Howdy everyone—please pardon this column’s long absence. We’ve been wildly busy here at GHP, with diverse projects all over the world. Time just gets away…
Last week brought the sad news of the passing away of Disney Legend and legendary sculptor Blaine Gibson. Much has already been said in tribute to his work at Disney parks around the world. While I echo all the sentiments of affection and appreciation for his many wonderful pirates, presidents, tiki birds, ghosts, jungle creatures, greats from our nation’s history, and more, I feel special mention of his impact on the profession of dimensional storytelling through animatronics is warranted. Simply put, Blaine’s influence on how we create sculptures for animatronic characters is deep and wide-reaching.
As Disney fans, we can each imagine at least one of Blaine’s sculptures—many have become as closely associated with the attractions they are part of as the narration, music, and ride experiences themselves. In most cases, this has much to do with Blaine’s ability to capture not merely likeness (at which he also excelled), but character. In the majority of ride-based attractions (Disney and otherwise) the guest’s time in front of an individual character is a split second, or a few seconds at best.
In that brief time, animatronics have to adequately portray personality, emotion, intent, and hint at result. For instance, the mayor in the well in Pirates of the Caribbean has a face that is immediately non-threatening, doughy, terrified, powerless, and struggling. Against the setting of being tied up and plunked into a well, surrounded by cajoling pirates and his concerned wife, the character of the mayor is instantly readable. Dozens of characters Blaine sculpted have the same attributes.
Blaine was certainly a leading pioneer in refining this art for themed attractions. His style of sculpture—which reached its peak, I think, in Epcot’s former World of Motion—drew on the tradition of caricature. In comic art, from the earliest printed magazines to feature such art in the 18th century, to the highly-caricatured style of animation art of the 20th century when Blaine was an animator at Disney, exaggerated features were used to tell stories and provide intent as much as words. As a result, the method used to making animatronic characters instantly “readable” is the same exaggeration of features and personality—something Norman Rockwell also used in his art. In many ways, Rockwell’s work and Blaine’s share similar genes.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to see and handle many of Blaine’s great human character sculpts up close. Each shares distinct features: hard lines (that are easy to read from a distance), exaggerated expression (ditto), and rather liberal use of pore detail (little indentations that always look to have been made with the tip of a pencil). At GHP, we call this sort of detail “Blaine-y” and use the term to describe much of the work we do when it tends to the Blaine school of design.
Blaine influenced my own sculpting, too. Back when Garner Holt Productions was just Garner Holt, I sculpted all of our work, from humans to birds to aliens and other creatures. For my macaws and toucans, I attempted my best at getting a Blaine flair. Wendell, the unicycle-riding animatronic character that helped put GHP on the map was sculpted very much the Blaine tradition.
Even today, on big projects like our refurbishments of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Ride, we use the master’s techniques to make our sculpts have the right amount of “Blaine-y” flair. A number of the characters we created as part of the re-imaginings of those two attractions borrowed heavily on the expressions of some of Blaine’s characters from Pirates of the Caribbean and others.
Every sculpture we create at GHP for use in animatronic humans, as well as those that Blaine created, serve a dual purpose. One is to express character. The other is to act as a covering for internal mechanical bits. Because of those, sculpts for human heads must adhere to some rules for proportion and symmetry, contrary to the normal angle of the caricaturist or of people in general (very few of us have perfectly symmetrical faces). The nature of mechanical eye and mouth movements requires sculptures to be as close to symmetrical as possible with relation to eye and mouth level and openness. Although many of Blaine’s best work is highly caricatured, if you look closely, he always made sure that the mechanical animators had something to work with. It’s an important rule that we stick with, too.
Blaine’s influence, style, and portfolio will live on and speak for his creative genius for generations to come. The groundwork and style rules he pioneered at Disney echo into my company’s work and many others. I can remember so distinctly the first time I saw Blaine on the “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair” TV program, showing his work for the figure that inspired me to start creating animatronics as a teenager.
I was honored to meet Blaine several times over the years. The first time was around 1979 during one of my visits to WED Imagineering and MAPO as a teenager. Blaine was such a kind, soft-spoken man, with a gentle smile. He showed me some of his recent sculpts and shelves of older originals. It was awe-inspiring—and you could see clearly his genius. I studied carefully the Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers masks he created for Epcot’s American Adventure, its opening still years in the future. Many years later, I was able to chat with him at a Ryman Arts event at Marty Sklar’s house. He was always a gentleman and enjoyed talking about his work. I told him how much I admired the Partners statue (I have several miniatures around my studio) and all he had done for the parks. The texture, spirit, and, most of all, the character of Disney parks around the world have his fingerprints all over them.
A couple months ago, the Matterhorn Bobsleds reopened at Disneyland. The re-imagined show portion of the attraction features three new animatronic abominable snowmen that we created here at GHP. There was some discussion among fans that it was a shame to lose Blaine’s original sculpture for Harold. I’m sure this sentiment was echoed while the new face was being sculpted by WDI. When we began work on creating the new animatronics, I felt that the new sculpt was just an extension of Blaine’s style. Although not his work, the abominable snowman’s face is “Blaine-y” in the very best sense—I think it’s a tribute to all he taught us in this industry about making animatronic figures into animatronic characters.
Here’s to Blaine Gibson: a gentleman, a genius.