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.”


Ivonne R. said...

I saw a great ride video of the original UOE which included the Radok preshow that I had not seen in many years. It brought back wonderful memories as I was just a little girl when I first saw it. Even today I'm still amazed by the moving tiles and everytime I see the Ellen preshow I'm mad that they felt they needed to go with a "hipper" direction. The original preshow truly was a work of art. The Ellen preshow is dull and dumbed down.

Anonymous said...

If "the medium is the message" then, yes, the Radok preshow was an unqualified success. Unfortunately, the stilted narration, oddly cold worldview, and vaguely Christian Rock-sounding music of UOE always hurt my ability to fully connect with the attraction. I loved Radok's work, I just always thought it deserved a better showcase.

Digital Jedi said...

I never forgot the Radok Blocks, even though I didn't know what they were called till this Blog. My wife never got to see them or experience Epcot in its pure form. I know she would have loved this show, as would have my daughter.

I sincerely beleive that had enough creative energy been put into it, a more affordable, reliable technology could have been developed. This is one element of the Universe of Energy that didn't need replacement, but renovation. The Ellen pre-show, while mildly amusing, is not a step forward, but a step back. The blocks were masterpieces of engineering, and you replace them with a episode of Jeopardy? Replacing the work of art that were these blocks with a flat movie is not forward thinking, it's a cheap fix.

The problem with accountaneers is that they lack the motivation and creative juices necessary to find ways of making something grand, more affordable. I'm sure an Imagineer worth his salt, had he been given the tools and the opportunity, could have put some imagination and energy into innovating the Radok Blocks and moving the technology into the future, even making a more affordable version of them.

This is an example of what is so wrong with Epcot Center nowadays. It seems efforts are no longer made to impress the public, just appease them. When will modern-day Disney learn that keeping such a tight grip on the purse strings is only hurting their potential revenue and not invigorating it? They just cannot envision the philosophy that made Disney great, can make Disney even greater.

Personal Rant: (And when exactly did Ellen Degeneres become "hip" anyway? I don't hear teenagers talking about the latest dance move Ellen sported on her last episode of her talk show each morning. I think someone confused "hip" with "current", in which case the attraction could have easily included Christopher Walken. Now THAT would have been interesting.:D)

Anonymous said...


This was a magnificent piece of showmanship, and I was beginning to wonder if I was one of an endangered species of people who got to see it working the way it was designed.

So beautiful. Why doesn't someone do a new iteration of this presentation technology?

And yes, I agree the Ellen thing is already tired. Let's get back to something with a big "Wow" kick to it. This pavillion is about ENERGY. Let's have some.

Anonymous said...

I'm constantly amazed at how special the original EPCOT was back in the early eighties. Those Imagineers really pushed for "high concept" and originality. A projection surface could be so much more than a flat rectangle.

Why is it that more than twenty years later everything in that park that was great is gone, and any remnants of that greatness are defaced by enormous Mickey arms and C-list talent like Bill and Ellen?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reminder of an amazing childhood experience. The awe at that show came back reading your description. It's a real shame it was replaced with a "hip" version. I only went to the Elllen version once and haven't been back to that pavillion since. The Universe of Energy was never my favorite ride at EPCOT, but it was always worth stopping in for that amazing pre-show. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and well worth the stop. Often I'd leave before the "ride" portion or just stay in the pre-show area for another viewing. That was art. The Ellen pre-show is just another video.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a great idea. Bring that to DCA. Bye bye Whoopie!

Anonymous said...

I've heard that after the initial preview with Park Cast Members, a massive effort to clean up the floors beneath them was underway--it was that mind blowing.

vortech said...

I find it astounding that EPCOT a place philosophically dedicated to experimentation and advanced technology would give up and just take the easy way out.

That said, The whole pavilion is kinda a loss. The original queue film was dull, technology aside, and the interior shows were even worse, then the world's slowest "ride" through a story-less room full of dinosaurs. It's hard not to think they were just pandering to kids.

The ellen addition, while not good, and not at all withstanding the test of time at least injected some personality, narrative, and humor into the attraction.

What I would REALLY like to se is something that could be informative. With a show that is mostly projected film, there is no excuse not to constantly update this to reflect the cutting edge of a very active field of science. Instead of, in the words of someone I took with me, "An educational park for people who can't think."

Digital Jedi said...

I think a valid point was made about the actual movie incorporated into the Radok Block presentation. It certainly wasn't the greatest, but then, that was one of the problem with the attraction overall. While certainly classic, the show definitely needed a touch up and, as Arstogas put it, some Energy.

I'm sure Ellen, Alex, Bill and even Jamie got a decent paycheck for their part in this "movie". Can someone realistically prove to me that the same money that went into funding celebrity paychecks couldn't have also been put into reinvigorating the attraction technologically? Couldn't the money have been better spent on making the show more attractive for generations to come, as opposed to making it more attractive just to the generation at hand?

Universe of Energy didn't need a celebrity face. It needed to be more interesting. In my opinion, for all that's worth, the attraction needed a new pre-show. Something that incorporated the blocks and capitalized on the relatively inexpensive CG technology of today.

I'm sure there's a reason the climax to the ride is so ridiculously long, but effort should have been focused on making that final segment less arduous for people waiting in the ride car. As impressive as it is to see the space shuttle on such a large screen, it’s something I've seen more then enough times at my local OmniMax Cinema. Capitalize on that technology and make that finale something worth waiting for, something we’ve never seen before and something that is not likely to be reproduced at my local OmniMax Cinema.

The dinosaurs themselves could have been replaced one at a time, over time, with more realistic movements and behaviors. I would have loved it if that submerged dino had splashed some water on nearby guests as it emerged from the pond. Those giant centipedes could have startled the public if they reacted to our presence and scurried way or moved towards the ride car threateningly. Wasn’t the giant Brachiosaur supposed to drool on us as we went under? What happened to that technology? Something as basic as more realistic skin texture could have been applied to some creatures. I always wanted the ride through the past to be longer, but I suspect that that wasn’t feasible. Wouldn’t a nice compromise have been if the ride stopped for a moment and the Pteradon actually flew off it’s perch? Dinosaurs moving in the distance would have even been beautiful and feasible touch-up.

While I’m not just spouting out ideas without understanding that all this requires time and money, what harm would it have been to try and incorporate this basic principle instead of going with the temporary fix that they did end up using? I fear that corporate never had any intention of remaking the attraction to endure the test the time. I believe their intention was always just to put in something temporary, mildly interesting and then tear it down for something else with nowhere near as much charm.

Anonymous said...

What is the key difference between the Disney experience and pretty much every other amusement park? It's the creation of something exceptional and unique instead of something that is simply "good enough" (ge for short). A quality immersive experience can never be achieved in a park that is ge. Unfortunately, the role of a beancounter is to define what is ge and pay not a nickel more.

Putting a static screen into the Energy preshow is ge. Removing the cones you drive over in Test Track is ge. Leaving the Odessey Restaurant vacant is ge. Stripping out the essence of Imagination is ge. Excellence and heart cannot be achieved in a world that is simply ge. And in turn the Disney experience cannot survive by being merely ge.

Drew said...

I haven't been to UOE in years, well before the newish Ellen version. The only thing I ever remember from that attraction was the Radok wall. It really blew away my young mind. That was the great thing about the Epcot of the past. It wouldn't give you a major thrill, instead you'd find little surprises around every corner that would leave you speechless. Now that sense of discovery seems misplaced. Great site by the way, I'm an avid reader.

Ivonne R. said...

Digital Jedi Said:

Personal Rant: (And when exactly did Ellen Degeneres become "hip" anyway? I don't hear teenagers talking about the latest dance move Ellen sported on her last episode of her talk show each morning. I think someone confused "hip" with "current", in which case the attraction could have easily included Christopher Walken. Now THAT would have been interesting.:D)

Yes, I use the term hip very losely here. :)

What UOE definitely needs is more cowbell!

Karl Elvis said...

I'd forgotten all about these - noting only that the current ellen-and-bill-nye pre-show was oddly lacking compared to my memory of something special. Reading this, it comes back to me, and oh, i miss the origial.

I'd love to see film of it in action.

Digital Jedi said...

Ivonne R. said:
>>>Yes, I use the term hip very losely here. :)

What UOE definitely needs is more cowbell!<<<

Perfect! There could be a dinosaur runthrough with a track telling them not to fear the reaper. I think we're on to something here! LOL :D

Anonymous said...

WEDway100 said...
Stupid Judy.

One of the primary messages of the new show is that educated people are foolish, arrogant, and ultimately not very bright - yet I can spend a few minutes (in between thinking about my hair, my cat, and my diet) listening to someone "smart" and learn everything I ever needed to know.

How non-Disney the message of this show has become. Einstein is a doddering fool, oblivious to the world around him. Smart people (Bill Nye) have geeky social skills and walk around in lab coats. And stupid Judy is pompous and arrogant, and ultimately not bright enough despite all her advanced degrees.

Walt worked with the brightest minds in the world to cast a vision of the future. This show panders to base instincts, and misleads us into believing the challenges of energy can be summed up in a few simple-minded ideas.

Thank you for helping me see how far things have really declined.

The demise of Radok is but a symptom of a pervasive illness.

Anonymous said...

>The demise of Radok is but a symptom of a pervasive illness.<

UOE is a classic case of Accountaneer's Touch: a rash-like disease that attacks Disney theme park immersion, characterized by the replacement of timeless, unique show elements with elements that lower the creative bar, dumb down technical standards and reference the modern world outside the park.

Examples are legion. The self-serving cynicism of WDW's Tiki Room: Under New Management. Winnie the Pooh at DL. Virtually all of DCA.

The first outbreak of AT that I noticed was in the early 90's at Disneyland, when the wide walkway to Small World was festooned with Disney Afternoon TV cartoon characters, and cheap, plywood flats of Gummi Bears dotted the venerable Motorboat Cruise like an eruption of acne.

It was only the beginning. I'm hoping we are seeing the end.

Mellie Helen said...

Ask and ye shall receive: there's a video of the Radok preshow on Google Video here. Enjoy -- it's the only way I've been able to see the Radok preshow, myself!

Anonymous said...

The difference here is that the original Universe of Energy was created by ARTISTS. Artsist set free to create something new, unique, original.... in other words a piece of art.

Watch the video of the original pre-show, yes, it is dated by todays standards but it is BEAUTIFUL. It is timeless in many ways, it is visually STUNNING and the video can only protray about one one hundreth of what the experience was like.

If you want to save Epcot (and this really applies to all of the parks) you need to put your trust in talented artists and give them the space to create. Take risks and forget the focus groups.

Look at recent success Disney has had, say the two Pirates films. they are the mass hits they have become because of Johnny Depps performance. he went out on a limb, he created something NEW and UNIQUE. It scared the hell out of the Disney execs who tried to reign him in, but the bottom line is that audiences are not dumb, they embraced his envelope pushing performance. Look at the endless line up of Pixar hits... each created by ARTISTS who are passionate about what they do. That passion permeates the final product.

Look at the products Apple produces, they are the result of giving talented designers the room to explore and create something with a singular vision. They do not use focus groups to homoginize everything, they find skilled, talented people with a vision and let them create.

Epcot and all the parks can easily and quickly rise to the elevated planes they deserve to be on, all it takes is the guts to allow the artists to do what they do best and to put your trust in someone with a vision and a passion. The original EPCOT was a product of said PASSION, the current Epcot is a sad product of committees, focus groups and scared executives.

Anonymous said...

I like many others was "wowed" by the technology, but can we have some perspective here please? It was all in the service of a film that celebrated the destruction of the planet so we can consume fossil fuels!

Digital Jedi said...

Anonymous Said:
>>>I like many others was "wowed" by the technology, but can we have some perspective here please? It was all in the service of a film that celebrated the destruction of the planet so we can consume fossil fuels!<<<

Celebrates the destruction of the planet? Is it still too soon? ;)

The attraction, previously and currently pointed out that these fossil fuels won't last for long and that an alternative source needs to be found.

Anonymous said...

I think the point being discussed here is not really about the content of the show but rather how is is / was presented and the artistry that went into it.

A discussion about fossil fuels and the effect they may have on the environment may very well be interesting, but is not what this is about.

I think we can agree that the information presented in the show needs a refresh. Every 10 years or so ANY Epcot show should be revised for content. But the actual presentation is what is at discussion here, not the content.

Brian Sibley said...

How good to be reminded of that great show and the fabulous undulating wall of screens. I loved it from the first time I saw it and, together with the original - pre-Ellen - ride through dinolandscape section, made 'Energy' one of the attractions I used to re-visit as often as I could...

Anonymous said...

How come I don't remember this? That sounds awesome!

That said, I can understand why such a monumental DAKs nightmare would be axed.

As much as we miss so many things, we have to remember that for Disney to be successfull, and therefor exist, we can't have every little marvel we'd like. That's not to defend the horrors of imagineering over the last 15 years, but we can't honestly keep everything. That's a little too much to expect.

Anonymous said...

thanks for a great entry. this really brings back memories of my first time at epcot. i, too, stared wide-eyed and mouth ajar at those magical moving blocks.

(of course, i think i fell asleep during the [what seemed to be the most boring] movie that concluded the ride, but still, what a magical first impression!)

now i have the Energy theme song in my head... :) "you make the world go 'round and round!"

Iain said...

This makes me incredibly sad. :( I'm shameful to admit that I don't ever remember the original pavilion. I'm 25 and made my first trek to Disney in '85, when I was 4, and I'm sure I was there to see it but I just can't remember. It's disheartening to see amazing stuff like this go away in favour of the 'new'.

I supose it's good that Test Track is so awesome. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you laine, but I also feel great appreciation for those who were able to put up their home videos of the old rides, for those of us who would like to remember them.

I was wondering, if this technology was used in the 2008 Olympic games, because I recall them having a segment where blocks were moving up and down. That may have been similar to the Radok block system with the break system.

What I really liked was the end to this ride. Although, I also like the part in Ellen's Energy Adventure where she and Bill Nye are in space, and Ellen gets hit by a sattelite lol.

Greg said...

Thanks for reminding me of this. I think the Ellen pre-show is decently fun and at least her presence does not detract enormously from the dinosaurs, which are the real heart of this attraction. But it doesn't compare to the drama of the original pre-show, which excellently primed you for the ride. After that, the world of the mesozoic seemed almost tranquil.