Monday, September 29, 2014

#144. A Conversation with Jymn Magon

Jymn Magon is a television and film writer best known for his work in animation with The Disney Afternoon's ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS, DUCK TALES, TALE SPIN, DARKWING DUCK, RESCUE RANGERS, GOOF TROOP and the Walt Disney Pictures animated musical A GOOFY MOVIE.   

Jason Anders:  Do you remember some of the things that first inspired you toward being creative?

Jymn Magon:  I think everyone is born creative; we just follow different paths.  My car mechanic can figure out things about my SUV of which I don't have a clue!  A different creativity than mine.  But since we're talking about animation, I do think there's a DNA thing going on.  I never decided to be creative; it was always there.  Everything that my brain soaked in led me to what I'm doing today.  

So there was Mad Magazine, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Steve Allen, Peter Pan, Bill Cosby, Richard Lester and a host of other stuff that modeled my approach to comedy.  I created amateur skits, song parodies, comic strips, 8mm films and stand-up routines... all dreadful, but stepping stones.  I moved into stage acting, dancing, piano, filmmaking and radio show production... which led to my first job at Disney, which led to my next job at Disney, which led to the shows you enjoy watching.  I was also fortunate to grow up in a family of performers- both my parents were professional dancers and choreographers, so my sister and I have been on stage since we were kids.
JA: Your role as story editor and development for Adventures of the Gummi Bears was your first job on a series, and also Disney's first major serialized animated television show- Although you can never predict something as major as the shows that were to follow as a result, do you remember any of the early conversations about the plans for Walt Disney Television Animation?  When was your first realization that you were making both television and cartoon history?

JM: Well, first of all, the title of “Disney’s first major serialized animated television show” is shared with The Wuzzles.  However, if we’re splitting hairs, The Wuzzles was a toy property, so it came with established characters and a backstory.  Gummi Bears came out of nothing more than the name for a candy - with no established characters or stories, so in a sense that was the first Disney animated series that was created out of whole cloth.  

"Walt Disney Television Animation" was a bigger word than the department itself.  At one point, I was the only “creative” person in the entire department, doing development work on Gummi Bears while still performing my tasks as record producer for Walt Disney Music Company.  So I don’t remember dreams of glory and fame back then; we were simply trying to get a department off the ground with no staff.  

Studio Executive Michael Webster brought in some animation folk from his advertising background, but the real creative force behind the look and tone of WDTVA was Art Vitello, who brought in some of the most amazing art talent I’ve ever worked with.  Vitello drafted Thom Enriquez, Hank Tucker, Ed Wexler, Gary Eggleston, Rob Laduca, etc.  Their artwork became the style by which all future shows were produced.  That’s when we became “Walt Disney Television Animation.”  Gummi Bears not only set the tone for our other shows, it set the bar for the entire TV toon business.  Other studios sat up and took notice.  Again, I don’t remember ever “realizing” that we were making history… we were just too damn busy to think about it.  I do remember thinking, however, when I would watch the shows on TV, “Hey, I worked on that!  Cool!  I’ll bet other people are watching this, too!" 
JA: What are the earliest memories you have of developing the pilot for DuckTales?  What was your biggest challenge in writing for those characters, as well as your favorite aspect?

JM:  The “pilot” for DuckTales was written as a five-part mini-series which was then cut into a two-hour pilot movie.  However, there were scads of DuckTales episodes already being written and produced before our pilot (“Treasure of the Golden Suns”) was ever conceived.  Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron were the shapers and story editors of that series.  They handled all the regular episodes that were shown on a daily basis.  I was brought in after the series was already in the works to do a mini-series (and eventually two more: "Bubba Duck" and "Gizmo Duck").  So even though Tedd and Patsy were the powerhouse behind the series, I was in the sweet position of doing the “first look” that the audience saw.  Not a big challenge - especially when you realize that Carl Barks not only created those characters, he paved the way with years and years of fun adventure story lines!  

Sure, we had some new characters like Launchpad and Webby and Duckworth… but the real guts of the series - Scrooge McDuck, the Beagle Boys, Flintheart Glomgold, Magica De Spell, the Junior Woodchucks, Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone, the Money Vault, Duckburg, plus countless stories were handed to us through the brilliant work of Carl Barks (who never got a “based on the characters and situations created by” credit on the show).

I loved working with the cast; a funny talented bunch.  I had known Alan Young since 1970, so it was a treat to write for him and watch how he guided the series.  Terry McGovern as Launchpad McQuack was also a hoot.  I don’t know anyone who didn’t love writing for that character.  Russi, Chuck, Frank, Hal, June… all brilliant character actors, and a delight to work with.
JA: What is it like to see how big of an impact the work you were doing so early in your career is still having today?  Did you ever anticipate while writing "Treasure of the Golden Suns" that in 2014 you'd still be getting asked about these characters?

JM: Naturally, it’s very gratifying to hear fans rave about these shows.  When they talk about the Disney Afternoon shows, it’s like they turn into kids again… which is weird, because they’re usually standing there with their own kids.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact that the internet would have on nostalgia.  Today, fans can easily find each other, blog about their memories or create webpages about obscure Disney characters.  Back in the mid-eighties we had no idea this would happen.  Now everything is precious and collectible.  Then, it was just trying to make a deadline.  I’m glad, however, that people are remembering my work fondly.

JA: When asked what my favorite Disney movie of all time is, I always cite A Goofy Movie.  Not enough has been written about this film's origins and production- What are your earliest memories of developing a story to bring Goofy to the big screen, and what can you tell me about the process of drafting the screenplay?

JM:  Oh, golly.  Goof Troop had just wrapped, and I had written an episode that really touched on the father-son approach/avoidance theme in “Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas.”  (That was the underpinnings of the entire series, mind you.)  I think because of my work on that series, I was chosen to work on the film development.  The concept was the brainchild of Jeffery Katzenberg who had taken a road trip with his daughter in order to reconnect with her, and that became the inspiration for the film.  
I was teamed up briefly with Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster) to rough out the story, but Jerry had to move onto another project.  That’s when Kevin Lima came aboard and things started to really move forward.  Up until then I had spent a lot of time alone in corner office on a separate floor of our building where the film would be produced.  The area was nearly empty at this point.  

Slowly, the offices filled up, but for the most part I worked alone.  Kevin and his skeleton crew (at that time) and me went through a lot of scenes that got drastically changed over the course of the film, such as a video game sequence opening, a wild bungee jump scene and Paco’s Water Park.  
Early on I would go off and write up a revised draft, and then Kevin would turn his storyboard people loose on it.  Brian Pimental was the head of the story department and a pivotal player.  His team brought so much to the film that was wonderful.  My stuff would show up on a story board - vastly different!  The board guys had plussed all the gags.  So I’d incorporate the new angles into the next draft… and the process would continue.  
Eventually I was pulled from the project, because the movie was now in Kevin’s capable hands, and I went back to TV series work.  I felt kind of cheated, because I wanted to stay with the movie until it was done.  I only got to attend two recording sessions and only met with the songwriters a couple times early on.  In TV, a writer like me is often the “show runner,” so being moved off the film was kinda painful.  Television production and film production are two different fish - whereas a TV episode has one or two storyboard folks who follow the script very closely, a film has piles of story people all adding to the final product.  

At one point I had lunch with Kevin and I said, “I feel so horrible.  I did all this writing early on before the art staff came onboard, and now they’re all having fun without me.  Plus, you’re all doing such great things, and my stuff is disappearing.”  Kevin smiled in that amused way he has and assured me, “Jymn, that’s how films get done.  But remember, we’re doing what we’re doing because we’re standing on your shoulders.”  Okay, I get it.

JA: Of all the shows you've written for, which story specifically would be the one piece of work to point people towards as your personal favorite?

JM:  I’ve said this many times before… I loved “Treasure of the Golden Suns,” and Gummi Bears will always be my firstborn… but TaleSpin is probably my fave.  There’s something about that pulp genre and time period.
JA: What inspires you as a writer?

JM:  Everything.  I’m constantly filing away favorite scenes or clever jokes in my mental “Gag File.”  But that’s true of all writers.  We live two lives: our normal everyday life, and the life of the observer who watches the chaos and tries to figure out how to turn it into a story.  

As a writer, I’m sometimes a pain to watch TV or films with because I can see where the story is going.  “Look, a set-up for later!”  Yet sometimes I happen onto something new or clever or painfully true, and I’m sucked in.  That pleases me because I get to be a regular Joe just enjoying the ride.  And that inspires me.

JA: Name three of your favorite films that you think everyone should see.

JM: Waiting for Guffman, Drop Dead Gorgeous and A League of Their Own.  I love the humor of these films, so they are personal faves.  Ask me tomorrow, I’ll give you an entirely different list.  

JA:  What career advice would you give to those who want follow in your footsteps?

JM:  Write, read, connect, take classes, ask questions and get involved.  I started off making student films and writing radio comedies - for money?  No.  Because I wanted to!  You’ve got to love it.  
When I was doing local plays and taking art classes, I never dreamed I’d wind up in Hollywood… but I know now that if my path never led to Disney and animation, I would still be doing something creative at a local level… finding an outlet.  It’s just what creative people do.  They need to draw or dance or be funny, because… it’s who they are.
JA: What is your fondest memory from working on TaleSpin?

JM: Being in the thick of things.  Being surrounded by an army of marvelously talented people who were all sharing the same vision.  Seriously, that’s what stands out to me the most in retrospect.

JA: Do you have any idea yet what is next for you?

JM: Hell, I’m like all writers - always looking for the next gig.  Fortunately I’m doing a lot of work for overseas studios.  Russia, China, Spain, Finland, France, etc.  Much of my work now will probably never be seen by Americans, but I’m having a ball.  I’m also working on a (for now) secret project for Disney comics and going to fan conventions.  Plus, I'm working on a book about my Disney experiences.  Good times.
JA:  If you had to sum up your life with just three words, what would they be?

JM:  Reminds me of a contest Steve Martin once had when he was giving out tickets to one of his stand-up concerts.  Contest rules: write in three words or less why you wanted tickets.  Steve's example?  “Me want go.”  So I’m gonna use that:  “Me want create.”

Follow Jymn's blog here: Fine Tooning

Friday, September 19, 2014

#143. A Conversation with Scott Herriott

Jason welcomes comedian and documentary filmmaker SCOTT HERRIOTT to the podcast to discuss his career on stage, in film and on television as the host of The Disney Channel's Walt Disney World: Inside Out!

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @Squatch7
Visit Scott's website: SquatchFilms.com

Monday, September 8, 2014

#142. A Conversation with Jim Zub

"Some people see the world as it is.  They believe the environment around them is static, immutable... and that setbacks are a sign they should settle for what they have.  I prefer to think of the world as it could be.  It's a journey to create something bigger and better.  If I don't try, I'll never know how big it could be." - from Issue 001 of FIGMENT

Jason Anders: How familiar were you with the character of Figment and the Epcot attraction before being approached to write this series?

Jim Zub: I knew Journey Into Imagination and Figment, it was one of my favorite attractions when I went to Walt Disney World back when I was twelve, but I didn’t know anything about the changes to the attraction until I did research to write the comic story.

JA: Was it Bill Rosemann's idea to bring Figment to Marvel?

JZ: From what I know, it was part of a larger conversation that Joe Quesada (Marvel Chief Creative Officer) had with executives at Disney about collaborations between the two companies now that Disney owns Marvel.  Much like with Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney has been looking to expand the reach of the attractions beyond just their name, and the Disney Kingdoms line gives them a way to do that by creating more in-depth plot-lines and characterization around the attractions.
I was approached in December by Bill Rosemann, and he asked me if I’d be interested in pitching ideas for Journey Into Imagination. I put together three different possible concepts and the origin of Dreamfinder was the one that the Disney Imagineers and Marvel really keyed into.

JA: In doing research, which elements from the Journey Into Imagination attraction stuck out to you most as an inspiration for your writing?

JZ: Unlike most other rides, Journey Into Imagination really stresses that you are a creative person and your ideas can change the world, whether through science, literature or the arts. It’s entertaining but it also carries a deeper message about inspiration and creativity. That’s the core of the attraction and became the core of my story as well.
JA: Who did you partner with at WDI, and what kind of feedback did you receive about the initial pitch?

JZ: There were quite a few people at Disney Imagineering involved and giving steady feedback: Jim Clark, Brian Crosby, Josh Shipley, Tom Morris, and Andy Digenova. We also received feedback notes from former Imagineering head Tony Baxter and Imagineering Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn.  Ron Schneider, one of the original performers who played Dreamfinder at Epcot, was very complimentary of the story and we’ve corresponded several times since the first issue came out.

Given the pedigree of the characters, I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I sent in my first story outline, but everyone at Disney and Marvel were extremely supportive throughout the process and gave great notes to make sure we hit the mark.

JA: What do you enjoy most about writing for these characters?

JZ: Dreamfinder and Figment are not passive characters. They don’t just wait for things to happen. They build their own success and go forth in search of adventure. I like that uplifting and intrepid approach.
JA: If you could launch another series based around any Disney attraction in history, which do you think you'd enjoy most?

JZ: I joked around to the Imagineering team that I wanted to write a pitch for Ghost Galaxy, the version of Space Mountain that happens only at Halloween, but on further reflection I actually do think it would be neat to tackle.

JA: What kind of feedback have you received from readers of Figment so far?

JZ: The response from readers has been really incredible. Dozens and dozens of people have sent me photos with them holding the comic, or copies of the comic beside their Figment figurines or stuffed toys. Meeting Figment fans in person has also been a real thrill. Their excitement for the series and knowing that they feel it’s a worthy expansion of Dreamfinder and Figment’s story means a lot to me.
JA: How would you sum up the Figment comics with just three words?

JZ: Joyous.  Creative.  Adventure.

JA: What originally inspired you to become a writer?

JZ: I was an avid comic reader growing up, but I didn’t start creating my own stories with gusto until I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my older brother and cousins. Tabletop RPGs really sparked a desire for storytelling and that was fanned into a flame through high school.

JA: What are three comic books you would recommend as "must-reads"?
JZ: I could recommend dozens, but I’ll limit this to three recent comic series that aren’t super hero titles so it’s a bit more focused: Atomic RoboLocke & Key and The Sixth Gun.

JA: If people want to find out more about you or your other work, where can they go?

JZ: I have my own website: www.jimzub.com and it’s jam-packed with information on projects I’m working on and convention appearances along with tutorials on how to write stories, pitch concepts to publishers, and break into the comic industry.  I’m also pretty chatty on Twitter.

Follow @JimZub on Twitter!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#141. A Conversation with Magda Apanowicz, Jane Espenson & Brad Bell

Jason welcomes very special guests Magda Apanowicz (CAPRICA, CONTINUUM, KYLE XY), Jane Espenson (BUFFY, FIREFLY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, ONCE UPON A TIME) and Brad Bell (HUSBANDS) to talk about their lives, careers, working together, earthquakes and Martin Short in the most epic gathering of talent ever to grace the podcast!

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

#140. A Conversation with John Murdy

John Murdy, Creative Director of Universal Studios Hollywood, drops in to talk about his career and how he worked his way from Studio Tour Guide to being the wizard behind the curtain of Halloween Horror Nights.  We also talk about movies.  LOTS of movies.
(Click below to play interview)


Follow John on Twitter: @HorrorNights
Buy tickets for Halloween Horror Nights: www.HalloweenHorrorNights.com

Saturday, March 16, 2013

#139: A Conversation with Susan Lustig

Jason Anders: Before we dig into your work on my favorite theme park attractions of all time, most notably ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE ART OF MAKING MOVIES, tell me first about the road that led you to being hired as a producer by Universal Studios.

Susan Lustig: I had been a producer of corporate events for Imero Fiorentino Associates (IFA), a production company in New York and Hollywood, known primarily for their lighting and staging designs for live concerts, road tours and television. When I joined them they were expanding into production of large corporate events, corporate theatre, exhibits and exhibitions. When I was laid off I wrote a letter to Peter Alexander who, at the time, was in charge of Production and Design for Universal Studios Hollywood. After our first meeting I was hired as a producer. I worked on a variety of projects for their Hollywood theme park. Some were shelved and some got the green light. One of the approved projects was Star Trek Adventure. About this same time, Universal was in the early stages of planning Universal Studios Florida. Since I was origninally hired for the USF project, when it was finally given the green light, I had to relinquish my Star Trek project. Fortunately Phil Hettema was able to pick up those reigns. The rest of my time there was one of the most enjoyable, gratifying and amazing journeys of my career. My opening-day attractions were Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, Murder, She Wrote: Post Production and Animal Actors Stage.
JA: Where did your interest in theme parks come from?

SL: I think it started while I was in high school. Six Flags Over Mid-America (which was later renamed Six Flags St. Louis) had just opened. So, thinking it would be a lot of fun, I got a job as a train conductor. The rest, as they say, is history.

When I went off to college I did so with the intention of being a math major but then the theatre bug bit me and bit me hard. Before I knew it I was a theatre major. I received my BFA from Southern Methodist University in general theatre. However, before going to graduate school I designed the lighting for a live show in Busch Gardens Williamsburg during its first year of operation. I enjoyed it so much I stayed on as a ride supervisor. Later, I moved to New York City and received my MFA in theatre design with an emphasis in lighting design from New York University.
I’ve always loved a great story. I read all the time and love where stories take me. However, I never considered myself a writer until I started working at Universal where I found myself writing treatments and scripts for shows and attractions. I really enjoy the educational, research, entertainment and theatrical part of theme parks. While at Universal we often joked that we were creating “Sesame Street” for adults. We continually searched for the best ways to demonstrate how movies were made while entertaining our guests at the same time. That was our primary goal for Hitchcock and Murder, She Wrote: Post Production.

It just dawned on me that, in one capacity or another, I’ve been part of the opening-day team for four theme parks… each one owned by a different company… Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios Florida and Disney’s California Adventure. I think that qualifies me as an industrial-grade “parkie”!
JA: What do you consider your first big career break?

SL: The day after graduating from NYU I was hired by IFA as a draftsperson and model builder. In time, I found myself on the road as production assistant for a variety of projects both large and small. But, best of all, I was working side by side with a group of amazingly talented people. Although I started with IFA as a production assistant, I eventually moved into lighting and set design and finally producer. I produced a variety of live entertainment shows, special events, exhibits, and unique product introductions. One of my highlights was co-producing (Joe Layton was the Executive Producer & staged the event) “A Tribute to Alan & Marilyn Bergman” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It starred Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Melissa Manchester, Joel Grey, Norman Lear, Carmen McRae, Bea Arthur, Jack Jones and more. What an incredible, memorable and priceless experience!
Having a strong background in theatre made producing the perfect career choice for me. My father is a theatre consultant. So, I grew up in the world of design, drafting, specs, budgets, schedules, etc. As a result, I was able to draw from that background as needed, especially while working for Universal where designing and building theatres were the structural backbone of the project. If nothing else I knew what was required and where to go to find it. Then too, having worked on the operations side of a theme park gave me the vocabulary and hands-on experience to know how an attraction should function and provide its staff and performers with essential tools to do their jobs. As with any major and ultimately successful project, hiring the right team is critical. My philosophy has always been if I hire people smarter and more experienced than me they will, in turn, make my job easier, make the project more successful and make me look even better in the process.

I’ve always felt my strength was in the “blue sky” or brainstorming phase of a project. However, I also enjoy the left-brain / right-brain aspects of the production process… on one hand working with clients, budgets, schedules, etc., while on the other hand dealing with creative… it was a perfect fit for me. I learned the following old adage very early on…“Fast, Cheap and Good. Pick Two.”
JA: Do you remember much about the job interview process at Universal?

SL: Strangely enough, I don’t, mostly because it was nearly 25 years ago. Needless to say I was awe-struck working for Universal Studios, “The Entertainment Capital of L.A.” For me, it was a dream come true. The first couple of years we were housed in the Technicolor building on the backlot. How amazing! Anytime I wanted I could drive through that backlot where so many iconic films were made. On one occasion I remember going to the commissary. There was Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn standing in front of the menu board discussing what each might have for lunch. Another day we were researching for the Post-Production attraction and sat in on an edit session for one of the first episodes of Law and Order. They were discussing the sound effects of a gun and if it was the correct sound for that particular gun.
The moment you take a place like that for granted, you need to get out of the business… especially if you were charged, as I was, with translating the excitement of movie making into a “live” theme park attraction with an audience. I had so many WOW!-moments at Universal working with such astonishing people. One of my highlights was pitching show concepts to Steven Spielberg. The first time I met with him I was incredibly nervous. So much so that I began talking unbelievably fast. I’m sure he thought I was trying to break the four-minute mile. I was moving along like a runaway freight train. However, he seemed to follow along with all my points and in the end he had great questions and insightful suggestions. After the presentation, a vice-president who was there had to ask what happened, as it went so fast between the two of us, he couldn’t follow it.

JA: Since you were there from the beginning, were there any projects that never made it off the drawing board and into the park?

SL: That’s such a very good question. I wish I could remember. When I was hired, Universal already had a version of the entire park completed and were pitching it to potential partners. Many attractions were conceived and pitched before I was involved. I do know that many concepts were changed or replaced because of feedback from those early pitch meetings.
The first show I was assigned was Murder She Wrote: Post-Production. It was originally pitched as a generic sound effects show. Knowing there is so much more than sound effects that goes into post-production, the first thing I did was pitch a totally new concept. In the new concept we not only covered sound effects but editing and ADR (voice-replacement or dubbing) as well. It was a good thing we changed the show’s premise because not long afterwards we all went to Disney-MGM’s opening day. Low and behold, there was the Monster Sound Show, a show that was just about sound effects.

JA: What was your schedule like from 1986 to 1990? Were you tackling multiple attractions at once or did you focus on one at a time?

SL: We juggled multiple attractions at the same time. Very early on and until new producers could be hired, I was responsible for all shows and Craig Barr was to head up all the rides. We both worked for Peter Alexander the VP & Executive Producer for USF. I remember our first trip to Florida. Craig and I were sent to a conference room and told; “Don’t come out until you have a budget for everything.” So Craig budgeted the rides and I budgeted the shows. Little did we know that, in those few days in that conference room, we were creating the “final” budgets to be lived by from then until opening day. The only flexibility we had was being able to move money around from category to category but the bottom line was cast in stone. No one on our team had prior experience in developing theme park attractions.
JA: Were there ideas considered for HITCHCOCK that didn't make it in?

SL: We were pretty lucky. We never had to cut anything. However, one of the areas, in the upstairs interactive space, looked somewhat sparse to my eye. I really wanted to fill it in a little more. But after seeing how the guests flowed through the space it was obvious that such a change was not necessary.

JA: The animated collage in the lobby, designed by Diane Stapleton, is burned into my memory from childhood and I remember it immediately capturing my imagination.

SL: As luck would have it, Diane was (and is) married to Chris Stapleton, our fabulous Art Director. Like Chris, Diane too is a noted art director & artist. After USF opened, Chris stayed at Universal and produced Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. Both attractions were part of the new Islands of Adventure.
It’s interesting how we ended up with the collage and the film-styled border that wrapped around the top of the preshow. We knew we needed something in that space but, in the early stages of design, it wasn’t a priority. We hadn’t even thought much about it until we were well into the project.

Eventually I looked through the budget, pulling in a few dollars here and a few dollars there, until we found enough to make the collage… it was somewhat like going through one’s sofa cushions for loose change. That collage was really the perfect introduction to Hitch’s world. As an aside, we listed the title of every Hitchcock movie in the frames of the film border. Adirondack Scenic in Glens Falls, NY built the collage, as well as many of the Hitchcock set pieces.
JA: Most 3-D attractions today, including the one that sadly replaced it, end after the pre-show and film. Was there ever hesitation or backlash to making the attraction so lengthy?

SL: I don’t recall that there was any backlash due to the length of our shows. As long as we could gently “push” the required number of guests through within a given amount of time, we were most definitely in “pole position.” As you can imagine, all parks must set and meet their hourly capacity. Generally speaking, a guest’s length-of-stay, especially at the end of an attraction, is not a problem… hey, can you say “merchandise?” In fact, the Hitchcock store had the highest sales per square foot in the park.
Consider what happens with Disneyland’s iconic Carousel of Progress. The first group “loads”, the ride turns, then the next group is loaded. They can keep going ad infinitum as long as there’s no bottleneck that prevents additional guests from entering the attraction. We never had a problem cycling our guests. Each room/experience was short enough to accommodate guest-flow.

In a perfect world I wish I’d made some of the interactive sequences shorter… not for throughput but for guest’s attention span. I learned very early on that once guests are in an attraction, they’re already planning where they’re going next and are often very anxious to move on. My sense is that a producer or creative director needs to get to the point of the story immediately, capture the guest’s imagination and interest, and then allow them to move on.
I’ve found that in the realm of theme parks there’s no such thing as enough editing. Short and to the point is what works best. In our case, synchronizing the timing of our 3-D film with the Psycho stage was indeed a bit tricky. In hindsight it might have been easier to place the stage presentation first. However, we did have “live” actors playing off of audience volunteers and that definitely required flexibility in that segment’s timing. The movie however, once it’s “in the can”, cannot change. In the end, it all worked out for the best.

JA: Where did the idea for the 3-D portion come from, and were you around for the filming of THE BIRDS sequence?

SL: In 1954 Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 3-D. However, when it was ready for release, 3-D had already run its course and a decision was made to release the “flat” version instead.
Fortunately, we were able to access the original 3-D version, both right and left eye. This gave us the idea for the “chaos ensues” section of the first theater. The first part the film was a montage of clips from all his movies (except the ones to which we couldn’t secure the rights including North by Northwest). We distributed the 3-D glasses in the lobby/pre-show where the attraction’s host explained that Hitch made a film in 3-D, a film called Dial M for Murder. During the last part of the film, the narrator (a voice-double of Hitchcock) tells the audience to put on their 3-D glasses. We started with the scene where Grace Kelly reaches back for a pair of scissors to stab her attacker. The frame appears to jump in the film gate and sounds start coming from the projection booth. This, of course, was the beginning of the birds attack sequence, all projected in 3-D. When we screened the film for the first time in the theatre, we knew we had a homerun when the projectionist jumped up and screamed, “OH NO!” as the film appeared to be jumping and burning. We loved that. It made our day.
I was on the set for the filming of the bird sequence, and I have to say, it was a tough one. It was filmed at the Dino De Laurentiis studios in Wilmington, North Carolina where they shot part of the 1976 version of King Kong. At the time they had the largest bluescreen in the country. To make our concept work we needed a huge bluescreen for the flying birds. The premise was for the birds to “rip through” the projection screen and reveal a sound stage behind. We needed the scale to be huge but believable in our large theater. Gary Gero, owner of Birds and Animals Unlimited, was hired to train and work with the birds. When the lights were up full on the bluescreen, we were all required to wear blue-blocker sunglasses to protect our eyes. Otherwise the intense light would burn them... talk about being snow blind. Gary used huge fans to keep the birds aloft during filming. It was an amazing production. R/Greenberg of NYC was the production company tasked with filming, adding the effects and editing. Joel Hynek was the wizard that figured out all the shots and 3-D visual effects. They all did an incredible job. What an amazing project! What an amazing team!
JA: Tell me about the creation of the PSYCHO stage show, and the challenges of re-creating a brutal murder in a shower to be performed live for a family audience. Was it the first theme park attraction to actually be rated PG-13?

SL: I don’t think we ever thought of our show being the first PG-13 rated theme park attraction. We simply felt it wasn’t appropriate for those under the age of thirteen. We wanted to alert parents up front to allow them to make the decision about whether the attraction was appropriate for their children.
It was important in our storytelling to show how Hitchcock used the camera as the weapon in order to convey the brutality of the shower scene murder and not the knife. You never saw the knife pierce the skin in the actual movie. It didn’t need to. That was the true brilliance of Hitchcock. He storyboarded every shot and knew just what the movie was going to look like when it hit the theaters. That’s why we broke the scene down into so many shots so the audience could visualize each frame of the Hitchcock storyboard. It’s been said that Hitchcock was actually bored during the shooting phase of production because, in his head, the film was already shot and edited.

JA: What was it like escorting Janet Leigh through the attraction? Do you remember her reaction to seeing the Bates Motel on a theater stage?

SL: I remember the day quite vividly. Ms. Leigh came on opening day as did Jimmy Stewart, Tippi Hedren and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell. June 7th 1990 was opening day. It was a typical, sizzling-hot and humid Florida morning. Our celebrity guest’s interviews were scheduled outdoors on a black stage that had no shade. I’m sure you get the picture. Because of a communication mix-up, hosts assigned to escort the celebrities to the stage ended up taking Mr. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell inside the Hitchcock attraction instead. We were all on radios and I get a call that they lost Jimmy Stewart. LOST JIMMY STEWART? By this time the Hitchcock attraction was open to the public and guests had chased poor Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell through the building… all the way to the second floor. They ended up trapped in a stairwell with their quite confused “guides.” I followed their trail and finally got them extricated and to the stage, safe and sound.
As the producer I was the MC for the Hitchcock press event. As I was about to begin with introductions and was looking over my note cards one last time, I felt a tugging at the back of my jumpsuit (hey, it was very much in fashion back then!). It was Janet Leigh tucking me in so the elastic didn’t show above my belt in back, and she had a very determined look on her face. Can you imagine, an iconic star like her worried about how I looked? Now that is one classy movie star as well as a delightful human being!

After the press event I escorted Ms. Leigh and Mrs. O’Connell through the attraction. The first theater, as I mentioned, was the Hitchcock tribute (film clips from his many movies). When the sequence with the 3-D bird attack began Janet Leigh and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell went crazy. They were cowering, bobbing, weaving, laughing and having a wonderful time along with the rest of the audience. I remember Ms. Leigh saying, “Remember what Hitch said, it’s only a movie!”
The next theatre was the Psycho stage. Fortunately they both loved it. After the show, Ms. Leigh and Mrs. O’Connell came over to the cast trailer and offered kudos and congratulations to the team and spent time talking with the actors. As a bit of trivia, one of our original Janets was Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm. All in all, the entire day was most amazing!

JA: There were so many legendary stars involved in the video segments- did you ever meet Anthony Perkins during the process?

SL: I was on the set for all the filming we did with James Stewart, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe and Norman Lloyd. Yes, it certainly was amazing having them be a part of the attraction.
JA: I found more inspiration and education in the Hitchcock attraction than I ever did at film school, which is what really stands out about this attraction and puts it on a pedestal above being simply a museum, tribute, or entertainment. You did the same thing with the MURDER, SHE WROTE: MYSTERY THEATER. Tell me about the earliest brainstorming sessions for that attraction and how you arrived at the idea of having the audience produce an episode of the show.

SL: The overall theme for the USF park was the entertainment industry, in particular movies and television. With the tagline, guests were invited to “ride the movies,” and enjoy the numerous attractions and live shows. That’s a very broad subject and right away we knew we had our work cut out for us as we focused on a huge yet important component of production… a little something called post-production… or what goes on after the cameras stop rolling. It may not be as glamorous as being on a set, but it is an essential creative discipline in television and movie making.
For me, post-production is a magical process. An editor can change the intention of a scene with the juxtaposition of selected shots. I can’t remember how it came about but when we got the green light to turn the sound effects stage into a post-production show, the TV series Murder, She Wrote was so incredibly popular that it became the umbrella for our storyline. We hired Kevin Biles Design to handle the production. Anthony Peter Shaw, Ms. Lansbury’s son, was the director (he also directed many of the Murder, She Wrote episodes). It was a great shoot. I was and still am in awe of Angela Lansbury. Her work in theatre has been iconic such as Sweeney Todd and Mame. Working with her was a stunning experience.
The premise for our show was to have the audience play the role of “executive producer.” They had one line, “No, absolutely not!” (a mantra that played through the entire experience) but they had to say it on specific cues. The line was intended to play to the stereotype of the cigar-chomping old-time producer. I love putting an audience in the middle of a show, making them participate as characters or making them part of the environment. Our script allowed guests to make editing decisions, create sound effects and then finally replace the actor’s voices with their own. The big payoff was in the final room where we played the entire scene back for them with all the changes they’d made with sound effects, voices, and editing. It always got great laughs. It also meant that no two shows were ever alike. For the audience the show was great fun but they also saw first hand the basic components of what goes on after the shooting stops.
The actors playing the parts of video editor, the Foley artist (the person who creates sound effects to be synced with specific moments within a film), and the editor were the show. They were not only funny but also complete riots as their improvisation ran rampant. As long as they stuck to the show’s timing and got the major points established, we had no problem with them going off script. Allowing for this improvisational flexibility allowed them to work one on one with the audience as a group and with individual guests. It was a show filled with constant surprises. Most of our actors came from a wonderful improv group in Orlando called SAK Entertainment. In fact we hired Herb Hansen from SAK to direct the Post-Production actors. He also directed the live action on the Psycho stage.

JA: For both of these attractions, what were a few of your favorite audience reactions and feedback?

SL: The perfect guest comment that defined our goals for the show came from a young couple as they exited the Hitchcock attraction. Remember, this was back in 1990 when PBS was considered the “learning” station because we didn’t have all the cable stations we have now. They felt the show was a very entertaining PBS special. I was thrilled. Entertaining plus learning is just what we were after. It was “edutainment” perhaps even before the term even existed. And today, because of the live interaction between guests and actors, it might be considered “social-tainment” as well.

JA: You're also credited with the creative story overlay for the JAWS ride, as well as pre-show producer. Let me tell you, that is the funniest pre-show video to ever play in any theme park attraction. What is the concept-to-completion story behind the JAWS ride?

SL: Jaws had a dedicated production team from the very beginning so I wasn’t involved with the opening-day attraction. As I recall, it had been open for about a year when Universal executives decided they needed to rethink some of the engineering and give the ride a complete overhaul. I believe it was closed for about 2 years.
Once Jaws closed I was assigned the preshow as well as the boat skipper’s spiel. I wrote the first spiel draft and Adam Bezark wrote the final script and did the programming. I created the story overlay and components for the preshow (Adam wrote the final script). The premise was simple… the citizens of the small seaside resort town of Amity were crazed, paranoid and terrorized from that summers great white shark attacks. No one escaped unscathed and the town never recovered. The entire town was a basket case… complete lunacy prevailed and they were totally untethered from reality.

Our preshow director was John Larsen from Kevin Biles Design. Some of our actors were a wee bit inexperienced and simply didn’t know their lines! John, however, did a fantastic job of pulling it all together. Like getting blood from a turnip, John worked his magic with the pros and amateurs alike. Add to that John’s wizardry in the edit bay and it did turn out to be a pretty “unique” little video.
JA: What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a creative career in theme park entertainment and how has the game changed since you entered it?

SL: Themed entertainment has changed so much since I started in the business and it continues to change even today. As for me, I consult in that world from time to time but my main focus these days is creating websites and graphics for my clients.

Advice? It really depends on a person’s passion. What are their passions? What are their talents? Today, themed entertainment is rebounding from the 2008 financial downturn. As a result there are more and more creative and technical positions out there; writers, production designers, set-designers, costume designers, audio designers, ride designers/engineers, architects, graphic artists, scenic painters, film directors, effects designers, editors, etc.
Become familiar with the technologies and vocabulary that are a daily part of themed entertainment today. Many who work in theme parks work for production or fabrication companies that are contracted by Universal Studios, Walt Disney Imagineering, Six Flags, etc. There is no guarantee that a theme park position will be available when you want one. For that reason one needs to become multi-dimensional in training, i.e. know more than one discipline. There is no substitute for experience. Once you find a path you know you want to pursue, jump in with both feet. Become a sponge and learn everything you can about it. In the beginning, it may not be exactly what you want, but you never know where it might lead. If nothing else, think of it as a stepping-stone. Above all, don’t stop learning and don’t stop trying! The brilliance of the Transformers and Spider-Man rides cannot be over-emphasized. Those state-of-the-art attractions allow guests to experience the ultimate in movie-making, high tech ride design. They seamlessly blend storytelling with technology. Today’s theme parks can no longer be accused of using old technology… they are inventing it.

I believe it was Confucius who said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
JA: Were you able to hang on to any memorabilia from any of your productions over the years?

SL: I have a ton of t-shirts, caps, and sweat shirts from USF, but no real memorabilia. Oh yes, I do have my Hitchcock team jacket that was made as part of the actors’ “costume”. Also, I have a ton of “under construction” USF photographs. That’s it!
JA: What is your fondest overall memory of opening Universal Studios Orlando?

SL: We all craved watching real audiences go through our attractions. Having invested years of time, blood, sweat and tears then having to wait for opening day and the ultimate payoff was difficult. I loved going in my shows as a tourist. I’d usually sit in the front row. Then, as the house lights went down, I’d slowly turn around to watch the audience faces and reactions. That was my reward, my bonus if you will. One of my favorite films of all time is Sullivan’s Travels. If you’ve seen this movie you’ll understand what I am talking about. It epitomizes why I love what I do. To entertain audiences as I have is the ultimate prize but to have people love what I’ve done, well, there is no greater gift.
Thank you so much Jason for your interest in my projects. It was gratifying to hear your reaction to shows we created nearly 25 years ago. That's a huge, beautiful, bow wrapped and glittery present! It was an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Thanks for the memories and thanks again for the opportunity.

Follow UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA on Twitter: @UniversalORL

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#138. A Conversation with Randi Robert

Jason talks with Professional Dancer & Captain of the NHL New Jersey Devils Dancers about her life, career, inspirations and what it takes to make it as a dancer.  Oh, and Edward Scissorhands.

Jason Anders:  Do you remember what initially sparked your interest in dance?

Randi Robert:  I began dance classes at the age of three, so I can't remember when I started to fall in love with dance.  I have always loved it.  I always looked forward to performing at our annual recital.  I eventually became part of a traveling dance team where we would perform everywhere from our local street fair to Walt Disney World!
JA:  At what point do you know that it's what you want to do professionally?

RR:  In elementary school I remember doing a project on what we wanted to be when we grew up and I drew myself onstage with an audience.  I have known since I was very young that being a dancer is what I wanted to do.  I never took it seriously until I was in high school and had to think about what my plans were going to be once I graduated.  After graduating I quickly began going to every audition that I knew about to get my foot in the door and gain experience.

JA:   Was there ever any alternative career path for you?

RR:  I never had an alternative plan for my life.  I thought that I should probably have a backup plan if dancing didn't work out, but I never followed through with one.  I am a dance teacher in addition to being a dancer for the Devils, so everything that I do involves dance.  I teach it.  I do it.  I love it.  Dance is what I am passionate about and I can't imagine doing anything else.
JA:  Over the years, what people have you taken inspiration from in developing your technique and style?

RR:  From coaches and teachers that I've had and the performers that I love.

JA:  What events in your life led to dancing professionally for the New York Titans?

RR:  Just seeing an audition and posting for The Titans Dance Team.  I went to New York City, auditioned, and got a call-back.  I went to the call-back and made the team!  It was an awesome experience.  The games were played at Madison Square Garden so I got to dance at the world's most famous arena as one of my very first paying dance jobs.  I did it for two seasons.  I think all of my hard work and dedication showed in my second season, so my coach made me a captain.
JA:  What were your biggest challenges and fondest memories during your time with the Titans?

RR:  My biggest challenge was doing choreography that I wasn't used to.  It's not always easy learning new things, but I loved all the routines we did and I fell in love with dancing for a sports team.  My fondest memories are definitely of performing on the center turf of such an amazing venue where some of the biggest names have performed.  I also made great friends, and I still keep in touch with some of the girls I danced with.

JA:  How did you arrive at being a dancer for the Devils?

RR:  I was actually at an audition when I heard about the Devils tryouts.  It sparked my interest so I went for it.
JA:  What do you love most about being associated with them?

RR:  We are New Jersey's team!  I am representing the biggest sports team where I was born and raised!   

JA:  What is a stand-out memory for you with the Devils so far?

RR:  Dancing at the Stanley Cup Playoff Finals.  That was one of the best experiences of my life.  The atmosphere at those games was amazing.  We fed off the energy of the fans!  It was intense and made us want to perform that much better.
 JA:  What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

RR:  Always have confidence in yourself and never give up.  I was turned down many times, and if I didn't have the encouragement to keep trying I wouldn't have accomplished what I have.  It is discouraging when you get cut from any audition, but you need to keep trying.  There's always going to be someone who knows more than you, or is better than you, but you need to push yourself to be the best that you can be.  Continue to learn new things as well as perfecting what you do know.  The most valuable lesson I've learned in doing what I do is to just practice.  Never stop challenging yourself.  You'll be surprised at some of the things you can do!
JA:  Where do you see yourself twenty years from now?

RR:  I see myself settled down with a family of my own and probably still being involved with dance- whether it be choreographing, directing a show, or even coaching a professional dance team.

JA:  What are you three favorite movies of all time?

RR:  Dirty Dancing, Edward Scissorhands, and Clueless.
JA:  Who are your three favorite dancers of all time?

RR:  Derek Hough, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.  They've all inspired me in different ways.  I have always dreamed of being a backup dancer for Justin or Britney, and I would love to be Derek Hough's dance partner in the ballroom!

JA:  If you had to sum up what it's like to be a Devil's Dancer with just three words, what would they be?

RR:  Fierce, intense and fun!

Follow Randi on Twitter: @RandiRobert 
Follow the NHL New Jersey Devils on Twitter: @NHLDevils