Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Two New Special Exhibitions at The Walt Disney Family Museum

Photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum
By Tim McRaven

In the last month The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presideo of San Francisco, has opened two new special exhibitions sure to interest the Disney fan in all of us, and those drawn more toward the esoteric. Continue after the page break for a look at these two new wonderful exhibits...

All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt’s Trains

American railroading is certainly an allegory for Walt Disney’s personal and public life. He arrived at so many of his triumphs, figuratively and literally, on a train. From his first job as a News Butcher on the Missouri Pacific line, to the “birth” of Mickey Mouse on a train, to his creation of Disneyland, to his vision of a City of the Future bisected by fleets of sleek trains of assorted sizes, quietly serving the public.

Unseen, this exhibition might be judged to be the most casual of glimpses into one of Walt’s interests, but the level of the show’s execution takes it far beyond any backward glance at an elite hobby enjoyed by some of the Studio hands. It quite possibly exposes a type of zeitgeist in evidence there and then. It is a rare group of people who have enough passion for a pastime with the myriad of intricacies involved in fabricating and running these "living and breathing” machines. They are quite possibly the same type of people who can successfully surmount the challenges involved in creating the illusion of life. They certainly were in this case.

The Lilly Belle plans were reduced from a schematic of the Central Pacific engine No. 173. Image © Disney

Despite, or maybe because of the intricacies of a seemingly antiquated pursuit, the boss’s interest drew collaborators from the apex of Disney’s animation stable, Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston among them. Two of Disney’s Animation Directors dubbed his “Nine Old Men,” both now Disney Legends, they were among the first American “civilians" to restore and install full sized railroads in their “backyards” as their interest grew. But other skills were needed to steam this pursuit forward.
Roger Broggie came to the Disney Studio in 1939 as a precision machinist, mostly to work with cameras and the tools of movie making. Broggie worked with Walt Disney to create the model trains for Disney's 1/2 mile-long Carolwood Pacific Railroad located in the backyard of Disney's home and went on to work on the subsequent bigger trains for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Elaborate electric train layouts in the exhibit pay tribute to these Disney Rail Pioneers.

The actual Lillie Belle from Walt’s backyard remains on regular display in the museum’s Main Galleries. It is the little train that spawned a game-changing amusement experience. Photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum

And then there is of course Walt’s long time alter-ego - Mickey Mouse who shortly after his debut in Steamboat Willie, would pilot Mickey’s Choo-Choo in a 1929 short of the same name. Trains of all sorts that made appearances in Disney shorts and films, either as plot devices or as characters of their own in animated films also appear here.

An exploratory sketch of the Casey Jr. Circus Train from Dumbo. Image © Disney

Not only are the familiar “American Type” steam trains explored in this wide-ranging and ambitious show, curated by Michael Campbell, president of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society. Other trains that were used to further different stories in the Parks are in evidence The Mine Train Through
Nature’s Wonderland, the Casey Jr. Circus Train, the View-Liner and its descendant The Disneyland Alweg Monorail System are in attendance.

The long lost and lamented Walt Disney World Fort Wilderness Railroad is given a fine tribute and a suitable spot for those rail fans who might want to quietly mourn.

This fanciful layout pays tribute to Ward Kimball’s Grizzly Flats Railroad. It includes a Hobo Camp from which is heard a plaintiff solo harmonica contributed by musician Neil Young - himself a devout miniature railroad fan.

This seemingly familiar poster promotes the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad. Image © Disney

The Lost Notebook: Secrets of Disney’s Movie Magic

This modest exhibition takes visitors behind the lens with one of the most enigmatic and fascinating characters of early animation. Using more than 100 objects, conceptual artwork, character models, and even a handful of never exhibited-before artifacts, The Lost Notebook uncovers the secrets behind Disney’s movie magic .

In this age of digital movie making, filmmakers can do anything. Endless armies can have peaked battles involving thousands and thousands of “troops,” captured by “flying” cameras. Thousands of these avatars are “killed.” No ones and zeros were harmed in the making of this film.

Not to diminish the talents of modern film artists - but there seemed to be more romance and ersatz creativity around the execution of old fashioned Practical Special Effects. The matte painters' magic on a sheet of glass. Optical printer effects of the type that the Disney Studio excelled. A believable tornado funnel made of silk with air blowing through it deposits a house “over the rainbow.”

Arguably, creating special effects for animation is more difficult in many ways than for live action.
Contextually, just providing a realistic look at our physical world IS a special effect. But handmade magic, created from film exposure and processing tricks, and the filming of practical items to add depth, delivered the believability that Walt Disney’s rising enterprise demanded.
Photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum


Just before the U.S. entry into World War II, a German émigré is hired at the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. He was hired to work in the Process Laboratory. During his tenure, without the complete knowledge of the studio, he meticulously documented hundreds of the house developed special effects techniques, for reasons no one completely understands. His timing was perfect as the studio was going through a particularly bright post Snow White period and the plying of dazzling special effects and fantastic realism was in practice like never before. While he was only employed at the studio for a little over two years, he struggled to remain with the company post-Disney and never achieved what he believed to be his rightful place in the motion picture industry.

In 1955, while on a trip to Guatemala, he disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again. His notebooks, sometimes referred to as the Rosetta Stone of early special-effects animation, were not really even thought about until they were recovered in an estate sale.

The Lost Notebook: Secrets of Disney’s Movie Magic is on view from November 26, 2014 through January 12, 2015.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. Call 415-345-6800.

Tim Pat McRaven is a lifelong Disney fan who has spent many years on and off as a Disney employee. He’s currently a volunteer at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and also represents the museum at events in Southern California.

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