Walt Disney's ability to connect his innovative creativity with successful business strategy and popular appeal certainly qualifies him as a genius in the field of entertainment. In a way, Disney's chosen medium of expression, the animated film, characterizes the fundamental process of all genius: the ability to take something that exists in the imagination only and forge it into a physical existence that directly influences the experience of others in a positive way.
The simple yet worldwide appeal of Disney’s characters, animated films, live action features and amusement parks demonstrate a unique ability to grasp, synthesize and simplify very basic yet quite sophisticated principles. Disney was also responsible for a number of important technical and organizational innovations in the fields of animation and film-making in general.
One of the goals of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is to make explicit maps of the successful thinking strategies of people with special talents like Walt Disney. NLP explores the way people sequence and use fundamental mental abilities such as sight, hearing and feeling in order to organize and perform in the world around them.
Like Albert Einstein, who claimed that, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," Disney took his fantasies very seriously, contending that,"Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive." In fact, the creative processes of the two men have some remarkable similarities. Einstein claimed that his typical thinking style was "visual and motoric" and often used visual fantasies or "special imaginary constructions" to make his discoveries. Disney too seems to have been highly visual and physical in his creative process.
The following statement was given by Disney as a description of his process for creating his stories:
"The story man must see clearly in his own mind how every piece of business in a story will be put. He should feel every expression, every reaction. He should get far enough away from his story to take a second look at it...to see whether there is any dead phase...to see whether the personalities are going to be interesting and appealing to the audience. He should also try to see that the things that his characters are doing are of an interesting nature."
From the NLP point of view this statement provides a remarkably clear description of the basic elements of Disney's creative strategy. It involves three distinct perceptual positions working in coordination with one another.
1. "The story man must see clearly in his own mind how every piece of business in a story will be put."
In the first step, Disney describes visualizing of all of the elements involved in the story or project as a kind of gestalt. This would most likely take place through constructed visual imagery (Vc).
2. "He should feel every expression, every reaction."
Next, Disney describes putting himself into the kinesthetic feelings (K) of the characters in the story, experiencing the story from their perceptual position.
In the language of NLP, these first two steps involve the ability to take 'first and second position' (DeLozier & Grinder,1987). 'First position' involves seeing, hearing and feeling a particular event from one's own perspective. 'Second position' involves seeing, hearing and feeling an event from from someone else's perceptual position, including their values, beliefs and emotions. For example, if you were in 'first position' imagining a character riding a bicycle, you would be seeing it from the point of view of a bystander. Being in 'second position' would involve looking from the perspective of the rider, being on the bicycle seat, looking down at your hands on the handlebars, etc.
Disney seems to have had a unique ability to assume 'second position'.
"Mickey's voice was always done by Walt, and he felt the lines and the situation so completely that he could not keep from acting out the gestures and even the body attitudes as he said the dialogue."
By associating himself into his characters' perceptual positions, Disney knew his imaginary characters motives and behavior more intimately. It probably also enhanced his creativity by allowing him to spontaneously discovery of how the character might act in a particular situation, rather than having to figure it out analytically.
3. "He should get far enough away from his story to take a second look at it.
In his last step, Disney switches back to the visual representational system. This "second look", however, is from a different point of view than his initial visualization. He is 're-viewing' the story in memory (Vr) from a perceptual position that is literally farther away from his initial fantasizing and is serving a different purpose. Rather than be creative, the function of this second look is to be critical. In order to effectively evaluate what is taking place in the first two perceptual positions (Vc and K), Disney must get outside the relationship by shifting up a level to what is called 'third position' or 'meta-position' - a perspective above 'first' and 'second' position in which one can actually look at the relationship between the two of them. Disney's evaluations involve a hierarchy of criteria that are made from the point of view of the audience - an audience that is too far away to know how all of the pieces of the story fit together yet and also too distant to be caught up in the excitement of the initial act of creation.
Disney describes three different evaluations he makes on the story from this perceptual position:
The three evaluations that Disney makes start on an abstract level and become progressively more concrete and finely chunked. The first criterion relates to a general quality of the whole story - that of movement. Regardless of the content of what his characters are doing, Disney requires a certain quality of movement so that there is not "dead phase". The second criterion relates to his characters' personalities, and again is content dependent, but rather is most likely tied to the kind of feeling the character conveys. It is only after these first to tests have been passed that Disney evaluates the specific activities of the story.
Disney's "Second look" provides what is called a 'double description' of the story. This 'double description' gives us important information that may be left out of any one perspective. Just as the differences in point of view between our two eyes give us a double description of the world around us that allows us to perceive depth, Disney's double description of his own creations served to give them an added element of depth.
In summary, it is clear that one of the major elements of Disney's unique genius was his ability to explore something from a number of different perceptual positions. As one of his close associates pointed out:
"...there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming into your meeting."
From our analysis, it would seem that Disney the "dreamer" functioned primarily through a strategy of constructed visual images (Vc). Disney then made his fantasies "real" by associating into the feelings (K) of the imaginary characters and acting them out to give them life. The "spoiler" comes from taking a "second look" (Vr) at these creations from the point of view of a critical audience.
While Disney used this strategy to develop high quality animated films, the basic elements of the strategy can obviously be used practically any situation where planning and decision-making is involved. Balancing the fundamental perceptual positions of the "dreamer", the "realist" and the "spoiler" (or ‘critic’) in the service of a common vision is no doubt a fundamental strategy of all genius.
Finch, C.; The Art of Walt Disney ; Harry N. Abrahms Inc., New York, New York, 1973.
Culhane, J.; Walt Disney's Fantasia ; Harry N. Abrahms Inc., New York, New York, 1983.
Thomas, F. & Johnson, O.; Disney Animation; The Illusion of Life ; Abbeyville Press, New York, New York, 1981.
DeLozier, J. & Grinder, J.; Turtles All The Way Down ; Grinder, DeLozier & Associates, Santa Cruz, CA, 1987.
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