Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Creativity’

Celebrating the Spirit of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Breaks the PaperI usually prepare to watch ABC-TV Disney special events with somewhat low expectations. For the most part, I find them to be very long commercials for whatever Disney is promoting. I’ll give you some other thoughts on Mickey’s 90th Spectacular in a bit. But, that’s not what I want to talk about.

As we continue the celebration of his 90 years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Mickey. It’s hard not to, since the Disney Company is using the birthday as a major promotion. Who can blame them? There are few characters in the history of print, movies or television that have stood the same test of time. As originally created by Walt and animated by Ub Iwerks, he was no more complicated than, and bears a strong resemblance to Walt and Ubs first successful character, Oswald, the lucky rabbit.

mickey and oswald

Oswald &  Mickey

Walt & Ub

Walt and Ub

And, while, Ub Iwerks seems primarily responsible for the early design and almost all of the animation of the early Mickey shorts, it was Walt who who not only gave him his voice, but also his spirit. As I wrote in my post “Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable”, it was Walt’s personality, sense of humor, drive to succeed and optimism to which audiences responded and made Mickey popular.

The Mickey of Plane Crazy and other early shorts was a mischievous troublemaker. In many of the shorts, Mickey gets himself into trouble, then finds a way to “save the day”. He gives other characters the raspberry, checks out Minnie’s legs and twirls a cat by the tail.

He was a precursor to many of the movie anti-heroes the world would cheer for decades later in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Mad Max, Rebel Without a Cause, the Godfather and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series. The shorts were driven by putting Mickey in various situations then driving the plot with the kind of gags that Walt loved. I’m more partial to the Mickey we see starting in the late 30s. He’s become more of an “everyman”. Crazy things still happen to him and around him, but he’s generally more of a good guy,role model.

I can’t say for certain why of all the Disney characters created under Walt’s direct supervision , why I’m partial to Mickey. Mickey was literally out of the picture during my childhood. After 1953’s  short, Simple Things, Mickey didn’t appear on film again until 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It was probably for the best. “Simple Things” Mickey feels stodgy and uninteresting. Pluto gets more screen time than Mickey. And, overall, the quality of the piece feels more like the Saturday morning cartoon lineup of the 60s and 70s right down to the clunky sound effects and skimpy backgrounds.

I got that same feeling of disappointment watching the ABC-TV Mickey Birthday special. It felt more like a long advertisement for everything but Mickey. I understand that Disney, for business reasons, continues to try and stay connected with a young audience. But, as a child of the baby boom era, I felt like a chaperone at a young person’s dance. The musical guests, which I’m sure were loved by the young audience in the theater, were interrupted by brief snippets of Mickey’s history. The character of Mickey seemed more like a museum piece than a symbol of the Disney Company’s continued growth and success. But, enough about that.

My generation got only small doses of Mickey in parades and special appearances and, if memory serves, Disney would occasionally dust off an old short starring Mickey. I have a strong sense memories of going to a 40th birthday party for Mickey in the old Rainbow Club in the Empire State Building when I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the event and I can’t find any on the internet. Anyone who has photos, I’d love to see them. Does absence makes the heart grow fonder?

Mickey in the 1970s

 

The_Band_ConcertOr, am I drawn, like earlier generations, to a character that is both timeless, and of a time when audiences marveled at Steamboat Willie’s first of its kind synchronized sound, or the first ever color cartoon, The Band Concert. Behind Mickey, though, was Walt, continually striving for something new. Not just to grab audiences, which he remained focused on for his adult life. But, Walt needed to always move forward. Walt bet his entire studio on the idea that sound would revolutionize animated film. He would do the same with his personal fortune to bring Disneyland to life. Mickey was the messenger for all of this innovation.

disney and mickey on disneyland tvThe thought I have is, Walt’s inspiration, that lead to Mickey, was created at a low point in his career. The success of his studio depended entirely on the character’s success. So, the “magic” that would lead to Walt’s success would have been concentrated in Mickey Mouse. The character was the seed out of which his empire would grow. Walt never stopped chasing his dreams. That kind of spirit is powerful.

I’ll admit, that I’m a skeptic when it comes to life after death and the supernatural. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that Mickey carries the spirit of achievement and the creative spark that started with Steamboat Willie and continues to this day. The more I think about this brand of pixie dust, the more I like it. It’s comforting and exciting to believe that Walt is still with us. And, it’s great that, in the form of  a symbol, Mickey Mouse, he continues to do the things Walt loved most – innovate and entertain. So, Happy Birthday to Mickey Mouse.  A creation for the ages.

Walt Norman Rockwell

 

Why Writers Matter

NaNo-2017-Winner-Twitter-HeaderWith the passing of November so passes the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrimo) challenge of writing a novel in thirty days. According to my calculations, at 6pm on November 27th I crossed the NaNoWrimo 50,000 word finish line. The official word count on their computer was about 58,000. I must have lost track of some words along the way. The draft of my future best seller will be left to rest for at least  a couple of weeks as I give myself a breather. To give you some perspective on why I am so proud of this accomplishment I offer these facts into evidence. I’m not a professional writer. The weekly Disney Connection blog I’ve been submitting for your enjoyment over the past year typically runs about 1,500 words and usually takes me between 3-4 days to write, edit and layout. According to my NaNoWrimo Dashboard, for the 27 days I wrote, I averaged 1,932 words, writing every day. My best one day word count day was 11,000! I went from running a couple of laps around the track to tackling a marathon with no training period. There was no carb loading, no daily stretching, just BIC (Butt in Chair) and fingers on the keyboard. So, I hope you will forgive me for using this space to crow about my accomplishment. I have proudly hung my “Winners” certificate on the wall of my office.

2017 Nanowrimo winner cert

I see a hand raised in the back of the room. Yes? You’re asking, “So, what has this got to do with Walt Disney?” I’m glad you asked that. Among all of the things Walt Disney accomplished in his lifetime, he was, first and foremost a story teller – a writer. Having taken a month to see what it’s like to do what he did, almost every day, here’s what I have learned from all my hard work this month.

Walt Disney hard at workFirst, no great or even good writing appears on the page, fully formed and perfectly written. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back (or if you’re Shakespeare they kill themselves) is just the framework. The hard work is making that story arc interesting by populating the story with characters, good and bad, and placing them somewhere the audience can identify. Creating a plot and story arc that the audience can follow, builds to a climax and then finishes with a satisfying ending is harder than most people think it is. I’m sure when I read back what I wrote, the plot will have all kinds of unexplained holes that need to be filled and the climax probably lacks emotional punch. It all seemed so simple when I wrote my four sentence plot summary.

snow white model sheet

I think I could make the argument that Snow White was the one animated feature that Walt wrote himself. In 1934, he pulled some his animators together on a soundstage for, what is now considered, a legendary session, during which he acted out the entire story for them. Walt was a visual artist so, he hadn’t written the story down on paper. But, he had spent considerable time writing it in his head so he could tell the tale. He couldn’t get away with the short film format which was really just a series of comedic gags. Walt knew that he could never sustain the feature film length without a strong story that would captivate the audience.

snow white model sheet posesSecond, a good story must be supported by characters that the audience comes to know and care or, in the case of the villain, hate. As I wrote my story, I found I still hadn’t really gotten to know my characters well enough. In scene after scene I discovered new details about their lives. As a result, my characters, seem to lurch between different emotions and don’t always act consistently from scene to scene. Snow White, and all of the other characters (with the possible exception of the Prince) have distinct enough personalities that most of us could write our own stories about them beyond what appeared in the movie. It’s not just the names of the Dwarfs that tell us who they are. It’s how they act with each other and how they interact with Snow White. Even the Huntsman, who appears only briefly, is someone who we come to understand and feel for, from the moment he is given his assignment to just before he has a change of heart (credit Milt Kahl and Co. for an amazing acting job along with Walt and the directors). There are no wishy-washy characters (maybe the Prince). Every character has his or her own set of objectives (even the Prince) and the story is driven forward by their desire to reach their goals.

Third, setting the story somewhere and describing it in enough detail to allow the reader to enter the fictional or real world is what sets a novel apart from a movie or play. Since I was writing a historical piece, I tried to gather enough information before I started writing to accurately describe life in Southern California in the mid 1960s. As it turned out, I woefully underestimated the kind of detail I would need to know. This meant frequent trips back to books and the internet to try and see and feel what a restaurant would have looked like, what cars they drove, clothing, houses, etc. Even if I were writing in the present, I would still need to be observant enough to tell someone what they needed to see in their mind’s eye.

Multiplane CameraConsiderable time and effort was put into backgrounds, costumes, settings for both the real things in Snow White as well as the fantasy elements, like the Queen’s laboratory and the Magic Mirror. If that had not been accomplished so well, our attention would have been drawn away from the story and focused on what we knew to be “wrong” or out of place. The use of the multi-plane camera provided more believability to the settings by giving a sense of real depth to what are only flat drawings.

 

Finally, the protagonist must overcome obstacles that increasingly raise the stakes. Each new challenge should have the potential to keep our hero from succeeding. The higher the stakes the more interesting the story. I can tell you from my experience that finding ways to get your hero into trouble without having Martians drop in from outer space is no easy task. Snow White finds herself almost killed and forced to run through the scary forest at night. This is followed by having to convince the Dwarfs to let her stay with them. She fails her last challenge, the apple, and needs the Dwarfs and the Prince to bail her out. I prefer to see my heroes solve their own problems. I think Pinocchio’s story follows a better path of obstacles to his eventual redemption and success.

The NaNoWrimo site offered this at the end of the month:

nanowrimo end of month message

Good stories and storytelling were the cornerstone of the Disney brand and its success and continue to be today. Many stories that are now considered legendary kicked around the studio for years before Walt or current Disney management felt they were “ready”. The Little Mermaid which premiered in 1989 was a story Walt had his people do work on right after Snow White was finished in 1937. Even then, once stories are in production, the stories continue to be reworked and refined.

Early on, Walt relied heavily on fairy tales and other stories he had enjoyed as a child or, in the case of Mary Poppins, stories he would read to his children. “What?” you say, JoeGrant3_Disney“Couldn’t he come up with his own stories?” I see nothing wrong with the approach he took. He took well written pieces and found ways to have them speak to new generations through the magic of animation and later live action films. Walt’s uncanny ability to recognize what his audiences would respond to was part of his story telling genius. He also had a knack for finding the right people to collaborate with and help him work out the final version of the story.

Writers of movies and television rarely get the credit they deserve. Most novelists toil in obscurity and few become household names even after their work hits the NY Times best seller list. But, make no mistake – writers are the engine of many mediums. Those of you who pursue the illusive satisfaction of a well written piece, as I do, regardless of the medium, should be proud, not only of your finished work,  but of the effort it takes just to try.

Here are some of my favorite authors (no particular order). Who are the authors you like to read?:

favorite authors

J.K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dan Brown, Rex Stout, Harper Lee, Isaac Asimov, Erik Larsen, David McCullough

Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Disney Muse Gone?

shutterstock_194759198Frequent visitors to The Disney Connection may have noticed I missed my usual Sunday night post last week. Setting aside some personal and professional craziness that has caused disruptions in the Land of Brad, I’ve had a hard time finishing a post over the last couple of weeks. I can tell you I made several starts which all seemed very promising, including one about the passing of Marty Sklar, improvements needed for the next D23 Expo, my thoughts on The Great Movie Ride and something about Imagineering. I would be kidding myself and all of you if I “wrote” off my creative block as a failure to find anything that clicked and would meet my own personal standards of quality and applicability to the Disney Connection’s mission. The truth is, I couldn’t get my creativity on track. I was blocked, even though I set out to write about something I love.

shutterstock_325327667One part of me wanted to post something. The other part of me was unable to come up with something I felt I could be satisfied to share with you. I’ve published 30 posts on this blog, at a pace of nearly one per week since January of this year. I’d like to thank the hundreds of visitors who regularly read my thoughts, opinions and ramblings about how Walt Disney, who has been gone 51 years this December, still impacts the Disney Company, people like me and maybe you. Many weeks I’ve been completely stunned by the traffic, many likes, comments and number of people who are now following the Disney Connection blog. Thank you all for supporting my work and giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m not talking only to myself. So, since I consider you all fellow Disney lovers, I hope you’ll keep reading if I take a tangential trip into CreativityLand, slightly afield from my usual posts.

Over the years, I have tried my hand at various writing projects. I participated in NANOWRIMO , National Novel Writing Month, (an amazing not-for-profit thatnano_12_winner_detail encourages people of all ages to write, including kids) and completed 50,000 word drafts of three novels. I’ve written several full length plays and dozens of shorter theater pieces and had privilege of hearing my work performed by professional actors at public staged readings here in NYC. I’ve written technical white papers and many reports for the customers who I have worked with in my day job over the last 20 years. Those of you who write regularly, particularly for work as I do, may have found that it’s often easier to write when someone else is setting the deadline and determining the topics.

I have always enjoyed writing. But for some time, I had only written professionally. So, I started writing this Blog as a kind of test to see if writing was going to continue to be part of my life. I’m happy to say that writing for the Disney Connection has offered an opportunity for me to rediscover the joy of writing. I take pride in publishing posts that I believe are interesting, amusing, timely and, perhaps, thought provoking. I have no advertisers who are expecting eyeballs on pages, so the only motivation to put hands on the keyboard is that I have a topic which appeals me. I write this Blog because I want to, not because I must.

Anyone who has put pen or brush to paper, hands to clay, a hammer to stone or raised their voice in song can attest that the creative spark is a harsh mistress who can both satisfy and punish any artist. I was just at the D23 Expo and sat very close to Imagineers like the late Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, Rolly Crump, and musicians Richard Sherman and Alan Menken and others who have somehow managed to be consistently successful in using their skills, imagination and vision to not just be creative, but prolifically creative under financial, deadline, and global fan pressures. They have carried on the work of a man who German philosopher Schopenhauer would have described as both an artist, someone who can hit a target no one else can hit, and a genius as someone who can hit a target no one else can see.

I try to keep my goals for the Disney Connection modest. I do think I occasionally reach some level of artistry in my work on this Blog. Inspiration can be found everywhere. So, it is frustrating to wake up and find one’s muse has taken an unexpected leave of absence. Walt Disney is one of those rare people who was an artist and a genius in everything from animated and live action films to theme parks and education. I remain in awe of his accomplishments and will continue to be inspired by him as an example of what can be achieved. Everyone’s time is valuable and there are plenty of places on the internet, TV, movies and the world that you can all spend it. The more I’ve worked on the Disney Connection the more I have felt a commitment to those of you who have carved out enough time in your busy lives to read my writing. I want all my readers to finish a post feeling that their time has been well spent. If I keep up my end of the bargain, I hope you will too. Thanks for your support.

In the meantime, I’ve put up up a page of pictures from my time at D23 Expo 2017.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: