The name Disney signifies different things to different people. For many, Disney animation would have been a source of wonderment as a child; and for every wide-eyed child there will be at least one parent charged with sustaining this enchantment with hard-earned pixie-dust. Through its acquisition and collaboration with Pixar, Disney is not only synonymous with traditional 2D animation, but now also stands as a key exponent of 3D computer-generated (CG) animation. For some, live-action television shows such as Hannah Montana (2006) and High School Musical (2006) may prove more of a draw than either 2D or 3D animation. In addition to film-based associations, the Disney brand is globally visible through its television presence and lucrative theme parks. Underpinning this diversified success, however, is a core principle: the importance of technological evolution. It is this ideology which provides the basis for J.P. Telotte’s study, The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology.
Initially, discussion focuses on the role technology played in helping establish Disney as a film studio during the 1930s and 1940s. Telotte writes:
By exploring the technological context for the various Disney creations, the literal foundation of the many Disney Worlds, we can better understand not only Disney’s phenomenal development from a small Poverty Row film studio to one of the largest and most influential media and entertainment companies in the world, but also its powerful appeal to a contemporary worldwide audience, an audience that seems increasingly aware that it inhabits a thoroughly technological, mediated environment – one to which Disney lends a most inviting and even seductive countenance (p. 3).
These early chapters intersect with broader topics of film history, revisiting developments such as sound and colour from a Disney perspective. In the context of film studies, the addition of sound to the moving image is usually discussed in relation to the impact of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), and the years immediately after, when Hollywood struggled to reconcile its existing silent-era technologies with the demand for ‘talkies’. However, Telotte draws attention to the fact that Disney remained committed to the development of increasingly sophisticated sound technologies for a number of years after Hollywood’s brief period of adjustment. In addition to touching on the aesthetic implications of Disney’s early acoustic style (discussed in relation to Steamboat Willie [Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, 1928]), Telotte extends his coverage to include the experimental sound technologies developed for the exhibition of Fantasia (James Algar et al, 1940).
Despite the existence of two- and three-colour colouration processes as early as the 1920s, colour didn’t become the dominant aesthetic in live-action cinema until the 1960s. Disney, as Telotte observes, proves an exception to this rule, revealing a consistent commitment to colour in its animated shorts and features from the 1930s onwards. However, Disney’s decision to embrace colour could have easily backfired had it not been for a number of convergent factors – namely Technicolor’s pressing need to find a means to showcase its new colouration process, coupled with Disney’s successful negotiation of an exclusive contract with Technicolor for the use of this process. Building upon this, Telotte charts Disney’s use of colour up until its debut in the television series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1954).
Next, Telotte details the Disney studio’s progression from simply a purveyor of animated shorts to a leader of aesthetic change. Pursuing what Disney himself termed ‘the illusion of life’, the studio, during the 1930s, placed increasing emphasis on developing a style of animation that presented “a version of life that audiences would easily recognise, accept, and even find comforting” (p. 57). One of the ways Disney sought to enhance the believability of his studio’s work was to bring a sense of depth to his animation. A tiered camera, called a multiplane camera, was used to achieve this. Telotte, after tracing the technological developments leading up to Disney’s multiplane camera, discusses its application, noting how it could manipulate and film numerous cels of animation simultaneously. It was with this technology that Disney was originally able to bring a convincing sense of depth to his animated works.
After chapter three, the focus of the study shifts to Disney’s post-World War II live-action filmmaking, television production, and development of Disney-themed worlds. Whilst Walt Disney exhibited a similar shift in priorities during the 1950s and 1960s, this methodological choice leads Telotte to neglect those technological developments, such as xerography, which began to influence the studio’s feature animation at that time. Crucially, the xerographic refinements patented (US patents: 3049810 and 3057324) by Disney employee Ub Iwerks saw the studio’s feature animation move away from the ‘illusion of life’ aesthetic. Inspired by the cost-effective potential of the refined Xerox process, Ken Anderson, art director for One Hundred and One Dalmatians (Clyde Geronimi et al, 1961), pushed for the film to unify the “drawing styles of the animation and the background” (1). This change resulted in the film exhibiting an almost Warner Bros.-like flat background aesthetic.
Contemporary Disney provides the basis for Telotte’s concluding chapter. Focusing on Pixar, the initial discussion centres on Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), and the ‘Hyper-Real’ aesthetic formed in that film. Ed Catmull defines Pixar’s ‘Hyper-Reality’ as “a stylised realism that has a lifelike feel without actually being photorealistic” (2). Additionally, Telotte also draws attention to the ways in which computer technology, namely CGI special effects, has impacted on Disney’s live-action filmmaking, citing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003) as an example of this. It is surprising, however, to find Disney’s use of CAPS (computer aided production system), a technology developed by Pixar for Disney in the late 1980s, absent from this discussion. Michael Eisner once remarked of the technology:
CAPS allowed them [Disney’s animators] to digitize hand-drawn images into the computer, which gave them power to manipulate and three-dimensionalize characters and scenes in entirely new ways. It also dramatically enriched their colour palette. In a short time, CAPS technologically and artistically revolutionised the archaic method by which animation movies had been made since Snow White (3).
Given the scope of contemporary Disney, and the size of Telotte’s study, certain aspects of the company’s technological evolution receive more attention than others. However, as a chronological introduction to some of the most important developments, The Mouse Machine is hard to fault. Furthermore, given Disney’s imminent return to traditional hand-drawn 2D animation, with the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009), Telotte’s text provides a timely portrait of a company that remains technologically protean.
The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology, by J.P. Telotte, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2008
- Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007, p. 275.
- David A. Price, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, p. 213.
- Michael Eisner, Work in Progress: Risking Failure, Surviving Success, Hyperion, New York, 1999, p. 180.