I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Walt Disney recently and he tale is both amazing and quintessential. His professional life was a conflict between his desire to do amazing work with the challenges of running a business.
Early in his career, Disney was devoted to moving “cartooning” into being a serious art. His first true sound cartoon, the famous Steamboat Willy, required the invention of numerous new technologies in order to synchronize the sound with the animation. It was Steamboat Willy that put Disney on the map as a leading animation shop.
Disney’s dedication to quality regularly put his company on the verge of liquidation. For most of his life, he was in debt. Disney cared little about money other than as a means to further his goals. When he became the first to use 3-color Technicolor, it resulted in the cost of his shorts being vastly higher than those of other studios and no one really knew whether people would care about true color cartoons. It turned out they did.
Even as they struggled to pay the bills, Disney embarked on a wildly ambitious project – a feature length cartoon. Snow White. One of the things I was really surprised to learn about is that no cartoon before or since (including Fantasia) had as much love and attention put into it as Snow White. Every frame of that movie was scrutinized. Every line, every tiny piece of animation was meticulously gone over. One has to go back and rewatch Snow White to truly appreciate the kind of attention given to that movie because it’s unlikely anyone will ever be able to equal it.
Disney would produce two more feature length cartoons that would have near that level of attention – Pinocchio and Fantasia. Neither of those two movies were the success of Snow White and it nearly ruined them. As a practical matter, a movie like Snow White wasn’t practical to make because it had to be a massive hit in order to justify the cost/risk and no one bats 100%. Bear in mind, Pinocchio and Fantasia are considered classics today and nearly destroyed Disney.
Disney would make one more movie that even attempted to approach the quality of Snow White – Bambi. And like Pinocchio and Fantasia, it was initially considered a failure because it didn’t make enough money to justify its cost. There were extenuating circumstances to be sure (the loss of foreign markets during the World War II period) but it proved that even if you made a great movie that normally would be considered a “hit” it wouldn’t be enough given the costs associated. As a result, Disney never even attempted to make a movie that approached these.
If one looks at other great Disney feature cartoons like Cinderella, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, etc. you will find that the different in animation quality is very different. And that’s because Disney found, to his sorrow, that most people just didn’t care about ultimate quality in their animation. “Good enough” would suffice.
In fact, just look at 1-frame from Cinderella and compare it to a frame from Snow White and the difference is massive. But Cinderella was a hit nevertheless.
Deep down, most creative people dream of being able to forego concerns of cost and focus purely on ultimate quality even if it doesn’t make business sense. Disney didn’t care about the money, he wanted to move the art form forward. In the early days of his studio, he had total control over quality but after Bambi, he would never truly regain it. After that, investors, bankers, etc. would force Walt to find the point of diminishing returns on quality versus profitability. After that, Disney films would become “good enough”.
Thankfully, technology has moved enough that animation is starting to approach the levels of Snow White again. But if you think we’re getting close, watch Snow White again and then compare it to say Lion King, Aladdin or some other modern Disney hit and you’ll see that even with the amazing technology we have today, we still can’t equal the love and care that translated into Snow White.