There is probably no artist's name as well known, as attached to so many works of art and that has inspired more people than Walt Disney. From creating Mickey Mouse to building Disneyland to creating arguably the largest entertainment company on planet Earth, he is a giant personality whose works will be felt for many years into the future. Any artist should study the life of this American genius because they will find mountains of inspiration from any chapter of his brilliant story.
He grew up in a poor, yet hardworking farming family in the Midwest and at an early age discovered a love for drawing. He never finished high school, dropping out because he wanted to fight in the war but fortunate for us they turned him down because he was only 16. He found work in making advertisements which led him to discovering animation. He had no formal training whatsoever but was fascinated by the subject and found a book on it, read it, and soon after opened up an animation company. It gained some success but could not turn a profit and quickly failed. That's right, Walt Disney's first animation business went bankrupt and failed! He decided to move from Kansas City to Hollywood where the entertainment industry was. With the help of his brother Roy, they began creating new and exciting animation.
Disney's company had success with a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, although it was technically owned by Universal and through strong arm business tactics the character was not only taken from Disney's company but also every single one of his animators except for one. With such a huge loss of staff and resources he did not wallow or dive into self-pity, instead he flourished and prospered through the creation of one of the most globally recognizable characters in human history: Mickey Mouse. Disney had the idea to produce a cartoon in sound and with the production of "Steamboat Willie" in 1928, his company had a bonafide hit on their hands, with Walt Disney's own voice imbuing the new animated star with a lovable soul.
Walt Disney would continue innovating in the field of animation with his most ambitious project yet. At the time, cartoons were short and shown before a movie played, but Disney had the idea to produce a feature length cartoon. This was unheard of and they called him crazy, constantly saying that no one would sit through a whole movie of a cartoon; it was ridiculous! Disney spent four years working on his feature length cartoon until he ran out of money and was forced to show early, unfinished material to bankers, and finally his film was released in 1937. You may have heard of it. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it went on to earn Disney an Academy Award, was the most successful film of 1938, is listed in AFI's List of the 100 Greatest American Films (one of only two animated films to be on the list, the other is Disney's Fantasia) and Albert Einstein at the time said it was, "the greatest film ever made."
Despite the success of Snow White and Mickey Mouse, The Walt Disney Company had not managed to reach viability as a company because of huge loan debts and large investments into expanding the Disney Studios and beginning production on more animated feature films. Just when the public wanted to see Disney films, the world was thrown into World War II and the company faced giant obstacles to stay afloat and somehow survive. Walt Disney did not let a global war stop him from creating art and when the dust settled he was in control of a company that knew no boundaries, produced more animated films, expanded into live action films, had it's own distribution company and an international merchandising empire.
When Walt Disney wanted to create a place where parents could bring their kids that was beautiful, fun, and other worldly, they again called him crazy. His company would go into further debt and had to think creatively of how to raise more money for the idea of a theme park at a time when no one knew what a theme park was. He struck gold by working out a deal with ABC to air a TV show about his new theme park and it's construction and through an investment with ABC was able to get enough money to build his park and promote it on TV at the same time. Until Disneyland opened in 1951, the Walt Disney Company had spent its first 20 years in debt, but it could now go on to amass enormous revenue from the success of "the happiest place on Earth," which would evolve into more parks, including Disney World in 1971.
The Walt Disney Company now owns the companies ABC, Miramax, Marvel and Pixar, to name a few. It has produced countless hours of television, motion pictures, and music. It has arguably created more memorable pieces of art and entertainment than any other company in history, and to think it all stemmed from a man from very humble beginnings that wanted to draw instead of farm. His genius lay not in the ability to amass fame and fortune, but in his ability to constantly create art and push the limits of what was possible in whatever artistic field he was involved. and the fame and fortune were inevitable. He ignored the naysayers and always looked to the future. If they call Times Square the "center of the universe" and refer to a "Disneyfication" of it, it only means we have arrived at a future world that Walt Disney helped create, decades ago, while drawing pictures and wanting them to move.
Join my mailing list to receive new blog posts and updates.
It's been 35 years since the original Star Wars film first hit theaters in 1977. It was rejected by Universal and George Lucas made it go right by finding investment for the film and got it made. People hadn't seen anything like it before and it became an overnight phenomenon. They lined up for blocks to see it over and over again. Lucas scored a huge hit and at the time no one, including him, could have predicted that it would go on to be a cultural milestone, now valued at over $30 billion dollars. What was the secret behind the wildly successful franchise? What made it so different from other films, shows, books and creations that it took on such a monstrous size? Three things.
1. ORIGINALITY - Science fiction stories had been around for decades and science fiction movies had been made before but it was new things like the opening title sequence, newly developed special effects, light sabers, Wookies, the Force and a ton of others all combining in a wholly unique, aesthetically stimulating experience that drove people crazy. It was something new! They hadn't seen ANYTHING close to this before.
2. MERCHANDISING - Although the Star Wars films have grossed a couple billion dollars world wide, the bigger numbers come from merchandise like Star Wars toys, t-shirts, board games, lunch boxes, backpacks, coloring books, legos, video games, legos inspired video games, phone apps, posters, comic books, novels and a TON of other stuff. From the very beginning George Lucas, a marketing genius, saw the potential of every kid wanting to be Luke Skywalker and later realized he would grow to be an adult wanting to be Luke Skywalker.
3. FANNING THE FAN BASE - When people become fans of something they're usually left to their own devices to express their admiration for it. There might be an occasional fan club one could join where you'd receive a one time package of a photo and a sticker, but Star Wars fans had more, MUCH more. George Lucas realized there was enormous potential in the Star Wars story continuing in the hands of fans across the world. Most entertainment companies go after people when they use their characters' images in fan made creations, but not Lucas. He encouraged it. The result? Countless numbers of fan made movies, songs, websites, you name it and it's probably been made by a Star Wars fan. It is the guy that spends a couple years making his home-made version of Episode IV and shows it to all his friends online that keeps the franchise filled with an ever-growing amount of new content. And these guys buy movie tickets and all the merchandise, brilliant!
It all starts from an original idea, but then you need to make other products and create a vehicle for people to help you promote your creations. It's not enough to just make great art. You have to promote and sell it. You have to get others to help you, otherwise you'll be limited to how many people you can reach. Ideally, you want to create a world like George Lucas did, one others will want to explore and play in enough to help it grow and expand. One of the biggest challenges being an artist is being able to create outside of the confines of yourself, to get out there and create with others. I think George Lucas pulled it off and now, so can you. May the force be with you.
Join my mailing list to receive new blog posts and updates.
I'm David Carus. From overcoming one of the most dangerous cities in the country and graduating from one of the most prestigious colleges in America to leading an educational movement as a teacher and running for Congress at the age of 25, I decided the best hope our world has is through art.