Walt’s Breakthrough: 5 Ways Creative Vision Drove Disney’s Early Years

If I’d asked, people would’ve asked for a faster horse.Henry Ford

T he desire to do great things is utterly dependent on vision. By vision, I mean, where do you see yourself at the end of all of your current labor? What result are you hoping for?

Henry Ford didn’t just look to expand the current system. He wanted to make something else entirely.

Most of us envision a future with incremental growth. But what if you could just blow it all up and make something without limitations? Thinking this way is what we call creative vision. It’s knowing what’s needed, not what already exists or even what’s requested.

And all great advances – in our personal lives, in culture, in business –  start with it.

The man known perhaps more than any other for a magnificent creative vision didn’t start that way. I recently watched a documentary on Walt Disney produced by PBS on American Experience. It’s a fascinating profile of someone whose defining characteristic wasn’t his talent or even his determination, but his creative vision.

The story of Walt Disney Studio’s early years provides several lessons for people who want to create great things. Consider:

1. Walt Failed Twice

A cartoon – a short, animated film – had become part of the pre-feature sequence in many movie theaters. Walt wanted to start a studio dedicated to making such films.  His first two attempts failed miserably. In the second, his own staff abandoned him and he lost rights to famous characters he’d co-developed, such as Felix the Cat.

After the second failure, most people would have given up. But his determination kept him going, and with no financial net, he developed his own character – a mouse.

He pounded New York streets for three months, seeking a theater who would play his film. When one finally accepted, it was so well received by the public that his studio acquired national distribution, and Walt became a household name.

Take away: Celebrate roadblocks; they’re an indication you’re making people notice.

2. Walt Didn’t Just Maintain Achievements

With success, Walt could have been content to coast on the vision he’d achieved.  Once achieved, maintaining success is what most people do. But the reason we talk about Walt Disney today isn’t because he made an animated short that people in New York City liked in 1928.

Instead, he used his newly acquired financial and reputation resources to fund another, greater vision: a new set of short films called Silly Symphonies.

Walt’s Silly Symphonies were the first films that treated animation as art. They were akin to avant grade films that merged music and dance and made characters out of nature and inanimate objects in ways people had not seen before, for example with a tree that turns another tree’s branches into a harp.

The Silly Symphonies raised the already respected Walt to mythic status among his fellow cartoonists and animators. Artists from around the country moved to California just for the opportunity to work at his studio.

Take away: Where have you experienced success in your professional life? How might you be coasting on an old vision? How might you increase it?

3. Walt Directed Resources toward Innovative Techniques

Walt was a consummate craftsman and constantly pushed the limits of his medium.

The Silly Symphonies were test grounds for innovation, with firsts in sound technique, color, and multi-plane camera technology, which produced a three-dimensional depth never before seen.

Take away: Don’t just learn the current software or current workflow. Name what you want to see happen, not what the software or the system allows. Then push existing systems and technologies to realize your vision.

4. Walt Used Position Not for Self-Glory but to Create a Culture

Walt’s staff grew to nearly 200. It became an artist’s destination because he treated commercial art as a legitimate profession. He recognized talent and paid artists well. One animator from that era, Robert Givens, is quoted in the documentary, saying the early years were a “Renaissance” and “the flowering of an industry,” where what they created was fine art and not just “dumb cartoons.”

As biographer Neal Gabler said, “[Culture] became the most powerful method in how he dealt with his workers.”

If you create a culture for greatness, people will bend over backwards for you. But in order to do it, you must first, as noted above, affirm talent. Gabler said, “They wanted to produce great things. He made them want to produce great things.”

Take away: Vision isn’t singular. It depends on surrounding yourself with like-minded people who see and further your big ideas.

5. Walt’s Vision Raised Others’ Vision

Because Walt saw animation not as “dumb cartoons,” he brought in university professors who held classes on drawing and on various styles such as Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, and the Mexican Muralists.

He ignored the conventional categories and ways of thinking about his industry and combined two vastly different worlds – fine art and commercial art – in the effort to discover something new.

Take away: Vision requires combining big ideas for a wide variety of sources.


What it’s teaching me

One of the most exhilarating and challenging things a person can do is deal with any degree of success. The challenge in my heart as I watch this documentary on Walt Disney and as I write this post is to always dream bigger dreams.

And, since my dreams involve communicating the gospel through story and creative expression, what would that look like? How could colleagues and I grow a place where people with like-minded vision would want to move across the country to join?


  • What is your dream?
  • Are you too content with your current environment?
  • How might you grow your creative vision into the kind of place others would want to move across the country to join?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).