The song “When You Wish Upon a Star” has provided many with inspiration. The stanza after that line, “Your dreams come true,” really is true.
A lot of Disney fans want to be an Imagineer. As a former Imagineer, I hear it all the time. They’re always asking how to become one and how I became one. In my case, I did not set out in life to become a Disney Imagineer. No, I set out to be a computer science major. Then I flunked calculus. That’s right, me, the class nerd in high school flunked calculus.
As I quickly retook calculus to get my first and only “F” off my college transcript, I kept taking general education classes and, like any youthful male, spend time at the movies. It was in 1973, before “Star Wars” was released, that I decided I wanted to explore my creative side and dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. I also enjoyed writing, so I switched majors at Cal State Fullerton to Communications with an emphasis on film.
I was already working at Disneyland, having started at Riverbelle Terrace in November 1972, so I decided to use that to my advantage to finish my degree. So in the summer of 1978 I began an internship at Walt Disney Productions, while continuing to work nights on Autopia.
While interning I networked and found the best way to get started in the movie business (other than being someone’s relative) was to work in an agency or studio mailroom. As soon as there was an opening, I transferred in.
The mailroom was interesting – everyone in there either had a college degree or was someone’s relative. We delivered mail, messages, scripts (which we would analyze between mail runs), call sheets, and production reports. The job took us all over the studio lot. We were also bonded so we could deliver big checks. I once hand-delivered a $1 million check to NBC, even taken there in a limousine by a Teamster.
Mailroom employees were expected to spend off-time hanging out on live action sets or exploring various disciplines – looking to find something that would get you out of the mailroom. I was thinking of pursuing editing as a way out because script writing is hard to make a steady income at. That’s when fate stepped in.
I was sent to the animation department as a vacation substitute for its lone production assistant. What was to be a one-month assignment became a permanent one. While subbing, I helped set up the animation post-production on “TRON” and impressed a few people with the way I handled “those new-fangled ideas.”
Animation was not exactly the most happening department at Disney back then. This was when “The Black Cauldron” was in production. But I was there while some of Walt’s Nine Old Men were still around and future legends were working there as apprentices or assistants – people like Tim Burton, John Lasseter, John Musker and Ron Clements. Don Hahn was an assistant animation director at the time and I was told I might become one in 7 or 8 years.
After about four months at this position, fate stepped in again as my supervisor from the mailroom, Shirley Bench, saw I was bored and came to see me about a position answering phones and coordinating in the Editorial Department for Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center project. She thought I would be right for it.
She sent me to see the person overseeing the post-production for all the films being produced for WED Enterprises (later renamed to Walt Disney Imagineering). One week later I was sitting at a desk in a temporary office set up on Stage 2 – the very same soundstage where “Mary Poppins” was shot.
Stage 2 would become the hub of EPCOT films post-production. Inside were projection mockups for the Energy Pavilion theaters, a partial Circlevision projection setup, projectors and screens for 3D and for the American Adventure. Eventually we added a Vistavision projector to handle looking at special effects work too.
Now far from the mailroom, it was the summer of 1981 and I was answering phones and arranging screenings of dailies for WED Enterprises executives and various film producers, directors and editors, when fate stepped in again.
Word came down from Randy Bright, executive producer for all EPCOT films, that we had to do a big “dog and pony” show for Exxon, the sponsor for the Universe of Energy attraction. He wanted to show them a clip reel of the Theater 2 film (seen after the dinosaurs on the ride) and the rough animation of the finale film (seen just before the ride’s exit).
By then I had received a rough first pass of the pre-show film and some clips of the Theater 1 film (the one that plays before the dinosaurs) so I set it up that we could show them everything, just in case they decided they wanted that.
Randy, Marty Sklar, and a bunch of Exxon big shots came in for that “dog and pony” show. We initially showed them Theater 2 and the finale as planned. But then the Exxon execs were asking to see the rest. Randy looked at me and said to them something like, “We might have to go eat an early lunch while Mark sets things up. How long will it take Mark?”
I replied, “Give us five minutes to move the projectionists over, Theater 1 is ready to show, and then we can come back to this area and screen the preshow.”
Randy stopped short. I was a bit of a neophyte then, so I wasn’t sure if I had done good or bad. Randy turned to the Exxon folks and said, “I think it’s the sign of a good project when you hire people that can anticipate your needs.”
Two days later, Randy showed up at my desk without warning and asks me to take a walk with him. I thought he was mad at me. He wasn’t. He told me he had seen the good job I was doing and wanted me to take over as post-production supervisor, as he felt the person I was working for wasn’t cutting it. He said he was impressed with how I handled the Exxon “dog and pony” show, among other things.
He offered me $100 more a week in pay and we had a handshake deal that after EPCOT Center opened, I would have the chance to come to WED and work for a year to show them what I could do.
More than a year later, I am attending EPCOT Center’s opening. Four days after that, I met with Randy and Marty in Communicore, the day I’m going to fly home with my family. We talked about a lot of issues in the film and video area that still needed work along with some talk of the upcoming Horizons Pavilion. At the end of the conversation I said, “I guess I’m a WED Employee now, right?”
Randy said, “Yes.” He told me to see a person in HR who already knew about it and had the transfer papers ready to go. It was all on a handshake and fate.
And that’s how I became an Imagineer.
Over the next 11 years I would produce more Circlevision 360 film projects, EPCOT Center updates, Tokyo Disneyland projects, groundbreaking projects like Star Tours, Muppet*Vision 3D and Euro Disneyland. (Look for those stories to come here in the future.)
My best advice for those who dream of becoming an Imagineer is to pursue your dream, whether it be as a filmmaker, artist, writer, engineer or whatever. Stay with it and, like in the song, “Fate steps in and sees you through.” My dream was to be a filmmaker, and I did.
Editor’s Note: We wholeheartedly welcome Mark Eades to the Inside the Magic writing staff! Mark is a former Walt Disney Imagineer, most recently regularly reporting for the Orange County Register. In addition to sharing his Disney career tales, Mark will be covering Southern California theme park happenings at Disneyland and beyond.