February 18, 2023

Notes from Neal Gabler's Walt Disney

Disney was a celebrity by his mid-30s, Disney the company was famous by 1930s.

Even though politically the 1930s was considered the decade of Roosevelt (elected President in 1933), culturally the 1930s was considered the decade of Mickey Mouse.

Almost every new animation/filmmaking technique they tried, they would experiment with it in shorts (Silly Symphonies) before applying to big films like Snow White. Examples of this include:

  • Multiple layers of animation moving independently to create depth in The Old Mill
  • The first Disney animations with humans (not flora/fauna) like The Cookie Carnival

Nobody took animation seriously, didn't think there was much possibility for it in film. Disney kept pushing the envelope. Some examples include:

Snow White

Disney hired fine arts teachers to come and teach employees. From time to time he forced the artists to take night classes.

They trained for years(?) before starting the animation of Snow White and did almost all the animation in the last 10 months or so before the release in December 1937.

They had to do 24-hour animation in 8 hour shifts to get up to speed. They had to hire 100s of animators to do fill in work so the “master” animators could focus on “drawing the extremes”.

The average age at Disney was 25. These days of the 1930s really felt quite similar to what a Silicon Valley startup is thought to be.

Disney preferred to hire recent art school students so they could train them in the Disney style.

They could not animate humans during Snow White well enough so they ended up just tracing them, called rotoscoping.

The Snow White voice cast were quite famous at the time. We wouldn't know it now but it was basically an ensemble cast.

World War 2

Ran low on money so they produced films for the US Government. Propaganda, basically. But also instructional videos.

Disney workers began striking (1941) and established unions. If Disney was a dick before this, he became a much bigger dick after this.

Post War

Got into television with ABC initially. First Hollywood company to do so. Arrangement with ABC was in part to finance Disneyland. (Not covered in the book but Disney eventually took over ABC, not before eventually splitting ABC and working with NBC though.)

Disney stopped caring about films and moved to mostly thinking about Disneyland, this under WED (what is now Walt Disney Imagineering).

After Disneyland launched he moved on to world fairs and eventually Disneyworld. He died of lung cancer before completing Disneyworld.


  • The Reluctant Dragon, a throwaway film because they needed money when they went public. It is the story of a children's book author trying to get Disney to make a film out of his book. He stumbles around the new Disney Burbank Studio through art classes and musicians practicing, uncovering how Disney films are made in the process.


  • What were the other major animation studies? Even if Snow White was the first animated feature film, surely others must have rushed to copy the success. Who were they?
    • UPA (Mr Magoo) was one. Also Warner Brothers


Basically after every turn he'd get tired of the stuff he had already done (and killed at doing) to do something new. From animated shorts to feature films to television to Disneyland to Disneyworld and EPCOT.

To his employees he was a huge dick. They'd be in constant fear of upsetting him and getting fired. And he admitted that he would basically fire people randomly. He'd fire anyone important enough to get their name on a door (i.e. establish their own fiefdom within the company). But it seems more like Disney the company worked in spite of this rather than because of this.

After Mary Poppins (1964, two years before he died): "I'm on the spot. I have to keep trying to keep up to that same level. And the way to do it is not to worry, not to get tense. Not to think, 'I got to beat Mary Poppins', 'I got to beat Mary Poppins'. The way to do it is just to go off and get interested in some little thing, some little idea that interests me. Some little idea that looks like fun."