Becoming Walt

· May 22nd

The first movie in a theater I remember seeing was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was 1983 and I was four years old. I remember being fascinated by the different personalities of each of the Dwarfs, and truly frightened by the evil Queen. As I recall at that young, impressionable age it being my first real experience with the reality and presence of danger in the world. Oh sure—little boys imagine and create dangers in their sandboxes with plastic dinosaurs and action figures, but for me that Queen was real, and she had nothing but cruelty and contempt in her heart. I remember being afraid for the soft, and gentle Snow White, and wanting to help her and come to her rescue. A truly visceral experience for a 4 year old boy, especially considering the film at that time was 46 years my senior (the power of storytelling seemingly timeless). I knew way back then that I was hooked.

There is perhaps no American, living or dead, that has best captured the imagination of an entire culture, country, or people other than Walt Disney. A man of contrasts, he was a devoted husband and father, and a shrewd businessman; a dreamer with intellect and savvy, but plagued by periods of isolation and depression. Obviously, there has been much discourse about who Walt Disney was, his successes, and his shortcomings, his perfectionism and his ability to know what would be more than marginally successful. Before there was a John Lasseter or Pixar, before there was an Apple or Steve Jobs, there was Walt Disney—the forerunner and triumphant amalgamation of the American imagination.

When we talk about design and technology here on Stemmings, there isn’t much that we are talking about that doesn’t owe some thread of gratitude to Walt Disney, whether we are aware of it or not. It might be a bit of technology he developed with his Imagineers that later became some other useful tool or software. It could be the synthesis of an idea like space travel. Indeed, Disney is credited with launching the space race back in 1955! It may simply be that he inspired an entire generation of post World War II children to dream beyond the confines of the playground. He empowered children through their ingenuity and creativity. He cherished the way kids interpreted the world around them, and believed it was something to be celebrated.

Walt wasn’t without his struggles, faults and failures though. It was how he pushed through them that really led to the enormous success that we associate with him today. Walt’s work ethic and his willingness to take calculated risks were defining qualities of his success. A great benefit today’s generation of young entrepreneurs could gain from by adopting these two qualities.

Work Ethic

Walt had a vision. He worked hard to see that vision become reality. There is a stark contrast today in understanding the necessity of work ethic. I realize when I write this, that I am conveniently forgetting the Facebooks, Twitters, and Instagrams of our daily lives and how social media has changed the landscape of how we define community (that’s for another post at another time). Many young men in their twenty-somethings today seem comfortable with just floating along in life instead of grabbing it by the horns and throwing it down in submission. My grandparents generation isn’t called the Greatest Generation for nothing—they purged the world of Nazism at great cost and upon returning home, transformed this country into the modern world we enjoy today. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved in that process.

There is perhaps no greater moment in our nations history than now to fight hard for vision, for dreams, for imagination and ingenuity. Why? Now, unlike in Walt’s heyday, the frontier is a vastly shrinking concept in the American imagination.  We’ve been told there’s no room for it, that every plot of land has already been claimed and now walls and towers must be constructed to defend that plot of land. Rubbish. Limitations didn’t interest Walt Disney. When he bumped up against a wall he didn’t abandon his idea if he knew it was good, he simply found a way around it.

When Walt set his sights on creating Disneyland he said “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral.” So, he pivoted by involving the then burgeoning television industry in his new venture. Every week on the American Broadcasting Channel (ABC) Walt Disney’s Disneyland offered a glimpse into Walt’s little Anaheim project. Not only did he fund the construction, but he also was able to promote the new theme park through this partnership (a seriously ingenious marketing ploy, especially considering the time).

The value of a strong work ethic could not be understated. It’s what made America great, and what has made it the country it is today. We need young men and women to be mentored in this regard, to learn that eventually hard work pays off (be it financial or relational).

Taking Risks

Disney was no stranger to adversity, failure, and risk—his first foray into the animation business, Laugh-O-Gram Films, ended in bankruptcy. In 1941, when Hollywood unionized, he faced a strike outside the doors of his studios, and was also questioned about his patriotism in front of the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee, made famous by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in the 1950s. Walt had a certain resiliency to failure.

In 1937 in spite of concerns from both his wife Lillian, and brother Roy, Walt put his company and his own personal fortune on the line to finance Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length feature animated film. Lillian warned Walt that audiences wouldn’t sit through a feature-length cartoon fairy tale about dwarfs. At that time cartoons were simply animated shorts and considered a novelty, not a serious art form, but Walt could see where animation was headed and in spite of being advised against it, he borrowed all of $1.5 million to produce the film (which quickly grossed $8 million upon public release, a jaw-dropping amount considering our country was in the middle of the Great Depression).

During the post war era the Walt Disney Studios continued to pioneer the animation industry through different technological advances and artistic techniques, all because Walt had a knack for knowing what was on the cutting edge and was willing to bet on it. His risks weren’t without calculation however. Disney used his animated shorts Silly Symphonies as experimentation ground for color animation, an audiences receptiveness to a future feature-length film, and his new invention, the multi-plane camera, which allowed animators to make a flat, animated film appear to have depth on the screen.

Walt didn’t build his empire by himself. He depended on a team of creative geniuses to do the work Walt either lacked expertise in or simply had no time to complete. He was the conductor of the orchestra. What I have always found inspiring about Walt Disney is that he took some pretty big hits where many would crumble and never recover, and simply skipped to the next beat. He had the creative vision to imagine what something could be and assembled creatives to help him transform his ideas into reality.  He worked hard for his dreams, and was more than willing to risk to fashion his dreams into reality.

“Think. Believe. Dream. Dare.” —Walt Disney