Monday, April 28, 2014

Why This Blog? (2016 Update)

Some of you are probably wondering what could motivate me to put the time and effort into doing this blog. It's a fair question. In order to answer it, I have to tell you a couple of stories.  But before that, I'll give you a short answer; Walt Disney was an amazing individual. There are already over a dozen Disney biographies and it seems like a new one comes out almost yearly. He's been compared to Steve Jobs and the company which bears his name is known and admired around the world.

Five years ago I decided to try discover and understand the things that made Walt who he was.  That is what I intend to put in this blog. Not Disneyland trivia or movie facts. This blog is supposed to be about the Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How of Walt.

Now to the story; It's about a jacket which an friend of mine gave me many years ago.  It's not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill jacket, as you can see from the picture below. It's a Walt Disney Imagineering "cast member" jacket. That means its intended for employees. (Disney refers to employees as cast members and patrons as "guests".)


The copyright tag on it is dated 1988, so I've had it for over 25 years.  It came with one condition; under no circumstances was I to wear it in The Park.  The request was from one of my closest and most trusted friends and I honored it until a few of years ago, when he let me know that I was released from that obligation.  Since then it has been worn at Disney's California Adventure, but only once.  

On that occasion cast members treated me differently. One asked me when I'd worked for Disney. I felt uncomfortable and replied that it was a gift from an old friend and that I hoped to be working for Disney soon - which was true, my profile was on DisneyJobs and I'd applied for a couple dozen openings. I also have a companion piece to the jacket. (Isn't it amazing the things you can find on eBay.)



This item will not leave my house. It's too symbolic and I'm a little concerned that it should never have left the Disney Creative campus in the first place. This badge and the jacket represented what had become my highest employment aspiration; to be an Imagineer.

When I was a kid, I didn't really care for Disney one way or the other.  We watched the show on TV, but in those days my humor ran closer to Bugs Bunny than Mickey Mouse and I had no interest or desire to be a member of the Mickey Mouse Club.

My parents took me to Disneyland when I was about 8. It was fun, but I didn't really "get it", except for the rides.  Half a century later, I know that Disneyland isn't about the rides. It's about how the experience.

In 2011, I read Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. After that I read; Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney's Success. Next was Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. Then came; DisneyWar, Work in Progress, Be Our Guest and The Imagineering Workout, followed by The Disney Way, The Revised Vault of Walt, How to Be Like Walt and Disney U.  Most recently, I've completed Diane Disney Miller's The Walt Disney Story and was at the time of this post's writing, about half way thru Bob Thomas' excellent An American Original.  There were a few other artistic books and memoirs of the Nine Old Men. I've also been to the Disney Family Museum and Disneyland twice.

That's a lot of Disney to digest. Some might call it compulsive.  It didn't feel that way to me, particularly since I opted out of Disney when I was a kid. Eventually I decided that I'd just matured enough to really enjoy and appreciate it. My wife says I'm finally having a childhood.

Late in 2012, I made the acquaintance of an ex-Disney employee who has become the closest thing I've ever had to a fairy-godmother.  She listened to my jacket story and understood. After that she bacame regular source of guidance and insight. One of her comments was that I really didn't need to work for Disney to be an Imagineer. (We'll come back to that idea a little later.)

In his book, Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull says that by 1973 the technically adventuresome Disney was long gone. That may have been so. I've also been told by a couple of ex-employees that Disney is now big and bloated and buried in bureaucracy. Then, they'll turn out a movie like Frozen or a short like Paperman and I'm not so worried about the nay-sayers.

For ten years I was with Apple Computer. For a while I thought that was the closest I'd ever get to being an Imagineer. It's been interesting to learn that many of the traits of an Imagineer have a direct parallel to Design Thinking. I also decided that if I didn't get to work as an Imagineer before it was my turn to move on, I was going to tell my youngest daughter to slip that badge in one of my pockets before they closed the lid. It turned out that wasn't going to be necessary.

Update - December 2014

Back in the fall of 2014 I had the opportunity to spend about two hours with four remarkable men who are on the inside of the bubble surrounding a part of Disney Imagineering. It was in the context of a somewhat impromptu job interview. I'd been advised that one of them was very, very smart and known for getting to the heart of the matter very quickly. It may not have been my best interview ever, but it also wasn't my worst. We talked about my background and accomplishments, they talked about their needs. One of them also talked about The Magic. He commented that it had been a long time since he'd had a conversation like that.

After the interview I received some feedback that there was a project I might get a shot at, if it was funded. That wasn't a job offer, but it was a small sign that I was good enough to make the cut.
At the time I was OK with that. Sometimes circumstances combine to prevent things coming together perfectly, right then. When that happens, you make the best of it and keep moving forward. It was a good feeling to know a smart, tough, veteran Imagineer thought I was good enough to give me a chance.

I decided I still wasn't going to wear that jacket in the park, but that I would wear it elsewhere, as a sign of my commitment and respect for what it represented. I also started doing Design Thinking workshops, began coaching a team of mechanical engineering students working on their senior year project and put my plans with Mickey on the shelf.

Then the phone rang. The project was funded. You may of heard of it; Tokyo Disneyland is doing a multi year expansion to Fantasyland. I started work on November 10th, 2014, for the Ride Engineering Group in Glendale.

A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep, but luck favors the prepared. The new cast member jackets are pretty cool too. Mickey is only on the front, but they have a nicer hood.

I miss Walt, even tho I never met him in person. What he stood for resonates with me and I hope it does for you also.  I wanted to help with what he was doing and to the degree that what I do at work honors his vision, I'm getting the chance to do that. 

My intention here is to explore some of the things about Disney that haven't been overworked and which sparked some insight in me. The things which helped shape and build him into the remarkable person he became and create the things he did.

Oh, speaking of Walt. He used to work in an office that used to be behind this wall; I was recently told that the IT guys occasionally hear his cough when they are working around there.


You can still start reading my thoughts on what all this has to do with Walt here.

Update - August 2016;  I was the lead Ride Engineer for the Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast for 368 days, from November 10th 2014 to Friday, November 13, 2015. Belle got put on hold and I was a "green badge" aka Staff Extension. The dream is still alive. In July OLC published this concept sketch of one possible scene from the show; That ten passenger creamer like cabin design is the visible legacy of my year doing work for Walt's muse.  I still hope experience it, in 2020, or so.

TDL Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast attraction concept art



Walt and Tom - Seeking Perfection in Every Way

Don't be nervous Mr. Disney. They only cost $186,000 each.

One of the less explored areas of Walt's life are the three times which he spoke of reaching the end of his rope. The first was in 1931, the same year that Mickey Mouse was born.  His description of the event is a bit stoic:

"I guess I was working too hard and worrying too much.  I was expecting more from my artists than they were giving me, and all I did all day was pound, pound, pound.  Costs were going up; each new picture we finished cost more to make than we had figured it would... so I cracked up.  I became irritable and I couldn't sleep. I reached a point where I couldn't even talk over the telephone without crying. I was an emotional flap."

Diane describes her fathers' trouble as due to an "acute attack of perfectionism." I don't think she made that clinical of a phrase up.  Another thing she mentioned was Walt's feelings about films that he'd just completed. He'd repeatedly say; "I'm sick of it.  There are too many things wrong with it. I'm sick of it."

There is an interesting parallel here with another great inventor; Thomas Edison.

In 1901, Orison Swett Marden interviewed Edison and asked: "What makes you work? What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle?" Edison's reply was fascinating;
 
"I like it. I don‘t know any other reason. Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am uneasy until it is finished; and then I hate it... when it is all done and is a success, I can‘t bear the sight of it. I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light."

Can you imagine Walt saying that about Disneyland?

A review of Walt's professional accomplishments and failures up to 1940 may help set the stage here:

Jan, 1920 - Walt and Ubbe Iwerks form Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The business survives for a month. (Setback 1)

1922 - Walt quits Film Ad and incorporates "Laugh-O-gram Films" with $15,000 from local investors.

July, 1923 - "Laugh-O-gram Films" files for bankrupcy. Walt moves to Hollywood planning to become a director. (Setback 2)

October 16, 1923 - Walt & Roy sign a contract with M.J. Winkler to distribute Alice's Adventures.

Febuary, 1924 - Disney Brothers' Studio opens.

March, 1924 - The first "Alice Comedies" reaches theaters.

July 13, 1925 - Walt marries Lillian.  He later joked: "I couldn't afford to pay her, so I married her!"

1927 - The renamed Walt Disney Studios is contracted to make Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  As a work for hire, all rights are owned by Winkler/Mintz. When costs overrun expenses and Walt tries to re-negotiate, Mintz offers an unacceptable ultimatum. Walt quits, essentially loosing everything. (Setback 3)

November 18, 1928 - "Steamboat Willie" opens in New York to rave reviews. Film companies come calling. Distributors clamor for more Mickey. Walt signs a contact with Pat Powers, who primarily wants to promote his Cinephone sound system, and returns to California with a check for $2500. 

1929 - Walt hires a lawyer in regards to the deal with Powers. Ub Iwerks signs a contract to work for Powers, which stuns Walt.  (Setback 4) Mickey Mouse Clubs spring up all over the country.

1930 - Walt breaks off negotiations with Pat Powers, suspecting him of being crooked. Disney can't afford a lawsuit, so he walks away and starts over. (Setback 5)

In 1934, Walt decided it was time to try for a full length animated feature.  The story was Snow White. He initially estimated that it would cost $500,000 to produce.  By the time the two million drawings were combined together into the 83 minute movie, that would balloon to $1,488,422.74.  The studio was deeply in debt.

For the first half of production, Walt would be intimately involved.  In 1935, he would begin to exhibit many of the same symptoms he did four years earlier; crankiness, sleeplessness. This time he was treated with thyroid injections, which only made things worse.  Roy suggested he and Walt take Lillian and Edna on a European Vacation as a wedding anniversary present and "for putting up" with them for so long. The trip did the trick. When Walt returned he told his secretary to call the doctor and tell him that he was cured and, with regard to the thyroid injections; "He can shoot those things in his own butt from now on."

Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would earn $8 million in its first release, the costs of studio expansion and making Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio, plus Walt's ever present need to push the envelope and wow the audience, would keep the Disney Studio on the financial roller coaster all the way thru 1940.  By that time the company had 1000 employees and a brand new $3 million studio.  Roy called Walt into his office one day to discuss the situation.  While explaining that they owed the bank $4.5 million, Walt broke out into laughter.  Roy demanded to know what was so funny. Walt replied;

"I was just thinking back. Do you remember when we couldn't borrow a thousand dollars? And now we owe four and-a-half million... I think that's pretty damn good."

(Remember, this is just the first half of the story. At this point Walt is still just making movies. Disneyland and EPCOT are just a gleam in his eye.)

The third incident happened after they had moved into the new studio in 1939.  The building was air conditioned in order to provide a comfortable environment for the animators with temperature and humidity control for the ink and paint staff.

Walt was was working late one evening and happened to be there at 10:30 when the air conditioning shut down for the night.  He describes the experience;

"Whoooooooo, like submerging in a submarine.  I yelled, but there was nobody around.  I ran over to the window and clawed and scratched, trying to get it open. All I did was cut up my fingers. I finally had to break the window so I could breathe."

Walt had ordered all the window handles removed to prevent them being opened and destroying the benefit of the air conditioning. That sounds like a panic attack to me.  Again, I'm not a professional, but the irrational fear of suffocation while in a large well ventilated space fits the bill.

What is truly amazing is that over the years Walt kept coming back, somehow keeping up his spirits, holding to his standards over and over, thru setback after setback, until he finally triumphed.

Given all he would eventually accomplish, I suppose a "nervous breakdown" had to be expected. Sometimes, it's a fine line to walk between brilliance and insanity. Whether you prefer to call it an attack of acute perfectionism, post traumatic stress disorder, or just working too hard, Walt bounced back and overcame it. That was his way. He was an optimist.

Dave Kelley might say that Walt had Creative Confidence. One thing I know for sure is, if you quit, your progress will stop.

I'm glad Walt didn't quit.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Third time's the charm, so keep trying.



“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm” 


When Walt got home from the war, jobs were scarce. Two of his uncle Roy’s friends, named Pressman and Ruben, ran an art shop for the Gray Advertising Company and were in need of an apprentice. Walt went to see them, bringing samples of some of the illustrations he’d done in France. That portfolio was enough to get him hired. Initially, Ruben and Pressman didn’t even know how much to pay him.  

After the first week, Ruben came by Walt’s drawing board, looked at his work and said “I don’t know.” Walt though he was about to be canned, but then Ruben added; “How about fifty a month?” Even though this was at time when the average income was about $1500 per year, Walt was so excited that he went to find his Aunt Margaret, one of the first people to encourage his artistic skills, and tell her that he was actually getting paid to draw pictures.  Unfortunately, the end of the year brought layoffs and Walt was the first to go.  By that time he’d picked up quite a few drawing tricks and was thinking of getting work on his own. One of the other employees at Gray was Ub Iwerks, who was good at calligraphy and airbrushing. Ub was laid off at the same time and very distressed about it. In typical fashion, Walt suggested that they go into business together. 

Attempt #1

As part of the deal for their first client, Walt suggested that instead of getting paid in cash, they’d take just enough space for Ub and him to work at. Their first month they brought in $135.00, and were rent free. Such was the founding of Iwerks-Disney Commerical Artists. Walt's first commercial venture would soon to end, but begin the process of teaching him important lessons along the way.

In 1921, Disney was contracted by Milton Feld to make twelve animated cartoons, which Walt called Newman's Laugh-O-grams. Laugh-O-gram Films incorporated on May 23, 1922, using the assets of the failed, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists company, plus $15,000 from local investors. Laugh-O-grams would also have problems making ends meet within a few months, Walt was living at the office, taking baths once a week at the train station and eating on the good will of local restaurants.  Part of the problem was that he hadn’t learned how to correctly price his product yet. 

Kansas City dentist Thomas B. McCrum wanted Walt to produce a short subject about dental hygiene. Pulling some of his old staff back together, Disney made Tommy Tucker's Tooth, which brought in $500, that was then re-invested in the live-action/animation demonstration film Alice's Wonderland.  Laugh-O-gram Films would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 1923. Selling his camera to get enough for a one-way train ticket to Hollywood, Walt went to live with his uncle Robert and his brother Roy, bringing along an unfinished reel of Alice's Wonderland.

Attempt #2

While in California, Walt continued to send out proposals for the Alice series, in hopes of obtaining a distribution deal. On May 14, 1923 Walt wrote to Margaret Winkler, a New York film distributor, inquiring if she might be interested in Alice's Wonderland.  At this time Winkler was the top cartoon distributor in the world.  That September she viewed the Alice pilot reel and was intrigued with the idea of a live-action girl in a cartoon world.  

Margaret signed Walt to a year-long contract, knowing that that Laugh-O-grams had just gone bankrupt two months earlier.  Disney formed the Disney Brothers Studio but changed its name to The Walt Disney Company on October 16, 1923.  Margaret Winkler tutored Walt and insisted on editing all of the "Alice Comedies" episodes herself.  In 1924, she married Charles Mintz, a film distributor who had been working for her since 1922.  Soon after, she had her first child and retired from the business, turning the company over to her husband.

For the first two years, the  Alice series did well, initially paying $1800 to $2000 per reel. But Charles Mintz was unhappy with the production costs and suggested they develop a new character, insisting that it shouldn’t be a cat, as there ere “too many cats on the market” already.  At the same time, Universal Studios wanted to get into the cartoon business with a character of their own. 

It was the contract with Universal Studios that lead to the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. 

The first version of Oswald was rejected by Universal, who wanted a Charlie Chaplinesque character and thought the first version was too old and fat.  Walt was apologetic, telling Mintz;

"I am sorry that the first Oswald was such a keen disappointment to everyone…  This work was animated by a man of experience [Ub] whom I am willing to put alongside of any man in the business today,”  "Hereafter we will aim to [make] Oswald a younger character, peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim."

Going back to the drawing board, Disney and Iwerks, created a second cartoon, Trolly Troubles, with a much younger, neater, Oswald.  It was released on September 5, 1927.  The press and audiences loved it. Co-incidentally, Oswald was the first Disney created character to generate spin-off merchandise: a chocolate-covered marshmallow candy bar, a stencil set, and a pin-backed button.

On February 6th, 1928, Disney and Lillian traveled to New York City in hopes of renewing the Alice contract at a higher rate.  The film was playing at all the best theaters and bringing in $2250 per reel. Walt wanted to raise that to $2500.

Mintz offered $1800, but promised large turnarounds if the studio's finances improved. (This was on the verge of the Great Depression and signs of economic weakness were beginning to show around the world.  Black Tuesday was only a year and a half away.)  Mintz also told Walt that his staff had all been offered more money than they were currently getting, if they'd come work for Mintz. Walt retorted to go ahead, that he'd build a new organization.  In fact, Walt felt crushed. Back at the hotel, he told Lillian that the bottom had fallen out from under the studio.

Deeply distressed at Mintz’ actions, Disney decided to quit, which would leave Oswald and his animation staff behind.  Everything Walt had worked for had been taken form him, except his old friend Ub Iwerks, who would not abandon him.  Mint'z actions must have felt to Walt like the ultimate betrayal. (We'll come back to this later. -df)

Attempt #3

On the long train ride home, Walt decided to create another character, and retain all rights to it. He and Iwerks developed Mickey totally in secret. Walt had learned some very hard lessons about trusting people, valuing your work, pricing your product and following your dream. Years later, he would be very careful about who he shared control and partnered with.  It's also interesting to note that two of the people who first saw and encouraged his talent the most clearly were women. 

As they say, the rest is history.  Mickey would become the most popular and successful cartoon character in film history and the foundation of a global entertainment empire. 

Postscript - Justice is Blind and Done


While things seemed to go in Mintz's favor for a while, Oswald’s animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising asked Universal President Carl Lemmle to remove Mintz form the project and suggested they should be the ones to continue the Oswald series.

Laemmle denied their requests and terminated Mintz’s contact.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Uncle Ed

If you can't say sumpthin' nice...


In her 1956 book, The Story of Walt Disney, Diane Disney Miller reveals some very interesting details about her father that don't get a lot of coverage in other sources. One story in particular caught my attention because of the peek it gives into Walt's personality as a boy.

It has to do with his uncle, Edward J. Disney, who was born in 1867. One of nine children of Kepple and Mary Disney, Ed was, in Diane's words, "a case of arrested development". Ed would travel as he pleased, moving between the homes of his brothers and sisters, staying as long as he liked, then moving on when he felt it was time to go. The extended family all took Ed in and enjoyed having him around. Walt referred to Ed as "a boy who never grew up." and loved his uncle so much that when Ed dropped in to visit, Walt never wanted him to leave. Describing Ed, Walt said;

"I've never met a finer person. Uncle Ed may have been touched in the head, but he was happy. He spent hours wandering through the woods. He knew all the birds and their calls, and he knew the names of all the plants. It was a privilege to wander with him. There wasn't anybody happier and friendlier, and I loved him.  To me, he represented fun in its simplest and purest form. I never could figure out who was crazy, Uncle Ed, or everybody else."

I don't know what might qualify as "arrested development", but clearly, Uncle Ed wasn't stupid. He knew how to get around on his own. When it was time to move on, he'd head over to the train tracks near the farm and hitch a ride into town. Knowing the names of all the plants and birds also isn't a trivial achievement. One of the most obvious of Ed's traits is his child-like nature. He clearly had a kind, good and gentle heart, which must have resonated deeply with Walt.

One of the things that many Disney critics seem to have in common is a disbelief that Walt could have really been as good as his "public image". Some biographers seem to go out of their way to find examples which can be interpreted as hiding a darker side. I'm sure there were parts of Walt that could be critical and judgmental. He clearly had significant personal and professional struggles.  It would have been difficult not to pick up some "attitude" growing up having a stern parent, like his father.  But that wasn't Walt's focus. He wanted to concentrate on the positive aspects of things.

David Hand, animator and supervising director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, says that in the early days some of the staff would see a poorly done movie and want to get a copy so they could criticize it, but Walt wouldn't allow it. He say;

"Look, don't go looking at that kind of stuff. Just look at good stuff. If you find good stuff, let's look at it, but don't look at bad stuff."

There are other stories of Walt expressing disapproval to members of his staff, but it was about the quality of the work, not personal.  Hand said Walt didn't scold people, unless they were in the "sweatbox" before a preview. (We'll talk about Walt's Three Rooms later.)

I suspect that's because Walt learned early about the pain of being criticized and the corresponding need to do things perfectly, in order to avoid further criticism and punishment.

Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from Uncle Ed.  I'm pretty sure Walt did.






Monday, April 21, 2014

Hello There! This is about Walt.

Vhat do vee haf here?

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later and today is as good a day as any.  I'm going to admit in public, to the entire world, that over the past two years I've become a HUGE fan of Walt Disney. Please note that I didn't say the Walt Disney Corporation, or Disneyland, even Walt Disney Imagineering, although I do admire each of them for particular reasons.  I mean Walter Elias Disney the man. 

Of course, there is a story behind this, which I hope at least some of you will find enlightening and entertaining.  I'm going to try and tell it in as rational a way as I can, but I have to warn you in advance that this admiration did not come easily or lightly. It's the sort of appreciation you normally reserve for your family and pets.  The "don't mess with my dog or my kids unless you've got a darn good reason and have done your homework" kind of admiration that comes after a lot of refection and study.

So, welcome! Please remember to keep your arms, hands and legs inside the vehicle at all times, remain seated and don't un-fasten your safety harness.  As much as possible, I'm going to stick to using images that are in the public domain, my own work or property, beginning with Ludwig, of course, who I love because, as well all know, he knows everything about everything! The image is derived from a 1960's vintage animation cell, numbered 29 of 221. I haven't been able to figure out which episode it's from yet, but it is an original, hand painted, xerographic outline cell. I've added the image of Walt on the slide from a Walt Disney Productions specimen stock certificate, series ZQ, dated 1967.

O.K., let's get started...