One man connected EPCOT Center from The Land to The Living Seas to Norway

in Disney, Entertainment, Walt Disney World

If you know EPCOT, you know the three headlined pavilions here all contained a film. What you might not know is that the films in all three of these pavilions are connected by something more; all were directed by the same person – Paul Gerber.

When I started working on the EPCOT Center project in my role as the Post-Production Supervisor, I would occasionally have to log in some film that had been shot in some portion of the world for The Land pavilion film to be called “Symbiosis.”

I did not know Paul, and had never heard of him, but I would schedule dailies so that the executive producer, Randy Bright, and the rest of the WED Film Production team could see the raw footage. It was some beautiful cinematography, filmed at locations all over the world – from rice paddies in Asia to forests in America. It seemed like the production team was travelling around the world, which I later found out they were – two times during the shooting of the film.

Eventually, Paul and his team came to the Disney Studios in Burbank on one of their trips home to look at their footage, and I met him in late 1981. He did not really have a script for the film, as he was still shooting it. He was basically following an outline, so I could not really have an editor start working on the film. All he asked me to do was have the footage logged, and a copy of the logs sent to him so he could start working on a script for the documentary.

After meeting him, I asked Don Henderson, the manager of WED Film Production, about Paul’s background. Don informed me that Paul was the brother-in-law of Marty Sklar, the Vice President of WED Enterprises Creative Division, and my future boss.

Eventually Paul finished his filming schedule, and came back to Burbank to write and edit his film. Paul was very demanding, he wrote and rewrote his narration as he edited. His first rough cut came in at a length of nearly 25 minutes. Operations wanted the film to be able to be shown three times an hour for capacity reasons, meaning the film had to be cut down to approximately 17 minutes long. Back to the edit bay he went. He also wanted a music track that would be distinctly different from the standard Disney theme park music others were contemplating, and brought in Patrick Gleason for the music that would play behind the necessarily wordy narration track.

Other than being in 70mm and being projected at 30 frames-per-second (standard film is projected at 24 frames-per-second), the post-production of the film went fairly smoothly after that. Though, like most other things for EPCOT Center, the film was way over its original budget. Unlike “Magic Journeys,” the film was shipped to Florida in plenty of time to get programmed for running in the Land Pavilion.

After EPCOT opened in 1982, and I transferred to WED, I would periodically chat with Paul, usually when he would want to have a screening of “Symbiosis” for a producer he was hoping to work with. Meanwhile, at WED, development was proceeding for The Living Seas pavilion.

The pavilion was designed to have a film that would be seen before boarding the “Hydrolators” that would take park guests to “Sea Base Alpha.” The original concept for that film was going to involve Neptune in an animated form talking about the origin of the Seas, and how it impacted all life on the planet. Due to budget concerns, that concept was tabled.

It was decided that the film would take a more documentary approach, and would have a very limited budget of less than $1 million. Paul was brought in to write a new approach to the film that would be live action, I was told to work with the projection engineers to come up with a format that would not be costly, and that would enable Paul to use existing stock footage as much as possible. So we specified the projection system to be a standard 35mm 1:85 Academy ratio.

I remember having a conversation with Don Henderson, who was still a consultant with WED, and joking that Paul’s script would require him to go shoot new live action film all around the world. My joke was prescient, sure enough Paul’s first script had him shooting in seas and oceans all around the world, and would not use as much stock footage as had been indicated.

Well, Paul came down for meetings on the film script and Don was directed by Randy to “talk with Paul” about the budget issue. The talk did get a bit loud at times, but after a couple days, Paul came to see me and asked about seeing some stock footage that had been gathered for potential use in the film. Paul rewrote the script, and though it still required some new filming, it was a much more limited shooting schedule, and did not need the production company to go around the world.

Paul did bring the film in for the budget, and it was completed with plenty of time for programming the theaters where it would be shown in the pavilion, in conjunction with the United Technologies preshow. It also had a much less wordy narration, something Randy and other WED creative executives were looking for.

Shortly after The Living Seas opened, word came down to work on concepts for the eventual Norway Pavilion. The concept was for a boat ride, but the sponsors (a consortium of companies from the country) wanted something that would show off modern Norway. So it was decided to add a film to the concept, only instead of being viewed before going onto the boat ride that would become known as “Maelstrom,” it would be viewed after riding the ride.

They also wanted a high quality image, so we decided to go with 70mm for the film, only this time projecting it at a standard 24 frames-per-second. I was managing film production at Walt Disney Imagineering by then and when I was told to use Paul Gerber, I joked with him that he wouldn’t be going around the world for this project, just halfway around the world. By then the engineers had worked out that the length of the film would have to be no more than five minutes long, matching up the theater’s capacity to the hourly capacity of the ride.

The production went smoothly and efficiently, and Paul was also very efficient in his narration, letting the film, which was a commercial for Norway, tell the story visually.
Paul was still very demanding, but the budget constraints, which were severe, kept his demands in check, as I had a performance clause inserted into his contract that he would get a slight bonus if he brought it in on budget. He did.

“Norway” was the last film Paul would produce for Disney. The company’s direction for future projects was to use more talent from Hollywood stars and directors that Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted for the films.

But Paul stands as the only film director to, at one time, have three films running for park guests at EPCOT Center at the same time. Of course, over time the Symbiosis film was changed, though the new one used some of the footage Paul had shot. The Living Seas was changed, ditching the preshow, film and hydrolators all together for a ride that incorporated the characters from “Finding Nemo.” Norway lasted the longest, though the film frequently ran with the doors open so that guests would not have to watch the film.

Now the ride is being converted into an attraction based on the highly successful film “Frozen.” What the future plans are for the theater in the pavilion, we shall see when it reopens. Paul Gerber’s films are frozen in the past as part of the history of EPCOT.

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