MICKEY CMES OF AGE
ONCE UPON a time there was a mouse. He had big ears, two very black eyes and a button nose. He wore white gloves with three fingers instead of the usual four, white short pants, and talked in a high squeaky voice. He was born on a train between New York and Chicago almost 21 years ago, christened while the engine whoofled for a crossing near Albuquerque, N.M., and he has since made more money than any animal in history.
His name, of course, is Mickey. You can see his image on sweatshirts worn by sand lot kids and on the dials of wrist watches worn by little girls: during the war you could see it on tanks, planes and P.T. boats overseas. And for the past two decades it lias looked out from silver screens all over the globe, the little voice speaking sometimes Russian, sometimes Spanish or French or any other of a dozen languages. In his travels he is probably the United States’ best-will ambassador. He is affectionately known as “Mikki Maus” in the Soviet, where his picture hangs in state nurseries for workers’ children. In South America he is “El Miguelite Raton”; in France, “Michel Souris,” in Japan, “Mikki Kuehi.”
Because of this tiny creature, many men have become rich and hundreds are kept at work in a factory dedicated to his advancement at Burbank, Calif., near Hollywood. This cost $3 millions and consists of a series of luxurious modern palaces on 51 acres of grounds, connected by landscaped lanes known as “Mouse Street,” “Dopey Drive,” etc., and interspersed with putting greens, baseball diamonds, sun decks and a gymnasium complete with steam rooms.
Walt Disney, the man who sired Mickey Mouse, brought “art” to movie cartooning and so dreamed up an entire industry, is now 46. Walt, not Walter, is his real name, and by such he is known to every employee in his outfit.. This shortish, dark-haired, slightly shy executive has himself not drawn a line for over 10 years, shocking as that may seem. Thus, his job at present is twofold: to act as front man for the studio and to sit in on the endless conferences held by his boys, to be an overseeing idea man, the final judge of what does or does not go.
This conferring business entails more work than one would suspect at first glance. For the Disneyites would rather discuss some insoluble problem than eat. Their films, you see, are not shot from previously written stories. Stories are merely used as the basis for a production. On this, they build laboriously, gag upon gag, situation on situation, with furious battles deciding what shall eventually be seen on the world’s screens. Even a 15-minute short entails weeks of such chats and arguments.
What’ll He Do Next?
MAYBE RIGHT here would be a good place to tell you how cartoons are made. It’s no easy process, believe me.
Let’s say we’re dreaming up a Mickey Mouse short. First on the program is, of course, to decide the story line, where the action shall be laid and what character Mickey shall play. We haven’t much left to choose from, by the way, for the rambunctious rodent has already appeared as an alpine climber, an orchestra leader (five times), a cowboy (three times), a prisoner on a chain gang, a fire chief (twice), a pest exterminator (of giant insects), a street singer, an inventor,a polo player, a jockey, a football player, a tugboat captain, a hula dancer, a scientist and 30 other things. These occupations have taken him to Arabia, the Alps, Medieval England; the American West, Argentina, Alaska, Hawaii, Brazil, Africa, Robinson Crusoe’s island, and Gulliver’s “Lilliput.”
Anyway, as director of this particular short, we finally decide on a story line after lengthy discussion with Walt and the $300-a-week idea men of the story department. Mickey, let’s say, will be a Fuller Brush Man who has been challenged by his girl friend, Minnie, to sell more brushes than anyone else in the company. So far, so good. But this at once sends us into further conferences, a series of powwows in which everyone from Walt to the office boy throws in ideas on what should happen in the piece. It goes on and on. We confer. We retire to think, forehead in palm. We confer some more. We plead. We scream. We rant. We have nervous prostration. At last, we have the details of our story —and probably an ulcer or two. All this conferring goes on in any one of several offices cluttered with drawing boards, papers, crayons and Swedish modern furniture.
Two things are important during this period: First, we don’t take notes. We take sketches of our ideas. And, second, when the plot has been set, the best of these roughs are pinned to a huge board in sequence, so that they may constantly be referred to. When we’re finished, this story board is photographed and each member of the working crew gets a copy to guide him in his future operations.
Next, we pick the animator we feel can best do this particular job. Maybe we pick two or three if the going looks tough. And even we, the director, are apt to salaam in the presence of these gentlemen. For animators are vastly important. They are master artists with a consummate knowledge not only of their profession but of showmanship and movie production. It is their business to oversee separate sections of the film, to mold the characters as to personality, to set the action, decide the mood and so forth. They make the Disney actors act.
For nigh on 21 years, man and mouse, Walt and Mickey have been, making millions by making millions laugh
First they make key position and character sketches. The Mouse’s character is well-known, naturally: he never smokes, drinks, swears, or deviates an iota from the Golden Rule. They argued for a couple of years on whether he should or should not have a tail, but even that was finally settled affirmatively. So the boys don’t have to worry about him. But they must invent his protagonists in the film, just as they once invented Donald Duck and Pluto and Dopey and Thumper and all the rest. They must put these creatures into position against the scene’s background—-and decide what that background will be.
Animators work on special boards of ground glass lighted from beneath, all final or near-final sketches being done on sheets of celluloid, “cels” in Disney parlance. As their labor progresses, they rough in the entire action of one section of the film, maybe part of a scene. These roughs leap from point to point in the movement, leaving anywhere from one to six drawings to be filled in by men called inbetweeners, Disney-type apprentices who may be animators themselves one fine morning.
This done, the scene —the series of “cels”—is photographed in black and white and run for us on a Moviola, a tiny projection machine used for quick work by Hollywood. We order the sequence cleaned up; that is, we ask that any rough lines be condensed into a single line, that the drawing be simplified, etc. We have it photographed again. Finally, we say it’s good. It’s done. It’s ready for the emphasizing of line and for color.
Two hundred girls make up Disney’s Inking and Painting Department. They must pass certain requirements to get their jobs: must live in the vicinity of Los Angeles, be between 18 and 35, and have an unusual handwriting. The theory to that is that a girl with free—swinging, imaginative - -penmanship, in place of the usual stereotyped copybook style, will usually be a good inker or painter.
Some of the girls are painters who fill in color between the inked lines of the thousands of drawings which go into our short. Others do the inking, which is considered a harder job, for it is the Disney belief that the width of the individual lines affects the character being put on the screen. Thus, each outline must remain exactly as demanded by the animator—-and the girls who keep them so are apt to go slightly daffy on alternate Wednesdays.
Shooting Through Layers
THERE ARE approximately 45,000 drawings or “cels” in a 700-foot film which runs about 15 minutes, millions in a full-length picture. Each must be inked and painted separately and they are all numbered to avoid utter confusion. The girls work in air-conditioned, dustproof rooms, using about 2,000 inks and paints ground and mixed by formula in the Disney laboratories under rigid conditions.
Finally the film we are making is ready to be photographed for the last time. And even on a short this takes as long as two weeks. For we photograph in layers, using a Disney invention called “the multiplane camera.” It’s a six-foot-high framework on which is mounted a special camera which shoots straight down toward a light near the floor. We put the translucent drawings in: background or far distance at the very bottom, then perhaps Mickey, then Minnie, then foreground— a celluloid sandwich with spaces of air between the various layers. When we photograph, we shoot vertically one frame of film at a time, and the distances between the layers plus the light, behind them give~ us an illusion of depth. When we change the position of any character, we slide out the particular “cel” he is on and slide in the next in his action sequence. Then we photograph again—and again and again. All Disney films are now photographed in full color.
This is a very simplified version of how the camera works, I admit. The ramifications are enormous. Just think, for instance, of the confusion attendant on making all seven of the dwarfs in “Snow White” move at once—not to mention the myriads of dancing figures in some of the sequences of “Fantasia.”
I HAVEN’T mentioned two very important elements of Disney pictures: First, the special-effects group.
This is a bunch of guys who remake nature for Walt, working in co-ordination with the animators. They are exactly what their title implies: men who are specialists in creating effects of water, dust, lightning, rain, highlights on metal, shadows, fire, smoke and the million other things which create the beauty and naturalness of Disney cartoons. They don’t bother with character. They merely attack the inanimate elements of the story and thus build mood and atmosphere.
Second, just to baffle you thoroughly, I haven’t mentioned that the sound and music for Disney productions are all recorded before any detailed sketching is done, instead of the other way around as in live-action films. The cartoonists therefore draw their pictures in time to the music and voices on the sound track and not vice versa.
Walt himself is the voice of Mickey Mouse, as you may know, and always has been. It is one of his major pleasures in life. For the other characters, we use the voices of radio actors, mostly, men who are used to creating personality by their vocal chords. Sterling Holloway is one of the best. And Clarence Mash is “Donald Duck.” Two others are jolly Arthur Q. Bryan, who is the doctor on the Fibber McGee radi > show, and Jerry Hausner, an ex-ventriloquist’s stooge who now does baby cries, animal noises and such stuff on a dozen broadcasts.
We, the director, merge the voices and music (which is recorded on special stages at the Disney studio and usually is written on order for Disney films), on the sound track with the vast series of animated cartoons on the film and have a rough movie. We cut this, run it for Disney employees — who usually cheer madly all through it, being no fools -and release it. Then we take a deep breath and start all over again. And how the money rolls in !
In 1946 alone, the total Disney income from all films, feature length and short, old and new, was $4,097,700. (It usually takes several years of playing time to get back a profit over the original cost of this type of thing.) Besides that nice amount, the income from commercial-educational pictures, from comic strips (which run in nearly 400 papers and are the fourth biggest seller in the United States in magazine form), and from the licensing of various characters added $1,362,889 in that same 12 months. The latter item, by
the way, includes the use of the names and figures of Mickey, Donald and the rest on such diversified items as soccer balls, pencils and paper, watches, table silver, charms, books, neckties and handkerchiefs, school notebooks and tablets, hairbrushes, china, candy, hot-water bottles, 50-foot rubber Mickeys for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades and so on far into the night. It’s estimated, very roughly, that the Disney label sells around $100 millions worth of goods every single year.
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No one can attempt to compute how much The Mouse has earned in his two decades. One rather unreliable gauge, however, is this: “Mickey” has
appeared in 120 shorts. At the present writing, these cost approximately $55,000 and bring a return on investment of 10% apiece. (In the old days, they probably brought much, much more.) So “The Mouse” has done all right by his boss. As do, I should add, the feature-length films which Disney makes. “Snow White,” the first one, released in 1937, has grossed to date $7 millions over its original cost of around $3 millions. “Fantasia” didn’t make that much but is currently earning a pretty penny on reissues.
There is one other tremendously valuable activity at Disney’s about which I haven’t said a thing. It came into being Dec. 8, 1941, when the news of Pearl Harbor prompted Walt to offer the services of his studio to Washington. Previous to this he had experimented on some shorts for the Canadian Government, the first being a rollicking little job called “Four Methods of Flush Riveting.” This didn’t lay its audience in the aisles, but it was completely successful in teaching beginners to make sense in aircraft plants and pointed the way to further effort along educational lines.
The result was that the Disney corporation went 94% noncommercial during the war. It produced training films on every conceivable military subject; it worked in humorous propaganda, such as why it was fun to meet the income-tax men before they sought you out, and the famous “Der Fuhrer’s Face”; and they also made a series of semimedical films for Nelson Rockefeller’s Inter-American Affairs Committee. The last taught South Americans who could not read about germs, vaccination, malaria, water pollution and such important items. By no means merely a war job, this film is still doing good work south of the Caribbean.
In the military division, Disney’s boys went beyond the textbooks. Magnificently. They found that their teaching technique could cut training time by as much as 45%, and that they could with the greatest of ease show such intricate things as the flow of electricity through a motor, the actual operation of a machine and what really happened when a gun went off. They did one lengthy picture for the U. S. Navy called “Aerology,” which began where the books ended and detailed every single weather element connected with flying. It will be a classic for many years to come.
Besides all this, there were three guys at Disney’s during the war who did nothing but design insignia for various military outfits. Two thousand antitank companies, B-29 squadrons, submarine task forces and so on, asked and got individual tags to wear to war. And when the boys came back from overseas and were sent to rest in redistribution stations, they got tags and insignia for these places, too. One done for the AAF in Santa Monica, Calif., depicted the most tired-looking airplane you ever saw.
Walt was happy to have his studio oblfce the boys—and to take on all the war jobs that offered — for he has a definite and deep feeling about his country. It has, after all, made him a millionaire and his start in life was anything but golden.
He tried to Ape Chaplin
WALT DISNEY was born in Chicago to Elias and Flora Call Disney. Elias was an IrishCanadian contractor who had fought the city for 20 years and disliked it so much that, shortly after Walt’s birth, he moved the family to a farm near Marceline, Mo. There were three other boys, Roy, Hert and Ray, and a girl, Phyllis, and they all attended a country school, followed by a grammar school in nearby Kansas City. It was in this town that Walt had a paper route morning and evening. He got up at 3.30 a.m., loathing it, beat his way against the howling storm and generally lived up to all the traditions.
His earliest connection with show business stemmed from a mad infatuation with Charlie Chaplin, whom he used to impersonate whether anyone dropped a hat or not. Sometimes this won him two bucks on amateur night, which impressed him so much that he got a pal to join him in a vaudeville act. Of this, the less said the better.
He always loved to draw. An old, retired doctor who lived near the family used to buy his drawings and so keep him in pencils. At any rate, after his family moved to Chicago he studied both drawing and photography assiduously at high school—not realizing how handy the latter subject would be in his future, naturally — and also attended the Chicago Art Institute night school, where he studied cartooning.
HE WAS a news butcher on a Chicago and Kansas City train at 15, ate up the profits and retired. He was a postman during the early part of World War I, was turned down by the services because he was too young and finally got overseas as a Red Cross ambulance driver. (The ambulance was the most highly decorated in France: he pinned sketches all over its innards.)
After the war he was an advertising artist in Kansas City and there met a kindred soul named Ubbe Iwerks. (So help me!) With this character, he first started dabbling in animated cartoons, the initial try being an advertising film produced with the aid of a borrowed camera in February, 1920. The studio was a vacant barn, and it was in this barn that Walt first met Mickey. It seems there was a tiny creature who used to come out and wonder what the devil was cooking.
Anyway, it is true that Walt early had the idea of animating fairy tales, that he and some other indigents whipped out “Little Red Riding Hood” and sold it to a releasing company in New York. After six more, the outfit went bankrupt and in desperation Walt decided to try Hollywood, to which village he headed with a two-year-old suit, a sweater, some drawing materials and his last 40 bucks. The date of his arrival, ladies and gentlemen, is written in gold on the hearts of all Disneyites: August, 1923.
To tell you the rest of the story briefly, Hollywood wasn’t at all interested in the print of his last Kansas City venture, which he had with him, too. He was advised to send it to New York, where, to his delighted surprise, an independent company took it and ordered more. With Brother Roy (who had also arrived in the Golden State and is business head of the present corporation), Walt rented the back of a real-estate office and went to work, living in a cheap room in the approved style. Ultimately, he sent for Ubbe, his old Kansas City pal, and for some of the other boys back home and they all made Oswald, the Rabbit, cartoons, like crazy.
When he and his distributor had a fight, the legal verdict gave controlling rights on “Oswald” to the distributor. Thus, Walt had to get himself a new animal character. And further thus, while riding hack from New York on the train with his wife, he remembered his friend from the barn and felt the moment of supreme inspiration which resulted in Mickey Mouse.
Creator Disney celebrates his 25th anniversary in moving pictures next month. His Technicolor brain child, Mickey Mouse, will come of age in September. Mickey has been a star for two decades, a long time in the movie racket. He might retire with laurels. But he won’t. If for no other reason than sentiment, Walt will keep him alive. For, without The Mouse, Disney might have gone back to the post office long ago. With him, he has a weapon as powerful as any bomb—and twice as charming. ★