I worked in the Walt Disney Studios special photographic effects department from 1981 to 1985. It was an interesting time in the company's history, as the old Disney culture was phased into the new Hollywood reality.
In the early '80s, Disney Studios was being run by a corporate committee who hadn't come to grips with the fact that Walt was gone and wasn't coming back. They believed in the status quo and not rocking the boat. Within three years all had been replaced. Likewise, most of my co-workers had spent their entire careers at Disney. They'd come up through the mail room or machine shop, had run animation cameras shooting cells for a decade, then had progressed up to the "Process Lab" run by the legendary Art Cruikshank. Though competent technicians, they only knew Disney's in-house equipment, techniques and procedures. My boss was Bob Broughton, who'd started in 1937 as an office boy on Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs and retired 47 years later as the head of the optical effects department.
In 1981 Disney special photo effects was gearing up to post a series of large format films for their new Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) park in Florida, the opening of which was less than a year away.
I'd been brought in to help modernize the department. By then I'd been working for 4 years at various visual effects facilities, doing optical line-up and shooting motion control miniatures. I'd never intended to go into photographic effects. I'd planned to get into camera the traditional way, starting as a loader and progressing up through the ranks, but at that time just about the only way to get into the Camera Union was to be born into it, or by entering though a specialty. My route was "optical."
[…] I was hired by my old boss from Universal Hartland, Peter Anderson, who'd been employed at Disney Studios to modernize equipment and procedures and supervise post-production on the Epcot films. Considered "outsiders," we met resistance at every turn, though in a nice "Disneyfied" kind of way.
Disney's equipment was built in the studio machine shop by second generation Disney employees. The equipment was good but slow, and required a lot hands to operate. My first job at Disney was assisting on optical printers.
Disney also had a motion control system called ACES. (Automatic Camera Effects System). Most motion control systems use stepper motors which turn a set amount (a step) for each pulse from a dedicated computer. A motor is mounted on each axis of movement of the camera, head and dolly. Each motor is run by a separate channel, and motion rates can be varied during the shot. The system repeats exactly on multiple passes, to create elements to be composited on an optical printer. Stepper systems are interchangeable and can be used on different cameras, heads, dollies, etc.
But Disney ignored stepper technology and built a unique closed-loop servo system based on Animatronics from Disneyland rides. It was ambitious and overly complex, and the software was incomplete. Operating it was a constant fight between operator and machine.
Multiple Camera System
There were several large-format films for Epcot. CircleVision 360 used nine 4-perf 35mm cameras mounted on a round baseplate. Identical 38mm lenses made a complete 360-degree view. The system was huge, but went out with a small crew: director/cameraman, production manager, camera tech, and grip. They'd hire laborers locally. The system was hauled to the mountaintop temples of Tibet, to the Mayan pyramids of Mexico, into the Forbidden City of China, and through the forests of Canada. CircleVision flew under helicopters, dived the Barrier Reef in a self-propelled underwater housing, and rode atop a firetruck through downtown Los Angeles.
The Sodium Camera
For a few effects on the feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, we shot with the Disney-Rank Sodium Process System. It had been used on Mary Poppins and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. It was a self-generating matte system and produced finer detail than traditional blue screen processes. A lot of detail in a blue screen shot is lost because the blue that is dropped out is a broad part of the spectrum. Sodium light is a very narrow band of the spectrum, so more information is retained. During photography, a backing is flooded with sodium light, while the foreground lights are filtered to eliminate that yellow part of the spectrum. Disney utilized a converted Technicolor 3-strip camera, running one strip of color negative and one of B+W Plus-X. A didymium filter in a prism split off just the sodium light, so 99% of the color remained on the color negative, while the sodium light made a perfect matte on the Plus-X. It was later composited on an optical printer with a background element.
The Twin 65m 3-D System
Captain EO was my last project at Disney. This was 1985, the old Disney committee was gone. Michael Eisner was running the studio, and MTV was the latest rage. Captain EO was a 15 minute 3D music video starring Michael Jackson that was shown at the Disney Parks in its own venue. At $1 million per minute of screentime, it was the most expensive film ever made. Besides Jackson, Eisner brought in George Lucas to produce it, Francis Ford Coppola to direct it, and Vittorio Storaro to shoot it.
We used the Disney 3D system which had been built two years before for an Epcot film, Magic Journey. The camera consisted of 2 65mm cameras mounted on an L-shaped base. One camera pointed straight ahead shooting through a 50% mirror, the other mounted directly over it, shooting down into the reflection of the mirror. This was so we could get the lens paths (interocular) close enough together (3.25") to mimic human depth perception.
Toward the end of my 4 years at Disney, I saw a piece of film that changed everything. It was on the feature Something Wicked This Way Comes. The premise of the film is that a carnival run by the devil comes to a small town where he offers people their dreams in exchange for their souls. Seeing the devil's circus train spontaneously transform itself into a carnival starts the story, and without that sequence looking plausible, the film wouldn't work.
For that key scene, production ordered what was probably one of the first CGl sequences ever attempted. In 1984, CGI was in its infancy, and the sequence wasn't delivered in time to make the release date. The Disney effects team had to quickly create the sequence with miniatures. They hung both the camera and a miniature carnival upside down. DP Phil Meador shot single-frame in reverse, pulling the miniature apart one piece at a time. It was a thankless, painstaking process, it wasn't all that dramatic, and Something Wicked This Way Comes that way went.