Cruise:

How the Thinkwell Group conjured a "Making of Harry Potter" attraction for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

Written by at May 6, 2013

How the Thinkwell Group conjured a "Making of Harry Potter" attraction for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

Between that basilisk in the basement, those pesky mountain trolls who wander in through open doors, not to mention the occasional dragon which slips its chain and then starts ripping up the roof of this famed castle, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has obviously previously had some problems with creatures. But who knew that the people who had been placed in charge of rebuilding the cinematic version of this iconic structure would then find themselves being out-foxed by a fox?

As Craig Hanna — the Chief Creative Officer of the Thinkwell Group — recently recalled on TEA Case Studies Day (which was held last month as part of the Themed Entertainment Association's annual 2-day summit at the Disneyland Hotel), his company encountered some interesting animal-related issues while they were working on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter attraction.


Photo by Red Ryder

To explain: The Hogwarts Castle model had always been considered the crown jewel of the Harry Potter production collection at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden. Originally built back in 2000 for the first film in this series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ,” it took 86 artists & crew members to construct this 1:24 scale recreation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. And this 50 foot-tall model was then used repeatedly over the course of production on the next five “Potter” movies. (Only for “Deathly Hallows – Part 1 ” & “Part 2 ” did Warner Bros. finally switch over to a CG version of Hogwarts Castle. And even then the CG version of this massive structure was based on a digital scan of that over-sized model).

Anyway … When Warner Bros. and the Thinkwell Group began toying with the idea of building a Harry Potter production attraction at Leavesden (where all eight installments of this acclaimed film series had been shot over the course of a decade), they knew that they had to make use of this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle. But creating a space to properly present this massive model in (which — at that time — was being stored at nearby Shepperton Studios) was going to take some doing.

“We knew that we wanted the Hogwarts Castle model to be the culmination of the 'Making of Harry Potter' experience. So we purposefully built this room with a ramp that would come in high, give you this amazing dramatic vista of the castle model and then ramp through that space down to the bottom,” Hanna explained. “And because it had been chopped into little bits to store at Shepperton, they then had to bring the Hogwarts Castle model in in pieces. And because one wall of this building had been deliberately left open during the 32 days it took to load in & reassemble this massive model, a fox moved in.”

(Please visit the site to view this media)

And how exactly did Craig know that a full-sized fox had moved into this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle? “We had fox prints all over the model,” Hanna laughed. “We were also doing some time lapse photography at this same time to capture the reassembling of this massive model. So someone went through the footage and stepped through it, frame by frame, knowing that they'd eventually find the culprit.”

And how then did the “Making of Harry Potter” construction team deal with their fox problem? “Warner Bros. brought in an animal control guy who put some frankfurters in the model and he eventually captured the booger,” Craig continued.

This animal control guy then took the fox away from Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and released the animal in the Hertfordshire countryside. The only problem was that this animal control officer wasn't taking this creature far enough away. Because — as Hanna explained ” … the fox kept coming back. So the joke around the construction site was that this guy was getting 100 quid per fox. Anyway, once we sealed the building, no more foxes.”


An image of the fox climbing on the Hogwarts Castle model from the time lapse
photography that was done during the construction of this exhibit for the
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter attraction.
Copyright 2013 Thinkwell Group, Inc. All rights reserved

So when this fox-free attraction officially opened for business in March of 2012, what did the first visitors to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter discover? Something that was deliberately different from what Universal Creative had built in Orlando as part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure.

“Warners Bros said — right from the beginning as we were developing this attraction — that we're not going magically into the movies. Here at Leavesden, we're going to talk about the magic of the movies. And that was always the clear differentiator between what we were doing and what Universal Creative was developing for Orlando,” Craig said. “Which — I have to admit — did initially cause some frustration for the team at Thinkwell. They say things like 'Wouldn't it be great if we got to see Moaning Myrtle talking in a painting?' And I'd then have to ask the team 'Was that how it was done on the set? Because if it wasn't, we can't do that. We're not making magic. We're making movie magic.' And that became the filter for everything.”

During the two years that Thinkwell worked with Warner Bros. on the design of the “Making of Harry Potter,” that was the central idea that Hanna and his team kept circling back on. That whatever was going to be put on display here at this 150,000 square-foot attraction had to be authentic to what was done during the production of the Harry Potter films. Which was very different from what Universal Creative was doing for its theme parks. Where the driving idea was that you're living the movies.”


Hogsmeade Village at night at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at
Universal's Islands of Adventure. Copyright Universal Orlando.
All rights reserved

“Interestingly enough, we didn't know what Universal was up with their Harry Potter project. Luckily the two experiences wound up being very complimentary. Theirs is such a fanciful experience. It's what every Harry Potter fan wishes they could do in the real world. Walk into Hogsmeade Village as a magical person, get a wand and drink Butterbeer, do all those things,” Craig said. “But the real fans of the Potter films also want to see the authentic items that were used in the production of these movies. Which is why I'm constantly reading online about people who have visited both attractions and love them equally. They go to London and then Orlando or visa versa.”

And when I say authentic, I mean authentic. As part of his TEA Case Studies Day talk, Hanna fondly looked back on the very first time that he got to walk the sets of a Harry Potter movie at Leavesden Studio.

“This was back in 2007. I think the fourth film was in production at that time. And I remember thinking that you could just open this whole thing up to the public. Because everything that was being done for the Potter films was being done to an extraordinary level of detail,” Craig recalled. “We saw these absolutely amazing sets. We then went over to the art department & the creature shop, all of which was located right there onsite at Leavesden Studios and saw those beautiful sculpts and creatures being created. Wherever we turned, our jaws were just hitting the floor.”


Craig Hanna (L) shows THEA members some of the photographs that
he took behind-the-scenes at Leavesden Studio as he and the team
from Thinkwell were touring this facility as thy developed their
“Making of Harry Potter” attraction.
Photo by Shelly Valladolid

But what genuinely excited Hanna about the potential of building a 'Making of Harry Potter' exhibit right there onsite at Leavesden Studios was the already-created assets that he and his team would then be able to build this attraction around.

“You have to understand that — after Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights for the Harry Potter books in 1998 and then settled on Leavesden Studios as the place in the UK where they then wanted to shoot these movies — the executives at Warner Bros. did this very smart thing. They told the Potter production team that 'We don't know what's coming up in the upcoming books from J.K. Rowling. So you'd better save everything so that we can then save some money if we need to reuse that set, prop or costume again in another movie further on down the road,' ” Craig explained. “So there were hundreds of these Harry Potter-related shipping containers onsite at Leavesden Studios. And every one we opened up was a treasure trove.”

Which — in a weird sort of way — having so much authentic Harry Potter movie material to chose from actually made things harder for the folks from Thinkwell.


The portion of the Weasley Burrow that Craig Hanna was able to convince
Warner Bros. official to include in their “Making of Harry Potter” attraction.
Photo by Red Ryder

“It's amazing how many beautiful, extraordinary things we agonized over. I mean, you can pick through the Potter films yourself and then think about what props & sets that you'd like to see on display in an exhibit like this,” Hanna said. “Me personally, I wanted put the entire Weasley Burrow in there so badly. I wanted to do a walk-thru of this whole set from the films so that everyone could then see how wonky everything was in the Weasley household. But I only got to put in a tiny piece of that set.”

“I also wanted to include the Shell Cottage from 'Deathly Hallows,' which was this amazing set that was made entirely out of these gorgeous real sea shells,” Craig continued. “But it was Potter executive producer David Heyman who actually talked us out of doing that. Arguing that — since the Shell Cottage was really only going to be onscreen for 30 seconds or so in 'Deathly Hallows' — we shouldn't make that set, as pretty as it might be, part of the display. That we should go more for the more iconic settings. The places that fans of the Harry Potter film series would genuinely love to visit.”

Which — obviously — included the Great Hall at Hogwarts Castle. Back in 2000, this was one of the very first sets built for the Harry Potter film series. And since production designer Stuart Craig knew that the filmmakers would be shooting scenes in this 120 feet long by 40 feet wide space for the next 10 years, he had the floor of this set made out of genuine York Stone.


The Great Hall set reassembled onsite at Warner Bros. Studio London
– The Making of Harry Potter attraction. Photo by Red Ryder

“And when it came time to transfer the Great Hall set over to its original soundstage at Leavesden to the 'Making of Harry Potter' attraction … Well, we numbered each of those York Stones and then carefully noted where it was located on the floor on the Great Hall set. And then those stones were placed in the exact same spot on the floor of the Great Hall display that we were creating for the attraction. That's an example of how obsessive we were when it came to getting the detail just right for this 'Making of Harry Potter' exhibit,” Craig enthused.

Of course, what helped with getting all of the details right for Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter was that — when the crew from Thinkwell were temporarily stumped by something — all Hanna & his crew had to do was hike across the Leavesden lot. Where they could then consult with the artists & technicians who's actually been on set and/or behind the camera when these various Potter movies were being shot.

“The Heads of Departments at Leavesden have helped with every aspect of the 'Making of Harry Potter' attraction and they continue to help us with the attraction. It's a real tribute to their artistry & dedication that this display is as authentic as it is,” Craig continued.


Some of the 3000 wand boxes on display in the Warner Bros. Studio Tour –
The Making of Harry Potter attraction's version of Olivander's. Copyright
2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing
Rights copyright JKR.

And to pay tribute to those Heads of Departments — not to mention the 3000 other people who worked on all 8 of the “Harry Potter” films over the past ten years … Well, that's why the folks at Thinkwell decided to turn the final scene of this attraction into a very special version of Ollivander's wand shop.

“There are over 3000 wand boxes on display in our version of Ollivander's. And on the label of each of these boxes is the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter movies,” Hanna explained. “Now we thought that people would just stroll through this space. But — as it turns out — so many people in the UK had friends or family who worked on these films that they then linger in Ollivander's, looking for the wand box with their friend or family members name on it. Which is why we've now got an actor stationed in this part of the exhibit who's memorized where a lot of the wand boxes are located. And he then helps visitors find the wand boxes that they're looking for.”

And speaking of visitors … Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter certainly has become a hit with visitors to the UK. Even though there are no walk-up tickets sold to this attraction (all visits to the Leavesden lot have to be pre-booked in advance), the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London still managed to welcome its one millionth visitor within nine months of its March 2012 opening.


Visitors to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry
Potter attraction gaze up at the Diagon Alley sets. Photo by Red Ryder

What's more, people who have visited this 150,000 square foot display just been raving about the overall experience. How — thanks to the way people are plussed through the attraction (i.e. Every half hour, a new group of 125 people are allowed to enter the “Making of Harry Potter.” And only 5000 tickets total are sold each day) — you never feel rushed or crowded. Throughout most of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (with the possible exception of the Great Hall. Which — because this space served as the opening scene / introduction to the attraction — guests have just a half an hour to explore the displays located here) you can linger as long as you want at any of the exhibits and displays.

In fact, there's such good buzz these days about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter that word got back to Buckingham Palace. Which is why — just last week — Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry made a special trip out to Leavesden just so they could spend some time exploring Diagon Alley (or at least the sets that were used when the “Potter” filmmakers were shooting scenes set in & around Diagon Alley) as well as trying their hands at wielding a wand.

So does it please Hanna that the project that he and his team at Thinkwell worked on for 5 years has been so enthusiastically embraced by the royals & Harry Potter fans alike?


Prince Harry and the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge try and cast a spell in Diagon
Alley which will make the sign above Potage's Cauldron Shop bang and flash as
if by magic. Copyright 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter
Publishing Rights copyright JKR.

“I'm just glad that I got the chance to work on this little-known IP and help bring it to everyone's attention,” Craig said in conclusion, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

Special thanks to the Themed Entertaiment Association for allowing JHM to attend this year's Case Studies Day. More importantly, thanks to Noe & Shelly Valladolid for making a special trip out to the Disneyland Resort last month to cover this day-long event for the site.

Continue reading »

Monstrous makeover: How Pixar artists made Mike & Sulley look more youthful in "Monsters University"

Written by at April 27, 2013

So how exactly do you make an eyeball look like it's 18 years old?


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

That was the challenge that Ricky Nierva faced on “Monsters
University
.” As the art
director / production designer of Pixar's first-ever prequel, Nierva (working closely
with this project's character art director Jason Deamer) had to figure out how
to properly reverse-age Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan. Turn these two
Monsters, Inc.
” stars into believable college students.

So how do you get started on a design assignment like this?
To Deamer's way of thinking, research was the way to go. Which is why — before
Ricky & Jason got started reimaging Mike & Sulley — they asked
everyone who was working on the “Monsters
University” production team to
bring in their senior class portraits.

“So we gathered together all of these high school
pictures. And after we all had a good laugh at everyone's weird hairstyles
& interesting fashion choices, we then took a close look at the differences
between the 18 year-old version of a person and what they eventually came to
look like as an adult,” Deamer explained. “Because while some of the
changes are obvious — people put on weight, their hairlines recede — a lot of
the other changes were actually pretty subtle.”


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

The other challenge which Nierva & Deamer faced with
this project was that — in the 12 years since Pixar had last visited the
Monster world — this animation studio had completely upgraded & overhauled
the tools which it uses to make these movies.

“The technology we have at our disposal now is so
advanced, so sophisticated that Jason & I didn't want the way that the college-aged
Mike & Sulley looked & moved to be all that different from the way that
these characters had looked & moved back in 'Monsters, Inc.,” Ricky said.
“So it then became this delicate balancing act. Trying to take advantage
of what we could do now with Pixar's new animation tools while — at the same time
— preserving the essence of these 'Monsters, Inc.' characters. Making sure
that the college-aged version of Mike & Sulley still maintained their
original flavor.”

So keeping this delicate balancing act in mind, how did Nierva
& Deamer go about giving Mike & Sulley more youthful appearances?
Reimagining these middle-aged “Monsters, Inc.” characters as 18
year-olds?


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

“Where did we start? Well, your typical college student
is a lot more svelte than your average adult. So to make Mike & Sulley look
more age appropriate, we carved a lot of weight out of their mid-sections,”
Ricky said. “Then — to give the sense that Mike & Sulley still had
some growing up to do — we thinned up their
arms & legs while keeping their hands & feet adult-sized. With the
thinking being that — just like puppies — Mike & Sulley would eventually
have to grow into their paws.”

Then to get across the idea that these were far younger versions of Mike
Wazowski & James P. Sullivan than audiences had previously seen in
“Monsters, Inc.,” Nierva & Deamer made these characters a much
more vibrant green & blue. They also removed a number of skin blemishes
& age spots and reduced the size of the bags under Mike & Sulley's eyes.
Thereby giving Wazowski & Sullivan
fresher, much more youthful-looking faces.

“We then took their horns and shortened them. Figuring
that — as a monster — your horns would grow over the course of your
lifespan,” Jason continued. “With the end result being that we hoped —
once the audience looked at these versions of Mike & Sulley and then absorbed
all of these little subtle changes that we'd made — they'd then buy into the idea that these were college-aged
versions of the character that they'd previously known from 'Monsters, Inc.'


John Lasseter with some of the “Monsters University” toys that will soon be
appearing on store shelves everywhere. Copyright Disney Pixar.
All rights reserved

But when Nierva & Deamer showed their first pass at college-aged versions
of Wazowski & Sullivan to John Lasseter, Pixar's grand poobah wasn't
entirely enthused.

“Don't get me wrong. John was still very supportive of
our work. He told us that we'd come up with some great looking versions of Mike
& Sulley. His problem was — in spite of all the design decisions that we'd
made, the numerous physical changes that we'd made to these 'Monsters, Inc.'
characters — there was still nothing about these versions of Mike & Sulley
which specifically told the audience that they were now 18 years of age,”
Ricky said. “We then realized that we were going to have to be a little
more obvious about the 'Monsters University'
versions of these characters. Hit the audience over the head a little bit more if
we were actually going to get across the idea that the college-aged versions of
Mike & Sulley were different from the ones that people had previously met
in 'Monsters, Inc.”

When it came to Mike Wazowski, the easiest way to illustrate that he was just
18 years-old was to give him a retainer & a baseball cap to wear. Whereas
creating a believable college-aged version of Sulley would prove to be a much
hairier challenge.


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

“Given that Sulley — at least when we first meet him
— is kind of gliding through college, not paying all that much attention to
his studies, we wanted his physical appearance to reinforce that idea. So since
some college students will just roll out of bed and then head off to class
without first running a comb through their hair … Well, we wanted Sulley to
kind of have a head-to-toe bed head look,” Jason laughed. “We also
added a tuft of hair to the top of Sulley's head, almost a mohawk, to suggest a
youthful rebellious streak.”

And when it came time to come up with a more youthful appearance for the college-aged
version of Randall Boggs, Nierva & Deamer actually went the other way. They
gave “Monsters, Inc.” 's villain a pair of glasses and slightly
improved his posture. Visually reinforcing the idea that the 18 year-old
Randall is the type of guy who really wants to make good at school, who
seriously wants to fit in.

“Of course, what's great about giving Randall glasses
is that — once he takes them off — he immediately goes from being this
wide-eyed innocent to looking just like that squinty-eyed villain that we all know
from 'Monsters, Inc.,' ” Rick said. “So this is one of those moments that
we could actually use character design as a way to foreshadow some story
elements.”


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And speaking of innocents, one of Nierva & Deamer's favorite parts of
working on “Monsters University”
was getting the chance to create all of the other students that Mike &
Sulley would interact with while they're at college. Take — for example — Scott
“Squishy” Squibbles, an Oozma Kappa fraternity member (Who — here's
a neat bit of trivia for all you animation fans — is being voiced by Ricky
& Jason's fellow Pixarian, Peter Sohn. Who's currently co-directing with
Bob Peterson this animation studio's next feature-length project, “The
Good Dinosaur
.” Which is due to hit theaters in May of 2014. Anyway … ).

“There's always that guy at college who's still trying
to figure himself out. In this movie, that's Scott. He's already a sophomore at
Monsters University
but his major is undeclared. So while we were designing Scott, we tried to use
this character's very shape and coloration to suggest how moldable &
undefined he still is,” Jason said. “When we were searching for
inspiration on Squishy, we actually looked at a lot of Gummi candy that was
colorless & squishy. But in the end — because Scott has to look child-like
because he's not really an adult yet. More importantly, because Squishy had to
be lovable — we settled on mochi balls. They're soft and super-appealing. Plus
they have this nice, powdered surface. We so wanted Scott to look like this
kind of Japanese rice cake that we actually sent multiple pictures of mochi
balls to Pixar's shading department and then told them that we wanted Scott to
be shaded just like that.”


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

So of the 400+ characters that Nierva & Deamer designed for “Monsters
University,” are there are any
that didn't make it into the finished version of this film that Ricky &
Jason wished had actually made the final cut? These two had a quick answer for
that question.

“Mike's parents. In several earlier versions of 'Monsters
University,' Mr. & Mrs.
Wazowski played a very big part in this story. So we came up with some great
designs for these characters,” Ricky said. “But as we made our way
through the production process and then kept refining & refocusing this film's
story, it became obvious that 'Monsters
University' was more about Mike and
his journey. And the more we cluttered Mike's storyline with characters that —
while they might be fun — didn't really move his story forward … Well, his
story suffered. Which is why — in order to give Mike as much screen time as
possible in order to properly tell his story — we wound up cutting Mr. and
Mrs. Wazowski.”

“Mind you, Mike's parents are still in the movie,” Jason enthused.
“You just have to know where to look in order to find them.”

(Please visit the site to view this media)

It was at this point that my time to interview Nierva & Deamer ran out. Which was kind of
ironic. Given that — at this very moment — Ricky & Jason sounded just
like Mr. and Mrs. Wazowski. Two proud parents who couldn't wait to hear what
the world had to say about “Monsters
University
” once their baby
graduated (i.e. completed production) and headed out into the world.

Continue reading »

Huffington Post — Director Jeff Calhoun has nothing to "Hyde" when it comes to Disney’s "Newsies"

Written by at April 24, 2013

You'd think — what with getting the revival of “Jekyll & Hyde” ready for its 13 week-long, limited engagement at the Marquis Theatre — that director Jeff Calhoun wouldn't have any time left for his other Broadway show, Disney's “Newsies.”

But that's where you'd be wrong. Last month while he was out-of-town with this Frank Wildhorn musical in Chicago, Jeff used his one day off from “Hyde” to nip off to NYC's Nederlander Theatre to go check up on “Newsies.” Making sure that this Tony Award-winner remained in tip-top shape as it began its second year on Broadway.

“We've had a lot of new kids come into the show over the past few
months. So I've made a point of regularly going by the Nederlander
Theatre to work with the cast,” Calhoun explained. “I want to make sure
that the newer members of the 'Newsies' cast are just as sharp, just as well-rehearsed as the original members of this cast were.”

Mind you, for Jeff, going back to the Nederlander is kind of like Old Home Week. Back when Calhoun worked with Tommy Tune, that Broadway legend used to rehearse all of his shows in that then-all-but-abandoned theater.

2013-04-19-Newsies2.jpg
Director Jeff Calhoun

“That was something that Tommy was famous for. If you hired him to
direct your show, Tommy wasn't going to work in some bland rehearsal
hall. He always had to work inside a theater. So that he could then see
what a scene might actually look like when it was up on a real stage as
he was still shaping & modeling that show,” Jeff continued. “So we
rehearsed 'The Will Rogers Follies
,' 'Busker Alley
,' 'Grease
,' even
'Tommy Tune Tonite!' there. I've spent an awful lot of the past 20 years
in and around the Nederlander Theatre.”

Of course, what's kind of ironic about “Newsies” now doing eight performances a week at Calhoun's old stomping grounds is that this particular Walt Disney Theatrical production was never ever supposed to go to Broadway.

“I swear to God. The original plan for 'Newsies' was that we were just going to do the pilot production at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Prove that the stage version of this Disney movie actually worked with
audiences and then just make the show available for licensing for
regional productions,” Jeff insisted. “Disney Theatrical had had so many
inquiries from high school & colleges about whether there was a
script available for a stage version of 'Newsies' that this pilot
production at the Paper Mill Playhouse was just supposed to be a means
to an end. A way for Disney to meet that demand.”

But even back when Calhoun & this show's creative team were just getting “Newsies”
up on its feet, back when the temporary sets which the cast was pushing
around that empty rehearsal space were made out of unpainted plywood,
Jeff sensed that this pilot production had some real potential.

“Now you have to understand that I had never seen the movie version of 'Newsies
.'
Even
now, I still haven't. I really have to get around to seeing that movie
someday,” Calhoun laughed. “Anyway … Even when I was seeing the stage
version of 'Newsies' in its rawest possible form, there was
something so cinematic about this show. Something so dynamic about the
guys as they stood there in that rehearsal space singing Alan Menken & Jack Feldman's songs and performing Chris Gattelli's choreographer that I thought to myself: Maybe this pilot production could go further than the Paper Mill Playhouse.”

“In this business, you just never know. There's always more heartache
than there is success. But with this particular production — and the
very smart way that Disney Theatrical had put the whole thing together
— right from the get-go, 'Newsies' had the potential to be
something special,” Jeff continued. “And at each stop along the way —
from the weeks we spent in that rehearsal hall to the month we were out
in front of an audience at the Paper Mill Playhouse right up until we
opened on Broadway — the creative team kept writing new lines, adding
songs, tightening scenes. Always looking for ways to improve this show.”

2013-04-19-Newsies1.jpg
Members of the “Newsies” cast & creative team celebrate the one year
anniversary of Disney's “Newsies” Broadway opening

As for which member of the “Newsies” creative team was the most
responsible for this show's success … Well, while Calhoun doesn't like
to play favorites, he was quick to credit Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein with the clever way that he took Bob Tzudiker & Noni White's original screenplay and reimagined it for the stage.

“So much of what makes 'Newsies' work on Broadway can be traced
straight back to Harvey. He was the one who came up with the idea of
book-ending Act One with 'Santa Fe.' Harvey was also the one who decided
to change Jack's original love interest — who used to be David &
Les's sister in the movie — and then turning her into this pioneering
girl reporter. Which — if I'm remembering correctly — Harvey based on a
real person, Nellie Bly,” Calhoun stated. “And every one of those changes, those new story choices that Harvey made just make 'Newsies' a better & stronger vehicle for the stage.”

But if Jeff had to pick the main reason that “Newsies” has become
such a big hit on Broadway, to his way of thinking, it's all due to the
talented teenagers & young adults who make up the cast of this
show.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“When we initially opened at the Nederlander in March of 2011, we had
27 actors who were making their Broadway debuts,” Calhoun stated. “So
while the 'Newsies' cast may not have been long on stage
experience, they more than made up it with energy & enthusiasm. And
that just comes rolling off the stage each night and energized the
audiences who are watching this show.”

This is why — in order to make sure that “Newsies” maintains
its high energy & enthusiasm levels — Jeff has kept a close eye on
how this show has been recast. Making sure that each singer/dancer who
leaves this Disney Theatrical Production is replaced by an equally
talented performer.

“Now what's been kind of interesting is that — as 'Newsies' has
been going along and we've brought in replacement performers — the ages
of the kids that we've been casting has been skewing younger &
younger. We're now hiring 18 & 19 year-olds,” Calhoun explained.
“Which was the age that a lot of the newsboys were when they went out on
strike in 1899. So in a weird sort of way, because we've now got more
age-appropriate performers appearing in this show, 'Newsies' is actually more authentic now than when it initially opened on Broadway.”


Real “Newsies” back in the day

This sort of interesting factoid clearly tickled Jeff. But to
Calhoun's way of thinking, the very best part of being associated with “Newsies” is the impact that this Disney Theatrical production is having far beyond Broadway.

“For my generation, what made us dream of going to Broadway was the original production of 'A Chorus Line.' When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I'd catch clips of that Michael Bennett
musical on television and think: That's what I want to do with my
life,” Jeff recalled. “And when you think about how good Disney
Theatrical has been about getting 'Newsies' out there on television — whether it's on 'Dancing with the Stars' or on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day pre-parade show or earlier this month on 'Good Morning America'
— you gotta wonder how many kids are seeing our cast dance on
television and then thinking: That's what I want to do with my life. I
want to go to Broadway and dance. I'd kill to know what's going on in
dance schools all over the country right now. How many young guys are
coming through the door and signing up for classes, all because they've
seen Newsies on television and dream of someday dancing in a show like that.”

Which then begs the question: Given that Calhoun is obviously so proud to be associated with “Newsies,” does it bother him that — given all of his outside commitments these days (EX: getting this “Jekyll & Hyde”
revival ready for its limited Broadway engagement) — he's only able to
get over to the Nederlander Theatre once or twice a month now?


Tommy Tune (L) and Jeff Calhoun at the Broadway
opening night for Disney's “Newsies”

“Not really,” Jeff said with a smile. “One of the lessons that Tommy
Tune taught me is that you never break up a winning team. So when I went
off to work on 'Jekyll & Hyde,' I took a lot of the 'Newsies'
design team with me. So even when I'll be at the Marquis working on my
new show, it will still feel & sound like I'm right back at the
Nederlander.”

Continue reading »

Huffington Post — How Sony Pictures Animation is reinventing the way that toons are made

Written by at April 18, 2013

Huffington Post — How Sony Pictures Animation is reinventing the way that toons are made

As the staff cuts at DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Studios
prove, bigger is no longer thought of as better in Hollywood. The suits
are now angling after a far more efficient business plan. Tinsel Town
2.0, if you will. A place where smaller teams follow shorter production
schedules and work within tighter budgets yet still somehow manage to
deliver top-quality motion pictures.

You know. The way that Sony Pictures Animation has been doing business for the past 10 years.


Copyright 2013 Sony Pictures Digital Productions. All rights reserved

Oh, sure. Pixar's animated features get all the acclaim while Blue Sky Studios'
movies clean up at the box office. But over in Culver City, SPA has
been consistently turning out strong performing animated features for a
significantly lower price point than anyone else in town. Which — in
the wake of “Hotel Transylvania
's” success last fall (This Genndy Tartakovsky film sold $148.3 million worth of tickets stateside, $198.3 million foreign for a combined worldwide gross of $346.6 million) — has not gone unnoticed in certain corner offices.

Of course, one of the main reasons that SPA is often able to do so
much more with less if that this animation studio grew out of Sony
Pictures Imageworks
. And given that the work ethic of a visual effects
house is hardwired into Sony Pictures Animation's DNA, it's no wonder
that these guys have a gift when it comes to delivering top-quality work
on very tight schedules.

And given that all of this got started back in July of 2002 when Sony Pictures Imageworks released its Oscar-winning short, “The ChubbChubbs!,”
it's kind of appropriate that SPA has recently gotten back into the
short animated film game with last year's traditionally animated “Goodnight, Mr. Foot” which Tartakovsky wrote, directed and animated himself and then continuing with the 22 minute-long movie “The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.” Which will have its world premiere in June when this Halloween TV special is screened at Annecy in official competition.


Copyright 2013 Sony Pictures Digital Productions. All rights reserved

Now some industry watchers might see “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow” as a cold & somewhat calculated bit of brand extension. A way for Sony to cash in on “The Smurfs 2,” which is expected to do big office this summer (The original “Smurfs
” was one of the biggest hits of 2011, selling more tickets worldwide than Pixar's “Cars 2” and Blue Sky Studios' “Rio“). But since The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (in a nod of the old “Smurfs” television series
) will mostly be done in 2D while “The Smurfs 2”
will be a mix of live action and CG, from the Sony Pictures Animation's
point of view, there's more than brand extension to this Halloween TV special. “Smurfy Hollow” also allows the studio to expand its creative palette & production pipeline. It gives SPA different ways to tell stories.

And Sony Pictures Animation is taking the same sort of approach when
it comes to producing sequels to some of its more popular early
releases. When “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” developed such a
strong following after its theatrical release in September 2009, Bob
Osher
— the president of the Digital Production division at Sony
Pictures Entertainment — decried that it was time for SPA to revisit
Swallow Falls, the setting of the original “Cloudy” movie.

But where this gets interesting is that Osher — rather than seeing “Cloudy 2
” as a strict cash grab — opted to also view this sequel as an
opportunity to grow SPA's creative team. So the studio had Phil Lord and
Chris Miller, the directors of the original Cloudy with Chance of Meatballs,
meet with Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, two longtime Sony Animation
Pictures story artists. As the four of them tried to come up with an
exciting, entertaining storyline for this Cloudy follow-up.


Copyright 2013 Sony Pictures Digital Productions.
All rights reserved

Borrowing a page for Pixar's “Toy Story 2” playbook (i.e. John Lasseter and co. used scenes and characters that had been cut out of the original “Toy Story
as the jumping-off point for that film's sequel), Phil, Chris, Cody and
Kris took some food-imals that had been cut out of the final act of the
first “Cloudy” movie and then made them into the main attraction
of this movie's sequel. And as soon as SPA management heard about the
proposed “Something Big was Leftover” storyline for “Cloudy 2” … Well, Osher and co. not immediately got excited about this creative new direction for “Cloudy” 's sequel, they also decided to let Cody and Kris direct the picture.

It's bold moves like this that are causing a lot of people in feature
animation to keep a closer watch on Sony Pictures Animation these days.
When Bob took up the reigns on the digital side of things and Hannah
Minghella
was named as the new president of production for animation
back in March of 2008, these two brought a new energy and focus to the
operation. It was Osher and Minghella who rebooted “The Smurfs”
under the watchful eye of Michael Lynton (who grew up with these little
blue creatures) and Amy Pascal. Hannah was subsequently promoted to
president of production at Columbia Pictures in 2010. Bob and her
successor Michelle Raimo Kouyate are then responsible for recruiting
Genndy to come direct “Hotel Transylvania” which had been stalled in development hell for years before that.

And speaking of “Hotel” (Which SPA is already sequelizing. The
follow-up to this family-friendly vampire movie is due to hit theaters
in late September of 2015), Tartakovsky won't be returning to
Transylvania anytime soon. The Monday after Hotel Transylvania
held its U.S. premiere at The Grove, Genndy and his story team were
already hard at work boarding a big screen comedy-adventure starring
E.C. Segar
's Popeye the Sailor Man. Which — if the early buzz on this
3D movie proves to be true — “Popeye” is really going to wow audiences when it sails onto screens on September 26, 2014.


Copyright 2013 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

And when you factor in the great work that's being done over at
Universal's Illuminations Entertainment (Their latest CG feature, “Despicable Me 2,”
will be bowing in multiplexes nationwide on July 3rd) and Paramount
Pictures
' animation division (where they're currently hard at work on a
sequel to 2004's “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
“), Sony
Pictures Animation is now one of a trio of animation studios that are
delivering top quality feature films at a significant lower price point
than Disney, Pixar, Blue Sky Studios and DreamWorks Animation are.

Which — to hear Jeffrey Katzenberg talk (as he was reflecting on how poorly “Rise of the Guardians
had performed at the box office during DWA's Quarter 4 2012 earnings
conference call) — is an issue that his animation studio is now
attempting to address. By mid-2014, DreamWorks Animation hopes to have
new technology in place that will then lower the production costs of
their new full-length features to $120 million.

Which — to put things in perspective here — will still be $35 million more than SPA spent during the entire eight years that “Hotel Transylvania” was in development.


Copyright 2012 Sony Pictures Digital Productions.
All rights reserved

Which is why — as we enter the era of Tinsel Town 2.0 — you should
expect to see even more financial pruning and production fine-tuning on
the Toon Town side of the operation.

Continue reading »

Theme Park University website now offering insights about how the themed entertainment industry actually works

Written by at March 3, 2013

Theme Park University website now offering insights about how the themed entertainment industry actually works

The Internet is really a wondrous place. Especially if
you're a young person who's considering a career in animation. If you've ever
considered becoming a character designer someday, you can always swing by Tom
Bancroft
's Character Mentor Studio or Stephen Silver's blog and then pick up
some good practical tips. Likewise if you've dreamed of becoming an art director,
you should definitely be bookmarking Mike Peraza's sites.

The same goes with Mark Evanier's News From Me or Floyd Norman's Mr. Fun's
Blog
if you hope to someday write for animation. And if you want to master the
actual craft of animation … Well, starting tomorrow in Scottsdale,
AZ, Don Bluth himself begins teaching a
week-long master class in the Art of Animation
.


Copyright 2013 Don Bluth Animation. All rights reserved

Mind you, that's on the animation side of the fence. But if
you're someone who dreams of working in themed entertainment, the pickings
online can be pretty slim.

Oh, sure. There are plenty of sites where fanboys pay
tribute to various theme parks. And every so often, you'll come across
something as spectacular looking like Kirk Design, Inc. or Tim J. Delaney
Design
. But these sites are really online portfolios. Long on genuinely
impressive eye candy, but short when it comes to good practical information on
how someone might actually pursue a career in themed entertainment.


Copyright 2013 Theme Park University. All rights reserved

Well, all that changed this past Friday with the launch of
Theme Park University, a site that eventually hopes to become an online campus
where one can go to study the art and the industry of the theme park &
related fields.

As for Theme Park
University's faculty … Well, for
starters, there's Ron Schneider. As the author of “From Dreamer to
Dreamfinder: A Life and Lessons Learned in 40 Years Behind a Name Tag

“(Bamboo
Forest Publishing
), Schneider has already demonstrated his gift for turning
real life experiences from his time at various theme parks into teachable
moments. And Ron doesn't disappoint in his initial essay for Theme Park
University, where he talks about Epcot's “Journey into Imagination with
Figment” attraction
.


Ron Schneider wowed the crowd at D23's Destination D – Walt Disney World 40th
event
in May of 2011 by donning his old Dreamfinder costume and then joining
Richard M Sherman & Figment onstage to sing “One Little Spark”

Now you'd think — given Schneider's close association with
the Dreamfinder character — that he'd be among the horde of Disney theme park
fans who continually call for this Future World favorite to be restored to its
former glory. But that's where you'd be wrong. As Ron explains in “On
Imagination's 30th: A Re-Birthday Wish,” while …

… I can sympathize with all the self-appointed “Friends of
Figment
” who still campaign to bring back the old ride. It was a magic thing,
an inspiration… and it's easy to believe that if it returned we'd also get
something back of our lost innocence. But it's a lie. (Besides, I've actually
heard the recording of Walt Disney saying, “You can't top pigs with pigs”.)


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

(So) Let's punch the 'reset' on our hopes and expectations.
Let's pray for another revolutionary journey, similar to the original but
different.

That's what's great about the Theme Park University website.
Right off the bat, it challenges your expectations when it comes to the themed
entertainment business. Better yet, it takes you behind-the-scenes to events
that few outside of this industry have ever had the chance to experience. Take
— for example — Josh Young's excellent article about those employee meetings
that Universal Orlando officials used to hold in the early 2000s in order to help
energize & motivate the people who worked in their theme parks.


Copyright 2013 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

So if you're considering a career in themed entertainment, do
yourself a favor and bookmark TPU ASAP. For Ron & Josh are just get started
when it comes to posting fascinating pieces about how this industry actually
works.

Continue reading »

Looking for some last-minute Valentine’s Day shopping suggestions? Here are some books and a new TV show that you might want to consider

Written by at February 13, 2013

If you listen carefully today, you can hear thousands of
people around the country quietly cursing.

“And why are these people cursing?,” you ask.
Well, that's because these folks are just now realizing it's February 13th.
Which means that tomorrow is Valentine's
Day. That day when you're supposed to prove to your significant other that you genuinely
care about them by tossing a thoughtful gift their way. Which can be somewhat
difficult if you haven't actually gotten around to doing your Valentine's Day shopping
yet.

Not to worry, though. JHM is here to help. Given the folks
who frequent this website, I'm going to assume that your significant other is a
Disneyana enthusiast. So let me throw a few quick suggestions out there.


Copyright 2012 Theme Park Press. All rights reserved

If the person that you love is a fan of old films, then
Disney historian Jim Korkis' “Who's Afraid of the Song of the South and
Other Forbidden Disney Stories

” (Theme Park Press, December 2012) could be
a very thoughtful gift. Jim spends more than a third of this 276-page paperback
discussing the history of this now-seldom-seen 1946 Walt Disney Productions
release
. And if you're familiar with Korkis' weekly column over at MousePlanet
… Well, then you already know that Jim has a gifted storyteller who really
knows the ins & outs when it comes to Disney Company history.

On the other hand, Jeff Heimbuch may not a name that you're all
that familiar with. But trust me, folks, you will be. Given the terrific job that
Jeff just did with shaping & molding Rolly Crump's memoir, “It's Kind
of a Cute Story

” (Bamboo Forest Publishing, November 2012), it's clear
that Heimbuch's a guy to watch. Especially if you're interested in learning
more about Disney theme park history. So if your Valentine is more of a park person,
then presenting them with a copy of this handsome 192-page paperback would be a very
smart & thoughtful thing to do.


Copyright Bamboo Forest Publishing
All rights reserved

Now if the person that you most care about is more
interested in actually working for the Mouse someday as — say — an animator, then
you really can't miss by gifting them a copy of “Walt Disney Animation
Studios The Archive Series: Walt Disney's Nine Old Men: The Flipbooks

” (Disney
Editions, January 2013). You see, inside of this 6 inch-tall box are scenes
that Pixar pioneer Pete Doctor personally selected which then showcase the
artistry of such animation masters as Marc Davis, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl and
Woolie Reitherman. And you flip back and forth between these drawings … Well,
it's almost like you're holding an animation master class right there in your
hands. The things that you'll learn about the role that proper staging, strong
poses and timing play in great character animation should prove to be
invaluable.


Copyright 2013 Disney Editions. All rights reserved

What's that you say? The person who holds your heart is more
of a TV fan? They love just those sort of intricately plotted programs which
have lots of mythology and backstory.
Which is why your significant other has been feeling kind of lost since
Lost
” went off the air in May of 2010.

Well, if that's really the case, then order in some Chinese food
tomorrow evening and make sure you're sitting in front of a television starting
at 8 p.m. ET / PT. Because that's when “Zero Hero” begins its
thirteen week run on ABC.


Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved

Now I don't want to give too much away about this ABC
Studios
production. Because — to be blunt — half the fun of “Zero
Hour” is its many secrets and the way that they unfold. But just the sheer
size & sweep of this TV show impresses. Which just in the pilot episode
takes you from Germany in 1938 to modern day Manhattan, where a robbery at an
antique clock shop eventually leads us to the Canadian tundra. Which is where the
publisher of Modern Skeptic magazine, Hank Galliston (Anthony Edwards) is
shocked to discover …

Nope. Not gonna do it. If you want to learn about Hank
actually finds hidden there under the ice, then you & the one you love really
need to get in on the ground floor when it comes to “Zero Hour.”
Which manages to combine the globe-trotting / puzzle-solving fun of Disney's
National Treasure
” movies with those religious mystery & conspiracy
theory-laden tales that Dan Brown has told in his best-selling books, “The
Da Vinci Code
” and “The Lost Symbol
.”


Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway … There are four suggestions for possible
Valentine's Day gifts for the film fans, theme park enthusiasts, would-be
animators and mystery lovers on your shopping list. My apologies for today's
column being so short. But given that I forgot to pick something for Nancy
earlier this week, I really need to head out to the store.

Your thoughts?

Continue reading »

Late breaking nerds … er … news from the 2013 edition of the American International Toy Fair

Written by at February 12, 2013

Greetings from the 110th edition of the American International Toy Fair. A trade show that Nancy and I love to attend because — to be blunt — it usually gives you lots of opportunities to learn about movies & TV shows that are still months …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

… if not years away from being released to theaters.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

Toy Fair is a particularly great show to cover / attend if you're someone who writes about The Walt Disney Company. Because if you're actually paying attention as you walk around the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, you actually learn quite a lot about what Mouse House managers are thinking. Take — for example — Merida from “Brave.” When this Mark Andrews / Brenda Chapman movie was first out in theaters last year, there was all this talk about how this stubborn red-headed girl was Pixar's first princess. Well, that's not how the folks at Disney Consumer Products see this situation. As far as DCP is concerned, from here on in …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

Merida is an official Disney Princess. Which makes one wonder: Given the recent makeover that Disney's legacy princess characters (i.e. Snow White, Cinderella & Aurora) were given, was this contemporarizing of their look (and especially their hairdos) deliberately done because — from here on — DCP officials knew that Snow, Cindy & Sleeping Beauty were (from here on in) forever going to be grouped with more recent royals (i.e. Merida & Rapunzel) whose hair was going to upstage / pull focus from all those characters who posed around them?

I know, I know. That seems like a strange question to ask. But trust me, folks. Toy Fair is a strange sort of show to try and cover. Here at the Javits, the grand gesture — like bringing in an entire marching band to help kick-off yesterday morning's “Monsters University” presentation …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

and/or misdirection are the order of the day.

And speaking of misdirection, when Dan Scanlon (i.e. the director of “Monsters University”) was onstage yesterday, he respectfully asked that — after the latest trailer for this “Monsters, Inc.” prequel was shown to the press (FYI: If you'd like to check out this new “Monsters University” trailer for yourself, it's supposed to be released to theaters shortly. The way I hear it, it'll be attached to Disney's “Oz the Great and Powerful” when that Sam Raimi film bows at your local multiplex on March 8th. And — given the way things work these days — that very same trailer will go live on online on or about that same date. Anyway … ) got onstage, he politely asked that the members of the press not reveal too much of what they'd just seen.

UPDATE: Well, so much for keeping the new “Monsters University” trailer under wraps. The very same footage that we were shown yesterday and then sworn to secrecy about has since been released to the Web. Anyway …

EDITOR'S NOTE: And speaking of revealing too much … JHM just got a note from someone at Disney Consumer Products. Who politely asked that we please pull down an image which had been previously featured in this article. One that showed a particular “Monsters, Inc.” character who makes a surprise appearance in this soon-to-be-released prequel. Out of respect to the filmmakers up in Emeryville (who are still hustling to finish “Monsters University” in time for its June 21st release date), we've decided to honor that request.

Anyway, given that the “Monsters University” trailer is now freely available online, I guess that I can tell you now that one of the characters to get the biggest reaction at Monday morning's media event / product showcase was Art …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

… who's the purple U-shaped guy with the dangling arms in the picture above.

And speaking of big reaction … One of the constant refrains at this year's edition of Toy Fair has been “Have you heard about Disney's 'Planes' ?” I can't begin to tell you the number of retailer buyers I spoke with yesterday who are over-the-moon about this upcoming Walt Disney Pictures release. Not just because “Planes” has proven to be a very toyetic piece of intellectual property …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

with its collection of personable flying characters easily becoming the jumping-off point for a whole new line of playsets and collectibles …


Photo by Nancy Stadler

No, what really seemed to fascinate folks at Toy Fair was that the finished version of Disney's “Planes” turned out so well that the Studio decided to do this very unusual thing. Which was take this DisneyToon Studios production (which was originally supposed to have been a home premiere with a limited theatrical release in Europe) and then turn into a full-blown theatrical release. Not only that, but Disney was sending “Planes” out in wide release on August 8th of this year. Which is still technically summer blockbuster country.


Photo by Jim Hill

So hopes are obviously high for this new animated feature. Especially since word has already leaked that there's a “Planes” sequel in the works, a project that's supposedly called “Planes 2: Fire and Rescue.”

Anyway, Nancy and I will keep our ears to the ground & our eyes on the skies as we head back over the Javits later today to see if there's any more “Monsters University,” “Disney Planes” and/or Disney Princess info to be uncovered at this year's edition of the American International Toy Fair.

Your thoughts?

Continue reading »

A close-up look at what makes Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras celebration the biggest bash this side of the Bayou

Written by at February 11, 2013

A close-up look at what makes Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras celebration the biggest bash this side of the Bayou

This past Saturday night, I got to do something very fun. As
part of the press event for the kick-off of this year's Mardi Gras celebration
at the Universal Orlando Resort


Copyright 2013 Universal Orlando
Resort. All rights reserved

I got to go backstage at Universal Studios Florida to see the
floats to be featured in this year's Mardi Gras parade before they rolled through that
theme park.


Photo by Angela Ragno

I have to admit that — having seen a number of these units
in years previous as they moved down Hollywood
Boulevard, loaded down with costumed cast members
who — as the music blared — then threw beads to USF visitors who stood along
the parade route …


Copyright 2013 Universal Orlando
Resort. All rights reserved

… it was almost kind of eerie to see these very same
floats at rest. Looking very much like fish out of water …


Photo by Angela Ragno

… as they just sat backstage, being readying for that
night's performance. But even so, it was still very, very cool to be able to
walk around and get this close to the various units that Blaine Kern Artists
(i.e. the very same company that designs & builds floats for Mardi Gras
parades in New Orleans
) had created
for the Universal Orlando Resort.


Photo by Angela Ragno

This experience gave me a renewed appreciation for all the
hard work and genuinely artistry that goes into the creation of each of these
units.


Photo by Angela Ragno

Of course, one of the main reasons that Universal Orlando
was granting the press this sort of backstage access was that they wanted to
show off the three new “Colorful Cultures Around the World” units which had
been built for this year's Mardi Gras parade. There's a “Chinese New
Year
” float (which celebrates the beginning of the Chinese calendar year)
that features an enormous, ornate dragon.


Photo by Angela Ragno

Not to mention an “Elegance
of India” unit. Which uses music, light & color to recreate the magic
of Bollywood.


Photo by Angela Ragno

As well as a “Mexican Day of the Dead” parade
float. Which came complete with brightly costumed performers on stilts who
helped pay homage to this holiday celebrated South of the Border.


Photo by Angela Ragno

I really enjoyed getting to see this year's edition of
Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras parade up-close. But as it got closer to when
these units really did have to begin rolling through that theme park, we were
escorted out of this backstage area and then led up the second floor of Lombard's
Landing
. Where the members of the press were then treated to authentic New
Orleans fare
like crawfish boil …


Photo by Angela Ragno

… and that Mardi Gras favorite, King Cake.


Photo by Angela Ragno

Once our bellies were full, it was time to head back out
into Universal Studios Florida. Where we then got to see the parade floats that
we'd just seen at rest now in their full glory. Cruising up Production Central


Photo by Angela Ragno

… before they then made the turn onto New
York Street.


Photo by Angela Ragno

And I have to tell you. Between those three new
“Colorful Cultures Around the World” units to old favorites like the
“Music of New Orleans” float (which obviously received some TLC in
the off-season), Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras parade has never looked better.


Photo by Angela Ragno

And speaking of music … Once the parade was over, it was
now time to move over to the Universal Music Plaza Stage. Where a thousand or
more USF visitors had gathered for a live concert by alternative rock band Lifehouse at this theme
park's outdoor amphitheater.


Photo by Angela Ragno

Saturday night's concert was just the first in a series of
high-energy performances which will be presented as part of USF's Mardi Gras
celebration. Among the other sought-after names who will be appearing in this
theme park now through April 20th are internationally-renowned rapper Pitbull,
2012 People’s Choice Award-winner Demi Lovato, “American Idol” winner Phillip
Phillips
, teen heartthrob Austin Mahone and chart-topping country duo Montgomery Gentry. Which is a pretty eclectic
mix of music, don't you think? Almost a jambalaya of entertainment (which —
given the event that's being celebrated at USF over the next 10 weeks — is an
entirely appropriate metaphor).


Photo by Angela Ragno

Thanks again to the nice folks at the Universal Orlando for
letting JHM peek behind-the-scenes to see what it actually takes to “Let
the Good Times Roll” at USF's annual Mardi Gras celebration, the biggest bash this side of the Bayou.

Continue reading »

Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream Fun Facts

Written by at February 11, 2013

The ship’s horn on the Disney Fantasy and Disney Dreamisa prominent element of the “Sailing Away” deck party at the start of every cruise and is quite the musical talent. The horns are able to sound the first musical line of “When You Wish Upon a Star” as well as … Continue reading

Continue reading »

Frank Oz ready to return to Yoda for ‘Star Wars’ spinoff movie

Written by at February 11, 2013

If there’s a place for Yoda in the upcoming “Star Wars” movies, Frank Oz is game to return to give voice to the character. Oz, the former puppeteer and film director who has voiced the ancient Jedi Master in five of the six live-action “Star Wars” films, told Hero Complex … Continue reading

Continue reading »