Interview with Jim Fanning, Author of The Disney Book

Greetings Disney fans! Today we’re sitting down with Disney writer and historian Jim Fanning, author of the incredibly detailed and expertly written release The Disney Book. We’ve often discussed The Disney Book on the site before, and it made our list of Top 10 Must-Own Disney Books and it’s spectacular quality, but today we’re sitting down with the man behind the book itself to learn a little more about the creation of the book and what work went into crafting such a perfect new addition for The Walt Disney Company and DK Publishing.

When and how did you come to start working at Disney? What were some of your earliest projects when joining the company?

I grew up in Upstate NY and after college I moved out here to California to get a job at Disney. I actually started out in the mail room, kind of a traditional approach, and so I met a lot of great people who gave me a chance at the studio. One of the first things I did there, which I’m extremely lucky for because I love Disney comic books, I met Tom Golberg, and he gave me the chance to write some Disney comic books. That was really the very first thing I did. I also started writing articles for The Disney Newsreel, which is the studio newsletter,  which is actually still published. Because I wrote those articles, somebody else gave me the opportunity for other projects, like The Disney Magazine. The same time, the Disney Channel was starting, they were beginning a documentary series called Disney Family Album. I was already friends with Mike Bonifer, who was the producer and the head writer of the show. He and Cardon Walker, son of Card Walker, knew I loved Disney history and that I was a writer and they asked me if I wanted to write some of the episodes. I ended up writing about half of the episodes, so those were really my first big projects working for Disney.

What are some of the projects that you work on regularly at The Walt Disney Company?

One of the big things I work on are a lot of big publishing projects worldwide, like Japan, which are magazines on Disney history. As you might know, the Japanese people love Disney, they are rabid Disney fans, and right now we are working on new additions for these collections. Most notably there’s also the D23 Magazine and online D23 articles, which I’ve been involved in since it began in 2009. D23 is obviously right up my alley, and they cover everything from the current, but they also celebrate Disney’s heritage and history. I continue to write quite a number of articles for the website and also for the magazine.

I’ve written a collection of books as well over the years, but The Disney Book is the latest and one of the biggest because it covers all of Disney. It’s published by DK Publishing, who did a great job and was an exciting project to work on.

Through the years, you’ve contributed a lot of Disney works in very significant places, in fact, many people might not realize you were behind many of the items within their houses. Can you talk about what some of those projects are and where some of your work can be found?

One of them people might know about is the Walt Disney Classics Collection, which was done in-house at Disney for about twenty years and they did these beautiful sculptures and such. Sadly that ended, but I did a lot of work for that series including writing content for it. They also had a magazine called “Sketches” which I was involved in for sixteen of its seventeen-year run. It was a joy to work on that, which might be one of those projects that most people might now know I worked on.

I want to talk about another one of your significant works, which came out about a year ago, called The Disney Book. We’ve discussed the book on our site a couple of times and it is phenomenal. I wanted to ask you though, How did you come to writing The Disney Book? Where did the idea to write this book come from?

It was actually DK Publishing’s idea, and they were working on it for quite some time before they came to me. DK contacted me and the great thing about the book is its format, because how do you cover decades of projects, not just from Walt himself, but even the projects that came since his passing. It’s covering about 1923 until present day, and luckily, DK had already figured out a lot of its formatting. They did a lot of the heavy lifting before I got involved. It was their idea although it was a pleasure writing for it once it did land by me.

Where did the decision of which films would be covered in the book come from?

When I got involved, they had a fairly large amount of how much they wanted to cover, but they also asked for my input at times. I discussed it with them, and then I did a very detailed outline using their ideas as well as my own. They knew that they wanted to do profiles of a lot of animated films and almost most of the films they wanted to cover. A lot of fans don’t know this but when you are dealing with live-action films, you can write about them, but showing photos of the live actors, often there are royalties involved that have to be paid when you want to do so, depending on their contracts. A lot of publishers therefore say “well, we don’t want to get into that, it’s too much of a hassle”, but DK had already decided they were going to do live-action films, which is a big deal. Many fans might not realize that this is actually a big issue, but for DK to include live-action Disney films is a big commitment on their part. We covered quite a few of them in there therefore.

The only disappointment in fact is Mary Poppins. We have it in the book, but decided not to pursue showing photos of Julie Andrews because it got too complicated and we were running out of time. She personally approves any image that is used of her, so she has to approve it herself, and that’s just the beginning of it. Mary Poppins is featured in the book, but it’s an illustration rather than an image. We did manage to do a lot of other Disney live-action films which was a big bonus however.

Of course, you are historian at the Walt Disney Company, but did you find yourself learning and discovering new things when you were writing The Disney Book that you hadn’t known before?

One of the things that I and a lot of people have not seen much of before,  that the Disney Archives (not me) put together from their collection was the Disneyland collectibles that we featured on a spread in the book, which are pretty rare and incredible.

We’ve talked a bit about what was covered, but one of the things that are not covered are acquired properties. Is there a reason for that?

Well, the reason is, it was called The Disney Book, so it was intended early on to only feature things that were created by Disney and the studio that continued after his death. So while Star Wars is owned by Disney now, it wasn’t specifically Disney. Also, because the book wouldn’t hold all of that either way. Another great thing is that DK also holds the licence to Disney’s acquired properties which have been covered more in length, like The Muppets, Star Wars and Marvel, so the publishing company has covered it elsewhere.

When writing projects for the Disney Company, what era of the studio do you look to for inspiration?

I am very lucky to have written about all of the films, even leading up right now to Moana, but my favorite is undoubtedly Walt Disney’s era, anything he did or made. Of course the films that are made today stems from that and runs on the same principles he founded. Certainly people like John Musker or Ron Clements, who directed Moana who very much immersed in the philosophy of Walt Disney. They were trained by Eric Larson and the other of The Nine Old Men, so it’s almost like a direct succession. I am most interested in Walt Disney himself and all his projects, but I do love covering other aspects of the company as well because they very much carry those same principles Walt founded.

What do you think Walt would think of the way his company is being run now? Do you think he would be proud of the company’s progress?

In my own personal opinion, I think he would be very happy with some things, and I think he would question others. I do think he would love the Disney Store for example, with each store bringing a Disney experience to people who might never be able to go to a Disney park.   He might question the size of the company and aspects like the need to own a television network for example. I think some of those things he might say “well, we don’t need those things”. However, I also think he never envisioned his company to be so big, so a corporation can do those things in comparison to the size of his company when he was running it. On the other hand, look at some of the projects he was doing with his own company, like The Florida Project (aka Walt Disney World), and since EPCOT was going to be a big project in his mind. He’s made these gigantic leaps from the 50s where they were making a few films, and then television and then suddenly they were running an entire theme park. Then from that to jump to the vastness of The Florida Project, is inconceivable.

The thing is, we sadly don’t really know what Walt would think because no one could have really guessed exactly how big the company could have gotten his in own lifetime, had he still been alive to steer the ship. We kind of take Disneyland for granted, but who would have thought that Disney would ever be doing theme parks? No one really knew what sort of crazy things he was going to do next. So we’ll never quite know exactly what he would have thought, but I think there would be many elements he would be thrilled with.

The Disney Book is now available to own on Amazon.com and at your local bookstore.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Jim Fanning, Author of The Disney Book

  1. Really enjoy Jim Fanning’s stuff. I always enjoyed his “A Walk with Walt” feature (which is about finished as he just did 1962 in the recent issue) in” Disney Twenty Three”. Those articles really puts the recent Life special “tribute” magazine to shame (too many unreliable biography sources, almost none of the true Disney historians (such as Jim) were mentioned or referenced, and it followed too heavily to the disappointing PBS two-part documentary).

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