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What Walt Disney Taught Us About Innovation

I had an opportunity to visit the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco this weekend and came away with a much greater appreciation of Disney’s brilliance and achievements. Today in a world of computer generated animation, it’s easy to forget that back in Disney’s day, cartoon production was in its early stages and very primitive.

When Disney started, movies were still silent and in black and white. Animation was extremely crude and no real business model existed to justify the effort it took to create these visually choppy shorts. Who could imagine that cartoons would someday be a major industry?  Walt Disney could.

Here are some innovation takeaways I came away with after visiting the Walt Disney Museum:

Passion and Determination

It’s no revelation that Disney had tremendous passion for animation and self-confidence that he could make something of his talents. But what I didn’t realize is that when Disney first arrived in Los Angles in 1923, he all but thought his future in animation was over. Though outwardly confident, story goes he was not hopeful about his prospects to break into big time animation. He thought he was too late and the industry was too insular to crack.

Disney all but put his drawing board away to explore getting a job in a studio “doing anything.”  But his determination to succeed in animation kept his door open and as luck would happen, he would make a deal with New York distributor M.J. Winkler for the Alice series of cartoons about a real little girl in a cartoon world. Thus the Disney Brothers studio would begin.

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels – Diversify and Create a New Pattern (for Success)

Moving along the timeline, arguable Disney’s first huge success as an independent studio was Mickey Mouse (The character Oswald was created for Universal Studios). But Disney knew it was important for him to never rest on previous successes in part because the world would always catch up. He had to continue to move forward and innovate to stay ahead of the pack. As Disney said:

“Once you hit with a thing like [Mickey], then everybody wants everything to be the same. More of this. More of this. You know? I wanted a different pattern to give me latitude. And playing music and doing things with music was intriguing and everything, so I started the Silly Symphonies.”

Read the Handwriting On The Wall and Create A Strong Vision To Shape Your Future

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was at first called “Disney’s Folly.” At the time the project was announced, people in Hollywood thought the idea of creating a 90 minute cartoon seemed ridiculous:

“…the color will hurt their eyes. People will just get tired of ninety minutes of gags”  

There are many lessons we can learn from Disney’s Snow White project starting with seeing where the future might be and creating a strong vision worth pursuing. As Disney said:

“I saw the handwriting on the wall. My costs kept going up and up, but the short subject was just filler on any program, and so I felt I had to diversify my business. You could only get so much out of a short subject.”

Disney didn’t think like the status quo. He could imagine the future but he was also realistic about the current state of animation and movie making technology. There were many technology gaps that needed to be discovered and conquered. Which leads to the next takeaway.

Experiment and Learn to Get It Right the First Time

Disney didn’t know with absolute certainty that the public would go for an hour and half cartoon feature. But what he did know for certain, the public would not buy a bad cartoon feature. He knew he was pioneering a whole new movie experience, but he had to get right the first time. Attention to details and quality was then, as throughout Disney’s career, paramount to creating customer value and great experiences.

The official project begin sometime in 1933. At the time, technology did not exist to create Disney’s vision of a cartoon masterpiece.  In response, he developed what we call today a technology roadmap to systematically address technology gaps and create new animation techniques and skills step by step. Each experiment was released as cartoon shorts providing Disney both technology advancements as well as commercial successes.

Necessity Is The Mother Of Innovation

Disney had envision the possibilities of what animation could be several years before announcing work on Snow White, and had started to experiment and learn how to create “realism of characters” in his very successful Silly Symphonies.   We take for granted technologies and techniques that did not exist back then. Technologies that Disney would embrace and develop included color and sound synchronization.

He also needed a better way to create a greater sense of depth into his films. Shadowing and other artistic devices didn’t create the sense he wanted, and the existing animation techniques were extremely labor intensive. The solution was the multiplane camera that utilized multiple layers of glass containing backgrounds, foregrounds, and everything in between, creating an illusion of depth. Layering of images is today common place – back then – no one had even imagined it was needed!

Another breakthrough Disney created for Snow White was related to drawing techniques to create “believable” characters versus the then state of the art “rubbery limbed asexual characters” (sorry Mickey!). Disney create an art school for his artist to learn how to deal with creating realistic characters in motion. Thus he not only created technology but also created a new animation discipline to achieve his vision. The rest is history.

Imagination and Inspiration

Walt Disney is second to none in terms of his innovations and business success. There are plenty of lessons and inspirations we can discover by examining the life of Disney and his products.

Keep imagining the possible and take action by experimenting and learning to achieve your vision.


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