Evolution of Animation: Part Two – Rise of Disney

So, when we left off last time, the studios had risen up to take charge of animation, and one man, in particular, had just had his most popular character ripped away from him by his studio, and that man would go on, to say the least, to achieve much success regardless.

Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5th 1901 to Elias and Flora Disney in Chicago, Illinois. Walt would develop a passion for drawing after moving to live on a farm in Missouri, with his first paid drawing job being for a retired local doctor, who paid him to draw his horse, from there he developed his skill by copying the front-page cartoons of the Appeals to Reason newspaper.

Often an underachieving student at school, Walt nonetheless took a correspondence course in cartooning. After moving back to Chicago with his family, Walt began putting his talents to use as the cartoonist of his school paper, frequently drawing patriotic pictures about World War I, which was still ongoing at the time.

On the back of World War I, Walt tried to enrol in the US Army by forging his birth certificate, and despite being unsuccessful, he did, however, join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, being shipped to France after the armistice was signed, and the war was over, his passion for art was not diminished during his service, however, as he decorated his ambulance with c cartoon, and had his work published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Returning to Missouri, he became an apprentice artist at Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, drawing commercial art for things such as advertising and catalogues, and it was at Pesmen-Rubin that he met his future long-time creative partner, and a key part of today’s narrative, Ub Iwerks.

It was Iwerks that Walt would turn to after his dismissal from the Oswald series, asking him to design some new characters, initially, none of his ideas caught Disney’s attention, soon inspiration was to strike Disney himself, as the idea for what would eventually become Mickey Mouse would come to him while on a train journey, and when Walt took his sketch to Iwerks, he refined it into the iconic character we know and love now.

Disney would form what would become The Walt Disney Company with his brother Roy in 1923, and would soon after hire Iwerks in 1924, who would subsequently almost entirely animate the popular Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series’ himself, including the seminal debut of the fledgeling studios newest mascot: Mickey Mouse.

Contrary to popular belief, Steamboat Willie was not the first appearance of the Mickey character, or rather, it was not the first film made by Disney to feature the character. The actual first short Mickey appeared in was a silent one called Plane Crazy, but both Plane Crazy and its follow-up The Gallopin’ Gaucho failed to find a distributor.

In actuality then, Steamboat may not have been the first produced, but it was the first released. It was also a drastic change from Crazy and Gaucho, as it featured synchronized sound, this followed the massive success of The Jazz Singer, which proved that sound in film was the future and that there was no going back.

Steamboat Willie found distribution through Pat Powers, a former executive at Universal Pictures, whose new company Cinephone were behind the new boom in sound in pictures.

Walt’s short animations soon became a roaring success, and Mickey Mouse was almost instantly thrown into the cultural zeitgeist, but to say Walt was the only architect of this early success would be highly unfair and inaccurate, as there were many brilliant minds behind each new cartoon.

Firstly there was Iwerks, still at this point being the leading animator for Disney, and then there was Carl Stalling, a composer who was hired by Walt as a way of improving the quality of the music in the animations.

It was on Stalling’s suggestion that Walt Disney produced the Silly Symphonies series, the first release of which was The Skeleton Dance, released the year after Steamboat Willie, it was wholly animated by Iwerks, and scored by Stalling.

Silly Symphonies would become one of Disney’s most enduring series of shorts, running for over a decade. It would win the studio seven Academy Awards for Best Animated Short during its run, and included such classics of the genre as Three Little Pigs, The Night Before Christmas and Who Killed Cock Robin? It was also during this series that the iconic Donald Duck character would be introduced.

Despite the studios, ongoing successes, not all was well between Disney and his associates. Disney and Iwerks had a falling out over Walt’s dictatorial running of his business, with Iwerks signing with one of Walt’s competitors, and Carl Stalling followed not long after, convinced that without Iwerks, Disney would go bankrupt.

This belief was perhaps not an unfounded one, as the studio was struggling financially at the time, with inadequate support from its distributors, and Walt’s request for more financial support being denied, the future looked bleak.

Far from being the end of the story, however, things would soon look a lot brighter for Walt and his company, as they signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures, under this deal, the Mickey Mouse cartoons grew even more in popularity, even starting to get a foothold internationally. Instead of the future being that of doom and gloom as prophesied by Stalling, Disney was about to enter a golden age.

Things started to look even rosier in 1932 (quite literally) with the release of Flowers and Trees, the first cartoon (and the first commercially released film, full stop) released in three-strip Technicolor. In an ingenious move by Walt Disney, he signed a contract with Technicolor which gave him the exclusive rights to use the three-strip technology for at least three years, giving him a significant leg up on the competition, what’s more, Flowers and Trees was a big hit with audiences and critics alike and earned Walt another Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon).

The commercial and critical success would only grow the following year with the release of The Three Little Pigs. Not only was the short itself a massive hit with audiences, but it also produced Disney’s first hit song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?’.

The song became a big hit in its time and was used as a sort of anthem against The Great Depression, which still laid thick over America’s economy, and would later be used as an unlikely war favourite, in the years both proceeding and during World War II.

Three Little Pigs ran in some theatres for months after its debut such was its popularity, and its success was key in Walt’s establishment of a ‘story department’ founded to tell gripping stories that would make an audience further invest into his cartoons.

But, before long Walt grew tired of producing formulaic short films, he was a man of ambition, of vision, and he believed that there were more profitable avenues to take advantage of. He wanted something that few believed could ever truly be done, to the extent that many had, once again, predicted his financial bankruptcy, the project was nicknamed “Disney’s Folly” by many sceptics, in fact.

He wanted to create a feature-length animation, in full sound and colour, he was, not for the first or the last time, going all-in on an unprecedented gamble, and his entire company’s future relied on its success…

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