Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Man Behind the Mouse

When you say the name Disney, it automatically brings up memories of childhood cartoons and beloved characters. Disney is known internationally for its cartoons, TV shows, movies, iconic characters, and theme parks. However, the man behind the company, Walt Disney, did not immediately find success.

Disney's business envelope, around 1921

Walt Disney began his artistic career by taking lessons under Louis Grell from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts during his freshman year of high school. Disney dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to join the army. After finishing his time with the army, he traveled to Kansas in 1919 in hopes of truly starting his artistic career. He ended up getting a job through his brother at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio and met Ubbe Iwerks. They teamed up together and started their own commercial company called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists in 1920. They were unable to get their company off the ground and Disney went to work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.
At the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Disney started making commercials based on cutout animation, which led to his decision to transition from cartoonist to animator. He went on to open his own animation business and started making cartoons called “Laugh-O-Grams”, which became very popular. Due to the success, he was able to open his own studio named Laugh-O-Gram which opened in 1922. The studio failed to successfully manage its money, and its profits were unable to cover the high cost of employee salaries. Eventually, the company was consumed in debt and Laugh-O-Gram declared bankruptcy.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

In 1923, Disney went with his brother Roy to Hollywood to create a cartoon studio, which became known as the Disney Brothers' Studio. They found reasonable success with their Alice Comedies, shorts that were a mixture of live action and cartoon based on the stories of Alice in Wonderland, which was distributed by Margaret Winkler. But by 1927, the shorts had run their course in popularity. They also created the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but they would later find out that Winkler and her husband had stole the rights to Oswald and had stolen all of the Disney Brothers' animators except for Iwerks. The loss of Oswald meant that Disney had to come up with new ideas, and eventually settled on the character being a mouse. The mouse was named Mickey, after Walt's wife persuaded Walt away from the name Mortimer. Walt decided to create a Mickey Mouse cartoon with sound that was titled "Steamboat Willie", and it was met with great success, leading Walt to utilize sound in all his subsequent cartoons. Disney received an honorary Academy Award in 1932 for his creation of Mickey Mouse.

Disney created his most successful cartoon short with "The Three Little Pigs", Walt attributed the success of the short to the belief that people want to watch stories that grab the audience and don't let go, which led to him creating a "story department".

In 1934, Disney decided to create a full-length animated feature, which became Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many were skeptical about Disney's plan, and the film industry believed that this would lead to the end of Disney Studios. Disney's wife and brother both tried to convince him to not follow through with Snow White, but he ignored them both and continued with the project. Disney used "Silly Symphonies" as a way to experiment with different animation techniques in preparation for Snow White, such as the multi-plane camera. Full production of Snow White went from 1934 until mid-1937 when Disney Studios ran out of money. In order to get the rest of the money needed to complete the film, Disney had to show a rough cut of the film to loan officers. The film was released in December 1937 and became the most successful motion picture of 1938, earning the equivalent of $134 million today.
Due to the success of Snow White, Disney was able to create a new campus in Burbank and hire more than 1,000 employees. Disney received a full-size Academy Award and seven miniature ones. 

Disney found failure repeatedly, yet he remained committed. Collins and Amabile argue that “people who work in the creative field...tend to be more intrinsically motivated towards their work than the general population” (301). Disney's desire to be part of the world of animation can only be explained by his intrinsic desire, since the extrinsic rewards were very slim. Disney's desire to make a feature length animated film emphasizes shows that his drive to create was not dependent on those around him, since everyone around him was saying would lead to his failure. His success came after multiple failures and he was able to create a company that was able to thrive after his death.  

Collins, M.A., & Amabile, T.M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press


  1. I'm glad I got to learn more about Walt Disney-I did not know any of this. It's inspiring that he continued to persevere despite obstacles. He could have easily given up at any of those points. The world would be so different without him . What a creative man. Also, a side note-it's so cute that they gave him seven mini Academy Awards for the dwarves.

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  4. I think that Walt Disney is a great example of the great failures in our world. When I say that he is a "great failure", I mean that he is very representative of how people can achieve greatness even after hardship. The key is to persevere, regardless of the challenges. We have a lot to learn from people like Walt. Many of of us give up too easily and we don't work hard enough for the dreams we have. I hope that all of us find a passion that we are truly intrinsically motivated by. It seems that these are the motivations that lead to the most creative success, even though extrinsic motivation also plays a role.


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