Hollywood Flashback: Walt Disney Got His First Animation Job 100 Years Ago

ONE TIME USE ONLY - Walt Disney at work at his first freelance job - EVERETT COLLECTION _ H 2020
Everett Collection

The high school dropout replied to an ad for a $40-a-week position at the Kansas City Film Ad Co., where he was tasked with drawing and manipulating stick figures used in theatrical cartoons; he opened his own company in Los Angeles three years later.

Exactly 100 years ago, animation took a huge leap forward: Walt Disney scored his first job as a cartoonist.

On Jan. 29, 1920, Disney, then 18, saw an ad for a $40-a-week ($500 in today's dollars) position at the Kansas City Film Ad Co. The high school dropout's task was drawing and manipulating stick figures used in theatrical cartoons. The company was the largest of its type in the country. Disney would draw a character, cut out the parts that would move, pin them to a board and photograph them as they were shifted ever so slightly. If done enough times, a film with continuous action could be made.

"These were for ads shown before a movie," says historian J.B. Kaufman, author of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: The Ultimate History. "It was simple and basic, but it gave Walt a chance to experiment with animation." When he'd returned from France after driving a Red Cross ambulance during World War I, Disney found work as a newspaper cartoonist, but the Film Ad Co. job took him in a different direction — and eventually to Los Angeles to open his own company in 1923. He later said, "The trick of making things move on film is what got to me." 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.