Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Mickey Mouse’

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable

walt and mickeyWe recognized some major calendar milestones in the months of November and December. The birth of Mickey Mouse in November as well as the birthday and anniversary of the passing of his creator Walt Disney. Walt was, without a doubt, always the creative driving force behind all the Disney successes and failures during his lifetime. But, the idea of Mickey and the amazing animators and artists who gave him life were not responsible for his meteoric and continued success. For that, Walt left nothing to chance and imprinted himself on the character.

Mickey and Walt are forever linked. Mickey was created out of an act of business

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Earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

survival. Losing Oswald the Rabbit to a sneaky film promoter, which, while it might have led to the end of Disney brother’s company, lit the fires of Walt’s imagination, leading to the creation of the mouse that still roars. It’s likely that the spark of creation that was Mickey Mouse would keep the character close to his heart for many years. It’s not surprising that Walt couldn’t find a suitable voice for the character. And, he didn’t relinquish the role until 1946. Even though, by then he was incredibly busy overseeing many films in development and production, he knew he was the only one who could give voice to a character that was really an extension of himself – an alter ego, perhaps.

Early Mickey Mouse

It isn’t surprising, then, that the many of the early shorts are full of many settings and situations that show Walt’s fingerprints. Farms and farm animals are well represented in shorts like The Barn Dance, The Plowboy and Musical Farmer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that trains, something close to Walt’s heart, figured prominently in Mickey’s Choo Choo.

And, while Walt never showed any particular musical abilities, the films make judicious use of music, to drive the action and the gags. Anything became an instrument from animal teeth, spaghetti, train tracks, boat and train whistles, even ducks, chickens, animals and more traditional instruments. Walt clearly understood the importance of music and he continued to use to maximum effect in all of his films.

We can be assume that since Walt probably approved every script and frame of the early shorts, it’s interesting how the early Mickey had many of Walt’s personality characteristics. Like Walt, Mickey is forever optimistic, whether he’s trying to build and fly do-it-yourself airplanes, courting Minnie, or cheering her up after rescuing her from the ocean. Mickey’s also a problem solver. Many of the problems he encounters are of his own making, but he always finds a way to get things done. Walt was always creating problems for himself and his staff, creatively and technologically. Many of the difficult situations arose because Walt was always pushing the limits of what could be accomplished in the mediums of animation, film and theme parks. But, he always managed to match the right person to the difficult tasks whether it was making X Atencio a songwriter or recognizing Bob Gurr’s wizardry with wheeled machines.

Walt also instilled Mickey with his own brand of small town, childish humor. Many of the shorts include situations that involve cow’s udders, Minnie’s bloomers, and the use of outhouses. I’ve read that, even though he gave a kind of buttoned up image, Walt was very fond of what we would call today, bathroom humor. Other accounts told of him adding many of those kinds of gags to early animated shorts, much to the chagrin of some of the other creatives on the staff.

In his own way, this early Mickey is a take charge guy who doesn’t hesitate to ask Minnie to get on stage and play an instrument, or want to drive the steamboat. All accounts describe Walt as someone who wanted things his way or not at all. Even though the company started out in 1923 as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in 1925 Walt informed his partner and brother that the studio would henceforth be called Walt Disney Studio. He said that it was his name that they were building the company around. I don’t think he wanted any audience doubt about who was in charge. The lack of credit accorded to the people doing the heavy lifting part of the work was the reason why his long time friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks left him to work elsewhere. Given how important Iwerks was to the fledgling Studio’s success, many in Walt’s shoes would have done anything to keep such a valuable asset. But, Walt hardly missed a beat.

As Walt got further away from hands on work with Mickey, you can see changes in the character that practically built the Studio. The changes may have been due to others taking over primary responsibility for story and character. Not only did Mickey’s look change, certainly approved by Walt, but he began to mirror more of contemporary society.

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No longer the chaos creating scamp of the early shorts. Mickey settled in as a more dapper and conventional man of the 40s and 50s. Pluto is the ever present man’s best friend and we often see Mickey in more indoor settings. Instead of stealing kisses from Minnie by scaring her with loop the loops in a plane, he courts her with flowers and gallantry. It’s possible Walt thought that the symbol of his company should be more accessible and politically correct. But, it’s also possible that Mickey had a personality transplant.

The image of Mickey today is that of a corporate ambassador. He’s someone you want to hug or expect to obediently ride atop a parade float rather than execute a practical joke with him. With the occasional excursion into something more like the old days as we recently saw in Pixar’s Get a Horse.

Mickey is a model citizen showing off a very large wardrobe at the Parks and other public appearances. There’s nothing wrong with the Mickey that recent generations have come to know and love. We may not want to admit it. But we all age and slow down.

In the wake of the spectacular success of the animated features, by the 1040s Mickey was no longer starring in his own shorts. Fantasia had originally been considered as a feature that would star Mickey. Walt changed direction and created a ground breaking art piece. But, Walt kept Mickey in there. And, as his last contribution to the legend of Mickey Mouse, he left us with what may be one Mickey’s most iconic images – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with his oversized robe and the wizard’s hat. That Mickey lives on in many forms including being adopted as the mascot of Disney Imagineering.

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It’s only natural that future generations may gravitate or identify more with characters in the Marvel and now 21st Century worlds. I think everyone will still have a soft spot for the Mouse that started it all, even if they don’t understand the important role that Mickey played in making everything we associate with Disney in the 21st century possible. I do hope that as long as Mickey is the symbol of the Disney Company, we will continue to be reminded of Walt Disney himself.

 

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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.

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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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