The Genius Behind Walt Disney’s Creative Trailblazing

This year I’ve been making it a goal to read more biographies.

Biographies are a great way to dive deeper into your role models – to learn more about them, see things from their perspective, and discover lessons from their life that you can apply to your own (including learning about both their strengths and weaknesses).

I’ve been focusing on different types of “leaders” and “visionaries.” Recently I finished the classic biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, and I took away a lot of important insights and wisdom based on his creative approach. (It’s the only thing I’ve been talking about with friends and family for the past month).

If I had to summarize Walt Disney’s creative genius and success in one simple mantra it would be: think in new categories. Disney was a pioneer and a trailblazer on so many different frontiers (in cartoons, movies, TV, theme parks) that it’s almost hard to wrap your head around.

His youngest ambitions were to become a cartoonist for a newspaper, which never came true because his dreams quickly outgrew his reality. Before he knew it he was producing short animations and owning his own studio, and that led down a rabbit hole of constant reinvention.

Disney had a creative hunger and burning desire to constantly push the limits of his reality and his imagination – to break new ground in what was considered possible – to invent new genres, new categories, and new ways of looking at the world.

As he famously said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Indeed, the bigger the project and the bigger the challenge, the more excited Disney was. In fact, without something big and new to focus his ambitious energy on, he often seemed lost, nervous, or lonely (a common symptom I’ve noticed among super creative minds when they don’t have something to focus their energy on).

While it’s hard to summarize all of Disney’s accomplishments in one article, I want to showcase a few “turning points” in Disney’s career that help define the multitude of his genius – and especially his ability to “think in new categories” in a way that no one else could.

The second half of this article outlines ways to cultivate this “think in new categories” mindset to your own creativity, based on principles I’ve observed in Disney’s creative approach.

Think in New Categories: Disney’s Creative Trailblazing

Here is a roughly chronological breakdown of some of Disney’s big “creative milestones.”

Each one of these could be considered an act of genius at the time, so it’s even more remarkable to see how many times Disney kept reinventing himself and his work.

Disney’s Creative Milestones

Adding Sounds and Voices to Cartoons – One of the first big creative steps Disney took in his career was integrating sounds and voices into his animations in a way that no one else considered. At the time, there was even controversy in the studio about whether Mickey Mouse should have a voice, let alone what it should even sound like. They weren’t sure if people would take it seriously or be put off by it.

Adding Color to Animation – Disney was one of the first to recognize that color was the future of animation. He even had the foresight to sign a deal with Technicolor back in the 1930’s giving him sole rights to use their color process. This gave him a huge head start among other animators who had to wait years before they could start adding color to their own cartoons and catch up to Disney’s level of production.

Adding Narration and Storyboards to Animation – Most cartoons throughout the 1920s and 1930s were just visual “comic gags,” odd scenarios and slap-stick type humor. But Disney was the first to start thinking in terms of narration and story-telling when it came to animation. He was also the first to introduce the concept of creating storyboards (our outlines of comic strips) that could be brainstormed and organized before any animation even started being produced.

A Full-Length Feature of Animation – In the early days of animation, most cartoons were short and no more than 10-15 minutes. They would often be shown in theaters as a preshow before the “feature film.” Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first ever full-length animation film back in 1937. It was one of the biggest animation productions at the time, taking over 3 years to produce, requiring over 600 employees (unheard of in an animation studio at the time), and totaling a budget of almost $1.5 million, a very expensive and big risk at the time for an animation film. Of course, today Snow White is considered one of the top 10 best animation movies of all-time according to the American Film Institute, and it largely sparked an entire new genre of film.

Integrating “Pop Art” and “High Art” – Not soon after Snow White was Disney already trying to recreate the genre of animation. Fantasia in 1940 was a highly ambitious project that attempted to integrate lengthy classical music compositions with pleasurable and provoking animation – and, most importantly, present it to a mainstream audience. During it’s initial release, it was only shown in a few select theaters, because Disney insisted on it being watched with a very high-end sound system called “Fantasound,” one of the first stereo sound systems (again showing Disney’s drive to be an early adopter of new technology). The film had a bigger release eventually, but it was considered a financial loss at the time in part due to its high budget and WWII shutting him off from many European markets. Today, Fantasia is considered another Disney classic that is widely regarded as a ground-breaking movie in both animation and film in general.
Seeing the Potential of Television – Always fascinated with new technologies, Disney was very open to the potential of television, which at the time didn’t cross-over with the film industry too much. Early Disney shows in the 1950s like The Mickey Mouse Club and Walt Disney’s Disneland single-handedly turned ABC into a competing television network. And Disney foresaw the ability to use television to help promote his brand, his animation and film production, and fund his new upcoming theme park (which was his primary motivation when he first signed a television deal).

Nature Documentaries – Most people don’t associate with Disney with “nature documentaries,” but his True-Life Adventure series between 1948-1960 helped to pioneer the genre. The first production Seal Island started when Disney sent two cameramen to take footage in Alaska with plans to make a short documentary about the culture and wildlife there. But every time they sent Disney new material to screen, he would keep responding back “More seals!” He decided to finally scrap the culture and other wildlife footage and focus the short exclusively on the life and behavior of seals. The documentary Seal Island ended up winning an Oscar for “Best Live Short” in 1949.

Animatronics– Film and television eventually became too small for Disney’s dreams, and he had to start thinking bigger. He became interested in trains and miniatures as side hobbies, and start brainstorming ways to bring “animations” closer to reality. At first, he experimented with mechanical things he called “visual jukeboxes,” where someone could put a coin into a machine and it would “play out” a scene or short presentation. This grew into a bigger interest in what became known as “animatronics,” a combination of “animation” and “electronics.” The most memorable example of Disney’s animatronic success is the famous Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln presentation at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where Disney designed a completely realistic version of President Lincoln that would deliver a short speech.

Theme Parks – Disney had been brainstorming various “amusement parks” throughout the 1930s and 1940s but was finally able to buy land and begin constructing Disneyland in Anaheim, California in the 1950s after his television deal with ABC. Theme parks were a new way for Disney to build “a new world” from scratch – and that’s exactly how he approached it. Always super detail-oriented, he would walk through the park as it was being built (sometimes several times per day), to make sure everything was coming together exactly in his vision. He wanted to build a place where families could escape reality and be somewhere fun, exciting, and safe. He paid attention to every last detail, from how people would “experience” the park walking from one attraction to another (almost like directing a movie), to how clean and tidy the park would be, and the positive attitude of everyone working there. While Disney wasn’t the first to create an amusement park, he definitely created a whole new standard (and sparked many “knock-offs” since then). Disney saw his theme parks as always changing and growing, and they eventually became a place to display his new animatronics, such as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and the classic It’s a Small World (which also premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before being moved to Disneyland).

Reimagining Urban Planning – During Disney’s final years, he continued to dream bigger and think of new ways to reimagine the world. In 1965, he began working on Disney World in Orlando, Florida with the idea of creating his own independent city with public transportation, housing, markets, entertainment, and security. This working concept was known as EPCOT, or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Disney became interested in urban planning and wanted to create a “real city that would become the blueprint for the future.” A lot of his ideas for EPCOT have been integrated into Disney World over the years (including the Epcot theme park started in 1982, well after Disney’s death in 1966), but the concept was never fully realized. Some have compared the country of Singapore as a close real world example of Disney’s “EPCOT” concept, and his ideas for how to build communities still influences urban development today.

Any single one of these advancements would’ve made Disney a pioneer in that respective field. He could’ve easily packed things up after Mickey Mouse and said “I’ve made my mark on the world, I’m done!” But no ––– he continued thinking in new categories, expanding his vision, and continuing to trail-blaze wherever his muse led him.

How to Think In New Categories and Be a Creative Trail-Blazer

There are a million factors that contribute to any one person’s success, and you can never distill someone’s success into a simple formula. However, I’ve identified a few core principles that I believe played a key role in Walt Disney’s exceptional career.

Moving past success – Once Disney finished a project, his attention quickly shifted on what he wanted to do next. He never dwelled too much on any single success story and never became complacent or too self-congratulatory. Many times he would never even watch a movie or animation he created in its final form, because 1) He always knew that looking back on a finished product he would find things he wish he did differently (being the perfectionist that he was), and 2) He was always more focused and engaged in what to create next. In some ways, this blinded Disney from finding happiness in his previous successes, and made him never fully satisfied with his work. But at the same time, this mindset undoubtedly contributed to his unquenchable ambitions and never-ending boundary pushing.

Brainstorming without restrictions – Disney was an idealist more than a realist. He wasn’t a very practical person, and he thankfully had his brother Roy to manage most of the financial aspects of the business. Disney would brainstorm what he wanted to create – without any restrictions or practical considerations – and then he would try to attract the best people and best technology to turn that dream into a reality. He rarely took “No” for an answer. When Roy would bring up financial concerns about various film projects, Disney would often snap back (paraphrasing), “It’s our job to make the films. It’s your job to get the money.” If he wanted something done a certain way, he would push his employees to find a way to make it happen. This made him extremely stubborn and difficult to work with at times, but Disney’s uncompromising attitude, while ultimately tethered to reality and Roy’s practical running of the business, allowed Disney to soar to heights that most people wouldn’t have thought possible, because they would seem too impractical or too irrational to the everyday person.

Being an early adopter of new technology – One important aspect of Disney’s success that always made him stick out from the crowd was his willingness to adopt and experiment with new technologies. He not only developed new production techniques for animation, found ways to synchronize sounds and voices to cartoons, and had a monopoly on using color technology for a period of time, but also experimented with stereo sound systems for Fantasia, became a pioneer of animatronics, and created large-scale theme park rides using state-of-the-art technology and the best engineers in the country (often referred to as “Imagineers”). Not all of Disney’s technological experiments were successful, but his openness to being an early adopter of new technology – and his understanding of the connections between technology, engineering, and creativity in general – put him a step above his competition on multiple frontiers throughout his career.

Having a variety of interests – When Disney got bored with something, he often had to find a new subject go grab his interest and attention. These new interests and hobbies would often lead him to start thinking about new avenues for creativity. For example, when Disney started getting bored with animation, he took up trains as a hobby, which inevitably fed into his interest for theme parks and Disneyland. And his small hobby of collecting and creating miniatures eventually led to his bigger ambitions to experiment with animatronics and small mechanical displays (or “visual jukeboxes”). Disney was a naturally curious person who enjoyed exploring new things, trying new hobbies, traveling, and connecting with people from all walks-of-life (everyone from the artist Salvador Dali to conductor Leopold Stokowski). This desire to learn and experience as much of the world as he could certainly contributed to his wild mind and ability to think in new directions and create new categories in his work. Multidisciplinary thinking is a common attribute I’ve discovered in most creative minds that seem to never run out of new ideas.

Following your muse (and putting projects on the back-burner) – Disney ultimately followed his muse – meaning he focused most on projects that made him excited and created a passion in him. If something wasn’t exciting enough, it probably wasn’t big enough for Disney to devote much attention to it. Another important aspect of this “follow your muse”-attitude is that Disney also knew when to put a project on hold and let it sit on the back-burner. Many classic films such as Bambi, Cinderella, and Mary Poppins went through lengthy production periods or were delayed because Disney didn’t feel his studio was ready yet to do the films justice. If he noticed the passion dwindling on a project, he would switch things up by focusing on a new project. Then he could return back to the old project at a later date, with a fresher perspective and a reinvigorated sense of energy. To an outside observer, this “follow your muse”-attitude can seem scatterbrained or ADHD, but Disney was always calculating what to focus on most by what seemed to energize him the most at the time.

Ignoring those that don’t get it – Disney was always very sensitive to criticism and negative feedback that he got, but he also knew that he had to ignore those that didn’t seem to “get it” at the end of the day. When he was doing research for his first amusement park, he traveled all over the country exploring other amusement parks and sharing his ideas with the other park owners. Most of the other owners thought Disney’s theme park idea would “never work,” but that didn’t seem to bother Disney at all. In fact, he seemed to take pleasure in doing what others thought was “impossible,” and he likely delighted in being able to consistently prove people wrong. He could only achieve that, however, by trusting his creative instincts more than the criticism and feedback he got from others.

As with all “role models,” we need to accept that no one is perfect. Disney was a complicated person with many strengths and weaknesses.

In this article, my only goal was to highlight what I perceive as Disney’s key strengths and contributors of his unprecedented creative success.

In what aspects of life are you creative? In what ways can you apply the principles above to your own creative work?

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