The Wonderful World of WALT: Back to School with Walt Disney

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It’s well known that Walt Disney attended Benton Grammar School in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1911 to 1917, then began his freshman year at McKinley High School in Chicago (as well as attending night classes at the Chicago Art Institute) before leaving school for good to join the Red Cross.

Walt Disney, fourth from left in front row, in his grammar school photograph.

Although circumstances, combined with his vision and ambition, meant that he would never graduate from high school, Walt ultimately received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern California, and UCLA – and became one of the most prominent advocates for continuing education.

Within his Studio, this focus on education had very practical origins. Walt saw a huge potential for development in animation techniques and technologies. He knew it was necessary to remain competitive, and as a filmmaker he felt that animation had the potential to be the most expressive of the performing arts.

“Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.” Walt once wrote. “This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.”

With the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Walt began to reinvest in his staff’s talents. “The first thing I did when I got a little money to experiment,” Walt recalled, “I put all my artists back in school.”

The motion of Mickey being analyzed at an evening art class at the Hyperion Studio.

 

“Now I had worked for years with the Chouinard Art Institute … When I couldn’t afford the school in the early days, I made a deal with Mrs. Chouinard to take some of my boys that I had, some of these youngsters, and put ‘em in the night classes … I used to even take some of ‘em down at night; they didn’t have cars to get down. So I’d take ‘em down, I’d leave ‘em, I’d come back and work at the Studio myself. Then I’d go down, pick ‘em up, and I’d bring ‘em home and distribute them. But we needed specialized training, something they couldn’t quite get in the school.”

“He had a man from Chouinard Art Institute, by the name of Don Graham,” Disney Legend Marc Davis recalled, “and Don had just started a training program there. Well, Don Graham also taught at what was known as Chouinard Art Institute at that time, very fine school. And so this was something that brought art in a different sense to Walt, personally.”

“Don Graham sat right with me in what we call our sweatbox,” Walt said, “where I would sit in there with the tests coming through with each artist where we work out everything, so Don could observe my problem. The problem was to get away from the static drawing, to get away from the drawing in front of you and make that drawing a part of a motion, a part of a movement.”

“We’d think of drawing for action. We called it action analysis. You draw from the static figure … and here’s the model sitting there … but you don’t get any feeling of action, you see. So we had the model go through actions … then they had to sketch what they saw.”

“We studied live-action, timing. We drew things like Cézanne — would place them to get depth in a picture, and had models there at night. It was wonderful,” said Disney Legend Ollie Johnston.

Artist Mel Shaw recalled, “Don would bring over reproductions of famous Renaissance painters, El Greco, Leonardo DaVinci, Rubens, and so forth. And he would put them up on the board and he would analyze the composition and the staging that was used by these old masters. He wanted us to be aware that we had the same opportunities except that we also had the opportunity to make them come alive. And from this standpoint I would say that Walt was really enthralled with Don’s approach with teaching because he himself had always wanted this to be an art medium rather than just animated cartoons.”

Walt was justifiably proud of his education efforts, and he knew that what he had created influenced his art and industry well beyond his own studio lot. “And out of that school have come the artists that now make up my staff here and, more than that, the artists that make up most all of the cartoon outfits in Hollywood.”

Walt observes artists at work in the earliest incarnation of CalArts.

With the making of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” this focus on training, education, and artistic invention only increased. The creation of plausible human movement was central to the audience’s understanding of and connection with the heroine of the film, and the artists at Disney focused on the anatomy and motion of people.

Their efforts were enormously successful, but when their next great evolutionary challenge in animation presented itself, this background was of minor value. They had to animate a cast of characters without a single human being in it.

“Now you know animal anatomy is a thing that very few artists ever get anyway,” Walt said. “And before I started ‘Bambi’ we had been doing these little cartoon animals. But ‘Bambi,’ they had to be a little closer to the real animal, it’s a caricature with a certain little humanized touch — but still believable as deer, as animals in the forest. So the background for that was a good study of animal anatomy, and how deer and how these other animals actually moved, reacted, you know? So I set up this special training course before I started ‘Bambi,’ and I selected the artists that were going to work on ‘Bambi.’ And we put in an intensive series of training on animal anatomy.”

Again Walt reached out, as he had with Don Graham, for an educational leader. “I brought in the best instructor on animal anatomy,” Walt said, “name of Rico Lebrun. Rico was teaching around, he was in Santa Barbara then when I brought him down for a six-week course … I had animals at the studio. I had deer and raccoon. I had everything, you see? We had quite a small zoo there, and we had them in class, but that wasn’t good enough because animals in a cage or in captivity don’t respond naturally.

Art instructor Rico Lebrun with animator Eric Larson.

“So I got a couple of cameramen … with 16mm film and I sent them out. I sent them into the woods and had them photograph deer, and I got quite a bit of natural animal action, and we bought that in to study.”

Although Walt’s focus on art education is fairly well known, Mel Shaw adds, “Walt brought in people that were top story people. He brought in H. G. Wells, who would lecture on story development; Alexander Woollcott, who was a great short story writer. He even had Frank Lloyd Wright to the studio, talking about inspiration and art. So Walt was really imbuing all of us with something that made us feel that we were part of a movement that could be considered a Renaissance in the animated cartoon business. And I as a young man couldn’t have been in a better place in my life than to be at that particular studio.”

The cumulative effect of this ongoing continuing education program stimulated Walt. A man who never wasted an effort or overlooked an influence took these ideas to a natural conclusion.

“He had in mind an art school that would have been the art school of all art schools,” Imagineer Alice Davis recalls. “He wanted to have closed-circuit television in the school, to where the dance school, the students that were studying fine arts or illustration could watch on the TV screen the students dancing and could draw the students dancing. He was going to have an art gallery where the students could put up their work for sale to help pay their tuition … he had the costume design students, the drama students and such, all working together, learning their trade while they were at school.

“He had great plans of having, like, Picasso come and spend the summer at the school and give classes for the students, and then he himself wanted to come and teach Story. It would have been a school to end all schools.”

In 1960, Walt began to develop plans for this new school for the performing and visual arts, where different disciplines would commingle within the same institution.

Walt Disney and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music leader Mrs. Richard R. Von Hagen with an early model of California Institute of the Arts, 1964.

Although Chouinard Art Institute had continued to be highly regarded, by this time it had suffered with years of administrative problems, and in 1961 Walt and Roy O. Disney began to guide a merger of Chouinard with the venerable Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to form California Institute of the Arts. After receiving accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, CalArts was introduced to the public by Walt himself at the benefit Hollywood premiere of “Mary Poppins.”

Title card for the short film that introduced Cal Arts to the “Mary Poppins” premiere audience.

Today, California Institute of the Arts houses six schools – Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater – and offers internationally acclaimed degree programs across the range of visual, performing, media, and literary arts. CalArts also operates the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex located in downtown Los Angeles, and leads the county-wide Community Arts Partnership (CAP) youth arts education program.

“He always wanted to do something new and different and better,” Alice Davis says. “That was one of the pleasures of working for him, plus … as Marc [Davis, Alice’s husband and legendary animation artist and Imagineer] said, that Studio was the best art school he ever went to.”

By Jeff Kurtti


Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.

Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”

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