Walt Disney’s Plussing

Wendi Stewart

I recently watched a documentary about the creation of Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was released in 2001. The documentary film is not new, but I stumbled upon it quite by accident. The narrator spoke of an approach to production that Walt Disney himself created called plussing. The word is commonly used in animation. Everyone who grabs the ball in production runs with it, advancing the film toward the goal of perfection. The documentary discussed the various teams that place their layer of expertise down on the project idea and then the next and the next, each layer building from the original idea. This is plussing.

Disney called his creative staff imagineers. I like that. It has an air of fun built right into the word. During production meetings, Disney expected all criticisms to be presented as a plus, a positive to build upon rather than a negative to tear down. He wanted his staff to identify a good idea and then imagineer a way to do it better. The essence of all Disney’s creations was the sense of experimentation, of trying out new things they hadn’t done before. He was always looking to create “a plausible impossible” and creative staff today still adhere to his model, still hold true to Mr. Disney’s vision. Bettering the tiniest of details was at play in the work his staff created. He wanted to surprise his film viewers and his visitors to Disneyland, by “always doing more than is expected”. Mediocrity had no place in Disney’s imagination and work.

Disney saw Disneyland as a living entity, constantly being added to and improved, with layer after layer of new ideas. No detail was too small to be examined for ways of doing it better. Disneyland opened in 1955 and from then moving forward it was under constant tweaking and perfecting – from the music that was played on each ride, to the props used, to every detail that could be improved. Disney took this approach to keep his imagination very much alive and growing. When a film was created and released, it is done, said Disney. He could do no more to make it better, but Disneyland was another story. Disney World was opened after his death and the same principles were adhered to.

The idea of plussing has been adopted by others such as Pixar and Steve Jobs. The idea of that got me thinking. What if. What if government were to adopt that approach to problem solve, bringing in experts to build layer upon layer of creating strategies that worked. What if education took the existing model and imagined how it might be bettered to incorporate that we do not all learn in the same way. What if medicine were to view our whole body, rather than breaking it into its parts, with specialists forming teams to treat disease. Communities could develop strategies that meet the needs of all residents rather than just those who are heard. So often we hear the words it’s always been done this way. Plussing encourages us to embrace change, to imagine something better, to stretch our minds, to build from the seed that was planted. I employ a version of plussing in my writing. When I begin a story, I hear a voice in my head doubting my work. I chase that doubt away with the promise I will make the story better over time.

My first speech in school was about Walt Disney. I have very little recall of what I said, but I do remember I was dreadful at public speaking. I still am. Luckily, I am seldom called upon to speak to the masses. I was in awe of Walt Disney as a child. The idea that an adult let his imagination guide him sounded ideal to me. Disney was the first to make a full-length animated movie in 1937 with his creation of Snow White and with each subsequent release of a film, Disney raised the bar. And with every single creation he insisted that plussing be part of the process.