Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Enterprise-EPCOT Signage Similarity

When the USS Enterprise was reimagined with a motion-picture budget during the making of the first Star Trek film, the production’s artists and set decorators had the opportunity to add a level of realism to the ship that had been impossible for their counterparts on the TV show a decade earlier. One of the more subtle touches they added to make the Enterprise feel like a “real” spaceship was to render all the ship’s signage in a standard font. They also created a series of easy-to-understand logos for the various shipboard departments and functions.

For example, just about all the doors on the Enterprise looked the same. How would a new crewmember be able to know if they were about to stroll into a turbolift or a transporter room? Well, each had their unique logos:

                       1024_Turbolift 1024_Transporter Systems

. . . and most doors were marked with a sign that incorporated the logo. Any verbal or numeric indication was rendered in the standard shipboard font. You can see what I’m talking about in this screencap:


The film’s artists also took the time to create a format for directional signage. For example, how would you know where Turbolift 1 or Docking Port 3 were? A bulkhead labeling system that incorporated the departmental logos, numeric indicators, and arrows was devised:

            1024_turbolift 1 - left1024_docking port 3 - right

You see an onscreen example of this in the scene where Spock first comes aboard:

tmphd1064Wait, Spock’s shuttle is docked aft of the bridge, on Deck 1. This is the only docking port on that deck. Shouldn’t it be Docking Port 1 and not Docking Port 3? Man, I am such a geek.

Now, these are just tiny details. They’re barely on screen for a few seconds, and most filmgoers didn’t even notice them. Nevertheless, they worked on a subconscious level to make the Enterprise feel like a huge starship rather than an assemblage of plywood sets.

Ah, but what does this have to do with EPCOT? Well, as I’ve pointed out in the past, since Star Trek:The Motion Picture and EPCOT Center’s Future World were both products of the late 1970s they shared a very similar design aesthetic. Much like the newly-refitted 1979 version of the starship Enterprise, Future World’s signage also utilized a standardized font (known as World Bold) along with a series of easy-to-understand logos representing the various pavilions. This system was utilized on directional signs:

FWdirectionPhoto by Werner Weiss of Yesterland.com. Used with permission.

. . . signs on or in the pavilions themselves . . .

. . . and even on the early park guidemaps:


Even mundane real-world things like illuminated EXIT signs were rendered in the official font:


All of this made the various parts of Future World seem like interlocking pieces of an interrelated and greater whole. It contributed, if only subconsciously, to the park’s futuristic feel. Sadly, Future World began to lose its thematic cohesion in the mid-to-late 1990s. The circular pavilion logos disappeared, and as each pavilion was refurbished it gained its own unique signage. That part was understandable. After all, the corporate sponsors would naturally want the pavilion on which they were spending so much money to have its own identity. Less understandable is the way park management seemed to completely jettison Future World’s unified visual design in all other ways.

The signage in today’s Future World is an incomprehensible mish-mash of conflicting styles. For example, some signs still use the classic, still-futuristic-after-all-these-years World Bold font . . .

I love the font, but the rest of the sign looks like 1994 threw up all over it

. . . while other signs use some variant of Chicago, the original Mac OS system font:  



. . . and the sign above Guest Relations looks more like something that belongs in the Magic Kingdom’s Flash Gordon-inspired Tomorrowland:


Even during the dark hours of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a movie packed with more lazy storytelling and hackneyed plot devices than a whole season of any Glen Larson production you care to name, the folks in the movie’s Art Department still cared enough to make sure that any signage you could see in the background of those creatively-bankrupt scenes fit into the design lineage that began with The Motion Picture:

tffSTOPIf only Shatner had obeyed the sign, we might have been spared the horror of the Uhura Fan Dance

It’s a level of caring that seems to be sadly lacking at today’s EPCOT. Yeah, I know this is minor thing. The fact is that 99.9% of the park’s visitors don’t notice or even care about signage or a unified design aesthetic as long as they can quickly find out how to get to Soarin’ or Test Track or the Men’s room. Honestly, even diehard EPCOT Center geeks like me wish we didn’t have to care about this stuff.

I mean it. If you traveled back to the 1980s and asked the 10-year-old versions of me or any of my fellow Disney bloggers what we loved about EPCOT Center, none of us would have mentioned the signs. We would have talked about how much we loved choosing our own ending on Horizons, playing in the ImageWorks, or that part at the end of World of Motion where you ride past the mirrored wall and see a reflection of yourself riding in a futuristic bubble car. It was only when that stuff began to vanish that we fixated on the tiny details.

Here’s hoping that one of these days, those details make a return.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Eisner-EPCOT Antipathy Explanation

It’s widely known in the Disney geek community that when Michael Eisner took the reins of the Walt Disney Company in 1984 he was not a big fan of EPCOT Center. Under his watch many attempts were made to “fix” the park and give it a broader appeal, things like giving Future World a real live circus and bringing in celebrity-based attractions like Captain EO and Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The reason that’s usually given for Eisner’s antipathy toward the park’s original vision is that he was an empty suit too obsessed with synergy and marketing to appreciate EPCOT Center’s true appeal, and there’s certainly some truth to that.

But I believe that, in addition to his entertainment-industry instincts to synergize and dumb things down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Eisner’s attitude toward EPCOT Center was affected by his experience on one of his big projects at Paramount: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the late '70s, a young Michael Eisner was an executive at Paramount Pictures, and one of the projects within his sphere of responsibility was the revival of Star Trek. After several aborted attempts to make a film, Paramount had decided to start a fourth television network-a competitor to the Big Three of CBS, NBC, and ABC-with a revived Trek entitled Star Trek: Phase II as its flagship program. They even held a big press conference to announce this. Then their accountants did the math, and realized that the Paramount Television Network would never make enough money to stay in business. You’d think they would have had the accountants run the numbers before they had their big press conference, but if you’re reading this then the fact that large corporations often behave illogically is not surprising to you.

Anyway, the stillbirth of the Paramount Network presented a big problem for Michael Eisner. He had to find some way to salvage a sellable product out of all the money the studio had invested into Star Trek’s revival, and at an August 3, 1977 meeting, which was ostensibly a pitch meeting for the story for Star Trek: Phase II’s two-hour pilot, Eisner found his way out. The story treatment that Gene Roddenberry, Harold Livingston, and Robert Goodwin pitched to Eisner concerned a huge, unstoppable living spaceship that threatened the planet Earth. Upon hearing the pitch, Eisner reportedly slapped his hand down on the conference table and declared “We’ve been looking for the feature for five years, and this is it!”

With that, Star Trek: Phase II became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not only did it provide Paramount with a way to finally get some return on all the money they’d invested in attempted Star Trek revivals, they also hoped it would give them something else they badly desired: a Star Wars killer. You see, not only was Star Wars a fantastically profitable motion picture, but it also turned tie-in merchandise into big business. Naturally, Paramount wanted their own science-fiction film franchise with a profitable line of merchandise to go along with it, and Star Trek seemed to be the perfect candidate.

However, the driving force behind Star Wars was George Lucas’ desire to make a modern version of an old-fashioned space adventure serial like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. As I’ve written before, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s aspirations were much different. Having spent most of the 1970s having his head swelled by enthusiastic convention audiences who treated his philosophical musings like the utterances of a prophet, he was keen that a Star Trek film tackle some kind of profound Big Idea. Stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were heavily involved in the creative process, and they were mainly interested in ensuring that their characters got meaty story arcs.

The making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not a fun or happy process. When filming got underway, the script was still unfinished. Dialogue had to be repeatedly rewritten on the set as either Shatner or Nimoy would often object that their character wouldn’t say this or that, and the film’s big ending, where Decker merges with V’Ger and the Ilia-bot, was pretty much thought up on the spot. Star Trek was in the process of transforming into important tentpole franchise, yet Gene Roddenberry was still trying to maintain the same amount of control he’d had as executive producer of the TV series in 1967. He even went so far as to write his own version of the screenplay to compete with the one by the contracted screenwriter Harold Livingston, and then try and force Michael Eisner to choose between them. Eisner chose Livingston’s script, and the confrontation simply added one more headache to the movie’s already-painful birth. The film’s post-production phase was even more troubled. The film was locked into its December 7, 1979 release date, but its many special-effects shots proved more complex and time-consuming than was originally thought. As a result, post-production ran grotesquely behind schedule, and was completed only at the last possible moment. There was no time for test screenings, nor was there any time to release the film with anything but a temporary audio track. Director Robert Wise actually carried the finished cut of the movie with him to the premiere. Still, everyone was hoping that Paramount had a Star Wars killer on its hands.

And what happened? You know what happened. Star Trek:The Motion Picture had lots of special effects, just like Star Wars. It even had a lot of background aliens that could be made into action figures, just like Star Wars. But where Star Wars was fast-paced and exciting, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was grand, majestic, profound, slow-moving and boring boring BORING.

cast_1701_tmpPictured: EXCITEMENT!

Sure, the music was excellent, the designs (even the much-lampooned disco pajama uniforms) were well thought-out, and the story had something meaningful to say about the human condition. But none of that made up for the fact that the movie was less fun than a PBS documentary on the history of borscht. Kids didn’t find it exciting, the toy line by Mego was nowhere near as cool or successful as Kenner’s Star Wars line, and so even though the movie turned a budget of $40 million into a domestic box office gross of about $82.2 million it was widely viewed as a flop. A flop with Michael Eisner’s name on it.

eisner_TMPSee that guy on the right? It’s not Frank Wells.

At the time, no one could have known that it would give birth to a successful, long-running film series and a television revival that would include four spinoff shows and a resultant boatload of home video sales. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a stressful, painful experience that appeared not to have been worth it.

So imagine how Eisner must have felt in 1984 when he took over a Walt Disney Company that had, on its Florida property, a big expensive sciencey park that was a lot like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the very thing that gave him so many headaches during the final years of the 1970s. EPCOT Center was very grand, impressive, and profound, but like the first Star Trek film most members of the general public found it confusing and boring. I believe that Eisner quickly turned his back on EPCOT Center’s founding philosophies in part because his experience with the first Star Trek film led him to believe that such profound, educational ideas presented in a rather sterile, academic, science fictiony way just could not appeal to mass audiences.

Of course, his vision of what EPCOT should be was all about thrill rides, celebrities, and faddish trends. A perfect example of that was the Wonders of Life pavilion, which featured a garish late-80s Nickelodeon-inspired color scheme, EPCOT’s very first thrill ride, and a large helping of celebrity cameos. You could argue, though, that at least Michael Eisner had a vision. Today’s executives seem to have no clue what they want EPCOT to be, beyond a place to sell Duffy merchandise.

Still, I still hope that one day EPCOT will get a Wrath of Khan-style makeover that remains faithful to the park’s core essence while jettisoning all the pointless flotsam it’s accumulated over the last couple decades worth of attempts to make it fit in with the cool kids.

Or at least get William Shatner to narrate O Canada! That’s one celebrity cameo I can get behind.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Disney In Space Part 4: From Ray Bradbury to Lt. Dan

EPCOT Center may have been the boldest, gutsiest thing the Walt Disney Company ever did. Instead of rides based on familiar Disney properties like Snow White or Peter Pan it had pavilions devoted to big, sweeping topics like agriculture, transportation, and energy. Each pavilion either contained one huge experience (like Universe of Energy and Horizons) or a number of experiences under one roof (like The Land or Journey Into Imagination), allowing you to spend an hour or more exploring one topic. Since Future World was devoted to, well, the future, and since all optimistic projections of the future always included space travel in some form, it seemed logical that EPCOT Center would open with a Space pavilion.

It did not.

However, a Space pavilion was definitely planned. In fact, Disney’s 1977 Annual Report actually contained a description of the proposed pavilion:

A huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out for the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technologies and exploration”

Although lots of concept art and photos of early ride mock-ups for EPCOT’s other pavilions have been published, we’ve only ever seen a tiny number of images from that early Space pavilion concept. The most common are a photo of the ride’s scriptwriter, the great Ray Bradbury, and designer John de Cuir examining a model of the show’s theater/ride vehicle . . .


. . . this artistic rendering of the same theater/show vehicle:


. . . and finally, this rendering of the pavilion’s exterior:


According to Martin Smith’s excellent Mission:Space tribute video, the pavilion would have been located on the plot of land now occupied by The Living Seas. the experience would have started with an Omnimover ride that took visitors “up into space” and deposited them into an area where they could choose from several activities, including the main show.

Supposedly, outer-space visuals would have been projected onto an Omnimax sphere outside the “windows” of the huge theater/simulated space vehicle, which would have moved in sync with them in some way. As near as I can tell from all these fragmented pieces of information, the show would have been a cross between Universe of Energy and Horizons’ Omnimax sequence. If the Ray Bradbury-penned narration for the original Spaceship Earth is any indication, his script for the Space pavilion’s show would have been similarly majestic and profound. Much like the original Universe of Energy or the original Spaceship Earth narration, though, it likely would have been rather mirthless and scholarly. Kids like me who were weaned on Star Trek would have loved it, but our more numerous Star Wars-oriented peers-who thought of space travel as a thrilling roller-coaster ride where you shoot lasers at enemy spaceships while making wisecracks to your Wookiee co-pilot-would surely have been disappointed.

The Bradbury Space pavilion, as we EPCOT Center geeks refer to it, was unfortunately shelved due to the lack of a corporate sponsor. A scaled-back version called Journeys In Space was planned for a while in the late-80s/early 90s, and would have occupied the expansion plot between The Land and The Seas pavilions, but it, too, was shelved.

Which brings us to the space attraction that EPCOT actually ended up getting. Notice I said “attraction”. By the time Mission:Space opened in 2003, EPCOT’s “permanent World’s Fair” concept had long been abandoned by unimaginative executives who couldn’t and wouldn’t understand it. So we weren’t getting any more pavilions with their multifaceted experiences that a person could spend hours exploring. Also, since the prevailing opinion was that Disney needed more “thrill” rides, there’s no way we were getting one of those fun-but-mild-experience-that-can-be-enjoyed-by-the-whole-family rides that EPCOT Center did so well. No, Mission:Space will go down in history as the first Disney attraction to come equipped with barf bags. Still, it’s not without its good points.

The queue is extremely cool. Also, the attraction features some very advanced technology, and I’m not talking about the simulators. I’m talking about the Lt. Dan Animatronic. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: “That’s no Animatronic, that’s really actor Gary Sinise!” But look more closely:


Notice how his forehead is completely smooth. Next time you watch the preshow video, observe how as he talks, his forehead and most of his other facial features remain completely immobile. That’s the sure mark of an Animatronic. Or it could be botox.

Finally, for all its flaws, Mission:Space is the most realistic space attraction Disney has ever done. I was as imaginative a kid as you’ll ever see, but when I went on Mission To Mars back in the mid-80s, I never once believed I was in a rocket ship and not a show building. And as I discussed in previous posts, neither Space Mountain nor Star Tours really tried to realistically simulate spaceflight. Mission:Space, though, gives you the most realistic space launch experience you’ll get outside a NASA training facility. Yes, the Orange Team version makes a lot of people sick, but so would an actual space launch. It’s one reason why so few people qualify to become astronauts.

So, removed from the context of the thing it replaced (Horizons) and the grand Space pavilion we never got, Mission:Space isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be, in my opinion. It’s certainly a product of our current era of scaled-back ambitions and MBA thinking, but at least it gives the space travel concept the seriousness it deserves* and doesn’t try to shoehorn in any licensed characters.

I mean, we could have gotten Stitch and Duffy Take a Ride Into Space (starring Lt. Dan). Right?

*I meant to say that the main show treats space travel seriously. The post-show is another story. The “Space Race” game is more like a space-themed game show, and the rest of the post-show is like a high-end McDonald’s play area.