Monday, August 15, 2011

Harper and The Old Mill

Let's return to the Magic Kingdom, where there's a subtle "two-for-one" hidden tribute to Disney. Tom Sawyer Island is an adventurous place for fun and excitement, serving as a time-machine to whisk you back to another era. The Island opened in May, 1973 and the main attractions on Tom Sawyer Island are the mysterious caves and Fort Langhorn. However, one very distinctive bright red building is Harper's Mill, which is quite appropriate given that water mills dotted the landscape in the pre-electrical era. You might think that its name pays tribute to perhaps Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a town that played a pivotal role in American history. The name “Harper” comes several sources. Tom Sawyer’s good friend was Joe Harper, so this name makes sense, keeping with the theme of the island. But it's also named after Disney Imagineer and Disney Legend Harper Goff. Goff is famous for his design work on the classic Disney attraction the Jungle Cruise, as well as his work on the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The Disney tributes don’t stop here, however. Inside Harper’s Mill is a subtle tribute to one of Disney’s earlier animation efforts. Before Disney delved into feature-length animation, the company was famous for cartoon shorts. Mickey Mouse, of course, was an original star but Disney had another impressive series of animated shorts, culled together as the Silly Symphonies. Although they didn’t feature any particular character, they were increasingly used as an animation “testing ground” for techniques and styles, much like Pixar’s use of animated shorts. In 1937, Disney released The Old Mill, a story about how animals now occupy an abandoned windmill. Dave Smith, the recently retired Walt Disney Company archivist, lists this as one of his favorite animations. Disney used a groundbreaking technique of a multiplane camera, allowing for a rich depth to the scenery. This method would again be used to great acclaim in Disney’s first feature-length animation effort, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

One key scene in The Old Mill features a bluebird atop her nest inside one of the cogwheels of the defunct mill. During a thunderstorm, the mill springs to life and as the blades turn, the gears inside move as well. It looks like the bluebird will be crushed, but fate intervenes. The opposing gear is missing a cog and the two gears pass by gracefully at the exact location of the bird.

Why is this scene significant? Because inside Harper's Mill there is a series of gears, and resting inside one of them is a little bluebird atop her nest!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

We travel back again to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to examine another emblem honoring the legacy of the Walt Disney Studios. Recall from an earlier post that an earlier animation center was on Hyperion Avenue. With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and Roy Disney were able to fulfill a larger dream of a fully encapsulated studio. Located in Burbank California, the studio remains today as the headquarters of the Walt Disney Company. Built at the time to fully streamline the animation process, the physical layout of the campus was designed with animators in mind. Office space for artists was designed to facilitate the ideal levels of daylight for their animation tables. Unique shutters over the windows could be manipulated to control the lighting. The campus included plenty of green space, to encourage collaboration outside of the traditional office environment. Naturally, the streets on the campus were named for Disney stars. The intersection of Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue has an iconic sign that clearly tells Guests that this is a working studio; animation, multi plane and ink & paint are on the Mickey side, and in between, special effects and the layout department are on Dopey’s side.

According to recently retired Disney archivist Dave Smith, the sign was installed in its location for the Studio Tour segment of The Reluctant Dragon in 1941 and never removed.

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a similar sign exists paying homage to its ancestor back at the home office. Just outside of Pixar Place, look for the sign at the intersection of Mickey Avenue and Minnie Lane. Naturally, the DHS sign features Minnie.

(Images courtesy of the Walt Disney Company)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hyperion – What’s in a Name?

Homage to Disney’s past isn’t just limited to the parks and the silver screen. The latest example is at Downtown Disney, where the redevelopment of Pleasure Island will bring us Hyperion Wharf. Hyperion is the Greek God of light, and the evocative renderings of Hyperion Wharf illustrate that Disney’s Imagineers will bathe the outdoor pavilion in a sea of lights.

However, a lesser-known reason for choosing the term Hyperion is because it recollects the street upon which Walt Disney built his first major animation studio. Walt and his brother Roy established the Walt Disney Company in 1923, and their first animation efforts involved the successful Alice Comedies. Within a few years the growing company was in need of a little more “elbow room”, so Walt purchased a vacant lot on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles and a new animation studio was constructed. Walt and Roy enjoyed fourteen years of success here, where many of today’s most recognizable Disney animation stars were “born” – Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy, to name a few. With the success of Snow White in 1937, Roy and Walt were again able to move to a larger location, settling on Burbank in what is still the headquarters of the Walt Disney Company

(Images courtesy of the Walt Disney Company; top - artist rendering of Hyperion Wharf, bottom - Walt (bottom row, right) and his staff at the Studio on Hyperion Avenue)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Villains - What's In A Name?

A good, compelling story requires an antagonist, to make the hero's journey all the more rewarding. In Disney*Pixar's UP, that role belongs to dapper yet eccentric explorer Charles H. Muntz. He serves as a foil to the protagonist Carl Fredricksen and his journey to Paradise Falls.

Disney historians' ears may perk up a bit at the mention of Charles Muntz. Why? Because it bears a striking resemblance to an earlier Disney antagonist. Walt Disney himself, in the infancy of his career, had created a wonderfully charming animated character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Lacking the deep pockets of a mature Studio, he was reliant upon business partners to distribute the Oswald animated cartoon shorts. Universal was the heavy in the business, and served in that capacity. The success of Oswald wasn't lost upon Universal and its designated producer. He sought to take control of Oswald directly, and schemed to hire away Disney's animators. That unscrupulous person? Charles H. Mintz.

In 1928, Walt traveled to New York to meet directly with Mintz. Walt and his animators had high production standards, and he wanted to change the original terms of the contract, essentially requesting a raise. Mintz refused and instead told Disney that he was going to cut the budget, and if Walt did not agree, Mintz would take over Oswald for himself. Disney refused, and most of Disney's employees left for Mintz. Only Disney legend Ub Iwerks remained, staying loyal to Walt. Lost in the deal was Oswald himself. It was on the train ride back to Los Angeles that a certain, plucky new character was born, giving rise to the familiar refrain "it was all started by a mouse."

All good things come to those who wait, and Oswald made his triumphant return to the Walt Disney Company in 2006. That story alone is intriguing. The Walt Disney Company also owns ABC and ESPN, and when the television broadcast rights for Sunday Night Football went from ESPN to NBC (ESPN opted not to enter into the SNF broadcast rights competition, instead opting to keep Monday Night Football "in house" by switching it from ABC to ESPN). SNF broadcaster Al Michaels, then under contract with ABC, wanted to continue working with SNF and its new partner NBC and its parent corporation Universal. With Universal and Disney each having properties the other sought, an Al Michaels for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade was arranged, returning one of Walt's original characters back into the fold.

It's not entirely clear if Pixar was inspired by this true-life Disney villain Charles Mintz when they created the character of Charles Muntz, but it's certainly a tantalizing idea.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Disney's Hollywood Studios and the Second World War

Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers a great variety of entertainment for the Disney Guest, ranging from thrills and chills (Tower of Terror) to musical shows (Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage). As would be expected from the park’s title, there are plenty of attractions highlighting the elements of show business and movie making. In this context, we examine closely the opening sequence of the Backlot Tour, featuring a water tank set for controlled filming of scenes set on water. The fictional World War II movie is “Harbor Attack” and the set features a recreation of a PT boat as well as an interior of the ship’s engine room. Guests are chosen to recreate the roles of sailors, and of course get quite wet. A close inspection of the PT boat reveals an interesting emblem of a mosquito carrying a torpedo. This image is no accident; it’s a deliberate nod to the role that the Walt Disney Studios played during World War II.

The Walt Disney Company was entering the nascent era of feature animation when the war temporarily shuttered the studio operations. Many animators joined the armed forces, and the U.S. military briefly commandeered the studio itself. Before and during America’s involvement in the war, the Disney company was involved with the military with logo design, dating back to 1939. In 1940, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C, led by Lieutenant Earl S. Caldwell, requested from Walt Disney an insignia for America’s fleet of torpedo boats. Disney artist Hank Porter conceived of the emblem – an angry mosquito flying over rough water, carrying a torpedo seemingly to be dropped at will.

This wasn’t the first insignia that Disney created for the military, but given its role with PT boats, it’s only fitting that it be on prominent display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

(images courtesy of Eric Steinmetz)