Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Walt Disney’

15 MAY, 2013

Heinz Haber, Disney’s Chief Scientist, Explains the Atom in 1957

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What Aristotle, Aladdin, and Captain Nemo teach us about the promise of nuclear energy.

In 1954, Walt Disney entered an unusual barter-economy arrangement with television network ABC: He would provide them with a weekly hour-long broadcast, and in exchange they’d fund the construction of Disneyland. The TV show, originally named after the theme park Disney envisioned and later renamed Tomorrowland, went on to become one of the longest-running series in TV history, producing 54 seasons, 13 of which were hosted by Disney himself.

In January of 1957, two years after the release of Disney’s illustrated gem Our Friend the Atom, German atomic physicist and science writer Heinz Haber (May 15, 1913 — February 13, 1990) — whom Disney had hired as chief scientist at Disneyland and who had authored the book — appeared on an episode of the show bearing the same title as the book and exploring the “exciting possibility” of atomic energy as a new power source for humanity through a mix of science and illustrative animations from Disney films:

The atom is our future. It is the subject everyone wants to understand.

See the wonderful mid-century illustrations from the book, sadly long out of print, here.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Our Friend the Atom: Disney’s 1956 Illustrated Propaganda for Nuclear Energy

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“Atomic science began as positive, creative thought.”

Walt Disney was no stranger to propaganda, from his wartime anti-Nazi animations to his 1955 eulogy for space exploration, and even his internal company culture. In 1956, just over a decade after the atomic bomb showed the world the devastating power of nuclear weapons, Disney partnered with German physicist Heinz Haber, a professor at USC and personal science consultant to the legendary animator, to produce Our Friend the Atom (public library) — a gloriously illustrated 165-page tome extolling the promise of atomic power as a generative rather than destructive force. The illustrations, representing twenty-two Disney artists — twenty-one men and one woman — with a vibrant mid-century aesthetic somewhere between Saul Bass’s posters, The Provensens’ children’s books, and the anatomical illustrations of The Human Body, cover everything from the Ancient Greeks’ philosophies of matter to Curie and Einstein to the splitting of the atom and its promise for the future.

Walt himself writes in the foreword, with a nod to how science fiction pioneer Jules Verne presaged modern technology and the gender-biased pronouns typical of the era:

Fiction often has a strange way of becoming fact. Not long ago we produced a motion picture based on the immortal tale 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, featuring the famous submarine ‘Nautilus.’ According to that story the craft was powered by a magic force.

Today the tale has come true. A modern namesake of the old fairy ship — the submarine ‘Nautilus’ of the United States Navy — has become the world’s first atom-powered ship. It is proof of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age.

The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, and so we long had plans to tell the story of the atom. In fact, we considered it so important that we embarked on several atomic projects. … Of course, we don’t pretend to be scientists — we are story tellers. But we combine the tools of our trade with the knowledge of experts.

[…]

The story of the atom is a fascinating tale of human quest for knowledge, a story of scientific adventure and success. Atomic science has borne many fruits, and the harnessing of the atom’s power is only the spectacular end result. It acme about through the work of many inspired men whose ideas formed a kind of chain reaction of thoughts. These men came from all civilized nations, and from centuries as far back as 400 B.C.

Atomic science began as positive, creative thought. It has created modern science with its many benefits for mankind. In this sense our book tries to make it clear to you that we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.

The prologue sets the stage for the duality of atomic energy and the book’s choice to focus on the positive:

Deep in the tiny atom lies hidden a tremendous force. This force has entered the scene of our modern world as a most frightening power of destruction, more fearful and devastating than man ever thought possible.

We all know of the story of the military atom, and we all wish that it weren’t true. For many obvious reasons it would be better if it weren’t real, but just a rousing tale. It does have all the earmarks of a drama: a frightful terror, which everyone knows exists, a sinister threat, mystery and secrecy. It’s a perfect tale of horror!

But, fortunately, the story is not yet finished. So far, the atom is a superb villain. Its power of destruction is foremost in our minds. But the same power can be put to use for creation, for the welfare of all mankind.

Complement Our Friend the Atom with these wonderful vintage science ads from the same era.

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10 OCTOBER, 2012

Transformation as Authorship: From Igor Stravinsky to Philip Glass by Way of Disney and Beck

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On incremental change and “unresisting imbecility.”

As a proponent of combinatorial creativity and remix as a tool of innovation, I am always fascinated by how famous creators think about inspiration, influence, and the origin of ideas, recognizing their combinatorial nature — and how bystander critics often dismiss these creative transmutations with terms as derisive as “recreativity.”

Catherine Opie for The New York Times

In a recent New York Times conversation about their forthcoming collaborative record celebrating the composer’s 75th birthday, Philip Glass and Beck explore the line between mere reworking and originality by way of transformation:

BECK: I love that story you told me, it was the first time we met, we were talking about the remix project. And someone had done a cello piece of yours, and then when you went to go see it, you didn’t recognize it.

GLASS: It was Arthur Russell. And he was a very good cellist. I was doing a theater piece for the Mabou Mines, it was some Beckett piece, and I wrote him a cello piece, and he liked the work and was playing it. And I came back about three months later, and I heard it and I said, ‘Arthur, that’s beautiful, but what happened to the piece?’ And he said, ‘No, no, that is what you wrote,’ and I said, ‘Arthur, it’s no longer what I wrote, it’s your piece now.’ And he thought I was being upset, he apologized and I said, ‘No, no, no, I think we should put you down as the composer.’ He had reached the point of transformation. The incremental changes had turned it into this other thing. I love the fact that he did that. And I love the fact that he didn’t know that he did it.

This notion of iteration and incremental change is, in fact, an essential piece of the history of innovation — and yet it’s much less glamorous and bombastic than the Eureka! myth of ideation, which can lead many to dismiss it entirely.

Glass’s remarks reminded me of something I recently read in Hello Goodbye Hello, the wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters, which recounts a very different reaction another iconic composer, Igor Stravinsky, had to his music being transformed beyond recognition — by none other than Walt Disney.

In 1939, at the height of Disney’s success, Walt met Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at a dinner party. The two became enchanted with each other’s work and the potential each of their mediums of mastery had for amplifying that of the other, and began collaborating on a version of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey Mouse — an idea Disney had been toying with for some time. That’s when Stravinsky steps in:

Disney wants a sequence showing the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and dinosaurs. But what music to use? His researchers can only come up with Haydn’s Creation, but Disney thinks it doesn’t carry quite enough oomph. At this point, Stokowski alerts him to Le Sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky. Disney listens to it, and is immediately gripped. He offers Stravinsky $ 5,000 for the rights, though Stravinsky will remember it as $ 10,000. According to Stravinsky, Disney hints that if permission is withheld he will use the music anyway: pre-Revolutionary Russian copyrights are no longer valid.

Stravinsky accepts; Disney steams ahead. Before long the human inhabitants of the Burbank studio find themselves working alongside animals in cages, including iguanas and baby alligators, with skilled animators studying their movements close-up. ‘It should look as though the studio has sent an expedition back to the earth six million years ago,’ enthuses Disney. He is so excited that he starts free-associating to the music: ‘Something like that last WHAHUMMPH I feel is a volcano – yet it’s on land. I get that UGHHWAHUMMPH! on land, but we can look out on the water before this and see water spouts.’ As he listens to the music, he gets so worked up that he suddenly blurts, ‘Stravinsky will say: “Jesus, I didn’t know I wrote that music!”’

Which, as it turns out, is roughly what Stravinsky does say. In December 1939, he drops into the Burbank studio for a private screening of Fantasia. The experience leaves him with the most awful memories. ‘I remember someone offering me a score, and when I said I had my own, that someone saying, “But it is all changed.” It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Danse de la terre. The order of pieces had been shuffled, too, and the most difficult of them eliminated, though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.’

So heated was the disagreement and so violent Stravinsky’s outrage, indeed, that when Disney tried to assuage him by pointing out what a great number of people would hear his music, the composer famously grunted:

The numbers of people who consume music … is of no interest to me. The mass adds nothing to art.

Some twenty years later, Stravinsky was still indignant when he and Disney clashed on the pages of The New York Times about the incident, where the composer called Disney’s transformation of his “Rite of Spring” an “unresisting imbecility.”

Granted, as was likely the case with Disney, not every transformation improves upon the original or has creative merit. But modern copyright law — not to mention an unfortunate portion of today’s cultural critique — continues to err on the side of Stravinsky in an era ripe for the Glass mindset. To criticize and criminalize transformative creation and remix is, at best, itself an “unresisting imbecility” and, at worst, an enormous hindrance to creative innovation.

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