Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips from Walt Disney

Get behind these lessons from the man behind the mouse.
Walt Disney
By  · Published on March 15th, 2017

What would Walt Disney have thought of the new live-action Beauty and the Beast? What would he have thought of the 1991 animated version? While there are so many questions we’d love to have answered about the man’s take on the modern world, it’s best to look at what we can still learn from such an iconic figure 50 years after his death.

Disney remains an inspiration for students of business in particular, but a lot of his words of wisdom originated with and still speak to the art of filmmaking and creators in general. We highlight six such tips for writers, directors, animators, and more below.

Set Your Goals Early

Disney was still just a child when he figured out what he was good at and what he wanted to do with his life. At 14, he was already in art school. At 18, he was a professional illustrator and cartoonist. Within another 10 years, he’d created Mickey Mouse. If you’re in your 20s, you’re already too late to follow his lead, apparently, but you can still give this advice a shot.

Firstly, start with where Disney did, with a tip he received as a boy from a neighbor who’d be his first mentor, Doc Sherwood: “Don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance.” And don’t be afraid in general. Be confident, and go for all your dreams right away. In the 1966 book “Magician of the Movies,” he’s quoted as saying:

When I was young, I always knew what I wanted to be: a cartoonist. I was curious about everything that would help me achieve that goal. Later, I set out to achieve other goals, and I sought them with the same intensity with which I had pursued cartooning.

It seems to me that’s what young people need: a sense of direction. If they know what they’re aiming for, they have a reason to seek knowledge, a reason to be curious.

They may not reach the same goal they start out for. They may be like the Princes of Serendip, who set out for one destination, then found better places to go. Many of our greatest discoveries in science have been serendipities, found by scientists who were actually looking for something else.

A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something else that is even more rewarding. But in the end – no matter what the outcome – he will know he has been alive.

Here are some other relevant quotes (via Wikiquote) that are heavily circulated as representing Disney’s daringness to dream and do:

“All our dreams can come true – if we have the courage to pursue them.”

“Do a good job. You don’t have to worry about the money; it will take care of itself. Just do your best work – then try to trump it.”

“I suppose my formula might be: dream, diversify and never miss an angle.” (The Wall Street Journal, 1958)

Get Kicked in the Teeth

One of the more difficult to source quotes that still probably did come from Disney (it’s one of his most famous) relates to the fact that he had hit some heavy obstacles in his early years but overcame them through persistence:

All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.

You could say he took the idea to storytelling, too, as he believed audiences need a little bit of pain in their entertainment. “For every laugh, there should be a tear, and for every tear, a laugh,” he famously stated.

Don’t Go Through a Middle Man

One way Disney got kicked in the teeth was to depend on a middle man, specifically producer and distributor Charles Mintz. Disney often told the story of how he got screwed over on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character only to turn around and create Mickey Mouse (with Ub Iwerks). Afterward, he made sure he owned his creations and handled their business himself.

Here’s one version where he turns the story into a lesson for others to learn from, spoken in a 1959 radio interview for Voices of Hollywood Past:

I was contracting with a middle man for my films, and they were being released through Universal. And he was a rather unscrupulous character, and he thought he could move in, cut in a little better, and I pulled away from him. I was left alone, and he happened to own, he had a right to the character. So that was one of the big lessons I learned, and from then on I said, ‘There’s no middle man.’ He contributed nothing. We did everything.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.