Thursday, March 21, 2013

Disney and Lucas: Creators of Worlds

Originally Written: November 29 2012 

It was certainly something when I found out that Lucasfilm would be bought out by The Walt Disney Company this past Halloween, and that the long awaited Episode 7 would hit cinemas as late as 2015. Many were delighted to hear the news, for the idea of new Star Wars films would bring enlightenment and excitement in the coming years, others were infuriated, cringing at the very thought that the galaxy far far away was now in the same family as Muppets, steamboat chugging mice, and merry mouskateers. I, on the other hand, was neither delighted nor infuriated, but plain out surprised. Many questions raced into my head as to why one of my favorite franchises of all time was sold to the company started by the legendary Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy in the late 1920s. Now, after several weeks of pondering on the matter, and pondering on the fact that Yoda and Mickey Mouse are now pretty much one, I can come to the conclusion that the great Walt Disney and the great George Lucas are similar in many ways, for they both started out very small in a big world and worked their way up, becoming creators of worlds in their own right.

The World of Disney is Walt Disney's creation (duh) and Star Wars is George Lucas' creation, and even if these two geniuses had their share of problems and doubts, they chucked them out the door and succeeded in crossing the finish line, incepting what are inarguably some of the most iconic images in all of pop media. This can be seen throughout their films, from the overpowering magnitude of Fantasia and it's prudent musical scores, to the exciting, head bending nature of the Star Wars saga and the Indiana Jones series. And yes, even in the latest Star Wars trilogy, it clearly shows Lucas' creative vision and passion for the arts, something that is often overlooked and unfairly compared. So lets have a look at the similarities between these two very famous men and see how they got started and eventually became what we know them as today.

Well for one thing, both Lucas and Disney started never wanting to go into the field of storytelling and creating worlds. Disney wanted to go into the army, and at 16, he dropped out of high school to do just that. George Lucas was a high school outcast who was more fascinated by race cars than with video cameras. After a brutal car accident that nearly claimed his life, Lucas decided to go into another field, the field of independent filmmaking, and I use "independent" very highly, for Lucas was a person who hated the systems and rules of the studios and wanted to do his own thing. As for Disney, he was not accepted into the army because he was underage, and he and his friend decided to join Red Cross where Disney drove an ambulance for a few months. After he was done driving an ambulance, it was then that Disney decided to go in the art direction, drawing comics and doodles for a newspaper. Along the way of his long and tedious career, Disney also established many short lived companies before The Walt Disney Company was finally formed, such as Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, which he formed with Ub Iwerks, who helped him created Mickey Mouse in 1928. He also formed Newman Laugh-O Gram and hired many animators to help him in making short animated cartoons, but the company eventually shut down because of studio profits and bankruptcy. Even Disney's first character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was taken out of his hands, and little did Walt know that it would take his company more than 8 decades to get the character back into Disney's grasp.

As for Lucas, he didn't have very much luck in the beginning either. In the early 1970s, he and Francis Ford Coppola founded the studio American Zoetrope and released THX 1138 in 1971 to little success. After the failure of this film, it was then that Lucas decided to form his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd. and release the smash hit American Graffiti in 1973. But even then, no one believed in Lucas and his filmmaking talent, for he had a very difficult time finding a distributor for Graffiti, eventually having it distributed by Universal. This very same thing carried on into Star Wars, as very few people had fate in Lucas' vision and many thought the film Lucas was creating was a complete mess. You know what, the making of Star Wars WAS a mess. Similar to what Steven Spielberg experienced while filming JAWS, many of the elements on the set of Star Wars were not working or nonexistent. Lucas constantly fell behind schedule, it rained a lot in the Tunisian desert where the Tatooine scenes were filmed, many of the film's props malfunctioned, and there were several electrical breakdowns. And several people who worked with Lucas on the film became angered, either quitting or having somebody else take their place. Even Lucas himself became angered and at times, felt like flushing the film down the toilet and forgetting about the thing all together. Lucas became so upset and stressed over the film that he was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with high blood pressure and exhaustion. Yes, Lucas had a truck full of miseries while filming Star Wars, and he himself, just like a good majority of people around that time, felt like the film was going to blow the big one and become a dismal disappointment. Of course we all know what came of Star Wars in the end, but the film was no easy task to complete.

The same can be said for Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and pretty much all of the Golden Age Disney animated flicks in general. As any long time animator will tell you, producing animation is no walk to the ice cream parlor. Just a few seconds of an animated film can take over 100 drawings to produce, and the fact that Disney and his crew were able to produce Snow White at such a planned rate is just remarkable. The fact that they were able to produce an hour and a half long animated film with all of it's colorful, rotoscoped, flawless glory is fantastic to think about, but the film, like Star Wars, was no easy peanut to turn into butter. In fact, at one point during the film's production, the film went over budget, and in order to get the rest of the money to complete the film, Disney had to show a rough cut of the film to bankers at the Bank of America. And even then, most people didn't have fate in Disney's vision as many of the film's producers, particularly the animators, became frustrated and felt like they were being overworked. Animator Ward Kimbell, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men", animated an extravagant soup eating scene involving the seven dwarves and Snow White only to have it cut from the final product. Kimbell became so angry that he was about to leave Disney's company, that is until Disney rewarded him by assigning him to work on Jiminy Cricket for Disney's next film, Pinocchio. And even if Disney's films like Snow White and Pinocchio became superb hits at the box office, the company was several million dollars in debt. Many of Disney's animators felt like they were being worked hard and paid little, and in 1941, many of Disney's animators went on strike, several of them departing the company all together. Most notable animators who left the company were Bill Melendez and Frank Tashlin, who went to work on Looney Tunes at Leon Schlesinger Productions.

Yes, it seemed that, despite there successes and triumphs, Lucas and Disney had their share of troubles and treacheries. Both of them became insanely rich, yet they owed a lot of money for the highly expensive movies they were making. Eventually, everything worked out for them in the end, but it would leave some scars that would never fully heal. Disney had several family issues while he was making his movies and Lucas got a divorce from his wife Marcia in the mid 1980s. Both of them would suffer from depressive states where they felt like throwing in the towel and giving up on everything they worked so hard to accomplish, but one thing is set in the stone as clear as day. Both Disney and Lucas were "wizard" at entrepreneurship. You can't deny that both Disney and Lucas pioneered new filmmaking techniques and brought forward new innovations and customs to the filmmaking industry. Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, has given us both practical and computer animated special effects, blending them into films very well and giving a sense of realism to the whole "magical fantasy" element. Disney's "imagineers" helped bring animatronics and unique mechanisms to the movie dinner table and also helped bring a sense of magical quality to Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971. Disney's Multiplane camera also brought great special effects to many of Disney's animated films, giving a sense of 3-D nature and depth to many of the animated films' environments. And I'd be foolish not to mention that Pixar was developed at Lucasfilm and spun a web of it's own, eventually being bought out by The Walt Disney Company in 2004. Of course I don't need to go into much detail with that, for Pixar has produced some of Disney's most successful classics like Toy Story and Up.

But I remember growing up watching Disney films on VHS cassette tapes back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Right before the films started, there would be this weird sound and a logo that said THX. It spooked me for many years until the Internet boomed and I finally researched on what this whole THX thing was all out. THX, standing for Tomlinson Holman eXperiment (as well as a homage to THX 1138), is a sound technology that was developed at Lucasfilm in 1983 to help enhance the sound  and picture quality of Lucas' Star Wars Original Trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi. Since then, the technology has been used to restore a lot of older films, such as the first two Star Wars films, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, and of course, a majority of Disney's animated classics. Even Mickey's A Christmas Carol has been restored through the THX process. And it's also interesting to point out that THX is also used in video game consoles, car radios, home theaters, and even computer speakers. Yes, it all goes back to Lucasfilm and Disney some way or another, and when it comes to Jim Henson and his Muppets, they are also connected in one form or another. Of course Jim Henson oversaw the creation of Stewart Freeborn's Yoda for 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and he and Lucas teamed up for 1986's Labyrinth, but you may recall that Disney in fact owns the mainstream Muppet characters (not including the Sesame Street Muppets) and have distributed many of the Muppets' movies throughout the years, such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and last November's blockbuster, simply titled The Muppets. The point is that Jim Henson has worked with both Lucas and Disney at some point, and some of his legacy is clearly shown throughout some of Disney and Lucas' motion pictures.

And of course, Walt Disney World has Star Wars Weekends each year, displaying Star Wars fandom mixed in with that charming "Disneyness". I find it odd, yet awesome at the same time, that there are action figures combining both the Disney icons with the Star Wars icons (Big Bad Pete as Boba Fett) and that there is a ride at Disney World called Star Tours, featuring Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens as the voice of the captain robot Rex. In my book, it just goes to show how much Star Wars is for the kiddies as it is for the adults. That parallels Disney perfectly, for even if most Disney films are for children, the adults can chime in and enjoy the wonder and the excitement as well. I like to think that  George Lucas is a child at heart just like Walt Disney was a child at heart, doing it all for the children of the world so they can be captivated and blown into another dimension. That is something I wish to bring forward in my career as a storyteller, as I am at the moment coming up with a unique, diverse universe that is suitable for both youngsters and grown ups. Just think about it, Disney has Jaq and Gus, Lucas has R2 and 3P0. Disney has the Reluctant Dragon, Lucas has Jar Jar Binks (a character that has been ridiculed to no end). Disney has the Wicked Crone from Snow White, Lucas has the Emperor. Just by saying their names, I'm thinking up similarities between all of these characters. And Winifred the Witch from Hocus Pocus can shoot lightning from her hands just like the Emperor. I'd surely like to see Bette Midler go up against Ian McDiarmid any day.

Both Lucas and Disney have had many victories throughout their interesting, yet inspiring careers, but they have also had their share of criticisms. Most pop media websites nowadays have talked terrible things about Lucas' latest Star Wars trilogy, complaining about Jar Jar, Hayden Christensen, microscopic organisms in the blood, too much CGI, and Yoda fighting with a lightsaber. Yes, the "prequels" have been torn apart several times throughout the web, most notable in RedLetterMedia's documentaries, but it may shock some of you to know that several of Disney's films weren't well received upon their release. Bambi was loathed by many critics who claimed it to be too realistic and grim for a kid's film and even the great Fantasia with it's epic, classical glory, received mixed reception, some critics believing it to be a huge departure from Disney's signature style, a huge departure for the worse. Today, these films hold classic status. I have no doubt that somewhere down the line, maybe after the newer trilogy is released that expands the Star Wars universe even further, that the Star Wars prequels will be hailed as the classic epic stories they really are. Often, I have run into people who are unfairly comparing them to the original films and making them seem like they were just made to make money and sell action figures. That's not true in the slightest. It is true that movies promote merchandise and merchandise promotes the movies, but no big budget movie in Hollywood is made with the clear intent to sell toys. The toys come later, after the movie is completed and ready for release. Kids will see the toys on the shelf of a store and it will motivate them to see the movie or vice versa (kids might see the movie and want an action figure or stuffed animal of their favorite character). Neither Lucas nor Disney made their movies with the intention of making a wazoo of play things. Do you know what Lucas had to promote Star Wars at San Diego Comic-Con a year before Star Wars' release? A bunch of t-shirts and hats! The figurines didn't come until much later.

This also goes for Disney. All Disney had to promote his material was some magazines, wind up toys made of metal and paper dolls. It's much different nowadays. You can go into a store and find just about anything with Mickey Mouse on it, just like you can find just about anything with a Star Wars character on it. See the similarities between Disney and Lucas. They had very little to promote their movies in the beginning, now they have everything under the sun to help in making their movies hits. It's all smooth once you think about it, and whether or not it's a ball cap or a soap dish, it will surely get anybody into the Star Wars or Disney spirit.

When Disney was designing Epcot, the Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow, he said that it will never be finished, for it will always be expanding, progressing, and getting much bigger than when it originally started. Doesn't that sound familiar. Lucas once said that films were never completed, only abandoned, and it can clearly be seen in his Special Editions of the original Star Wars films. Lucas made the Special Editions with the clear intent to expand upon his already established universe, making it bigger and in many ways more vivid and exhilarating. In it's own obvious way, Star Wars is a lot like Epcot, always getting bigger and progressing, and this couldn't be made more evident than with Disney's latest purchase of Lucasfilm and their intention of making more films to further the galactic adventures after Return of the Jedi. With Walt Disney tempering with his well rounded universe and coming up with new ideas to make it bolder and wider, isn't that what Lucas was doing with Star Wars, or what Disney will do with Star Wars in the future. There is not doubt that Disney will make Star Wars much more rich and bold and make the story we all know and love better than it ever was before.

All you people out there that are fearful of Disney making the next Star Wars film with Donald Duck as the main character and making the Genie from Aladdin cameo as Ben Kenobi, fear not. Disney will respect George Lucas' vision and never do something like that without George Lucas' permission first. There is no doubt in my mind that they will take this new trilogy seriously and make George Lucas proud in every sense of the word. And many people like myself feel that George Lucas' retirement is well deserved. He's had quite a career if you ask me.

The whole entire point I'm trying to make with this article is that, in many countless ways, Disney and Lucas have been linked together even before Disney bought Lucasfilm. They were two men working in an area bigger than themselves and they eventually became powerful creators of the most imaginative worlds OUR world has ever seen. They had their pickles, as all people do, but they ultimately worked around them and came through in the grand scheme of things, and today we hail them as some of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. Over the years, Disney and Lucas have become further linked as both their companies would work together on several occasions, and now, Lucas and Disney's works are now siblings, along with the works of Marvel and Jim Henson. And if there is one thing these two men have taught me, it's to go for the most impossible of impossible things, they are not so impossible after all. A green man once said, Do or do not. There is no try. Another green man said When your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme. Anything can happen, and in my eyes, Lucas and Disney have gone to the end of Earth and back again to prove it.

No comments:

Post a Comment