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White Gray Black

Walt Disney (American, 1901–1966)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American film maker, animator and entrepreneur. Much of his childhood was spent in rural Missouri, but during his adolescence the family moved to Kansas City, where he formed an interest in drawing and in Vaudeville theatre. He received little formal training, but by the age of 18 he was earning his living as a cartoonist, first in print and then in the fledgling field of animation. While still in Kansas City, Disney began, with his most important early associate Ubbe (‘Ub’) Iwerks, to produce animated shorts including Alice’s Wonderland (1923), in which a young girl, filmed in live action, cavorted with cartoon characters. In 1923 Disney moved to Los Angeles, where Iwerks and other members of the Kansas City team joined him. They continued to produce similar comedies until 1927, when these were superseded by a fully animated series starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. By this time Disney himself had given up animation to concentrate on a supervisory role, but his ability to provide cartoon stories with dramatic structures and his flair for squeezing humour from visual jokes helped make Oswald a success. Disney lost the rights to the character to an unscrupulous distributor, however, precipitating the crisis that led to his greatest triumph. Urgently needing a new character, Disney created a mouse named Mickey (reputedly the name was chosen by Disney’s wife after many others, such as Mortimer, had been considered). The prototype Mickey, based on circles for ease of animation, was drawn by Iwerks, and the first group of short films featuring the character was produced just as the public was responding enthusiastically to the first sound feature, The Jazz Singer, produced in 1927 by Warner Brothers. Recognizing that the future of the motion picture lay with sound, Disney devised a way of wedding sound to animated action, using sound effects and musical accents to underline visual jokes and to propel the film forward. Steamboat Willie (1928), the first film to employ this technique, was an immediate success, and soon Mickey Mouse was an international folk hero. At first the Mickey Mouse cartoons used boisterous, unsophisticated humour, but eventually Mickey was domesticated and transformed into an emblem of suburban, middle-class America and an essential part of the iconography of 20th-century American culture. The wilder humour was assigned to such new characters as Pluto, Goofy and especially Donald Duck. In 1929 Disney produced Skeleton Dance, the first of a series called Silly Symphonies, in which Donald Duck first appeared in 1934. These were cartoons whose basic structure was provided by the musical score, the finest examples being Music Land and Who Killed Cock Robin? (both 1935). Disney used the series to introduce many technical advances, from full Technicolor to the multiplane camera, but its chief importance lay in helping the studio prepare for the production of full-length feature films.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first full-length animated fiction film ever made, was anticipated with scepticism by many experts. Disney had assembled a gifted team of artists, however, and had even inaugurated a studio school to train new talent. More important to the film’s success, however, was Disney’s imagination, which gave the film its overall shape. A commercial and critical success, Snow White was quickly followed by four more ambitious animated features: Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). These gave great opportunities to some of the younger artists trained at the studio, and display a level of sustained technical excellence, but they also demonstrate the limitations of Disney’s vision. Fantasia, an attempt to wed animation to Classical music, was seen by some as a particular disappointment, showing that Disney was on unsure ground when he strayed from his populist roots.

After World War II Disney resumed feature animation with Cinderella (1950), but such films as Peter Pan (1953) and The Lady and the Tramp (1955) lacked the intensity and overwhelming narrative drive of Snow White. This was partly due to Disney’s increasing involvement in live action films, television and particularly theme parks.

The first of these was Disneyland, which opened in July 1955 in Anaheim, CA. Based on projecting adults and children into the fantasy world of Disney’s films, using architectural re-creations of scenes and life-size impersonations of the characters, it was a huge commercial success, despite Disney’s original difficulty in finding financial backing. It was less popular with most architects, however, although some, such as Charles Eames, were enthralled by it. In 1971 it was followed by Disney World, a much larger project covering 27,000 acres in Florida. This was intended to be a complete holiday centre, with several amusement parks based on different themes but also containing hotels, campsites and golf courses and an industrial park as a showcase for American business. It also incorporated many innovations in what was effectively urban design, such as a monorail system, non-polluting vehicles, pedestrian malls, a conservation area and an airport for STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft. The use of prefabricated units for the hotel suites was also innovative. Disney also intended Disney World to be the home of perhaps his most ambitious project, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), which was planned as a testing ground for new building materials and design systems and opened in 1982.

Disney was the most important figure in the evolution of the animated film, taking the crude cartoons of the silent era and, with his key associates, forging a medium that was capable of sustaining elaborate story lines and exhilarating flights of visual invention. He was sometimes chided for a lack of cultural sophistication, but it was precisely his roots in popular culture and his feeling for its iconography that gave his best films their underlying strength and that were responsible for his significant influence on such Pop artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, and on later artists such as Keith Haring (1958–90).

Christopher Finch
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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