Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Designing a Fantasmic Dragon

The original Dragon's Head model sculpted by Rich Collins, 1991.
"Now you will deal with me, and all the powers of my imagination!"  During the most exciting sequence of Disneyland's Fantasmic!, Maleficent, the evil fairy from Sleeping Beauty, transforms herself into a 45-foot dragon, emitting a fiery blast that practically melts off our eyebrows, and sets the "Rivers of America" ablaze.

Twenty years ago this very night, the dragon made her first grouchy appearance on the southern tip of Tom Sawyer Island, and for twenty years since, Mickey Mouse has never failed to "imagine" her away. 
But materializing her into existence in the first place took the imaginations and talent of many creative and resourceful people. Not only would Maleficent, as a dragon, act out a dramatic scene while belching real fire, she also had to rapidly appear and disappear from view.  In spite of all our well-made plans in the design phase, the final dragon still had some issues, including torching its own head off a week before opening night.  But that's a tale best left to the Theme Park Operations and Tech Services people to tell... 

Throughout the planning stages of Fantasmic!, I was closely involved in the show's oversized creatures, working on the three-dimensional prototypes and planning out each of their performances.  

24" stop-motion animation model.
The dragon, as we originally envisioned, had a fully fleshed-out body, complete with arms, claws, and flapping wings (although the monster kept getting "hacked away" until she was virtually just a dragon's mechanical head on a boom lift, with lengths of non-flammable fabric hanging down to imply body mass, concealed in thick fog to encourage the viewer's own imagination to fill in the details.) Getting a bulky dragon to quickly exit the stage at the end of her big death scene was the greatest challenge for everyone.

An articulated scale model was built by Vladimir Petrov, with a jointed wooden armature covered in a flexible foam rubber skin, to help us figure out the puppet's movement.  I took the model home with me over a weekend and filmed a brief animated test on a folding table in the middle of my apartment.  With lighting clipped to the backs of chairs and a gridded background to define the range of motion, Maleficent was put through her paces, first in profile and then in front view.

If you have ever tried doing stop-motion animation, you know what a painstaking process it is.  Each frame of film is clicked off one at a time, as you adjust all the pieces and parts in small precise-measured increments.  In a minute and a half, you will watch something that took 30 hours to produce.  I got a little giddy halfway through the ordeal, as you'll see.

And now, drumroll please...
Prepare to be awed by the never before seen, original animation test for Disneyland's Fantasmic Dragon!

Breakdown of Profile Animation
0:17 -- Appearance of the Dragon
0:21 -- Dragon notices the audience and reacts with surprise.
0:28 -- Dragon's evil laughter.
0:33 to  0:44 -- Dragon throws tantrum, and blasts fire toward audience.
0:45 to 0:47 -- Second fire blast.
0:50 -- Third fire blast, interrupted by Mickey's magic.
0:53 -- Dragon rears back "in pain."
0:58 -- Dragon is defeated.

Breakdown of Front View Animation
1:09 to approximately 1:20 -- Dragon enjoys a snack.
1:26 -- Surveys audience.
1:37 to 1:42 -- Fire blast.

Yes folks, this was made back in the dark ages, before computers ever existed in the Disneyland Art Dept.  This was shot with a wonderful antique Swiss-made Bolex 16-millimeter movie camera on 100 feet of black & white Tri-X Reversal Kodak film.  It's what all of us artsy-fartsy indie film makers used in those days.  I hope you're impressed.

There were several other dragon models, too, including a pair of hard resin-cast figures sculpted by Rich Collins.

Rich Collins
Rich was a super talented model-maker who later went on to sculpt cool toys for Mattel.  He was also a big healthy guy, a serious body-builder who microwaved broccoli everyday at lunch, and brought me containers of "Max Muscle" protein powder because I was such a pathetic weakling. (It didn't help, by the way.)  Rich had a goofy sense of humor that I liked, though not everyone did. (Rich, if you are somewhere out there and reading this, please contact me!  We somehow lost touch over the years.)

Me, with nerdy goggles and dust mask, and the one and only Rich Collins.
Fantasmic! turns exactly twenty years old tonight.  Hard to imagine, huh?  If you're at Disneyland today, I hope you stay and enjoy the show.  If you're an Annual Passholder, Disneyland is hosting four special events honoring the show's anniversary on Monday and Tuesday of this week and next (May 14, 15, 21, and 22.)  If we're lucky we'll bump into each other at one of the showings!

And as for our old friend the Dragon...

"Heading" north on the I-5!
Not very long ago, the original "head on a stick" Maleficent was retired and Fantasmic! now boasts a super-awesome, new-and-improved fully Audio-Animatronic creature - complete with arms, claws, and flapping wings, just like she was originally designed to have.  She still gives the same fire-in-your-face performance, though, so make sure you cheer her on.  The original head (well, technically the second one if you count that one that burnt up) is right now being towed from Anaheim to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley for a spectacular Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit opening on July 6, 2012.  The show will run for 10 months so you'll have ample opportunity to gaze into those sulfurous yellow eyes for yourself and ponder all the spines they've tingled over the past two decades.

Come back soon for more fantasmic memories.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Twenty-Year-Long Nightmare

A crocodile swims in an Anaheim parking lot, 1991.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of a little nighttime show that ignited a long tradition of "water and fire spectaculars" at the Disney parks around the world.  Back in 1992 I was a young theatrical designer beginning my fourth year in the Disneyland Entertainment-Art Department, building scale models for full-sized stage sets and parade floats.  Among my particular specialties were miniatures and puppets, and prior to Fantasmic!, I had designed three-dimensional elements for several Disneyland projects, including the "Party Gras" Parade (1990).  It was a fun place to work, surrounded by talented people who became my friends.  I had a lot of wide-eyed enthusiasm back then, and learned how to fabricate all kinds of neat stuff just by doing my job.  My career in the Disneyland Ent-Art Dept lasted eleven years.

Art Director Tom Butsch and a young model builder in 1991.
Fantasmic! was designed by Tom Butsch, one of the nicest art directors I've ever had the pleasure to work with.  Tom is a mild-mannered guy from Minnesota, who had designed for live theater and TV sitcoms, such as "Different Strokes," before coming to Disney in 1988.  He storyboarded the whole show - multiple permutations of it - with gouache and colored-pencil on big black boards.  Many of his original drawings were published in promotional materials and magazine articles when the show was first being advertised.

He was once a little green ball of plastilina...

During this time, I led a group of model makers at the off-site Entertainment-Art Warehouse on Olive Street, a mile northeast of Disneyland in the historic Anaheim Colony neighborhood (Oh, the stories I could tell about that place... Great, great memories.)  The first models I built were the barge/puppets for Ursula and the Crocodile.  Vladimir Petrov, Jackie Gonzales, Rich Collins and I made a multitude of other miniature pieces, including various fire-breathing dragons (more on that later this week...)

Ideas for an outdoor show on Frontierland's riverfront actually began in the late 1980s including, I recall, a Haunted Mansion-themed "River Haunt"with ghosts rising from the mansion and appearing to fly over to the island, a la "Night On Bald Mountain."  That evolved into a short-lived concept called "Fantasia Live!"consisting of projected film clips on three enormous movie screens accompanied by an orchestra on a floating stage.  In the above photo (taken at a seminar for art students), one of the earliest renderings, by artist Scott Sinclair, shows the tip of Tom Sawyer's Island engulfed by a trio of "drive-in movie" type screens.  It wasn't until an outside French company came up with a method for projecting film onto water mist, that things began to fall into place.  For a year, production went forward under the title "Imagination" until it was determined that the word could not be trademarked.  Director Barnette Ricci suggested a made-up word "fantasmic" - which sounded silly to us designers at first - but the new name stuck.  Nevertheless, the show's musical soundtrack still begins with "Imagination" sung on the recording.

Fantasmic! (don't forget that exclamation point!) was originally expected to run for five years.  Now, even at twenty years, the show still seems to me like a "new thing" at Disneyland.  Or maybe I'm just in denial.

With the legendary Tom Butsch at his retirement lunch, October 2011.
More fantasmic memories coming this week, if I have time to get them posted. Stay tuned.