Howdy everybody, and welcome to the third installment of This Animatronic Life. Since my last column, the dynamic at the Disneyland Resort and Disney California Adventure (DCA) in particular has changed in ways I’m sure no one could have imagined a decade ago. Speaking purely as a fan, the park is now easily one of Disney’s crowning achievements, and certainly one of the best parks in the world, with a great balance of attractions. As a vendor, I am proud to have the greatest concentration of animatronics created by my company inside any one park call DCA home, from monsters, to mermaids, to cars.
Summer 2012 is an historic time, and not only for Disney theme parks. Last month, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) celebrated its 35th anniversary. Our friends here at MiceChat and a number of other news sources kindly made mention of this milestone, and for that I am very grateful. I hope that as we move ahead into our next three-and-a-half decades, GHP can continue to create wonderful things for the parks we all love.
If any one type of attraction most perfectly fits our outdoors, active, and theme park-visiting mode in summer, I think it must be parades. Historically speaking, parades have always been a highlight of summer months, particularly the old-fashioned circus parades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the many summer-months civic parades and Fourth of July celebrations throughout the country. This type of civic-spirited gathering and pageantry played a large role in Walt Disney’s desire to centralize the parade as Disneyland’s primary form of large-scale entertainment beginning on opening day, in a perfectly apt location on Main Street, USA. Since then, parades have played a role in every Disney theme park, in one way or another, on a continuous basis.
GHP’s first forays into working for Disney theme parks came in the form of creating figures, floats, and scenery for Disneyland’s parades. In late 1996, the park was preparing for the launch of the Hercules Victory Parade, the third of the major single animated film-focused parades. Up to that time, I still thought of GHP as largely off the Disney radar—we were still, at that time, a relatively small company located outside of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and Disneyland Entertainment’s normal sphere of go-to folks, and I thought they did just about everything internally, anyway. But we had steadily been gaining notoriety for the quality of our work: we had projects going at Knott’s Berry Farm, many in Las Vegas, and a number of other parks and locations around the world. Many projects brought me into contact with former Disney designers, including, of course, our pal Bob Gurr.
For the Hercules parade, GHP was asked to create the highly animated Phil “puppetronic” character. A puppetronic figure is a type of interspecies mixture of mechanical automation and live performance style puppeteering. For Phil, the head (including eye blinks and turns, eyebrows, and mouth motions) and arm functions would be pre-programmed and run “canned” routines as the float wended its way down Main Street. The gross body movements—broad turns, body sidebends, bouncing, etc.—would be accomplished by a live performer hidden within the float and using both feet and hands to give real-time life to the figure.
We laser-scanned a scale maquette of Phil and milled him out of foam using one of GHP’s multi-axis CNC machines. We had to source custom-woven hair, and create a specially formulated flexible skin material to match the look of the figure’s animated counterpart. We watched and re-watched (and re-watched and re-watched) a short animation test of the film character Disney sent to help us with ranges of motion for the figure. Since this was my first ever “animated” figure for a Disney park, I wanted it to be as perfect as I could make it. We use the term “staying on character” to describe the translation of a figure from two-dimensional film to three-dimensional, sculpted reality. The process includes careful study of source material from the film, like cels and stills, animator’s maquettes, even film posters and toys. These days, even after building hundreds of animatronic figures for Disney parks, we remain acutely aware of how important it is to create a dimensional likeness of animated characters that does not merely resemble their film versions, but is instantly and inarguably a perfect real world realization of them. It’s pretty obvious when this process doesn’t work.
A funny aside to the Hercules Victory Parade story: readers who saw the parade probably remember the cool little roller coaster on the strange Hades float. Miniature Pain and Panic figures roll along an actual track from the mouth of a hellish beast, a simple but surprising and neat effect. About two weeks before the parade was due to premiere, we got a call from Disneyland Entertainment asking us to take on producing the figures. They were totally swamped with the last minute details of the show, and didn’t have the resources to complete it. In another of GHP’s trademark “leap before you look, and only look if you have time” moves, I said we could do it. In 12 days, we created two finished figures totally from scratch. Our gumption and the quality of our work impressed Disney. I was told that the Phil figure was one of the most reliable live performance puppet characters the park had ever had, and was used for training for new puppeteers for years afterward.
Disneyland introduces an all-new parade about every other year, and is famous for marking anniversaries and new animated films with spectacular new spectacles. After Hercules, we were assigned a number of elements for the Mulan Parade. We created the Chinese Bridge and Archway performer pieces (large scenic elements carried by two performers), and other scenic items. For the long-running 45 Years of Magic Parade (later Parade of the Stars) GHP created the puppetronic young Simba figure, one of the more complex animated characters in a float environment. Across the esplanade at DCA, we created a number of new elements, sparkling lights, and special effects for the return of Disney’s Electrical Parade, including the sparkling jewels in the Seven Dwarves mine cart floats. It was also during this time that we created the parade rescue vehicle I mentioned in my last article.
All this parade work was a great learning opportunity for GHP. For one thing, we were gaining experience in the creation of unique, challenging Disney figures, lessons we now use every day. In addition, we got a trial-by-fire education in creating animation for the challenging, mobile parade format. In most attractions (not including the Jungle Cruise or Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, among others), animatronics are in a more-or-less stable indoor environment, where temperature, humidity, light exposure, and other elements are largely or entirely controlled, and where they are rarely touched by human hands, outside maintenance employees. In a parade, figures are subject to ever-fluctuating and sometimes severe environmental conditions: sun, mists and even rain, wind, dust and dirt, and mechanical interaction with a real, live performer. We needed to consider questions like: how long after it starts pouring rain will a figure get covered up? In attraction show buildings, figures are powered by air compressors or hydraulic pumps, neither of which is very practical for mobile floats. Alternatives like nitrogen tanks are costly in manpower to re-charge and change out nightly, and electrical motors and servos are challenging performers for theme park style parade animation.
As a result, the style of design, the internal and external materials we use, controls, and even the nature of mounting and access must be carefully studied. Mechanical armatures must be both highly sturdy and light enough to manipulate without the performer exerting too much power, which could lead to fatigue or injury. Figures and systems must be easily accessible and removable for maintenance. Skins and furs have to be ready for whatever the outdoors—and unruly guests—can throw at them. Controls have to be easy to use. Generally, our figures include a standard animatronic controller that has a number of pre-programmed poses: smiles, frowns, directional looks, and others. The controller is connected to a console manipulated by the performer, who can view guests and even get an idea of the character from the guests’ perspective via a small camera and monitor setup inside the performance area on the float. The console is part of a moving armature that produces the gross body movements of the figure, and others that are usually not pre-programmed. Everything has to be simple and ergonomic. A performer can’t get winded by the sheer muscle power required to continuously move a figure halfway down Main Street.
Along those same lines, Disneyland Entertainment recognized that there was no purpose-built performance stool for puppeteers commercially available. GHP was asked to come up with something that rolled, twisted, and could be easily raised or lowered to provide an optimum performance position for puppeteers. After months of research and development, we introduced a simple but highly effective and ergonomic performance stool for live performance in a variety of venues, from parades to stage shows. We built dozens of them, and they’re still used all over in Disney parks—a seriously obscure piece of GHP’s output!
At the start of the new millennium, Disney was hard at work on one of the great theme parks of the world: Tokyo DisneySea. The park was (and remains) a strange, yet familiar mixture of many classic Disney theme park tenets, all done up in a package of theming so incredibly realistic, it truly does blur the line between fantasy and reality. For many, it is considered not merely Disney’s greatest achievement in themed entertainment, but the best theme park on the planet. The park’s layout did not lend itself to a traditional parade, as every other Disney park up to that time had (it remains the single standout—even Epcot has hosted parades). Instead, the park would host extravagant water-borne shows on the Mediterranean Harbor waterfront area, similar in design to traditional parades but using the advantages of their unique staging to create some truly spectacular spectacles. Sprinkled throughout the park would be smaller, more intimate and engaging live performances involving themed carts with characters and acts appropriate to their themed area.
GHP was asked to create a number of these small, engaging performance pieces for DisneySea’s opening day in late 2001. We created the Familia Abondonza cart for Mediterranean Harbor, complete with ornate carved detail and unique marionettes. Over in Lost River Delta, we built Orin’s Cart, a fun, disguised trampoline and acrobatics stage for performers playing a mischievous monkey and a hapless jungle explorer. The most interesting of the live performance pieces was Friendly Farook’s Bargain Bazaar for the Arabian Coast area. This little show involved a powered cart festooned with all sorts of wonderful props right out of a real Arabian bazaar: exotic metalware, carvings, an old gramophone, baskets, blankets, and, right in the middle, a big, silly, cartoonish camel.
The show involved the exasperated Friendly Farook trying to offload this ornery camel on guests, for a low, low price. But the camel has no interest in being sold. Through a series of comical blunders and surprises (like hidden animatronic snakes lunging at guests, the camel spitting, and others), Farook decides to keep the camel and laughingly takes him off the market. The show makes great use of improvised comedy and interaction with guests, and was a huge hit. GHP created the entire cart: all the driving underpinnings, props, on-board audio and special effects systems, the star puppetronic camel, and the hidden space for its live performer. The figure is also rather complex, and has more functions than most figures in other attractions with multiple on-board computer systems. The element of interactivity with the figure, rolling cart set, and a costumed, live performer driving the whole show made it the first of its kind for park entertainment. In some ways, it was a forerunner to the “Living Character Initiative” shows like Lucky the Dinosaur and the Muppet Mobile Labs shows.
By now, GHP had created a significant number of the animated characters used in Disney parades in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For Disneyland’s big 50th anniversary celebration in 2005, Disneyland Entertainment designed two spectacular new parades: Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams for Disneyland, and the Pixar character-themed Block Party Bash for DCA. We were part of the team tasked with creating elements of both new shows. For the Disneyland parade, we created the animated Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Chip figures on the Beauty and the Beast float, the puppetronic Sebastian for the Little Mermaid float, the gigantic caterpillar for the Alice in Wonderland float, and we rebuilt the Zazu figure from an older parade for the Lion King float. Our biggest parade challenge—and one of GHP’s largest projects to date—came from the Block Party Bash parade from Disneyland’s sister park. Up to this point, GHP had created figures and set elements for floats, but never the whole thing. We were asked to build the entire Monsters, Inc. float—from the chassis to the animated Mike Wazowski figure on its very peak, almost 20 feet up!
Not only was this our first float, it was also Disney’s largest ever parade float, stem to stern and top to bottom, and another textbook case of GHP’s “always say yes” mantra. It was an incredible learning experience, and brought together many different skills, many of them totally unique to this type of project. Parade floats are like self-contained attractions where the whole show building moves and becomes, in effect, the ride vehicle. There is a motive challenge to solve, like a ride system. The challenge grows from there. A float is a complex system of motors and frames and sets, audio equipment, controls, special effects, plus live performers dancing and bouncing along the way. The aesthetic challenge is just as great. Carefully following an art director’s design, we created dozens of props, graphics, and an animatronic Mike Wazowski that perfectly matched their film counterparts (in fact, that version of the green, cycloptic monster was the sixth version of the character we’d built—we’ve created Mike Wazowski’s for both the DCA and Tokyo Disneyland versions of the Monsters, Inc. attraction, and two parades, almost a dozen total and the most instances of a single character we’ve ever created!).
The float was a major success, and one of the most kinetic and engaging ever created. It was also a mechanical and reliability success-story during its run at DCA (2005-2008). After Block Party Bash was moved to Disney Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in 2008, our float continued to perform well. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011 that GHP had to perform any maintenance on the float, when we were asked to create a new skin for the Mike Wazowski animated character—after it had been through thousands of performances, and exposed to two states worth of punishing sun exposure.
Back at Tokyo DisneySea, GHP created the animated characters for the four main show barges in The Legend of Mythica water-borne pageant, which premiered in 2007. This was another show designed by the sheer genius of Steven Davidson. I have to say here that Steven just flat out one of the most amazing creative geniuses I have met in my life. Talk about bringing it all together! Working from creature designs and finishes by Michael Curry, we built the Unicorn, Hydra, Dragon, and Phoenix animated figures, each of which was nearly 20 feet tall and carried an on-board special effects package of lights, water effects, and even live pyrotechnics. The figures all had to look great in show position, performing for thousands of guests per day. They also had to fold down to fit underneath a non-raising bridge to leave and re-enter their backstage storage area. This is a fun challenge: during performances, no hint of such a real-world consideration should be visible, but breaking and folding points have to be 100% efficient and reliable. One lesson picked up from this show was that one should never try to operate and test giant animatronics indoors—we have a patched hole in our 24 foot-high shop ceiling from where the Unicorn’s wing poked through during a programming session!
In the fifteen years since we began creating figures and floats for parades, GHP has fabricated dozens of unique characters, props, mobile units, and other technologies of this unique and beloved type of performance. From Phil to Simba, giant mythological creatures to Nigel the pelican atop the submarine-shaped bus created to promote the re-opening of Disneyland’s subs in 2007, we have been fortunate to create items for parades and other live performances around the world. Parades are special. In most theme park experiences, guests are contained in buildings, and further in individual scenes, and in vehicles. The experience is between you and the sets and animatronics, shared with the person next to you, in the dark, whooshing through environments. But in a parade, guests are outside, the lighting is natural, ambient, and the backdrop is not merely Main Street—or the Small World Mall, or the World Bazaar, World Showcase, Hollywood Boulevard, Asia, or the Mediterranean Harbor waterfront—the backdrop is hundreds of faces, and families. Parades are kinetic rides we watch, mobile stages and facilitators for interaction and unscripted magic.
To answer your question: GHP has never built a float for the Rose Parade—budgets and schedules have always gotten in the way. But I did perform in a one-man-band on a float in the 2003 parade, which was just about as good!