A lesson in imagination from the pioneer of animation

Immi Marsh

The story I am about to tell is one of escapism and nostalgia, an adventure into decadence and excess, but most of all curiosity, as we delve deep into the treasure trove of Walt Disney’s most esteemed inspirations. If you are all sitting comfortably, I shall begin.

Once upon a time in a kingdom far away, lived Walt Disney who said that, “fantasy, if it’s really convincing, can’t become dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time.”

Now my dearest readers, lying beyond this ethereal reach of time that Walt Disney so delightfully describes, immortalised so perfectly in the expanse of the Disney kingdom, is 18th Century France. The gilded chutzpah of the Rococo era preserved forever in our minds as a place where dreams really can come true.

When Walt Disney first set foot on French soil on 4th December 1918 to become a Red Cross Ambulance Corps driver in the aftermath of WW1, little did he know, but the seed of his empire was on the cusp of discovery. He was about to embark upon a passionate and lifelong love affair with France, who would soon become his muse, his palette, and an infinite font of fascination. His imagination soared voraciously through the opulence of the French decorative arts.

The enticing glint of Europe beckoned him to return in 1935, where like a magpie claiming its jewels, he filled his arms with Rococo inspiration in their swathes, bringing home to America 335 illustrated books, brimming with 17th and 18th century fairy tales and art, as well as an abundance of miniature ceramics and furniture. This would be the beginnings of his own 1000-piece cabinet of curiosities and the early nucleus of his animation studio.

In an unexpected meeting of minds, an arts movement for the elite of French society, became a microcosm of inspiration for a Twentieth century animation studio which brought joy into the homes of the masses. Two worlds, you are thinking, that seem eons apart. But both bound by a dedication to craft for entertainment’s sake, and a childlike fascination with animating the inanimate, something that coursed through the veins of both Disney, and the arts.

Rococo, every bit as whimsical as its name, softened from the intensity of the Baroque, into sinuous twists and turns of pastels and gild, and elaborate zoomorphic sculptures, becoming a theatrics of the ornamental, creating the scintillating illusion of drama in every room that it found a stage. Gilded elephant trunks doubling as candelabra holders flare from ornate pink and turquoise vases, golden grandfather clocks tower majestically and beckon a presence that suggests they might see more than they let on, and gilded angelic faces beam innocently from chiselled mantlepiece ornaments. In true 21st Century Toy Story style, the people at the time often indulged their imagination as to whether their belongings came to life when they weren’t there, musing about what they might say when out of human earshot…

But animating the inanimate was the bread and butter of Disney’s craft - the minutiae of movement transferred from one hand drawn frame to the other, pencil drawings which would make up only a mere few seconds of animation. It also found its way into his characters too: flirtatious feather dusters, matronly and comforting teapots and charismatic candlesticks fulfil their Rococo fantasy as Fifi, Mrs Potts and Lumiere, brought to life by all the heart-warming and expressive characteristics owed to their form. The loyal Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast originally started life as a long-case clock, but characters, so tied to their material form, caused art director Brian McEntee to turn him into an enchanted mantel clock to give him more bodily freedom to interact with the other characters.

Upon Disney’s canvas, everyday objects became characters in their own right, alongside animals that could’ve seemingly leapt straight from a fireplace ornament into their leading roles on the big screen. In Disney’s imagination, anything was possible.


The original princess culture

Disney has of course long been heralded as the original creator of princess culture, but French folklore tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, were all stories of 17th and 18th century France which enchanted Walt and his team to retell them through a 20th century lens. And so the flamboyant Gothic castles that rise magnificently as the centre piece of all Disneyland theme parks across the world – that quintessential symbol of the Walt Disney kingdom that we all know and love – start to make a little more sense as the backdrop to his world.

The palaces of Château d'Ussé, Fontainebleau and Neuschwanstein Castle that lent their dramatic storybook turrets and towers to the Disney story, are arguably concealed behind the allure of the imaginary. Nor would you perhaps have noticed one of the great artistic masterpieces of the era, The Swing by Fragonard, traversing time and finding its way years later into a scene in Frozen, or the Palace of Versailles offering its hall of mirrors to the setting for Beauty and the Beast’s first dance. Influence you see, was written into the smallest of flourishes.

Harnessing the luxury of days gone by, Disney threw open the doors to the grandeur of palaces, castles and courts, as his, ripe for the taking – making the stuff of dreams, seemingly suspended from reality, something for everyone. This vision, the shimmering hallmark of the American Dream.  

Inspiration is but a glance away

And so dear reader, I hope you are feeling suitably inspired after that journey through the mind of one of the greats. The moral of this tale, as I’m sure you have guessed by now, is that life is far more intricately connected than we might think. Six degrees of separation is all it takes to connect one human on this vast Earth of ours to another, and inspiration, it would seem, only one away from realisation. Disney’s love of the French decorative arts was fuel for his craft, his passion helping to revolutionise animation as we know it.

If the Godfather of entertainment can teach us anything, it’s that creative inspiration, elusive and often poised just out of reach, is often but a glance away, woven surreptitiouslyinto the fabric of something else. Stay curious, embrace a pareidolia of the everyday, beg borrow and steal inspiration from life around you, use it as the palette to paint from, find it in the patterns, the quirks and the cracks, because you just never know what you might find.

In keeping with life’s artistic thievery, it seems only fitting I leave you with the final words of someone else - film director Jim Jarmusch – someone Walt would have no doubt been friends with.

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.

The end.


6 min06 May 22