Thursday, December 15, 2011

Walt Disney

"I don't make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures."
-Walt Disney
On this day, Dec 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away at age 65. This year also marks the 110th anniversary of Walt's birth on Dec 5, 1901. I was raised on everything Disney with Micky Mouse & friends on the wall, Disney records as Christmas gifts (I still love the soundtracks to Robin Hood and Aristocats), Disney story books, Wonderful World of Disney on TV, watching Jungle Book at the theater, visits to Walt Disney World, etc. This all seemed quite natural at the time but an article on PJ Media points out Disney was quite the innovator and "invented" many of the experiences I took for granted.

1. Animation
Steamboat Willie (1928), starring Mickey Mouse, is credited as the first animation synchronized with sound and music. Watch it on Youtube to see how clever it was and remember - sound was NEW! Four years later Disney produced Flowers And Trees (1932) in Technicolor and won the first Academy Award for animation. The Old Mill in 1937 was the first short film to use a multiplane camera and it also won an Oscar. [Multiplane means the sun/moon is painted an one cell layer, then middle ground, then foreground and then the "actors" on top. They are stacked with space between each layer and filmed together. The advantage is 3-D depth to the film; you can move in for a close up and the moon in the sky remains small while objects in the top cells get larger.]  1937 also saw the release of "Disney's Folly", a full length cartoon called  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To the surprise of everyone (but Disney) it was a smash success and won another Oscar for Walt (along with seven honorary dwarf Oscars presented by Shirley Temple).  Disney never stopped experimenting with Animation. Fantasia (1940) mixed classical music with dinosaurs & dancing hippos; Song of the South (1946) mixed live actors with animation.

2. Education
Disney "had a long history of commitment to artists’ training." He held regular classes taught by masters of various media. Zookeepers brought live animals in for the animators to learn how to replicate natural movement. Many animators that created companies to rival Disney were trained by Disney studios. Walt promoted the creation of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and the school opened on land donated by the studio.
By the way, something to look for in recent Disney films; not content just to copy from the past, each film has a visual theme that motivates the animators. In Hercules look for Greek design with red/black colors, sharp angles, pottery & patterns. Look at the Asian animation style in Mulan, etc.

3. Merchandising
We expect toys from films today but Disney was a trailblazer in merchandising.  The studio earned 2.5 to 5% royalty on every item bearing the image of Mickey Mouse (and they are legion). Some of his movie/TV songs became hits like “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and  Davy Crockett. You would think Hollywood had learned the power of merchandising from Disney but when George Lucas made Starwars, Hollywood saw little profit in it and let Lucas keep all the merchandising rights (big mistake).

4. TV
As early as the 1930's Disney refused to sell the rights to his films to others,
…everybody wanted to buy all our old product. We wouldn’t sell it. We wouldn’t hear of it. We wanted to handle it ourselves, make good use of it.
And indeed he did make "good use" of his films. He discovered he could release the films every 7 years to profitable runs. He made a TV Christmas special in 1950 on NBC and another the following year. In 1954 Disneyland the TV series debuted on ABC with a mix of B&W and color. A few years later he moved to full color back on NBC with  Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.  Walt reused films and created new content for his Wonderful World series. He also started another new hit show, The Mickey Mouse Club. Today we have an entire TV channel owned by and featuring Disney material.

5. Theme Parks
An entire park dedicated to cartoons? Who would have believed it? Since 1955, "Disney theme parks led the industry as the gold standard of excellence in amusement park entertainment."

Bottom Line

PJ Media sums it up nicely,
"Disney filled many roles in his 65 years: artist, husband and father, philanthropist, anti-Communist, filmmaker, and even the original voice of Mickey Mouse. But his greatest role was as an American innovator. From animation to television to theme parks Disney left his mark on our culture and enhanced our lives."

The 1928 release of Steamboat Willie resounds to this very day. It's my personal theory that Disney Studios will do anything to keep the copyright from expiring on Mickey Mouse. In copyright law 1923 is a special date, all books and other works published before 1923 have expired copyrights and are in the public domain. Works from 1923-1963, published with notice and with copyright renewed, are protected for 95 years. In theory Mickey becomes public domain in 2023 but as has happened many times in the past century, US copyright keeps getting extended for longer and longer periods. In 1998 the Sonny Bono Act (also called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act by Lawrence Lessig) added 20 years of copyright protection keeping Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain in 2003.

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