High-tech exhibits shine at Walt Disney museum

Road Trip at Home: San Francisco's Walt Disney Family Museum is a treasure trove of art and animation from the life of the great filmmaker. It is also a great example of how to incorporate digital displays in a modern museum.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
The Walt Disney Family Museum is a treasure-trove of archival items from throughout the life and career of the great animator. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--It's hard to imagine anything in a museum featuring hundreds of original Disney concept sketches and art pieces, including dozens of Mickey Mouse, being as impressive as the art itself.

But try visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio here and not coming away with the strong impression that the way the facility was designed, with its wide variety of beautiful digital displays, imaginative use of video screens, innovative touch-screens, audio clips of Walt himself nearly everywhere you go, and much more, is nearly as compelling an experience as the opportunity to see first-hand the origins of the greatest animation empire the world has ever seen.

As part of my ongoing Road Trip at Home series, I took the opportunity to visit the museum--which opened its doors just over a year ago, on October 1, 2009--and I went without any preconceived notions beyond the sense that I was in for an hour or two of peeking into the life of the man who brought us such favorites as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, and of course, movies such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," "Fantasia," "Lady and the Tramp," and many, many more.

Walt Disney's wonderful life (photos)

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It's important to note, at the outset, that this is a museum about Walt Disney--the man, and not the company. And it's nothing like Disneyland. To be sure, there's no way to tell his story without covering the accomplishments of his company--actually, his companies. But anyone expecting rides, or attractions beyond wall after wall of art pieces, figurines from his films, videos about elements of his filmmaking, and things like that, is in for a surprise.

That said, it is a glorious experience. As I mentioned earlier, I went in expecting to be there for an hour or two at most, and ended up staying for nearly five. In part, that was because I wanted to give myself the maximum chance to see and digest as much as I could, but it was also because I found myself lingering in each gallery much longer than I thought I would--glued to certain pieces, trying to take in as much as possible. Because some of the videos were fairly short, I can recall hearing at least one of them repeat at least 20 times as I inspected the pieces nearby.

The museum is arranged chronologically, from the earliest stages of Disney's life and career, to his first days in Hollywood, to the beginnings of the Walt Disney Studio, to a special look at the first-ever animated feature film, "Snow White," and on to his greater ambitions after that huge success, and then to a glimpse at what were probably his most difficult years, the World War II era. The museum then wraps up with looks at the post-war year, Disney's interaction with the natural world, his entrance into television, and finally the end of his life.

The story of Disney's life and career cannot be told without emphasizing the innovations and breakthroughs credited to him and those who worked for and with him.

That groundbreaking work included:

•  Creating the first-ever animated film ("Steamboat Willie," starring Mickey Mouse, 1928) to succeed at synchronizing the sound and the images.

•  Creating the first animated film to use three-strip Technicolor ("Flowers and Trees," 1932).

•  The development and use of the two-story-tall multiplane camera, which was used in the making of 1937's "The Old Mill" and "Snow White" and which, according to the museum, "came into ever greater prominence in the features that followed. The crane moved down into the scene, (approaching and passing) some scenic elements while others remain in the background. This movement creat(ed) a convincing illusion of depth--an effect impossible with a normal flat camera table."

•  Making the first feature-length animated film ("Snow White," in 1937.

•  Making the first film that employed Fantasound, a multi-channel sound system that came at least 20 years before stereo and surround sound were in widespread use.

•  Being the first Hollywood studio to make its own series TV programming.

•  Becoming the first filmmakers to create an animated feature using the CinemaScope widescreen technology (1955's "Lady and the Tramp.")

•  Operating the first everyday monorail system in America (at Disneyland in 1959).

•  Creating the first regular color TV program (NBC's "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" in 1961).

•  Creating the next-generation of optical printers, which let Disney Studio to mix live-action and animation in a single film ("The Three Caballeros" in 1945 and "Mary Poppins" in 1964).

•  Developing in 1963 audio-animatronics, a robotics system used in shows and attractions at Disneyland.

Blending digital and analog
One of the things I liked most about the museum is the elegance with which its experience designers blended digital video into what otherwise appeared to be analog displays. For example, in one of the first rooms, you come across a series of what at first appear to be movie posters in lobby window boxes. But then you notice that the images inside the frames are moving--each one its own screen, and they're being used to showcase the animation from the "Alice Comedies," one of the first of Walt Disney's animation film projects.

The museum route soon takes you into a gallery celebrating Mickey Mouse, and on one wall are 348 individual frames from "Steamboat Willie." The frames of animation make up just 16 seconds of the 7-minute film, but they cover the entire wall. What makes it really clever is that in the middle, there is a four-by-four grid of video screens in the same frames that are constantly showing the film itself, each succeeding screen one frame ahead in the sequence from the last.

Another interesting digital device accompanies a notebook of visual effects in films like "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," and others. But the book itself is too fragile for the public to personally inspect. So visitors are treated to a digital tabletop display where they can use their fingers to change pages, zoom in and zoom out, and so on.

And maybe my favorite of all was a long ribbon-like strip of digital screen on which a steady stream of animation and video detailing the Walt Disney Studio's post-war development (see video below).

Throughout the museum Walt Disney greets visitors with video explanations of different elements of his filmmaking process, making it feel like the great man is there with you. To a certain extent.

Yet the museum is also, clearly, a celebration of the analog. Beautiful original concept art abounds, as do pristine figurines, colorful publicity posters, decades-old Mickey Mouse merchandise, haunting storyboards from films like "Fantasia," and so much more.

There's also delightful artifacts like the Carolwood Pacific, the scale-model train that Disney had installed at his Los Angeles-area home, and which could, in theory, carry thirty people at a time.

To visit this museum is to develop a much richer appreciation for the breadth of what Disney created, and how he lived, long before the age of multiplexes, Michael Eisner, or even Pixar, had come along.

And then, of course, there's what may be the piece-de-resistance: A case brimming with Oscars. More then 20 of them, including one truly unique statue that was never, and will never be replicated: an Oscar featuring seven mini-Oscars to celebrate Disney's achievement with "Snow White."