From Bambi to Frozen: The Deeper Meaning of Disney with Prof Tim Wilson
The British animator and politician, Professor Tim Wilson, was the Temple Society’s December guest speaker.
Prof Wilson started his animation career after seeing Richard Williams’ Oscar-winning ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1972; then, after a year spent goat-herding in Greece, he contacted the director in hope of a job.
His love of animation took foreground for a couple of years when he helped in various animation studios in London. However, Wilson switched back to teaching as a Theology professor, with the occasional animation on the side, winning a best animation award a few years’ ago with a film called ‘How to be Boss’, an animated lecture about Plato.
The Professor’s talk reflected his life in the sense that it left almost no stone untouched: from the historical importance to the moral significance of animation, we finished the lecture with a much-enriched understanding of one of the most complex and labour-intensive entertainment forms.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2Si2JA5zyM (at the end of this, he showed how an animated Turkey moves his arm)
We heard how animation started, in a way, with the invention of Faraday’s Wheel in the 19th Century: from this came the zoetrope (1834) – the spinning wheel with slots, through which one looks to see a galloping horse or a man on a trapeze. Whilst still, the wheel shows only single images, yet when in motion the pictures pasted inside the wheel flow into one moving scene. This concept was taken (to great effect) to the camera upon its invention – Muybridge was the first, setting up a line of cameras each with their individual tripwires. Upon walking across his tripwires, each camera would photograph that split-second of his walk – when these pictures are all placed in series, a walking scene has been created or a person’s walk minutely examined.
This concept was played with in true artistic fashion by George Méliès, the creator of various silent films featured in Hugo in 1890 – by fiddling with the sequence, Méliès could make a character disappear and re-appear ten steps away, creating the illusion of magic and demonstrating a primitive form of animation. As such, animation is as focused on timing as it is on drawing.
However, it was McCay, from across the pond, who introduced the portrayal of emotion through animation: the task of the animator is to portray characteristics in a purely visual sense, and McCay’s Gertie the Trained Dinosaur was one of the first to achieve this characterisation showing a drawing that seemed to be thinking as well as moving.
It is with these foundations laid down, said the Professor, that we come to Walt Disney who introduced believability and genuine emotion into animation with feature films. Budget was a big deal for Disney, as shown by their first production of Alice, which was a mix of live-action (cheaper) and animation (more expensive).
Continuing on to the famous Steamboat Willie, Disney tied a musical soundtrack directly the animation – the same formula for Fantasia. The first film to release a soundtrack and related merchandise was Snow White. It also promoted a clear morality: most animation that Disney creates holds a didactic function – though Disney initially denied this “We like to have a point of view, not an obvious moral…” The feature-length Disney films tell stories that reward good behaviour and punish the bad. There are five Disney virtues: the first is Kindness (such as Cinderella’s kindness to the animals), the second is Perseverance (the prince in Cinderella, for example). The third is Faith, or wish-fulfilment with its obvious connotations of religion – the only overtly religious piece of Disney, (overlooking Christian imagery at the end of Fantasia) is Hunchback of Notre Dame, but this pushes kindness combined with faith, and if Disney is interested in Belief, it is belief itself- and not a belief in a specific person or thing. Belief in self is allied to belief in a higher power. The final one is Family: Aristocats and 101 Dalmatians, for instance, display the ethos that the meaning of family can still be extended, and is not just about blood relatives.
There is, moreover, a heavy Protestant work ethic that is present in Disney films, and the most recent Frozen emphasises the dimension of not trusting appearances, first glimpsed in Gaston in Beauty and the Beast but maybe hinted at in the magical witches of both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, who promote family values and patch together relationships that have gone wrong.
Rhian Kerslake, Secretary of the Temple Society
Tim Wilson in his YouTube video