Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Favorite Walts

My Three Walts
Among the hundreds of images of Walt Disney there are three which are my personal favorites because of the way they portray him. The first is a young Walt, laying on his stomach, holding a camera, smiling.

The next shows him probably thirty years later, at the throttle of his miniature steam locomotive, grinning like a kid at Christmas. His hair uncharacteristically fluffy, bangs falling down over his forehead.

The last image shows him talking to one of his staff, necktie loosened, upper shirt button undone, collar open, hand on his left hip. Its a casual pose you wouldn't expect from the big boss.

Bob Gurr worked for Walt for 45 years, so he knew him pretty well. Here Bob,reflects on Walt's management style and the way he treated his employees;

Note that Gurr specifically mentions Walt deliberately loosening his tie and making himself look kind of "ratty" in order to be more approachable, as shown in the middle photo, above.

Of course, for casual, it's hard to top Walt in a hammock, but not at work.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Billion Fearless Dollars

Mark Eades recent story about Disneyland's Million Dollar Dazzle charity campaign got me thinking about the stories which are told by the animated films which Walt was personally involved in making. It's an impressive list. From Snow White to Mary Poppins, over the course of three decades, a dozen movies explored how love overcomes hate, hope vanquishes despair, persistence pays and optimism is always the better play. The box office figures support this hypothesis; Averaging just under $86 million per film, the dozen Disney classics have generated just over $1 Billion to date.

Since Walt's death some have questioned whether the company which became his avatar has held true to his vision, carefully and persistently preserved in those foundational animated features. I believe they have, even with the occasional stumble. Beginning with Toy Story and carried thru another dozen films, from Monster's Inc. to Zootopia, the viewing public has responded time and again with their hearts and their wallets to a very simple fact; fear kills all the things which make life worth living.  Walt knew this.  It was a guiding principle which he had learned the hard way.

I witnessed this recently at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It was late afternoon on one of those days when all of Florida is trying hard to impersonate a sauna. While waiting in the gift shop near the Star Wars Launch Bay I noticed that a crowd had gathered outside. Looking out the door I saw this scene;


This August Saturday was one of those 90 degrees @ 90 percent afternoons that make you grateful for $4 frozen lemonade. Yet, here were a dozen Storm Troopers marching thru the courtyard, with two others standing guard at the Launch Bay entrance. I stopped the camera once they'd passed, but should have kept filming because what happened next made someone's day Magical.

The two Storm Troopers who'd been standing guard walked over to a young girl in a wheelchair who clearly had special needs. One of them said to her; "Come with me." The three of them followed by the girl's family, proceeded to the middle of the courtyard, where they posed with the Troopers for photographs, flanking the girl on both sides were the elite, shock troops, fanatically loyal to the Empire, impossible to sway from the Imperial cause, clowning a bit for the cameraAfter the pictures were taken one of the troopers said to the girl;

"That will be all. "Don't cause any further public disturbances." 

The smiles all around were contagious. At this point I had two types of moisture running down my face and it wasn't raining.  I can't even imagine how hot and humid it must have been inside those Storm Trooper suits.

That's what Disney does; They take things which are frightening, flip them on their head and turn them into lifelong memories of family and friends, converting our monster nightmares into giant blue furry snuggle buddies.

Even for just a little while, they bring us onto the stage of a different type of story, one in which its safe to trust, good to believe and even better to be unselfish. It's a world where we can be scared for a while without always being afraid and it's OK to fail because you can get it right the next time, or the time after that, or after that. (Walt went bust five times before he got it right.)

We'll talk more about fear and creativity in another post. For now, just know that these are the troops you are looking for and I think Walt would have approved.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Walt's Creative Process

Two of the questions many people have about Walt is how he was able to be so creative and what was his recipe?  I'm not sure anyone has fully answered either yet. Part of the difficulty in doing so is that it's one thing to study creativity and another to practice it.  Some of the most famous designers have maintained that you can't do both; that you can study it or practice it, but not at the same time.

When I began researching the similarities between Imagineering and Design Thinking, I had the idea that comparing the lives of very creative people, to see if there were any common themes between them, might shed some light on it. That turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, not only because of the sheer volume of reading material, but also because Walt and his Imagineers didn't really talk much about their methods. Even when they did, their vocabularies were very different. Disney spoke in the context of telling stories and making movies and engineers talk like engineers (or maybe Yoda.) For a current example you can view a video of Bob Gurr speaking at Google at the end of this post.

Today we're going to look at a creative method that hasn't gotten much press. I'm talking about the idea of the Three Walts and The Three Rooms.

Ollie Johnston
Oliver Johnston was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Ca. His father was a professor at Stanford. "Ollie"was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men".  Many feel that the two most accomplished of the group were Ollie and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met at Stanford in the 1930s and were hired by Disney for $17 a week when the studio was expanding to produce full-length feature films.

Ollie once noted that he and Frank were bound to be thrown together  at Stanford, since they were two of only six students in the art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for food money.

Ollie observed that there were actually three Walts and that you never knew which one was coming to your meeting;
  • Walt the Dreamer.
  • Walt the Realist.
  • Walt the Critic. 
Not only were there three Walts, when ideas were being developed there were three different rooms which were used to investigate, discuss and refine them.
  • Room 1 was for brainstorming, where all ideas were presented - no naysaying allowed.
  • Room 2 was for storyboarding & sketches of potential characters for the story.
  • Room 3 was for putting the project under the microscope. 
Room 3 was called the Sweatbox.  Iwas there that the entire project was presented, not only to the team, but to Devil’s Advocates, the most famous one being Walt.  In these "Critic"meetings no one was personally attacked, but it was where ideas either became a reality or were sacked!

Here are some detailed descriptions of what happened in each phase and room:

DREAMER -  Dreamers spin innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches, bold and absurd ideas, without limits or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. Dreamers ask: If I could wave a magic wand  and do anything I want – what would I create? (Pixie Dust) How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive? Dream-storming in Room 1 was the space for asking "What if?" and "Why not?" This is the What and Why parts of the story are developed.

REALISTThe realist builds the dreamer’s ideas into something possible and feasible. They try to figure out how to make the ideas work and sort them into an executable plan. To be a realist, you ask: How can I make this happen? What are the main features and aspects of the idea? Can I build on ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? How can I use the essence of the idea to create a more realistic one? This is where the Who and How parts of the story are developed.

CRITIC -  The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to find flaws in them by playing the devil’s advocate. Critics, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A guest? Is it worth our time to work on this idea? This was also where Walt was when he suggested "plussing"things up. This is also a place to explore another from of Who, How and Why, only inverted.

For example; Suppose someone wanted a better way to water their garden.  The dreamer might suggest teaching the plants how to talk, so they can tell you when they are dry. The realist develops this into an animated bird that monitors the moisture content of the soil. The realist refines the idea by exploring various sensors, hardware and software. Finally, the critic evaluates the idea for all possible flaws and problems.

Organizing these into process steps you get;

Step 1 - “WHAT are we going to do?”

Dream big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

The Room Setup: Open, airy rooms with lots of light and high-ceilings are the best for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mindset: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 - “HOW are we going to do it?”

Here the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this phase would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, (storytelling - df) and populating storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall which facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the planning process.

Mindset: This is where you roll up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Goals: Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 - “WHY are we doing this?”

Ask “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking the hard questions. Is the plan really doable? Are there unwieldy aspects that need to be cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? The process shifts from dream-storming, to subsequently practical. The environments in the various “rooms” prompt us to adopt the best mindset at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to ultimately be implemented.

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mindset: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.  In considering How, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The Why? step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider the plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting, Imagineering, and Design Thinking, go deep: they are methodical, disciplined, and time-intensive up front.

Here are some ideas for Mascots for Walt's three rooms:

The Realist - Ludwig Von Drake is the analyst.
The Dreamer - Mickey has the vision, heart and empathy.
The Critic - Donald Duck has the eye for what's missing or just plain wrong.

By the way. Walt is generally credited for having invented another creative tool; the storyboard.

Realist, Dreamer and Critic

Bob Gurr at Google

Friday, August 26, 2016

Disneys in Florida?

Flora and Elias Disney

Eighty years before The Walt Disney Company petitioned the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court for the creation of the Reedy Creek Drainage District, which would later become the most visited vacation resort in the world, another Disney tried to make a go of it in Florida. Many of the places they inhabited are now ghost towns or gone.

Elias Disney's Petition for Citizenship
In his 1934 Petition for US Citizenship, Elias Charles Disney stated  that he and his wife Flora Call were married in Paisley, Florida on January 1st, 1888. Flora's parents, Charles and Henrietta Call, had moved there in 1884, would live out their lives and be buried there together in the Ponceannah Cemetery. Their grave site is toward the back, marked with a vertical white stone carved to look like a tree trunk.

Today, Paisley Florida is a census-designated place in Lake County with a population of about 700. While it is part of the OrlandoKissimmee Metropolitan Statistical Area, Paisley has never been much more than a wide spot in the road, currently near where Lake County Road 42 and Maggie Jones Road intersect.  CR-42 meanders along the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest and is a pleasant drive along forested rolling hills. The north shore of nearby Lake Norris is home to Boy Scout Camp La-No-Che, which in summer time and during Scout Jamborees has a larger population than Paisley.  Paisley is also host to the Toronto Argonauts' pre-season training and free agency camp. The area was named after Paisley, Scotland. 

Argonauts at play

The 1885 Census shows Elias Disney living in District 14 (Alachua) Orange County, Florida. One source indicates that Flora and Elias were married in Acron. Another says they were married in Kismet. Acron is now gone, but back then it was not far from Mount Dora and Sorrento, which is twenty miles south of Paisely.

Acron began in the 1860’s on Acron Lake. Also spelled Ackron and Akron, it was home to a sawmill, gristmill, farming families and citrus groves. To get to Acron visitors would pay a fare of $6.00 for a steamer down the St. John’s River from Jacksonville to Hawkinsville.  From there you traveled overland by mule cart. John C. Campbell was the first postmaster in 1877. Acron originally had a population of 30 but grew to 300. The Acron School was established in 1875 with Sara Campbell as its first teacher, Flora Call would later become the second.

During this time, Elias became very fond of Flora Call, the teenaged daughter of a neighbor who lived only a couple of miles away.  The Call family had moved to Florida in 1884, after some very severe Ohio winters, accompanied by Kepple and Elias Disney, who both settled in Acron. The area was remote, with only seven families at the time. Officially designated a county on May 27, 1887, Lake issued its first marriage license exactly seven months later, in December, for the Disney-Call wedding.

Kepple Disney was not pleased with Florida and almost immediately moved back to Kansas. Primarily because of his interest in Flora, Elias bought a 40-acre farm in nearby Kismet. 

Grand View Hotel

Kismet was founded in 1884 by the Kismet Land and Improvement Company. It was near Lake Dorr, eight miles west of Paisley and featured a 50 room hotel for winter visitors. Kismet was popular until the "89 Big Freeze" which was the demise of a number of flourishing citrus towns. The Grand View Hotel in Kismet was torn down, hauled to Eustis and rebuilt on the corner of Grove and Magnolia Street, where it stood as the Eustis Grandview Hotel until it was torn down about 1955.  All that remains of Kismet today are several gravestones in the abandoned cemetery.

Bellvue Halifax Hotel

Elias sold the farm and tried managing the Halifax Hotel in Daytona Beach, but left when things slumped after the summer tourist season. Next he got a job as a rural mailman in Kissimmee, which is the first major city east of DisneyWorld today. He saved enough money to buy an 80-acre orange grove near Paisley.

The '89 freeze put an end Elias's oranges, leaving him with a young wife and newborn son, Herbert, who was born in Sorrento on December 8, 1888, and no way to make a living. The little family moved to Chicago, where Elias became a construction worker. Raymond was born in Chicago December 30, 1890, followed by Roy on June 24, 1893, Walt in December 1901 and sister Ruth in 1902. 

Walt Disney's uncle, Albert Perkins, was the postmaster of Paisley from 1902 until 1935. Jessie Call Perkins taught in several Lake County schools and eventually served as principal of Eustis High School. When her husband died, she succeeded Albert as postmaster and served until 1946.

Aunt Jessie, Walt and Irene Campbell

Roy and Walt are rumored to have both visited Paisley. The story goes that young Walt and Roy visited Jessie and Albert during their summer vacations from school. There is one photo of Walt visiting his Aunt Jessie and cousin Irene sometime in the 50's. He and Lillian also rode the train from Washington, D.C. to Key West in 1931. From there, they went to Havana for a week before returning to California by way of a steam ship thru the Panama Canal.

Paisley is only about 50 miles north of Walt Disney World. You can take the 429 north to the 414, then onto the 441 and eventually County Road 439 will hook you onto Highway 42 and into Paisley.

Eustis, Sorrento and the remains of the Kismet Cemetery are all nearby.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This is the Disney Bio You're looking for

Christian Moran has put together a well researched, excellently documented and balanced biography of Walt Disney, his work and vision. It's a bit long for casual viewing (100 minutes) but it hits all the significant elements of Walt's drive to use technology in ways never done before. The commentary is factual, accurate and intelligent. I really can't recommend this production highly enough.

There is a companion book, but we're going to have to wait for a DVD.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Walt's Office Ghost Story

In December of 2014 I attended the cast member and family Holiday Celebration at the Burbank Studios, where I took the opportunity to view some of the artwork in the corridors. I remembered that Walt's Office was in one of the buildings and asked a security guard for directions. He knew which building it was in, but wasn't exactly sure where it might have been in the building, but I headed over anyway.

Nearly everyone was at the party, so the halls were empty. I ran into some very helpful party-poopers who directed me upstairs and also told me a ghost story about Walt.

Apparently the IT Networking group does maintenance in the building after hours, when no one else is there. Some of the technicians have reported that when they've been working particularly late they have heard Walt's distinctive cough in the area of what used to be his office. 

Here's a photo I took from the hallway outside. The endless reflections in the full glass door add a rather eternal perspective and Mickey is there, standing as guard and sentinel over his muse's former workplace. It's was a bit dark and gloomy. 

True to Walt's wishes. I've plussed the image up a bit. Perhaps I should bring it out once or twice a year for Halloween and his birthday.

Full size it's 4x4 and 400 dpi, so it should print nicely. Please feel free to share.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sticking to the Knitting

The 1970’s, in the immediate wake of Walt’s death, were lackluster years for the Disney Company. Most of the revenue was generated from the re-distribution of old films and attendance at Walt Disney World. Top animators defected in 1977 and subsequent efforts failed to capture the magic of the studio’s glory days.

In the early 80’s, Ron Miller began expanding the product line into films for “adult audiences”. Touchstone’s pictures were some of the most financially and critically successful films of the time. Although Disney was careful not to use its name on any Touchstone production in order to preserve its image as a creator of family entertainment.

Beginning in 1984, Michael Eisner continued to pursue a market segmentation and expansion strategy, adding two more film subsidiaries, one devoted to producing films for teenagers and young adults and the other for adult entertainment.

The 90’s were a breakout decade for Disney, primarily driven by a return to quality animation and storytelling. A sting of hits produced by both Disney and Pixar reminded us that great “family friendly” entertainment never really goes out of style.

Over last 20 years, Disney has expanded operations, adding theme parks, cruise ships, resorts, television and live theater, basically returning to Walt’s model of owing both the media production and distribution channels for high quality stories. The popularity of Disney franchises and animated features has funded further acquisitions; Pixar, Marvel and Lucas Film, adding more stories to the library, while renewing and expanding on updated versions of classic fairly tales.

There is no doubt that over the past 10 years Disney has been a rousing financial success. Since 2008, their market capitalization growth has bettered the overall market by nearly 3:1. In the midst of this fiscal fever, it’s important to not loose track of what made it all possible. Based on results, what works is when the company sticks to the four basic principles espoused by its creator; Safely, Efficiently and Courteously telling stories to the kid in everyone.

That may sound boring to some, but financially it appears to be pretty exciting and, so far, it seems to be working.