Walt Disney was an American film maker, entrepreneur, and a pioneer of character animation. Instead of silly gags, his cartoons focused on story-telling and characters with whom people could connect on an emotional level. He and his collaborators created some of most famous characters in the world including Mickey Mouse.
Walter Elias Disney grew up on a farm in Missouri. A neighbor encouraged his love for drawing by hiring the young Disney to draw pictures of the local horse. When he was ten years old, his family moved to Kansas City where he took Saturday classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. The Disneys moved again when Walt was a teenager. He took night classes at the Chicago Art Institute and drew cartoons for the school newspaper.
After driving an ambulance in World War I, Walt returned to Kansas City to begin his career as an artist. His brother got him a job creating advertisements for newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters. He specialized in animated cut-out commercials. Walt enjoyed it so much that he borrowed a camera from work to experiment with cartooning at home. He taught himself cel animation and eventually started his own animation business.
Disney showed his first cartoons at a local movie theatre. His “Laugh-O-Grams” were so popular in Kansas City that he was able to buy his first studio. He hired a lot of animators including close friends and former coworkers. Disney didn’t manage his money very well but, with his brother’s help, he set up a second studio in Hollywood, California, the capital city of the movie industry. The Disney Brothers’ Studio made a successful series called Alice Comedies. It featured a live action girl with cartoon costars. The Disney Brothers were soon hired to create an all-animated series. The new cartoon, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – drawn and created by their friend Ubbe Iwerks – was an instant success. Disney hoped to get a pay raise for himself and his coworkers but, instead, the studio was offered a pay decrease. Disney refused the bad deal and lost the right to draw Oswald anymore.
So, Disney designed a new cartoon character based on his pet mouse. Iwerks reworked Disney’s sketches to make the drawings easier to animate. Their cartoon mouse, “Mortimer” was renamed “Mickey” by Disney’s wife. Mickey Mouse’s first two cartoons were silent and unsuccessful. Disney added sound to his third cartoon though. He even voiced the part of Mickey Mouse. With sound, Mickey’s third cartoon, Steamboat Willie, was a big hit. Mickey Mouse soon became the world’s most popular cartoon character. The Disney Studio followed the Mickey Mouse series with musical shorts called Silly Symphonies. They added sound and color to all their cartoons. The most famous one, The Three Little Pigs, included a song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” that became an anthem of the Great Depression.
With two successful cartoon series, Walt Disney made plans for a feature length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Critics and friends thought the movie would ruin Disney, but the film received a standing ovation at its first screening. It went on to become the most successful picture of the year. Disney received one full sized Academy Award and seven miniature Oscars for the cartoon. It was the first animated feature film in America, and it launched the Golden Age of Animation.
Disney built a campus in Burbank for the Walt Disney Studios. The animators created cartoon shorts starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto; short films like The Wind and The Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and classic animated films including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Dumbo, and Cinderella. During World War II, the studio was hired by the Army and Navy to animate instructional films and funny cartoons to boost morale. After the war, the studio was hired by NASA to create educational cartoons about the space program, the Moon, and Mars.
Disney conceived Disneyland as an extension of the animation studio, an amusement park where his employees could spend time with their children. He sketched the park for years before construction began. By then of course, the idea had grown very big. The park opened in 1955 with thousands of people in attendance. “To all who come to this happy place, welcome.” Disney said, ” Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
Disney continued to expand into other arenas. He hosted a weekly television series also called Disneyland, and he created a tv show called the MIckey Mouse Club. Walt Disney Studios went on to create live action films like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Mary Poppins. Disney was always present at story meetings, but he entrusted more and more of his animation work to key animators who he dubbed “The Nine Old Men.” Under his guidance, they created cartoon classics including Lady and The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians.
In 1964, Disney began planning a more ambitious theme park. Disney World would be a more elaborate version of Disneyland and the heart of the “Magic Kingdom” would be an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (or EPCOT). Unfortunately, Walt Disney – a long time smoker – died of lung cancer before the project was completed.
Walt Disney is remembered as a philanthropist, a visionary, an entrepreneur, and an entertainer. He holds the record for most Academy Awards, 22. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before he died, Walt Disney devoted time to funding the California Institute of Art or CalArts. The college trained many of his animators and is one of the most respected art schools in the country. The Walt Disney Family Museum opened in 2009. It included thousands of artifacts from Disney’s life including 248 awards that he received. The Walt Disney Company exists today as a multi-billion dollar corporation. It owns five vacation resorts, eleven theme parks, two water parks, thirty nine hotels, eight motion picture studios, six record labels, and twelve television studios.
When I introduced Walt Disney as our next Master of the Month, my students didn’t believe that he was an artist. They know him as the creator of a tv station, a movie studio, and their favorite theme park. In my opinion, that’s what makes him a perfect artist to study. As much as I enjoy Disney movies (and had my mind blown by some of their educational cartoons), my favorite Disney creations are the theme parks. I spent a lot of time at Disney World as a kid and, as an adult, I remain blown away by the detail that went into the creation and maintenance of Disneyland. It’s easy to believe that it sprung from the mind of an animator.
Portrait of Walt Disney drawn by Rama Hughes