05 October 2008

EPCOT CENTER FILMS: They’re Eye-Catching Experiences

Walt Disney World turned thirty-seven and Epcot turned twenty-six this week. As I talked about last year, EPCOT Center opened ten months after I was born, so I feel this kinship, almost as if we have grown up, sharing the same growing-pains, together. In honor of Epcot’s birthday, today’s Back Issues is from the spring of 1983 and is written by Karen Cure, who takes a look at the films of EPCOT Center during the park’s opening year.

Visitors to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Disneyland have come to learn that film can be used to create many effects – from rear screen projections that form unusual backgrounds to the total immersion of 360° CircleVision. This spectrum of possibilities often has been used to great effect. Still, cinema hardly plays a dominant role in the making the magic of the Magic Kingdoms, so it may come as something of a surprise to visitors to Epcot Center to discover the remarkable variety of film presentations and techniques that are so much a part of the fulfillment of Walt Disney’s greatest dream.
Whether and Epcot Center visitor is a student of cinematic technique or just a guest eager to have a terrific time, each is likely to be dazzled by the films of Epcot Center. Disney’s Imagineers have taken a medium that merely entertains guests in the Magic Kingdoms – in such CircleVision 360° shows as Magic Carpet ‘Round the World in Florida and America the Beautiful in California – and created movie shows for Epcot Center that literally stun the senses, by making quantum leaps forward in both film technique and content.

Film Journey
Kodak’s Journey Into Imagination pavilion, for example, is home to the world’s first three-dimensional motion picture in a 70mm format, and Exxon’s Energy show boasts the largest example of motion picture animation ever produced. Enormous screens that wrap around huge theaters and dwarf the audience are the order all around Epcot Center, and the images seem almost surrealistically lifelike because most were shot and projected at the speed of 30 frames per second. This is 25 percent faster than the 24 frames per second used in most other theatrical productions and which create a strobe or “flicker” effect not possible at 30.

All of the movie sound tracks were recorded with computerized digital equipment especially designed for the film projects; about five times more costly than traditional recording methods, this equipment also delivers proportionately more realistic results. And each auditorium’s sound system represents a comparable state of the art – so that when you hear a cricket chirp or a buzz saw whine in The Land’s film, Symbiosis, you know precisely where that sound originated. According to Don Henderson, a 30-year veteran of Hollywood studios who acted as manager of Epcot Center film production, he’s “never seen anything that even comes close to the magnitude of the project.”

“This has got to represent the ultimate in filmmaking,” he continued. “We’re giving the best people the world’s best equipment and are literally stretching the medium as far as it will go.”

Randy Bright, executive producer of Epcot Center films, observed, “We don’t reject show ideas because they may appear ‘technically impossible’ or because ‘it hasn’t been done before’.” And so if the technology didn’t exist, Disney Imagineers developed it, not only constructing entirely new camera systems from scratch, but also creating a customized, computerized editing room, not to mention entire theaters that are unique in the world.

In all, some 1.5 million feet of film were originally shot by 16 production crews working for more than two years in 30-odd countries and nearly every state in the United States. Epcot Center’s four full hours of motion pictures includes on 73,000 of the very best of this location footage.
Here’s what to look for:
The Land:
Symbiosis takes an academic notion – “the delicate balance between technological progress and environmental integrity” as exhibited through agricultural history – and offers 18 minutes of visual poetry. Using 70mm film shot at that rich, bight-looking 30 frames per second, filmmaker Paul Gerber shows farming, fishing, and forestry practices in about 30 nations during every season. The scenery is purely spectacular – rice paddies, endless wheat fields, brutal storms, frightening droughts, and more. The theater’s 13 speakers, playing a baker’s dozen different sound tracks, allow for the kind of realistic aural effects that you simply don’t get in conventional movie theaters.

Journey Into Imagination: For the unusual Magic Journeys, Disney Imagineers started from scratch, designing their own three-dimensional photography system with the capability of delivering some of the biggest, clearest, and sharpest images ever produced in 3-D, in both slow motion and high speed. But even as startling as the resultant you-are-there effects, what really makes the show is the imaginative story line that puts each member of the audience inside a child’s imagination. Beginning with a handful of children racing across a meadow and gazing at clouds, it also brings a frothy pink-and-white cluster of spring blossoms right to the tip of your nose. The sense of proximity is so realistic that more than one visitor reaches out to touch them. Dandelion spores float through the air, turn into stars, and are then transformed into a sun whose rays become water right before your eyes. In another scene, a child’s kite changes from bird to fish to a whole school of fish, to a flock of birds, bird wings, the flying horse Pegasus, a real horse, and then a spirited steed on a merry-go-round. The brass harness ring of the carousel horse floats out to the audience, tempting all to try and catch it. Then the ring itself turns into a moon, then bats, then frightening witches and their masks and finally the Sphinx.

The moving music is by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, composers of “It’s A Small World,” among other Disney classic melodies. The film’s director was Murray Lerner, awarded as Oscar for his documentary of Isaac Stern’s concert tour of China, From Mao to Mozart.

Universe of Energy: Perhaps the most innovative of the four cinematic experiences to be enjoyed in this pavilion presented by Exxon is the first – a sort of animated montage (some call it a “kinetic mosaic”) of basic energy sources such as fire, the seas, and the sun. Czechoslovakian artist Emil Radok has made it seem to ripple in textured layers and patterns across a screen. This unique screen is comprised of a hundred triangular, three-dimensional solids that periodically rotate on signals from microprocessors to reveal either a black side, a reflective side, or a projection surface, depending on the aesthetic requirements of the section of the film that the theater’s five projectors are showing at the time.

Energy, the theme of this show, is also the subject of the spectacular animated film previously mentioned, shown in the pavilion’s main theater portion on a 32-foot-high screen that measures 155 feet in length – over half the length of a football field. Its 4 ½ brief minutes, which cost about $2 million to produce, are full of volcanoes, rain, lightning, plants, enormous beasts, and tiny insects in such abundance that it’s impossible to take it all in in a single viewing.

Then there’s the film in the Energy Information Center, into which the pavilion’s extraordinary vehicles travel at the conclusion of the trip through the Disney recreation of the prehistoric times when fossil fuels were formed. Shown on a semicircular screen that stretches 210 feet from end to end, it takes viewers along the Alaska pipeline and to the North Sea, where the film crews worked under conditions so frigid that cameras actually froze and had to be heated before work could resume.

Some of the most eye-catching footage takes in a range of glacial mountains and the center of a 20-foot surfer’s wave in Hawaii; the shot of the Space Shuttle launch, so unusual that even NASA wanted a copy, makes viewers feel that they’re actually inside the flaming, sometimes pearly colored exhaust as the vehicle blasts off. In the final film of the pavilion, audiences are transported into a wedge-shaped theater with mirrored walls that create the illusion that they’re completely surrounded by the weirdly glowing, laser-like images on the projection screen.

World of Motion: The zany scenes conjured up by longtime Disney art director Ward Kimball, who also shares the credit for creating the character of Jiminy Cricket, steal the show in this pavilion presented by General Motors. But for excitement, you can’t beat Disney-developed “speedrooms” in which 70mm films are projected onto the walls of the tunnels through which ride vehicles pass, to give the effect of racing along on a speeding train, hurtling downhill on a bobsled, charging through a swamp in the Everglades, floating high above the clouds – and finally plummeting into what seems to be a black hole in outer space.
The America Adventure: In this pavilion the films provide a backdrop to the technically sophisticated show hosted by Audio-Animatronics figures representing Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and presented by American Express and Coca Cola. But it’s worth noting that the film was made using the special A.C.E.S. camera that produced the outer space effects in the recent Disney film The Black Hole and which itself is a descendant of the multiplane camera that was first used to give such a feeling of depth to animated classics like Snow White and Pinocchio.

Canada: This pavilion’s film, O Canada!, was produced in CircleVision 360, which visitors to both the California and Florida parks may already have experienced. But the advances in the film and sound technique that have taken place since Magic Carpet ‘Round the World and America the Beautiful were first produced are such that those old favorites compare to O Canada! in much the same way that a Model T compares to a Maserati. When the images filmed with nine cameras mounted on a fixed pole, are shown in the round CircleVision theater, which features nine screens that completely surround viewers – and with sound from a comparable number of speakers – the motion picture takes on such immediacy that some viewers have been known to get queasy.

“In the old days,” observes producer Randy Bright, “we’d shoot our CircleVision shows with a locked-down camera and let the action take place around it. But now we’re using more mobile camera techniques and we’ve been able to create even more powerful sensations.” Depending on an observer’s predilections, the high point of the film may come during a scene in a cavernous Montreal cathedral, or riding a ride across the Arctic on a dogsled, or while speeding above a train chugging down the track along a diamond-bright river. Narration is in both French and English.

China: “Going to china is like going back in time,” noted producer Jeff Blyth, who spent seven months in this Far Eastern nation in the course of work on the 20-minute Wonders of China: Land of Beauty, Land of Time – 2 1.2 months scouting locations and another 4 ½ months shooting. “In some ways, it’s still 1952 there. And despite the research I did before I left, I was surprised. Nothing can set you up for what you’ll find there.” The totally exotic nature of the nation that Blyth experienced comes across so in this unusual CircleVision travelogue that many visitors to Epcot Center call it their favorite adventure. Narrated by an actor portraying eighth-century poet Li Po, the T’ang dynasty’s equivalent of Shakespeare, the film takes viewers from Tibet and Manchuria to the Forbidden City, the Potala Palace, the Temple of heaven, and the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It travels to the Gobi Desert, to Shanghai, to Guilin, and to the Yangtze River gorge; it shows off Mongol horsemen and their sinewy mounts; and it stops at the Great Wall in three different places, only one of them the Peking section of the 6,000-mile-long wonder that is seen by most China travelers.

Some of these locations had never before been filmed by Western crews. In fact, in some instances, where the Chinese government would not permit the Disney camera men to short the aerial footage they wanted, Chinese film crews were sent out to record scenes first on videotape and then, after Disney directors gave their approval, on film. Some filming sites were so remote that supplies and equipment had to be transported on camel back; in the Annui province, the crew hand-carried the 300-pound camera up the 16,700 steps that climb the steep flanks of Haungshon Mountain.

“Communication posed the single biggest problem,” Blyth noted later. “It’s difficult enough to make a movie when everyone speaks the same language. Occasionally, we’d film a scene in a place where the local people spoke a dialect that was unintelligible to our translators. Then I’d have to say something to the translator, who would pass it on to the people we were trying to direct. It was frustrating, especially when you’re working against the clock, trying to get a difficult shot.”

France: Lush and lyrical, set to French classical music recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the 18-minute-long Impressions de France takes viewers to a bustling village and a country wedding, through the vineyards at harvest time and into the French Alps, from fishing villages and cathedrals to stately chateaux, and from the Riviera to Paris herself. Each scene is shown on an immense five-part screen that seems almost to surround you, and the panoramas – like those of so many of the dazzling Epcot Center films – are enough to send visitors scurrying off to American express’ Travelport to arrange passage to Paris.


Doc Terminus said...

Great informative post. Amazing how much we don't know about the things we regularly experience. And I bet when it comes down to it you could compile a similar length post about any single one of those films...

...full disclosure, the Sherman Brothers song "Magic Journeys" is like Poltergeist clown creepy... Its so hypnotic and then my eyes lose focus for an hour...

Ryan P. Wilson said...

Absolutely, the one thing I was kind of disheartened by in the story is how little detail was given to some of the films (Impressions de France, World of Motion, The American Adventure).

As for Magic Journeys, it's not jsut the song. From my memories of the film as well, it was psychedelically frightening. My wife never saw it, and I believe the words I used for it were something along the lines of, "This was a film for people who lived hard in the 60s and 70s."