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Entries in Management (5)

Monday
Feb152010

Love, Hate, and John Lasseter

The theme park savior we've been waiting for?
Or is that impossible... even for Lasseter?


“The Next Walt Disney,”
a title attached to John Lasseter a few years ago, admittedly had me excited. No, I never for ten seconds thought he’d hold a candle to Uncle Walt, but compared to the other clowns trying to run Walt’s company, Lasseter appeared to be the theme park savior we geeks had been waiting for.

Among the many differences between Walt and John, one is more important than all others. Lasseter is a creative genius who is trying to fix what has already been done with the Disney parks. Walt Disney was a creative genius who did what had never been done. “Hold on. JL pioneered CG animation, something that had never been done.” Yes. He sure did. And he did a bang-up job. In the world of CG animation, he is king. Allow me to be clear on one thing: Two thumbs up for the accomplishments of Pixar and their brilliant leaders, including JL. We are talking about theme parks though.

Lasseter has, with help from Jobs, Catmull, and others, built what is quite possibly the only existing near-perfect creative environment… no thanks to the Eisner Disney Company. Can a similarly creative and successful environment be established at WDI? I have spent time at the Pixar Animation Studio. I walked the halls, seen their creative process, and mingled with talent. I was delightfully overwhelmed at the amount of talent oozing out of the place. I worked off-site on a few small Pixar marketing projects. I met with Lasseter both at Pixar and at the parks. We spoke of animatronics, animation, and even about his and my careers. His face lights up when you talk about Disneyland . He enjoys talking about the time he worked as a Disneyland custodian and Jungle Cruise Skipper. He couldn’t be more genuine and passionate about so many of these things.

The Pixar studio itself radiates a sense of passion. In the animation wing of the Pixar building, Disneyland memorabilia artfully clutter every hallway (along with other cool memorabilia). The big “D” from the old Disneyland sign on Harbor Blvd. is there. Props and themed offices are everywhere, including at least two offices with secret passages. A set of actual Chuck E. Cheese animatronic figures greet you around one corner. It is a wonderland second only to W.E.D of the 1960’s. One thing is for sure. The appreciation for Walt Disney’s legacy does not go unnoticed.

Photo from the Los Angeles Times


Lasseter’s office
(next to Steve Jobs’ simple-as-can-be office with one desk, two chairs, an iMac and notheing else) is a perfect reflection of everything he is passionate about. Looney Toons animation cells, stuffed Miyazaki animated characters, an original Sunday Peanuts comic strip signed and gifted to him by Schulz himself, original Lucas Films artwork, toys galore, Pixar stuff of course, and an impressive collection of old and new ViewMasters and slides. A collection of model trains on one wall and on another wall, a photo of JL with “Nine Old Men” famed animator, Ollie Johnston at the Disneyland Railroad tracks next to the full-sized train Ollie sold to JL. One thing really caught my eye. A stack of “Extinct Attractions” DVD documentaries. Hmmm. Clearly, no lack of love for what I consider the right way to run a Disney theme park.

A return to the old-school? Jim Hill Media reported a couple years ago that Lasseter wanted to fix Journey Into Imagination. Journey was one of the documentaries in his office. He was reported to have wanted Western River Expedition to be built at Hong Kong Disneyland, DCA or elsewhere. After reading this I mentioned it to Marty Sklar. Marty hadn’t a clue that Lasseter ever mentioned such a thing. He said “I highly doubt that would ever happen. That thing is too expensive.” That thing? I got the impression that Marty wasn’t on-board for any more glorious animatronic-filled attractions. He also mentioned, “Mickey Mouse Review was boring.” Oh and he too threw in the “they say John Lasseter is the next Walt Disney” line while we were conversing.

I lose no sleep at night pondering the future of Pixar Animation. It’s exactly where it should be and I love it. I do however fear the path Disney theme parks are on.

Questions. Are the Sklars of the Disney Company the ones who are holding Lasseter back? Is it the notion that today people won’t respond to how things used to be done? Is the (false) doctrine of “Pixar is the only thing that sells” the only thing driving new development? Has Lasseter bought into the idea that more and more Pixar attractions need to fill the parks because no other Disney-related entertainment has been successful lately? Are Lasseter’s theme park tastes influenced too heavily by his involvement with Pixar animation? Are we to settle for Pixar-based attractions that slightly resemble classic rides?

One concept pitched and green-lit was the idea of a hub-cap flying saucer attraction for the new DCA Cars Land. The Imagineers said they were excited to see what JL had to say about a ride inspired by an old-school Tomorrowland attraction. He was impressed.

To be fair, a lot of the ($1.1 billion+) DCA improvements are not Pixar-based. JL is championing the effort to bring more heart, soul, and emotional impact to the life-lacking park. Thank you for that.

Answers (according to me): In a nut shell, the current philosophies of Disney management prevent Lasseter from doing certain things he’d love to do. When two ideas are presented- one that completely appeals to nerds like you and me (fixing Journey, Western River Expedition, etc.), and one based on something that recently made $800,000,000 at the box office- you can guess which will win.

So here we have it. John Lasseter loves good-quality Disney. He also likes Pixar stuff in the parks. He also has bosses who like to say “no”. He also is spread like too little butter over too much toast. He also has a wreck of an animation studio (Walt Disney Animation) to fix and a thriving animation studio (Pixar) to help maintain.

So love, hate, and John Lasseter… Love his passion. Love his successes in the CG animated industry. Love his potential to positively influence what I hope can be a new generation of Imagineering. But by golly, I hate singing fish and joke-cracking monsters in Tomorrowland. Hate Woody dancin’ around the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon, or even worse, Woody and pals (and any other character for that matter) in “it’s a small world”. And I will hate to be an old man at a Disneyland that doesn’t resemble the Disneyland I knew as a young child.

Wednesday
Nov042009

Fired From Imagineering

Why do Disney executives do the things they do?  Is it a lack of knowledge and experience?  Enjoy accounts of first-hand encounters with the most clueless of clueless Disney management.
 

 


More than one Imagineer has recently been given the boot from Walt Disney Imagineering.  Two of the more shocking to bet let go are Tim Delaney, a Vice President and Executive Designer and Valerie Edwards, WDI's head sculptor.

I figure there's not time like the present to share a few of my thoughts related to this topic: Uneducated and foolish decisions made by Disney upper management.  Let me begin by saying that I do not personally know either of these two artists.  I enjoy most of their work and have heard great things about both people.

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Tim Delaney- Imagineer since 1976.  He is know for his extensive work with the creation of Disneyland Paris.  Further back, he helped design Epcot's Living Seas (pre-Nemo, of course).  His critics blame him for giving us the often-hated Paradise Pier at Disney's California Adventure.  He is also criticized for portions of Tomorrowland 98.  Regardless, I always found his concept art quite stunning- especially the Epcot stuff.

Valerie Edwards- 21 years with Imagineering.  She is the daughter of Sleeping Beauty animator, George Edwards.  She states she was mentored by Imagineer John Hench for 17 years.  Her work includes character sculpts for the parks and cruise ships.  Recently she sculpted the bust of Barack Obama for The Hall of Presidents- quite the intimidating task of following in the footsteps of retired genius, Blaine Gibson.
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Why were they fired?

We know not.  The details are fuzzy at best.  Did they demand perfection more than was tolerable to the bean counting executives?  Did their less-popular projects eventually catch up to them?  Did Lasseter have anything to do with it?  Fear not, if speculation is what you seek, there is PLENTY of that across the web.  As for real answers, I have found none.  Since we don't know the specifics of these recent events, I'd like to share some observations of my own concerning sketchy decision-making amongst Disney leadership.  I worked as a Disney artist among other roles for a number of years.  WARNING:  The following accounts are real and may be terribly uncomfortable to read.

Oh how I wish I had a recording device

I wish I had a recording device handy during some of my many many conversations with good old Disney theme park execs.  Although some of these people are top-notch in my book, the bulk should never have reached such heights in my opinion- not by a long shot.  The top-notchers are those who have been visiting and experiencing the parks as guests for years.  They know the history.  They appreciate the history.  They don't consider the legacies of Walt and the other Greats to be inconvenient road blocks that occasionally slow them down on their journey through self-serving, career-building, pension-earning destruction of the very brand that employs them.

There are top execs who cannot name ten attractions.

No joke.  There are many who have never been on a Disney attraction if not with an entourage and camera men.  Not even kidding. I don't even want to know how many of their spouses have never been to the parks.  There are many who don't know that Pixar was not Disney until the acquisition.  In James Stewart's “Disney War” Michael Eisner himself is quoted that if they had asked him questions about Snow White and Disneyland and other Disney films in his hiring interview, he would not have been offered the job because he knew nothing of the answers.  


Speaking up- not a pretty site

Try saying in a board room full of management something like, “I don't think this fits the original vision of this company,” or, “that really goes against what we've always stood for.”  Talk about crickets and a lot of funny looks.  Talk about a conversation-killer inevitably followed by comments like, “well did you even look at your printout with all the numbers on it?”  I wish I were kidding.  These are the people making the decisions.  More than once I was pulled aside after a meeting to be told “you see, things cost a lot of money to maintain” (as if I thought it were free to maintain Disney rides).  One time, “you need to learn to act like the ideas of the higher-ups are good ideas even if they are not, and eventually you need to learn to believe that these ideas really are good- that's how you'll get ahead.”  I'll never forget the executive who couldn't seem to remember the names of those darn Magic Kingdom lands. “Jungleland, the Future Place, Western Area”.  Oh how I wish this was fictional- it is not.  “I have not made it to Animal Kingdom yet other than for that one backstage meeting.  I keep meaning to go but haven't had time during these first four years with the company”  These are THEME PARK executives.  Not Disney Store people or ESPN employees in Connecticut.  They have offices behind the parks and in Team Disney buildings and can see rides from their office windows yet some cannot name what they see.  Sorry, not naming names, too many to list.

My favorite conversation about the future of the parks goes something like this:  “There are boys ages 9 to 13 who are first-time Disney guests who say they are disappointed that Disneyland was not more like Six Flags.  These kids love Gameboys and the Wii and such.  How can we make the parks more relatable to them?  If they don't get what we are about, we need to change what it is that we are 'about'.”  One of many heated debates over Epcot's El Rio de Tiempo goes like this:  “Kids don't get it but they get the characters.”  I'd of course say, “WHAT'S NOT TO GET?  You are in Mexico on a little boat seeing things that don't happen in your home town.  It's great.”  “Yeah but the characters make them feel more comfortable in 'foreign' environments.”  Ummmmm.

Is there hope?

Will the 'New Golden Age of Imagineering' be what we all hope it will be?  Will John Lasseter and company be able to revive the long-lost culture of “quality first”?  I once asked John about how in the world he can juggle Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, AND Imagineering... his reply (with a half-smile on his face), “There's not enough hours in the day.  There's just not enough hours in the day.”

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