Monday, June 4, 2012

Gags into Stories

Back in 1995 and 96, I had the privilege of being on the opening team for the Disney Institute. I was the resident storyteller in charge of Story Arts. One of my favorite programs was one I called "As Walt Would Tell It" in which I could lead guests through an exploration of Walt Disney's development as a storyteller. It is well known that Walt stopped drawing pictures early on and focused instead on story, developing the story board process and using storytelling to lead his company.

You can follow his maturation as a storyteller by following his creative work. In the early days, he and his artists were turning out gag-driven comedies. All they needed to do was find a good situation and string a bunch of gags around it. This was during the early "rubber-hose" animations with the Alice and the Oswald comedies. He was still doing heavily gag-driven stories when he began his Mickey Mouse shorts. You can see how a set of gags dominates the film in this Mickey Mouse short, The Fire Fighters, from 1930:

A few years later, in 1936, Disney releases a Silly Symphony called Elmer Elephant. You will find the same kinds of fire-fighter gags, but now they are in service of a story about an underdog becoming a hero:

As an aside, part of the special alchemy of Disney's power is the way in which his technology developed as his story sense developed. I will explore that in more detail elsewhere. Simply put: as the films went from Black & White to Color, the stories likewise became more colorful.

By 1941, Walt and his team are really growing up. they are entering their 40s, becoming family men and women and watching their children grow. (This development will ultimately lead Walt to conceive of Disneyland.) You can see their maturation in the growing maturity of their stories. This is the year of Dumbo. The following year will see Bambi. These are two of the most enduring, sophisticated films of Walt's career. All artists, of any merit, invest their work with their own life experience. In Dumbo, you can sense the gravitas of parenthood. Story artist, Bill Peet, famously watched his wife bathe their newborn as he created the storyboards for the Dumbo bath scene. Also in Dumbo, we can see how the same gags that drove The Fire Fighters and Elmer Elephant, have been completely subsumed by the story. Here is the clown sequence from Dumbo. You will see the same kinds of gags from the earlier years. But, ironically, you will also see that the effect they have is the opposite of a cheap laugh. Instead, they deepen our empathy for the hero.

Walt discovered that gag-driven stories can only take you a short distance. But gags used in service of larger themes and ideas, can take a story far. Bad gags are self-centered distractions. Good gags are a glittering refraction of the larger story.

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