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Cartoon realism by Walt Disney

At the end of this year it will be exactly one hundred years since Walt Disney, the most influential animator of all time, was born. The purpose of this essay is to deepen our understanding of the impact Disney had on the history of animated film and film in general.

A short introduction presents American animation, the background and the environment from which the phenomenon Disney emerged. The author of the essay argues that animation, together with movie pictures, comic strips, jazz, pulp fictions, Broadway shows etc., was part of a large process called »the Americanisation of the American culture«, which definitely marked the fact that America was no longer just »Europe in emigration«, but a new and authentic society and civilisation which very soon got up ahead of the whole world. Unlike some prominent historians in the field such as Donald Crafton, the author claims that »lighting sketches«, a form of vaudeville episode where skilful cartoonists were drawing »live« on the stage, only partly influenced animation during the silent movie era. Besides Stuart Blackton, the only animator in the early period who considered animation to be an extension of vaudeville was Winsor McCay, the most prominent, highly talented creator of the early American animation. In spite of this, he is a rather extraordinary exception with little influence on the mainstream production.

The author considers comic strips to be the main source of inspiration for animators during the early years of film history. Comic strips supplied animators with graphic style, the awareness of animation as a product intended for market and the concept of a specific »star system« in which cartoon characters are exponents of the image and trade mark of longer animated serials. The first animators that integrated business and entertainment, such as Putt Sullivan, Paul Terry, Randolf Bray and most notable The Fleischer Brothers, invented the so called »perf and peg« system, i. e. cell animation and an assembly line method of production which created the foundation of the industrialised animation production in America. This was the ground plan on which Walt Disney founded his fascinating career.

In the second part of the essay, the author discusses the concept of realism, or »conceivability«, as Disney called it, which was achieved in the Disney Studio during the 1930s. Disney introduced a new philosophy called »life-quality« by making cartoons »as if cartoon characters were real«, which revolutionised the mere art of animation as well as the technical aspects of the production. His ambition was to create empathy between the viewer and film where the difference between reality and fiction would be temporarily wiped out, as was the case in feature films. He distrusted metamorphosis; the character’s body was irreducible and had the same »implied mass« at any given moment of the film. At the same time, he respected the basic laws of nature such as gravitation and perspective. In order to capture the essence of reality, the studio developed highly sophisticated methods of animation, such as studying movement with the help of professional actors, a high drawing count and smoothly flowing animation instead of jerky, unrealistic movement like those in most of the early animated films. Result of the development of these methods were many technical improvements such as the Multiplan camera or other devices and techniques that enabled the studio’s flawless combination of sound, colour and animation.

During the early 1930s Disney definitely got away from the comic-strip influence and set up animation as an autonomous vehicle. It was during the same decade that Disney definitely established the cartoon stars creation as analogous to the Hollywood studio star system.

A special consideration in the essay is given to Disney’s first animated full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1937. The author suggests that it was one of the most significant occurrences in the history of animated movies. Despite the fact that several feature-length animated movies were made before (films by, for example Starewitz and Reiniger.), it was the first animated product that could compete with other film genres. Until then, animated shorts were normally just supplemental parts of the so-called film bill together with the bill’s main attraction: a feature-length film. Hence, it was considered just as a supplemental product. Adapting a famous fairy-tale, legend or myth, Disney created a completely new genre that would prove as one of the longest lasting in the history of motion pictures.

The author proceeds with an analysis of the specific ideology and philosophical view that derive from Disney’s products. Disney created an ideal world made of families, leisure and heterosexual couples. »The world« was populated by funny characters representing middle-class icons. Race or class problems were nonexistent in this ideal world of
middle-class citizens.

Marketing his product, as Smoodin wrote, as »ideal children’s fare« Disney created rules of rigid morality and conservatism. Phenomena such as cruelty to animals, sexual relations, except those purely heterosexual, or blasphemy were unthinkable in a Disney cartoon.

In the following chapter the author tries to clarify his relation to some common themes of criticism against Disney. Ideology critics, such as expressed in the work of Dorfman and Mattelart, accused Disney of spreading American imperialism worldwide, while others reproached the company that it had ’erased competition’ with its monopolistic behaviour so that »in the mind of his viewers, Disney animation was accepted as the only possible one«, as wrote Bendazzi. To the first critics the author replies that Disney’s propaganda has never been hidden.

Honestly speaking, Disney’s propaganda for America and capitalism did not spread oppression; rather the oppressed people felt that by buying Disney they were getting a taste of freedom. As far as the latter are concerned, the author thinks that it was precisely Disney’s power and influence that made such a turbulent development of the art of animation possible. Almost all American studios worked in relation to Disney, as more or less creative opponents trying hard to compete with »the giant of animation«. The Warner Brothers’ studio for animators, Tex Avery or UPA would hardly have developed their original aesthetics had there not been such a great challenge to be different and better than the great concurrent.

Disney’s influences are not limited to the USA but equally obvious in most countries where animated film production was developed, even in the cases of some of the most creative enterprises such as British Animation, Zagreb School of Animated Film, or the whole of the so called »Canadian phenomenon«. It is less known that the first three animated cartoons produced by Canadian National Film Board were not only made by Disney’s animators, Disney’s characters (Mickey Mouse and others) also »stared« in them. Disney’s patriotic effort, his animated films that contributed to create consensus about The United States’ entrance into World War II, connected him with John Grierson, the founder of NFB. Consequently, three short movies produced by Disney and NFB were the impetus for what later developed into the most important studio for artistic animation.

The essay ends with the conclusion that Disney’s »realistic« treatment of time-in-space, his creation of various techniques and use of sound effects and colour, smooth and natural movement, philosophy expressed through the content of the story and the aesthetic design and dramaturgic construction and finally last, but not least, his huge commercial success are the qualities that doubtlessly make Disney the only classic in the world of animation. The author emphasises that any historical study within this field claiming to be serious, has to include at least a chapter about Disney — one of the most important phenomena in the history of film.

Midhat Ajanović

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