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Seriously, Let’s Not Forget the Gags

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For my readers who have patiently waited for me to post – You’re all very virtuous and I’m pleased that you’ve come back again. I take my blog writing very seriously, (even if the content isn’t always serious). Part of that is an effort to not let my other life cross over into my blog world. Unfortunately, I’ve hit one of those bumps in the road of life that is making that separation difficult. But, more about that in a bit.

It usually takes me about a week to write, edit, format and add media to my posts. Because I’ve been in a bit of a funk, I’m going to do something different and just put words on the page one at a time until I’ve told you what’s on my mind. After all, every successful writer will tell you that you can’t finish something until you’ve started. Walt put it very well when he said, “The Way Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing”. So, I’m going to start.

Life is full of complications, obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. Like, Br’er Rabbit, how we overcome life’s obstacles, in some way defines us. Br’er Rabbit escaped (sorry, there should have been a spoiler alert there) because he understood his adversaries’ weaknesses. My go to in tough times has always been humor. Laughter makes me feel better and tends to not drive away the friends and family who might be able to help me.

Many people, including his daughter and many of the talented people who worked with Walt over the years have said that one of Walt’s best qualities was his sense of humor. Walt encouraged the creation of gags, both in film and later in Disneyland. As we have just celebrated the opening of Toy StoryLand in Orlando and many changes to the theme parks in the U.S. like Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, I’ve been thinking about whether current Disney Imagineers are still following Walt’s lead and finding ways to keep us laughing.

Even in movies that dealt with difficult ideas, like the death of a loved one such as Bambi or cruelty in Cinderella, Walt made sure that there was a heavy dose of gags sprinkled throughout the film. Sometimes the bits were focused on one character as in the scene from Snow White where Dopey chases the soap before swallowing it. There’s a moment in Bambi where after Thumper has convinced Bambi to go out on the ice, Thumper has to work carefully to get all of Bambi’s legs standing straight.  It’s an amazing scene, animated by supervising animator Travis Johnson, full of visual gags, broad expressions and situations.

In films like Cinderella and Pinocchio the Disney creative team gave us a duo to carry much of the humor. It’s likely that Walt would have seen vaudeville type shows growing up. The shows would often feature comedy teams like Weber and Fields or Smith and Dale. Much of Vaudeville humor was based on sight gags, often punctuated by one of the team getting knocked down or hit with something, and plays on words or outright mispronunciation. Gus and Jacques fill that role in Cinderella, with Jacques as the straight man and Gus providing most of the laughs. Gus struggling to pick up as many corn kernels as he can is classic visual and physical comedy. Later on, Gus’ gives us the word play angle when he yells of “Happy Birthday” instead of surprise when the mice unveil Cinderella’s dress.

I think some of the more recent animated movies provide a good mix of visual and verbal gags. Olof in Frozen gets some great mileage out of his body’s ability to break apart and come back together. And there are too many moments to list where his natural naïveté makes for some hysterical moments – “♫ I’ll be a . . .  happy snowman! ♪” “Why isn’t she knocking? Do you think she knows how to knock?” A big shout out to the animators of Hei Hei in Moana. He’s really a mime. So, everything he does is a sight gag. Dory’s different names for Nemo is a classic comedy, running gag.

I am concerned about the recent theme park trends that focus on thrills and high-tech immersive experiences. Pirates and Haunted mansion are immersive, but still have a large helping of gags. On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy:Mission Breakout is about great visual effects and the drops as is the original Tower of Terror. Both seem to rely on cast members to provide the fun. Which is fine. But, not all cast members are equally as adept with comedy. So, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Nothing new in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It’s really about theming and animated animatronics. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fabulously well done and faithfully recreates moments from the film. But, the Imagineers didn’t come up with any new jokes, they just reused the gags from the film. I won’t comment on Toy Storyland, since I haven’t seen it. But I hear there are some subtle sight gags. Will the upcoming Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy attractions at Walt Disney World keep the line moving and give us some laughs along with the thrills? We’ll see.

Walt used to pay people $5, cold, hard cash for gags. That was a good sized bonus in the 30s and 40s. I wonder if current Disney management offers incentives for laughs? I’m sure there many laughs in more recent theme park additions that I haven’t thought of. I don’t get to the parks as often as I’d like. If you know of one, let me know so I can get a chuckle next time I see it.

Getting back to my bump in the road and why I’ve been thinking about humor and not blogging. The 20-year relationship with my employer ended unexpectedly due to a large restructuring in advance of being acquired by another company. I haven’t had to look for a job in a long time. Technology and social media have drastically changed the job search landscape. Reaching out to a network of people used to involve, primarily phone calls. Today, it’s LinkedIn, that drives a lot of action. The bigger your LinkedIn network, the more people will be keeping their eyes and ears open for me. So, I would be grateful to anyone who would be willing to send me a connection request so I can continue to find new sources of information about jobs or companies I might interview with in the future. The bigger your network, the better it looks to those who will, inevitably, look at it as part of the interview process. My LinkedIn profile can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brad-kramer/It would be great if you could connect with a note, so I can figure out what we have in common. This concludes the self-promotion portion of the blog post. Now back to the laughs.

Ultimately, Walt liked to give us a laugh along with a tear or two. He even named his early company Laugh-O-grams. I, for one, find some of my favorite movies, even action ones, like Raiders of the Lost Arc or Mission Impossible Whichever, mix in some humor and make the movie better.

For those of you who are struggling with your own life road obstacles. Try a laugh. It works for me.  What do you do when life seems to have gotten the better of you?

As I said earlier, I’m going to forgo the usual media parts of this blog post. It’s just been too long a stretch without sharing. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judge of whether this  post maintains the standards that I have set for myself.

laughograms

 

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Imagineering The Hits

walt disneyland opening dayIn Disneyland’s first year, 1955, guests experienced more original themed attractions than those based on Disney properties. Out of 15 attractions the Disney themed ones were: Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Mad Tea Cups, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Dumbo and Casey Jr. Circus Train. At that time, the most recent premieres were Peter Pan in 1953 and Alice in Wonderland in 1951. I’ll come back to the non-Disney attractions later.

Disneyland opening day map

I bring this up, because of the recent openings or announcement of attractions based on Disney movie properties, including Frozen which opened in November 2013 and had its attraction announcement in June 2015 and Guardians of the Galaxy which opened July 2014 and its attraction announcement was July 2016.

Anyone who knows how Imagineers work, appreciates that the process for creating park attractions is more involved than opening a new roller coaster colored to look like a comic book super hero. I discussed this creative process in . For those who are not familiar, even attractions based on existing intellectual property, like a movie, must have a well thought out story. For instance, Mission Breakout’s plot involves The Collector (Taneleer Tivan) showing off his latest acquisitions, the Guardians of the Galaxy, in customized display cases. However, Rocket has secretly escaped his case and asks the guests for help. Guests then board a gantry lift, where they help Rocket try to free the other Guardians. Or, if you ride Splash Mountain, the individual scenes that you float past walk us through the basic story line of Br’er Rabbit’s journey, capture and escape from Br’er Fox and Bear.

I offer this simplistic explanation of what goes into attraction creation to point out, that, in order to announce a new creation like Epcot’s Frozen Ever After attraction, it is likely that work started very shortly after the movie premiered, or perhaps, even in parallel, since it was less than 3 years from movie premiere to attraction opening. Yes, Walt built all of Disneyland in one year and one day. But, things are considerably more complicated now, especially when they build inside a park that’s filled with guests every day.

jungle cruise entranceIt always struck me that many of the most popular attractions at the U.S. theme parks are still not based on Disney IP. Jungle cruise is even a holdover from day one. Even as Walt was preparing to open Disneyland, he did have attractions based on animated characters. But some of his earliest ideas, Jungle Cruise, Autopia, Main St. USA, the Mark Twain Steamboat, the ones he told his people he had to have when the park opened had nothing to do with Disney films, animated or not. Back then the time element was exacerbated by the need to actually create these kinds of attractions for the first time. But, I believe it was also because Walt’s head overflowed with ideas like no time since Snow White and he was driven to see them realized. Possible failure was not going to be measured by a single attraction. In 1956 it was the Park that might fail.

So, why then, since there have been many successful movies and television in the decades since then have the Imagineers not been able or allowed to capitalize on hits like Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty (I don’t count the castle because it actually predated the movie premiere) 101 Dalmations or TV shows like Darkwing Duck?  From 1955 to 1983Pinocchio Journey when Pinocchio’s Daring Journey opened, no attractions were based on strictly Disney ideas. But we did get The Tikki Room, Carousel of Progress, Space and Big Thunder Mountains, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. All immensely popular, but not based on Disney IP. In 1994 and 95 we got Indiana Jones and Roger Rabbit. But, even they were not Disney films and they did not appear at the same time as the movie premiered (Roger Rabbit was close). For goodness sake, in 1964 Mary Poppins was the only film to be nominated for top level Oscars, including best picture and win Best Actress (Didn’t happen again until Beauty & the Beast 27 years later). Other than park characters, it had no presence in either U.S. Park (And still doesn’t, even though it is still popular enough to merit a sequel).

Songwriters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman pose with actress Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards

Julie Andrews with the Sherman Brothers

Even California Adventure, the expansion of Disneyland did not have a Disney themed attraction when it opened, until Toy Story Midway Mania.  CarsLand may have been the beginning of a change in thinking. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was a gamble, building a huge new Land in Disneyland with only one major attraction as the primary draw. But, the risk could be minimized by the possibility of maintaining or increasing the Cars related merchandise juggernaut since the movie opened. The characters appealed to boys, not just girls, like the Princesses, and it fit nicely with the rest of California theming in the Park.

Cars-Land-Radiator-Springs

I have no inside track into how budgets are allocated or projects prioritized so my opinions remain only my opinions. Until recently, I believed that it was all about risk mitigation. (Sorry, my technology hat fell over my eyes) Disney was afraid to put all the time, effort and money into planning something that they had no guarantees anyone would care about if the movie flopped. Disney certainly didn’t want to open an attraction with a huge fanfare, only to see it sit with no line and no interest and then quietly close, except for “seasonal” periods. Something like Space Mountain was a huge financial risk, but there was no guest expectation to try and meet. (Plus, Walt himself, had originally proposed the indoor coaster idea, maybe making it seem more likely to succeed).

Mr_Toads_Wild_Ride,_DisneylandIn the early years of Disneyland or Disney World, you could replace a failed attraction without much fanfare. Walt got rid of the Flying Saucers at Disneyland after only five years. Today, a failed attraction gets such build up that a failure to deliver gets enormous attention. (reference Stitch’s Great Escape). And trying to pry a long time, beloved attraction out of our clasping hands can be a public relations issue (See Mr. Toad).

Recent announcements and construction on Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Tron Coaster, and re-theming of Disneyland’s Tower of Terror to Mission Breakout, demonstrate an appetite and willingness to use existing Disney IP and take chances to capitalize on Mega hits like Frozen as quickly as possible. As a Disney fan, I’m happy to have a chance to “ride the movie” or be immersed in a fantasy space like Radiator Springs or a planet in the Star Wars galaxy. It seems like Galaxy’s Edge may be the most ambitious plan with its immersive nature and options for interactivity. I also think that they are feeling the heat for the popularity of The World of Harry Potter. Competition can be very motivating. If it motivates Disney to think as creatively today as Walt did in the late 1950s, that’s great.

sw model 2

I’m also happy to see more non-Disney themed attractions like Space Mountain. So long as they are well thought out and entertaining. I have found myself drooling over Lands and cutting edge attractions in Tokyo and Shanghai. I don’t think Disney was using foreign countries as testing grounds. Many businesses with international presence make a considerable chunk of their bottom line outside the U.S. It’s good to see some of that happening in Disneyland and Disney World.

Getting back to those early non-Disney attractions I mentioned, and ones that followed brings me back to a topic I’ve written about before in Imagineers Still Tell Stories and A Restless Creator —  Creativity. I don’t want to see Imagineering just churn out Disney movie or character based attractions. One of the reasons that Disneyland reset the theme park standards forever was Walt’s insistence that the Park be a place guests can be assured of getting the highest quality of entertainment. So, I hope Disney management gives Imagineers some breathing room to dream, just the way Walt did when he helped create ground breaking attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Small World and Pirates.

The Key to Disney’s Artistic Masterpiece

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .

 

color

Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

rite of spring

Rite of Spring

Modern

toccato and fugue in D minor

Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical

The-Pastoral-Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

bambii art

And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.

sleeping-beauty

Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

walt oscar forest and trees

 

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