Most of us spend the better part of our adult lives trying to be good at one thing or another. It might be the job we do or a hobby, or being a parent. For many of us, the only way to achieve some level of satisfaction or recognition is focus and hard work. Being creative is something I’ve striven for throughout my life. After an unscientific study, I’ve come to believe there are two kinds of creative people in this world. The first kind, strives to create an ideal work. Typically, this takes place over a period of time with many attempts. You can see this in the many self-portraits that some artists work on over their lifetimes. Rembrandt is an example of this. Each work reveals something about the artist at the time it was painted. In many cases, the style does not change very much from one portrait to another.
Many are indicative of a period in an artist’s life where they come back to the same subject over and over again. Picasso and his “blue period” guitar are examples of this try it over and over again approach to creativity.
Other artists let their creative passions wander, moving from style to style or medium to medium as they are inspired. Wil Smith is one of these artists. He went from music to television and finally to movies. I would say Walt Disney falls into this category. Walt was a kind of creative nomad. He would pitch his tent at an oasis for a while, but then be drawn to another.
It’s hard to tell why exactly he moved away from animated shorts, to full length films, then to live action then finally to theme parks. Could it have been circumstances outside of his control, or the period of time he lived that dictated some of these changes in focus. Did time create the man we know as Walt Disney or did Walt Disney create his time?
After the success of Snow White, the studio found somewhat less financial success with animated features that followed. Walt careened from Bambi to Pinocchio and then to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which would become Fantasia). While the films were generally, critically well received, they did not do as well financially. Then the war forced Walt to turn from other story ideas like, The Little Mermaid (yes, Walt was planning it decades before it was produced), to do work for the military, putting his features on hold. As the studio struggled to stay afloat, the cost for animated features of the quality that Disney demanded became a tremendous drain on the young studio’s budget.
After the animators strike in 1941, Walt undoubtedly felt less confident of his ability to control and trust his animation staff. He still needed an outlet for his creative story telling. So his attention shifted to live action features and nature shorts. Finally, as the studio grew and demands for his time were now focused public relations, as the face of the studio, Walt started WED, the original name for what is now known as Disney Imagineering and began to “build” his Disneyland theme park.
I’m compressing many years of time and simplifying the circumstances, but these outside influences and the time in which they occurred are all plausible and acceptable reasons for him to move from one creative genre to another. Walt was never satisfied with producing a product that was good. His vision was always to be better. But, other creatives have stuck to their primary focus in spite of unexpected and uncontrollable time period circumstances. Dalton Trumbo wrote screenplays for B pictures during his HUAC blacklisting. After a car accident left Dale Chihuly blind in one eye and he later suffered a dislocated shoulder, he has continued to create his glass sculptures by using other people’s hands and strength. So what in himself, the man, might account for Walt’s restless to drive to find new outlets for his type of storytelling.
Walt’s name is so synonymous with animated features that I was surprise
d when I read Neil Gabler’s biography “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” acccessible to his animation staff. He began to turn over creative control to other directors and producers. The turnover wasn’t total, but enough so that some of the animators who had been with him from early on, began to find it difficult to get his attention. When he did engage, he was often short, irritable and highly critical of the work being produced. Was the critical and creative success of Snow White enough for him? Was it, “been there, done that?”
By the time Cinderella was released in 1950, Walt was well on his way to dreaming up “Disneylandia “, which would be funded through a TV contract. Then, to generate capital for the Park, he plowed energy into television with the Mickey Mouse Club and Davey Crocket. And after Disneyland’s success he was on to planning Disney World. I’m exhausted just thinking about the amount of creative energy it must have taken to accomplish all of this in just about 30 years.
In the end, it may have been a combination of both circumstance and his need for new creative worlds to conquer that drove a restless Walt Disney from artistic endeavor to artistic endeavor. While he never strayed from his ideals of providing entertainment for young and old, he was not interested in riding the gravy train of success in just one area. For some artists, being good or great at one thing is enough to satisfy them both personally and artistically. Many actors are happy doing one type of film or portraying one kind of character.
Perhaps Walt found inspiration around every corner and just had too many ideas. Once he found success in one genre, he was anxious to try something new. Unlike many of us, he acted on those creative impulses. Many would say that it’s easy to accomplish things like Snow White or Disneyland, if you have money and resources. But, what many don’t know,
or forget, was that for each of those ground breaking achievements, Walt and Roy could have gone broke if either had failed. Walt and Roy spent much of their time finding ways to make it possible for Walt’s dreams to become realities. Mortgaging everything they had to allow the Disney team to realize the finished vision of Snow White Walt carried around in his head. Or he cut deals with television and the 1963 World’s Fair sponsors like Ford to fund the building and expansion of Disneyland. Walt was always on the brink of bankruptcy. One great idea away from sinking the Studio forever.
I envy the people who know early on in life what they want to be when they grow up. Nothing keeps them from achieving their goals. We’ll never know if Walt imagined himself in those early years that he would, one day, be the head of a successful Hollywood studio. Perhaps his dreams were more conservative. I think that each time he did the impossible, he was encouraged to dream bigger. Less influential artists have had their art changed into something that has more monetary value than artistic foundation. Fortunately for us, Walt’s dreams are so inspiring that they continue to be a road others are compelled to travel. And to Walt’s credit, whether they are Disney Imagineers, Universal Studios creatives or movie makers, they are driven to entertain and amuse us.
“A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”