Walt Disney is arguably the most significant person in the history of animation. Disney began his career in animation in 1919 and went on to is known for releasing the first animated feature length movie, “Snow White” in 1937. The Disney studio still produces animated feature films and other material even after Walt Disney’s death in 1966. The Disney company has become an entertainment empire and is today one of the largest media companies in the world.
This essay will compare and contrast the writings of three different authorities, Paul Wells (2002), Leonard Maltin (1987), and Harry Benshoff (1992) who have written about Walt Disney and his contribution to the animation industry. All three authorities have identified Walt Disney as a key and pioneering figure and agree that he has both affected and shaped the industry. The main comparison will investigate the notion that Walt Disney was an animation auteur.
Auteur is a word that is derived from the French language and has a connotation to the “high art” of literary authorship. It has come to mean; “A filmmaker, generally a director, who creates a body of work with a unified sensibility that reveals, through the interplay of themes and styles, a personal worldview’, it has also come to mean ‘any filmmaker who performed or was intimately involved in all aspects of the movie making process – writing, directing, producing, editing etc. “? (The Internet Movie Database).
Popular culture animation can be seen as a hybrid art form, that is, animation involves a combination of drawing, painting (traditional or digital), story-telling, and music and is generally manufactured in a studio/factory by a large number of highly creative and skilled individuals. The work is created by many people through many stages of development over an extended period of time. The assumption that the person whose name is attached to the cartoon was the person who executed the drawings has been already been proven incorrect (Wells 2002).
This highlights the problem in determining who the work should be credited to, and who has the primary claim of authorial ownership, in relation to the final artistic vision. Walt Disney’s resolve to fully establish authorial ownership was a direct result of having one of his first successful creations “Oswald the Rabbit” taken from him and given to other lesser animators in 1927 (Maltin1987). Disney stated that he would “never relinquish ownership of his films or creations again”? (Maltin 1987, p33).
After this incident Walt Disney stopped drawing and developed his most famous character Mickey Mouse. Disney did not draw or animate Mickey Mouse. The relationship between Disney and Iwerks represents at a small scale the authorial role that Disney established for himself, this later developed into a much lager hierarchical infrastructure with Disney as the key instigator and producer of work (Wells 2002). Paul Wells (2002) argues that Disney should be seen as an auteur.
In the factory workings of the Disney studio, Walt Disney asserted his principle auteurist role “by making personal Authorial decisions and corrections on behalf of others in the execution of his vision (Wells 2002, p83). Wells (2002), investigates the complex notion of authorship in animation and presents a framework to determine auteur status upon an individual by looking at how they were engaged in the production process. He uses Walt Disney as a case study and argues that he is an auteur.
Wells (2002, p77) states that “Walt Disney is the key pioneering figure in the creation of the art, commerce and industry of animation and that he is the most written-about individual in the field. ” ? Similarly, Leonard Maltin (1987), takes a very positive view of Disney’s authorial role and refers to him as the ‘spark plug’ and states that he is generally considered to be the motivating force behind all significant achievements in his company and under his name until his death.
Walt wielded the final power of veto over all animation material and used this power constantly and consistently in keeping with the development of his vision. Disney scrapped five months of work on the Pinnocchio film because it “just wasn’t right”? (Maltin 1987, p58). In support of Maltin and Wells, Harry Benshoff (1992) in his article “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, Is Disney High or Low? From Silly Cartoons to Postmodern Politics,”? attributes all the decisions to include high art forms into the Disney animations, to Walt Disney himself.
In Benshoff’s writing there is interchangeability between Disney the man and Disney the company which intrinsically implies Walt Disney’s authorial position. There is not such a direct evaluation of Walt Disney’s authorial claims but there is a consistent underlying acknowledgement of them as in the reference to the Disney style,? which began to develop in the 1930’s and has since become the popular measure of the quality of all other commercial animations ?(Benshoff, p63).
The Disney style can be seen to be based on the realistic recreation of natural movement within a pictorial frame work reminiscent of European “high art’ traditions including Southern European fairytale illustrations (Maltin 1987). This style was achieved by Disney’s drive for technical perfection in animation and a visual style that he found personally fulfilling (Wells 2002) Benshoff’s argument and examination of the ideological implications of stylistic change, and the Disney companies positioning in the high/low continuum does not at all challenge the position of Disney as the authorial figure head.
In conclusion, it is fair to state that from the three authorities referred to in this essay, that Disney’s contribution to the evolution of 20th century visual art practice, particularly in the animation industry is considered significant. It is apparent that even though he did not draw or animate any significant work after 1927 he was the key personality responsible for the Disney style. Walt Disney’s position as the auteur? of the Disney animated cartoons is at least, un-challenged and at most, a certainty.