Software developers may owe a debt of gratitude to Walt Disney. For those of you not tuned to what it takes to deliver the latest version of your favorite smartphone app, the buzzword is Agile. Instead of having to wait until the entire application is done, forcing us to wait months or years for a finished application, the Agile approach breaks the project down into smaller releases of features and capabilities that can be delivered quickly. If you compare the Agile manifesto to much of Walt’s quotes about entertainment and quality you can see the similarities.
Walt embraced the same goals that are at the foundation of an Agile mindset — “Deliver the maximum customer value in the shortest period of time, while providing the highest possible quality to our customers and society”. You can argue the fine points of what drove Walt’s creative energy, but if he didn’t like what he saw, he would scrap everything and start over if necessary, to make the film better.
Because of the time it took to hand draw the thousands of images required for even a ten minute short and later hundreds of thousands of individual images for a full length feature (Snow White contained about 250,000 individual drawings), Walt often did not get a chance to see even a part of the final product until right before the cartoon was to be shipped. In the early, short feature period, he had already committed to delivering as many as 2 a week. Since he couldn’t and didn’t want to change the drawing part of the process which delivered the quality he was after, he looked for ways to speed up everything around the animators and still give him the control he needed over the final product. This is the same approach Agile developers take. Get the best quality product to the users as quickly as possible.
In the Agile world, there is a lot of emphasis on communication, giving everyone on the team a view into what the goals of the project are and how the leadership team wants to achieve those goals. This is done through a regularly scheduled event called a Program Increment meeting or Big Room Planning. Walt pioneered the use of this this critical step called storyboarding, during the creation of The Threee Little Pigs. It became even more critical for the Snow White project. Since no one had ever tried doing an animated film that long, he needed a way to get all the individual scenes defined so the entire picture would work as a whole. And he needed his director and animators to be in synch with his vision. There’s a reason Film makers like Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg and the Coen Brothers continue to use the process. First, it allows them him to convey their vision for the film to everyone at once and get immediate feedback.
Drawings were used by Walt and are still employed to guide everyone through the key plot and character developments. And, using the storyboard drawings Walt and the director could then break down the animation assignments into manageable sections. In film, those sections might be scenes or key moments. In Agile those sections are called User Stories which describes Who Wants What and Why. In both cases they describe the what the section of work will represent or deliver as a part of the larger film or application.
Which leads me to my next Disney Agile approach. Walt’s ideas and approach to a film would often change from day to day or week to week based on external influences like things he heard or saw, and internal influences which might come from story staff, animator or directorial suggestions, or his own gut instincts. He would often scrap days or weeks of work to start over and incorporate the new ideas. This process was both time consuming and expensive. But Walt came up with an Agile answer to limiting wasted work that is critical to Agile development success and that is to fail early and quickly. Agile development work is organized into 2 week “sprints” at the end of which, all interested parties get to see a demonstration of what was planned and promised.
Walt’s approach this regular demonstration of progress was to use what would eventually be called the Sweatbox. Animators would quickly put together a section of the work they were asked to complete in very rough pencil format. These pages were then photographed and could be viewed on a moviola. Walt and others would huddle around the tiny screen in a windowless, dark room (the heat from the moviola, the many bodies and the closed room gave the room its name) and watch the what was completed. If Walt hated it, then the animator and any support staff had only spent a short time on the work. In many cases Walt would make minor suggestions or tell everyone to carry on. This process insured the quality Walt demanded and reduced the strain on staff when he asked them to change course. This process is still used today. Since most movies are shot digitally, the director can immediately look at the various takes, instead of having to wait for film to be developed and viewed in daily rushes.
Another approach Walt initiated that matches Agile development was filming people for the animators to use as models for animating scenes or aspects of scenes. Agile calls this rapid prototyping. Both examples are fast inexpensive ways to work out the logistics of the action or application functionality. This was especially useful in Walt’s animation approach, since much of the subject matter had never been animated in a realistic fashion before. How does the body move when someone dances or how does a deer bend to eat the grass? It’s one of the reasons that many of the characters look and act like their real life counterparts. The animators had the live action film of the people reading the dialog doing the actions in the scene to use as models for the animated versions of the characters.
Walt was a tireless innovator throughout his career in, animation, film, transportation, merchandising, TV and theme parks. While he was too early for what has now become the Application Economy (meaning every business is in the software business), I’ve tried to make the case that the revolutionary approaches he used in his to improve the speed and quality of animated films as early as 1933 can be seen in Agile software applications development in the 21st century.
I’ve posted a more technical version of this on LinkedIn.