And then, on the 7th of December 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbour, and America entered the Second World War. Within hours, Walt Disney Productions would transform from an animation studio into an army base, with 500 men stationed to protect the nearby Lockheed Martin facility. For the next four years, their output would be concerned almost entirely with the war effort, through a series of training films, propaganda shorts and other initiatives to support the US and its allies. By forcing a pause on their wider creative development, the war offered the studio an opportunity to support their country, refocus their skills and resources and offer a much-needed liferaft, not to solve their financial problems but put them on hold.
In March 1941, he established a Defence Films Division at the studio to prepare for these projects, headed initially by staff writer Robert Spencer Carr, who was responsible for many of the initial contracts. The problem was that animation was still seen by the general public as nothing more than entertainment, and despite the Disney animated features, was still mostly used for short-form cartoons. Its educational possibilities until this point had been mostly untapped, and thus unproven. Before they could secure contracts, they had to have something to sell.
The division reached out to defence and aerospace company Lockheed Martin and proposed collaborating on a short subject on aircraft riveting as a proof-of-concept for their training films. An engineer from Lockheed was brought to the studio, and the small team began brainstorming how to make the film as quickly, cheaply and clearly as possible.
On the 3rd of April 1941, thirty-seven representatives from the U.S. Office of Education, the U.S. Forestry Service, the National Defense Advisory Committee and CalTech gathered at the Burbank studio for a presentation from Walt on their training films proposal. He began by showing a series of clips from previous projects - the animated sequence from 'Servant’s Entrance', the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from 'Fantasia' and a story reel for 'The Wind in the Willows' - as a demonstration of the scope of their capabilities. He followed this with the Baby Weems sequence from the as-yet-unreleased 'The Reluctant Dragon' as a way of showing how they could make an effective short from limited budget and resources. Finally, he presented a storyboard version of the aircraft riveting film, named 'Four Methods of Flush Riveting'.
The following film uses a simplified technique developed by the Walt Disney Studio to demonstrate the quickest and cheapest method whereby the animation medium can be applied to national defence training.
The response was instant and ecstatic. The animation would be basic and rudimentary, certainly by comparison to the recently-released 'Fantasia', but even in storyboard form, it was clear that the division’s simple, visually-driven approach would work. “We have tried the other way, the ordinary realistic film, and found it unsatisfactory,” said John Grierson, head of the National Film Board of Canada, following the presentation. “I believe the very abstraction in the model we saw is part of the success of the methods. It simplifies, prevents wandering of the attention, brings the point of your teaching into focus... I am convinced that certainly, in the technical film, the animated way is the best from the teacher’s point of view.”
Walt was pleased. “We have the plant, the equipment and the personnel,” he said, “and we’re willing to do anything that we can to help in any way.” Straight away, Grierson offered the division their first contract, securing the Canadian rights to 'Four Methods of Flush Riveting' and commissioning (at cost) trailers selling war bonds and a short on the Boys anti tank rifle, which would be called 'Stop That Tank!'
The day after the Pearl harbour attack, the U.S. Navy made their first commission to the studio, requesting twenty films on aircraft identification, in order to train U.S. troops to identify U.S. and Allied aircraft from Axis aircraft. Now that the division would have a steady series of projects, Walt appointed Ub Iwerks as director of many of the training films, a perfect compliment to his analytical and technical mind.
In the past, Walt’s decision making had been driven by emotion and instinct, but while this had led to exciting outcomes creatively, he was never adept at making good business decisions, often resulting in fraught business partnerships with distributors and other partners. With all of the studio’s output during the war, Walt refused to make any sort of profit, committed to supporting the war effort. As such, he offered to make the films "at cost". What that meant for the studio and what that meant for the army contractees though were two different things, the latter only accounting for the making of the actual short rather than the subsequent printing and negative costs. As a result, the war projects, and in particular the training films, often came at a loss for the studio themselves.
The aircraft identification films, or the WEFT Series (wings, engines, fuselage, tail), became a trial by fire in many ways for the training film division. The series was cancelled before it was even completed and was considered a failure, but the fault did not lie with the staff at the studio. The films had been rushed into production by the Navy before their identification system could be properly tested, and it quickly became apparent that their method was flawed, something the films highlighted and that the Navy were willing to take the blame for. What the series did offer though was an opportunity to refine their techniques, and better prepare them for the work ahead.
By the end of the war, the Defence Films Division had produced close to 170 training films, none of which were for any financial profit. To keep costs down and to accommodate for the insanely short production schedule, they were almost all produced in black and white, and rather than using the top animation staff, anyone with a commercial or graphic art background was brought on to animate the films, including members of the Ink & Paint department. Where a traditional animated feature would cost $200-$250 a foot, the training films needed to cost as little as $4 a foot, a drastic reduction after the years of excess with 'Pinocchio', 'Fantasia' and 'Bambi'. Walt was forced to lower his expectations and expect a lower standard of work, but was bolstered by their contribution to the war effort.
There were important innovations though in the training films. The simple graphic approach would become vital after the war with the studio’s transition to television, where they adopted the same techniques for their educational programs. There were also fascinating experiments with colour in one series, where the Functional Colour technique was used. The psychological impact of certain colours were used to distinguish and emphasise certain graphic elements, a method that had been developed by psychologist Faber Birren.
There were occasions where it became necessary to use military stock footage in the films, but often this was of a low quality and quantity. A small live-action crew was given full access to military facilities and operations, and the techniques developed by this unit would become vital following the war with the studio’s series of live action nature shorts.
In order to preserve these techniques for the future, Walt had a manual compiled a year into the making of the training films. In the introduction to the manual, he wrote:
“In times of war, many things like flying and medical science make terrific strides. So it is with our own business, which unfortunately is still saddled with the misnomer ‘cartoon’. In the last year or so, we’ve done comparatively little ‘cartoon’ work but a great deal of animated picture work. The techniques of our business have changed, our horizons have rolled back almost to infinity regarding the educational material that we can handle. Perhaps, in the future, the demands on us for the educational type of film will be as important as the demand for entertainment alone.”
The unit was headed by draftsman Hank Porter, who was responsible for drawing many of the Disney-themed comic strips for Good Housekeeping, as well as many of the classic posters for Disney films and shorts during the 30s and 40s. The artists used characters from across all of their films and shorts up until that point, including the Silly Symphonies, the features, and their five signature characters (Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy). Sometimes letters would come in with a description of the unit and what character they might like, while others submitted rudimentary designs they wanted to see executed. Most were requests for whole units, but some were requests from individual servicemen and women for their own personal insignia. The most requested character was also Disney’s most popular, Donald Duck, whose tempestuous personality seemed a better fit for the tone of army life than the perpetual boy scout Mickey.
Between 1941 and 1945, it is suspected that around 1270 insignias were designed, though that number does not likely reflect the full catalogue of designs made. While they brought no financial benefits to the studio, they were a huge success for the war effort, boosting morale for the units who requested them. With the establishment of the United States Air Force in 1947, the insignias created by the studio were cancelled, though some were still occasionally produced and used through to the 1970s. They are perhaps the most endearing legacy of the studio’s contribution to the war.
Despite popular belief, Walt Disney Productions only produced a small number of animated shorts designed specifically as propaganda. A small handful are fascinating works in their own right, and represent not just subtle developments in their animation style, but Walt’s own thoughts on the role of propaganda.
The first pieces of propaganda were the trailers created for the National Film Board of Canada to promote the sale of war bonds. These were made incredibly fast and incredibly cheap, mostly reusing animation from pre-existing shorts and films, including 'Three Little Pigs' and 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'.
Within a few days of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Treasury requested a short from the studio asking citizens to complete their income taxes, which were now vital to funding the war. Wanting to impress the Treasury, Walt promised to have the short ready by February 1942. This gave them less than two months to work out the storyboards, animate it, ink and paint it, photograph it and print it, far less than their usual schedule for an animated short. Staff worked eighteen hour days, with many sleeping at the studio and the animators delivering final animation without a rough stage. Incredibly, the short, titled 'The New Spirit', was delivered ahead of schedule, and while Walt was displeased with the quality, he was content to have at least delivered on his promise.
The U.S. Treasury had promised the studio $8,000 to cover costs for the short, but when the request for money was sent through to Congress, it prompted a scathing debate. The anti-Roosevelt faction leapt on the request as a means to attack the current administration, calling it a waste of money and trying to frame Walt as a war profiteer, which promoted a further attack on Walt in the press. In fact, not only had the studio made a loss on the film, they had even distributed the film for free.
When 'The New Spirit' was released, the public response was warm, and a Gallop poll highlighted that 37 per cent of audiences had been convinced by the short to do their income taxes. This success eventually convinced Congress to release the funds to the studio, and there were further requests for shorts, one from the Secretary of Agriculture for a short on American food production called 'Food Will Win The War', and one from the War Production Board’s Conservation Division encouraging people to donate their cooking oil to the war effort, 'Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line'.
Following the release of 'The New Spirit' though, the studio had received angry letters from some audiences disappointed to see them engaging in propaganda. This only solidified Walt’s discomfort with producing any kind of propaganda. “One of the things we are fighting for,” he said at the time, “is the right of all people to think, read and speak as they will, not to have others’ views foisted upon them.” Despite further requests, Walt refused to produce any more propaganda shorts, especially as they were using up Disney resources in a way he was not comfortable with.
Producer Jock Whitney, who has been instrumental in commissioning the Good Neighbor films, found a way around Walt’s objections. He urged Reader's Digest to offer to fund a series of shorts on the brainwashing tactics of Nazism, fully covering their costs. Despite his reservations, Walt agreed on the series, and the four films produced represent the most fascinating of the propaganda shorts, all of them supervised by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer.
The first, originally called 'Donald Duck in Axis Land', featured an entirely original scenario where Donald Duck has a nightmare of being a factory worker in Nazi Germany. During development, Disney studio composer Oliver Wallace had an unexpected hit with his song 'Der Fuehrer's Face', and the song was incorporated into the short, contributing its eventual title. Der Fuehrer’s Face also became a huge success, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1943.
The second, 'Education For Death', was suggested by Reader's Digest themselves, an adaptation of the recently published 'Education For Death: The Making of the Nazi' by Gregor Ziemer, an American teacher who lived in Germany until the start of the war. The short, perhaps the darkest work the studio has ever produced, depicts the Nazi’s psychological brainwashing of the German people through the story of one German boy, from his birth to his death. Even today, it’s still an extraordinary piece of work, disturbing and devastating, with some of their best animation of realistic human beings and the characters speaking entirely in German.
By the third short, the artists had started to move into less didactic territory. Reason and Emotion was also based on a book, 'War, Politics and Emotion' by Geoffrey H. Bourne. It explores how Hiter had manipulated the German people by suppressing their sense of reason and exploiting their emotions, but the short begins with no mention of Nazism at all, instead using an American setting to establish a baseline for the relationship between reason and emotion. The short was nominated for an Oscar in 1943, but while the concept and animation are strong, its outdated gender politics and body shaming work against it. It does however feel like a precursor to Pixar’s 2015 film ‘Inside Out’.
The final Reader's Digest short, 'Chicken Little', is the only propaganda short to have a life after the war, aided by the fact that it makes no direct reference to Nazism or the war. Instead, the story of Chicken Little is used to highlight the dangers of totalitarianism. There had been plans to have more direct visual references to Nazism, but those were removed in the development stages.
In 1943, the U.S. Treasury came back to Walt, requesting a follow-up to 'The New Spirit'. The new short was called 'The Spirit of ‘43', but rather than creating an entirely new short, they simply recycled the ending and gave it a new first act.
Each of the propaganda shorts had come at the request of an outside organisation, further proof of Walt’s discomfort with the form. However, the studio did produce one more piece of propaganda, one that became a personal project for Walt, driven by his desire to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. It would be perhaps the strangest Disney animated feature ever produced.
Today, a war is very different than the last European war was. Now air power is the dominant feature of military operations.
Walt saw real merit in de Seversky’s hypothesis, and decided to adapt the book into an animated feature film. It was a strange subject for animation, a set of theoretical ideas rather than a narrative with characters and action, but Walt wanted to assist in shifting public opinion, and thus the military, towards what de Seversky proposed.
Many of the studio’s top artists were brought on to develop the film, which would be an ambitious and expensive one. It begins with the history of aviation, from the Wright Brothers though to the start of the current war, before moving into a graphic representation of de Seversky’s ideas. Everything they had so far learned with the training films would here be employed on a grand scale, with animation that was, if not up to the standard of 'Bambi', would at least be up to that of 'Dumbo'.
de Seversky, who was a celebrated war veteren as well as an aviation designer, was brought on initially as technical advisor, providing the animators with detailed sketches of the aircraft proposed in the book. Walt was enamoured with de Seversky, and decided that they should take it one step further and have him appear in the film, providing talking head narration to compliment that given by actor Art Baker. Director H.C. Potter was brought in to handle the live action sequences, something that the studio had little experience with outside of the combination sequences in The Three Caballeros. He would also have to guide the inexperienced de Seversky through appearing on-screen.
The public doesn’t understand, and when they don’t understand, they are skeptical. I want it done so that a twelve-year-old kid can understand it.
'Victory Through Air Power' caught Walt right between his ambition and the reality of the war. He wanted to do justice to de Seversky’s book by creating a lavish and impressive piece of entertainment that would clearly communicate its central thesis. At the same time, there was the pressure of money, as no one was willing to cover the costs of the expensive film, but even more so, the pressure of time. If the film was going to have an impact on public opinion and help shift the war in the Allies’ favour, it needed to come out as soon as possible.
On top of that, the initial enthusiasm for de Seversky’s theories was starting to waver, many seeing his proposal of bolstered aerial combat as a flawed system. In the film, de Seversky criticises the U.S. plans of "island-hopping" through the Indonesian archipelago and the intervening islands towards Japan, but this plan was already in motion and working effectively. His futuristic aircraft designs were also a touch too far-fetched to be possible, and with each passing month, the chances of the film having any sort of impact were lessening.
Walt also had an issue with getting the film into theatres. The studio had a complicated distribution relationship with RKO Radio Pictures, and just as it had been initially with 'Fantasia', RKO did not have a lot of faith that the film would be a financial success. After they passed on distributing the film, Walt was forced to look for help from another studio, in this instance United Artists.
Unfortunately, the film did not achieve the success or have the impact Walt had hoped for. While some military insiders were complementary of the film, the critics and public were relatively indifferent to it. “Major de Seversky and Walt Disney know what they are talking about,” wrote film critic James Algee, “for I suspect that an awful lot of people who see 'Victory Through Air Power' are going to think they do ... I had the feeling I was sold something under pretty high pressure, which I don't enjoy, and I am staggered at the ease with which such self-confidence, on matters of such importance, can be blared all over the nation, without cross-questioning.” There were reports that the film was viewed by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it is still unconfirmed as to what they thought. In the court of public opinion, the film wasn’t enough to change military tactics, and many found that this distillation of de Seversky’s ideas revealed their inherent flaws rather than sold them.
'Victory Through Air Power' was not a financially-driven project for Walt, but he assumed that, if he made it look impressive enough, that would be enough to get audiences in. Instead, the film would be yet another flop for the studio, who out of seven feature films had only turned a profit on two. For the most part, 'Victory Through Air Power' is thought of now as an historical curiosity, in part because of its role as a piece of propaganda and also because it has been mostly unavailable to the public. It never received a re-release, though the History of Aviation section was later recycled for television, and unlike 'The Reluctant Dragon', is very hard to find today. Its only major release since 1943 was as part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD release Walt Disney on the Front Line in 2004.
Like all of the films in the Wartime Era though, 'Victory Through Air Power' is worthy of reexamination. While de Seversky’s theories are unsound and the racial stereotypes are uncomfortable, the animated sequences are spectacular, demonstrating a shift in animation towards a rich, striking graphic approach. de Seversky’s arguments are presented in clear and emotionally charged detail, and where possible, the animators amplify it with rousing, often thrilling action sequences that hold your attention despite the dry subject matter. At its heart, it is still a piece of propaganda, but not one without technical merit.
The idea of Gremlins, supernatural beings who cause damage to aircraft whilst they are in the air, originated from the British Royal Air Force after the First World War. As a joke, pilots began to blame Gremlins for routine aircraft damage, things that could easily be explained, and the folklore became popular, even spreading to other Allied air forces at the start of the Second World War.
One British pilot who was particularly enamoured with Gremlins was Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl. He had gained a reputation within the RAF as a ‘Gremlinologist’, and while serving as Assistant British Military Air Attache in Washington D.C. in 1942, he consolidated the oral histories into the short story 'Gremlin Lore'.
As he was still a serving British officer, he would need permission to have the story published, and sent it to the British Information Service for approval. It was read by producer Sidney L. Bernstein, who thought it might be good material for Walt Disney Productions. He forwarded it to Walt, who was delighted and intrigued by its possibilities, and organised to meet Dahl as soon as possible.
Negotiations soon began over the rights to 'Gremlin Law'. The studio would illustrate the magazine publication of the story, using it as a test for potential character designs, and Dahl would be paid a small cash sum, which would be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund, as well as royalties from any books featuring the characters published by Disney. Once the story was published, the copyright would transfer to Disney. The final contract was executed in October 1942, but included a clause that required both Dahl and the British Air Ministry to sign off on the script and the final film. This meant that, unlike every other commercial film project produced by the studio up until that time, Walt would not have sole final approval on the film itself.
Story men Jim Bodrero and Ted Sears were tasked with developing, in collaboration with Dahl, the story of the project, now titled 'The Gremlins'. Straight away, they had to contend with the specifics of Dahl’s Gremlin mythology, which worked well as a short story but proved difficult to translate to the screen. Sears consolidated all of Dahl’s lore in November 1942, which included two important rules. “According to the Lieutenant,” wrote Sears, “the first rule that should apply to all Gremlin incidents is that the Gremlin cannot cause any damage (or make any repairs) unless the result can be explained or accounted for by some actual physical occurrence.” In another rule, Dahl had specified that only pilots who had been in combat were able to see the Gremlins.
This presented the story team with a number of problems. In 'Gremlin Lore', Dahl had purposefully made it unclear whether the Gremlins were real or figments of the pilots’ imaginations, consciously or subconsciously. The story team were unsure which way they should fall, as either decision had narrative consequences. The other issue was that the Gremlins would, at least initially, be damaging RAF aircraft, essentially making them the antagonists. They needed to solve how to make them sympathetic characters without losing this fundamental aspect of their behaviour.
The project also presented considerable technical challenges. Walt wanted the film to be a combination of animation and live action, with the animated Gremlin characters interacting with live actors as RAF pilots. This was before production had begun on 'The Three Caballeros', where the combination technique would be developed to a high standard, so it was unclear how this culd be achieved on 'The Gremlins' without considerable cost. It was becoming clear that this would be a major (and expensive) production.
There was also the issue that the studio only had the rights to Dahl’s story, which was published in Cosmopolitan in December 1942, not the wider oral folklore of Gremlins themselves, which was becoming increasingly more popular within Allied troops and the general public. Other animation studios, including Warner Bros., had started production on their own Gremlins shorts, and Walt was concerned they would fall behind. He asked the other studios to hold off releasing their films, with almost all agreeing to.
By the start of 1943, the project was running into serious problems. With concerns increasing over the cost of combining animation and live action on such a scale, Walt decided that the film would be entirely animated. He informed Dahl in March, who admitted to being relieved, having always hoped it would be an animated film. This presented a whole new problem for the production team. The animators had still not perfected realistic human figures, getting away without them on 'Pinocchio', 'Fantasia' and 'Dumbo' by using slight caricatures. This would not be appropriate for RAF pilots. Essentially, they had exchanged one technical problem for another.
Walt had also started to become frustrated with both the project and Dahl. He didn’t like that he had relinquished full control of the project, and butted heads continuously with Dahl on a number of details. For example, as a way of testing the designs, Walt allowed the Gremlins to feature in an ad for Lifesavers in LOOK magazine. When Dahl saw this, he was incensed and wrote to Walt objecting to the advertisement. In July, the story team suggested to Walt that 'The Gremlins' may not work as a full feature, and suggested a short instead. He agreed to the change, and informed Dahl.
On the 20th August, a team of the top story men at the studio gathered for one last story meeting on 'The Gremlins' to try and crack the project once and for all, if possible still as a feature film. The major concerns were all debated, but chief among them was how to make the Gremlins sympathetic. Despite lengthy discussions, it became clear that, while it was a terrific concept, it just didn’t lend itself to a full-length story. They continued to consider its possibilities as a short or even as the basis for a training film, but so much time, effort and money had been spent on the project that to end up with just a training film seemed a waste.
It became clear that, despite everyone’s best efforts, 'The Gremlins' simply wasn’t going to work, and with the box office failure of 'Victory Through Air Power', the risk simply wasn’t worth taking. In December 1943, Walt informed Dahl that the project had been shelved, and with that, 'The Gremlins' entered mythology as the Disney feature that never was. The character designs were used for the published version of the story in 1943, which is now considered a collectors item, and were also used for a number of military insignia.
Despite their pride at having contributed though, it was a creatively stagnant period. They were making enormous strides in developing the artform, but that came out of necessity rather than exploration. Both Walt and his artists were creatively starved, dying to return to more ambitious ideas and more free-thinking. From 1941 to 1945, they had been at the willing mercy of the U.S. Armed Forces.
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the war ended. Almost overnight, the contracts disappeared, the men stationed at the studio left and the studio’s war efforts were over. Rather than offering a return to freedom, they found themselves still financially troubled and with no major projects ready to go. They were almost right back where they started - almost. The Second World War had inadvertently saved Walt Disney Productions from collapse, and had allowed them some time to put a pause on things and fix the leaks in their rapidly sinking ship.
Now they just had to work out, once again, who they were.
Oppressive Gloom by Kevin MacLeod
Fife and Drum by Kevin MacLeod
Crusade Heavy Industry by Kevin MacLeod
Cool Vibes by Kevin MacLeod