Interview: Don Dorsey – IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth (transcription)

Below is the transcribed interview of the Don Dorsey interview regarding IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot. To hear the interview and view related content, please visit

Don Dorsey: As you know, I had been a consultant for Disney for a long, long time and I was brought on as creative director for the air launch project as they were developing the air launch fireworks technology.

SW: What is that?

DD: Air launch is the system that Disney invented that propels firework shells into the sky using compressed air instead of the normal bag of black powder under the shell. It’s actually an idea that was adapted from the military. The military in war games fires dummy projectiles as part of their training exercise using compressed air.

Tom Craven, who was technical director for entertainment came across that idea and he said, “You know, since we’ve got environmental issues with firework smoke and chemicals and all that stuff, let’s see if we can adapt this idea of using the compressed air to shoot shells instead of the explosions… if we can make it work for fireworks and if there might be any benefit to doing that, certainly the environmental benefit, maybe there’s a cost advantage, whatever…”

So they got into that project and because I’d been around entertainment for awhile, Tom said, “Why don’t you come on as our creative director, and while we’re developing the technical aspects of how to make this work, help us understand the creative possibilities.”

So over a number of years, we developed prototype launching machines and they actually invented a small computer chip because when you launch the shell with black powder, an initial explosion starts a little fuse burning up the side of the shell and that’s usually the trail that you see going up in the sky, and that ignites the shell when it gets to the peak. If you take away that black powder explosion, there’s no fuse burning as it goes up so you have to have something to actually trigger the final explosion. So they created a little computer chip that carried a little electrical charge, and on that computer chip is a little circuit that has a timer, so you program the chip before you launch the shell and when you launch the shell the wires break and it starts counting when it launches, and then it releases that electrical charge and ignites the shell.

Where the fuse would normally go in the side of the shell, you stick the chip in there-

SW: And it’s not a remote control, it’s a timer?

DD: It’s programmed before it leaves. Part of the launch mechanism is actally the connection and then the computer talks to the chip, it actually measures how fast the clock in the chip is going, it knows how fast it’s going to respond, it then programs the exact amount of time before it goes and explodes. So the timing accuracy increased 100%, and we get rid of the visual trail so you now have shells that can come out of nowhere. You also have with the compressed air, the ability to decide do I want it to go this high, do I want it to go this high, do I want it to go super high, depending on which pressure you put in there.

So with those two variable possibilities, the height and the timing, you can take one shell that normally would go up and look like a ball… you can time it so that it explodes early going up and it would create a blossom, you can send it up high and then time it so that it broke coming down. So now you not only have intricate timing control, you have some staging possibilities and some different things you can do with the same piece of product.

We developed the Mickey ears shell which is actually three shells, but because of the air launch we can fire them at exactly the right angle and exactly the right heights and time them so they all go together. Now you can have Mickey Mouse in fireworks.

SW: Had anyone used the air launch for fireworks before that?

DD: No. In fact, they had been trying for years to do that with conventional shells and it never worked, and as part of our testing I said, “I wonder if we can do this with air launch, let’s just try it!” And the first time out of the guns it worked perfectly and everybody went, “Whoa! That’s pretty cool!”

We also invented the shooting star effect which is a sideways effect.

SW: Was that the first time that was used?

DD: Yes, we invented that the year that Holiday Illuminations debuted. We created it for that show. Sandi Patti sings, “Oh night devine,” and I wanted this great star to come across the lagoon and they said, “Oh, we never tried that, let’s try that.” So that’s basically an air launch shell, and that’s half of the effect that we used in the opening of Reflections of Earth where that one shell comes in and what you don’t realize is that there’s a second shell going up that meets it. That’s the stealth that you get without seeing that fuse go up.

There was a reason we had to do it that way because the original concept for the show was a cosmic collision and we thought we could have two things flying in and meeting at the same point and exploding, but due to safety reasons, you cannot fire an explosive over the heads of people. It’s part of Disney’s reasonable safety expectations. So we have the shooting star which is actually lit from launch and just continues to burn, it doesn’t explode at all. If it fell on the ground it would just fizzle until it went out. There’s no boom. We did that coming in and then we matched it with the exploding shell coming up from the inferno barge at the same point in space and with the exact same timing.

So the air launch enabled us to create that opening effect. In the shell that explodes, there are fragments of the same kind of product as the shooting star, so even though you see the shooting star go through it, you’re not aware of that because all of a sudden a lot of pieces that look like it come out of the center, so it’s a trick with timing, it’s a trick with air launch, and it’s a trick with the eye.

So I was working on the air launch project for a number of years and I was also- starting in the early ’90s I was researching the Millennium, trying to figure out what it was all about, what it meant to me, what it would mean to somebody else, should I get called on to do a millennium show, so I had done all this research about history and cultures and all kinds of stuff. And Tom Craven asked me to prepare an air launch concept for the millennium. So he said, “Come up with an idea for the company that makes sense to use air launch.” So I came up with the concept of fireworks all around the world for the millennium, introducing Disney’s new technology because roughly a thousand years ago is when black powder was invented in China, so as sort of the millennium of fireworks, here’s Disney with a new idea and a new way and it made sense that that was their angle into the millennium. How could Disney be a part of the millennium without just seeming like it was glomming on and it seemed like fireworks, since Tinker Bell flies over the castle and the World of Color and lights the fireworks, the fireworks are sort of a Disney brand element, and I thought let’s use that, that visual that everybody knows to represent Disney around the world during the millennium. So we picked cities in every time zone and all this stuff, and I did a presentation which I called “Big Bang 2” and I involved the cruise line and I involved the Studios and it was just sort of a “let’s see how big could this thing can get” hoping that maybe they would pick a smaller package and we would have something to do.

That kind of made everybody step back and go, “Wow! This millennium thing, there’s a lot of possibility here, what can we do?”

Meanwhile, separately, Michael Eisner had suggested to Ron Logan that they put together a millennium committee, which was headed up by Jean-Luc Choplin who came from the Paris parks and I think there were ten of us on this millennium committee. Jean-Luc wanted us to put a list together of a thousand things to do for the millennium so I participated in that report.

Then David Malvin who was working for (CFO) Richard Nanula, and he called and said, “I’d like you to develop a concept for the Millennium for the corporate level, because Richard had assigned me this thing and I’d like you to think on that.” So because I was involved in all these millennium projects and we were pitching the world fireworks air launch project at the same time that Jean-Luc was developing what they thought was going to be the millennium lagoon show, I was in all those presentations. At one point, Jean-Luc got up and gave his presentation for what he thought should be on the lagoon and it was undoable. It was just not possible to do what he was proposing to do. There had been another idea previous to that which was called “The Crane Show,” that was the working name, that Mark Fisher, who’s a very famous lighting and stage designer for rock ‘n’ roll concerts, had designed. It had big cranes coming up out of the lagoon with lights and water squirting off of them and everything, and that could not be engineered to function.

So when Jean-Luc’s show ran into a dead end they had nothing and it was now 1997 and it was time to get busy on building something. Because of my previous involvement with New World Fantasy and Laserphonic Fantasy and IllumiNations, I said, “Well, I’ve got an idea,” and I just kind of wrote it up on the airplane and sent it to Scott Powhatan who at that time was the director at Epcot. That is what turned into Reflections of Earth. They said, “Oh, this is actually kind of doable.” I was flying home when I wrote the idea and I got a phone call that said, “Can you come back on Monday?” This was on a Friday I was flying home. They said, “Can you come back on Monday?” So I was back to Florida and we worked through it and the budget was going to work and it was reasonably achievable technology. That’s how the show got put into motion.

SW: At that point you were the creative director of the show?

DD: Yes, I came up with the concept for the show, I proposed the show, I pitched the show, did everything. It came out of ideas that had been talked about, lagoon show stuff for years and years, just random bits and pieces just sort of all came together with all of my thinking of the millennium and all of my experience in the lagoon and all of my technology background, my programming background, my music background and everything. Just all of a sudden I had this idea of how it could go: We could tell the story of Earth in twelve minutes.

One of the hardest things to do is to figure out how to create something meaningful for people who don’t all speak the same language, don’t all have the same culture, don’t all have the same experience. You have to try to find that emotional connection.

I’ve long been a proponent of radio because when you see something on TV you know what it looks like, but when you listen to something without connecting a visual, your imagination takes off and the imagery in your mind is always exactly what you want it to be. It’s always fulfilling. So I tried to create this show not as a history, a list of accomplishments and things, but to just put up images that people would recognize and connect to and form their own meaning. Just take this idea of a beginning, a development arc, and a promise for the future, and let people see things that make them feel connected somehow and represented in the show and then they will create their own emotional experience from that. If you get the right music along with it, that’s very uplifting and celebratory and all of that, you would have the emotional payoff that I was looking for, so we were able to do that by keeping it abstract, keeping it suggestive, not trying to be too literal, not trying to be too preachy, but just trying to present an uplifting idea and connect everybody to it. Gavin’s score really paid off!

SW: How did you find Gavin Greenaway for this?

DD: Originally Hans Zimmer was supposed to do the music. Hans had made a deal with Michael Eisner. At some point they were talking and Michael said, “You should do a lagoon show soundtrack someday,” and Zimmer said, “No problem, I’ll do it for you.” So when it was decided we were going to do this show, then it was like, “Okay, we already have this deal with Hans Zimmer so he will be the music guy.”

We came out to L.A. and we met with Hans, I described the show to him, gave him the timings and laid out the format and all that, and he said, “This is great, but normally the way I work is I’ll do it the night before it’s due. So when is it due?” He was being frank, he was saying, “Listen I’ve got a lot on my plate, I know I promised this to Michael, so I’ll do it, but the way I normally work is when it has to be done it’ll be done but don’t expect it months in advance,” which is not what we need to pull these kinds of shows together. You have to have something to work with because mechanics have to time a certain way and fireworks have to burn a certain length and all those things require lead time to get manufactured.

So we met with him and came back to Florida and reported in and said, “He said he’s not going to do it until last minute.” “Well, that’s no good, let’s see if we can get him down here,” so we scheduled him to come down to Florida to see the existing lagoon show and talk to him so he could get a feel for it and hear it and understand what it was that he was being asked what to do.

He wasn’t available for three months, so we waited three months and the day before he was supposed to come he cancelled, he had something else to do. So we put him off for another several months and when he cancelled the second time, Ron Logan finally said, “All right, we can’t do this this way, you have to have something done.” So I called up Hans and said, “Hans, we can’t be waiting, is there somebody who’s under your wing who you can assign to this?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll have Gavin do it.” So Gavin came down and we met here.

SW: Did you know who Gavin was?

DD: I knew nothing of Gavin. He didn’t have credits other than he had conducted some scores for Hans. So I didn’t know who he was. He was a little quiet, British guy, very polite, very non-descript, you wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd, he’s not boisterous or outgoing. He’s very quiet and very nice.

So I played him music that sounded like this and like that and I want to do this and here’s the timings and all that he goes, “(Nonchalantly) Okay, I’ve got it.” And he didn’t take notes, so I’m going, “Oh, what am I going to do now?” And he went away and I didn’t bother him for a month and then I called him and he said, “I’ve almost got something. I’ll send it to you in a few days.”

A few days later a CD arrived at Federal Express and I’m shaking as I get this thing out going, “Is this just going to be another horrible moment in this thing or is there promise here?” I put in the CD and started playing the music and I started crying because it was good, it was exactly what we needed. Actually his first draft was very close to what we ended up with. Remarkably close. Normally you don’t hit the nail on the head the first time out. You get some ideas going and then you say, “All right, let’s take this and we can redo this part.” It was so thoughtful and melodic and uplifting that I thought there’s something inside him that he really understands what this piece of music has to do. So from there it was just like, this can work for that, and let’s extend that, and we can orchestrate this a little differently and just work out some details. We went through three or four different drafts of little things and then we put the acceleration on the beginning and that was that. Then we went to London and recorded it.

SW: What direction did you give him before he wrote the music?

DD: He had the complete format of the show and evolution and the subjects that I wanted to include in what I call the history part, although it really isn’t history, it’s just sort of categories of exploration and architecture and art and technology that sort of fall into an evolution but aren’t really, if you think about. He had that, we had timings, I had specific moments that had to have a certain kind of a visual effect, certain moods that I wanted to create.

One of the hardest things that to nail was in this idea of history and the evolution of Earth, the moment at which humans appeared on the planet. Some people would probably say, “Well, this is a big deal, we’re all humans, we’re celebrating this, so let’s make this a big moment when man arrived,” and I said no, “Let’s make this just a subtle little turn when things change, but we don’t know what that means until much later.” It’s not (snap) now we’re born and all right, let’s go to town! It’s like this is a pivotal moment but you don’t know that at the time. You never know until afterwards what it was that has changed everything. The butterfly effect.

I kept having to back him off of that moment, saying, “No, just find some little subtle thing, that unless you know what’s happening it means nothing musically, it’s just a change.” So he finally just got this little oboe thing and a modulation there that was just perfect. It’s very subtle in the video. It’s actually a moment that a live horse freezes and becomes a cave painting and very subtly leading up to that, the pictures of the animals – we chose pictures where the animals all sort of look towards the camera for a brief moment as if they’re aware they’re being watched and then we see the cave painting which is the result of them being watched, and that’s how we introduced the idea of humans on the planet.

So we tried to keep it very artistic rather than literal and the only computer generated shot in the whole thing is coming out of the cave, turning from the cave paintings, coming down the corridor and bursting into the sunlight and then we’re off on our adventure. Everything else is actual footage. (chuckles) Of course there was no footage way back then.

SW: Had you ever told him you wanted a classical sound or was that his thing?

DD: Well, he had heard other lagoon show soundtracks. I think we almost implicitly understood that something on this scale wasn’t going to be a rock soundtrack, it wasn’t going to be jazz. I just think we both knew that it had to have some scope and I said, “You’re free to use anything you want in it,” but I don’t remember ever saying, “I want it to be exactly like this.”

I gave him lots of examples. I gave him clips from Cirque du Soleil, clips from jazz, clips from John Williams scores, for examples of feelings, and we did have conversations specifically about using odd tempos because the opening sequence, the chaos sequence, I didn’t want it to be straight 4/4, so that everybody felt really comfortable with it, I wanted it to feel a little bit off balance. So I said, if you want to put this in five or seven or change in the middle, go ahead, so he ended up creating something that goes all over the time scale. There’s a lot of it that is in 4/4, but much of it is in five, some of it is in seven.

There’s a sequence as it’s accelerating towards the end that goes 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and then you get the big explosion up high. We used that concept of acceleration throughout the show. I decided on that as a motif as I was watching a hockey game on TV in the Yacht Club one night. I was thinking, “I need some kind of an idea that expresses how things seem to move slowly and then they get a little faster and then a little faster…” you know the same thing we see with technology. It started slow and then all of a sudden changes come faster and faster and before you know it stuff’s changing every day. If you look at the history of the universe, it’s kind of that way. If there was a big bang then it was a long time before things settled down and then some planets formed and then nothing happened and then a little bit of life evolved and then it took a longer time before it came out of the water and just thinking about all these things, this idea of accelerating time seemed like it brought us to here and would move us into the future. So I said, “Let’s use this clapping thing that everybody knows how to do… you hear that, you hear three things and you know they’re speeding up and you know where they’re going so right away your audience is in sync and is knowing what it’s going to do and knowing what’s going to happen at the end which is it goes so fast you can’t keep up.” So I said let’s do that in drums to kick us off and then you have this shooting star and then we have this crazy dance of fire that keeps us off-balance and we don’t know what it is and all that, that ends with the creation of the stars and into that comes Earth. So we knew it was building, building, building, explosion, then now we’re calm again.

SW: And the creation of the stars is where you see…?

DD: At the end of the fire it goes all white and sparkles down and they settle on the lagoon and into that starfield is where the Earth comes.

So then we reset zero and now we’re going to start a gradual acceleration into the show and then reach a peak again at the main part of the show and then start again as we go into the future with the finale and the song at the end, moving into the future and then there’s a final acceleration on the end of the show.

SW: With the music, I don’t know if it’s commercials, but some of these pieces I’ve heard…

DD: What happened was, that this piece of music, because Disney owned it, and Disney owns ABC, ABC said this is great music for bumpers for news programs and they used it for their millennium coverage, they did photo montages of fireworks all over the world to this music. Gavin won an Emmy for the music for the millennium coverage but it was this piece of music. Because ABC owns it you see it on political convention coverage, it’s all over the TV.

The song that we wrote for the end, “Promise,” and “We Go On,” they’re both derivatives of each other, have been used in numerous weddings, I get emails from people. It’s used for charity events, cancer survivors want to sing it at their thing.

SW: Is the sheet music sold for it?

DD: Yes, there’s band arrangements, choir arrangements.

SW: This is the finale piece?

DD: “We Go On” is the finale piece in the show and then “Promise” is the playout song. The chorus is from “We Go On” and the verse is the theme from Tapestry of Nations. It’s not as apparent because in Tapestry of Nations it’s instrumental and now here it is with lyrics, attached to the chorus from the show. So you tend not to connect the two.

SW: Who wrote the lyrics?

DD: I wrote the lyrics. That was a last minute, because as part of Gavin’s creative package, he was supposed to provide the lyrics.

SW: For the whole show?

DD: It’s just the “We Go On” at the end of the show. And then I wrote the introduction for Jim Cummings.

SW: That’s Jim Cumming?

DD: That is Jim Cummings.

SW: He does everything.

DD: He does everything!

SW: So it’s like Winnie the Pooh is actually the host.

DD: He’s great. I had done some work with him because I recorded a lot of Disney shows and did audio post production on countless shows here at my studio, so we had worked with him before, and I knew that voice. I was looking for grandfather, Indian chief, your conscience. I was looking for some voice that could embody this idea without being any of them. Saying, “Come, in this grand story, sit around the fire and let’s share.”

He just (snap) three takes and we’re done. It was almost not enough fun. It was so fast you’re in, you’re out. It was perfect, no reason to stay, thank you very much, we’re out. It just had a marvelous feel to it, exactly what I had hoped for it.

I forget when the idea to have him blow out the torches came along. I think it was at the voice session, he had this tone and I said, “Could you just like (blows), give us that.” I wasn’t sure if I had made the connection but it just felt like that’s what we wanted next. Then we did it and actually it’s a great, great moment in the show when everybody kind of goes, “Oh, the voice is connected to all this stuff somehow.” It’s a manifestation in the physical world that you don’t expect.

SW: Was it your idea in the electrical parade to have the lights go out right on cue?

DD: Yeah. The first time I saw the Electrical Parade which was 1972, standing on Main Street, the lights went out and this oscillator sweep happened and the music faded up. Of course the parade came along and nobody had ever seen anything like it so it was fine, but when it was going to come back and I had the opportunity to suggest ideas and so on, I created this fanfare and I said look, this gives you an opportunity now to create this moment when it happens, but it just seemed like it was appropriate and right to take advantage of a musical moment as you’re getting into the tempo, and take that sound which sounds like something electronic happening and connect it to the lights.

SW: So you did that again in Reflections of Earth.

DD: Yeah, it really is derivative of the same idea. I had not really thought of it that way, but indeed it is the same gag.
SW: The lyrics, you were going to say how that came about for the end. You knew you wanted lyrics, you knew there was going to be a song with lyrics at the end?

DD: Yes, after we had done this great musical adventure it seemed like to do something new and fresh we couldn’t just have more music. We had to connect to a human voice, and again it’s the idea of acceleration. It starts with one voice and then two and then a choir and then a bigger choir and then bigger. Again, it’s that theme that we’re trying to find a way to really build back up the next acceleration moving into the future and do it a little more quickly.

I had always talked about the millennium as being a connecting point between the past and the future. We stand on the boundary and as we’re passing across we look back at our history and we look forward at the future. Marketing had chosen the concept of “Hand in Hand” for the marketing.

SW: That was the theme throughout all the parks in Disney World, right?

DD: That’s right. “Celebrate the Future, Hand in Hand.” That just plays exactly into this. As parents you have children and you have parents. You are the connection point in the middle. It’s your responsibility to learn from your parents and then pass that on to your kids. As we move into our futures, we’re constantly passing on our knowledge and experience to the next generation. I said the millennium is really just sort of the uber experience of that. Now we stand on a boundary, we move into the future and we are the connection between the past and the future. And therefore, it’s our responsibility to decide what the future should be and bring that. So that became the guiding message of what I wanted the lyrics to do.

In a way, it’s a wedding, it’s a wedding of the past to the future.

So Gavin, not being a lyricist, had some people he tapped into and said, “Can you put lyrics to this piece of music with this kind of an idea?” There were a few different drafts that we got and none of them really hit the spot.

As the recording day got closer and closer, we kind of needed to know what the lyrics were going to be, if we had to pick a certain singer in a certain range because the orchestrations had to be done. It was all like, “C’mon! We’ve got to figure this out!” and nothing was happening so I said, “All right… I’ll write them,” and I had never written lyrics before really. Finally, it’s like, if I don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.

The original producer that was working with me, named Mark Nichols, was removed from the project right at this time. He was promoted sideways and someone else was brought in. Mark and I had become very close developing this show and on one of my trips flying home from Florida, just after he had been moved aside, I called him from the Dallas airport and we were having this conversation. I said, “I know how disappointed you are and I’m extremely disappointed, I’m very mad even, I’m frustrated, but we go on.”

It wasn’t until I had hung up and gotten back on the plane that I’m ruminating on this idea of “we go on” and listening to the music and going, “Oh, you know what? That fits!” So then I thought, that really speaks in a generic way to what has enabled humans to survive. In any day there’s up moments, there’s down moments and yet the core message of the human race is, “No matter what, we go on.” It’s just a simple statement. It’s non-judgmental. It’s just states a very clean and simple fact, “we go on,” and you can make that what you will. It goes back to the radio idea. If you’re an optimist, you can go “Yes!” And I think that’s what appeals to all these cancer groups and all these charities and so on. If you are a pessimist, hopefully it gives you a little bit of hope and aspiration to the future. There’s something in there for everybody.

So that’s what I based the song on, and then tried to in the verses say just look around you, there are great things. I wanted something that just really was sincere. And Epcot is a unique opportunity to do that. The shows that you do at Epcot can speak to cultural elements and outside the influence of the characters and the stories and the fairy tales and all of that. You really can kind of celebrate all of human experience which is really what World Showcase is doing. That’s why with this show in that venue we were able to do things that you couldn’t do in a fireworks show over the castle.

SW: Had the globe been used before “Reflections”?

DD: In Laserphonic Fantasy we’d built a fiberoptic screen sphere. So the idea of the sphere as the centerpiece had existed since 1984.

During the lead up to the millennium, one of the things they were looking at for Epcot generally was whether or not they could cover the entire Spaceship Earth with LEDs. The structure of Spaceship Earth was not strong enough to support all of this added weight. So there was a physical limitation and then there was the question of what are the pictures you show on it, and who’s going to do all that programming and how do you shape images on a sphere? Everybody was like, “Well, since we physically can’t do it anyway, we’re not even going to answer those questions.” So again that was one of the ideas that had been stuck in my brain about what does the millennium lagoon show need to look like. As soon as I said this has got to be the history of Earth, then it was a pretty quick jump to say well, then Earth can tell its own story.

Instead of being a complete ball, because you get down to costs and only a third of the earth is land so we can cut two thirds of the cost by only having the continents be the LEDs. Then we had to figure out how do you do a screen that’s shaped like North America instead of just a rectangle. Not only physically was it a challenge, but electronically how do you address all the right pixels when you don’t have them all? So there were a number of challenges involved in making this work and LED screens were very much in their infancy back then.

I had the best of all possible positions because all I had to do was say, “No, it has to do this…” and it was somebody else’s problem to figure it out. I’d say, “Okay, I want a barge that does fire,” so the special effects people said, “We’ve got three fire effects, we’ve got this, we’ve got this and we’ve got that,” and I said I want something more active, how can we do this? They said, “Well, those are the only effects we know that are off the shelf.” I said, “Can’t we play with some stuff?” You know, let’s get some pipes and try squirting it sideways and squirting it into something else that it bounces off of. We were like kids playing with fire. We did all of these, probably not safe things but we did them in a safe way, experimenting, trying to find interesting visuals so we created six or seven different-looking effects and then created the inferno barge and then the question was how do we program this?

Typical WDI thing is that you make a special programming console and you sit and you do some of it and then you go back and you fine tune. It all sounded very intricate and difficult. Being a keyboard player I said, “Why don’t we just hook it up to a midi keyboard, and I’ll play it like an organ?” And somebody said, “Ohh, I guess we could do that.”

SW: Every key would trigger something?

DD: Every key on the keyboard would trigger a different valve on the barge.

So we did that, we hooked it up and I sat in a trailer in Showcase Plaza, and I said I want certain valves on certain keys and then I kind of had to feel my way around, what does this look like, what does that look like? If I do this what happens because there’s a lag time? How long can it burn, does it get bigger or does it just kind of sit and do this?

SW: And this was triggering the fire?

DD: Triggering the fire, I had to get a feel for how the fire behaved. It’s a new instrument.

For a couple of night I just kind of felt my way around, “Okay, if I do this, that looks pretty cool, so I’m going to do that, and I’m going to go with this piece of music…” Figured that out. When it came time to actually do the recording, you press record on a computer and the music plays, and I can’t watch what I’m doing because there’s a lag time from what the music is, so I have to practice and figure it out and do it from memory, but then since it is saved in the computer as a music sequence, when we watch it back we can offset the delay so that it actually gets seen properly. So then you can look at it and say, “That one needs to be a little bit longer” and you just grab the little note and make it a little longer. So you just do a couple of fine tunes and you play it back and it’s done. We were done in an evening.

Again, it was one of those things that went by so fast that you go, “Wait… it needs to be more fun. It needs to last longer.” In that particular aspect, one of the challenges was that we had a budget for 200 gallons of propane a night. So you can’t just go wild and do everything you want, you have to make some assumptions about, “Okay, I need to keep things short if I can as long as I can get the effect I want. You have to be responsible about not going totally bananas with it.

SW: A propane budget!

DD: Yeah. We had so much expendable cost per night, and we knew what the fireworks were, so what was left over went into the propane. I could have juggled that if I needed to, but it worked out pretty well.

SW: What about the video? Trying to fit video that will look right within continents.

DD: Yes, this was a challenge, and all from stock footage because there’s no budget to go travelling around the world taking pictures. You need to find what you need from what’s already there.

SW: Was it Disney’s stock footage?

DD: No, we went to several different stock libraries and made deals with them, for a blanket price we could take everything and use it, but finding the right images that looked reasonably good in those unique shapes, and an additional requirement that I had was they sort of had to be geographically appropriate. We’re not going to put pictures of the pyramids in North America. That added an extra constraint, an extra level of difficulty on choosing the images.

The way we actually produced that is that we would work on North and South America, then we would work on Eurasia, then they would composite them together. A lot of it was, “Let’s try this,” then you have to wait for them to render, then you get to look at it, that was quite tedious and time consuming, especially the opening sequence which was abstract where we go from red hot to cooling into vegetation and then reveal animals and so on. All of that was much more abstract. Once you get to okay, I need a hit, where do we go to architecture, you find all the architecture things and you go boom. That was a lot easier to do after you found the pictures than to create this sort of evolution from random things in a way that really went with the music.

One of the other things we had to do was we had assumed that because the music goes quite fast we were going to have lots and lots of images, but we did a distortion on the video, wrapped it around a fake sphere and had it rotate. So we were able to simulate what do you see when the thing’s going around and at what speed. We determined the speed that the barge needed to rotate by looking at a graphic simulation of, “No, that’s too fast, I can’t see it enough,” or “No, that’s too slow because it seems to take forever.” So we arrived at one revolution every two seconds, maybe it’s one in three.

There’s an interesting aspect, when you see something coming you’re automatically waiting for it. There’s always something coming so you’re always waiting, so you’re always connected to the show. It’s just a natural function of that globe is that it’s hard not to look at.

SW: How many different areas were there? You combined North and South America?

DD: No, they’re actually separate. Separate images. Eurasia, we tried to keep it one but sometimes it was two next to each other. Africa is one obviously and Europe is part of Eurasia, and Australia was kind of small. When we designed the globe we knew that we had to take some artistic license with how big continents were and where they were, because most of the land masses were towards the north, there’s not too much down here, so we knew we had to cheat stuff down. We knew we wanted to cheat continents bigger so we had more screen space. We knew we wanted to make Australia bigger. We had to have New Zealand and Hawaii because those people would feel slighted if we didn’t, even though there’s not enough pixels to make an image we had to put them there and they had to be part of the thing. I insisted on that, people kept saying, “Can we throw away Hawaii? It’s one light.” “No, you cannot throw away Hawaii.”

We got a big ball of styrofoam and we painted it, and we played with the way that the earth looked on the globe until we had it right. We would repaint the coastlines and say, “Can we move that here?” until we had that model right we didn’t do any construction or any electronic figuring out. We got the model of the Earth right, maximized the continents, made it look artistically appropriate and geographically reasonable. Then we photographed it in slices and then they mapped that around the engineering model. Then they figured out where the pixels go in there and they gave me the pixel layout and I did some coastline redesigning based on how it appeared to the eye.

So I had to actually look, after they just sort of plunked pixels down inside the outline and say, “We need one more here to make that feel like we know Santa Barbara is…” or, “We need one more here so that Italy’s boot looks like a boot and not like a disconnected thing,” there was some finessing just for visual impression of how the coastlines needed to be. If you looked at it, you’d think that doesn’t look quite right on the drawing but when you see it in light and it’s moving, it works. So there was a lot of detail, hands on, before they said all right, these are how many pixels we need and where we need them. Then all the electronics people had to figure out how to do that.

SW: There’s the globe, the music, the video, fire… am I missing something?

DD: We haven’t talked about fountains.

The fountains are essentially the same fountains that we started with in 1982, in terms of capability. 17 back row nozzles, eight fleurs that come forward, and four different lighting circuits, so you get four different colors, and that’s it. You pick the colors and that’s the way they’re gelled. They’re glass lenses with color so you don’t have every color available, you have to pick exactly, and it’s a piece of glass that goes in there because a gel would melt. So you’re limited in the colors that you can create and pick. The back row goes up, these go out, and everything else has to come from the way you use them because they don’t swivel, there’s no animation there. So all of the movement of the water has to be created out of how you animate them and program them.

One of the things that we had done in the previous lagoon shows to make the fountains look more spectacular was to try and do very intricate, fancy stuff… keep them moving so that they look as animated as they can. So we had never done slow things, just let the back row grow slowly. With this show there’s the whole thing when the vegetation is coming into the picture, we take that idea and we use it as just a growth idea with green. When we do the whole fire thing with the cave, we come back down to just a single jet that’s that fire orange-yellow.

We chose the colors for the fountains very carefully based on what we were doing with the pyro and what was in the video and we came down to four colors that would allow us to create the most interesting looks on the fountains that we hadn’t used before. In previous fountain shows we used yellow, green, red and blue. We wanted to do something different so in the creativity section we picked four pyro colors. We picked an orange and a purple and a teal and something else and we blended those pyro colors especially for that section. Then we lit the synchro lights, the surround search lights, we gelled those with the same colors to match the fireworks, so while we’re shooting fireworks, we’re also lighting the smoke in the same colors and creating as close as we can on the fountain barges.

So color coordination was also a tricky aspect because you’re very limited in the color palette available on the fountains and programming the fountains previously had always been like a computer program, you tighten this nozzle to 80% and computer aligned code and for the first time we were able to program them using a lighting board so we could do fades and create a pattern and repeat a pattern without having to figure it all out numerically and type it in and hope that it was what you wanted. So we sat in a trailer with a lighting programmer and worked out the timings and the feelings and all that.

SW: Were you able to do it live?

DD: It’s a pretty quick process. You sit in the marina and I created a timing chart from all the time codes so I know where every beat is, so I know how much time is between here and here and I know I want the water to hit here and to fall here, but what you have to take into account is gravity. You don’t just turn water off and it’s gone, you turn water off and then it falls, so there are several times in the show when I actually used that as an effect. The water falling is part of the programming. The water rising at a slower rate, or the way in which it comes in is a look, a timing, a color thing. I just tried to approach the fountains differently than we ever had before. Because they are playing as support to the earth, the earth is really the star, we were able to get away with that pretty much.

And then there’s the lasers. In Laserphonic Fantasy, obviously we tried to use the lasers as much as possible. The lagoon is a huge place and because the safety aspect of lasers is quite complicated, they’re regulated by the government. There’s a Bureau of Radiological Health, and if you shoot a laser into the atmosphere you have to either terminate it on a building so that the beam ends in a specific place, or you have to get the FAA to shut down the air space.

So every night before Laserphonic Fantasy we’d have to call the FAA tower in Orlando and say, “We’re going to do the show now,” and they’d route planes in a different way. We also terminate as many beams as possible.

When we’re laying out what we can and can’t do with lasers… we bounce off a mirror here and it’s got to go there and it’s got to end at that spot, so they actually do an alignment before the show where they go out and they adjust the mirrors to make sure that it’s ending at the right place at low power.

SW: The show started October 1st?

DD: That was the official premiere. We had previews the week before, which were essentially dress rehearsals and like any show you have an opening night, but people have been seeing it for awhile. We did a two day press event for the whole millennium where it was just like running from one interview to the next all over the property. They couldn’t schedule me to do ten radio interviews in a row at Epcot. It had to be two here, get over to the Magic Kingdom, do a TV standup, then get over to Disney-MGM, do a radio, then come back to Epcot. It was just like madness for two days.

So October 1st is the official opening day which was the kickoff of the entire millennium celebration.

I’m very pleased that the show has stood the test of time and continues to satisfy viewer experience. Certainly, in terms of an impact, I’m very, very proud of the reach that we’ve been able to have and the number of people that we’ve been able to give this hopefully a connection to their place on the planet.

“My Last Two Days as a Disney Cast Member” by Jeff Hoffman

My Last Two Days as a Disney Cast Member
By Jeff Hoffman
February 2010

Jeff Hoffman
Jeff Hoffman

For an amazing 31 years, I was part of the Magic of The Walt Disney Company. Growing up near Disneyland, a job at the Magic Kingdom was always in my plan. I loved Disneyland, the movies and watching the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights with my parents. In December of 1978, while a freshman in college, my dream was realized as I was hired to play a role as a Merchandise Host in Adventureland and Frontierland. I felt so proud walking through the doors of
The Disney University for orientation. Little did I know eventually I would be part of The Disney University at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank for 16 years of my career. In my 31 years, I spent six years at Disneyland in Theme Park Operations, my time at the University and ultimately my last nine years in Disney Worldwide Outreach. I was given an incredible opportunity to build upon my skills of selling rubber snakes and shrunken heads next to the Jungle Cruise on a journey that would ultimately lead me to having global responsibility for Disney’s Philanthropy, Community Relations, Volunteerism and Cause Marketing.

Jeff Hoffman
Jeff working in Disneyland

Continue reading “My Last Two Days as a Disney Cast Member” by Jeff Hoffman

Interview: Rikki Lugo (Disneyland/Disney movies dancer and choreographer)

Rikki with the Golden Horseshoe Revue cast (left - far right in photo); Rikki in the movie "Babes in Toyland" (right)
Rikki with the Golden Horseshoe Revue cast (left – far right in photo); Rikki in the movie “Babes in Toyland” (right)

I just posted my interview with Rikki Lugo on my Mouse Clubhouse website.  In this conversation, Rikki discusses her times as a dancer in the early days of the Golden Horseshoe Revue, her role in Babes in Toyland, swimming as a mermaid at Disneyland.  CLICK HERE for the interview

Interview: Harriet Burns (Chinatown in Disneyland; Mister Lincoln)

Harriet Burns at the Walt Disney Studios (left); Concept artwork for the proposed Chinatown in Disneyland (right)
Harriet Burns at the Walt Disney Studios (left); Concept artwork for the proposed Chinatown in Disneyland (right)

I just posted my interview with Harriet Burns on my Mouse Clubhouse website.  In this conversation, Harriet, who was a scenic designer/model maker working on projects such as the Mickey Mouse Club television show, Disneyland and Walt Disney World, discusses the proposed Chinatown for Disneyland and why it never happened, and Great Moments with Mister Lincoln.  CLICK HERE for the interview


Interview: Gina Rock (Disneyland’s Tinker Bell)

Gina, getting ready for her flight as Tinker Bell; the mattress Gina will crash into after flying over Disneyland

Gina, getting ready for her flight as Tinker Bell; The mattress Gina will crash into after flying over Disneyland

I just posted my interview with Gina Rock on my Mouse Clubhouse website.  In this conversation, Gina discusses her days flying across the skies of Disneyland as Tinker Bell to light the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks for two decades.  CLICK HERE for the interview


Interview: Ray Templin (Providing voices for Fantasyland attractions in Disneyland)

Ray Templin with Mickey Mouse
Ray Templin with Mickey Mouse

I just posted my interview with Ray Templin on my Mouse Clubhouse website.  In this conversation, Ray, who spent more than 20 years performing in Disneyland,  discusses his voice work for the Casey Jr. Railroad attraction and other Fantasyland attractions in Disneyland.  CLICK HERE for the interview


Interview: Chuck Corson (Dapper Dans; the Osmonds; Walt Disney World entertainment)

Chuck Corson (left), Chuck's window tribute at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World
Chuck Corson (left), Chuck’s window tribute at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World

I just posted my interview with Chuck Corson on my Mouse Clubhouse website.  In this conversation, Chuck discusses the beginnings of the Dapper Dans at Disneyland, the Osmond’s Disneyland roots, and Walt Disney World entertainment.  CLICK HERE for the interview