Animation: Just Like We Drew It Up

Walter Isaacson traces of evolution of animation from analog to digital.
All Trailblazers Podcasts

30,000 fans flocked to the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on the night of December 21, 1937. World famous stars. The Hollywood aristocracy. All there to see the debut film for an ambitious director who set out to make the world’s first animated full-length feature. The man’s name? Walter Elias Disney. The movie? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And in the 80+ years since, both his legacy, and animation as a storytelling medium, have soared to incredible heights.

The Dopey idea that actually worked.

The birth of animation had less to do with entertainment than with science. But as the advent of the motion picture film in the late 19th Centuries, short films done completely on pen and paper became popular attractions in movie houses. They were rudimentary, but Walt Disney changed all that. Disney nearly bankrupted his company twice—once to bring his enduring creation Mickey Mouse to the big screen, and again to finance the ambitious Snow White. By using a multiplane camera, Disney allowed his animators to create scenes with complexity, depth and a wide range of emotions and situations. Disney’s constant financial peril didn’t dissuade him from creating critically-acclaimed but commercial flops Fantasia and Pinocchio. And from there, to kickstart a multi-billion-dollar entertainment empire that still endures, and has proliferated into theme parks, television, sports and comics.

An even Loonier idea pays off.

Silly Symphonies—another Disney flop—faced stiff competition from the thinly veiled direct competitor “Looney Toons:” animated shorts from rival Warner Bros, Inc. Warner’s cornering of the TV market only increased as Bugs and Daffy became household names. But William Hannah and Joseph Barbara left MGM to form Hannah-Barbara, the brains behind The Flintstones, The Jetsons and the Scooby-Doo. Gone from small screen animation (by necessity) was the richness of the Disney brand, in its place, a sort of fast-food animation that used fewer drawings and recycled footage and dialogue. That simplicity met its match, however, with The Simpsons—a deliberately lo-fi animated TV series that was instantly recognizable, and drew its charm from its unflinchingly clever, biting wit and memorable characters.

Motion Pixars go digital.

With the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar became the first entrant into the field of full-length computer animation features. The film was an instant classic, catapulting the fledging studio into one of the prestige brands in all of entertainment. Art and science collided as computer animation and CGI renderings seeped into live-action films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and now nearly every single major studio release you can think of. Pixar’s major breakthroughs may have been technological, but their true emphasis has always been on telling rich, nuanced, surprisingly human stories using animation as a narrative device. Their astonishing run of hits, and the widespread adoption of digital animation in films around the world, mean directors and producers now are limited only by their imaginations (and, you know, studio budgets) … and not by the technologies to bring them life.

“We’re really hard on ourselves, which is I think one of the reasons why Pixar puts out such great films, It can be tough but at the same time it’s like a safety net too, to be in there and to know that you have very smart people that have your back, and that want to make the film that you’re making as good as it can be.”

– Ted Mathot, Story Supervisor, The Incredibles 2 (Pixar)

What you’ll hear in this episode:

  • Snow White’s grand entrance that dwarfed the competition
  • A little tale about a man named Steamboat Willie
  • The commercially disappointing days of Disney
  • A daffy move, followed by an equally savvy one from a competitor
  • Pop culture has a cow, man
  • The legacy of the Simpsons
  • A story about a toy that spawned an empire
  • Industrial Light and Magic has a few tricks up their sleeve
  • The importance of storytelling over digital mastery
  • Staying human in a digital (animation) world

Guest List

  • Neal Gabler is a cultural historian and the author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
  • Ed Catmull is the former president of both Pixar and Disney Animation.
  • Maureen Furniss is the Program Director at California Institute of the Arts in the Experimental Animation Program.
  • Al Jean has written for the Simpsons for 30 years and been showrunner for 20 seasons.

Walter Isaacson: It’s December 21st, 1937, and the scene at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles is pandemonium. Flashbulbs pop as celebrities stream into the cinema. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and other luminaries of Hollywood’s golden age. Outside, more than 30,000 fans have turned out for one of the years’ most anticipated film premiers, and anxiously, in the middle of it all, is a man without who’s creative genius and sheer force of will, this night would never have happened. Walter Elias Disney.

His mind isn’t on the glitz and the glamour, on the cheering crowd and world famous movies stars; one urgent question occupies him. Will his gamble pay off?

For four years now, his team at the Walt Disney company has been working on their most ambitious, costly project ever. The world’s first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He’s come close to bankrupting the company with this grand dream, but he knows that if it works, if he can forge an emotional connection with his audience, animation will transcend it’s humble comedic beginnings, and finally be taken seriously as an art form.

Sitting in the audience, Disney nervously observes the movie-goers as the film approaches its emotional climax. It’s the part when Snow White, poisoned by the evil queen’s enchanted apple, lies in her glass coffin, surrounded by the seven grieving dwarves. And then he hears it. The sound of whimpering coming from the vicinity of that famous couple, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The two stars are crying, and so is the audience around them. Everyone is in tears. It’s at that moment that Walt Disney knows that he’s created a whole new art form. One that will change pop culture forever.

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Bugs Bunny: Eh, What’s up, Doc?

Speaker 1: Telegram for Elmer Fudd.

Speaker 2: There’s something awfully screwy going on around here.

Speaker 3: Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?

Bugs Bunny: And what’s all the hubbub, bub?

Barney Rubble: Gee, we ought to do something, Fred.

Fred Filntstone: Yabba dabba doo.

Bugs Bunny: Gosh, ain’t I a stinker?

Walter Isaacson: It’s been almost a century since Walt Disney first set up the Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City. The young animator would go on to much bigger things, and so would the art form he pioneered. From Snow White, to the Simpsons, to Toy Story, animation has always been one of America’s most popular, and most innovative forms of creative expression, and it’s preeminence shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, as imaging technology has evolved at breakneck speed, it’s now that animation and live action cinema are on their way to merging into one indistinguishable art form.

But at the very beginning, animation as we know it was less concerned with art, than with science.

Maureen Furniss: During the 19th century, scientists used animation to prove various scientific theories.

Walter Isaacson: Maureen Furnace is a program director of experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts.

Maureen Furniss: For example, there were various things that we now think of as optical toys, but were scientific devices at the time. Like the thaumatrope, which is a little circular object which has images on both sides, and when you flip it, it appears as one image. That was used to demonstrate principles of vision, and those were presented by scientists among their peers.

Walter Isaacson: Scientists at the time were fascinated by the principle of persistence of vision, in which an illusion of movement is created when viewers are shown multiple images in rapid succession. Devices like the thaumatrope and the zoetrope were early ways of showing off this phenomenon. Spin the round barrel of the zoetrope, for example, and look through the slits cut on the sides, and images of a horse painted on the inside merged together to look like it’s galloping.

With the advent of motion picture film in the late 19th and early 20th century, filmed animation began to grow in popularity. By 1910 animated shorts had become popular attractions in movie houses, but they were extremely simple, both technically and artistically, compared with what was soon to come.

Neal Gabler: When Walt Disney first started out, animation was very rudimentary. Primitive is a kind word.

Walter Isaacson: Neal Gabler is the author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Neal Gabler: Basically, the idea that drawings could move, the magic and the novelty of that, was all that animation really had. There were characters, but you couldn’t say that they were really personalities. Now, Walt Disney changes that completely, and one could even go so far as to say that animation before Walt Disney really wasn’t animation in any sense that we would recognize it now. That Walt Disney not only reinvented animation, but in many regards, you could say that he invented animation.

Walter Isaacson: Disney got his start as a young man in Kansas City, where he founded the Laugh-O-Gram studio to create short cartoons for local theater owners. When the company proved unsuccessful, Disney packed up and did as so many other dreamers of the era did; he headed west to Hollywood.

There, in 1923, he and his brother Roy founded the company that still bears their name. Disney was always keen to seize on the technical innovations of the day, not just for their novelty, but for what they could bring to the art. He jumped on cell animation, where drawings were made on clear sheets of cellophane, rather than plain paper, allowing for lifelike layering effects, and the ability to distinguish the characters from the backgrounds. Cell animation became the standard, up until the computer generated animation era.

But one of the most monumental breakthroughs in the motion pictures of that era was the introduction of sound, which would lead to Disney’s first smash hit character, and one that is still iconic today. Neal Gabler.

Neal Gabler: It’s no accident that when Walt Disney begins animating Mickey Mouse, he comes up with the idea that they’ve got to make a sound cartoon. When you watch those cartoons from the early 1930s, those Mickey Mouse cartoons, one of the things that becomes immediately evident is how important music is to them, and how much music is a part of Mickey Mouse’s character. Mickey Mouse is forever turning things into musical instruments, or singing and dancing, and the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, the famous Steamboat Willy, is a cartoon in which Mickey Mouse basically takes a lot of other creatures, primarily, and some other objects,  and turns them into music.

Walter Isaacson: It was no easy feat. Synchronizing animation to a musical soundtrack proved to be maddeningly difficult. Eventually Disney had to jerry-rig a metronome, and use it to set the tempo for the film. But when the Charlie Chaplin-esque Mickey Mouse, complete with musical soundtrack, his screens, he immediately became a sensation.

Neal Gabler: I don’t think it would go too far as to say that Mickey Mouse was one of the biggest movies stars of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was a great movie star, not because the narratives were strong in the cartoons, or because he was beautifully drawn, but because he had this quality to him. This quality of impishness with which audiences could connect, and laugh, and he was in many ways, you could say a product of the Great Depression.

Walter Isaacson: Mickey Mouse was designed by Disney’s longtime collaborator, Ub Iwerks, who is arguably as responsible as Walt himself for creating the studio’s signature visual style. He was also a technical trailblazer. Iwerks invented the first multiplane camera, which allowed animators to create animation with a complex sense of depth. He made the first one out of old Chevy car parts. Later, Iwerks would seize upon another new technology, zoography, or in other words photocopying, to help animate the 99 puppies of 101 Dalmatians.

By the mid 1930s Disney had his eye on something larger than the shorts his studio had so successfully produced. Two questions needled him. Would audiences sit through anything longer than a short subject? And could he create an animated film that would actually create deep emotions in the audience? Before he could win over audiences, however, Disney had to win over his own staff.

Neal Gabler: Snow White began one day at the studio when Walt Disney gave his animators and some of the other workers 50 cents, and told them ” Go out, get yourself dinner, and come back to the sounds stage at seven o’clock.” They did. And when they came to that sound stage at seven o’clock, there was Walt Disney in the front of the sound stage, lit by a single light.

And he proceeded for the next three hours on that evening, sometime in 1933, to perform, not just to recite, but to perform the story of Snow White. And by “perform”, I mean that he assumed each of the characters. He assumed their voices, he assumed their postures, and he told that story, obviously, in great detail.

And when he was finished and had that audience spellbound, he said, “This is going to be our next project. We are going to make the story of Snow White.”

Walter Isaacson: For the next four years, the creation of Snow White dominated the studio. Disney was constantly running out of money, having to go back to the banks, hat in hand, to beg for more financing. Disney never knew if they were gonna pull the plug on what, until then, was his greatest creation.

But in the end, the banks didn’t have to worry. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a smash success. At the time, it grossed more than any other feature film before it, animated or not. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the 10th highest box office owner of all time, and while there wasn’t a Best Animated Feature Oscar at the time, Disney was granted a special honorary Academy Award in the form of one regular size Oscar and seven miniature ones.

But Snow White’s success wasn’t the end of Disney’s troubles. The features that followed, Pinocchio and Fantasia, might be beloved today, but they were commercial failures at the time. Labor unrest rocked the studio, embittering Disney towards his own workers and distancing himself from them for the rest of his life. But his passion for creating art, not money, never dimmed.

Neal Gabler: When you talk about Walt Disney as a trailblazer, one of the ways in which he trailblazed was he truly did not care about money at all. That was the bailiwick of his brother, Roy, who was the financial head of the studio.

And Roy and Walt were almost constantly at loggerheads because Roy had to look at the money side of things and had to find out ways of financing things, and Walt could have cared less. Walt’s attitude was, “We’re in this business for greatness.”

Walter Isaacson: By the 1960s, Disney’s animation department was in decline, as Walt himself had dedicated his considerable energies towards Disneyland and the other theme parks, and as a company, faced stiff competition from Warner Brothers. Warners’ hit series, Looney Tunes, even took its name from Disney’s Silly Symphonies.

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Warners’ roster, were wildly popular, and the Disney brand began to flag. The number of animated features produced by the company dropped significantly as they were neglected and faced with yet another booming entertainment upstart. Television.

In 1957, the creators of the Tom and Jerry theatrical shorts, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera left MGM to form Hanna-Barbera with the aim of specifically creating cartoons for TV. They were the first studio to do so. They proceeded to crank out TV hits like The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, and The Smurfs.

With television’s voracious hunger for content, the modes of production shifted. You could no longer spend four years creating Snow White’s hour and 23 minutes of animation. Budgets were much tighter, and studios had to find creative ways to cut corners.

The result was a process known was limited animation. That meant fewer drawings, less sophisticated designs, much more easy to animate dialogue, and the animation version of recycling in which the same drawings are used over and over again.

For hardcore Disney fans and lowers of the art form, this was disastrous. Television and its lack of sophistication, its focus on selling toys and profit margins, was gonna kill animation. But the generation who grew up with televised animation didn’t always see it that way.

Maureen Furniss.

Maureen Furniss: What you find is that, when a whole another generation of kids, you know, grows up watching TV animation, the Scooby Doo’s and the Yogi Bears and all that kinda stuff, Heman, when they grow up, they are actually kind of nostalgic about those early years, and they don’t necessarily see animation of that period as so horrible, as the older reviewers might have done.

So, I think, in a way, okay, you could say that TV brought down the art of animation, but what I think it did is it sort of reoriented it in a different kind of way, and maybe it was more about the stories or maybe it was about the kind of, the character types, or that kinda thing.

Maybe the animation wasn’t so great, but there was still something there that it really appealed to viewers.

Walter Isaacson: And two decades after Walt Disney’s death in 1967, one televised animation series was about to become one of the most significant pop culture franchises of its era, sparking a new wave of cartoons aimed at both children and adults. The impact of its success can still be felt today, and it’s still on the air.

In the late 1980s, LA based cartoonist Matt Groening’s underground comic strip, Life in Hell, came to the attention of producer and director, James L. Brooks, famed for creating TV series like Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi. Brooks wanted Groening to adapt the strip into a series of short cartoons for a variety show he was producing, the Tracey Ullman Show.

But Groening didn’t wanna give up the rights to his characters, so in the lobby of Brooks’ office, he hurriedly sketched out the idea of a dysfunctional family living in a typical American town. He named the characters after his own family, his parents Homer and Marg, and his sisters Lisa and Maggie. And then, for good measure, he rearranged the letters of the word “Brat” to form the name Bart. The Simpsons were born.

Walter Isaacson: Groening designed the characters to be simple to the point of being iconic. He wanted anyone to be able to see them in silhouette and instantly know who they were.

Al Jean is a showrunner on The Simpsons, and has been writing for the series since it began in 1989.

Al Jean: If you ask a seven-year-old to draw Bart, and then you take that drawing and you show it to somebody and say, “What’s this?” Most people would guess, “Bart Simpson.” The drawings are that simple and easy to do, which I think is amazing design and perfect for an animated television show.

Walter Isaacson: When the Tracey Ullman shorts were well received, The Simpsons was spun off into its own prime time half hour show on the fledgling Fox network. It was a risky move, as there hadn’t been a really popular prime time cartoon since The Flintstones over 20 years earlier.

The show’s immediate sensational success took even its creators off guard.

Al Jean: It was a smash. It was like the closet thing, I assume I’ll ever have to being a Beatle, you know, where it was all over the place. There was merchandise everywhere. People were talking about it if you walked down the street. It was in the newspapers every day.

Walter Isaacson: But it was also a controversial one. The show’s witty, often vulgar, irreverence made it a favorite in playgrounds and living rooms around the country. But it also sparked a backlash in some of the most unlikely places. Al Jean.

Al Jean: It was considered extremely outrageous for when it aired, which is funny because now people look back on those episodes in somewhat of a reverential way, some people do. And I remember being a lot more …

I mean, the President of the United States made fun of us, for God’s sake.

Walter Isaacson: And indeed, in a speech about family values, then President George H. W. Bush called out the cartoon family.

George H. W. B.: We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.

Walter Isaacson: The Simpsons’ appeal, and the fact that it’s still on the air after over 650 episodes, lies in its very grown up storytelling.

Al Jean.

Al Jean: We never wrote the show for children. The material was always designed to be for an intelligent adult, just the way Taxi and Mary Tyler Moore were written, and we just always assumed, and correctly, I think, that younger viewers would watch the show and, like the favorite cartoons I had as a kid, like Bullwinkle, you would then learn as you got older that there was more to the show than you realized, and that would be like a nice gift.

Walter Isaacson: The Simpsons paved the way for a new era  of televised animation with shows like King of the Hill, South Park, and current hits like BoJack Horseman, proving that TV cartoons can have real depth in characterization.

And at the same time as The Simpsons was exploding in popularity, another revolution was about to storm the world of animation. It was one that would not only change the way animation was produced, but it would alter the course of live action filmmaking forever.

It’s mid-November in 1995 and a new animated film is about to premiere. For everyone involved, it’s a bit of a gamble. Pixar, an upstart company based an arm’s length from Hollywood in Northern California is about to release Toy Story, the world’s first ever computer animated feature film.

Pixar Founder, Ed Catmull, watches the reviews come in nervously. How will the world react to this technical breakthrough? Will they be able to appreciate the immense amount of effort the Pixar team has put, not just into the technical side of the film, but into the movie’s rich and emotional storyline? But when he reads them, he breathes a sigh of relief.

Ed Catmull: Almost every review only had one or two sentences saying it was computer animation, and the rest of the review was about the movie. I thought, okay, we did it.

Walter Isaacson: The dream of creating the world’s first digital animated feature film began when Ed Catmull, growing up in Utah in the 1960s, was equally fascinated by Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. Combining his passion for art and science, Catmull was an early pioneer in the world of computer graphics.

Catmull’s destiny was shaped when he was hired by a young filmmaker who had just rocked the movie industry with a film that combined old fashioned storytelling with never seen before special effects. The film maker was as obsessed with technology as Catmull was, and saw early on, the potential for computer graphic to revolutionize how films were made.

His name was George Lucas.

Ed Catmull: Star Wars was one of the most transformative films in motion picture history. George Lucas had used the advanced technology of compositing and computer controlled little models, to get that look on the screen. So from his point of view, bringing technology in, helped.

So he hired me to bring technology into the film industry, which included computer graphics, digital audio, video editing, and later, computer games. So this was a really exciting time, with George supporting what we were doing, and George being a real film maker.

And we spent years, I guess we were there for six years, with researchers in each one of these areas, solving the fundamental problems. We were trying to get the imagery good enough to fit into feature films. And ultimately, succeeding with that.

Walter Isaacson: The team Catmull joined was known as Industrial Light and Magic, and they would go on to create industry changing effects for movies such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, definitively shifting the industry away from matte paintings and painted miniatures and towards today’s reality of computer generated imagery, or CGI.

But in the mid 1980s, Lucasfilm, facing a cash crunch, had the idea to spin out Catmull’s graphic group into its own independent company. ILM would still use their technology, but they would have to otherwise make their own way. Luckily, they found a supporter in another great industry pioneer, Steve Jobs, who in 1986 invested his own money in what would soon be known as  Pixar.

With Jobs’ financial support, it was still 10 years of work before Catmull’s dream of creating a fully computer animated film was realized. But along the way, they were responsible for innovations that went beyond just the technical.

Like Walt Disney before them, Pixar prioritized story above all else, and would meet nonstop with the top creative minds to hash out their ideas until they felt a film was ready for the world.

At these gatherings, hit films like the Toy Story series, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Up and The Incredibles were worked and reworked until they were just right. They even came up with a term for these meetings. The Brain Trust.

Ed Catmull: The Brain Trust actually isn’t a group of people, it’s the name of a meeting that operates with some important principles. One of them is that you remove the power structure from the room. That is, nobody can tell the director or that creative team what to do, or what they should do.

And the reason for this is when we’re making a film, the early versions don’t work at all. So, the director and the creative team are coming in at somewhat of a defensive posture, they’re nervous, they know it doesn’t work. So by removing the power from the room, you’re putting them in a position where they can listen and not be defensive.

The other principle is that we always tell the truth to each other, and that it’s about the film, it’s not about the … who’s got the best idea, or any ego related issues. So, telling the truth is critical to what we’re doing, and listening to it, is very important.

Walter Isaacson: The Brain Trust led to an astonishing run of hit films, grossing over 13 billion dollars, since Toy Story’s debut in 1995. Pixar had always partnered with Disney in distributing their films and in 2005, Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger,  had a revelation, watching the Opening Day Parade at the new Hong Kong Disneyland.

When Iger realized that not a single character in the parade from the last 10 years, had been created by Disney itself but by Pixar, he decided to acquire the younger company and fold it into Disney’s DNA.

Disney made its move in 2006, snapping up Pixar for a valuation of 7.4 billion dollars. Catmull stayed as Pixar’s President, but he was also given the role of President of Disney Animation. In a way, Catmull was able to infuse Disney with the DNA of Pixar.

Since the acquisition, Pixar has seen some of it’s biggest successes, with films such as Ratatouille, Inside Out, Coco and The Incredibles 2, which was nominated for an Academy Award. And later this year, the story will come full circle with the long awaited release of Toy Story 4, nearly a quarter of a century after the first Toy Story changed animation forever.

Ed Catmull.

Ed Catmull: What I remember is how I felt when I saw Pinocchio, and when I saw the early Disney films. And they were, they’re embedded in me, and I found them aspirational. They had good things for me, and for the people around me, and people remember them well.

When we do something like Toy Story and it catches with people, and they love it, then we’re doing what we want to do because we’re putting something good into the world. And for me, that should be the aspiration for everybody, is whatever we’re doing, should be a positive contribution. It doesn’t have to go out into the whole world, but in terms of our family, our neighborhood, or the people that we work and interact with. Are we doing things that are positive and additive?

And so, the fact that we’ve been able to do that is, you know, one of the most gratifying things. And working with people, where that’s their motivation, is to add something good to the world that’s just, you know, a wonderful feeling.

Walter Isaacson: The influence of animation on movies and television [00:31:00] as they’re made today is hard to dispute. In fact, it can often be hard to tell them apart.

We’ve become used to characters like Gollum, from the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, or Thanos from the Avengers films. High tech amalgamations of human performances and computer generated imagery. As the technology becomes more advanced, and more accessible, film makers will be able to put their wildest imaginings on screen as easily as an artist puts pen to paper.

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. To find out more about any of the guests on today’s show, you can visit our website at

On the next episode, we’ll be looking at the history of public transportation, from horse drawn wagons to the transportation solutions of tomorrow.

Until then, thanks for listening.