Making “Magic Journeys” – A tortuous, yet fun trek of tension and pranks to create classic Walt Disney World attraction

in Disney, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

One of the major attractions for opening day of EPCOT Center was the 3D film “Magic Journeys” in the Kodak-sponsored Imagination Pavilion, later moved to Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. But getting it there was no magical journey. It took a lot of work.

Murray Lerner was the director. He had previously directed the 3D film “Sea Dream.” Murray also won an Oscar in 1981 for the best documentary film “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” Randy Bright, a Disney legend, was the executive producer.

The film was about a boy’s journey into imagination. Most of it was set against a song of the same name written by the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert.

Kodak’s sponsorship meant it was going to be shot on 65mm film, for projection in wide-screen 70mm. The initial plan was to use a camera rig that had been developed for other films called the “Todd AO” rig, but it was not capable of achieving the type of 3D desired, so Disney built its own camera rigs.

One rig built was used for many of the flying sequences; the other was designed (with a major assist from Peter Anderson) with the ability to change 3D settings during a shot, and was used for most of the scenes featuring the boy and other actors.

Magic Journeys camera on display at the 2009 D23 Expo (Photo by Jeremiah Good)

The film’s approach was very ambitious and it wasn’t long before Murray had eaten up the film’s entire original budget, with still much more to shoot, along with all the optical visual effects. So production was shut down until a rough cut of the film, edited by Randy Roberts, who eventually became a supervising editor on Law & Order Special Victims Unit, was screened for Bright and other Disney executives.

One of the most often remembered 3D effects is where a kite flown by the young boy slowly moves toward the camera, and feels like it is right in front of your face. In fact, when the movie is screened, people watching frequently try to reach out and grab the kite.

(Image via YouTube)

It was also one of the first optical effects completed at Disney under the supervision of Eric Brevig, who later went on to work at Industrial Light & Magic and was honored with an Oscar for his work on “Total Recall.”

This shot was a major achievement for everyone, as the schedule for “Magic Journeys” was very tight. There was even concern the film might not make the park’s opening day on October 1, 1982.

Making the efforts even tougher was dealing with the director. Lerner was not known for being a decisive director; he wanted to keep trying different things. Meanwhile, Bright and others were demanding he move things forward. Lerner wanted to show some progress, so when the kite shot came in out of the lab and looked great, he called WED and asked that Bright, Marty Sklar and others come over to see the really great shot.

At this point, we on the post-production team had pretty much had it with Lerner, so we decided to pull a prank. Brevig was the ringleader, but all of us, including Roberts and his assistant editors, were involved in the conspiracy.

When the WED executives showed up, we had the shot set up to run for them on a continuous loop. I handed out the 3D glasses to everyone, including a “special” pair designed just for Lerner. That pair had been modified so that he would have two left eyes of polarizing filters, making it seem just to Lerner that there was no 3D at all.

We ran the shot for Bright and Sklar. They were amazed, not just at the shot, but at Lerner who kept complaining that something was wrong, that all the 3D had disappeared. Of course, those of us on the team kept turning away, as we were laughing a lot in the back of the screening area.

Meanwhile, Bright and Sklar and others from WED, who were not in on the joke, were convinced Lerner had lost it. They walked out shaking their heads. Of course, I had to run after them and let them in on the joke afterwards. They thought it was one of the funniest pranks ever pulled.

We bamboozled Lerner and told him we had found the “right” print, having him come back a few minutes later. Bright and Sklar came back too. Then we ran the same print, now with Lerner wearing the right 3D glasses. To us on the team it was justice. Bright and Sklar knew it was a way of releasing some of the tension from working very long hours. I still laugh about that prank to this day. I don’t know if Lerner ever heard the truth.

Mark Eades is a former Imagineer and Orange County Register reporter, now offering his thoughts and stories to Inside the Magic from decades of Disney experience.

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