Monday, May 26, 2014

The Palo Alto Connection

Oliver Martin Johnston Junior was born in Palo Alto, California, on October 31, 1912. His father was a professor of Romance Languages at Stanford.  Ollie attended the Mayfield grammar school just east of campus, went on to Palo Alto High School and probably knew of Edgar Morgan, as he and Ed were both there in 1932.

Portions of the 1931 and 1933 Palo Alto High School Yearbooks


After graduating from high school, Ollie went across the street to Stanford, to study Art. There he met Frank Thomas, with whom he formed both a lifelong working and personal relationship.


Johnston was a leading animator with Disney for over 40 years and the last surviving member of the "Nine Old Men," who shaped the style of the studio's films from Snow White onwards. He was especially proud of his work on "Bambi" and its classic scenes, including the one depicting the heartbreaking death of Bambi's mother at the hands of a hunter, which has brought tears to the eyes of generations of young and old.

Ollie relied on emotion to make the Disney magic come to life.  He drew his characters with soft, subtle touches, gestures, and body movements which expressed how they felt. Regarding his style he said;

“It’s surprising what an effect touching can have in an animated cartoon.  You expect it in a live-action picture, or in your daily life, but to have two pencil drawings touching each other, you wouldn’t think would have much impact, but it does.” 

Fellow artist Andreas Deja recalled that Johnston always told him that you’re supposed to animate feelings, not drawings. 

“At first I didn’t understand because I thought; Of course you’re drawing drawings.  But, as I went along further in my career, I realized that he was right and that the character’s feelings are always the most important part. It makes you a completely different artist when you understand it.” 

Throughout his 43-year career Ollie animated some of the most sensitive and emotional characters in Disney's stories. Among his other best known are Thumper, and Pinocchio,  but he also enlivened Peter in Peter and the Wolf, Baloo, Bagheera, Prince John, and Penny.  

“I seem to have kind of a reservoir of feelings about how people feel in different situations,” reflected Johnston. “And while somebody else might be more interested in the drawing of the character in that situation, I was particularly interested in how the character actually felt.” 

Johnston and Thomas also was very influential through the mentoring, writing, and promoting he did for Disney.  For decades the two were the elder spokesmen of Disney animation and constantly worked to spread their knowledge and passion for it to the next generation.

“Always ask yourself what is this character thinking and why is he thinking that way.” was Ollie’s creed.

Johnston insisted that the characters should seem naturally involved in the situations demanded by the plot. According to his friend and principal collaborator, Frank Thomas, "Ollie was the only one of the Studio animators who was sensitive to character relationships and how they affected story.'

In the early days of cartoon animation, characters seldom touched, unless they were hitting each other, so Johnston's empathic approach was radical. Ollie explained; "You know, the act of two people holding hands communicates in a powerful way.” His expressions of warmth made a difference in every character he did for Disney.

Johnston's first job for Disney was as an "in-betweener" - the artist responsible for the drawings that appear between the extremes of an action drawn by an animator - on Mickey's Garden, the second color Mickey Mouse short. The following year, he was promoted to apprentice animator, working under Fred Moore on such shorts as Pluto's Judgment Day and Mickey's Rival.

Under Moore, Johnston became assistant animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, sharing responsibility for drawing the dwarfs with Frank Thomas. By 1940, Ollie had progressed to animator, and supervised the Blue Fairy sequence in Pinocchio. The same year he was in charge of the Pastoral Symphony section of Fantasia. Johnston also drew the stepsisters in Cinderella; Alice and the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Smee in Peter Pan. He also worked on a number of shorts, from The Brave Little Tailor and war films such as Der F├╝hrer's Face and Victory Through Air Power.

After illustrating the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty and Lady and Pongo in 101 Dalmatians, Johnston and Thomas did some of their best work in The Sword in the Stone, for which Johnston was responsible for all the leading characters. Frank Thomas did the dancing penguins in Mary Poppins; Johnston drew the penguin waiters.

Some felt that this sentimental streak could be too much of a good thing, but Walt clearly disagreed, as over the course of his career Johnston was given more and more responsibility, greater latitude and control over his work. Walt said;

"The thing that makes us different is... Giving it "heart"...  We developed a psychological approach to everything we do here. We seem to know how to "tap the heart." Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group."

Of course, that goes hand in hand with the first principle of Design Thinking; Empathy.


Friday, May 23, 2014

The Three Walts and Three Rooms

Two of the big questions many people have about being creative are; How do you do it?, and Is there a recipe?  I'm not sure anyone has fully answered either yet. Part of the difficulty in doing so is that it's one thing to study creativity and another to practice it.  Some of the most famous designers have maintained that you can't do both; that you can study or practice creativity, but not at the same time.

Three years ago, when I began researching the similarities between Imagineering and Design Thinking, I had the idea that comparing the lives of very creative people, to see if there were any common themes between them, might shed some light on it. That turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, not only because of the sheer volume of reading material, but also because Walt and the Imagineers and Arrow's employees didn't really talk much about their methods. Even when they did, their vocabularies were very different. Disney spoke in the context of telling stories and making movies while Karl and Ed were speaking as engineers.

Today we're going to look at a creative method that hasn't gotten much press. I'm talking about the idea of the Three Walts or The Three Rooms.


Oliver Johnston was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Calif. His father was a professor at Stanford. "Ollie"was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men".  Many feel that the two most accomplished of the group were Ollie and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met at Stanford in the 1930s and were hired by Disney for $17 a week, when the studio was expanding to produce full-length feature films.

Ollie once noted that he and Frank "were bound to be thrown together" at Stanford, since they were two of only six students in the art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for meal money.

Ollie also commented about Walt that there were actually three of him and that you never knew which one was coming to your meeting;
  • First was Walt the Dreamer.
  • Second was Walt the Realist.
  • Third was Walt the Critic. 
Not only were there three Walts, when ideas were being developed there were three different rooms which were used to investigate, discuss and refine them.
  • Room 1 was for brainstorming, where all ideas were presented - no naysaying allowed.
  • Room 2 was for storyboarding & sketches of potential characters for the story.
  • Room 3 was for putting the project under the microscope. 
Room 3 was called the Sweatbox and it was there that the entire project was presented, not only to the team, but to Devil’s Advocates, the most famous one being Walt.  In these "Critic"meetings no one was personally attacked, but it was where ideas either became a reality or were sacked!

Here are some detailed descriptions of what happened in each phase and room:

DREAMER -  Dreamers spin innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas, without limits or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. Dreamers ask: If I could wave a magic wand  and do anything I want – what would I create? (Pixie Dust - df) How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive? Dream-storming in Room 1 was the space for asking "What if?" and "Why not?"

REALIST - The realist builds the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible. They try to figure out how to make the ideas work and sort them into an executable plan. To be a realist, ask: How can I make this happen? What are the main features and aspects of the idea? Can I build on ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? (Inversion - df) How can I use the essence of the idea to create a more realistic one?

CRITIC -  The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to find flaws in them by playing the devil’s advocate. Critics, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A guest? Is it worth our time to work on this idea? This was also where Walt was when he suggested "plussing"things up.

For example; Suppose someone wanted a better way to water their garden.  The dreamer might suggest  teaching the plants how to talk, so they can tell you when they are dry. The realist develops this into an animated bird that monitors the moisture content of the soil. The realist refines the idea by exploring various sensors, hardware and software. Finally, the critic evaluates the idea for all possible flaws and problems.

Organizing these into process steps you get;

Step 1 - “WHAT are we going to do?”

Dream big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

The Room Setup: Open, airy rooms with lots of light and high-ceilings are the best for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mindset: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 - “HOW are we going to do it?”

Here the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this phase would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, (storytelling - df) and populating storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall which facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the planning process.

Mindset: This is where you roll up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Goals: Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 - “WHY are we doing this?”

Ask “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking the hard questions. Is the plan really doable? Are there unwieldy aspects that need to be cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? The process shifts from dream-storming, to subsequently practical. The environments in the various “rooms” prompt us to adopt the best mindset at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to ultimately be implemented.

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mindset: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.  In considering How, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The Why? step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider the plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting, Imagineering, and Design Thinking, go deep: they are methodical, disciplined, and time-intensive up front.

Here are some Mascots or Characters for Walt's three rooms:

The Realist - Ludwig Von Drake is the analyst.
The Dreamer - Mickey has the vision, heart and empathy.
The Critic - Donald Duck has the eye for what's missing or just wrong.

Realist, Dreamer and Critic