Walt Disney was not a particularly talented animator. In fact, if it weren’t for longtime Disney animator Ub Iwerks and many others that followed in his footsteps, the peak of Disney animation might have looked like this:
Rather than this:
It was Ub and many, many other animators that made Disney the animation powerhouse it became. Walt very quickly (and shrewdly) realized that to reach the success he envisioned, he had to step away from the sketch table and focus his talents in other areas.
Most accounts indicate that Walt was not a particularly gracious boss. He was a fanatic about detail, a relentless task master and routinely demanded the impossible. One of my favorite Disney tidbits (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a source for this online, so I’m going from memory) happened during the making of Bambi, a film many consider to be the best of the Disney classics, coming at the height of the studio’s power. Walt envisioned Bambi as a classic melding of animation art , a powerful soundtrack and a simple but heartfelt story. Fantasia, made two years earlier, attempted to take the first two elements to new heights, breaking new ground in animation art set to a classical soundtrack. Never satisfied for long, Walt wanted to raise the bar even higher with Bambi. The film’s production was stretched out from 1937 to 1942 so Disney could avoid using second-string animators, maintaining the film’s rich “painterly” texture.
Because of the long timeline, the production of Fantasia and Bambi overlapped. Disney composers Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb were working on the soundtrack that would go behind the climactic forest fire scene when Walt dropped in to check progress. Churchill and Plumb played the work in progress for Walt, who listened for awhile, then interrupted with, “No..that’s not it. It’s not powerful enough. This is apocalyptic. The music has to match. Wait..I’ll be right back.”
Walt disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with a reel from across the hall, where Fantasia was being scored.
“Here..we need something like this.” Churchill and Plumb listened in disbelief.
“But that’s Beethoven!”
“You want us to compose ‘something like Beethoven'”?
In the end, Disney got what he wanted, a score that still stands as a classic. Churchill and Plumb received two Academy Award nominations for the score, but unfortunately, for Churchill, the recognition came after his tragic death.
One can debate Walt’s treatment of his employees (Iwerks left Disney for a 4 years span because of a falling out with Disney and a bitter strike after Bambi led to the end of Disney’s Golden Animation era) but you certainly can’t question his eye for talent. Again and again, Walt was able to accomplish the impossible because of the talent he was able to draw to him. The lesson learned here is not how to manage your employees (as much as I respect what Walt did, he was not a shining example of employee empowerment) but rather the importance of recognizing your own limits and assembling a team that can take you farther than you could ever go alone.