Walt Disney

Sat 3/26/2011

A few weeks ago, I finished this great biography about Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. The unabridged audiobook was almost 40 hours in length, and during the WEEKS it took me to listen to it all, the thought of getting to hear the next segment had me racing to get to the studio each morning.

I haven't read a lot of biographies, so I don't know if this is common practice, but in this one, I loved the way that Gabler presented multiple versions of the same story. For instance, the creation of Mickey Mouse, which was a story told so often, it was no doubt embellished and dramatized over the years. Gabler presents not only Walt's version of the story, but MULTIPLE versions of the story which Walt told from various points throughout his life. Also his Wife's version (she was on the train with him, when he came up with the idea) and also his co-workers, including Ub Iwerks, who had a big hand in Mickey's creation and early life.

If any of you have read Phase 7 #010, you know that I was a completely obsessed, psychotic Disney fan when I was a kid. At an early age, I converted my closet into "The Disney Closet" and filled it with Disney comics and books and stuffed animals and clippings from magazines and drawings and anything else Disney that I could get my hands on. In my young mind, Walt Disney was a GOD.

I'm sure that's the main reason I found this book so fascinating. It was really strange for me to hear all about how Walt Disney was an actual PERSON, who like grew up and had a life and everything. Supposedly Gabler had full access to the Disney Archives for this book, so the level of detail in the accounts is often astounding. There are letters written by Disney and the many people surrounding him, transcripts from story meetings and dozens of interviews. Disney did a lot of interesting things in his 65 years, but I think the most interesting period for me, was the time when he was a struggling artist, and the first decade or so at his studio.

Reading about his artistic beginnings would be inspiring for any artist. He was dedicated and passionate, and he worked like a dog, day and night, honing his craft. And the first few years at the studio seem like one of those rare collaborative situations, where the right people come together and do unthinkably amazing things. If I learned anything in this book, it's that Snow White is one of the craziest, most ambitious artistic projects that has ever been attempted. And the fact that they actually pulled it off is just completely bonkers. You should rewatch Snow White. I did last week, for the first time since I was a kid, and it's absolutely breathtaking.

Cartooning is such a solitary pursuit, so it was really exciting to read about all these young artists moving out to California to work for Disney in the 30s and 40s. Disney basically set up an art school for them IN the studio, and they learned about figure drawing during breaks from their animation work. And from their ranks rose some of the artists I still worship today, such as Carl Barks and Bill Peet.

Sadly, (I think) the Disney Corporation got bigger and bigger and less and less focused, and the quality of their output sank rapidly, though there have been a few renaissances over the years (see Waking Sleeping Beauty for a great documentary about one such effort). As a naive little kid, my ultimate dream was to work as an animator at the Disney Studio. I now make about half my living as a professional artist (and the other half TEACHING art), and I know enough about copyright and trademark and contracts and whatnot, that I would NEVER work for the Disney Company. The instant an idea left my pencil it would be theirs forever, and I could never benefit from that work again. Obviously, I'm looking at this from a self-publishing standpoint, in which I would rather work on my own projects, with my own characters.

ANYWAY, this book was really great, I loved learning more about Walt Disney, and people should totally check it out!

4 comments on this entry

You wanted to work for Disney, too, huh?

Same here, back when I was in animation school.

Nowadays, I'm glad that path didn't come to pass.

Really just happy doing my own thing with my own company instead.

I think EVERY artistic kid wants to work for Disney! I know Raina Telgemeier did too (from a section in her great book SMILE)

Alec Mar26

Hi Alec!
Long time no talk. I'm really pleased to come across this piece this morning. I read Neal Gabler's book, via audiobook as you did, last year during some particularly trying times, and it was just a great escape for me. I loved it. I was one of those kids too (in fact I think my high school yearbook lists my ambition as Disney animator). Disney's personal story and the story of the formation of the company and those early films/characters are extraordinary. I think many cartoonists would benefit from reading it.
On a side note, I just made plans to come to NYC for MoCCA (I can't believe its been five years!). So I'm looking forward to stopping by your table and saying hello. Cheers bud!

Cam Mar27

Wow, awesome! I can't wait to see you at MoCCA Cameron, have a safe trip!

Alec Mar27

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