Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Remembering EPCOT's Cranium Command - Both Versions

There are some great posts on The Disney Project blog about Jerry Rees'  work for Disney Imagineering, including EPCOT's Cranium Command, where you go inside the mind of a boy as he goes about his school day in real time.  An animatronic figure interacts with characters representing different parts of the body, which constantly react to what is being seen through the boy's eyes.  It was an extremely complex show, logistically.

Like many of Jerry's jobs for Imagineering, Cranium Command was a rescue mission.  As The Disney Project blog puts it, "The project, already halfway through production at Colossal Pictures, was unanimously loathed by everyone at Disney. Jerry was tasked with reviewing the project, assessing its weaknesses, and fixing them."

I, personally, have the unique distinction of being the only animator to have worked on both versions of this show.  In January of 1989, Colossal Pictures producer Heather Selick hired Vince Davis and me as sort of animators-in-residence at their San Francisco studio.  She put us up in apartments on Union St in North Beach, just below the Coit Tower and just two uphill blocks from an area full of blues bars, cafes, Italian restaurants, City Lights Bookstore, and  really old strip clubs with creepy guys in big suits trying to get passersby to go in.  Far out!

The team at Colossal was very passionate about the project, under the direction of truly great guy George Evelyn.  Colossal was famous for their innovative, stylistic commercial work, and some of the animators bristled at the fully animated, Disney approach I was doing.  They were doing more of a Fred Crippen, Roger Ramjet style, which was fun, but not winning points with the clients.

Storytelling was Colossal's achilles heel.  So when it came to Cranium Command, they took the story given to them by Imagineering and followed it, thinking they were giving their client what they wanted.  Unfortunately, it was written like an educational film from the '40's - very dry and condescending.  No amount of style could make up for the lack of substance.  And even though Colossal was executing Imagineering's story,  their inability to interpret the story into something workable sunk them.  Disney was a big client to lose, but George told FLIP, "Colossal didn't care because the kill-fee was so high it set the all-time record."

Jerry took over the Cranium Command project, starting from scratch in Glendale.  He told FLIP:

"Peter Schneider told me that Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and the whole executive team fucking hated it (his words, not mine), so it wasn't a case of putting a Band-Aid on it. We had to start over. The trouble was that half the budget and schedule had been used up and no one could put their finger on what had gone wrong or what the fix might be.

So they screened what was done so far and asked my opinion. I identified problems and proposed new directions during the most memorable conference call I can remember. On the line were Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marty Sklar, Peter Schneider and Tom Fitzgerald. They liked my notes and gave the "go forth and make it so" pronouncement on the spot. We assembled a new team and hit the ground running. 

Even though the press and the current film community seems to have forgotten Cranium Command, the team who created it should be proud of making something revolutionary that was enjoyed by EPCOT visitors for many years."

The good stuff starts at 1:40.

Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale got their directing start on the pre-show film.  Kirk told FLIP:

"After viewing the (Colossal) cut, our first question was, "How much of this do we have to keep?" The answer was, just the main character's name, General Knowledge, and the overall stress-management theme, since MetLife was the attraction's sponsor. But we had only one week to re-board it from scratch.

So Gary, me, and Tom Sito brainstormed and hammered out a new storyline, along with a new personality for the General based on Lee Ermy's character from Full Metal Jacket. We thought it would be funny if the character who was supposed to teach you how to manage your stress screamed at you incessantly like a psychotic drill sergeant. Gary wrote most of the General's motor-mouth dialogue, peppering it with loads of G-rated profanities, like "you mealy-mouthed maggots", and "you miserable toads".  Gary pitched the boards to Michael and Jeffrey at full volume, shouting the General's dialogue and whacking the boards with his pointer so hard a few sketches came loose. It was an amazing, hilarious performance that sold the execs on our approach.

Rob Minkoff was slated to direct the new pre-show, (but) bowed out when he was drafted to direct Roller Coaster Rabbit (The original director of THAT show had an alcohol-fueled meltdown and was given Das Boot by the studio, but that's another story.). Peter asked us to step up to plate. Saying "yes" turned out to be the smartest thing Gary and I ever did. "

While none of my work on the original, Colossal produced pre-show film was used, I was hired by Jerry to do some cut-out, Monty Python style animation that would run on several supporting monitors inside the cranium theater; about ten seconds worth of animation all told.

Nick Vasu had an animation camera service in Burbank that did a ton of Saturday morning cartoon work in those days.  I rented one of their small camera stands for a day and animated cut-outs under it.  No After-Effects in those days!  I must have done it on a Saturday, because no one else was there.  It was probably the most unusual job I've ever done, leaning over a camera stand fiddling with bits of cut out paper.  I wish I had a copy of the footage.

Even though my involvement in Cranium Command is trivial, I'm still proud to be a part of one of the most underrated attractions Disney theme parks have had.   It ran for 18 years, closing just before I finally made it to EPCOT.  D'oh!

And some added trivia:
While working at Colossal, I met Henry Selick, who was shooting a stop motion Ritz cracker commercial at the studio.  Years later, he hired me to do storyboards on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.

According to Kirk Wise,  Cranium Command was actually the last animated project at Disney Feature to be traditionally inked and painted on cels.

According to Jerry Rees, his 1st AD for the live shoot, Michael Haynie, did "T2" with James Cameron as his next gig. He told Jerry that Cranium Command had the same complexity, and was a perfect training ground.

More FLIP reading:

Read about my ideas for the use of  Maglev in Disneyland here..

Read about Jerry Rees' work with Augmented Reality (very cool) here...

1 comment:

  1. When spitballing ideas for the image montage behind the General, when he spoke of some brain's Successes I put in Sigmund Freud and for Failures I put in the Three Stooges and Richard Nixon. The Nixon family didn't mind, but the Three Stooges Estate did. The Nixon image was finally nixed as a nod to Roy, who was family friends with the former President.