Permalink to With Walt Disney at the Presidio in San Francisco

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.

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Members have made 42 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Ontheleftcoast Member

    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?

    • #1
    • February 21, 2013 at 3:09 am
  2. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    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.

    • #2
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:34 am
  3. Profile photo of Percival Thatcher
    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….

    • #3
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:37 am
  4. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    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.

    • #4
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:41 am
  5. Profile photo of Lucy Pevensie Member

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

    • #5
    • February 21, 2013 at 5:59 am
  6. Profile photo of Scott R Member

    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.

    • #6
    • February 21, 2013 at 6:22 am
  7. Profile photo of Joseph Eagar Member

    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).

    • #7
    • February 21, 2013 at 6:57 am
  8. Profile photo of DocJay Member

    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.

    • #8
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:08 am
  9. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    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.

    • #9
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:09 am
  10. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    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.

    • #10
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:10 am
  11. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    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.

    • #11
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:14 am
  12. Profile photo of KC Mulville Member

    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.

    • #12
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:19 am
  13. Profile photo of Inactive
    Anonymous

    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.

    • #13
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:23 am
  14. Profile photo of EJHill Member

    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.

    • #14
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:34 am
  15. Profile photo of EJHill Member
    Blue Yeti: Those divisions have been since closed and the company only makes Disney branded movies now.

    Yeti – Touchstone is still in operation, yes?

    • #15
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:39 am
  16. Profile photo of Capt. Spaulding Member

    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?

    • #16
    • February 21, 2013 at 7:44 am
  17. Profile photo of Inactive
    Anonymous

    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

    • #17
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:08 am
  18. Profile photo of Bye! Inactive
    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?

    • #18
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:10 am
  19. Profile photo of Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    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.

    • #19
    • February 21, 2013 at 8:32 am
  20. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    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.

    • #20
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:11 am
  21. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    Also: He was an average artist, but as conceptual artist he was perhaps the best of his century. Floyd Gottfredson drew a better Mickey; Carl Banks a better Donald. Walt’s last attempt at directing a cartoon wasn’t very good. But he had an inspirational sensibility – perhaps not in person, but certainly in the sense that he got it in ways that other artists realized was something unique.

    Nowadays “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” from the Carousel of Progress is supposed to be corny, but the first time I saw that robot show I sat in the dark with a grin on my mug the entire time. As you can say about so much with the Disney brand: wo other guys wrote the tune, but it’s all Walt.

    • #21
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:11 am
  22. Profile photo of DutchTex Inactive

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who grew up watching VHS copies (that my mother found second hand somewhere) of several older Disney movies. We also had a record of the entire audio track of Robin Hood, which we listened to frequently before we got a TV. I knew the movie almost by heart before I ever saw it on a screen. My siblings and I could recite the entire script.

    When I finally get to the Bay Area, I will have to visit the exhibit (come on house, sell!). I’d love to see the Presidio, so this seems like a good excuse to do so.

    And I look forward the meet-up of all the Bay Area Ricochetti that we will have to have when Dr. Rahe is in town.

    • #22
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:17 am
  23. Profile photo of Canadian Cartoonist Member

    Regarding Disney’s Multiplane Camera…:

    It’s interesting to note that Disney’s wasn’t the first of its kind; his former collaborator Ub Iwerks had an equivalent version several months in advance of Walt’s. Iwerks’ camera filmed artwork moving side-to-side, on different planes, to create depth of field.

    NY-based Max Fleischer had one as well, with actual sets constructed on a turntable behind the animation, rotated to create an interesting 3D feeling. But: his characters only walked in front of these 3D sets, similar to Iwerks’ effect.

    Walt’s version was the first to be able to move his camera along the z-axis, towards the artwork, and this made all the difference. It was principally why he spent so much more money on his model than his rivals: he wanted to bring the audience into his animated worlds, to increase the connection he was inviting that audience to make with his characters and their situations.

    His rivals’ Multiplane cameras, by contrast, kept the audience on the outside, looking in, like spectators witnessing a passing parade.

    Disney had a story-driven mind… stories, not special effects, were the breath of life animating his films.

    • #23
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:21 am
  24. Profile photo of Brasidas Inactive

    Paul, I live in the SF Bay Area and visited that Disney Museum in the Presidio for the first time last year. I wasn’t expecting much, but was genuinely fascinated by what I saw there. Everyone should see it. Such a trip down memory lane and a wonderful tribute to Walt.

    • #24
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:31 am
  25. Profile photo of Maura Pennington Inactive
    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.

    • #25
    • February 21, 2013 at 9:56 am
  26. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    Canadian: exactly. That’s why the opening of “The Old Mill” must have struck audiences like the first scenes in “Toy Story” – things have changed

    I agree that Disney was story-driven (except when he wasn’t; “Fantasia” isn’t exactly a coherent narrative) but he knew that special effects assisted the story. All of animation is “special effects,” in a sense. Technicolor was a special effect. Putting animated penguins in a live-action film was a special effect, as was sliding up the bannister. 

    Towards the end, in the rides, he turned it around: the story served the special effects. No one got off the boat in the Jungle Ride thinking of the tale the pilot told. They remembered the hippos shooting water. There’s a plot to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, but I defy anyone to tell me what it is.

    • #26
    • February 21, 2013 at 10:04 am
  27. Profile photo of Z in MT Member

    While Disney is known for it animated films, it’s live action films were/are also terrific. Davy Crockett, Mary Poppins, all those child/teenage Kurt Russell movies, and more lately Pirates of the Caribbean.

    • #27
    • February 21, 2013 at 10:11 am
  28. Profile photo of EJHill Member
    James Lileks: There’s a plot to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, but I defy anyone to tell me what it is. 

    Funny. Some people say that about the Johnny Depp pictures, too.

    • #28
    • February 21, 2013 at 10:21 am
  29. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    EJ: the mascara’d son of Keith Richards minces around the deck of a ship in contrast to stalwart representatives of the established order and various manifestations of piratical malfeasance. Also Kraken. 

    • #29
    • February 21, 2013 at 11:31 am
  30. Profile photo of Bye! Inactive
    Canadian Cartoonist:

    Walt’s version was the first to be able to move his camera along the z-axis,towardsthe artwork, and this made all the difference. It was principally why he spent so much more money on his model than his rivals: he wanted to bring the audienceintohis animated worlds, to increase the connection he was inviting that audience to make with his characters and their situations.

    If I remember correctly, the camera actually didn’t move, the individual layers were moved. The layers were able to be moved at different rates, simulating greater depth and giving a better illusion of perspective. Foreground images approached quickly relative to mid-ground subjects (even moving “past” the camera), and the background remained stationary.

    Think of driving along a straight highway at dusk. Items on the roadside whiz past and the distant town lumbers much more slowly until you get close. Mountains on the distant horizon appear to barely creep toward you, and the moon and stars seem to hang forever away no matter how far you drive.

    • #30
    • February 21, 2013 at 11:34 am
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