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Leaders in Innovation

Walt Disney: Animation Pioneer

A world without animation is difficult to picture. The favorite films and Saturday morning cartoons of our youth would not be the same were it not for the characters brought to life on screen.

From 1930s films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to modern breakout hits like “Frozen,” animation has been at the heart of capturing audiences for decades. The transformation of this industry has involved breathtaking technological evolution and continues to create the kind of visual storytelling that viewers of all ages can connect with.

As International Animation Day celebrates 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 lesser known. His contributions to the field of animation were a catalyst in the expansion of the entertainment empire known as The Walt Disney Co. the entity that has created 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 drawings and cartoons.

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 that conveyed the illusion of depth.

He overcame 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.

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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