In a famous and oft-quoted statement, Walt Disney said, “There’s really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward—opening up new doors and doing new things — because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We’re always exploring and experimenting.”
Throughout most of his career, Walt was frequently referred to as a “cartoonist,” a diminutive and dismissive-sounding synopsis that was frequently used — without animosity or ill-intent – because what Walt Disney did in the medium of animation was so difficult to summarize.
His pioneering innovations in the art form actually began, to a large degree, because he felt that when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1923, that he was too late to make an impact in animation. “I was a little discouraged with the cartoon at that time,” Walt said. “I felt at that time I thought I was getting into it too late. In other words, I thought the cartoon business was established in such a way that there was no chance to break into it.”
He managed to sell two cartoon series and build a small studio in the ensuing five years, but breakout success eluded him. When his key character property (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) and studio staff were taken out from under him, Walt knew that he could not just launch another cartoon series — reinventing himself in Hollywood and with the public would require an attention-getting advancement in the medium itself.
Although motion pictures with synchronized audio had been experimented with for years, the Warner Bros. feature film “The Jazz Singer,” released in the autumn of 1927, had established sound as the new norm for previously “silent” film fare. Walt decided not only to synchronize sound to animation, but also to create a sound track that drove the action and commented on the scenario.
Roy O. Disney recalled, “So we immediately, around the Studio, began experimenting. We’d take our cartoon feature and throw it on a screen where you could see from the reverse side, the picture, and some of us fellows and some of our wives, for the lighter voices, would each take a character, and we’d ad lib to that character, and then we’d get all the rest of the organization out in front to view the effects. Walt was quick to say, ‘That’s it. That’s it. It looks realistic, it’ll be realistic, and that’s what we gotta do! Stop all these silent pictures, let’s go after sound!’”
“My first job was to find a way I could get the sound on this film,” Walt said. “Well, it was a bedlam, and everybody was frantically trying to get sound equipment. There were only two or three outfits that had equipment … Went to Fox and I got the brush-off, they said, no, we got our own stuff, we’re too busy, we can’t bother with anybody outside. I went to RCA, RCA had a place there. So they listened to me, I went in and saw the head guy.”
But RCA did not understand that Walt wasn’t interested in just putting sound on the film. Sound was integral to the action, and required being scored to a degree of complexity that even live-action films were not doing.
Walt remembered, “They said, ‘Look, here’s what we’ll do. We’re busy, we have our crew, we have our orchestra, we have our sound tech men. You give us the picture, you just give us the picture. We’ll put the sound on it, you come on back and we’ll have it all together.’ … They said, “Well, we’re just too busy to monkey around with anything you’ve experimented around here …”
“So immediately we had been looking around and there were some other independent little fellows making sound equipment,” Roy said. The result was a deal with a small outfit called Cinephone, run by a brash huckster called Pat Powers.
Sound had been a live-action innovation that Walt picked up on, but his next advancements were originated with Animation. Various color processes had been around in motion pictures for decades, but no method offered both realistic color representation and technical efficiency.“Steamboat Willie” was a huge hit, and launched both the worldwide fame of Mickey Mouse, and the identity of his creator as a pioneer in his field. Walt continued to push his staff to improve their work, expand their talents, and develop their ideas in order to remain the leader in the Animation business.
“So Technicolor®, about that time came out with the three-color imbibition process where ..it runs in contact with the dye and … the film absorbs the color in the right proportion … now that was it,” Walt said. “Now when they came to me with it, and I saw the three colors, and I saw it all on one side of the film, I was very excited about it. It was expensive. I wanted to go right away to color.Sound had been a live-action innovation that Walt picked up on, but his next advancements originated with animation. Various color processes had been around in motion pictures for decades, but no method offered both realistic color representation and technical efficiency.
“I made a deal with Technicolor. They were very interested in having us go ahead with it for two reasons: they were not quite far enough along with their color process to go into heavy production with any of the big live-action theatrical features — a cartoon was ideal for their experimentation … I got Technicolor to give me an exclusive for two years for the use of their three-color process … in the cartoon field.”
Walt’s first Technicolor cartoon, the Silly Symphony “Flowers and Trees,” won the very first Academy Award® for Animated Short Subject. From that time on, color became a staple of animation, and soon a mainstream resource of live-action film-making.
Walt’s next animation innovation went so far beyond the standards of the day that it was well and truly “ahead of its time.” Walt’s magnificent experiment in sight and sound, “Fantasia,” not only pushed the art and techniques of animated film-making to new heights, the initial road show engagements featured an amazing audio invention: a stereophonic sound process known as “Fantasound.”
“For my medium it opens up unlimited possibilities,” Walt said. “Music has always played a very important part since sound came into the cartoon. Now, the full expression that comes from the new Fantasound opens up a whole new world for us. The music inspired the pictures.”
Disney became one of the first customers for a newly-established company called Hewlett-Packard, when eight of its Model 200B oscillators were ordered to test the Fantasound systems.
“Fantasia” debuted at the Broadway Theatre in New York City on November 13, 1940. (Under its previous name, the Colony Theatre, the same venue had hosted the screen debut of Mickey Mouse just 12 years earlier.) The road show “Fantasound” release was limited to 14 theaters, due to the costs and other complications of the sound system installation. Twelve of the houses were “legitimate” stage and concert theaters, converted for the purpose.
Although it is now considered a classic, “Fantasia” was unable to make a profit during its initial releases due to its large budget and the costs involved with its complicated presentation. In 1942, though, an honorary Academy Award was given to Walt Disney, Bill Garity, and RCA for their “outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures through the production of ‘Fantasia’.”
Walt was philosophical about how “Fantasia” was received. “… we just felt that … we could do something very exciting with music and picture and color and things, so we just went ahead and tried it out and as I see it, it was successful for what is was. Of course, it brought in the art side, it brought in the music side, it brought in the motion picture, and we had all of these people who were acting as reviewers or critics. And you just can’t please everybody.”
With further innovation in the films “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), Walt was able to follow through on the idea of stereophonic sound, along with an idea he had toyed with years earlier.
“At that time with ‘Fantasia’ I wanted to put a wider screen,” Walt said. “I wanted to double my screen and I was all set to do it, but the bankers had their foot on my neck and I hat to go along with the conventional. But I still had my stereophonic sound. So I believe in those things …”
“Lady and the Tramp” was the first animated feature in the new widescreen CinemaScope™ process. and included a four-track magnetic stereophonic soundtrack. Four years later, “Sleeping Beauty” utilized a wide-gauge 70mm film process known as Technirama 70™, which carried a six-track magnetic stereo track. “Sleeping Beauty” also featured the first limited use of the Xerox™ process for animation, which was used on the wide fields to enlarge and reduce drawings in scale, particularly in the scenes with the dragon.
“Sleeping Beauty” led to another innovation, during the January 30, 1959, episode of the “Walt Disney Presents” anthology program on ABC. “The Peter Tchaikovsky Story” featured an extended behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Sleeping Beauty,” showing scenes from the film in the first video transmission of widescreen film images, today known as the “letterbox” format. The Disney team dubbed it more artfully “The Magic Mural Screen.” In addition, the broadcast was simulcast in stereophonic sound, using the built-in television speaker in combination with a concurrent AM radio broadcast and FM radio broadcast.
Although it took nearly three decades, Walt’s foresight for the heightened possibilities of the art of animation, as well the visual and audio production techniques and presentation technologies, was finally proven.
“Progress, you know, is slow up to a point,” Walt said. “You know what I mean? And then some little thing’ll happen … Boom! A breakthrough! That’s the way with motion pictures too.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti spent 10 years as a Disney employee, and has written more than twenty books, dozens of magazine articles, and scores of blog columns about Walt Disney, his life, and his work.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”