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.


Janey said...

That was delightful to read! Thank you for sharing the model test! It was great!


Mr. Chicken said...

Splendid animation! I hadn't realized the "new" dragon was really the original design. Always a pleasure to read your blog.

Dean Brink said...

Thank You for sharing! I have always loved Fantasmic!

Blonde Girl said...

Being old enough to remember Fantasmic when it first opened and having seen it in that first run 20 years ago, your account of the birth of a dragon fills in all the blanks I had wondered about while sitting there with my mouth wide open in amazement.

Kevin, thank you so much for sharing this story and for having the vision 20 years back that finally gave birth to the newly improved Maleficent, still serving up wide-open mouths nightly.

You are such a talent and gift!

Eric Scales said...

There is something about the first (2nd?) version of the dragon- the simpler head and fabric streamers that worked really well though. The simple theatrical trickery of it made it seem like that head had a convincingly serpentine neck and the whole character felt very dynamic. I can't help but feel like the latest incarnation feels very stiff and static, even though it's more defined.

Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

"Bolex 16mm movie camera on black & white Tri-X Reversal Kodak film - Yup, I'm impressed! Love that camera! Thanks for the awesome look back at your hard work from 20 years ago, can it really be 20 years?

I'll be at the park tomorrow, didn't think the spring schedule had Fantasmic on weeks nights? I don't see it on the online schedule, do you know what time the special event is being held at?

Guy Selga said...

Can you tell us more about how the original dragon head caught on fire? I've always heard that it happened but never the details. Thanks for the great article!

Pumpkins and Pixie Dust said...

Thanks so much for sharing this with us! Glad to see she finally looks the way you all designed her to in the first place. We were there the very first night that the new dragon breathed fire and we were there last night as this amazing show marked 20 years (complete with a hand painted 20th anniversary banner and Mickey gloves) Please keep making magic and preserving all of these memories for future generations.

thepicklebarrel said...


Julie Bihn said...

Incredible video and great story. Thank you for sharing with us!

melissa sue said...

Well this is easily the coolest thing I've ever seen! Thank you so much for sharing the old footage!

Mad Angel said...

..5 years later :-) ...
Still a great blog article !
There is a different show with a fire blasting dragon in it, at the other side of the ocean :
Efteling. (Europe, Benelux)
'Draconicon' , the 5 headed dragon animatronic is an exceptionally heavy construction, in a metal steampunck styling (to cope with the show's storyline of a olde time dictator & engineer who constructed iron monsters to go to war :-) )
Because of the huge weight, only slow movements seemed to be possible.
Here, picture of he heads-part of the 'puppet', being loaded for transport :-) ::

VIDEO fragment LINK :

B.t.w. I hope this link works, off it's own platform.. ;'s a copy-paste in the browser (if no automatic link appears here) , then click "play" in the little window that should open. It then plays full screen)