Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

Summary

  1. Disney’s influence is hard to overstate. He completely changed American culture and its consciousness by bringing in a lighter, more fun world during tough times. He completely changed animation and helped invent graphic design. His concept of a theme park was completely novel too as it was a totally immersive, imaginative experience
New Takeaways
  1. Isn’t actually frozen after passing away as many believe but shows how much Disney was associated with futuristic technology
  2. Disney reinvented the American past by adding nostalgia and patriotism to rural movies. He also garnered enthusiasm for technological advancement through his own films and it even helped NASA gain support
  3. He was able to blend paradoxes such as being a classicist and a futurist through his animation and family values and then through projects like tomorrow world which helped spur American interest in space exploration
  4. He invented the wildlife documentary and helped spread conservationist movements
  5. He created the first modern media corporation by blending TV, movies, action heroes, theme parks and more
  6. Above all his accomplishments however, his greatest achievement may have been instilling a belief of wish fulfillment in people – fantasy can be empowering and sometimes even transform the world
  7. He was able to tap into the essence, the fundamental, the genetic code to truly bring alive any project and make it resonate with people in a timeless way. He had platonic templates in his head for everything and was able to act on it, forming the archetype of anything he took on. This desire for an idyllic world lead him to create his various animations as well as Disney World. He wanted total control and since this ain’t possible in real life, he made a fictional world where he could
  8. Artistic reputation was hurt towards the end of his career and many considered him an Huber capital list which supplanted other countries cultures with Americas. He was also considered an anti-Semite and a racist. Many also thought he had sold out and become to corporate and therefore lost his artistic and creative power
  9. Even for those closest to Walt he was difficult to know intimately and was often moody and tough to work with
  10. Walt’s grandparents were from Ireland and his dad after moving around a bit decided to settle in Kansas which was a rough life at that time. They later moved to Marcilene, Missouri which Walt considered his home and the nature and serenity had a big influence on his creativity and his later animation’s focus on animals, farms and trains
  11. A local doctor named Dr. Sherwood encouraged walk early on to not be nervous about admitting ignorant and annoying her edging him that he was a good artist
  12. His father was a very hard working, frugal, strict and religious man. Elias had Walt deliver papers early in the morning for nearly no pay and he worked so hard he hardly he any free time as a boy. This made him very careful with his time as he grew older. Walt grew up to become extremely different from his father – light hearted, enthusiastic, charming, personable. Walt’s older brother of 8 years, Roy, was more of a surrogate father than brother and they became very close
  13. Walt quickly found that he was attracted to performing, drawing and show business and meticulously studied his idols such as Charlie Chaplin
  14. Walt entered into service for WWI but got influenza and ended up not heading to Europe to fight but was soon sent over to help with the occupation in France. His time in France helped him mature and solidify his desire to be an artist or actor
  15. Walked always had great confidence in his abilities even before he had croup and self or had any experience. When Disney became fascinated with something, he could spend days focusing only on that
  16. Animation was completely new at this time so Walt was not behind anyone although he was young. Him and a couple others would pioneer this field and make huge leaps in the following decades
  17. Even at 20, with little to no experience, Walt was too hard headed to be comfortable with being anyone’s employee and started a company called Laugh-O-Gram and was an incredible salesman getting employees and investors interested in working for him. The company struggled although Walt and his employees loved it and it soon went bankrupt. He then decided to leave Kansas City and went to Hollywood
  18. Walt almost always exaggerated the truth to make himself or his story more dramatic. He was absolutely a happy and extremely determined man with a lot of confidence but he, like everyone, had times of doubt
  19. Walt started up Disney Bros. with his older brother Roy in the early 1920s and began work on the Alice cartoons. From the beginning Walt had a deep need for artistic and creative control over the whole process in order to precisely execute his vision. He was tough on Ub Iwerks and the rest of his employees and often made others miserable and cause resentment until they either improved or left the studio. He soon lost his distribution partner in Winkler and many of his own employees even tried sabotaging him. It was at this point he decided he would never work for anybody ever again
  20. Mickey Mouse was first named Mortimer and the first idea was for Mickey to fly a plane in order to impress a lady mouse which was inspired by Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Mickey was designed for maximum ease as circles were easier to animate and by subtly changing some features, Mickey could easily become a cat, rabbit, dog, etc.
  21. Mickey struggled to gain a foothold until Roy and Walt brainstormed and determined to add sound to the animation. It was shown as a short reel before movies and became a nationwide hit. Mickey eventually evolved and became more real and proper and he lost popularity because of it. Donald Duck was soon after conceived to be Mickey’s foil, to be rude, offensive, hot tempered and this is exactly what the world wanted at this time
  22. Walt understood early on how important it was to make himself a brand as a producer that the country would recognize. He opened up a sound recording studio in California to gain a foothold in this up and coming area of animation. After the initial trouble with Laugh-O-Gram, Disney wanted a dominant, unassailable position in the animation market and determined to replace Felix the Cat with his own Mickey as worlds most popular cartoon
  23. Although the culture at Disney was casual, work was done with the utmost care and planning and the biggest difference from other animation studios was expectations. Walt would not settle for anything less than the best. He was always this way with all his early cartoons – Alice, Oswald, Mickey, Skeleton Dance and other silly shorts. Disney always took great pride in his informality, he always considered him equal to his employees
  24. Powers, who ran Cinephony Studios, was the man Walt relied on for sound recording and producing. Powers wasn’t a very trustworthy man and took advantage of Walt’s enthusiasm by promising to fulfill his vision as well as Walt’s lack of business acumen by crafting very unfavorable terms. Tensions eventually split the relationship after costly legal action but Powers managed to get Iwerks and Stalling to leave Disney studios
  25. Once Disney and his cartoons started getting a foothold in California, they began expanding nationally with the Mickey Mouse club which eventually reached over 800 chapters and 1m members. Mickey soon became a worldwide phenomenon and one of the most recognized figures in the whole world. Mickey had mass appeal due to his ability to allow people to escape the Great Depression and tyrannical leaders, his simplicity and people’s desire to root for the underdog – ultimate wish fulfillment. Mickey was also modeled after two of that generations most popular actors – Fairbanks and Chaplain. However, Mickey would ultimately evolve and could be considered simply an extension of Walt himself
  26. Walt only hired the best and created a very hard working but fraternal culture. The ethos was that all work had to be better than what was previously made and much better than any competitor
  27. Many of Walt’s colleagues believes that he achieved extraordinary success because his focus was never on money, but on providing the best product to his customers, something he could have fun with and be proud of
  28. His relationship with his wife became strained as he ended up in the office pretty much every night working late which eventually led to an emotional breakdown
  29. Disney avoided much of the pain of the Great Depression by plowing every dollar earned back into his company rather than the stock market. His cartoons were some of the best escapes for people going through tough times. Disney studios thrived during these tough times as they were able to hire some of the best animators in the business from studios that had gone out of business. The Disney short of three little pigs was a sensation and delivered one of the eras anthems with the big bad wolf song
  30. One of biggest contributions to animation was that he gave the cartoons a storyline and the characters life, a personality, embodied emotions, adding color, even taking gravity into consideration
  31. Disney studios entered another inflection point once they began licensing Mickey to distributors to put on lunch boxes, watches, clothing, toys, etc. This eventually became a larger source of profits than the cartoons themselves
  32. Walt played the bashful tycoon in public but this was part of his carefully crafted image which was influenced by Will Rogers. In private, Walt was often moody and sometimes blunt and egomaniacal. Walt stopped drawing and even procuring most of the cartoons but his influence and approval was still felt throughout. He was very instinctive, he a great mind for gags and had a great sense for what the public wanted and needed
  33. One of Walt’s main talents was his ability to bond a group, get the most out of them and always think in “we” terms. He made everyone feel great pride in the work they did and made them truly believe that it was important
  34. Walt took great pride in keeping ahead of the pack and his next step was a full length film, Snow White
  35. After a trip to Europe Walt decided to try to make his cartoons more universal by keeping dialogue to a minimum so that translation errors wouldn’t affect enjoyment
  36. Believed it was easier to train young people with no experience and bad habits that to hire people who did have some experience
  37. Walt was very exacting and demanding of his employees but he paid them extremely well, gave them great benefits and created an exciting and innovative atmosphere people loved. Again, money was always secondary to talent, customer experience and quality
  38. Snow White was an undertaking unlike any other. He got the most out of his people by aligning incentives – their bonuses were tied to the success of the movie. After toiling away for years, Snow White was released and became a huge success – the highest grossing movie ever in the US
  39. Walt was a self absorbed workaholic who had no close friends. He devoted himself entirely to his vision
  40. After Snow White, Disney and his crew began work on Bambi but put it on hold to start work on Pinocchio
  41. The move from the studio in Hyperion to Burbank was necessary but it also removed some of the informality, morale and drastically increased bureaucracy
  42. In 1940, Disney decided to issue shares to the public to raise money for Bambi, Disney shorts and other projects. He never wanted to do this but the company was spending money like crazy
  43. Disney – “Every mistake I made was because I didn’t truly feel it.”
  44. Disney was very loyal to those who stuck with him during the early stages but he later was very callous and cold hearted with firings of newer employees. A union workers strike soon ensued and killed much of the esprit de courts of the studio
  45. Walt got to making educational films for the navy and government during WWII. He often lost money on these and they distracted him from other endeavors. He was totally absorbed with these features for the four years of the war. Competition increased a lot after the war as the other major studios started expanding and focusing on animation – Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes
  46. Bambi was finally released to mixed reviews. The seriousness of the movie was a little too much for many people in a time which had already seen such devastation. This was a difficult time for the studio as Bambi wasn’t a hit and they were spending most of their time now on war and educational films
  47. Disney was so focused on pushing the boundaries creatively and in other ways that he refused to do sequels even though they were likely to be commercial successes
  48. Disney had a strong aversion to organization and bureaucracy even as the studio grew. If he did decide to manage, he would micromanage everything and everyone. He would never delegate creative decisions
  49. Disney’s do epitome advantages came from the sheer talent of its animators, their dedication, Walt’s vision and fire, their focus on quality and customer experience over profit and always looking to push boundaries
  50. The author does not believe Disney was racist or anti-Semitic but like most white Americans of his generation, he was insensitive
  51. Disney pioneers the nature documentary as we know it today through Seal Island
  52. Disney was apolitical except for his strong aversion to Communism
  53. Disney didn’t spend much time with his family as he was so busy but he spoiled his daughters. They described him as sympathetic but firm
  54. Disney seemed to focus less on his studio and more on miniature cities and trains. These hobbies influenced him greatly in building an amusement park where the whole family could have fun together. Disneyland was Walt’s dream – he was able to exert absolute control and make his vision real. He was able to transport people to a different, better time. The pro was a combination of experience, amusement and Disney’s own values
  55. Disney was one of the few to recognize the power of the television. It was not the enemy of the motion picture but it’s ally. They could recycle old movies, make TV shows out of movies, get new customers and fans, and would launch its own channel using past Disney shorts. He also recognized that this was an incredible tool to promote awareness and interest in Disneyland. Disney partnered with ABC who needed awareness with the growing young family population and Disney needed money to make Disneyland happen. Television made Disney more famous than ever before. It was his animation and movies which were popular before but now it was the man, the man who embodied wholesomeness and decency. He often felt imprisoned by this new persona
    1. “In retrospect, Disney’s greatest creation was Walt Disney.”
    2. Davy Crockett became an immediate, nationwide sensation. He embodied American ideals at a time when tensions with the Soviet Union were growing. Crockett was never profitable for Disney but it did accomplish its goal – publicize Disneyland. The Mickey Mouse Club was another phenomenon which also bolstered Disneyland’s image and its awareness
    3. Imagineers were tasked with designing the parks and every single detail – subliminally making guests feel powerful, calm and have the best experience possible
    4. Disney had a constant focus on creating eternal products
    5. He constantly said that Disneyland would never be finished – there is always someway to improve and expand
  56. Another major milestone in Disney’s history was the formation of its own distribution arm – it now controlled the process end to end
  57. Walt didn’t want anybody with amusement park experience working on Disneyland because he wanted fresh eyes and no preconceived notions or biases. Established Disney university to train all employees in order to give a great, consistent experience. Dress, facial hair, and more were all strictly dictated. Cleanliness was an obsession with Walt and his parks were always meticulous – one of the small ways Disney conceived of to make his parks an escape from reality
  58. Several years later Walt secretly scouted out locations on the East coast and decided to build Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His vision was to build not only a world class amusement park, but a Utopian city – EPCOT
  59. Disney never felt he could rest – he was always working to “stay 25 years ahead of the competition” and was worried he’d die before he’d have time to accomplish everything
  60. Walt went to the hospital for what he thought was a minor surgery when they found lung cancer, he was 64. He was clearly very weak but defiant until his last breath. His focus went almost solely to Disney World and EPCOT at this point. He died about a year later in 1966
  61. One of Disney’s main contributions was a living example of how one could successfully impose their will on the world. Above being a master of fun, animation, reverence or anything else, he was a master of order
  62. First hour and last 10 minutes a very good summary
What I got out of it
  1. Endless enthusiasm, optimism and confidence, the highest standards of quality in the business, fanatical about his work and in pushing the limits to give customers the best experience possible, sole focus on customer experience and not money.