‘Brand Experience’ Lessons From Walt Disney and Making Of ‘Snow-White & The Seven Dwarfs’ Movie

In the early 1930s, Walt Disney had become dissatisfied with producing formulaic short cartoon series. His enthusiasm was waning. He was bored and unhappy. He was restless. He felt that he needed a new adventure. He was relentlessly moving around to find a new concept… Then suddenly, the idea came like a lightning flash — Making a full-length animated feature film(which was never been tried before). He loved the idea. After deliberate exploration, he chose the story of ‘Snow White and Seven Dwarfs’.

Walt’s brother Roy was worried that making a full length animated feature film would require a massive amount of money and might be a disaster for the studio, resulting in bankruptcy. The bankers were also hesitant to lend the money. They requested Walt to drop the plan but he was not ready to quit.

Everyone’s worry was about the potential failure of the movie and how it would affect Disney Studio’s brand value and its finances. But Walt’s worry was how to translate his idea into the big screen that would captivate the audience in a way that no cartoon has done ever before.

Do not focus on the rewards, focus on the work.

Walt embarked on finding ways to captivate the audience. He began to ask questions to himself — What kind of movie experience would enthrall the viewers? Why would they want to see our movie? What kind of feeling should a customer get from the movie?.

Majority of decisions in a project has to be primarily in support of who would be using the product or service.

Walt was beginning to think from his customer’s perspective. The first step in providing a wonderful customer experience — Think, Behave and feel like your customer.

Steve jobs “I have always found is that you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. So we started with: what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?”

Walt pondered, why would a customer sit for 90 long minutes cartoon? Gags? Bright colours? Would those colours not hurt their eyes?

The cartoons, Walt made until that time was of 10–15 minutes duration. In the shorter cartoons, Gag was the main component and its sole purpose was to make people laugh. Walt believed that people might get tired of gags if it was stretched for 90 minutes and the ‘quality of gags’ also would suffer. Just targeting only one emotion would not work. He had a hunch that he might have to target more than one emotion. He then asked himself another important question — Can you make people cry? Can you make people cry over a drawing? Walt reframed his problem and it gave him a completely new perspective.

If Walt could make people laugh, cry and feel sad…that means he was not selling a story or movie to his audience but selling an experience. Experience is connected to emotion

It was not about any product or service but how we could make our customers feel.

For the next few months, Walt continued to work on the story, characters, emotions and constantly monitored the experience, the proposed movie would provide to the customers. To realise his dream, he needed the support of his animators. Unfortunately, he had to overcome a challenge — How would his animators recreate the required experience for the audience if they had not felt it yet?

Solution — His animators had to become the audience and experience. Walt had to present his ‘movie’ idea to this audience. If he could enthrall his animators, then he could enthrall his real customers. There are other potential benefits too — 1) If the idea is good, it would be easy to convince his employees to believe in his dream, thereby they would work wholeheartedly on the project. 2) His animators would understand the feeling that needs to be integrated into the movie.

PROTOTYPING — The next challenge was how to show the movie to his employees without spending money or time on making animations? How to prototype the idea that was evolving only in Disney’s mind?

David Kelly, of IDEO, calls prototyping as “Thinking with your hands”. A crude prototype is effective in the evaluation and evolution of ideas, effective in breaking the complexity, effective in rapid sharing, communicating and convincing others, effective in driving the idea forward and accelerating the pace of the project.

Designers generally like to test the concept ideas using low fidelity models as prototypes in the earlier phase of the project to save cost and time. One of the tools, designers use to prototype a concept — Acting out scenarios or role-playing. No hardware or software needed — Just simulate the scenarios. What did Walt do? He acted out.

One evening, Walt Disney called his office colleagues to the auditorium and he stood on the stage. He acted out the story of ‘Snow-White and Seven Dwarfs’. Just only him. A one-man show. He impersonated all the characters of the story. He even acted like animals, spoke in different tones. He enacted all the emotions. He sang songs and danced. Everyone was enthralled and mesmerized. The demonstration had left viewers to spell bounded. The employees bought Disney’s idea.

The research shows that the majority of our decisions are controlled by our emotional mind and this mind is connected to our sensory organs. Walt’s visual display, mimicry spoke directly to the employee’s emotional mind and they became ready to do anything in realising the Disney’s dream. They understood the experience they need to recreate in the movie

Walt was not hesitant or felt shy to act in front of his employees. He was not worried about potential embarrassment.

The reason why Walt was not worried about the embarrassment — He was a keen observer from his childhood which helped him to notice audience’s hidden requirements, helped him to perceive & mimic body languages, voices of animals and other human beings. He was a wonderful actor himself. Moreover, he had deliberately prepared everything for months, before presenting it to his employees.

We all know that Walt was a wonderful artist but he owes his success to his largely under-appreciated strength — Storytelling. He was a wonderful storyteller.

Stories work not only in movies but also in selling our products and services. Similar to movies, we should sell the human experience a product/service provides rather than the benefits. This experience could be communicated through a story by mapping out the intended experience of the use of the product — the story that you and your business want your customers to experience.

Stories provide humanness to our product or service.

What is the ‘most important factor’ that can transform ‘a good company into a great company, ‘a good product into a great product’ ‘a good service into a great service’?

Charles R Swindoll quotes’ “The difference between something good and something great is ‘attention to detail’”.

Yes… ‘Attention To Detail’. It directly affects how a customer would feel about your product or service. It affects the ‘Brand Experience’. This could enhance brand value or undermine it.

Though Walt thought big, he never let those’big thoughts’ distract him from ‘attention to details’.

All the little things to do or fail to do affect the big things.

Walt knew that in order to provide an impressive, distinctive and memorable ‘movie experience’, he and his team had to work to the last detail.

Walt had a challenge in his hand that he had to captivate the audience in a way that no cartoon has done ever before. Imagine the design of the movie poster — A viewer would look at the poster only for a few seconds and within that short time, something in the poster had to interrupt viewer’s attention — the audience should be made to understand that this type of cartoon was never been done before.

CURRENT STATE — Before beginning to work on ‘Attention to details’, the foremost thing is to understand the ‘Current State’ — Be aware of ‘What it is now?’ — We need to constantly ask ‘Why?’, Why do we do things the way that we do?

The next step is to improve upon them. We need to ask ‘What it could be?’. Look around, understand what others are doing. Look at multiple fields, gather knowledge and see whether you could implement or adopt some aspects of it.

Walt looked at ‘What it is now?’ — He glanced at his characters in his short films of that time — Example, ‘Silly Symphony’ series — They were more cartoonish and not at all realistic. He then thought of ‘What it could be’ — What could help in engaging the audience for 90 minutes? — He came across a key factor — to infuse his animated characters with natural realism.

He realised that the human characters and the environment had to look real. He could play around with Dwarf characters but other things had to look authentic. The movements of Snow White and other characters in the movie had to be more natural than the rubbery, exaggerated movement of ‘Silly Symphony’ characters.

Below is a comparison image — the images on the left side are from one of the episodes of ‘Silly Symphony’(The Early 1930s) and the images on the right side are from ‘Snow-White’ movie. See the difference in details of the dancing girl’s ‘character’ design — hands, legs, fingers, face, dress. (The other images — Differences in the design of the ghostly tree, Tortoise and their limbs).

Walt knew that ‘The Seven Dwarfs’ play a vital role in the movie — He gave each dwarf a specialized character and a personality. He asked his team to detail the dwarf characters as much as possible.

Below is the dwarf character from one of the episodes of ‘Silly Symphony’

Dwarfs from the ‘Snow White’ movie and the difference is striking.

The next step was to have a ‘Unified Visual Language’ throughout the movie — Disney hired a great stylist ‘Ferdinand HORVATH’ who was famous for European storybook illustration, a style familiar to the audience at that time. Walt asked him to work on the details of environment and structures.

Design of ‘Snow white’ character was a major problem. It was not naturalistic and innocent looking. Disney brought a fine external draughtsman to train his animators to draw the naturalistic characters. Similarly, Walt and his team devoted the considerable amount of time to evolve the queen character, finally making it beautiful.

Music — Walt considered music as a storytelling medium and he gave more importance to songs and music in his movies. He was adamant that songs should not stop the action of the film but move the film along.

Sound — Walt believed that ‘Natural Sound’ play an important part in the plot development and provide a realistic feel to the movie. He had a team to record thousands of various sounds that could represent the believable part of the environment. His team sometimes designed sound in-house, made it appear realistic and put them into the animated world.

Would you believe that sound of Dwarf’s shoes while walking, came from ‘flexing’ of the purse?

Below — The image on the left shows how a person was recording a sound by shaking his face in a tub of water. The image on the right — The scene where the recorded sound was applied.

Walt brought live animals into the studio so that his artist could study them in detail and understand their movements — Realistic animation(What could be?).

Walt made animators throw objects on a glass window to analyse the shattering effect

Disney hired a teenage actor to act the part of snow white so that his animators could understand body movements in various actions, poses. cloth movements. He encouraged animators to study the movement of dress, movement of hair as she danced, movement of hair. They also studied facial expressions as the actor laughed, smiled and cried.

Disney brought in actors to impersonate ‘dwarf’ characters and made them dance, act so that animators could capture certain qualities — like personality, movement, expressions. Their videos were recorded, analysed and used as a reference.

Walt hired an actor to impersonate ‘Witch’ Queen.

Disney invited famous artists to take classes and teach motion, art, visual composition to his animators. How would a cloth move? How would a beard move? — Realistic animation.

Disney asked his animators to look at the legs of the dancer and understand the cloth’s followthrough when the foot moves up and down. How the wrinkles appear and disappear?

Disney pushed his animators to try acting the characters in front of the mirror so they could understand more in detail and produce better results. He encouraged them to become the character itself.

Walt motivated them to take acting classes and study the facial muscles. Animators worked on lip movement when a character says certain words and how it would affect eyes, cheeks, forehead.

Walt risked his personal fortune and the future of his company in making the ‘Snow White and Seven Dwarfs’ movie. When the movie was released in 1937, it made an immediate impact. The viewers were stunned by the quality of the characters and the realistic animation. The most amazing aspect of the movie was the emotional reactions from the audience. The audience laughed, enjoyed the gags and antics of the dwarfs. Some of them were horrified at the scene of Snow-White running into the woods as the trees clawed at her dress. Some were thrilled at the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Old Hag. And at the apparent death of Snow-white, the audience started weeping when the dwarfs mourned the death of Snow White, only to cheer when she was revived by the Prince’s kiss. The audience believed in the story. Walt gave them a new experience which they could cherish for a long time.

References: PBS DOcumentary: American Experience-Walt Disney, Wikipedia, The movie ‘Walt Before Mickey’ and ‘Making Of Snow-White’ Documentary by Harry Arends(Images and Content are from this documentary), What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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