Walt and the Value of Animation
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
“The point must be made clear to the men [animators] that our study of the actual is not so that we may be able to accomplish the actual, but so that we may have a basis upon which to go into the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative – and yet to let it have a foundation of fact, in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public.”
- Walt Disney, 1935
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a love of all things Disney. Growing up without a lot of money, and with parents who were not at all interested in Disney, I was never able to visit Disney Land or Walt Disney World. My only source of Disney magic was some family friends and a set of Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge books published back in 1973. I read them voraciously, and not necessarily for the factual information contained within, but for the Disney characters sprinkled throughout. The family friends had everything Disney had produced on VHS up to that point. Without a ton of exposure, without the words to express it, without knowing the intrinsic value of magic and myth, I was drawn to Disney.
Those of you who feel an excited lightness when you see the Disney logo, or who get just a little giggly when you watch a Disney classic, know what this feels like. Along with so many before me, with me, and after me, I wanted to enter into the Disney worlds, to live there, to interact with the heroes and heroines, the sidekicks and seemingly unimportants. I’ve always wanted to participate in Walt’s stories and imagination.
The above quote, from a letter on how to train animators, illustrates something important in attempting to explain why so many of us are drawn to the heart of Walt Disney (and here I’m not necessarily referring to the Disney company, film studio, or enterprise, but to the person of Walt himself). Walt wanted to teach his animators that by studying “real” life, they could better take a step into the realms of fantasy and the imaginary. But why the need to go into “the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative?” If animation is there only to accomplish what can’t be accomplished “in real life,” then what’s the point? Do we just want our animation to fill in the fantastical elements so that we can see a pseudo-magic? Or is Walt getting at something here that’s worth a closer look?
In his essay, On Fairy Stories from which I quote ad nauseum, Tolkien describes how we need fantasy. We need the imaginative, but not as an escape. We don’t escape the real world in these pursuits. Again, according to Tolkien, when we read good fairy stories, we are nearer the truth of all things. For Tolkien, and for Disney (Walt, the person), in going to these places: the “unreal”, the “imaginative,” the “fantastical” we are reaching toward a transcendent reality, the truth of the world, and who we are as human persons. Because it is when we take the material, or primary, world, and bring it into the realm of fantasy, or the imaginative, that we are able to ask bigger questions than what something does, or how it grows. We can ask about the nature of good and evil, about love and hate, about friendship and isolation.
Take Sleeping Beauty, since that’s one of my favorites. In particular, look at the person of Maleficent. Through animation we see the truth of this particular soul. We see her as a reflection of certain people throughout the history of the world who have been so wrapped up in their desires, so wrapped up in evil, that they derive pleasure from destroying the innocent. Maleficent is essentially a great dragon who calls upon all the powers of hell. Whatever she touches is poisoned and withers. She keeps herself hidden in a fortress surrounded by brambles and thorn bushes. She, as the personification of evil, can only be defeated when Philip is wielding the Shield of Virtue and the Sword of Truth. Even then, it’s a tough fight.
This triumph of Virtue and Truth, and the dawning of wisdom (i.e. Aurora) cannot be properly conveyed from a visual standpoint without animation, and delving into fantasy. Through hundreds of hours of work, hundreds of drawings and inkings, the animators created a type of fantasy whereby we learn a higher truth about the human condition, about the struggle that each of us faces. Yes, we are entertained for a time. We laugh at the obvious gags, and get a rush when the good guys win. But something else sticks with us. Something else draws us to it again and again.
I think Walt intuitively understood that by taking the instruments and experiences of real life, and creating caricatures of them and bringing them into the realm of imaginative fantasy, then we can sincerely laugh, cry, grow, and learn. If we’re going to enter into our myths through the medium of visual storytelling, animation and caricature play a vital role, and Walt Disney is their true pioneer.