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Live Dangerously

Live Dangerously

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The other day I was searching for holiday decorations in the basement and came across a big box of Disney papers. Newspaper clippings, printouts from the internet, copies of copies of copies of useful facts and figures. Junk, really, but as they say, one man's junk is another man's treasure.

And treasure I found. On top of the heap was an article called "Growing Pains" printed out from some long defunct website. Originally it was published in the January 1941 Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Editors. And it was written by Walt Disney.

Now, if this were an article from the 1950s or 1960s I'd figure that some public relations guy wrote it. Maybe Jack Speirs, who came up with over 300 of Walt Disney's personal introductions to the shows "Disneyland" and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color". Or perhaps it would be Marty Sklar, current Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, former writer-extraordinaire who, for the final ten years of Walt Disney's life, wrote most of his personal material for film, TV and annual reports. In fact, Sklar penned Walt's final appearance in what was then called "Walt's Florida Film", now known to the world as "The Florida Movie". The one that outlines the city of EPCOT, with the people-movers, the monorails and such. The one that ends, "Speaking for myself and the entire Disney organization, we're ready to go right now!" The one that premiered two months after Walt's death, and tears up even the most stoic of Disney fans.

But since this article is from an early epoch in Disney history, I can only assume that it was personally written by Walt himself. In fact, some if it is so clunky and plodding that a professional writer couldn't have written it. (And I mean that in the most respectful way that an unknown writer can when referring to possibly the best-known entertainer that the world has ever seen). I mean, he starts out with the Webster Dictionary definition of "adventure"! That stunt wouldn't even fly in a high school essay today!

He does, however, have a clever bit where he accuses the inventor of Technicolor, who had written a similar article in the Journal three years prior, of "prophetic plagiarism". That Dr. Kalmus, for his article about color coming to movies in the December 1938 Journal, had lifted some of Disney's ideas many years before Disney's article.

Ironically that's kind of how I felt when I first read "Growing Pains". Because the real heart of the piece is Disney's frank discussion of the 1930s. The growth of the Disney Studio and the growth of animation in that time period.

I, along with every animation fan, I'm sure, have had the same thought at some point. "Wait - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out eight years after Steamboat Willie?!? Is that right? Steamboat Willie, that grainy, black and white, first Mickey Mouse cartoon with the rubber-hose animation and the rudimentary sound effects, came out on November 18, 1928, right? And not even a full decade later, on December 21, 1937, the full-length, full color, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released? Wow."

And it's true. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was three years before 1940's "Fantasia", which Disney seems to regard as the high point of animation. He says:

"The span of twelve years between Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey with sound, and Fantasia, is the bridge between primitive and modern animated pictures. No genius built this bridge. It was built by hard work and enthusiasm, integrity of purpose, a devotion to our medium, confidence in its future, and, above all, by a steady day-by-day growth in which we all simply studied our trade and learned."

The article goes on to recount the start of the Disney Studio with his brother Roy. The success of 1933's "The Three Little Pigs", and how the logical progression in storytelling, as well as from Roy's business perspective, was features. He tells about development of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and plans for the future.

But I'm still sticking on the "No genius built this bridge" quote. It's very humble, especially since it was written by a genius.

Walt Disney was a genius, nobody's going to doubt that. He had incredible foresight and revolutionized both animation and the theme parks industries. But even in this article he talks of his brother Roy being the businessman. It's pretty much the most about Roy written until Bob Thomas' mediocre 1998 biography "Building a Company : Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire".

In the article Walt continues, "Roy has the greatest confidence in me, in our medium and in our future, but he is a business man and doesn't like to live dangerously twelve months out of the year." Roy Disney was a genius, along with Walt. He always made Walt's crazy ideas possible. It was the teamwork of the brothers that really made the Disney Studio work. Two geniuses really built that bridge.

It's sad that today some animation businesspeople might think that you need to watch a popular, successful, well done movie, such as "The Incredibles" and crib from it. To watch it with the lights up and the sound down to try and figure out its formula of story, character design, production design, cinematography, costumes, digital production techniques, effects, casting, music, and overall vision. But that's impossible. Sure, you can point out in which element a film is superior or needs improvement, but I'm pretty sure there's no way to make an Excel spreadsheet tracking the overall vision of a film. Vision is a leap of faith. It's living dangerously.

Living dangerously might come a little easier to Steve Jobs. At least, thinking differently does. If you pick up Pixar Animation Studio's 2003 proxy statement and flip to page seventeen you'll see a fun fact. As the Chairman and CEO of Pixar, Jobs' 2003 annual compensation was a $53 salary. Why $53? Well, there were 53 payroll weeks in 2003. A dollar a week. That's what Steve Jobs makes for being in charge of Pixar. After taxes I can't imagine that the check is worth much more than the printing, paper, and envelope it comes in.

That's pretty crazy. Sure, Jobs owns 30,000,001 shares of Pixar common stock, which is 53.10% of the outstanding shares. And he also still has his day-job as CEO of Apple Computer. But before 1995 some people might have thought a full-length computer animated film was crazy. Steve Jobs didn't. He believed in Pixar.

Even George Lucas didn't see the value of Pixar. Lucasfilm originally owned Pixar - they were part of Lucasfilm's Computer Division called "The Graphics Group". Their first work appeared onscreen in 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". That film contained a computer animated sequence depicting a simulation of the birth of a planet. It's called the Genesis Effect, and it really was the coming into being of Pixar.

In 1984 they produced "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B" for SIGGRAPH, and brought in a Disney animator named John Lasseter to help. But Lucas didn't have the vision to support the immense research and development for Pixar, and soon after the company was sold to Steve Jobs, who did. The rest, as they say, is history.

Animation leadership is really all about having a vision. Or, if you're the money guy, like Roy Disney or Steve Jobs, you have confidence in the creative people who have the vision. You have confidence in the medium and you have confidence in the medium's future.

It's too bad really that these huge corporations are running the majority of the animation studios today. Corporations, by their nature, play it safe. Go for the easy dollar. Protect their investors. That's not how animation flourishes. These companies need to take a leap, they need a devotion to the medium, confidence in its future, and to study the trade to continue growth.

And to live dangerously.

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