Friday, September 28, 2012

Diane Disney Miller Sits Down With...Her Dad?

Tom Hanks with Diane Disney Miller (click to enlarge).
The cool picture of the day comes from our good friends at the Walt Disney Family Museum, where Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks paid a visit this afternoon. In this photo posted on the museum's Facebook page, Hanks chats with museum co-founder Diane Disney Miller. In very Forrest Gump fashion, they're on a park bench together, but not just any park bench. This is one of the Griffith Park benches where Diane's father would sit and watch Diane and her sister Sharon ride the merry-go-round as kids. Legend has it that's where Walt dreamed up the idea for Disneyland.

Hanks was no doubt at the museum to do some research on Walt since he'll portray the great man in the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks. The movie started production earlier this month and will tell the tale of Walt's difficult relationship with Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and the lengths he went to to get his classic movie made. Hanks is the first actor ever to portray Walt in a dramatic film.

No word yet on whether Hanks offered Diane a box of chocolates.

Disneyland 1966: Small World, Big Parking Lot

My dad filmed a lot of parking lots. At least at Disneyland he did.

Maybe he was trying to build anticipation as he approached the Magic Kingdom's entrance with my mom, my sister and me in tow. Maybe he just meant to capture Main Street's train station, or the train itself, or the Monorail at a distance. Maybe he just liked cars, buses and pavement.

In some 1964 footage I posted a while back on YouTube, there are about 45-seconds worth of parking lot. From 1967, another 40 seconds (at least we're pulling up to the main gate on that one). In this new video from 1966, there are about 30 seconds Dad shot from the middle of the asphalt.

What does it all mean? Not a lot, really. Dad liked to film rides too.

So, without further ado, here are two minutes of It's a Small World (at that time, just a couple of months old) and the Submarine Voyage, with a quick glimpse of the Matterhorn and the Skyway, all in glorious eight millimeter.

But, hey, how about that parking lot?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Going 'Between Frames' at the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Pumpkin King exposed.
Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas.
That Between Frames, the Walt Disney Family Museum's new exhibit on stop motion animation, left me wanting more is not necessarily a bad thing. With my appetite merely whetted by the museum's modest but fascinating collection of models, armatures, storyboards and concept art, it made me go back to the finished products, the classic films that brought these fanciful creations to life.

And that's when the fun really started.

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon pouring over YouTube in search of George Pal's Puppetoons from the 1930s and 40s. I pulled out my Disney Rarities DVD set to take another look at Walt's rare forays into stop motion animation, Noah's Ark (1959) and A Symposium On Popular Songs (1962). I made the distressing discovery that I have neither the original King Kong nor Ray Harryhausen's sublime mythic fantasy Jason and the Argonauts on Blu-ray (Amazon was able to rectify that). I set aside The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach for viewing this weekend.

King Kong armature replica
If you're going to truly appreciate an art form, you might as well go all in.

Stop motion animation is a painstaking process of manipulating characters and props, usually no more than a foot or two high, to create something very life-size and real on the big screen. It lends itself to conventional hand drawn animation insofar as it requires 24 individual images or frames to make a single second of footage. Between frames is when the magic happens. That's when the model is moved ever so slightly to ultimately become a skeleton wielding a sword or a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.

AT-AT Imperial Walker model
Starting today, the Walt Disney Family Museum gives you a taste of the kind of work and precision that, for more than a hundred years, has gone into the craft of stop motion animation. On display in the Museum's Theater Gallery are armature replicas from the original versions of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. There is an exact reproduction model of an AT-AT Imperial Walker from The Empire Strikes Back. This particular model is noteworthy for belonging to director and visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, who did the stop motion animation for the original AT-ATs in Empire as well as the beastly tauntauns that helped patrol the ice planet of Hoth.

Jurassic Park velociraptor
Another item Tippett had a hand in designing is a Digital Input Device (DID) for Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. It's an articulated model of a velociraptor that, instead of being used as a stop motion figure, provided input to a computer that animated the dinosaur in CG. It's one of exhibit curator Anel Muller's favorite items in the collection. She says, "It marks the transition from stop motion animation to computers in special effects. It's an important piece of history." It was also the device that caused the stop motion master Tippett to exclaim, "I think I'm extinct!" That line was later cheekily added to Jurassic Park.

Tippett's art was far from extinct, however, as character models on display from later films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline emphatically prove. Stop motion animation is a time-tested art form that, even in the age of CG everything, still has audience appeal and is still done in the same exacting manner as it always has: a skilled animator carefully manipulates a detailed model, one frame at a time. Tim Burton's Frankenweenie opens next week, and you can draw a straight line from it to a group of toy teddy bears that "danced" before a camera in 1907.

There is much history to celebrate in Between Frames and the exhibit pays justifiable tribute to film pioneers like Georges Melies and Willis O'Brien, not to mention the grand master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. Art Clokey's classic character Gumby gets a place in the spotlight as well (something I gushed about last month). The inspired work of all these gifted artists reminds us that, like Walt Disney himself pointed out, there's nothing you can't create with a bit of imagination. It's a sentiment Muller hopes visitors to her exhibit will take with them. "(I hope) they feel a surge of inspiration, that they will find creativity in their own lives and be reassured that believing in your dreams is not an antiquated idea, but the key to success."

Of course, like me, you may just be inspired to revisit some great feature-length movies and short films. Or write a story about them. You never know.

Between Frames: The Magic Behind Stop Motion Animation runs through April 28, 2013. For more information, visit

More Between Frames photos are on our Facebook page.

Monday, September 3, 2012

From Wilderness to Wasteland: Frontierland's Warped Virtual Makeover

Aerial view of Frontierland, 1960
I'm continually fascinated and impressed with the level of imagination that goes into creating the Wasteland worlds in the Disney Epic Mickey video games. This alternate universe of forgotten characters, merchandise and theme park attractions is a visual delight full of subtle and not-so-subtle Disney references. For me, the game play is almost incidental to just looking around and exploring the bizarre, kitschy environments that Warren Spector and his team of game developers have concocted.

The next installment of the series, Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, will see Mickey Mouse and his famed predecessor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit team up to save Wasteland from certain destruction. At this weekend's Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle, gamers got a hands-on opportunity to explore Fort Wasteland, a new virtual locale based on the Frontierland of long ago. Think Salvador Dali meets the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland and Fort Wilderness (with a touch of Indian Village and Bear Country thrown in) and you kind of get the idea.

Compare the Fort Wasteland game play to this 1964 footage from Disneyland (jump to 3:03 to see Frontierland). From moose heads to totem poles to weird rock formations, it's fun to spot where the game developers got their inspirations from.

Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two will be available November 18 on all major gaming platforms. You can pre-order now on Amazon.

For more Fort Wasteland concept art and screen shots, please visit our Facebook page at