Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Feel All The Wonderful Motion
One afternoon in the summer of 1984 news spread like wildfire among Epcot Center cast members that the ‘Radok Blocks’ were finally fully operational. From one end of the park to the other operations hosts and hostesses quickly changed out of their costumes and rushed towards Universe of Energy in Future World East, converging on the pre-show theater directly inside the building.
Cast members familiar with the eight minute film that had shown there since Epcot’s opening in 1982 were immediately aware that something was off the moment they entered. The entire ninety foot wide screen used for the presentation appeared to be missing, now completely covered over in black. They wouldn’t have long to wonder as once the lights dimmed the mystery quickly dissipated. Like pristine white dominoes falling magically into place, the screen exploded out from the center in perfect synchronization with the film. From one end of the auditorium to the other you could hear audible gasps, all eyes now locked on this wonderous undulating surface.
Months later operators at Universe of Energy would joke about how quickly the room of 580 boisterous guests would brake to dead silence the moment the screen started throbbing to life.
An online fansite dedicated to preserving the Universe of Energy’s history summed it up:
“Saddling it with the term ‘pre-show’ is an injustice, given the connotations that the term carries. The original pre-show for Universe of Energy, the absolutely dazzling "Kinetic Mosaic" …was regarded by many as better than some main shows."
The movie, consisting of five 35 mm films running in unison, hadn’t changed when cast members poured into the building that Summer afternoon in 1984 but the screen very much had. Made up of 100 3½ foot square prism-shaped tiles, these ‘mini-screens’ consisted of two sides of a projection surface and one side non-reflective black. Each segment could show either a black or white surface, or allow one of several combinations with its point facing forward; the full screen capable of more than a billion separate configurations. Synchronized with the film, these tiles rotated independently or in concert with each other by way of individual servo-motors and all were controlled by microprocessors, making this the first time in film history where a computer was used to move elements within a film presentation.
And the effect was breathtaking.
The mastermind behind this remarkable presentation was the Czech film director Emil Radok who, with his brother, presented his landmark film ‘The Magic Lantern’ at the Brussels Expo in 1958, part of an experimental system of combining film projection with live performance. But it was his pre-show presentation at Epcot’s Energy Pavilion that was, ten years before he passed away, his most monumental and astonishing masterwork.
So complex and demanding was the technology behind Radok’s Kinetic Mosaic that each screen element was set to their default white position when Epcot opened and remained that way for two years while Imagineers continued to work the bugs out, not least of which was the unreliability of the 100 separate motors, each with its own precise braking system, required to operate the individual screen elements. So long had this screen lay dormant that when in-the-know guests asked Universe of Energy operators about why it wasn’t working they were met with, “What? The screen moves?”
Radok’s audacious show continued to wow audiences in the coming decade but challenged engineers on an almost daily basis. It was rare to see every block operational with guests often witnessing a row of at least four blocks locked to white when they entered the pavilion.
Two years after Emil passed away in Canada (where he’d been exiled from then socialist Czechoslovakia), Disney accountaneers decided they’d had enough of those un-reliable and costly Radok blocks and plastered them over with stationary screens, figuring a newer hipper generation of Disney guests would respond more favorably to the pop culture antics of Ellen Degeneres in a pure film format.
Disney management was probably correct in assuming that guests who didn't know what they’re missing wouldn't miss it; that ignorance is indeed bliss.
But some of us know better. Some of us enter that pre-show theater at Epcot’s Universe of Energy today and recall how our jaws dropped to the floor every time we saw that giant wall ripple to life. How we stared in wonder as wild fully dimensional images formed out of thin air. How we delighted in the whimsical play of shadow and light over constantly shifting shape and form. How even today this presentation was way ahead of its time.
And so we mourn what future generations will miss by not viewing Emil Radok’s masterpiece, an artist and filmmaker who truly made us, “Feel all the wonderful motion flowing through things far and near.”