Walt Turns 100
By Peter Adamakos

Peter Adamakos 
Peter Adamakos is an animation producer and director
who founded Disada Productions Limited in 1971.

He has also been a collector of original animation artwork for over 35 years.
 His collection has formed the basis of major museum exhibitions
 in many cities, including Montreal, New York, Toronto,
Tampa, Paris, Atlanta, and Brussels.
He also teaches animation. 

Talking to young people in animation today I find that the words Walt Disney to them usually constitute a company, an empire (evil or benevolent), a theme park, a style, even an adjective, but rarely the man himself. Of course they never grew up during his lifetime, didn’t see him on television each week, read interviews in newspapers and magazines. For them the man is in the past, and they can’t imagine what it was like to see him in the present, and to hear, with wonder, what he was planning for our future enjoyment.

Walt Disney

Much has been written about the man and his works, but I want to tell young people the things that they can relate to today about the man and his works that they don’t probably know. First, all of us in the animation industry can thank Walt Disney for our jobs. Walt Disney saved the animation industry, period. The industry was on its way out when Walt Disney started to make his mark in it. By the end of the silent era, cartoons had run their course. Audiences were booing when an animation film came on their theater screens and many theaters refused to run them. The individual animation artists like Winsor McCay had left the scene to purveyors of the conveyor belt, mass-produced cartoons of the 1920s. Eventually animation fell into a state then, as television animation is now. They had become routine and uninspired.

Winsor McCay c.1906
(Collection of Ray Winsor Moniz)

It was Mickey Mouse and sound that breathed life into what was to become in Disney’s hands, a rejuvenated industry and, at his studio, the development of a new art form. In twelve years, animation went from the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released, "Steamboat Willie," to "Fantasia."

"Steamboat Willie"

Twelve years! Never has any art form seen such strides in such a short period of time. Imagine what he would have done with computer animation, with the billions of dollars that have flowed into it, with the hundreds of thousands of gifted talents who have worked in it, which creaks along after 30 years of snail-like improvement without a Walt Disney.

Walt Disney Studios

It was thanks to Walt Disney that commercial animation continued, and then prospered. Without Disney, animation would have petered out with the advent of sound, deemed too expensive and of little interest to the public. It would have become a personal, independent art form, like sculpture, but not one of industrialized mass production. A feature animation film would have been out of the question. Disney, by making his films top quality productions in animation, story and characterization, and adding to it the new, all-important revenue-generating merchandising to pay for it, made it work.

The second thing people don’t realize is that Disney was an independent. Warner Brothers animation had the backing of a huge film organization, Warner Brothers. The studio’s administration organization was at the animation studio’s service, as was their orchestra, their huge publicity machine, their physical plant.  No one in Warner Brothers cartoons had to even think of ordering toilet paper. Disney was the only independent. He had to pay for everything, organize everything from payroll to security. The odds of Disney financially succeeding in the field against his well-heeled peers were enormously against him.  That he did, solely by his superior product at the time, is a testament not only to one man’s courage and determination, but to the human spirit itself.

It is strange to see many young people think of Disney as the gigantic enterprise it is today in a negative sense instead of the triumph of the little guy over the big guy through talent and an unswerving belief in the potential of the art of animation. They are surprised to learn that Disney lost money between 1923 when the company started until he died in 1966, except for the years 1938, 1950, and 1961-1966 when it all finally started to come together. Today Disney seems only interested in profits. Walt Disney was mainly interested in his works. He was quoted often as saying money is just like manure. Its only purpose is to make good things grow.

I also remind young people that Disney took risks when others didn’t and still don't today. He was the first to do many things in animation both artistically and technically (sound, Technicolor, widescreen, stereophonic sound), but the nature of his enterprises was diverse. Warner Brothers did cartoon shorts, period, for over 40 years. Disney did shorts, features, theme parks, original television programming and much, much more and did these early in his career, before anyone else.

Remember, he built Disneyland personally, with outside concerns like Paramount, when his company, owned since 1940 not by him but by public stockholders, refused to get involved. They later sold Disneyland to his company for a tidy profit. People often complain to me that there are so many books on Disney and his works compared to others in animation. I reply that the sheer diversity of his works justify them. Who could write books on Warners’ Imagineering or animation features or theme parks or nature films or original TV shows when there weren’t any?

Walt Disney also created the most diverse animation produced by a single company or person. Full personality animation is what we think of when we think of Disney animation, but he also started limited animation during the war, did puppet animation such as "Noah's Ark," and allowed separate units to do modernist animation under Ward Kimball’s supervision like "Melody," "Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom," and other decidedly “non-Disney” animation. His serious animation, like "Education for Death" still moves people today. I showed it recently to a group who all asked where they could get video copies. They can’t. Unfortunately Disney hides its most innovative works.

Young people should also realize that Disney pioneered the kind of entertainment we take for granted today. He plunged into television with six hours of original programming per week in the early 1950s when all other studios, live and animation, were boycotting it as an enemy. He went beyond the amusement park and created the first theme park. Fifty years before the Discovery Channel, he made documentary nature films when no one else did, put them in theaters and people turned out and paid to see them because they were made by Walt Disney, and they trusted him and would try new things if they were his.

Today you know single-name producers and directors like Spielberg and Lucas. Back then the only ones the general public knew were, Disney and Hitchcock. They marketed their names as specific brands of entertainment when it was just not done. Behind-the-scene features of the making of films in DVDs? Disney did this first on his TV show, where he would do an hour-long examination of the making of films, such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," and  "Lady and the Tramp," just as they were hitting the theaters.

I think people should be reminded that it was Walt Disney who laid the plan for today’s popular culture phenomenon. He took the meager amount of merchandising that existed when he started, and with the help of the phenomenal Kay Kamen, invented modern merchandising, first with Mickey Mouse then through the features, and parks.  Synergy, so popular today, (try to escape "Harry Potter," or "Lord of the Rings") was invented by Disney. You could see a Disney film, buy books, records, see the making of the film on his TV show, see a tie-in with a ride at Disneyland, and re-live the film through merchandise of all kinds. 

Had he lived, the Internet would be a much more developed and exciting place today. Remember Walt Disney set up a company in 1948 to investigate computers, and his first efforts (with the Buddy Ebsen mechanical doll) went on display a few years ago as part of a museum tour on Disney theme park origins. By the time of his death, audio animatronics were computerized as he and NASA pioneered computer usage virtually alone.

If Walt Disney had died in 1942 he would have still have left a legacy to reckon with. Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and especially the Silly Symphonies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, and the Baby Weems sequence of The Reluctant Dragon were alone a lifetime of accomplishment, though they all happened in just 14 years. Just Snow White and Fantasia alone would be still heralded today as testament to a genius as "Citizen Kane" is today to Orson Welles. Had Disney or Welles done nothing else, they would be remembered today.

Those who feel inferior or just downright jealous have always had a chip on their shoulder about Walt Disney for all the wrong reasons, instead of using his example as inspiration to be the best they can be in their unique way.  A Walt Disney in most fields of endeavor comes about only very rarely. After a hundred years, goodness knows we can use another one in animation right now.

Contact: Peter Adamakos  

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