SnowWhite.jpg

With Walt Disney at the Presidio in San Francisco

I spent six of the last seven days in California helping an old friend (and his ingenious wife) celebrate his 60th birthday. We had quite a time.

We started in Palo Alto, where I discovered, to my dismay, that I was unlikely to find an apartment for next year as near the Hoover Institution as I had hoped. Mostly, however, we were in the Napa Valley and San Francisco — tasting wine at the Chateau Montelena, at Alpha Omega, and V. Sattui; watching grain being ground at the Bale Grist Mill; visiting Muir Woods; and eating altogether too much at the Culinary Institute of America’s Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant,  at Allegria and at Al-Mansur Morrocan Restaurant. I fear that, had I grown up among the Lotus-Eaters in the Stoner Republic, I would never have written a word. The weather was wonderful — some fifty degrees warmer than the highs in Michigan — and the amenities were irresistible.

SnowWhiteWickedQueen.jpgOn Monday, it was chilly and rain was clearly on its way. So we opted for museums. I was eager to revisit the De Young collection in Golden Gate Park, but we never got past the first choice of one of my companions, and for that I am grateful. He wanted to see the new Walt Disney Museum in the Presidio (once the finest military base in North America). I did not sneer at his choice. But I expected to be bored, and I was in for a surprise.

I have no idea when the museum opened. I can only say that it provides ample food for thought. We first visited the special exhibit on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was amazing. I knew something about the way in which cartoons were produced in the days before computer animation. But I had an inadequate appreciation of the sheer labor involved and of the skill in drawing required. I was also lacking in my assessment of the importance of Walt Disney himself. As the exhibit made clear, he drove every aspect of the creative process, and the man was himself a genius.

SnowWhiteMirror.jpgThe main museum charts the course of Disney’s life. He was born in 1901. He altered his birth certificate to enable him to get to France at the age of 16 as an ambulance driver operating near the front, and he returned after the war to take up work as a newspaper cartoonist. By his mid-to-late twenties, he had established himself as the creator of Mickey Mouse; and from that moment until his death from lung cancer in 1966, he spun out one spectacularly successful creative project after another.

SnowWhitePrince.jpgApart from the propaganda work Disney did during World War II, everything that he produced had one thing in common. It was family entertainment. He was less interested in pitching his cartoons and his films to children than to the child in every adult, and he understood that child better than anyone alive.

If Walt Disney were around today, I am confident that he would be appalled at what his company his become. But there is something else that would, I think, bother him even more. The demographic that he sought to serve was hegemonic in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and it has not disappeared. But it no longer dictates public taste. In our world, at least as far as entertainment is concerned, the family — to which Disney always looked — has been shunted to the margins, and things are apt over the next few decades to get much, much worse. Walt Disney would have hated that, and he would have been right to do so. A world without children is a grim place.

  1. Ontheleftcoast

    Welcome to the Bay Area, Professor Rahe! If you’re planning any public lectures, how do I find out about them?

    Speaking of the dearth of children, I’ve often had the same questions this guy is writing about: http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/tabor/050824

    I wonder if there is something to it?

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Blue Yeti: Paul, 

    As an ex-Disney employee from ’90-97, I think that Walt would be much happier with the company now than when I was there. At that time, we had two divisions making PG-13 and even a few R-rated titles. Those divisions have been since closed and the company only makes Disney branded movies now. In addition, Disney’s brand permeates its other properties including ABC and ESPN (not always successfully, but the imperative is always there). 

    Disney the man was competitive and ambitious. I think he’d love that the company the bears his name is a huge global brand synonymous with family entertainment. Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel — all Disney properties now– really define family entertainment in today’s culture. · 9 hours ago

    Edited 9 hours ago

    Very interesting. I did not know that they had corrected course. Good for them.

  3. Percival
    Maura Pennington

    KC Mulville: 

    Disney wasn’t a moral philosopher, but he offered traditional culture that was based on traditional, time-tested values, i.e., what we now call family values; and that helped. 

    There are universal values in classic Disney films, but it seems strange to call them “family” values.  I can’t think of a single fairy tale that features a traditional family.  But that’s just a quibble.  To Paul’s initial conclusion that Disney would be upset: he wanted people to dream and his company still encourages that.   · 7 hours ago

    Maura, I think the lack of full families was occasionally used in the fairy tales to help the little ones past the “scary” parts.  Mom and Dad are not going to put up with the Big Bad Wolf, so there’s nothing to worry about.  I remember my mom being very worried when we went to see a re-release of Bambi that I not be too frightened – probably because she was when she saw it.

    The other reason is that now, only families need family values.  And the water is wet only if you think it is wet….

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Ontheleftcoast: Welcome to the Bay Area, Professor Rahe! If you’re planning any public lectures, how do I find out about them?

    Speaking of the dearth of children, I’ve often had the same questions this guy is writing about: http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/tabor/050824

    I wonder if there is something to it? · 2 hours ago

    I will put something up on Ricochet about any talks I give that are open to the public.

  5. Lucy Pevensie

    I’m a big Disney fan, too. My most lefty friends refuse to expose their kids to Disney, which tells you something.

  6. Scott R

    Aside from just appealing to families, popular entertainment used to assist in the values training of kids. Even something as low-budget and campy as The Brady Bunch helped to civilize kids, in some small measure.

    Now the entertainment industry actively undermines parents’ efforts to impart decent values. Even our sporting events participate (eg., the Superbowl halftime and commercials). Crazy and disgusting.

  7. Joseph Eagar

    By the way, computer animation is almost (possibly even as much) labor intensive as traditional animation.  The same basic skills are used for both, which is why traditional animators are typically able to transition to computer animation very quickly (usually within days, weeks at the most).

  8. DocJay

    I’m glad you did Napa well, Greystone is always a blast as is too much artery clogging goodness from V Sattui. Walt did it right! Amen. Sadly we may have passed the commie fluoridation threshold of entertainment morality forever.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Joseph Eagar: By the way, computer animation is almost (possibly even as much) labor intensive as traditional animation.  The same basic skills are used for both, which is why traditional animators are typically able to transition to computer animation very quickly (usually within days, weeks at the most). · 12 minutes ago

    Very interesting.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Scott Reusser: Aside from just appealing to families, popular entertainment used to assist in the values training of kids. Even something as low-budget and campy as The Brady Bunch helped to civilize kids, in some small measure.

    Now the entertainment industry actively undermines parents’ efforts to impart decent values. Even our sporting events participate (eg., the Superbowl halftime and commercials). Crazy and disgusting. · 47 minutes ago

    Amen.

  11. flownover

    Thanks Doc, Walt has always been a hero of mine. 

    Maybe it was his smiling face every Sunday night, or what he built in Anaheim ( then Orlando) , or that he and my dad and grandfather used to hang out . He was my statesman, from Marceline  and worked in KC for a spell.

    But he was like an uncle on the tube every Sunday night . Giving us a look into the nature of things or yet another hero as when he brought  Davey Crockett  into our homes when tv was a warm family friend . Ben Cartwright was close behind .

    His empire is still the stuff of dreams, but so much of it has gone awry.

    Guess the nature of media means a short life between imagination and continuation . Perfection is pretty hard to sustain .

    ..when you wish upon a star ….

    Never forget Fantasia.

  12. KC Mulville

    Forming values isn’t to be taken lightly.

    We must always follow our conscience, but that doesn’t mean to follow whatever fool idea comes into our head at any moment. Our conscience is built up over time. It’s filled by a lot of things, but much of it comes from what we read, by what we watch, by what stories and entertainment we choose. 

    Our conscience has to be prepared, and that means that we can either form it wisely or let someone else form it for you.

    If you allow the popular culture to form your conscience, you’re simply putting yourself in the hands of people whose goal is to make money off your ignorance.

    Disney wasn’t a moral philosopher, but he offered traditional culture that was based on traditional, time-tested values, i.e., what we now call family values; and that helped. 

    Times have changed. Now everything is “alternative” values and all art has to be “edgy” and counter-cultural. The irony is that it becomes a prisoner’s dilemma. After all, if everyone is  counter-cultural, there’s no longer any culture to be counter to.

  13. Blue Yeti
    C

    Paul, 

    As an ex-Disney employee from ’90-97, I think that Walt would be much happier with the company now than when I was there. At that time, we had two divisions making PG-13 and even a few R-rated titles. Those divisions have been since closed and the company only makes Disney branded movies now. In addition, Disney’s brand permeates its other properties including ABC and ESPN (not always successfully, but the imperative is always there). 

    Disney the man was competitive and ambitious. I think he’d love that the company the bears his name is a huge global brand synonymous with family entertainment. Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel — all Disney properties now– really define family entertainment in today’s culture.

  14. EJHill

    Snow White cost $1.4M in 1937. To recreate that today it would take you about $23M.

    7-Plane.jpgDisney’s engineers came up with an 11′ multiplane camera that allowed them to shoot seven layers of animation cells and employ camera movement to give the film a depth never before seen.

    Scenes were brokendown three dimensionally and carefully photographed without the aid of computerized mechanisms.

    Animators would draw each frame (24 drawings to a second of film) in pencil and then they would be traced onto clear celuloid with ink and then painted on the back. The animators were male but the ink and paint department was made up almost entirely of women, many who worked up to 85 hours a week to make Walt’s dream a reality.

    Very few of these still exist. Disney was forced to wipe the cels clean and reuse them because of shortages during the war.

    With the advent of the Xerox camera in the 1960s the animator’s work could be scanned directly onto the animation cel and a lot of the ladies lost their jobs. Disney’s first feature produced that way was 101 Dalmations in 1961.

  15. EJHill
    Blue Yeti: Those divisions have been since closed and the company only makes Disney branded movies now.

    Yeti – Touchstone is still in operation, yes?

  16. Capt. Spaulding

    Disney and his works are eternally fascinating. How great that Yeti once toiled in those vineyards!

    I want to make one point about classic Disney animation. I am told that the movie I consider the zenith from a visual standpoint, “Pinocchio,” owes its greatness to the coterie of European artists who fled their restive countries, and Germany’s looming menace, during the 1930s and 1940s. These artists found a warm welcome at Disney Studios, and sent its output to new heights. True?

  17. Blue Yeti
    C

    They use still the Touchstone label to occasionally release pick-ups but not for original movies. Those only go out with the Disney label as it is the only studio that has an actual brand. 

    EJHill

    Blue Yeti: Those divisions have been since closed and the company only makes Disney branded movies now.

    Yeti – Touchstone is still in operation, yes? · 27 minutes ago

  18. Bye!
    Joseph Eagar: The same basic skills are used for both, which is why traditional animators are typically able to transition to computer animation very quickly (usually within days, weeks at the most).

    Principles of animation, sure, but what skills are you talking about? Hand-drawn characters don’t need to be rigged. Drawing a landscape isn’t the same as creating a texture. Lighting and rendering don’t exist in hand-drawn animation beyond the principles of composition. Tweening and timing actions is automated on a computer. Animating particle effects, creating morph targets and building flexors doesn’t necessarily come easily to those used to the universal, traditional solution of “drawing it”. Transitioning an artist from pencils and brushes to keyboard shortcuts and the Maya interface doesn’t take merely days. While modern animated features are likely as labor intensive, that’s largely because they’re more involved.

    Do you speak from experience?

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Lucy Pevensie: I’m a big Disney fan, too. My most lefty friends refuse to expose their kids to Disney, which tells you something. · 2 hours ago

    It does, indeed.

  20. James Lileks
    C

    I think Walt would’ve been pleased with Pixar – as well as the CG features the Disney Animation studio is turning out. (“Tangled” was better than “Brave.”)  EPCOT didn’t turn out as planned, but its various resorts, including the vast time-share complexes, are almost multiplane shots come to life:

    saratoga.jpg

    He would’ve loved them. I know, I know – it’s odd to say that about a stranger who’s become mythical, some ascended figure granted godhood. There’s an unknowable quality about him, really. Practical but visionary. Known to all yet oddly removed in a way I can’t put my finger on. But people who love classic Disney and enjoy the theme parks think “Walt would’ve loved this,” and they’re usually right. Name me another cipher whose intentions a million strangers could correctly infer.