How the Power of Persistence and GRIT Turned Innovative Ideas into Reality
By Jim Watkinson and Tom Nutile
Bound for a Big Deal in New York
He was on his way by train from Hollywood to New York, thinking he was going to make a great new deal for his fledgling Walt Disney Studios. It was the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, and a young Walt Disney, also in his twenties, was going to ask his backer for more money and a bigger share of the profits for his next animated feature. Despite the many doubters who believed people would not pay to see an animated film, Walt had put his studio and backer on the map with the success of his “Trolley Troubles” cartoon, featuring Oswald the Rabbit.
But while Walt made his way to New York City in February of 1928, his backer, Charlie Mintz, was going behind his back. Mintz saw little value in the Disney Brothers, after all, Walt could hardly draw. So he set out to create his own studio, convincing virtually the entire Disney crew of animators to join him in a new venture – Charles Mintz Studios. When Walt arrived, Mintz at first tried to bribe him by offering the unheard of sum of $1,500 a week for Walt to stay on as a figurehead President.
Walt’s prudent partner, his older brother Roy, who handled finances for Walt Disney Studios, urged him to just make the best deal he could to continue working with Mintz. Facing financial ruin, Walt wavered and considered accepting. But Mintz dragged the discussions out for weeks, avoiding meetings perhaps to increase pressure on the young Disney. Finally, after many counter proposals, Mintz told him that he could either join the new team and take less money for each cartoon, or go home. This would be a direct take-over of the Disney studio, turning Walt into a mere employee.
When the young cartoonist balked, Mintz played his trump card, pointing out that although Walt had created the character, according to the fine print in the contract, it was he and the distributing studio – not Disney – that owned Oswald the Rabbit. Walt now essentially had no studio – Mintz had stolen most of his animators – and no cartoon characters.
Stunned by the double betrayal of Mintz and his disloyal employees, Walt vowed never again to work for anyone but himself. It was a defining moment not only in the history of Walt Disney Studios, but in the history of American entertainment.
Riding back on the train to California, Walt thought. And he sketched. His mind alternated between fuming over what had happened, terrified by the need to start all over, and drawing ideas for a story featuring a new character. Almost every type of character was already used by other cartoon makers, but inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, he drew a story about a mouse that builds a plane to gain the attention of a girl. The new character had big round ears and looked a lot like Oswald. His name was to become Mickey Mouse.
This has become the story of widespread legend. The real creation of Mickey Mouse was almost certainly a mutual effort with Ub Iwerks, Walt’s chief animator. But whatever the origin of Mickey, he would develop into a character some say was much like Walt himself – he often failed, but always bounced back. When faced with a setback, he would get up, dust himself off, and start all over again.
Few who saw the young Walt Disney would have predicted more than middling success for him. Walt’s father never had much luck, shuttling the family about the Midwest in the early years of the 20th Century. Walt sometimes received rough treatment at the hands of his father for little or no justification. Still, he found a way to bounce back, often seeking solace in fantasy. Sometimes disconsolate at the treatment he received as a young boy on his family’s farm, he withdrew and sketched cartoon pictures of the barnyard animals. He shunned the traditional educational route and took classes at the Illinois Institute of Art, honing his drawing skills. He developed an independent streak, doing what pleased him, forsaking the safe path by working for himself or at a “risky” venture if he found it satisfying. When a stable factory job beckoned, he instead chose to work as an artist at the Kansas City Star newspaper. After only a few weeks at a commercial art studio, he ventured out on his own, starting a commercial art operation and, eventually, Walt Disney Studios. Over time, Disney learned to trust in his own judgment and his ability to come up with original, often innovative, ideas and story lines for his films and cartoons.
Turning Mickey Mouse into a success was to become a test of perseverance and faith. Although the break with Mintz was final, under the terms of the old agreement, Disney still owed his old partner three new Oswald cartoons. Producing these last cartoons meant continuing to work with some staff that would soon be leaving to join the Mintz crew. Fearing that Mintz would learn about Mickey and copy him, Walt had Ub work only at night on the new mouse series and had family members work in his own garage to turn Ub’s drawings into painted “cels” for the production process.
Two early Mickey Mouse cartoons were produced in this make-shift way and trial audiences laughed at the new character and his mishaps. But there were already many other popular cartoon characters and film distributors were reluctant to add another, leaving Walt without a way to get his product in front of movie-goers. Trusting in his own creative judgment, Walt had Ub and his animators begin work on a third Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Steamboat Willie.” As work progressed Walt was evaluating new technology now becoming available for adding sound to movies and he was convinced that this feature offered a way to make his character stand out among all the other cartoons.
Work began quickly to create the music and sound to the cartoon. But Walt wanted more than just sound. He insisted the music match up, frame for frame, with the action on the screen. In one scene, for example, Mickey bounces to the music every two beats and spins the wheel of the boat at the end of every second measure of music. And he breathes when there are pauses in the accompaniment. Such synchronization was unheard-of. Indeed, the first full-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer, had been released only the year before, in 1927.
Adding sound to the film dramatically increased its cost and Walt had to sell his car and re-mortgage their building to complete the musical work and other production requirements. But despite its groundbreaking approach to sound and imagery, cautious film executives still would not distribute it. With a finished copy in hand Walt called on everyone he knew in the industry, without success. Running out of time and money, Walt listened when a prominent local movie theater owner said distributors would be convinced only after seeing real audiences react to Steamboat Willy. Having already invested $15,000 to complete the cartoon and now deep in debt, Disney was willing to gamble and he agreed to let the theater show the cartoon at a very low price.
In November of 1928, Steamboat Willy premiered in just one movie theater and the audience immediately loved the spunky new character with its unique mix of imagery and sound. Following the advice of his publicist, Walt invited prominent reporters to see his creation and many wrote rave reviews about the spirited little mouse with the squeaky voice. Mickey was a smash hit and soon Disney Studios was producing a new Mickey Mouse cartoon each month. Within three years, over 1 million children were members of the original Mickey Mouse Club and the name had become part of the cultural lexicon.
As successful as Mickey Mouse was, the cartoons were still merely short pieces, each lasting no more than a few minutes and serving to prime the audience for the feature film to follow. Because of their limited length and modest purpose, the price that could be charged for each cartoon was modest, leaving the company with little money. This was made worse by Walt’s drive to continuously improve the quality of his product with new techniques and technology. With production costs always rising and their selling price low, the Company found itself always short of cash. And if there was anything that Walt hated, it was being unable to reach for a greater vision because of a lack of resources. He needed to find a way to apply his organizations capabilities to something with greater revenue potential.
Out of financial necessity then and with a desire to be taken more seriously by the entertainment industry, Disney began to consider an idea that had never been successfully tried by other studios, a full-length animated feature film. Many in the Hollywood community scoffed at the idea; this was 1934 and they were in the middle of a worldwide depression, it was hard to believe that people would pay to watch an hour and a half cartoon.
If creating Mickey Mouse was an improbable success, then producing Snow White was impossible. This was the biggest animation project in history. There were no benchmarks or guidelines, no wealth of experience to draw from anywhere. Could they find enough people with the right skills to do the work? Was it possible to create a production process to handle so much animated material? Could they find new equipment and technology to create a leap in image quality? Could the work of so many different animators, each having a unique style, be blended into a smooth visual presentation? At the core and perhaps most important was the question of whether animation could bring human emotion to life? Unlike past work at the studio, where short humorous skits were simply strung together, Walt saw Snow White as a transformation, a true to life artistic journey that would reach deep into the viewer, connect with their beliefs and pull at their emotions. Doing this would require more money than even Walt’s imagination could count; it was definitely a bet-your-company proposition.
The very thought of making history, of creating something never done before energized Walt and he collected together a tight band of hand-picked animators, writers and production people, while leaving the task of financing all this to brother Roy.
Production of Snow White
Although the Snow White story had existed in print and as a play for many years, turning the original story into a movie with engaging characters would take Disney more than three years.
Each day Walt would tell the story of Snow White to whoever he could get to listen. Often he would act out the parts himself, and with each retelling the characters would develop and the story would evolve.
Unlike a live action movie where film is used to record the actors as they play out the scene, what we see as animated film, consists of 1,800 individual hand-drawn pictures per minute (hand drawn in those days and sometimes called frames or cels). And each frame had multiple production steps, including the rough drawing, adding background details and coloring by hand, often redone many times as the story evolved through frequent rounds of edits.
Beyond the challenge of sheer volume, Walt wanted animation that would present a sense of movement and realism that had not been attempted before. But creating a movie in this style would require artists with a skill level that was beyond the ability of most animators. Disney would need several hundred of these artists and the only way to solve this problem was to hire and train people themselves.
Snow White had to grab hold of the audience and take them on an emotional journey that begins warmly as we first experience the innocence of the young Snow White, only to plunge downward as the evil queen seeks to destroy her, reaching bottom when the dwarfs find Snow White’s lifeless body, then rising upward with the queen’s destruction and soaring triumphantly as Snow White is brought back to life by true love. This was not a mere cartoon; it was a deep connection to the beliefs and values within the American psyche, reaffirming that good will triumph over evil in the end.
Day after day, Walt thought of nothing but Snow White. Pushing for perfection, he drove everyone hard, but none harder than himself. As work on the film stretched into its second and then third year, he often worked past midnight and the burdens took their toll. One evening after not returning home, his wife found him unconscious at his desk.
With no end in sight, and costs on the film rising to exceed $1 million, three times its original budget, industry insiders began calling the project “Disney’s folly.” But many who heard Walt’s story-telling firsthand, or saw an early clip were enchanted by Snow White and assured him of great success.
Finally, after more than three years of effort, involving the creation of 3 million individual images, the film was released in late 1937. Walt’s persistence was rewarded with sell-out crowds as Snow White quickly earned over $8 million in revenue, more than any film before it, and won an Academy Award. The move to full-length animated movies opened an entirely new market for entertainment and launched the Disney Company down a path that would eventually turn it into the family entertainment giant we know today.
True to the fortunes of its creator, the Disney Company has ridden many ups and downs since Walt’s passing in 1966. Certainly the company seemed to loose its direction and energy with the loss of Walt, going through many years of mediocre films and middling financial performance. But while the Disney Company seemed to move sideways for a time, beginning in the early 1980’s a group of Disney cast-offs picked up Walt’s mantle of innovation, along with a passion for great story-telling and started an entirely new era in animated films. Using the power of computer generated images (pixels), Pixar Animation Studios again brought true-to-life imagery and emotion to the screen, with blockbuster movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Now rejoined with the Walt Disney Company through a merger that put Pixar in charge of Disney’s animated films, its people have shown a continual ability to push the field of animation towards Walt’s dream of bringing stories to life. In the process they have won 22 Academy Awards, 4 Golden Globes and produced billions in revenue in an industry that had been written off for dead by many experts, but we’ll leave the story of this great innovative company for another day.
Regardless of the postscript, The Disney Company and its entire industry all started with a dream to carry the wonder of childhood to people of all ages. That dream fueled a great comeback, a comeback powered by, well, in the words of Walt Disney himself:
“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”
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In the six-and-a-half minute video below, Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian makes the controversial argument that True Grit‘s Mattie Ross is not a feminist character. Her argument revolves around an important distinction: the difference between admiring women for doing masculinity and admiring them.
Our instinct to see Ross as a feminist character comes from her performance of masculinity: she is aggressive, tough, and vengeful. But is the valuing of masculinity feminist? Some say no. Instead, such detractors might argue, a true feminist perspective involves not just valorizing women who do masculinity, but coming to value femininity. In fact, valuing masculinity over femininity might be part of the problem. On this blog, we call this “androcentrism.”
Here’s how Sarkeesian makes the argument:Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.