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Leaders in Innovation

Walt Disney: Animation Pioneer

It’s hard to imagine a world without animation. The beloved Saturday morning cartoons of our youth would not exist, and our favorite movies would not be the same were it not for the memorable animated characters brought to life on screen.

From 1930s films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to modern breakout hits like “Frozen,” animation has continued to capture audiences’ imaginations. The transformation of this industry has involved breathtaking technological evolution and continues to create a type of visual storytelling that connects with viewers of all ages.

In celebration of International Animation Day, a holiday that recognizes the art and engineering of animation, the National Inventors Hall of Fame®(NIHF) commends the work of NIHF Inductee Walt Disney. Although Disney has one of the most universally recognized names, the icon’s inventive side is comparatively less known. In fact, his contributions to the field of animation represent a catalyst in the expansion of the entertainment empire known as The Walt Disney Co. an entity responsible for numerous film and television classics.


Always an Illustrator

Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, and his family moved to a farm in Missouri just five years later. He began drawing sketches at 5 years old and started selling them to neighbors at age 7. When he was 16, he tried to enlist in the military but was rejected because he was underage. Undeterred, he forged his date of birth and joined the Red Cross in 1918 as an ambulance driver, arriving in France after the armistice took place. He continued to draw cartoons while in France, often covering his ambulance with creative artwork.

When Disney returned to Missouri one year later, he briefly worked at an art studio drawing commercial illustrations and began experimenting with animation techniques. In 1923, he left for Hollywood to join his brother, Roy, in creating animated mini-features. After trial and error, the duo formed their own studio and began producing cartoon shorts.


A Vision for Animation

By the mid-1930s, Disney was ready to move beyond creating cartoon shorts and believed feature-length cartoon films were the future. When he presented his idea for “Snow White,” Disney envisioned a cutting-edge color film with the illusion of depth.

He met this challenge by inventing the multiplane camera. Based on the concept of theatrical design — where cutouts and flat pieces are placed in varying layers against a backdrop — the multiplane camera was designed to film through several layers of drawings. The lens could then focus on any one of the layers, creating a more dynamic final product.

As The Walt Disney Co. continued to grow in popularity thanks to its theatrical successes, as well its entrance into the business of television and theme parks, the studio realized it no longer had the budget nor the time it had while creating its animated feature films. This led to the implementation of xerography, a technology invented by NIHF Inductee Chester Carlson, in its animation process.

Instead of inking each animation cel by hand, animators began photocopying their drawings directly onto the cel itself – producing a rougher and darker outline. This technique can be seen in iconic films including “101 Dalmatians,” “Robin Hood” and “The Jungle Book.”

Disney’s commitment to developing new film mechanisms contributed to the “Golden Age of Animation.” His desire to be a leader in the booming film industry led him to innovate his work and conceptualize a new direction for animation. Sparked by creativity and grounded in persistence, Disney’s legacy has left a lasting cultural impact.


Learn More About Our Inductees

More information about the fascinating lives of NIHF Inductees and their groundbreaking inventions can be found on our website and blog. To see how NIHF honors invention throughout the year, check out our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook page.

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