. That’s what Carl Barks did when he began at Disney Studios. But he soon showed a marked talent for storytelling. He submitted an idea for a mechanized barber chair for the now-classic Donald Duck cartoon Modern Inventions and was soon involved in collaborating on the stories for other Disney cartoons. But in 1942, with Disney rapidly converting to producing films for the armed forces, Barks left to open a chicken farm. (That was less odd sounding in the early 1940s than it is today; chicken farms were widely thought to be an easy road to riches at the time. Betty McDonald’s classic memoir The Egg and I dates from the period.)

Indeed the public had so embraced Disney that by the time of his death, 240 million people had seen at least one Disney film, 80 million had read a Disney book, 50 million had listened to a Disney record, 100 million television viewers tuned in to a weekly Disney program, and 80 million children had watched a Disney educational film. He had left an indelible mark on American culture.

Much like Henry Ford, whose automobiles did much to destroy the localized, nineteenth-century world of small towns and interspersed farms but who labored over the years to recreate and mythologize the lost country of his youth, Walt Disney helped modernize and commercialize America, even as he wove into his cartoons, his television shows, and his theme park an idealized vision of small-town America that he only dimly remembered from a few childhood years spent in Marceline, Missouri, a way station between his longer stays in Chicago and St. Louis.

Almost from the start, he and his brother Roy, who managed the business end of Disney Bros. Studios (later rechristened Walt Disney Enterprises), seemed to be several steps ahead of the crowd. His first major animation project was a silent series called the Alice Comedies, which anticipated Who Framed Roger Rabbit by more than 60 years, with its combination of a live human actor (Virginia Davis, who played Alice, as in Alice in Wonderland) and animated companion characters.

The first two Mickey Mouse shorts, “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” caught the attention of studio executives, but not enough to secure their creator a distribution package. Realizing that the future of film lay with talkies, Disney raised an enormous sum of money, much to his brother’s chagrin, and produced a third Mickey Mouse film, “Steamboat Willie,” this time with sound. It was a smash hit. Within a few short years, even as America descended into the decade-long Depression, Disney’s studio thrived. Not only did the Mickey shorts draw enormously profitable distribution deals, but by 1934 Walt Disney Enterprises was selling $34 million of Mickey Mouse merchandise annually, even more than the cartoons were bringing in.

Mickey, who always seemed to make lemonade out of lemons, was as perfectly suited to the times as was Little Orphan Annie. “He is never mean or ugly,” Walt said. “He never lies or cheats or steals. He is a clean, happy little fellow who loves life and folk. He never takes advantage of the weak and we see to it that nothing ever happens that will cure . . . his conviction that the world is just a big apple pie. . . . He is Youth, the Great Unlicked and Uncontaminated.”

Even as the operation started earning money hand over fist, Walt Disney insisted on plowing every available penny back into the studio. He struck an expensive but ultimately profitable deal with Technicolor and moved away from black-and-white animation before anyone else thought to do so. He created a supporting cast of characters for Mickey, including Donald Duck, Goofy, and Minnie. What other animators spent producing a short feature, Walt doubled. Quality was his watchword, and expense was never a consideration—or rather it was for his older brother Roy to worry about. When Franklin Roosevelt declared a bank holiday in early 1933, Roy, unable to pay the staff, began to panic. “Quit worrying,” Walt chided him. “People aren’t going to stop living just because the banks are closed. What the hell, we’ll use anything—make potatoes the medium of exchange—we’ll pay everyone in potatoes.”

Most of his employees went on strike in 1940, and though he had evinced little prior interest in politics, he became an ardent right-winger and anti-Communist. Rumors later circulated that he had been a member of the pro-Nazi fifth-column during the war (he hadn’t), and that he was an anti-Semite (he may have been, but no more or less than was usual in midcentury America, and certainly not in his personal or business dealings). He could be cold with his family and obsessive about his pet projects. He was, in short, very different in his old age from the young man he had once been.

In the end, it was never clear that he was happy about any of it. “I’m not Walt Disney anymore,” he once told a business associate. “Walt Disney is a thing. It’s grown to be become a whole different meaning than just one man.” The unquestionable king of animation is Walt Disney.

Most people have a tangible affection for animation and are particularly incensed by the poor quality of much of today’s animation, calling the cartoons of Saturday-morning television “a vast landfill.” (The Smurfs were adapted from a popular Belgian comic strip known as “The Whatchamacallits”). Animated shorts often narrated by Ronald Reagan with titles like Malaria Mike, Four Methods of Flush Riveting, and How to Get a Fat Jap Out of a Cave are cartoon training films of World War II.

With cartoons commandeering the box office, computer animation has undergone more looks in the last decade than Pam Anderson. Since the studio's release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has led the way with its brand of eerily realistic animated characters voiced by major Hollywood names. An Oscar win for The Incredibles, shows successful cartoons are not just for kids. Technical skills are more important to computer animation than meth is to magazine editors, so Pixar built its own university on the lot. A full year of undergraduate classes on the animation process ensures the staff will be prepared to handle each project. It also ensures the most undergrads in an office since Bill Clinton occupied the White House. (Stop doodling on the screen; it has nothing to do with drawing.)



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