Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘animation’

Can Artists be Champions?

usopen logoI spent the last couple of weeks watching the great tennis being played at the US Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (Also the site of the 1964 World’s Fair that Disney headlined). I love sports in general. But there’s something about the competitions that are head to head. There’s no one out there to count on but yourself. Tennis doubles down on the mano a mano-contest by forbidding coaching during the matches other than supportive yelling and clapping. If one of the players finds him or herself on the short end of the score, it’s up to him or her to come up with a new game plan or get themselves out of a negative mental funk. The champions, like Nadal, Federer, both Williams and a select handful of others can  do both, which is just one of the qualities that separates them from the pack.

goofy tennis

Certainly, practicing plays a part in a person’s success at any endeavor. But, success, is different from being recognized as the “best” at something. In sports, being the best is measured by wins and or statistics – most home runs, lowest E.R.A., most touchdowns thrown, etc. Being the best is more complicated to qualify in the arts. Beauty, as well as entertainment value, humor, scariness, dramatic quality, are found in the senses of the beholder. One person’s favorite painting is at the bottom of someone else’s list. I’ve heard people refer to Walt Disney as the best producer of animated features or the best theme park designer. There can be no argument that Walt was successful beyond the expectations of most people. But, was he the best?

ub iwerksWalt was quite comfortable admitting that he was never the best at drawing or animating. In fact, by the time he had come up with idea for Mickey Mouse and instilled him with the characteristics that would make a drawing one of the most recognizable icons in the world, it was Ub Iwerks and others who ultimately brought him to life. I’ve not heard any recollections of him doing any drawing that ended up on the screen once he had hired others to do the work. And, yet, it is his animated products for which he is most remembered.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if I can we draw any parallels between the qualities that help athletes succeed on the tennis courts and the kind of success Walt achieved.

330px-Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_AdamCreativity – Tennis players are more like improvisational actors, creating as they go and responding to their opponent’s work. Great tennis players use creativity to surprise the other player. Since creativity is the essence of any artist’s work. In many cases, art is creating something out of nothing. It might be carving David out of a block of stone, mixing pigment with oil to create the Sistine Chapel, sitting at a lifeless piano and writing “Feed the Birds” or using language to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Walt’s creative fortes were developing ideas, sometimes through improvisational thinking in response to work by others in his creative field. From his earliest successes like the Alice Comedies to Disneyland, Disney found ways to improve

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Multplane Camera

on the success of others. The multi-plane camera brought depth to his animated work. Snow White pushed the limits of an audience’s attention span for animated shorts. And, of course, Disneyland went well beyond the amusement parks that had been around for more than a century and improved on even the most successful ones of their time like Luna Park in Coney Island.

Adaptability – Tennis players, like most athletes, never know just which of their skills and abilities will respond on any given day. So, not only do they need to adapt their game plan to take advantage of a good backhand one day while the forehand can’t find the inside of the court. But, at the same time, great tennis players quickly adjust their game to the strengths or weaknesses of their opponent. Players who can’t adapt have little chance of winning if their serve isn’t working and they have no other options. Walt’s success was dependent upon his ability to adapt to changing audience’s tastes and interests for entertainment. We all like to talk about the times when he was right. There were, however, times when he missed the mark, like the much criticized film Victory Through Air Power and the Pack Mules at Disneyland. But, he was right about feature length animated films, family focused, live action features, audioanimatronics, and theme parks.

1180w-600h_020116_oswald-hungry-hobos-short-q-and-aMental toughness – The difference between winning a losing for tennis players of roughly equal skill is whether they can capitalize on any advantage their opponent presents or whether, when presented with a losing situation, they can continue to fight rather than giving up. Walt demonstrated this ability many times during his life and his career. Early on he had several failed attempts at starting his own business. Once he managed to succeed and build his studio, he had to maintain his positive mindset when confronted many times with money problems, intellectual property control problems with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an animators strike, and having his studio commandeered by the US military during WWII.

Striving for excellence – The same mental toughness pushes professional tennis players Walt Disney, Filmproduzent, USAto improve their game. During daily, focused practice sessions the best players maintain the better parts of their games and try to improve upon their weaknesses. That kind of dedication is only possible if the player wants nothing more than to be the best he or she can. It also means giving up some parts of what many of us would consider a normal life. It might mean doing without personal relationships, education, strict diets, and other things most of us consider fun or important. Walt never seemed to want anything other than producing the best products he could. The only way he could know if he was achieving excellence was his own judgement, until someone would pay him for the work and/or an audience would respond positively. As a result, it seems that he developed a very for excellence. The more he succeeded, the higher his standards became. This was evident in how hard he pushed the people who worked for him and, perhaps, how stingy he was with compliments. He also spent many nights and weekends sleeping in his office and giving up time with his family.

Practice – Tennis players spent countless hours every day on the court and working on their fitness. The difference between winning and losing can be stamina and the ability to execute simple and difficult shots when arms and legs are weary. Practice also instills muscle memory, so the player to be confident executing shots and allowing him or her to focus on mental toughness rather than the physical act of hitting the ball. Disney used the Silly Symphonies shorts to help his animators and others to learn and practice the skills that he knew would be needed to finish Snow White. During Disney’s lifetime, would-be animators worked under through an apprenticeship doing clean-up cleanupwork (cleaning up the extraneous lines animators left behind), then moving on to in-betweening (animators did the key poses then the in-betweeners would fill in the drawings needed to smooth out the movements), then they might get an opportunity to draw lesser characters before moving on to lead animator. All of this work was not only necessary to complete the thousands of drawings needed to complete an animated feature, but provided practice needed to insure they had the skills to move on to more complex work.

It might be possible to compare artists to tennis players in this way. And, in a way, the comparison shows that Walt was a champion. But, Walt’s most important qualities lay in his ability: to dream big like he did with Snow White and finally Disneyland; choose the right people for the right jobs, even if they may not have exhibited all the skills required to complete the job, like he did with X Atencio when he asked him to write the lyrics for “Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life”. But, I believe the most important part he played in his own and other’s success was his ability to inspire and lead people. He had an uncanny ability to get others to see and believe in his dreams. As a result, they probably excelled more than if someone else had asked.

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The Art of Animation

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Disney Legend Tyrus Wong

The recent death of Disney Legend artist Tyrus Wong and the release of Disney’s Moana have got me thinking about the state of animated feature films today. Admittedly, this is something I have thought about before. Moana is a beautiful film. Its depiction of island paradises, the ocean and god-like creatures are a joy to watch. And, the leaps that CG animators have made from films like Toy Story in the depiction of people is nothing short of amazing. However, I can’t help feel that Wong’s “re-discovered” work and contribution to Disney’s animated classic, Bambi highlights what I think is an important difference between the animation of Walt’s era and what is generally accepted as today’s the norm for modern animation. Hand drawn animated features, using Disney’s as an example, had and still have (See Hayao Miyazaki films as an example) a distinct artistic look that pulls the viewer in and brings life to the film.

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Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Considerable print, press, lectures and college film courses have discussed what many consider Walt’s most important contribution to animated films – elevation of animation to an art form. As early as 1929, 8 years before the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt would drive some of his animators to a local art class. In 1937 he would formalize a regular training regimen for the animators (eventually it would became CalArts) The classes were not

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Art Instructor with Disney Animator

just for his lead animators, but for all the animators. Walt was interested in breathing life into drawn forms, not just getting laughs. If you have the opportunity to look just at the background art for some of Disney’s early animated films, particularly Pinocchio, but even later work like 101 Dalmatians, they stand on their own as works of art, even without characters or motion. I believe Walt knew that in order to improve animation, it was necessary to improve all of the film, not just the characters who moved and got most of the attention.

He did, however, have one other trick up his sleeve. If you look at the early Disney animated features, either in individual picture form or the final movie, you can’t help but notice that each film has its own distinct artistic sensibility. Snow White, Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians are all as different as a Monet is from a Rembrandt. The artistic quality of the films draws us in and creates a visual appeal that is as important as the differences between Mo Willems work and other picture book illustrators, making the turn of each page or the change in scene a new experience that keeps our eyes and our minds interested in the material. It’s the differences in artistic viewpoint that enable us to see the merits of both Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s self-portraits. By all standards, they are both great works of art, yet completely different in look and creative approach and tell us a great deal about the artist and any messages they are trying to convey without the use of words.


CG animation does offer us some visual differences in the complexity and style of the images. But, in in my eyes, the differences in artistic approach and style seem to be flattened out by the computer generated approach to creating them. I’m not saying that CG animation is not an art form. Far from that. I believe that CG animators still have to create, what legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called the “Illusion of life” on the screen. The complex animation skill it took to “see” Moana think and go through her internal struggle like a real actor are not different from the joy or pain we see on the face of Roger in 101 Dalmatians.

It would be hard to argue that there are no artistic differences between Moana and Toy Story 3, and I’m not going to try.

But, I do think that CG animation has removed some of the style differences we can see in earlier hand drawn animated  features. I miss the water color style of Bambi, simplistic style of Dumbo and the sweeping grandeur of Sleeping Beauty. A viewing of Fantasia is almost a primer on how different artistic styles and approaches impact the look of an animated work. The sorcerer’s apprentice and night on Bald Mountain couldn’t be any more different, while they still maintain a high degree of artistic achievement.

Fantasia 1940

I look forward to each new Pixar or Disney Animation feature. I think Walt would be proud that Disney directors still strive to be story tellers first and animate as a way of telling that story. And, I’m certain that Walt would have welcomed CG as an exciting opportunity to tell stories through a different form of animation and to animate things that might seem impossible in the hand drawn world. On the other hand, Disney animators, when challenged always seems to find a way to achieve Walt’ vision and the directors who folloeed. But, Walt did not follow the path of other animation studios and use the same artistic style for every movie. I believe that he would have seen CG as just that – another creative style, and looked for other styles to help tell a particular story. And, so, I will continue to enjoy CG animated features. But part of me still hopes that John Lasseter will someday unleash the creative talents that are out there in the world and do some more hand drawn animated movies.

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