Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The art of Bob McCall

A number of amazingly talented people contributed to EPCOT Center. One of them was renowned artist Robert McCall. Mr. McCall's incredible career has included work for Life magazine, NASA, and several science fiction films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He is also known for his fantastically detailed paintings of futuristic settings.

Most of McCall's EPCOT work could be seen in Horizons (which gives us one more reason to mourn its passing, I suppose). In the queue area visitors could see his paintings of three of the futuristic environments depicted in the ride: Nova Cite, Brava Centuari, and Sea Castle
copyright Disney

copyright Disney

copyright Disney

On the way out of the pavilion, Horizons visitors walked by this mural, entitled "The Prologue and the Promise":
copyright Disney

After my first trip to EPCOT in 1984, I was so enthralled with the place that my grandfather bought me the large hardcover book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating The New World of Tomorrow. Each of McCall's gorgeous Horizons queue area paintings was given its own fold-out page. I spent hours poring over them, imagining myself in that future world. Little did I realize at the time that those paintings weren't the only ones McCall did on the subject. The book Vision of the Future: The Art of Robert McCall contains many more spectacular paintings of a future where mankind has figured out how to control gravity itself, giving rise to sparkling cities that float through the sky like clouds. Additionally, a large gallery of Mr. McCall's work can be found on his website, Unfortunately, the pictures are on the smallish side. The site also offers a limited collection of prints, but the prices are a bit exorbitant for my taste. If there were a wider variety of prints offered and more affordable prices, you can bet my walls would be covered with them.

The futuristic vistas that Robert McCall painted were more than just pretty pictures. There was a logic to the designs, a sense that things had been thought through. Whereas Horizons allowed us to peep through a window on the future, McCall's paintings show us the future on a grand scale. They're a feast, not just for the eyes, but for the mind as well.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fiscally Sound Yet Creatively Bankrupt

There's been a lot of talk lately, on the forums and blogs I frequent, to the effect that the Walt Disney Company has lost its way and is teetering on the edge of creative bankruptcy. The authors of these opinions offer many supporting facts, most of them centering around the Company's attempts to cram all the theme parks (especially EPCOT) into the toddler-friendly, licensed character-heavy Disney Parks brand, even if this serves to reduce some of the parks to tacky shells of their former selves. I absolutely agree with these arguments, but I find it interesting that some of the folks making them behave as though this is happening in a vacuum, as if Disney's behavior is somehow aberrant. Viewed in the larger context of corporate America, however, it's totally understandable.

Companies like Disney that provide a product for mass consumption can be divided into two groups: those that innovate and those that don't. Being a non-innovator is not necessarily a bad thing; Coca-Cola, for example, has one main product that its customers expect to remain unchanged forever. When it tried to innovate by tinkering with the Coca-Cola formula in 1985, the results were disastrous. Similarly, McDonalds sells hamburgers and Happy Meals. Many of its attempts to innovate, such as the McPizza and the Arch Deluxe, met with failure because customers simply didn't want anything new from McDonalds.

Other companies, however, must innovate to stay alive. Consider Apple: when Steve Jobs was away from the company from 1985-1996, it nosedived. Its leaders during that period were your average CEO types; competent yet unimaginative businessmen who were fundamentally incapable of understanding what Apple was about. The company ceased to innovate, for the most part, and when Jobs returned in 1997 it was widely presumed that Apple would soon fold. Since then, of course, Apple has become an industry leader, with its competitors often engaged in a frantic scramble to emulate its successful products. I'm not saying they're perfect (I'd would never pay $2000 for a laptop without a removable battery) but Apple's success is directly attributable to their willingness to innovate.

One more example from the entertainment industry: when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, the franchise was taken over by Paramount studio executive Rick Berman. Berman was obviously a good administrator, as is evidenced by the fact that production never shut down, even when the Star Trek franchise included the concurrent production of two TV shows and one movie. However, Berman was creatively tone-deaf. He felt that the best way to maintain the profitablity of the Star Trek franchise was to play it safe and never deviate from what he percieved as the Star Trek Formula. The result, of course, put Star Trek into a death spiral of repetitive television episodes and movies, each more unimpressive than the last. Star Trek's fans gave up on the franchise, and Berman's involvement with it was terminated. Over the last few years, Star Trek's reins have been handed to someone with a more creative background who was not afraid to take chances with the franchise, and early reviews of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film have been positive.

What does all this have to do with Disney? The company that Walt Disney built was an innovator and industry leader, like Apple. These days, it's a provider of predictable comfort food, like McDonalds. Rick Berman and the Apple CEOs not named Jobs managed to alienate huge fanbases with that approach. Disney, however, has chosen to cater mainly to children, and children have notoriously poor taste. They may or may not be inspired by a Horizons or Living Seas, but a roller coaster or a Finding Nemo ride is sure to entertain them. Better yet, their parents crave safe, clean entertainment for their children, even if they themselves are bored silly by it. In the case of Apple and the Star Trek franchise, creative bankruptcy eventually translated in to fiscal bankruptcy (in a general sense). Disney, however, has apparently found a way to go creatively bankrupt but continue to rake in the cash. Any organization-be it a corporation or a sports team or a rock band-tends to take on the personality and values of its leader. We can't expect the Walt Disney Company to continue to act like Walt Disney while it's actually being run by people who are nothing like him.

I'm not defending the company's creative decline, understand, but I'm not mystified by it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Nostalgia Factor

Nostalgia. That's how some folks may explain the continuing interest in the EPCOT Center of old. People like me are just reliving our childhoods, they say. The park's metamorphosis from EPCOT Center to lowercase Epcot still bothers us, not because the old pavilions were actually superior to what's there now, but because they were inextricably tied to happy childhood memories. It's the same reason people in their thirties still collect action figures and comic books, they say. We're unwilling or unable to let go of the past.

Is that argument valid? On some level, I'm sure it is. But I believe the enduring appeal of EPCOT Center has more to do with the fact that it appealed to different audiences simultaneously. Someone who enjoyed the old He-Man cartoon as a 10-year-old will probably discover that it's nowhere near as entertaining today. On the other hand, if that person stumbles across an old Horizons ride video on YouTube, they'll likely find it just as delightful as it was twenty years ago, but for a completely new set of reasons.

Thanks to a devoted fanbase, it's probably easier than ever to get your classic EPCOT fix. You can read thoughtful commentary at EPCOT Central, get a great overview of the original Future World at Lost EPCOT, explore the old Universe of Energy at the Universe of Energy Companion Site, and get your fill of Horizons at and the Horizons Remote Access Terminal. You can buy EPCOT ride DVDs and music CDs at the Extinct Attractions Club. To this day, EPCOT Center continues to inspire and entertain. Will we be able to say the same about the park's current incarnation twenty years from now? Will there be Mission: Space and Test Track tribute sites? Will a marine biologist point to his childhood visit to The Seas With Nemo And His Computer-Generated Friends as the spark that ignited his interest in ocean life? And will anyone even remember Journey Into Imagination With Eric Idle, to say nothing of Honey, Dark Helmet Shrunk The Audience?

I seriously doubt it.