3/20/10 Walt Disney Family Museum

Innovations: The Creation of Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Join Don Iwerks, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Lee Tope for an inside look into the making of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Learn about the challenges the movie presented and how the Disney team overcame them.

Harrison Ellenshaw – Son of Peter Ellenshaw. Harrison. You might also know Harrison’s name from his work with George Lucas on Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back.

Don Iwerks – Son of Ub Iwerks, and a Disney Legend in his own right. I was fortunate enough to attend the Legends Induction ceremony at the inaugural D23 expo when Don was inducted.

Lee Tope was the distinction of being the only surviving crew member from Darby O’Gill and the Little people, and worked on the set lighting and ventilation.

Harrison spoke first and showed stills from Darby O’Gill to show how camera angles and lighting where used to create this film. He commented on the idea that every film maker needs concentrates on one thing, visually telling a story. Good visual effects should help tell the story. He asked how many times we had watched a movie where we were really paying attention for the visual effects? And then ask how good the story was? There was an almost unanimous chuckle from the audience.

In Darby O’Gill they used “forced perspective” for most scenes to achieve more seamless story telling. For these scenes there where actually two sets staged about 25 feet apart that were filmed using the Nodal Point Camera (discussed during Don’s session). He discussed how confident Walt Disney was in his people. Harrison said that contrary to some of the press material released at the time, there were no actual scenes filmed in Ireland. All of the sets were constructed on the Studio backlot and surrounding areas. Harrison’s Dad, Peter Ellenshaw was instrumental in making that happen through the use of artistic set design and matte prints use to augment scenes being shot. As a result, Peter Ellenshaw received two credits in the movie. One for Visual Effects and another for set design. One of Harrison’s final comment during was session was Walt’s ability to inspire the people around him to do more than they ever thought possible.

Don spoke about his father’s, Ub Iwerks, innovative nodal point camera. The nodal point is where the light rays converge on the camera lens. One of the challenges of using forced perspective in filming is lighting and focus variation of the two shots. It’s pretty technical for this observer, but, the nodal point camera allow the operator to pan tilt the camera around the forced perspective shot that would not be possible with a traditional camera. Because of the technical nature of the nodal point camera, Don’s talk was rather short.

Lee as I said above is the sole surviving crew member from the filming of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Lee worked on the stage light and ventilation for Stage 2 at the Studio. If I heard correctly, Stage 2 is or was the largest stage built, at 2 million cubic feet. Lee talked about and showed pictures of the some of the lights on the stage. There were several row of 10,000 watt lights, and several carbon arch lamps (or Klieg light). These lights required DC current to run, so the Studio had 11 DC generators on site to supply power. Lee told a humorous story about browning out the entire city of Burbank one morning early in the filming of Darby O’Gill. On this morning the electricians came in early to fire up the generators, and just started throwing on the On switches. The spike in the electrical draw from the city’s power was so high that it browned out all of Burbank. From that point on the electricians had to follow a procedure to sequentially fire the generators in such a way as to not cause that event again. He also mentioned the at the NBC Studios, not far from Disney, purchased a generator to power their operations and keep their uplink to New York just in case Disney ever did this again. Lee also told us that because of the lights the heat on the stage got very high. Up on the ceiling near the lights temperatures got around 135 degrees. On stage temperature would get to 105 degrees. During the filming of a scene they would have to turn off the ventilation fans for up to 3 or 4 minutes because of the noise created.

At the close there was a brief Q&A. There were no questions that I consider memorable enough to report. Most were comments or accolades for the Peter Ellenshaw’s talents.

My commentary on the event:
This is the third presentation event that I have had the opportunity to attend at the Museum. This presentation like the others showed me again the lengths to which Walt Disney and the people who worked for him went to tell a story.

The Museum, and the material they present is a testament to a man who had a incredible vision on how the tell a story and inspire his employees to do what most claimed was impossible. In my personal life, I use these examples to remind me that I don’t know what I can do until I try. If you are a Disney fan and have the opportunity to visit the Museum, I highly recommend it. Attending any of the events at the Museum is a real bonus in my opinion.

Finally, I hope you have found this report useful and enjoyable. As I attend other presentations or tour the museum, I will provide trip reports. Your feedback on how to make these reports better is most welcome.