Periodically I plan to do profiles of creative innovators who inspire me in hopes that they will do the same for you.
Many innovators have an innate desire to create—a drive that constantly moves them forward. To spark my own creativity I like to read the stories about this type of person—artists like Jim Henson and George Lucas, whose own creations have helped form my imagination. Although these innovators were not classroom teachers, I feel like their lives teach valuable lessons that I can apply to my own profession. After all, teachers are creators, too.
The latest innovator I researched was Walt Disney through his biography Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Although I have read previous biographies of Walt Disney, I feel like this one struck the right balance between being detailed but not overly-detailed. (I do not know your preferences, but 900-page biographies tend to bog me down.) Thomas’s portrait of Disney showed me a new side of him. I had always had admiration for Walt’s creative genius, but I did not know the scope of it. Regardless of how you feel about the mega-corporation that has grown out of his studio, Walt Disney himself was an amazing creator. A restless innovator, Walt pushed himself, his employees, and the public beyond what they thought possible. Along the way he influenced the American imagination more than any other person. Taking the classic American innovative spirit, he applied it to a new medium: film.
Beginning as a poor farm boy in Missouri (I can relate), he eventually journeyed westward to Hollywood. To call Walt Disney simply a maker of animated films is to sell him short. Disney systematically improved (“plussed” he would call it) various forms of entertainment. Starting with the cartoon short, a cheap, throwaway joke-a-thon that ran before a feature film, Disney brought quality to his Mickey Mouse shorts—pushing the boundaries of what was possible with animation. The integration of sound into animated shorts with “Steamboat Willie” was a sensation, but Disney did not stop here. Operating in a world of black and white cartoons, Disney knew that color could enhance his storytelling, so color was added in his Silly Symphonies shorts. In fact, Silly Symphonies, cartoon sketches set to instrumental music, helped advance the idea that animated cartoons could be art. Years later, Disney would create Fantasia, an artistic blending of classic music and cartoon sequences. For this he created a new type of sound system—basically an early form of surround sound—where the sounds of certain instruments could only be heard from certain speakers placed around the theater. This created the sensation of listening to a live orchestra.
Walt was obsessed with making animation more lifelike and kept “plussing” his animated shorts with cinematic touches. Animation cels are flat and cannot create the same 3-D effect when a movie camera zooms in on them, so Disney invented something called the multi-plane camera, where multiple cells are placed in a stack, so that the camera can zoom down through them—passing one object by and moving on to the next creating the illusion of three dimensions.
With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Disney proved that cartoons could tell in-depth stories. It was the first of many classic animated feature films produced by the Disney studios, but Walt himself was never content with the status quo. While his studio continued to produce animated features, Walt explored new avenues—live-action films, nature documentaries, and even television. (I was not aware of this, but Disney’s True Life Adventures were the first modern nature documentaries.) Eventually, he developed the idea of creating a real-life fantasy world that people could actually visit and explore, and Disneyland—the first modern theme park—was born. Even when he passed away, Walt was planning to create an experimental prototype community of tomorrow (EPCOT), a city where the advances of the future could become a reality. Disney was never content to rest on his laurels and was truly a lifelong innovator.
What can I learn from this as an educator? My job will never be done. I will never reach the point where my course materials perfect. There will be areas that are successful, but there will be others that need to be improved. Every year I will have new students with new challenges that will compel me to adapt—to get creative—and meet the challenges head on. In order to be the best teacher I can be, I can’t always be the teacher I was last year. I will have to “plus” a few things and keep moving forward. That’s what Walt Disney would do anyway.
I will leave you with one of Walt Disney’s quotes: “Around here, however, we don’t look backward for very long. We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”