Animation is the allusion of movement through the persistence of vision. It dates back to as early as 1650 in Paleolithic cave painting, where animals were often drawn with multiple sets of overlapping legs. Although some argue that this could simply represent the artists’ changing their minds about leg position, most perceive these paintings as early attempts to portray motion. The zoetrope, a cylinder with vertical slits in the sides, is another example of early animation, as the inner surface of the cylinder has a band of sequenced pictures that produce the illusion of motion as the user looks at the pictures through the slits as it spins. Since cave paintings and the zoetrope, other forms of animation have been established, including stop motion, 3D animation, motion capture, rotoscope, film, etc. Numerous people have contributed to the world of animation and amongst those is Walt Disney. Just to name a few of his accomplishment, Walt was the first to add a music and effect track to a cartoon. He produced the first commercially released film produced in the full-color three-strip Technicolor process. He made the first full-length animated film. He was one of the first to use television as an entertainment medium and he created the theme park. Furthermore, no conversation pertaining to animation is complete without the mention of Disney’s name, as his groundbreaking design and assembly techniques moved him to the vanguard of the animation industry. The impact Walt Disney’s works continue to have on animation today is possible through the love and dedication he had for art and animation.
Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was one of five children. He was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois to Elias and Flora Disney. He lived in Marceline, Missouri for most of his childhood, which is where he developed his love for art. Although Walt’s father did not support his interests in art, his mother and brother always encouraged him to pursue his talents. While living in Missouri, Disney began drawing, painting, and selling pictures to neighbors and family friends, as he needed extra money considering that his family was living in poverty. When he was about ten, Disney moved to Kansas City, Missouri where his uncle Mike Martin was a train engineer. Being in his uncle’s company, Walt developed a love for trains, which resulted in a summer job selling newspapers and snacks to travelers at the railroad. Disney later moved back to Chicago and attended McKinley High School. Walt continued to pursue animation upon his return to Chicago, as he enrolled in drawing and photography classes at McKinley and was a contributing cartoonist for the school paper. In addition, Disney took night classes at the Chicago Art Institute.
At the age of sixteen, Disney dropped out of school to join the army during World War I. He was rejected because he was underage. Since he could not join the army, Walt moved to France and drove an ambulance for a year instead. He never stopped drawing. When he returned from France in 1919, Disney moved back to Kansas City, where he planned to pursue a career as a newspaper artist. His brother Roy helped him reach this goal, as he landed him a job with Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. While working there, Walt met cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks, which led to him working as a commercial artist for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made animations based on cutouts.
While working for the ad company, Walt continued to explore his options. He began experimenting with a camera, doing hand-drawn cel animation. His interest led to his opening of his own animation business and he recruited Fred Harman, from the ad company, as his first employee. Disney and Harman screened their cartoons, Laugh-O-Grams, with Kansas City Theater and their cartoons’ success resulted in Disney getting his own studio. Walt hired a few other employees and together they combined both live action and animation to create the series Alice in Cartoonland. Unfortunately, Walt had to file for bankruptcy in 1923 because the studio was in serious debt, but this misfortune led to better things.
Walt relocated to Los Angeles and collaborated with Roy and Iwerks to create Disney Brothers’ Studio. Their first deal was to distribute their Alice cartoons with New York distributor Margaret Winkler. While working with Winkler, they invented a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and contracted the shorts at fifteen thousand dollars each. A few years later, Disney realized that Winkler, her husband, and other Disney animators stole the rights to Oswald. He did not let this mishap discourage him, as this discovery paved the way for the infamous Mickey Mouse, which earned Disney his first Academy Award, an Honorary Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse.
Walt had been developing Mickey for a while before he released the first animated shorts featuring Mickey, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho. Both of these films were silent and failed to find distribution; however, Disney’s third sound-and-music-equipped short called Steamboat Willie, was a big hit, as Disney was the first to add a music and effect track to a cartoon. Walt still had more trends to set and boundaries to break. In 1929, Disney created Silly Symphonies, which featured Mickey’s newly created friends: Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. One of the most popular cartoons, Flowers and Trees, was the first commercially released film produced in the full-color three-strip Technicolor process and it went on to earn Disney his second Academy Award, for Best Short.
As if that was not extraordinary enough, in 1933 The Three Little Pigs and its title song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became America’s theme during the Great Depression. This resulted in Disney’s third Academy Award, another for Best Short. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated film, premiered in Los Angeles, producing one and a half million dollars, despite the Depression. It also won eight Oscars. During the next five years, Walt Disney Studios completed animated films, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. By the time of Walt’s death, Disney’s Brother Studio had produced more than 100 features. Disney’s last major success that he produced himself was the motion picture Mary Poppins, which mixed live action and animation. Disney was one of the first to use television as an entertainment medium. The Zorro, Davy Crockett, and The Mickey Mouse Club (known today as Mickey Mouse Clubhouse) series were extremely popular with children.
Although Mickey is responsible for majority of Disney’s initial success, his accomplishments did not end there. Walt Disney also invented the theme park. Disneyland theme park opened in 1955. It was designed for children and their families to explore, meet Disney characters, and enjoy rollercoaster rides. Disney used Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, a popular Sunday night show, to begin promoting his new theme park. In a very short period, it became a tourists’ attraction for people worldwide. Because of the success of Disneyland, Disney began plans for a new theme park in Florida. It was still under construction when Walt died from lung cancer at the age of sixty-six on December 15, 1966. Following Walt’s death, Roy took on the responsibility of finishing the Florida theme park, which opened in 1971. He named it Walt Disney World after his late brother.
The Walt Disney Company launched its own television channel on April 18, 1983. The Original Disney Channel (1983-1997) marketed primarily towards younger children, with series such as Still the Beaver, The Baby-sitters Club, Five Mile Creek, Flash Forward, Adventures in Wonderland, Vault Disney, etc. In 1997, a new pre-teen programming took hold, with shows such as Smart Guy, Bug Juice, Jett Jacksons, and more. Later “Zoog Disney” attempted to connect the television and internet, giving kids who played online games an opportunity to see their names on television. From 2001 to 2002, Disney’s ratings grew higher and it was about ninety percent basic cable programming. Pre-teens started watching the newer shows like, Even Stevens, Kim Possible, Lizzie McGuire and more, leading to the collapse of classic Disney programming. In recent years, the diversity of viewers has increased even more with an older audience of teenagers, young adults and families, from over one-hundred and sixty countries and twenty languages.
Walt’s interest in animating developed at a young age, as he drew and painted pictures to sell to his neighbors and family friends to earn extra money as a child. Walt quickly turned his hustle into a passion, as he enrolled in drawing and photography classes at McKinley high school and took classes at the Chicago Art Institute at night. Even when Walt was no longer in school, he continued to enhance his skills. He never stopped drawing, or trying to entertain others. No matter the trials and tribulations he faced, he never lost sight of his dream. When his first studio suffered from debt, he collaborated with his brother and old friend to open a new one. When his partners betrayed him and stole the rights to his first commercially successful character, Disney took it as an opportunity to release a new character. It is obvious Walt dedicated his life to his work, from his childhood to his death; thus, proving his love and dedication to animation is responsible for the success he has had in animating and the impact he continues to have on animation today.