I have a great deal of interest in Walt Disney, as does almost anyone who works in mass media, drawing, animation and story telling. One aspect that really interests me is how after Disney died, the work went downhill, for many, many years. The films lost their ‘big picture’ appeal. And as Walt’s death was not unexpected, he seemed to do very little to see to the future legacy of Walt Disney Inc. (though from what I have read he badly wanted it to go on.)
I also think about Steve Jobs at Apple. What happens when he leaves that job? Pixar seems safe for the time being from the kind of collapse that happened when Walt died. Pixar seems to have been able to have a team of talented, creative people take the lead. I have no intimate knowledge of how Pixar makes a movie , and how the inner power structure works other than casual conversations with employees and such, but Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter (along with a half dozen other folks) seem to wield some power when it comes to make or break decisions. It seems that Walt didn’t like to share that power.
One of my favorite ‘kids’ books is actually Bill Peet’s: An Autobiography. He talks about his life and his time at Disney using his wonderful story-artist style. And from what I have gathered in my reading (far from academic I’m sure, but also Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney and a few other books) Walt and Bill Peet may have been too much alike. Both were BIG story people with the ability to get into the nitty-gritty of story beats if need be. But I wonder if Peet hadn’t been driven out of the studio shortly before Walt’s death, if he wouldn’t have been a great choice to build on what Walt had started.
The ‘9 old men’ that took over the creative direction of the studio to a great extent, while wonderful artists and animators, seem to come up short on the big-picture story side of things. These guys seemed good ‘moment’ people. But having recently watched a great number of the middle-years Disney animated films, they definitely had story problems. Perhaps a classic example of not seeing the big picture through the beautiful drawings. Bill Peet was never a lead animator (I believe) but was a story artist (after work as an in-betweener, can’t remember if he was ever an assistant) and later a screen writer. Walt seemed to see this as a negative, and made comments to Bill to let him know that Walt placed the most value on the guys who could ‘really’ animate. Of course, drawing really, really, really well isn’t THE most valuable skill when it comes to making a good animated film. But while Walt was alive, that’s what he needed around him. Great craftsmen and artists and designers to bring those stories to life.
I suspect Walt and Bill were too much alike. So the tensions and difficulties of these two egos would make it impossible for them to work together. I mean, who will win the arguments, Walt Disney or Bill Peet? Just look to the name of the company Bill was working at to figure that out.
This is all just water under the bridge. But I think legacies are especially important to creative companies and the fact is most people with the ego and drive to be in charge of it all, will not take kindly to another person who shares those traits. Yet, Walt probably missed the opportunity to hand the creative direction of the company to an employee who had the depth of story ability that Walt must have had. Instead he handed it to very, very talented animators. But they in turn needed a Walt Disney for those drawings to have any real meaning.
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