Thursday, February 28, 2008

Two by Yale Gracey

Probably because of the little cement gravestone outside bearing his name has Yale Gracey's effects in the Haunted Mansion passed on into popular culture, to such an extent that today we even think of the fictitious family "inhabiting" the Haunted Mansion as being the Graceys, regardless of the logic or desirability of this. And Gracey's effects for the Haunted Mansion are of course excellent and famous, but they must also, let it be said, based on traditional magic tricks and optical illusions in existence since the 19th century. When you read interviews with Rolly Crump and hear about Gracey's room of effects over at WED, it starts to become clear that a lot of his work involved little "boxes" that held simple effects. As such it's somewhat unfortunate that his most famous work is the "big effects" rooms in The Haunted Mansion, because many of his best effects are also his simplest. The simple grace of his best work is as evident in Fantasyland as it is in Haunted Mansion.

Pirates of the Caribbean is today prescribed "authorship" to Marc Davis, and his famous designs for that attraction have ushered the attraction on into that hazy cultural zone where we seem to be so familiar with the attraction's images from birth that a true "fresh" reaction to it is in some ways impossible, a zone also inhabited by, among others, Casablanca and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But as famous as the attraction's pirates are, the chief remarkable accomplishment in Pirates is the effortless invocation of a whole world which is at once sprawling and phantasmal, created with the smallest gestures possible from a litany of possible images. At WED during it's golden era the smallest gestures tended to be the most confident, and that Pirates of the Caribbean still looks and feels like a massive Spanish village in the moonlight to our jaded modern eyes may be it's great accomplishment.

Being the first attraction to fully inhabit WED's "inside outsides" from beginning to end, in fact being the first attraction to invert the sunny Southern California day to an eternal ghost-haunted night, Pirates needed a fleet of convincing indoor-outdoor special effects. Their best Special Effect turned out to be Claude Coates, whose plans for the massive show building pushed the roof up just far enough and kept the lighting just dim enough that in all but one instance the big room housing the attraction could've gone off into the infinite. When more was needed, that's where Yale was called in.

Yale Gracey's indoor outdoor effects had been baffling audiences since the 1964 World's Fair, where his moon projection had spectators convinced that they were looking at the real thing. Like all his best effects, it is simpler than it looks. His little black boxes breathe life into the faux outdoor nights of Pirates and Haunted Mansion in ways hardly seen, but felt very strongly. As the height of these effects - among his most brilliant - I think two little scenes, so contained as to be almost throwaway, are the height of what brilliant special effects can be. They are the storm raging outside the mouth of the Hurricane Lagoon show scene where the skeleton is eternally piloting his wrecked ship, and the little diorama - called Moonlight Bay - the boats pass on their way out of the load area of Walt Disney World's Pirates.

The back walls of Pirates of the Caribbean are sprayed with an extremely strange texture. It's very uneven, very strong and very rough.. in short, it can be projected onto, but it's also less likely to show any one light leak in a broad area. I don't know who designed it, but it's a brilliant little textured surface which allows all those walls looming behind the little Spanish port town facades to just fall away in blackness, no matter that many of them are quite close behind the little building shells. The lights that shine on the walls to create a bit of a horizon line, like those blue lights behind the Auction, must be very strong, so effectively does this rough texture repel light. Although as I said I'm not sure if Gracey chose this texture or not, it is a key component in his effects for Pirates of the Caribbean.


About halfway through the Disneyland version of Pirates, near the Old Bill figure, if a visitor were to look up she'd see clouds peacefully rolling through the sky. This subtlest of all of Pirates scene setting touches is a mild variation on on the moon effect seen in the Blue Bayou, and is in fact a basic effect box built by Gracey with uncanny straightforwardness. The effect is basically a gobo, or a die cut shape placed in front of a light to create a patterned projection. Gobos are used in the Haunted Mansion to create descending shadowy demon claws and invisible piano players, and the crisp lines resulting from a gobo projection effect would likely be inappropriate for the haze of clouds rolling through the sky.

Gracey's inspired variation is a thick circular pane of glass with wavy black line painted in an erratic spiral. A light is placed near the rim of the pane of glass underneath a blue diffusion glass while the circular glass is slowly rotated. The projection is then bounced off an angled mirror and through a wide angle lens. The distortion of the edges of the lens corrects the angle of the spiral, and the "clouds" appear to gracefully float by. The blue light shines through and appears to be the "sky".

These clouds are the basis for the fog which drifts lazily through the Haunted Mansion graveyard, the rising ghosts as seen from the Mansion's balcony, and - greatly sped up to mimic hurricane-force winds - the ominous storm clouds zipping by the ballroom windows and the mouth of Hurricane Lagoon. The streaks of rain which can be seen there as well are actually created with a variation of the classic classroom overhead projector.

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For Gracey's rain effect, a light box facing upwards has a number of erratic holes punched in its' top. Above it rapidly spins a variation on a disco ball, but actually shaped more like an American football. The streaks of light streaming out of the light box bounce off the mirrored surface and onto a tall scrim, where they appear to rapidly and erratically descend.

The final effect for this economic and brilliantly realized projected weather scene is a few bolts of lightning, seen here in this lights-on picture of the Disneyland version, where the scrim at the mouth of the lagoon is clearly visible. Although lightning is projected with a gobo outside the Haunted Mansion windows, where space is compact, in Pirates an even more brilliantly simple effect is used: the back wall of the sizable projection space is made up of that uneven black surface spoken of earlier, and spray painted on the back wall with silver paint is a great bolt of lightning. A flood light flashes to illuminate the wall and since the guests see this through the diffuse scrim where many projections are already happening, the black wall is lost and only the spray painted bolt is visible. This is why we can see this effect with the lights on in this picture.


Moonlight Bay captured my imagination in my youth, mostly because I couldn't quite determine what was real and what wasn't in those days before the scene was more brightly lit than it is now. Moonlight Bay is a genuine Marc Davis original creation for the Walt Disney World version of the attraction, and is intended to preface the attack of the pirate ship on the fortress, another clear indication that the designers of the Orlando version of the attraction ditched X. Atencio's whole time travel scenario from the outset.

The scene is of a ship, lanterns ablaze fore and aft, rocking gently out at sea in the distance. The back wall contains three of Gracey's cloud projection effects, the center one being a slight variation on the moon effect seen in the Blue Bayou. It's the same as the cloud effect except the blue glass the light shines through also has a pale white dot in the center of it, over which moves the painted clouds causing the much celebrated effect of clouds cutting across the moon. The Moonlight Bay clouds move very quickly compared to the Disneyland version in Blue Bayou to simulate the effect of a storm brewing out to sea.

left: Disneyland's Hurricane Lagoon layout - right: Walt Disney World's Moonlight Bay
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Much of the rest of the scene is a basic model; a miniature ships sits atop a slanted board on which are glued little aluminum foil waves which catch the light of the ships' lanterns but are otherwise invisible. Further down the board, nearer the spectators, irregularly cut strips of plastic cause the same effect.

Nearest the spectator is the most complex variant on the Gracey cloud projection yet; but here, moonlight rolling waves are simulated. It's fairly similar to the cloud projection effects but here, a smoked glass wheel has been etched with many irregular little squiggles running from center to edge. The light bounces off the smoked glass but continues through the etchings and through a very warped glass which creates the effect of ripping water moving towards the spectator, placed in such a way that it appears to be a reflection of the moon. The effect is further augmented by the back of the circular pane of glass being painted with very even bands running from center to edge. This blocks the projection in fairly regular cycles, simulating tidal ebb and flow.

What's amazing about these effects is that in reality there isn't really much there, but these scenes and effects elicit fascination practically universally. I personally spent years looking into Moonlight Bay and wondering what what model, what was projection, and so on. The clouds moving across the moon effect in the Blue Bayou is designed, and can maintain, interest for the extended duration of a meal. Marc Davis spoke often that he really wanted Gracey's changing portrait effects to have this sort of duration in a sit-down restaurant, an idea probably culled from the little glass moon. Even more startling: consider that, prior to the 2006 refurbishment, Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean didn't contain a single video image (Disneyland forfeited this in the mid 90's, of course, with ther shadow play pirate fight).


Thanks to George for scanning the Hurricane Lagoon image out of the Jason Surrell book.