D23 Expo 2013: Highlights from the Imagineering Panels

Sunday at the D23 Expo was Imagineering day.    Early on, when schedule details were first being announced, it was revealed that there would be five Imagineering sessions on Sunday, but it wasn’t until the last week or so before the Expo kicked off that attendees were given any information about the sessions.

The sessions were similar in that each one was a panel, and the panels were somewhat more free-form than other panels and presentations.    As a result, there was some overlap, and in reviewing my notes, I felt it would be better to just combine my notes and create a single blog post for the three panels I was able to attend  (attending the Disney Infinity presentation required me to miss the other two Imagineering panels.   I’ve also included a few items from Marty Sklar’s solo presentation on Friday, which I had not previously written up.

The Panels

The three panels I attended on Sunday were:

Working with Walt, with panelists

  • Marty Sklar.  Disney Legend; Currently International Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering; previously VP of Concepts and Planning, Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive.   Among many other things, guided the creative development of Epcot.
  • X Atencio.   Disney Legend.   Wrote the story for attractions such as the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean; also wrote the songs “A Pirate’s Life for Me” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts”.
  • Alice Davis.   Disney Legend.   A costume designer for attractions such as it’s a small world and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as Disney films and television.   Widow of Disney Legend Marc Davis.
  • Bob Gurr.  Disney Legend.   Designer of ride vehicles including Autopia cars, the OmniMover system (Doom Buggies and similar), Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage submarines, and the Disneyland Monorail.

Leading a Legacy, with panelists

  • Marty Sklar.   See above
  • Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering

Leave Em Laughing, with panelists

  • Dave Fisher, show writer
  • Kevin Rafferty, story development, senior concept writer
  • George Scribner, story development, director
  • Joe Lanzisero, Creative VP for Tokyo Disneyland
  • Jason Surrell, show writer and producer

The Content

Here are some of the things that I thought worth jotting down notes about during these presentations

(Marty)  The last time Walt appeared on film (October 1966) was in the much-shown introduction to “the Florida Project”, where Walt introduced the plans for what would become Walt Disney World, including EPCOT.   Marty was the writer for this.

(Alice)  The first time she met Walt was when she was having dinner with her husband Marc at the Tam.   (Tam O’Shanter, a restaurant near the studios popular with studio personnel).   Walt asked about her work.   She was in the garment industry — making girdles and brassieres.   Walt was fascinated (and as far as I can tell she was relating this entirely seriously) by her expertise with elastic.   Two years later, Walt called and asked her to do costumes for it’s a small world.

(Bob) Asked about first time meeting Walt, he said he was doing sketches for the Autopia cars.   Someone came through the office and took a look, and it wasn’t until he was on his way out and someone said “bye, Walt” that Bob realized who it was.   He thought maybe it was a night watchman or something, so I guess it must have happened after hours.

(Marty)  His first job at Disney was to produce a tabloid-style newspaper that would be sold on Main Street for ten cents.    It showed how, for Walt, Main Street was a real place, not just a mock-up.   No real small town of that era would be without a newspaper, so there had to be one or the story wouldn’t be right.

(Bob)  When doing the Lincoln animatronic, Walt had an actor do the speech, and filmed it as a reference.   Bob felt the first take done by the actor was excellent.   But Walt kept making him do it over, and over.  He knew what he wanted and kept pushing (but wasn’t giving any direction to the actor, just having him do it again).   The last take was the one Walt wanted.  The actor was clearly exhausted by that point, and Walt felt that was the way Lincoln would have been at Gettysburg.   That was the kind of authenticity that Walt looked for.

(Alice)  Making the dolls for it’s a small world, at some point she told Walt that no one had told her how much she could spend on each costume for fabric, buttons, etc.   Walt told her he had a building full of people to do “pencil work”, that she was to design the best costume that anyone from 1 to 100 would love to wear, and they (the pencil people) would figure out how to pay for it.   “People will know the difference; give them your best and they’ll be back.  Cheat them and you’ll never see hide nor hair of them again”.

(X)  After 20+ years in animation, Walt brought him over to do the script for Pirates.   Marty asked, having never done a script, why did Walt trust you to do that?   X: it was a direct command performance from the man himself.

(Bob) Walt was never interested in what you had done, but only in what you were going to do next.

(Alice) Walt would give you something you didn’t think you were capable of doing.  And you’d find a way to do it, because you didn’t want to disappoint Walt.

(Bob)  Walt remembered almost everything he ever heard, if you told him something, and came back with a different story later, he’d call you on it.

(Alice)  A young man came to Walt with a drawing and asked him “what do you think of this”?   After looking for a moment, Walt said “It’s very difficult to choose between one”.   He always wanted options.

(Marty)  The job of leading Imagineering is largely a job as a casting director.   For example, Marc Davis and Claude Coats were very different – they wouldn’t be caught dead going to lunch together.    (Not anything negative, they were just very different).   But putting them together created a really complementary team.

With the Haunted Mansion, Claude felt it should be scary, and Marc thought it should be funny.    The back and forth between them gave us the ride we have today, probably better than if we had gotten just Marc’s version or Claude’s version.

(Marty) asked about how to train for a job in Imagineering, Marty suggested learning as much as you can about as many things as you can.   Imagineering comprises 140 different disciplines (but Marty acknowledges they don’t really know how many, that’s just the number they use).   Cross-disciplinary skills are a must.

(Marty)  leading Imagineering is about casting, motivation, and gently helping someone understand when they have the wrong idea (“a bit of an art form”)

(Marty or Bruce — didn’t note)  An interesting thing with Hong Kong Disneyland (Shanghai will be similar) is that because of the one child law, the kid-to-adult ratio is inverted from other worldwide parks; influences a lot of what you do in park design.

(Bruce)  told a funny story about World of Color.   After investing millions in this very advanced fountain system, they decided to create new versions of many classic Disney songs.  So they had the London Symphony Orchestra record a brand new score for the show.   And when they first tried it out, it just wasn’t working.   Someone even said “what if fountains are just boring?” after they had invested tremendous time and money in the show.   Then, they dropped in the classic music (the arrangements we all know)  — and immediately it worked.   We are just really wired to respond to that music the way we know it.

Someone from the audience asked about Harry Potter at Universal; Bruce didn’t really rise to the us vs. them challenge, but used the question to re-affirm that it’s all about story — that ride, that area of the park is so powerful because it starts with a great story.

(not sure who told this one)  When Disneyland was about 6 years old, Walt sent Marc Davis over since he was between projects.   Walt asked what he thought, and Marc said what was missing was humor.   So Marc added things like the men climbing the tree to get away from the rhino in the Jungle Cruise.   (and apparently the original Jungle Cruise script was not funny;  it appears from history that the script got punched up at about the same time Marc began working in the parks).

(Kevin)  The version of one of the songs at Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree where Mater forgets the words to the song was completely intentional  (which is different than the story I’d heard about it previously).    The story is, when Kevin was demoing the song for Larry the Cable Guy (voice of Mater), he actually did forget some words and filled in with a “something something something”   — Larry said “we have to do that!” and did it in one take.

(Kevin)  Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree also is the first ride to have a “Joke” button; when the ride is loading, if it is taking a little longer than ideal, the operator can hit a “joke” button on the console and Mater tells a joke.    He played a number of the recorded jokes for the audience.   I don’t remember any or I’d share.

There was obviously a lot more in all of these panels, but those were the highlights as I saw them.    The biggest thrill was just being able to see so many Disney Legends and hear their stories.

This entry was posted in D23, D23 Expo 2013, Disney, Disneyland, Imagineering, Walt Disney World and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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