Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Myth of Story

The entertainment industry seems a slippery business to Wall Street. It’s difficult to explain in words why one entertainment property succeeds while another fails. Communicating with Wall Street and other influential laymen may very well be the most difficult part of an Entertainment CEO’s job. How does one quantify intangibles? How does a CEO convince investors and the public that his or her company has the winning formula? For Michael Eisner in the mid-1980s, the solution included an easy-to-remember sound byte: “It’s all about story.”

These four words were sent out to all corners of the Disney empire like a royal decree. At Walt Disney Imagineering, the decree arrived at a pivotal moment in its history. The old guard (Walt’s guys and gals) were retiring and the new generation was stepping up. They were young and eager to make their mark. Like their counterparts in the motion picture industry, they were looking for a standard against which to judge new ideas--a litmus test for creative ideas. And it wouldn’t hurt if they could find a way to curry favor with their new boss in the process. The answer dropped right in their laps.

The phrase, “What’s the story?” became a ubiquitous part of the Imagineering lexicon. Nothing marked the transition from WED to Imagineering better than the arrival of the new dogma of story. Attraction concepts were killed for lacking it, careers were made for those who embraced it, and destroyed for those who denied it. Screenwriters were hired and visual artists were laid off (ironically, some of these artists would have been called “story artists” had they worked in animation). Imagineering was transformed and the message went out to the world. Every Imagineer who sat down for an on-camera interview repeated Eisner’s mantra, “it’s all about story.” Imagineers literally began to believe their own press as a sound byte (originally designed to simply differentiate Disneyland from Six Flags for laymen) became doctrine. New Imagineers, laymen themselves, were indoctrinated into this new culture of story and a revisionist history was born.

Some claim the story culture began long before the mid-1980s--that it started with Walt. This is hard to prove and still harder to disprove (statements made by different Walt-era Imagineers contradict each other). Certainly "Story" was Walt's most-repeated mantra for the success of animation and live-action films. But in the context of theme park attractions, this was not the case. It is undeniable that during the mid-1980s linear storytelling was embraced by Walt Disney Imagineering with an unbridled enthusiasm never seen in Walt’s day.

Think about some of the classic Disneyland attractions--Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn Bobsleds and “it’s a small world.” How would they fare against the story litmus test? Do they have a beginning, middle and end? A clear antagonist or protagonist? Would they be better if they had a clearly defined inciting incident, conflict and resolution? Without these things an attraction has no story, and therefore is no good--according to the current dogma.

So, has the injection of story in recent years improved the quality of theme park attractions? Well, sometimes. The immersive backstory created for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror adds layers of depth to the experience--heightening the sense that the guests are visiting a real place with a real history. However, in Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a tacked-on story about a baby elephant makes the experience seem less credible, more contrived and altogether artificial. It disrupts an otherwise beautiful and realistic experience.

Unfortunately, it seems that in recent years the trend has been toward story at the expense of all else. Simple easy-to-read sight gags like those found in Pirates of the Caribbean (three guys in jail with a bone and a little dog outside holding the keys) have given way to traditional three-act structure with an inciting incident, conflict and resolution. Complicated and overly talky premises dominate attractions such as “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience,” Journey Into Imagination (versions 2 and 3), Dinosaur, Sounds Dangerous, and Stitch’s Great Escape.

Spending time and money obsessing over how to communicate story details at the expense of creating a unique immersive experience may seem blatantly foolish, but that’s what comes from close adherence to an unquestionable dogma. Like any dogma, it exists to serve the ruling faction. If you consider the fact that a handful of “creative executives” at Imagineering have built their careers on the myth of story, it becomes apparent that the true audience for these carefully-crafted stories are not the millions of paying guests who visit Disney theme parks every year, but the executives who constantly ask, “What’s the story?”

Marc Davis’ quote at the top of the page (from “What Can You Learn From Disney’s Work,” Sales Meeting Magazine, July 1969) speaks of a series of experiences building to a climax--these are the trappings of story, as are setting, character, dialogue, action and reaction. Disney attractions have story elements, but they are not literal stories (it may seem like splitting hairs, but this is an important distinction). In other words, the story mantra is not wrong so much as it is imprecise. Failure to use precise language is not a crime, but deliberately manipulating language to suit a selfish political agenda is, at best, questionable. And anyone who suggests that Walt insisted on “story” as the central element to all of his attractions, is presenting a potentially damaging revisionist history.

The word ‘story’ like the word ‘art’ means something different to everyone and can not be used as a litmus test for creativity. Nothing can. Walt-era imagineers inherently understood how to entertain people. They understood the effects of story so well, they knew when not to use it. They were chosen by Walt personally because he recognized that they “got it.” No litmus test required. No artificial formula.

Just hire people who get it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Magic Door

A central concept in Pixar’s hit “Monsters Inc.” is a magic door through which the workaday spooks of Monstropolis can travel to the human world to collect the screams of children.

These dimensional portals instantly captivate the imagination. What viewer does not come away from the film with a secret wish to step through such a door, to be instantly transported from one exotic location to another? And with a warehouse full of magic doors stored like dry cleaning on a moving/hanging conveyor, the possibilities for a personal journey through a raucous dimension-hopping Disneyland attraction are endless.

Like the plunge into Alice’s Wonderland rabbit hole or the leap from the Darling nursery into flight with Peter Pan, here is a truly visual and experiential story conceit, ready-made for Imagineers to exploit.

When California Adventure’s only dark ride, the shockingly ill-conceived “Superstar Limo” - - a bad acid-trip chase through the Touchstone Hollywood of cheesy B-celebrities (and Cher) - - was retrofitted as a “Monsters Inc.” ride, there was cause for celebration. Even on a limited budget and with a locked track layout, a C or D level dark ride through those magic portals couldn’t help but tickle the wishbone of our fancies. After all, it wasn’t the extravagant budgets of the old Fantasyland rides that made them favorites for 50 years, but their ability to convincingly transport the rider to Never-Never Lands of our imagination.

Yet, when the awkwardly titled “Monster’s Inc: Mike and Scully to the Rescue” attraction opened to the public, it was many things: cute, pleasant, mildly amusing, sure to charm the kiddies, a huge improvement over the prior tenant - - but, well, yet another dark ride disappointment that falls short of its promise.

Though we see magic doors, pass magic doors, even find a warehouse of magic doors, we are never taken THROUGH one single magic door.

During the ride, we are teased with, but never actually given the wish, the desire, the key experience. It’s foreplay without penetration. Monstropolis Interruptus.

(Well, there IS a colorfully painted plywood door on the exterior facade that “transports” us from the sidewalk to the queue, but this is somehow less than magical…).

Rather than traveling through dimensional portals – an experience we are unlikely to have outside of Disneyland – we find ourselves stopping to “interact” with a cranky secretary robot spouting custom insults (already a daily annoyance for most of us in industrialized nations).

Like so many of the Disney dark rides of recent years; “The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh,” “Journey Into Imagination,” “Superstar Limo,” “Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin,” “Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters,” “The Great Movie Ride,” even the neo-classical “Splash Mountain” - - we are carted past stagey, episodic, distant set-pieces like tourists in a Disney Store wax museum.

We become mere passive spectators of a contrived scenario, burdened with more plot than necessary (“Help save Boo from blah, blah, blah…”). We are watching a mini-version of the film, not participating in it.

It’s a marked contrast to the original Fantasyland dark rides in which the guest was plunged into a first-person experience AS Snow White or Mr. Toad - - or the pinnacle 60’s triad of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Haunted Mansion” and “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” which took voyagers on extravagant first-person journeys to fantastic other-realms of the historic, supernatural and psychedelic.

Walt wanted “Pirates” to make people feel like they were in the middle of a cocktail party, tuning in and out of the enveloping action. We were not passive-viewers at a modern amusement park, but part of a fantastic story come-to-life! The action is not confined to static sets on the right or left, but surrounds us in every way. We are lead in, on, over, under and through the story, not just past it.

This of-the-moment approach has proved to be far more durable and repeatable than the complex, episodic storylines and overwritten backstories of more recent creations. These elements seem to help the writers more than the riders.

Who cares what the dead bride’s silly maiden name might be - - why Boo is being kidnapped - - or why our vehicle is being hijacked? Talky exposition always hits the Omnimover like a lead balloon. When poorly written or staged, it can all-too-easily remind us that this is an artificial experience.

If the ride is so un-involving that I care to crick my neck trying to see the nostalgic remnants of a former, superior attraction - - or to spot kitschy design trivia - - there is a big problem. Do the storytellers really believe in the illusion at hand? If they don’t, we won’t.

Walt’s original Imagineers had all cut their teeth on that most completely visual of all filmmaking genres, the cartoon, and that experience clearly made a difference in their more elemental approach to theme park story. A simple situation with a visual/thematic progression and climax would suffice, much as it did for a cartoon short or a single sequence in an animated feature.

While cartoonists undoubtedly contributed gags and ideas to “Monsters, “Pooh,” or “Splash Mountain,” the overall product doesn’t feel much like it belongs to them, but more to a committee. Those show designers more experienced in technology, engineering, architecture, real-estate, marketing or theatre lack the same gift for immersion, non-verbal showmanship and elegant simplicity. Their priorities lie elsewhere.

It’s not obtuse theme park logistics and theory that matter to guests, but a transcendent emotional and visceral payoff. Those early Imagineers seemed to know instinctively what part of the story a rider wanted or needed to experience - - whether that concept was derived from a film or an entirely original situation. They could convincingly visualize themselves into the role of protagonist on an epic adventure. And we would follow them gladly.

As one wag put it, “Watch Alice go down the hole… or go down the hole? I just can’t decide.”

The magic for Disneyland guests was always the ability to travel THROUGH dimensional doorways to other worlds.

Disneyland needs more Magic Doors and fewer Hidden Mickeys.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Sacred and the Profane

One of the most revolutionary aspects of Walt’s breakthrough park in Anaheim was its attention to comforting visual transitions from one disparate themed area to another. As guests moved from the Victorian gingerbread of Main Street to a time worn Bazaar on the edge of a distant jungle the connecting rooftops, fencing and plantings gradually transformed. The goal for the early Disneyland designers was to never jar the guests eye as they moved from one ‘story’ to another; the concept much like a cross dissolve between scenes in motion pictures.

This uncanny attention to visual harmony became a cornerstone philosophy in the design and execution of Disney’s theme parks for years to come, not only serving to keep guests in the park for an entire day but assuring they'd come back for more year after year.

Once the Accountaneers stormed the castle, however, not only did the clever visual transitions between fully realized worlds bite the dust but the very worlds themselves did as well.

Nowhere is this tragic reversal of fortune more apparent than at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Most of the theming here is of the highest caliber, often surpassing even the best efforts of the finest Walt era Imagineers. Joe Rohde and his team have created beautiful worlds within worlds that verge on spiritual epiphanies. From the eye-popping authenticity of a meticulously recreated African or Asian village to the intimate beauty of the Pangani Forest and Maharajah Jungle trails this is a park that deepy understands the worlds its creating, wrapping the guests not only within a convincing environment but within a distinct feeling.

But then there’s Dinoland U.S.A., specifically ‘Chester and Hester’s’ Dino-Rama’, an area so sharply out of step with the rest of the park that it borders on blasphemy. Stumbling upon this loud kiddy playground after a peaceful stroll around the wondrous Tree of Life is like tripping into a pool of vomit after leaving St. Peter’s Basilica.

Blaring, vigorously repellent, patronizing, cheap and visually offensive, this carny hell-hole appears to have taken its theme from traveling fun-fairs; the kind that are quickly loaded and unloaded from the back of U-Haul trucks. One can only imagine that this addition was bourn from the spreadsheets of some Strategic Planning MBA who figured the kiddy quotient wasn’t getting it’s full share of yuks from a park that appeared to skew too ‘adult’, Walt’s admonition to entertain adults and children together long forgotten.

Though Dino-Rama might elicit pained smiles in Peoria, it severely cheapens Disney’s Animal Kingdom; a park that, at its best, reminds guests once again what the ‘theme’ in theme parks really means. That it appears in any Disney park is sin enough, but the fact that it’s butted up against some of Imagineering’s most sublime work in recent years is deeply heartbreaking.