WIth the 20th anniversary of Pixar’s Toy Story approaching, Fortune has posted a wonderful interview with Ed Catmull on the relationship between great animation and new technology. In the interview, Catmull points out that Walt Disney himself was a great believer in continuing to develop the technology of filmmaking alongside developing the stunning art and great storytelling that is so evident in Disney projects. Part of what helped Disney make a comeback after the drop in quality after Walt’s death, and the thing that makes Pixar great today, is the renewed interest in developing the technology that allows ambitious stories to be told.
This is a great interview for many reasons, but I really love that Catmull connects Walt Disney’s insistence on technological innovation to the culture that exists at Disney and Pixar today. I think for a lot of people who lived through the 80s and 90s, the Disney brand is often associated recycling and resting on their laurels; a heavy reliance on nonsensical sequels (who needs a Cinderella 2?) and unambitious projects more interested in merchandizing than developing anything original seemed, more often than not, the hallmark of the Disney corporation when I was growing up (not to say that there weren’t some wonderful things too). Looking at the work of Walt Disney himself, though, it seems that his eponymous company was as much in the business of developing new film technology as it was in creating entertainment. Despite his company often being on the edge of financial crisis, he refused to make easy money sequels to his successful features (just think what the world would be like if he had given in and made Snow White 2). Instead, he insisted on continuing to innovate, both with the stories they told and the way they told them. Just a few of the innovations overseen during Walt’s lifetime:
- Developing better ways to fully incorporate sound into cartoons with Steamboat Willie (1929),
- Animating in three-strip Technicolor with Flowers and Trees (1932)
- Developing a gigantic multiplane camera to give animated scenes depth,
- Creating Fantasound (a multichannel sound system that predated stereo and surround sound by 20 years) for Fantasia (1940)
- Building the first regularly-operating monorail in the US for Disneyland
- Improving the optical printer, allowing better combination of live-action and animation (including use of the “yellow screen” a photochemical predecessor to green screen) for films from The Three Caballeros (1945) to Mary Poppins (1964)
- EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which was intended to be an experimental utopian city rather than a feature of a new Disney park
For Walt Disney, innovation and entertainment went hand in hand, and the most exciting thing about coming up with a new story was also coming up with new ways to tell it. It is wonderful to see that Catmull is continuing that tradition in his work with Disney and Pixar today.