The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier

Summary
  1. Michael Barrier gives a detailed account of Walt Disney’s background, personality, accomplishments, flaws and impact on the world
Key Takeaways
  1. Sound animation and later Snow White was what truly set Disney Studio apart
  2. Walt started in animation as a businessman and ended as an artist
  3. Healthy bonuses kept employees happy but a deeply held cherished and shared mission was the true driver and uniter
    1. People from other studios took large pay cuts to join as they came to learn and be part of something great
    2. Semiannual bonuses based on profits and on a rating determined by five factors, including importance to the organization and production department ratings as to footage and quality of work
    3. Disney was the first to relax the grim grind on animators and as a result got more work out of them because they worked out of love for what they were doing and also because they thought they were doing something they thought would be imperishable
    4. Instituted a “trial without pay” for first time animators
    5. Like any large company, Disney placed some people in jobs they were not capable of filling (Peter Principle)
    6. “You always knew you had a little raise ahead – about $2 more per week every 2-3 months (Goal Gradient Effect)
  4. Walt had blind faith that quality, tempered with good judgment and showmanship will win against all odds
  5. Was extremely jealous and controlling with all artistic decisions – wanted complete control
    Disney had changed America’s perception of leisure and entertainment
  6. Elias, Walt’s father, was a very hard working, tough father
    1. Walt would always remember the struggle with delivering newspapers as a boy, having to weather freezing cold and sleeping through class
    2. Freeing self of father’s rigid, debilitating beliefs was central to Walt’s success
  7. Never was a great businessman as focus was never on money
  8. Walt’s first successful business venture was Laugh-O-Graham but it would eventually go out of business
  9. Walt was always determined to be his own boss and be the sole man in charge
  10. Tended to recall memories with rose-colored glasses and always exaggerated things
  11. Important to deal with hard failure when young
  12. Walt would never have survived without Roy’s organizational and financial skills
  13. Walt had always worried, always enthusiastic, no inhibitions, a talker
  14. First to add a coherent story into the cartoons and if the cartoons acted as if they were real, the audience would buy it too
    1. Syncing sound a breakthrough too and was first exhibited in Steamboat Willie
  15. Life in Marcilene, Missouri imprinted a nostalgia of small town, farm life on Walt that would be with him forever and would later be idealized in Disneyland
  16. Was a tough, demanding boss and early on many decided to leave to try to start their own studios
  17. Formed Disney Studios on October 16, 1923
    1. The Alice Cartoons were his first success followed by Mickey Mouse in 1927
  18. Focus was never money – “we can lick them all with quality”
  19. Early on, Disney’s vision and ambition was rather modest – “he was not some visionary leader…he was notoriously inarticulate…difficult for him to translate his ideas into guidance for his animators.”
    1. Disney himself did not introduce stunning advances but he recognized, accepted and often encouraged the improvements that his people were coming up with on their own
  20. Wrote with a lot of “…” in order to promote free association
  21. Early cartoons were a little risqué – all animators were young, untrained men with no college educations
  22. After Ub Iwerks and Stalling left, Disney would have no other partners besides Roy, Roy’s wife and his wife Lilian until the company went public
  23. Disney focused intently on laughs and personality – Chaplin was part of the inspiration for Mickey’s character
  24. Licensing began in 1930 but wouldn’t have a massive impact on the company’s profitability until later
  25. Only tolerated those who were all in – once fired a man for looking for another job
  26. Three Little Pigs became an instant national sensation – quality, music, timing, personality in characters, “real” feeling
  27. As Disney’s processes advanced and improved, they started closing doors to outside artists and instead promoted from within and encouraged their animators to take art classes
  28. “Once a formula has been established, it exerts a powerful gravitational pull on artists who have used it. Resisting it, and observing life directly with the idea of reproducing it more accurately, is hard work, as the Disney animators found.”
  29. Did not revisit even recent mistakes – “best we can do is to profit fro mistakes by improving future pictures”
  30. Vacation to Europe inspired his movies and eventually Disneyland
  31. Best cartoons appeal to masses as well as those with specialized tastes
    1. Animators had to know idea and feeling behind a cartoon before pitching an idea – had to study psychology and deeply embody their characters
      1. “Our most important aim is to develop definite personalities in our cartoon characters.”
    2. When Walt had an idea, he visualized it 100% and often acted it out, totally embodying the different characters – the legend behind Snow White is that Walt called in the main animators and acted out the entire movie, every character
    3. Very detailed to make sure characters were consistent and conformed to image
  32. Snow White was a massive hit – had to overcome technical limits, cartoons at that time only funny, nobody knew if people would have patience for a full-length cartoon
    1. “I made it for adults. For the child that exists in all adults.”
    2. Most important aim is to create definitely personalities in the cartoon characters
    3. Plowed money from Snow White into new movies, a new studio and bonuses – total reinvestment
  33. Walt saw Disney Studios as an extension of himself – he was terrible at delegating and demanded his approval on every major decision
  34. More important to draw what people expect rather than be 100% accurate
  35. Pinocchio was a flop and forced Disney to issue shares in 1940 – Walt maintained a huge controlling stake and this element of control was central to his personality and vision
  36. Every animator who entered Disney was expected to make animation his life work – “animation to us was a religion. That’s all we talked…talent was taken for granted, no one thought much about it one way or the other.”
    1. “Every day was an excitement .Whatever we were doing had never been done before. It was such a great thrill to go in there. There was excitement and competition; everyone was young and everyone was doing something…”
  37. Disney was often very encouraging and always stressed quality, personality and feeling but was also often irascible, impatient and demanding
  38. Had a very rural sense of humor which allowed him to sense what the average person would like
  39. Built studio for animator’s – relaxed, air conditioning, best equipment but the size and complexity took some of the familial, start-up feel away from the Studio which eventually lead to some union issues in the 1940s
    1. “I feel that people must earn it. You can’t give people anything.”
  40. “Time clocks place a premium on deception and it is no bar to dishonesty”
  41. Goodwill tour of South America lead to a couple cartoons and exhibited Disney’s flawless worldwide persona as he was cheered everywhere he went
  42. Role in studio – “I am the bee that carries the pollen” to spread ideas
  43. Shackles of success – “the public demands repetition, not change”
  44. Incredible understanding of psychology and human nature / emotion were deeply embedded into his cartoons
  45. Helped WWII efforts through his “Why We Fight” Series – financial struggles led to layoffs, fraying loyalty which led to many employees seeing Disney as a job and not a calling like it used to be
  46. He didn’t ever want anything to look like a repeat of what he had done before
  47. “Dad thought we ought to have our own church. He didn’t want anything to influence us.” – Diane Disney on Walt letting his kids form their own opinions
  48. His husbanding of authority was an expensive bottleneck but was the only way Walt would have it – he was the critical path
    1. Created much jealousy, frustration and politicking within the studio
  49. Didn’t have very many friends – he didn’t have time and “had to have a clear mind for work the next day”
  50. Invented the nature documentary category through “Seal Island”
  51. Developed an obsession with trains and miniatures which would persist throughout his life and play a prominent role in Disneyland and Disney World
  52. Ford’s Greenfield Village in Detroit inspired Walt to brainstorm a “Mickey Mouse Park”
  53. Tremendous memory and capacity for learning – often impatient with others – “He understood the mechanics of everything. Everything was a new toy.”
  54. Disney was not so much hostile to TV as unsure of how to best make use of the median but by 1950 had a TV show to promote the studio and recognized TV’s importance to get new audience and further engage them
  55. For his cartoons and eventually theme parks, Walt had a very vivid mental image of it all
  56. Roy was skeptical of Disneyland so Walt formed a separate private company – Walt Disney Enterprises, later renamed as WED Enterprises
  57. No rigid decision process – things just seemed to happen recalled on employee
    1. Later on learned that he needed a solid footing of some kind before he made a speculative leap
  58. Walt’s major investment in Disneyland would be committed to creating a storytelling environment, rides would be subordinate to story and setting
  59. Struck a massive TV programming deal with ABC for 1 hour weekly episodes intended in part to promote Disneyland. This deal provided the necessary funds to move forward with constructing Disneyland
  60. Disneyland was extremely rushed and massively over budget and opening day was a disaster – brutally hot, many rides broke down
  61. Took inspiration from Denmark’s Tivoli
  62. Disney succeeded in making Disneyland fun for all – families would stay 3x longer and spend nearly 3x as much
  63. Outside contractors failed miserably and soon Disney replaced them with Disney employees who had been trained to be customer-friendly. No matter how good the park looked, surly employees could spoil the Utopian effect
    1. “It is easier to maintain control over customers if they think they are doing what they want to do, as opposed to what someone else wants them to do. To preserve that illusion of autonomy, Disney was more than willing to make countless small adjustments, like paving a shortcut that visitors were taking through a flower bed, rather than putting up a fence to keep them out.”
    2. Designers had to study customers up close, wait in line with them, go on rides with them, eat with them in order to get an idea of what was going on in their minds
  64. Disney is a model entrepreneur, acutely sensitive to how customers respond to his business
  65. Reduced role of animation with rise of TV, live-action films and theme parks
  66. “It truly was a one-man studio. Everything had Walt’s touch”
  67. “I am not a literary person. As far as realism is concerned, you can find dirt any place you look for it. I’m one of those optimists. There’s always a rainbow. The great masses like happy endings. If you can pull a tear out of them, they’ll remember your picture.”
  68. “Styles may change on the surface, but at bottom the big audience taste doesn’t change” They like sympathetic characters and life-like action. And that’s what I like, too, whether it’s cartoons, live action or all those creatures at Disneyland.”
  69. Had a persona as a simple, rural man but many who knew him well considered him one of the most widely read, most widely traveled, most artistic men in Hollywood
  70. Finger tapping typically a warning sign, as was his loud cough
  71. “I don’t care about critics. It’s the public I’m making pictures for.”
  72. Criteria for a good movie was impact on the public and Snow White was the gold standard
  73. Essentially subsidized Chouinard music school to create a “multi-disciplined” school of the arts (later became CalArts)
  74. Disney often dressed down in order to not intimidate people – he knew he scared the daylights out of people and didn’t want to let that get in the way of being able to work with him. Otherwise all he’d have is a bunch of people agreeing with him and their expertise wouldn’t show
  75. Disney’s death led to some paralysis within the company and movies went downhill though Disney World was a smash. Disney struggled for some time and replaced Ron Miller, Disney’s son-in-law, with Michael Eisner in 1984. Eisner did some great things for the studio – helping oversee a string of hits and acquiring ABC but was eventually replaced by Bob Iger in 2005
  76. “It was this combination, his powerful entrepreneurial drive combined with his new artist’s sensibility, that made Disney so inspiring a figure to many of the people who worked for him. Somehow, Walt always made it seem to that the most important thing in the world was to help him make a picture look the way he wanted it to look. It was a lot of fun to feel I was doing the most important thing in the world, every day.”
What I got out of it
  1. A really good read with some fascinating details about Walt’s life, personality, vision, quirks, etc.