American Experience: Walt Disney — Making a Film About a Film Pioneer

What a fantastic way to learn about an icon of early film history. Like much of the PBS educational programming on American Experience and American Masters, the two American Experience episodes on Walt Disney are both visually and narratively compelling. Producers need not use reenactments or rely too heavily on the Ken Burns-style panning shot over a still image for this documentary, as is the luxury of creating a film about a filmmaker: filmmakers have easy access to cameras and use these for both professional and personal purposes. Thus, directors and producers have an abundance of film, audio, and visual material to work with and need not sequence kitschy or boring stills with suspenseful music to generate dramatic effect. Beyond this, to best understand the work of a filmmaker, one must see examples of the innovative filmmaking. And Disney’s films are great fun to see, be it shorts of Oswald the Rabbit, the first Mickey Mouse short, Silly Symphonies, or clips of the iconic feature films Fantasia, Snow White, and Mary Poppins.

Who knew that Disney prioritized realism in his animation style? Particularly for Snow White, his first feature-length masterpiece, Disney emphasized “dramatic performance” within animation. He brought in actors to perform the roles of various characters and even encouraged animators to take acting classes and use mirrors at their workstations to closely observe how emotions can be carried in the face. Realistic expression was key to Disney’s unique take and what pushed his style of animation forward. Watching the clips after hearing about the 200,000 frames individually drawn and painted, and learning of Disney’s meticulous concern and allegiance towards his personal vision, it is difficult not to revere Disney. It does seem like quite a feat that animation could be realistic enough to coax viewers into suspending their disbelief and allow themselves to be emotionally taken by seamlessly stitched cartoons. Disney cleverly elevated the animation genre from gag jokes and pranks to art with layers of emotion. The episodes portray Disney as a genius, an innovative artist who knit storytelling and technology to produce captivating animations accessible and poignant for audiences of all ages. And a good father to boot.

The section on the development of Fantasia was also a highlight; the inspiration started when Disney and Tchaikovsky selected symphonies to build up the score, and then Disney assembled thinkers from various disciplines to brainstorm imagery and movements to complement the musical score. Artists, such as classical ballet choreographer George Balanchine, were gathered alongside scholars, such as physicist Edwin Hubble, to participate in brainstorming, and a collective sensibility emerged. Fantasia was not as much of an indisputable hit as Snow White, but it was fair from a complete failure and represents a large-scale collaborative effort that is perhaps unprecedented in film history.

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