Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Branch Beyond the Window and Other Details

The experience of a theme park is pretty similar to that of a well-made film, isn't it?

Well, yes it is. But even if we move beyond the convenient fact that this idea is the main crux of most of my writing, it's an comparison worth making because most of the people who created the Disneyland classics were film people. Marvin Davis, Dorthea Redmond, and Harper Goff were brought in from film design to work on Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. And those who came from the Disney Studio's animation department were already working for an organization revered as the most perfectionist and artistically significant of Hollywood's golden age. Film language is coded deep into the DNA of good themed design.

It may be interesting, then, to get outside Disney and think about the subject from the perspectives of filmmakers not imbued with the Disney culture. In this spirit, allow me to introduce Carl Theodore Dreyer.

Now, for those who aren't cinema buffs, it's worth noting that Dreyer is amongst the very few thoroughly, universally canonized film directors; his name is uttered in the same breath as names like Bresson, Ozu, Renoir, and Eisenstein. Practically every film he made from 1928 to 1962 is considered a top-tier masterpiece (even if there were only five!). But the Dreyer whom supplies our upcoming quote is not the grand old man of cinema; these are the words of an up-and-coming director, making an atmospheric drama in Germany in 1924 called Michael.

Michael is fairly obscure, although its status has grown in recent years due to prominent home video releases. Still, of all the great things Dreyer has said about film making over the years, one little comment has kept rolling around in my head for nearly a decade. This is Dreyer speaking to a Journalist about Michael in 1924:
"Isn't it particularly difficult to make a film where atmosphere is decisive while the narrative takes second place?"

"Yes it is. The pictures must be arranged according to the rules of art. It is necessary that the director have a sense of the pictorial. Things must fit together. Every picture must be a true picture; a unity. But, in addition to that, each individual object found in, for instance, a drawing room, must be genuine. And even objects that are not seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the room character." [Emphasis mine]
Now, when I first heard this, the idea struck me as absurd. After all, cinema artists from Méliès on have understood the power of cinema's limited frame; it implies an endless space and continuous action much like reality but can significantly exclude anything undesirable. This is why we can still make films set in vintage periods like the Gay Nineties or old west: if you don't point your motion picture camera at those telephone lines off to screen left, then they don't exist. The motion picture frame includes by exclusion. Similarly, anything off-frame that's "seen but only sensed" doesn't exist.

Méliès' set for A Trip to the Moon, 1902
But in another sense, the more I thought about this quote the more sense it made. After all, we all know what it's like to see actors laboring for reality inside a bad or unconvincing set, and so in many ways the cinema set is as much to set the proper atmosphere for creativity as it is to capture on celluloid the apparent image of an imaginary space. In the 1910's, D. W. Griffith broke precedents by insisting on placing real glass panes inside the windows of his sets; they had previously been empty. Why include something the camera or audience won't see?

Yes, the camera won't know that the glass is real, Griffith reasoned, but the actors will, and will adjust their performances accordingly. In 1922's Foolish Wives, Griffith admirer Erich von Stroheim used real glass in windows, real bullets in guns, real water in lakes, and most famously real champagne and caviar in dining scenes - as much as he wanted, for as many takes as it took. Decried by Universal as another frivolous expenditure, we can see here Stroheim leveraging the difference between things seen and things sensed.

But this train of reasoning really began to come together for me last year in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. The ride was stopped and we were all gathered in the portrait corridor waiting for operation to resume. As you probably know, in this scene there are four windows on your left. The first two have the famous "rainy night" effect diorama outside them, but the last two windows have their exterior shutters closed. Lightning still flashes through these, but there's no cool effects to see outside them.

But, but.... if you crouch down next to the second to last window and wait for a lightning flash, you can, in fact, for that split second, see some branches outside the window.... just as you would expect. Why bother with these at all? Hardly any guests would ever notice them, and I bet you'd never bother to look for them if I hadn't just bothered to point them out to you. to the right you can see my most successful attempt to photograph them, and even then they're kinda tough to make out.

I think the main reason those branches are there isn't because they're an "Easter Egg" or some kind a testament to Disney's "attention to detail". I think they're there because they're needed. The first two windows set an expectation for a pattern: trees outside the windows, some spooky fog, lightning. And although the human eye may not be wired to decode on sight what fake lightning flashing outside a fake window may look like, we do know what light passing through branches looks like, and the first two windows set us up to expect some branches outside that window. In other words, almost nobody will see it because it's there, but everybody would sense it if it wasn't. The branches are insurance against a break in the illusion (by the way, yes there are not branches outside the fourth window, but nobody looks at it anyway because the line turns right and there's the busts there to distract you).

User "dland_lover" on MiceChat
The more I thought of it, the more the "branch outside the window factor" seemed to speak less to every-detail perfectionism or foolish consistency as it did to Dreyer's insistence that things "not seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the room character." After all, there are few cinematic "magic spaces" where atmosphere is more decisive than in the stylized film world of a theme park.

Take the example of Big Thunder Mountain: the rocks are fake, but the attraction is littered with authentic antique mining equipment. The equipment isn't just about being authentic, however, and it isn't just about it being difficult to successfully build fake mining equipment. The equipment not only validates the stuff that WED did build for the ride - just a bit salted through makes everything look more real - but it validates the mining operation as a real thing, and because the mine is real, the mountain becomes real. If you think you're too clever to be mentally tricked by this, just consider that Big Thunder Mountain is, in fact, almost totally hollow. It's hard to visualize that, isn't it? that's what the value of things sensed rather than seen can add.

For whatever reason, Claude Coats was amazing at knowing exactly how much of the illusory world is needed to carry the illusion and where a few corners can be cut. More than Haunted Mansion, consider his terrific Caribbean seaport in Pirates of the Caribbean, which unlike Mansion's collection of flats and walls really is mostly there. The success of this ride is largely due to Coats' atmospheric direction in both the cavern and town sections.

But have you ever noticed how fully integrated Coats' town is with the action of the pillage narrative? His staging solutions are so simple that it takes a moment to stop and realize that somebody had to sit down and figure out how the whole thing should hang together. His sea-port is designed but it feels organic. Take note of how the location of each action is mirrored by the content of the scene. For example, the town's mayors and magistrates have been rounded up to be interrogated at the town well. The well is in an impressive public space with a central gathering point. This spectacle of indecency to public officials is being performed in the most public area seen in the attraction's fictional town, immediately implying that the Pirates represent not just a physical but an ideological threat. They are upending social structures.

Consider how easy it would've been to change this idea a little bit and lessen the impact. There's no reason why the well has to be in front of Carlos' house; it could've been a bit off to the left and his wife could've popped out of a window to the right. But it wouldn't be as funny or memorable. Would you have made this same exactly right decision if you were forced to design Pirates of the Caribbean from scratch?

Which brings us to my favorite instance of Coats' staging in the ride. Following his dictate of design following narrative, we move to the public market where the village maidens are being auctioned. This is happening directly in front of a huge building labeled "MERCADO". That's probably obvious, you've no doubt noticed it before. But have you ever noticed that you can actually see inside the market?

Yes, we can write this off as just more detail, but why is the detail there? Well, it's because this allows Coats to visually juxtapose the chain of brides with the market of produce behind them: these women are being treated like wares to be quickly consumed by the highest bidder.

But more than that this detail is the sort of thing that make Pirates of the Caribbean a true picture; in Dreyer's words, a unity. It's easy to throw a lot of detail into theme parks and end up with overkill because what's more important than having details is meaningful details. Everything we expect must be present, but nothing we don't expect or don't need to see is needed.

This, I feel, is what contributes to the sense of peace and relaxation experienced at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland, while parks of more recent vintage can feel cluttered, chaotic and unpleasant. There's just enough detail to allow us to suspend our disbelief, but not so much that the parks lose their sense of pastoral simplicity and beauty. Everything looks carefully vetted, designed, and built, compared to the visual chaos of a typical urban "strip".

We associate careful detail with the classic WED period of 1964-1984, but it's been there since the start. How many of you, for however long you've been going to Disneyland, have ever noticed that Sleeping Beauty Castle thoughtfully includes a chapel?

 (detail enlargement of a 1957 photo posted at Gorillas Don't Blog)

You may have noticed this before; it's one the right side facing Main Street. This is a common enough feature of genuine historical castles to not be noteworthy in and of itself, but due to its placement on the east side of the castle, which is an uncommonly photographed angle, and a half-century of tree growth on the Tomorrowland side, it can be downright tricky to spot it.

But once you do spot it, the real trick is to come back and see the chapel at night. All of the windows on the castle are lit up bright, welcoming yellow... except the chapel, which is lit internally by candlelight.

That's a detail which, to me, moves beyond the traditional "wide, medium, and close shot" methods used by Imagineers, which more lay out guidelines for consistency. To me, the marketplace behind the Auction, the tree branch outside the window, and the candles in the chapel are some kind of as-of-yet unnamed kind of themed design detail, which is the detail inside the detail, the sort of thing that you half don't expect to see but you go looking for anyway and there it is, waiting for you. It creates a satisfaction that goes beyond the normal level of detail presented by, say, a themed door knob. It's the discovery inside the discovery and it makes the false theme park world seem real, and lived in.

It's always been an ongoing project to make theme parks seem more convincingly realistic, especially in the hollow areas of themed facades which all too easily can appear to be the hollow or functional spaces they are. The tradition goes back to the start: this July 18, 1955 photograph from Daveland shows what the earliest WED designers probably thought of as "set dressing":

The "stuff-on-balconies" school reached its apotheosis in New Orleans Square in 1967, of course, but the Magic Kingdom in 1971 included balconies in as many niches as possible, sometimes to great effect. The simple balcony above Aloha Isle in Adventureland, stuffed with wicker chairs and faux foliage, has been firing the imaginations of observers for decades.

Stuff-on-balconies can only go so far, however, and Disneyland's other main method of creating imagined extended space is the "light in the attic" method: lamps in upper windows. There are fewer examples of this in Disneyland than expected, and most of them look pretty much like this:

(excerpt of a larger photo by rocket9 on flickr)

In 1971, the expanded scale of Magic Kingdom allowed Disneyland's designers to experiment with some of these techniques in a larger scale, and the result is very interesting. Instead of simply placing lanterns behind lace curtains. Magic Kingdom's Main Street has actual rooms in the upper level of its facades.

The rooms, of course, are nothing more than a few feet deep. It's actually a wall which encloses the upper level of the Magic Kingdom's office areas, but some well chosen wallpaper and props and the effect is very beguiling. It's also nearly impossible to photograph; the human eye can very easily distinguish between the various surfaces involved in the depth illusion - a richly patterned wallpaper viewed through an elaborate lace curtain - in ways that the camera eye cannot, but I tried very hard:

In person, this effect is nearly subliminal. I've only noticed it in the last few years, but the illusion that there really are Victorian parlors and drawing-rooms behind those windows is remarkably convincing and only fails from certain angles, which is certainly more than should be expected from details within details within details.

To avoid foolish consistency, however, some of the windows do use the simple Disneyland-style lamp, curtain and cloth, as in this handsome tribute window for Yale Gracey:

Or the beautiful dim pink light overlooking Town Square:

This one doesn't have any light inside it but it does have a full-sized chair and table and very intricate "back wall", which can only be seen by those looking very closely during the day:

The curtains hanging in the windows act as diffusion screens to make the textured rear walls - really only a few feet away from the windows - appear more distant than they are, and the illusion holds so long as the floor and ceiling remain hidden and the wallpaper chosen has small, intricate patterns. It's one of the most successful forced perspective illusions in the park. Elsewhere, in Liberty Square, the space above Liberty Tree Tavern is enlivened very simply but effectively in a window only visible from the courtyard behind the Christmas shop:

A chandelier is hung inside an unfinished attic. From the perspective of the street, the unfinished interior visually translates as the rough beams we expect inside of a colonial tavern, and a whole interior is implied for those who bother to find it:

There are other, less specular uses of lights and props throughout Magic Kingdom, although most do manifest in the traditional "light in the attic" rather than 'implied interior" seen above. However, in 1982 in World Showcase, WED Enterprises took another stab at the illusion and ended up with some interesting effects.

The "lighted windows" are applied with less regularity than throughout Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom is about nostalgia and exploration and so a warm feeling is created through elaborate displays of lights (except in the "dangerous" area of Adventureland). World Showcase is more about culture and its treatment of lighted second floor windows varies more widely: while Germany wants to create a feeling of warmth and gemütlichkeit and so uses many lit windows, the small British village of the United Kingdom pavilion feels almost sleepy at night due to its mostly darkened interiors. Until you get around the back towards the London flats, there's just a lonely lantern burning in one darkened upper window, one of EPCOT Center's most haunting details:

Contrast the United Kingdom with France, represented by Paris. EPCOT's facsimile doesn't just evoke the city of light through use of a boldly lit fountain; the France pavilion works overtime to imply a busting cultural metropolis just behind and beyond those windows and doors. Elaborate, half-glimpsed lights hang in the windows above the entrance to the Impressions de France attraction:

Diffusing curtains make these very hard to make out, but this fictional "upstairs" space is validated by the nearby second floor restaurant facing the water and, facing the United Kingdom pavilion, the upstairs art gallery, sadly long since closed.

 But the best touch, for me, is around the corner down the "provincial" side street. Many of you, no doubt, have noticed the glass-enclosed artist's loft in this area...

photo by Al Huffman
...but how many of you have seen the artist who lives there? If you return at night you can see him painting:

Yes, it's just a little cutout, but to me this is the ultimate example of the "Branch Outside the Window" effect. If you just so happened to see this one detail early in the day, wondered if it was supposed to be an artist loft, then just happened to walk back that way later and had your suspicions confirmed? How many have done that? A few dozen a year?

To me, this is what makes the difference between the sort of detail we've been discussing today and the run of the mill sort of detail which Imagineering can now do with their eyes closed. Very few may notice these sorts of things, but the cumulative effect cannot be undervalued: the impression of an organic world where there is none.

To me this sense of inevitability of these sorts of details is the mark of a great, assured artistic creation. To paraphrase Dreyer, the theme park designer must have a sense of the pictorial. Things must fit together. Every picture must be a true picture; a unity. But, in addition to that, each individual object found in, a theme park, must seem genuine. And even objects that may not be seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the park character.

That's the difference that a great designer makes. The branch behind the window, rarely seen, but always sensed.