Want to know how Disney Imagineering works? Disney legend, Bob Gurr, takes us back to his days working at Disneyland. He has spun the Wheel of Years and landed on 1991 to talk about his use of wireframe design.
As computer aided design came into being, the word ‘wireframe’ was used to describe a 3D graphic design technique, both for animation and engineering. But there was a much earlier design technique of wireframe, which actually used wire to create three dimensional forms in real life. I first learned of this tool in 1955 and would use this simple method on later projects. When would I use it? When you have to design something so fast you don’t have time for orthodox methodology, of course!
In September 1991, Euro Disneyland, later renamed Disneyland Paris, was nearing completion of all its major elements, including four hotels. Some of the hotels were designed by the famed New York City architect, Robert A.M. Stern and would feature old fashioned hotel coaches for transport between the hotels and Park. Stern had made a deal with then Disney President, Michael Eisner, to design the coaches. Severn-Lamb, located in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, had been contracted to build the coaches to Stern’s design. (Severn-Lamb was famous for building all kinds of transport vehicles). Whoops – an architect doing vehicles? Sure enough, a big controversy was already under way.
Though the Stern design had not been completed, Severn-Lamb already had the vehicle chassis ready for the coach bodies, but were way behind on the required manufacturing schedule. Disneyland Operations pointed out the unworkable passenger features of Stern’s coach design sketches and reported this to Mickey Steinberg, WDI administrative manager. Since it was an Eisner-Stern deal, WDI and Operations were out of the loop. But Steinberg thought I could quickly solve the issue, since I was, at the time, an outside consultant to WDI R&D. Yeah right, flip me the hot potato!
WDI flew me to New York City via MGM Grand Airlines to meet with Stern’s designers. MGM Grand was an ultra luxurious airline using an old Douglas DC8-62 with the front half set up as a private lounge and the coach back half set up better than first class. I was spoiled rotten by the time I arrived for a stay at the lavish Meridien Hotel. The next morning I met with the Stern folks and the project manager from Severn-Lamb, who was desperate to receive the production drawings for the hotel coach body. I briefed everyone on the need to make design changes so Operations would have a workable coach. Then we were stopped cold in our negotiations when Mr. Stern joined the conversation. Now here comes the flaming potato!
Mr. Stern informed me that Mr. Eisner has already approved his design, and my efforts are not needed. Advising him of the design deficiencies, he asked to whom do I report.
“I report to Mr. Steinberg, who will give Mr. Eisner my negative review.” Whoa, end of meeting. But the young and terrified Stern artist and the Severn-Lamb manager agreed that my next step will be to revise Stern’s design back at WDI and get a final design over to England pronto. Here’s where I learned a valuable lesson in “ego diplomacy.”
Meeting over, I flew back to California on MGM Grand again, this time with actor Rod Steiger as my seat mate. We both enjoyed a five hour conversation, swapping the Imagineering trade for the theater and movie trade. This guy was certainly an amazing talent.
For the next week, the Stern artist and myself fired design revisions back and forth several times a day by fax. I’d change something, Stern would make his artist change it again. So I figured out if I kept chasing the design around to a workable configuration, no matter how ugly, Stern would “accidentally” furnish the last sketch. The thing was awful, what Stern called a Pumpkin Coach, but it would solve the operations requirements. Always let the bigger ego win, as long as it’s my design!
That was not the end of it. Severn-Lamb was to receive the fiberglass bodies from an outside shop, then mount them on a modified Renault parcel van chassis. The modern cab had been chopped off, revealing the most awful engine and firewall arrangement behind, onto which the coach body would be mounted. But Stern did not provide any design for the front of the coach, just the body only. Severn-Lamb was now pleading to WDI to give them something immediately. So Steinberg flew me over to Severn-Lamb in February 1992. Now I get the volcanic potato!
Taking one look at the chopped up Renault chassis, I could visualize that a 1920’s style front end might work combined with Stern’s pumpkin-style coach body. There was no time time to obtain all the dimensions of the engine-firewall area in order to draft up production engineering drawings for manufacturing to use. Aha! Time for wireframe! I was introduced to a shop fabricator, a cool dude who was sort of a conservative biker that could build anything. When I told him we would “wireframe” the job, he looked at me like I was a nutty Colonial.
We rounded up some 1/8″ diameter aluminum welding rod, masking tape, and a pair of side cutters. I’d visualize the design in my head, bend up the rods, and he’d secure them with tape over the Renault jumble of mechanical stuff. I’d do a radiator shell, then half a hood, followed by a fender. I had WDI fax over headlight drawings from the Disneyland Omnibus so we could mock it up for fit. By the next morning, the fabricator had converted the radiator wireframe into a cardboard version to better reveal how it would look. We continued the wireframe “3D sketching in space” action until all the design elements were visible by the end of the second day. Severn-Lamb now had a complete spacial design to immediately start production fabrication of the front end for all the coaches. Thus the job had caught up to the schedule and all the coaches were eventually delivered to EuroDisneyland on time. So where did this wireframe technique come from?
In 1955, while on a Road & Track Magazine European tour of auto factories and small sports car shops, I visited Carrozzeria Scaglietti, a tiny shop in Italy building bodies on Ferrari chassis. Their body building method was so simple. Cover the whole chassis and wheels with 1/4″ diameter steel rod, air sketching a complete outer body in wireframe. You could totally eliminate all engineering drafting this way, and you’d know everything would fit. Their shop had a dirt floor and teenage, wine quaffing boys hammering aluminum sheets into hollowed out tree stumps. The aluminum sheets would eventually be welded together and fitted over the wireframe, which would gradually be removed as all the inner body structure was added. Scaglietti could build as many as 300 series built Ferraris using this method. I used this trick many times over the years when time was short.
Side note: in the 1980s I owned a Scaglietti bodied Ferrari Lusso, a beautiful hand pounded sports car that was born in, you guessed it…wireframe!
And that’s our wheel spin for today. Did you enjoy it? If any of you have a photo of that pumpkin hotel coach, please let us know. It was such a flash in the pan that we don’t know of any public images of it. But you folks have an amazing way of uncovering obscure Disney treasures. Should be a fun search through the dustbins of Disney history.