Walt Disney by Neal Gabler

This article was inspired by Neal Gabler's Walt Disney . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.


Lessons from Walt Disney

“Improvement was his mantra – the only way to succeed, the only way to get the recognition he so badly wanted, the only way to create a full fantasy world for himself.”

Through innovation, Walt Disney took the cartoon, once considered a throw-away medium, and changed popular culture forever. Having spent a childhood being beaten by his father Elias, Walt escaped his dreary surroundings by drawing. The five years he spent on a farm as a child forever influenced his concept of paradise and the art he would create to depict it.

After volunteering for the Red Cross during World War I, Walt returned to Kansas City with the hopes of becoming a professional artist. Creating Laugh-O-Gram, a business which produced short films that would be featured before movies at Kansas City’s largest movie theater, Walt captured the imagination of his audience, but a limited market led to financial troubles. In 1923, Walt Disney filed bankruptcy and moved to Los Angeles for better prospects.

With his older brother’s financial assistance, Walt got a new start. Creating Alice’s Wonderland, he established himself in the animation industry. Over the next few years, Walt would have 22 employees help him create 56 shorts. Unfortunately, his obsessive perfectionism caused his staff to abandon him, and his distributor cheated him.

Walt Disney did not let setbacks deter his ambitious spirit, and in 1928, he began working on Mickey Mouse with a smaller staff. Though Walt provided the voice and direction for Mickey, an old friend from Kansas City, Ub Iwerk, did the animation. Until Disney came on the scene, animation and soundtracks did not correlate, but Steamboat Willie changed all that in 1928, as critics and moviegoers loved the special effects.

Though Walt’s emphasis on perfection caused Steamboat Willie to barely break even, the formation of the Mickey Mouse club made more than enough money back. Even though his short films were the most popular in the country, Walt wanted to get better. He had an instructor from the Chouinard Art Institute teach his animators ways to better illustrate emotion, and he pushed for better storytelling in his shorts.

In 1937, Walt made one of his biggest gambles on the idea of a feature-length cartoon. He spent more than $1 million to make this film, Snow White, a reality. The movie was a hit, and Walt made so much money that he was able to give $750,000 in bonuses to his employees. Though he tried to keep from upsetting employees with his obsessive personality, managing 1,200 employees was a difficult task.

Walt worked on more than just animated shorts and films. He created the nature film genre, and developed clean theme parks that contrasted with the carnivals of the day. Though Walt Disney met innumerable obstacles during his life, his persistent ambition and optimism allowed him to overcome financial troubles. He wasn’t a businessman, but rather an artist with the passion and vision to change the world.

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