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Arrrrr you kidding me? An extra’s eye-view of “Pirates of the Caribbean II”?!

Avast, me hearties! Freelance journalist Diane B. Rooney drops anchor at JHM to bring us an on-the-set report from Universal Studios Hollywood, where “Dead Man’s Chest” is currently in production.

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Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Mans Chest Movie Poster
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Before we get started here, just a quick thanks to Diane B. Rooney. Who so graciously offered up this “Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest” set report (which previously ran over on the Compass Rose discussion boards) for reprinting on JHM.

Also — for those of you who don’t want to know too much about this eagerily anticipated Walt Disney Pictures release prior to its release to theaters in the summer of 2006 — not to worry. “Dead men (and Diane) tell no tales.” What follows is a spoiler-free article. As in: It steers clear of revealing plot points and concentrates more on what it was actually like to be on the set of this Jerry Bruckheimer production.

Okay. Enough with my long-winded intro. Let’s get to Diane’s report, shall we?

They took off from day jobs as waitresses, security guards, even lighting directors. They postponed trips to China or drove three hours each way. Those without cars spent hours navigating Los Angeles’ public transit system. Most were experienced, some were novices. Some had been seen at December’s open casting call, others had already been registered with Sande Alessi Casting. They wanted to work for Gore Verbinski, or be on the same set as Johnny Depp. They came to be part, even a small part, of a few scenes in the making of Pirates of the Caribbean II.

I was fortunate enough to be one of them. What I’d like to do here is to share my experience as a novice film extra on a project as exciting as Pirates II. I won’t describe the scenes I saw being filmed, most of all because the folks at Walt Disney don’t want that stuff leaking out from people like me, but also because I’ve no idea where in the story these scenes might occur or to what extent they’ll survive the editing process.

To answer your most burning questions first: Yes, I did see principals Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Kevin McNally, and director Gore Verbinski, stood or passed within feet or even inches of them, and yes, that was a huge thrill.

While I’ve been on stage many times, this was my first experience on a film set. There’s a lot that I didn’t know how or when to do. I dread these situations, because I hate feeling stupid and because I know my ignorance exasperates or makes work for other people. I did ask a lot of questions and do some research, but if I use an incorrect term or title here, I ask forgiveness in advance.

Getting the Call.

The phone rang on Friday afternoon, March 4. It was Nina from Sande Alessi Casting, calling to confirm that I would be working on Pirates of the Caribbean the following week! Even though I had been fitted for a costume back in early February, I know that a lot of things can happen. I was a complete novice – perhaps they’d decide it would be better to use someone with experience?

Filming took place Wednesday through Friday (March 9 -11) on the backlot at Universal Studios. I don’t know why a Universal set was used or if it was used in the first film. I can only suppose it was because the set had the right look and was available for that window in the production schedule.

Arrival.

I was told to report at 9:30AM on Thursday at Universal Studios. Security there, as at all studios, is tight. Trying to get in just to see the set or a celebrity is hopeless. No one gets through the gate without a studio ID or, in the case of temporary workers like me, unless you are on a list for that day. On my first day, I wasn’t on the list yet, so, with a few others, I had to call in and be verified. I was scared – what if they didn’t have my name? To have come so far, and then not get in!

But my name was found and verified, the guard alerted and a parking pass issued. From the garage, I took a shuttle van, together with other extras and some production crew members, through the Universal backlot to the Pirates’ location. The van passes not just famous sets like Universal’s western towns but also the cottages that house independent production companies like Dino Di Laurentis and Imagine. I saw Sam Mendes’ parking space. There’s even a lakefront set and one with a steam locomotive!

On arriving at an area with trailers and tents, I checked in, giving my name and number (the number of my costume/character), and filling in a session form so I could be paid for the day. Then I picked up my costume and headed inside.

Wardrobe, Hair, Makeup, and Aging.

The changing area (women’s anyway) is a mad whirl of people getting dressed, with plenty of wardrobe professionals tying chemises and skirts and lacing corsets. You keep all your hangers together with the tag with your name and costume number and loop over it a large zipper bag for your own clothes and personal belongings. At the end of the day, items like your shoes, stockings, jewelry, and corset go back into the bag. Photos of each extra in costume, with her number, hang in the dressing area, so your look can be compared to the photo from the costume fitting to make sure it matches.

Next, hair and makeup. This area also has photographs of each person, numbered, in costume. The hair professional locates your wig if you have one. Your own hair is carefully pinned up and a skullcap or net is placed over it. The wig goes on top of this, and can then be styled with a curling iron. The wig’s forehead line and the sides by the ears are secured with a type of glue (which comes off with alcohol) so the wig doesn’t get out of place during the day. Then your hat is pinned on top of the wig.

Once your hair or wig is styled, you proceed to the other side of the room for makeup. Again, pictures are checked to ensure you look exactly the way you should. Makeup includes face, hands, and body, to make the character look dirty and disheveled (it’s Tortuga, after all), and even includes tooth makeup to make teeth look stained.

With all the extras needed for these scenes, hair and makeup was a busy area. Picture three aisles of hair and makeup professionals, their work stations, mirrors and kits lining each side, and people to direct us to an open station to keep the process moving.

Many of the male extras had grown their hair and beards long and did not need wigs or facial hair. Their hair was still dressed and styled, however, and they still had makeup applied to complete their look, in some cases, to make them look older, fiercer, or more battle-scarred.

Unlike the men’s coats, most of the women’s skirts did not have pockets, so it was difficult to stash cell phones, glasses, medicine, or smoking materials. I took my phone, note pad, and ID in a small bag I left in the extras’ waiting area off the set. My glasses I slid into the top of my stocking so I could pull them out to see in between shots. This strategy didn’t work that well long term and they eventually broke from being bent so often.

The last stop before proceeding down to the set was aging. Here wardrobe technicians carefully “aged” or distressed the costumes, applying to them what looked like dust or dirt in a cotton or muslin bag. (I’ve read that what’s often used to distress costumes is fuller’s earth, clay, or ground up chalk). They wore masks to keep from breathing in the material.

At the end of the day, the process is reversed. You change, re-hang your costume, put the loose pieces in the zipper bag, return your wig, and turn in your costume for re-racking. You take your session form to sign-out, where your hours are recorded and you’re given a copy for your records and join the line for the van back to the parking structure. Professionals become expert at this. I was still wrestling with my last skirt and the bunch of hangers, looked around, and saw the room was nearly empty.

To Tortuga and the Cantina.

At the bottom of the hill from the trailers and tents is the Tortuga set, and along the streets of the backlot are more trailers for people and equipment, a tent and waiting area for extras and a large meal tent.

Tortuga looks much as it did in the first film. It’s a rather rough place where the residents mostly drink, fight, and carouse. Tortuga’s residents represent a wide range of ages, body types, and ethnicities. The scenes I participated in take place in a cantina or tavern. (You’ll remember the cantina from the first film, where Jack takes Mr. Gibbs for a drink and tells him he plans to recover the Black Pearl – I have no idea if this is the same cantina location.)

Close up, the cantina set is amazing. As in the first film, it’s furnished with wooden benches and tables. On the tables are wooden and metal plates, jugs, and leather and metal cups and tankards. Some items are made from a rubberized material, so they can be thrown in fight scenes without injuring anyone.

Given the time period, the cantina is lit with candles, hundreds of candles, on the tables, in wall sconces, and in overhead chandeliers. Indeed, there were production people going around periodically through the day replacing the candles, and a lot of wax built up on the tables over the two days. The cantina set is roofed with white screening or sheeting material supported by an exterior crane, I think so the lighting can be better controlled (or perhaps to keep people in helicopters from photographing the set?)

The level of detail in set dressing is incredible. For example, the cantina walls and the walls of other town buildings are decorated with handbills and news sheets detailing upcoming pirate trials, promoting shop owners and their wares, or announcing engagements and marriages (no one we know.) Even though it’s unlikely they’ll ever be readable on screen, these details help create the atmosphere of Tortuga.

The number of people present and the amount of equipment on and near the set is astounding. There’s equipment in trailers, trunks of equipment stacked high outside the set, and miles of cable to power lights, cameras and other equipment snaking through the entire set. You have to step very carefully over cables and around cameras, monitors, and other equipment as you move in and out of position, not easy in period costume. Ack! If I broke it, would Disney make me buy it?

Being on set is overwhelming at first – a film version of what historians call “the fog of war.” It’s crowded with people and equipment, hot from the candles and film lights, and hazy from stage smoke being blown in by large fans. The costume feels strange, and the corset restricts your field of motion. Plus, if you’re nearsighted like me, you can’t see very well.

What Film Extras Actually Do

Before going on to the set, we extras were sorted into smaller groups of about 8-15 people each, so we could be directed and managed by assistant directors or production assistants. (Each production person wears an ID tag with his/her name and title, though I couldn’t read them because of my nearsightedness. They are also all connected via walkie-talkies and head sets, and have one or more cell phones at the ready.)

The ADs or PAs place each person in an area of the set and give them specific actions and interactions for the scene. For example, this could include greeting someone, pouring a drink into their cup, clinking cups with them, walking with them from one side of the area to another, and reacting to action taking place nearby. I was impressed with one PA’s direction to our group: He told us to be carousing, but with a bit of sadness because we’re here on Tortuga and not in London. Thought that captured it perfectly!

Each group rehearses its action a few times to make sure it’s smooth. Meanwhile, all the other groups of extras as well as the principals in the scene are rehearsing, so it’s quite busy. Over the two days, we all moved around quite a bit from group to group and from area to area on the set.

While I started out deep in the background of the cantina, in a later sequence I was closer to the principals. I think the production people made a real effort to move the extras around so they’d have at least one or two opportunities to be closer to the main action (and the principals!)

With all the people present, the noise level got quite high, and there were frequent calls for quiet, especially when the principals or stunt people were rehearsing.

Action!

All the scenes I observed or participated in had several takes, and multiple cameras were used in each one so the action was captured from different angles. Usually, a few seconds of music would play, someone would call “Background action! (our signal to begin moving) and then “Action!” We’d keep going until we heard “Cut!” Then we’d regroup and get ready to do it again.

I was able to watch Johnny Depp, Jack Davenport, Keira Knightley, and Kevin McNally in several scenes. They worked closely with director Gore Verbinski, trying different pacings, movements, and timings for the scenes in rehearsal. It was fascinating to watch them focus and center themselves before a scene started. Everyone was patient with re-takes, as different inflections, emphases, or sequences were filmed.

After the last take of a demanding scene involving a principal, Mr. Verbinski would call out, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Keira Knightley,” or “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Jack Davenport, all the way from England,” and everyone would applaud.

I watched a sword fight involving about ten stunt professionals, who work with the film’s director and the stunt director. It really is like a ballet, as people enter and exit and change fight partners. Although I ‘m sure they had rehearsed the scene previously until their motions were engrained in their muscle memory, before the cameras rolled they went through it at half, three-quarter, and full speed.

Food, Refreshments and Comfort.

Everyone’s heard about the craft services (catering) on film sets. There is always water, soda, coffee, tea, and snacks including fruit, peanut butter and jelly, yoghurt, bread and bagels, cookies, and chips for the extras, which you can have while waiting to go on the set or on breaks. You can’t bring food onto the set, but production people come through frequently with bottles of water. My big production secret is that you’ll never see how many plastic water bottles there were on the floor of the cantina!

Professionals who are members of SAG have a separate refreshment and break area, except for the main meals, when the food tent is open to all with buffet line service. We had a lunch break on Thursday at 4:30, and both lunch and dinner breaks on Friday. Our dinner break was at about 1AM. We left the set and were greeted just outside it on the streets of Tortuga with a full buffet setup and helpful servers: roast chicken, vegetables, burgers and hot dogs, even dessert.

Efforts are made to keep people comfortable. The extras’ tent is heated in the evening. Makeup professionals give people eye drops if needed.

Continuity.

Continuity is critically important, even for extras. Photographs were taken of everyone on the first day to ensure costume, hair, and makeup would be consistent for the second day. Wardrobe and makeup professionals and production assistants carried plastic envelopes of photos to check consistency. Makeup professionals came around frequently all day and night touching up face, body, and tooth makeup and spritzing us with water both to cool us off and to make us look sweaty.

Health and Labor

There are lots of people on and around the set you wouldn’t automatically think of. On one break, a gentleman came around asking if any one in the group was a member of SAG (the Screen Actors Guild), as he was the SAG representative for the production and was available if anyone had questions. Also present on set was a medic. One of the men in my group had a bronchial problem and for a few minutes it was difficult for him to breathe. He declined help but on the next break a production assistant came over with a medic, who offered medication and other assistance.

Shop Talk and Pirate Tales.

So what do extras talk about? Well, professionals tend to talk about work they’ve done, or work they’ve heard is coming up. I met several men who had worked on the television series “Deadwood,” and one who’d spent six weeks in Mexico as an extra on “Master and Commander.” They talk about the cost of living, traffic, day to day stuff. Pirates fan extras tend to talk about the films, the stars, the stars’ films, and drop lines from The Curse of the Black Pearl at every opportune moment.

And they talk about the scripts for the sequels. “Well in the second film, what happens is…, but then in the third….” The first several times I heard conversations like this, my ears perked up. But no two stories agreed. I heard people claim to have picked up scripts from trash baskets and copy machines, even one person who claimed to have copies of both scripts in his car. I’m afraid they were used more as pick-up lines than confidential disclosures.

Not that the plot lines discussed weren’t interesting. I especially liked the suggestion that the Black Pearl was a real character the ship had been named for, and she’d appear in one of the sequels. I also liked what I call the George Lucas treatment, in which it’s revealed that Elizabeth is Governor Swann’s ADOPTED daughter, and her real father is…Captain Jack? Bootstrap Bill? Mr. Gibbs? Whoever. In this version she’d been adopted after some family tragedy back in England, after which her father went to sea. Ah well, sounds like someone’s seen ol’ Darth Vader and Luke a few too many times.

Day Two

By Friday, I felt a bit more comfortable, since I knew at least a little more of what to do. When I arrived at the gate and gave my name, the guard gave me a big smile and said “You’re in our system!” We were due to report at 10:30AM but I got there very early so I wouldn’t feel rushed. I was able to have breakfast in the big food tent – with a big selection of hot dishes, cold platters with salmon, cereal, juice, bread and pastries, fruit, and a van outside serving egg dishes, wraps, and breakfast burritos. Then back up the hill to wardrobe, hair, and makeup.

Friday afternoon Sande and some of her associates from Sande Alessi Casting visited, chatting with many of us, and stayed for lunch. It was great to see them and they were very interested to hear our stories.

Advice

Some of you may be waiting for a call to be an extra on Pirates, or may just want to give being an extra a try. Based on my (limited) experience, here are some things that may be helpful if you get the chance:

1. Try to get a good night’s sleep. Production days can be long. Thursday we were there ’til midnight, Friday til 4:15AM Saturday.

2. Get to your location early, so you allow plenty of time for the security check and can be among the first into wardrobe and makeup. If you’re not rushed, you’ll feel less flustered.

3. If you don’t know what to do or where to go, ask, but try not to be a pain. Almost everyone you will encounter is a professional and unfailingly nice but I’m sure it’s tiring to get the same questions.

4. Conserve your energy. Sit down when you can, drink plenty of water, and be sure to eat on the meal breaks.

5. Listen, follow instructions, and be quiet on the set. Making people call repeatedly for quiet wastes time and energy.

6. Observe and learn from the professionals around you. I would have been lost without the experienced extras I met who gave me advice, rehearsed with me, helped me relax, and even turned me around to face Johnny Depp and the camera.

7. Try not to complain. By the end of the day you’ll be tired, hot, and dirty, your costume will probably be uncomfortable, your feet will hurt, and you may have blisters or red eyes, but remember, there are thousands of people who’d give anything to be where you are.

8. This should go without saying, but maybe not. Don’t speak to or make eye contact with the principals unless you’re directly involved in their action, especially before the start of a scene when they are preparing themselves.

9. Be professional. Don’t even think about autographs or photos on the set. And keep cell phones and pagers off and well hidden.

Closing Thoughts

Several qualities about the people and production impressed me. Here are the top four:

Professionalism: Everyone one I met and observed was a true professional. They took their work seriously and gave a full effort every time. The production people are very mindful of the schedule and what needs to get done each day. There’s a constant sense of focus and the need to move forward.

Energy: Film making is hard work over long days. The amount of energy put out by everyone from the director to the newest production assistant is staggering. Well after 2AM Saturday, there were multiple takes of a scene involving Elizabeth Swann. The director, crew, actors, everyone involved was still going full steam, from checking monitors and camera angles to suggesting changes to repeating sequences, in what, the 17th or 18th hour of their work day. And they still managed to look like they were having the time of their lives.

And while we were released at 4:15AM Saturday, there were many more hours of work to be done to take down the set: Equipment to be packed up, costumes to be racked and organized, tents taken down, trailers moved, water bottles picked up from the set and who knows what else.

Attention to Detail: No detail is too small to get right. Adjusting a costume, touching up tooth makeup, replacing candles, thousands of details that may never been seen, even going through the DVD frame by frame, it’s all important.

Camaraderie: We’ve all seen documentaries covering the last day of production: the hugs, the tears, the goodbye gifts. Well, we extras were there after just two days. By the end of our time on Tortuga we had traded stories, aspirations, work histories, family tales and more.

Leaving Tortuga

We were released at 4:15AM. Saturday morning. Some extras were off to bus stops to wait for 7AM buses. I was tired, dirty, bleary-eyed, footsore, and my hair stuck out in all directions from being in pin curls under the wig all day. I’d also had two of the best days of my life. I was so confused it took me about half an hour to find my car. I staggered into my hotel lobby around 5:30AM, where people were already having breakfast and starting their day. I’m sure I looked like an escapee from a zombie party. I slept for about six hours and then headed home, playing the Pirates’ soundtrack most of the way.

Before leaving Tortuga, I exchanged emails and phone numbers with many of the people I’d met. Yes, several of us plan to meet in Los Angeles next July to see the film together and watch for our on-screen appearances.

Do I have the extra bug? Well, let’s just say “Rent” is being filmed here in San Francisco, and they’re looking for extras….

Summing Up.

Eyeglass repair: $22
Gasoline for round trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles: around $80

Two days with Johnny Depp and an amazing group of professionals and Pirates fans: Priceless!

Special thanks again to Ms. Rooney for offering to share this great set report with JHM readers. For those of you who’d like to thank Diane for her great coverage and/or anyone who has additional questions can contact her at dianeroone@aol.com.

What’s that? You’re hungry for even more “Pirates” related news? Well, you can check out this great article that Diane did about the “Dead Man’s Chest” casting call. Or — better yet — this fun feature that Ms. Rooney filed about her “Pirates II” costume fitting. Which might give me a better appreciation of the whole process involved in film-making.

And let’s not forget about KeeptotheCode.com, the official fan site for Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Which finally officially went live last week. There’s lots of piratical fun to be found there.

Anyway … That’s your “Dead Man’s Chest” update for today. Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

How Mattel’s “Men in Space” Toyline Lead to the Creation of Buzz Lightyear

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Buzz Lightyear Origin Story - images of Major Matt Mason, Buzz Lightyear, and Lunar Larry Concept Art
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Angus MacLane’s “Lightyear” is supposed to be … Well, not exactly an origin story for Buzz Lightyear, the action figure that we know from all of the “Toy Story” films. But Rather an explanation of why Andy is so excited at his birthday party in the first “Toy Story” movie when he gets that Buzz Lightyear toy.

You see, Andy’s seen the movie that this action figure was based on. Which is supposed to be this huge Summer blockbuster. Which is why Andy & his friends at that party react the way they do. As far as they’re concerned, the movie that spawned the Buzz Lightyear action figure line was the greatest film they’ve ever seen.

Credit: Disney

Of course, because I’m a nerd and an animation history buff, I can’t help but think about how Buzz Lightyear – the character from the “Toy Story” films, rather than the really-for-real space ranger that Chris Evans voices in “Lightyear” – really started out. Which honestly wasn’t supposed to be a spoof on Captain Kirk from “Star Trek” or Gil Gerad’s Buck Rogers from the TV show. But – rather – as a riff on a space-themed toy line that Mattel produced in the mid-1960s called “Men in Space” which was then built around a character called Major Matt Mason.

Now how we got to the “Men in Space” toy line is kind of convoluted. This story actually starts over 60 years ago when Mattel sent two dolls out into the world, Barbie & Chatty Cathy.

Doll’s For Boys – Mattel’s Space Action Figure

Mattel made money hand over fist from sales of these two products. Which then made Mattel’s competitors stand up and take notice. They too wanted in on this mass-produced plastic toy market. Which is what prompted Hasbro to do something bold in 1964. Which was to license a concept that Stanley Winston had been developing. Which is a military-themed doll for boys.

Hasbro’s G.I. Joe

Just so you know: The executives on the marketing side of Hasbro knew that that nomenclature – “dolls for boys” – wasn’t going to fly. Especially with the Dads of the 1960s. So this is why the phrase “action figure” came from.

credit: The Toys that made us

Anyway, Hasbro introduces G.I. Joe, “America’s movable fighting man” (because – again – you can’t call this toy what it actually is. Which is a poseable doll for boys) in 1964. And it’s a huge hit right out of the box.

Marx “Best in the West” Cowboy Dolls

And Hasbro & Mattel’s direct competition, Marx, sees what going on with G.I. Joe and decides that … Well, we want in on the “dolls for boys” market … So they come up with the “Best of the West” line. Which is this series of G.I. Joe-sized poseable cowboy dolls. Those arrive in the marketplace in 1965 and are also hugely successful.

Mattel Introduces “Men in Space” Toyline

So now here’s Mattel. Which has cornered the market when it comes to dolls for girls with its Barbie & Chatty Cathy lines. But now that Hasbro & Marx have blazed this brave new trail – poseable dolls for boys – with their G.I. Joe & “Best of the West” action figures, Mattel wants in too.

But now that soldiers & cowboys are the exclusive property of Hasbro & Marx, Mattel has to find some sort of hook for its new “dolls for boys” line. So rather than looking back to World War II or the glory days of the America West, Mattel decides to take a chance on what’s going on in the real world at that exact moment. Which is the space race.

Which is why – just in time for the holiday buying season of 1966 – Mattel rolls out its “Men in Space” toy line. Who is headlined by Major Matt Mason an astronaut-themed action figure “ … who lives and works on the Moon.”

Credit: Vintage Action Figures

Major Matt Mason – Astronaut-Themed Action Figure

Now what was kind of interesting about Major Matt Mason is that the toy line that he headlined was based in reality. As in: A lot of the outfits & ride vehicles that were created for Mattel’s “Men in Space” line were direct lifts of publicity images that NASA had already put out there of space vehicles that they envisioned building once man actually made it to the moon. Which brought up some interesting copyright-related issues at that time.

Now I have to tell you that Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line had problems right from the get-go. Instead of the sturdy 12-inch-tall poseable action figures that G.I. Joe and Marx’s “Best of the West” toys were … Major Matt Mason was half that size. Also, instead of hard plastic, Mattel used a rubber-like substance called Plastizol when it was making its “Men in Space” toys. That material was poured into a mold that had a wire armature inside.

Which wasn’t the sturdiest thing on the planet. Typically, after a few months of playing with your Major Matt Mason, the wire armature inside of this “Men in Space” action figure would break and it would then no longer be poseable.

Mind you, this was a deliberate choice on Mattel’s part. Their thinking was – by making Major Matt Mason half the size of G.I. Joe and then making this action figure out of cheaper material – … Well, that could then help them keep the cost of their “Men in Space” toy line down. Which would then – in theory, anyway – make these action figures far more affordable and make it possible for consumers to eventually purchase the entire playset.

Major Matt Mason’s Astronaut Friends

Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that Major Matt Mason had friends? Well, co-workers really. Sgt. Storm, Chip Davis, and Jeff Long (who was an African-American astronaut). Who could all lived & worked together with Matt inside of a three-level lunar base and then got around the moon’s surface by using space sleds and jet propulsion packs.

Credit: Mattel

“Men in Space” Toy Sales

Mind you, Mattel’s “Men in Space” action figures didn’t sell nearly as well as that toy company had hoped they would over the 1966 holiday shopping season. And the thinking initially was that this was because Major Matt Mason & Co. didn’t have anyone that they could battle with. So – in much the same way that Buzz Lightyear has his evil nemesis, Emperor Zurg – the “Men in Space” team then found themselves (just in time for the 1967 holiday shopping season) dealing with evil aliens like Captain Lazer, Callisto, Scorpio and Or.

Unfortunately for Mattel, interest in the space program began to wane as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Which is why they decided to discontinue their “Men in Space” toy line in 1970.

Lunar Larry – The Original Buzz Lightyear

So when it comes to Buzz Lightyear, where’s the Major Matt Mason / “Men in Space” connection? Well, if you take a look back at the original concept art for Woody’s nemesis in the first “Toy Story” movie, he isn’t this G.I. Joe sized action figure. But – rather – a six-inch-tall poseable astronaut doll who (I kid you not) is called Lunar Larry.

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, & “Men in Space” Film

FYI: If all had gone according to plan back in 2011, there would have been an even stronger “Toy Story” / “Major Matt Mason” connection. This was when it was announced in the Hollywood trades that Tom Hanks (that’s right. The voice of Woody) had co-written a movie based on Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line. Not only that, but Hanks was trying to persuade Robert Zemeckis (who Tom had worked with on “Forest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express,” and Disney+’s live-action “Pinocchio”) to come direct the “Major Matt Mason” – the man who lived & worked on the Moon – movie.

Wait. It gets better, Hanks himself reportedly wanted to play Major Matt Mason.

I’m not entirely sure whatever became of Tom Hanks’ “Men in Space” movie. This past February, Hanks & Zemeckis announced that they’ll be re-united with Eric Roth, the writer of “Forest Gump,” on a film adaptation of “Here.” Which is Roth’s graphic novel.

Supposedly sometime over the past 10 years, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to make a “Men in Space” movie. Hanks is still allegedly attached as a producer for this project. But given that Tom will be turning 66 next month, I doubt that he still wants to play Major Matt Mason.

Which is kind of a shame. Given what Woody once said to Buzz in the original “Toy Story” …

YOU ARE A TOY!!!  You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear, you’re an action figure!!  You are a child’s plaything!!!

… I would pay good money to see Tom Hanks play one of the original action figures: Major Matt Mason, the man who lived & worked on the Moon as part of Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line.

Credit: New York Times

This article is based on research for Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor “Episode 178”, published on June 16, 2022. Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!”: Sequel Troubles and New Attractions

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Honey I Shrunk the Audience
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This article is part of a series documenting the story of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and Disney Science-Based movies. Be sure to check out our additional research on the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.

On the heels of the enormous success of the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movie (which was released to theaters in June of 1989) — Disney Studios made plans to release a whole series of science-based gimmick comedies based on the “Honey” characters. A number of the titles that the Studio copywrote as possible follow-ups to that film:

  • “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon”
  • “Honey, I Swapped Brains with the Dog”

With the plan here being that — from here on in — every two years, just like clockwork, a brand-new “Honey” movie would arrive in theaters (ideally in early June) and then clean up at the box office. Just like the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did in June of 1989.

“Honey, I Blew Up the Baby”

We now jump ahead to June of 1992. Which is when “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” finally arrived in theaters.

Now if you’re halfway decent at math, you’ll immediately notice that — hey — the follow-up to the original “Honey, I Shrunk” film didn’t arrive in theaters two years later (like Disney originally planned) but three years later.

“And why was that?,” you ask. Well, at it turns out, it was a lot harder to develop a suitable sequel to the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than anyone at Disney had thought it would be. The Studio went through dozens of drafts before executives at Disney finally threw up their hands and said “We give. Let’s just go buy someone else’s script and then turn it into a ‘Honey, I Shrunk’ movie.”

And that’s exactly what Disney did. They found this script called “Big Baby.” Which was originally supposed to be a parody of all those Godzilla movies. Only — in this case — instead of a giant radioactive lizard rising up out of Tokyo Bay and then laying waste to the city, the monster in this movie was a toddler who’d accidentally been made 200 feet tall. And who was now disrupting Rush Hour because he kept picking up cars off of the freeway and then making them go “Vroom Vroom.”

Very cute idea for a movie. Definitely something there that could then be used for a “Honey, I Shrunk” story. But here’s the thing: At this time, the State of Nevada was offering movie studios in Hollywood a huge tax break if they came and shot movies in that state.

Filming in Las Vegas, Nevada

And given that the movie that Disney was then calling “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was going to be hugely expensive to make (what with all of these elaborate special effects scenes of that giant toddler wandering around that regular-sized cityscape) … Well, Mouse House executives then began to think “Could we switch the location of ‘Honey, I Blew Up the Baby’ from a generic Southern Californian suburb to — say — the Las Vegas Strip? Which has all sorts of famous, recognized-around-the-globe super-sized icons like Vegas Vic, that giant neon Cowboy who’s been a fixture on the Las Vegas Strip since 1951.

The only problem is that a story that’s set in Las Vegas doesn’t exactly scream “Family friendly.” Of course, the real irony here is that — while “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was actually in production in June of 1991 was when Las Vegas was beginning its initial flirtation with becoming a more family-friendly destination resort. This is when we saw resorts like the Luxor first announced. Heavily themed hotels & casinos which would also have rides & attractions incorporated into their designs that would then appeal to kids.

Credit: Walt Disney Company

From Blowing up the Baby to Blowing up the Kid – Movie Name Change

Disney didn’t initially realize that setting “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” in Las Vegas would then have an impact on this “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” sequel. They were more concerned with what focus groups were telling them about the title of this “Honey” sequel. As is: They didn’t want to take their children to see a Disney movie where babies got blown up. That was cruel & gross sounding.

Disney’s marketing team tried to explain to the people in these focus groups that no babies would actually be harmed over the course of this sequel. That — when they said “Blew Up” — they didn’t mean “exploded.” But — rather — made bigger.

It didn’t matter. According to what Disney learned from all those focus groups, “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was the sort of film title that turned people off. It sent the wrong message to would-be movie-goers. So they would up trashing the thousands of teaser posters that had already been printed for this project as a new title was crafted for this “Honey, I Shrunk” sequel. Which would now be known as “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”

Credit: Walt Disney Company

Box Office Troubles for Franchise

The new title didn’t matter. To this day, no one at Disney knows what exactly went wrong here. Whether it was the movie’s title or that decision to take advantage of the tax credit that the State of Nevada was offering and changing the story’s location to Las Vegas … But long story short, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kids” cost almost twice as much as the original “Honey,  I Shrunk” did to shoot and only did 2/3rds of the original film’s ticket sales.

Which then sent the message to Disney film executives that perhaps this was NOT the studio’s next big film franchise. More to the point, that the enormous success of the first “Honey, I Shrunk “ movie may have had more to do with “Tummy Trouble” (the new Roger Rabbit short that had been placed in front of this film when it went out into theaters back in June of 1989) more than audiences falling in love with the antics of Wayne Szalinski.

So the idea of creating any further theatrical releases based on the “Honey, I Shrunk” characters was temporarily tabled as execs at the Mouse House regrouped. Debated about what should happen next with this franchise.

More “Honey, I Shrunk…” in the Disney Theme Parks

Whereas the Imagineers, they had no such qualms when it came to the “Honey, I Shrunk” franchise. They had seen how popular the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was with Guests at Disney-MGM Studios. Likewise the Flying Bumble Bee vignette in the Special Effects Workshop of the Backstage Tour at this theme park.

And given that — starting in August of 1993 — accusations had begun to surface about Michael Jackson and some of his younger fans, the thinking at Imagineering (at that time, anyway) was that maybe it was time to start working on a replacement for “Captain EO” (which had first opened at the Parks in the Fall of 1986).

And given that “Captain EO” was being presented in 3D theaters that were located in Future World at EPCOT and in Tomorrowlands at Disney Parks around the globe, the thinking was that a new movie that featured characters from a Disney-produced science-based gimmick comedy would be the perfect replacement for this Michael Jackson movie.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” – Hiring Eric Idle

So production began in earnest in the Fall of 1993 on this new 3D movie. But “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” almost stopped before it even began. Monty Python vet Eric Idle likes to tell the story about how — one afternoon — he walked into a hotel bar in Los Angeles and found actress Marcia Strassman sitting there, nursing a drink. Eric noticed that Marcia looked a little down and asked if he could join her.

Anyway, Idle eventually asked Strassman why she looked so depressed. And Marcia — who played Diane Szalinkski, Wayne’s wife in the “Honey, I Shrunk” film — explained that they were supposed to begin shooting “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” (a new 3D movie for the Disney Parks) that morning. But that — just before shooting was to begin — the actor who was supposed to play Nigel Channing in that film had dropped out. And now the whole project was on hold while Disney scrambled to find a new actor to play the host of that show’s “Inventor of the Year” ceremony.

It was then that Eric Idle supposedly said “Well, I’m not doing anything for the next couple of days. Do you think that Disney would consider me for this part?” And Marcia said “Let’s find out,” and then asked the bartender for the house phone.

And the very next day, Eric Idle is on the set for “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.” As director Randall Kleiser walked this Monty Python vet through this hugely-difficult-to-shoot / FX-filled production. Kleiser — by the way — got this gig because the Imagineers thought that he’d done an amazing job with the direction of that “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”

And speaking of doing a great job, the Imagineers were so pleased with Eric Idle’s performance as Nigel Channing, the MC of the “Inventor of the Year” Awards that — when it came time to redo the “Journey into Imagination” ride — they reached out to Idle again and asked if he’d be willing to reprise that character. Which he was. So now Eric Idle is an established fixture at Future World … I mean, World Nature.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” – Attractions Around the World

“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” finally opened at EPCOT in November of 1994. And it proved to be so popular with WDW visitors that Oriental Land Company execs (They’re the folks who operate Tokyo Disneyland & Tokyo DisneySea) insisted that they get a clone of this 3D movie for the Tomorrowland theater at their Disneyland.

Honey, I shrunk the audience Epcot sign
Credit: Flickr Gary Burke

The Tokyo version — which went by the name of “MicroAdventure!” There’s an exclamation point at the end of that attraction’s name, by the way) opened in April of 1997. It was so well received that the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim — which was in the process of designing its second New Tomorrowland (which would open for the Spring of 1998) — said “Hey, we want a clone too.”

So the Anaheim version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” opened in May of 1998, going into the exact same theater that Disneyland’s version of “Captain EO” had been screened in. And then — the following year — Disneyland Paris got its own version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.” Which opened at that theme park in March of 1999.

Closing for “Captain EO”

All four versions of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” then screened at theme parks around the globe the next 11 years. Until May of 2010 arrived. Which was when — within one month’s time — all four versions of this 3D attraction shuttered.

Michael Jackson had died back in June of 2009. And since Disney believes firmly in death being the ultimate disinfectant, the Summer of 2010 was deemed to be the perfect time to begin screening “Captain Eo” at the Parks again.

“Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” & “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show”

In May of 1997 — Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment releases “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” Which was a home premiere extension of that film series which marked Rick Moranis’ last appearance as Wayne Szalinksi.

In September of 1997, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show” debuts in syndication. This hour-long adventure comedy series ran for three season. With Peter Scolari (formerly Tom Hanks’ co-star on “Bosom Buddies”) now playing the role of Wayne Szalinski.  A total of 66 episodes were produced, with the last one airing May 20, 2000.

Next Steps for “Honey, I Shrunk” Film Franchise

On May 13, 2019 , a“Honey, I Shrunk” reboot was announced. To star Josh Gad playing Wayne Szalinski’s son Nick. Josh persuaded Rick Moranis to come out of retirement to play Wayne again & recruited Joe Johnston — the guy who directed the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” more than 30 years earlier to come back and direct the sequel.

Joe was done in Atlanta in March of 2020 directing the construction of the sets for “Shrunk.” That’s what this sequel (which will air of Disney+) will be called. Just “Shrunk.” When the pandemic happened. Production suspended.

Good news. “Shrunk” is now back on. Can’t reveal where it’s going to be shot. But Josh & Rick are slated to go before the cameras next year. Can’t wait.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 375”, published on May 23, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”: The Movie & Early Attractions

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Honey, I Shrunk the Kids - Wayne looking through magnifying glass
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This article is part of a series documenting the story of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and Disney Science-Based movies. Be sure to check out our additional research on the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.

When Michael Eisner came on board as Disney’s new CEO in the mid-1980s, he had gone over the company’s books and learned that there was this certain type of film (a science-based gimmick comedy) that the Studio used to release that had done very well at the box office over the past 25 years or so.

We’re talking about Disney-produced comedies like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.” FX-filled films where college kids accidentally a paint that could then make them invisible.  Or a family pet — in this case, a duck — gets exposed to radiation and then starts laying solid-gold eggs. You know, things that could happen to anyone in every day life. Provided — of course — your name is Dean Jones or Kurt Russell.

Flight of the Navigator and Rebirth of Science-Based Movies

So Eisner decides that it’s high time that Walt Disney Pictures gets back in the science-based gimmick comedy business again. Which is why he greenlights production of “Flight of the Navigator,” which arrives in theaters in July of 1986. The only problem is … This Randall Kleiser film (Remember that name. It’s going to come up again) suffers from “This-movie-really-wants-to-be-E.T.-instead” syndrome. Which means that it’s heartfelt and has some wonderful, sincere moments as well as some killer visual effects.

Credit: Disney

 But “Flight of the Navigator” is not long on laughs. And remember that the reason that Eisner put this Randall Kleiser film into production in the first place is because he wanted to revive the science-based gimmick comedy genre at Disney Studios.

But “Flight of the Navigator” (while it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire when it was released to theaters in the Summer of 1986) did well enough when the VHS version of this movie hit store shelves in January of 1987 that Eisner thought “Okay. We can take another stab at this. Get me a script for another science-based gimmick comedy.”

Which is when the script for “Teenie Weenies” shows up on his desk.

Teenie Weenies – Origins of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

Now “Teenie Weenies” has kind of an interesting pedigree. Because it came to Disney by way of Stuart Gordon. Who — back in the mid-1980s, anyway — was best known for having written & directed some pretty out-there horror comedies, 1985’s “Re-Animator” and 1986’s “From Beyond.” But Stuart also had a love for cheesy 1950s sci-fi films like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (which Universal Pictures first released to theaters in April of 1957).

And one day Gordon had a brainstorm: What if — instead of some earnest white guy scientist in a lab coat who gets shrunk down to the size of a bread crumb — it’s a kid instead? Or — better yet — kids? What would happen in that case?

So Gordon and his frequent collaborators — Ed Naha & Brian Yuzna — work up a screenplay that explores this idea. And it eventually makes its way to Disney. And Eisner likes what he sees. But even so, Michael doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on this movie. Plus he’s not crazy about that title, “Teeny Weenies.” Can we please come up with a better title for this movie? Which is why — for a time — this film is called “Grounded,” then “The Big Backyard.”

Credit: Worthpoint

So Stuart is initially supposed to direct this movie for Disney. Which — I know — given that this guy previously directed really out-there horror comedies (Trust me, folks. If you’ve ever seen “Re-Animator,” you’ll know what I’m talking about) seems like a weird choice for the Mouse House.

But Michael’s thinking at the time was … Well, “The Big Backyard” is going to be full of visual effects shots. And given some of the scenes in “Re-Animator” & “From Beyond,” this guy already knows how to do this stuff. So better to stick with the devil you know.

So — to keep production cost down — Disney decides to shoot “The Big Backyard” down in Mexico City at Churubusco Studios. So Stuart casts up the project.

FYI: The role of inventor Wayne Szalinski was originally written with Chevy Chase in mind. But since he was shooting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” around this same time, he wasn’t available. So Disney then offer this part to John Candy. Who — when he passed on the role — suggested that the Studio consider Rick Moranis, his old pal from “SCTV,” for the part. Which is how Moranis became Szalinksi.

Production & Filming “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

Production is just about to get underway on “The Big Backyard.” But then Stuart Gordon gets sick and has to withdraw from this project. Michael Eisner now starts freaking out. I’ve got a big new visual-effects-drive comedy for Disney Studios all set to start shooting and — days before production is supposed to begin — I don’t have a director.

Enter Academy Award-winning visual effects guy Joe Johnston. This is the guy who started as a concept artist on the first “Star Wars” film, went on to design Boba Fett for “The Empire Strikes Back,” and — by the time “Willow” rolled around — George Lucas had promoted Joe to associate producer. More to the point, Johnston was the production designer on those two “Ewok” TV movies that ran on ABC in 1984 & 1985.

So Joe had come up through the ranks at Lucasfilm. Yet, he hadn’t actually directed a movie up until that time. But he’d basically done everything else you could do behind-the-camera on a big visual effects film. Johnston was the right guy in the right place at the right time when Disney desperately needed a director for “The Big Backyard.” So tag. You’re it.

And Joe — to his credit — delivered. Disney was so pleased with the work that he did on “The Big Backyard” that — after this science-based gimmick comedy officially opened at the box office in June of 1989 and did really, really well, the Studio immediately offered Johnston another FX-fille project. This one being a big screen adaptation of Dave Stevens’ cult classic comic book, “The Rocketeer.”

Joe Johnston, Thomas Wilson Brown, Amy O’Neill, and Robert Oliveri in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) Credit: iMDB

From “The Big Backyard” to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

But that title. “The Big Backyard.” Michael still hated it. He wanted something punchy & fun like the titles of those earlier Disney science-based gimmick comedies from the 1960s & the 1970s. Something like “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t” or “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A title that tells you right up front that this is a family comedy.

There was a line in the movie that always got a big laugh at test screenings. It was when Rick Moranis turned to his wife Marcia Strassman and then reluctantly admitted “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Eisner said “That gets a laugh. Let’s go with that.” Which is how “The Big Backyard” became “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Box Office Success

And “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did crazy business at the box office in the Summer of 1989. We’re talling $222 million in ticket sales worldwide. Which is the equivalent of nearly a half a billion dollars in today’s money. Which then made “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” the highest grossing live-action Disney film of all time. A title it retained for five years, only to then be dethroned by “The Santa Clause.”

Now it’s worth noting here that one of the reasons that “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did so well at the box office in the Summer of 1989 was that — right in front of this Joe Johnston movie — was the very first “Roger Rabbit” short, “Tummy Trouble.” The film that inspired this short — “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” — had come out the previous summer and done very well at the box office. That Robert Zemeckis movie had taken home four Oscars at the 61st Academy Awards, which had been held just three months previous in late March of 1989.

So there are some folks even today who say “Well, ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ wasn’t really this monstrous hit back in the Summer of 1989. It was more a case that ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ — when it was paired with “Tummy Trouble” — was such a tempting combo that moviegoers just could not resist this double bill. Especially on the heels of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and how well that movie had done the previous Summer.

“Honey, I Blew Up the Kid”

This would become painfully clear in the Summer of 1992 when the sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” — “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” — finally arrived in theaters. Only instead of a new “Roger Rabbit” short, this Randall Kleiser film (See. I told you that name would come up again) had a Disney-produced CG short in front of it called “Off Your Rocker.” And that Barry Cook cartoon — while fun — just wasn’t the box office draw that “Tummy Trouble,” “Roller Coaster Rabbit” or “Trail Mix-Up” had been.

Consequently, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” only did about 2/3rds of the business that “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did domestically. We’re talking $96 million in ticket sales in North America versus $130 million in North American ticket sales back in 1989.

Which — when you factor in that the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” cost $18 million to make versus the $32 million it cost to make “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” — isn’t a great place to be. Especially in a Hollywood where — increasingly — the Studio’s accountants are the ones calling the shots. Rather than the creatives.

Honey I Blew Up the Kid Movie Poster

Potential “Honey” Sequels

It’s the Summer of 1989 and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is still this enormous hit. Which Disney immediately wants to make all sorts of sequels to.

Which is why — as the Wall Street Journal reported in August of that same year — the Studio pre-emptively trademarked a bunch of possible titles for follow-ups to the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies. These titles included:

  • “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon”
  • “Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible”
  • “Honey, I Xeroxed the Kids”
  • and “Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Attractions at Disney MGM Studio Theme Park

Now where this gets interesting is that — even before “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” had opened in theaters (on June 23, 1989) — Michael Eisner was insisting that this Joe Johnston movie be folded into the Disney theme parks somewhere.

Luckily in the Late Winter / early Spring of that same year, the Imagineers were readying the Disney MGM Studio theme park for its May 1st opening.

Tram Tour Blue Screen Bumble Bee Experience

Since WDW’s 3rd gate was supposed to help promote the Studio’s latest releases … Well, WDI decided that — as part of the Visual Effects portion of that theme park’s Backstage walking tour (which used to be the second half of the Tram Tour at Disney MGM) — they’d use Blue Screen as a way to recreate that moment from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when the boys accidentally fall onto the back of a bumble bee and then get flown all around the backyard.

This experience selected two kids to demonstrate how blue screen technology worked. They were then strapped by Cast Members to this huge fake bumble bee. These kids were then told to flail about as a camera moved in and out, capturing their expressions.

Then — seconds later — this just-captured footage was inserted into a clip from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Which then showed these same kids — now miniaturized — buzzing around a backyard on the back of a giant bumble bee.

Siskel and Ebert Cameo

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel (who — at the time — were the hosts of the hugely popular “At the Movies” show) suddenly came onscreen. Roger & Gene then seemingly began to criticize the performance of the two kids who had just volunteered to demonstrate how blue screen technology worked. With Roger Ebert (he was the heavy-set grumpier member of this duo. Siskel was the more even-tempered, bald-headed guy) complained that “ … it looked like those two were hanging onto a huge fuzzball.”

This cameo was made possible by a deal that Disney had made with Roger & Gene back in 1986. Prior to that, Ebert & Siskel’s movie review show — which began life as a one-time-only TV special on Chicago Public Television back in 1975 — had been shown on various PBS stations around the country. Disney offered to make “At the Movies” the very first syndicated show offered by Buena Vista Television and to then take Ebert & Siskel nationally.

Roger & Gene agreed to this deal with one condition: That Disney execs wouldn’t then interfere in any way with the production of “At the Movies.” More to the point, if Walt Disney Studios made a stinker of a movie, that Ebert & Siskel would then be allowed to state that opinion — loud & clear — on a TV show that the Mouse himself produced.

Michael Eisner personally guaranteed that Roger & Gene would be free to say whatever they liked about Disney-produced films. And because Disney execs made a point of being completely hands-off when it came to “At the Movies” …

Well, that’s why — when the Imagineers came a-calling and said “Would you please shoot this 30 second bit for the Special Effects Workshop. Which will be part of the Backstage Tour thing we’re now building at Disney-MGM Studios,” Ebert & Siskel said “Sure.”

I mean, these two guys took their film criticism jobs seriously. They were total pros. But at the same time, Roger & Gene didn’t take themselves all that seriously. They got the gag, I mean.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Playground

When “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” finally opened in theaters and then became the fifth highest grossing film of the year (behind “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Rain Man”), Eisner insisted that something of size that celebrated the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” be built at Disney MGM. Which is why — between New York Street and the Studio Catering Company — a brand-new playground began to rise up.

The gimmick of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was — as soon as Guests enterted this space — they were shrunk down to the size of an ant. This enclosed space (which was designed to look like a teeny tiny chunk of the Szlanski’s backyard that was now writ huge) featured 30-foot-tall blades of grass that were built out of metal & fiber glass. Which — prior to installation — had to (in model form, mind you) go through a wind tunnel test to prove that these faux enormous blades of grass could withstand 300 MPH winds and still stay in place. Because … Well, Florida. Hurricanes. You do the math.

And since this “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” play area was being built in Florida … Well, keeping Guests cool was a major consideration. So the Imagineers have people choices. They could either stand under a 52-foot-long nozzle of a giant garden hose and periodically get dripped. Or they could stand in front of a giant dog nose. And — every so often — that enormous canine would sneeze. But instead of snot, a cool mist of water would come shooting out of those enormous nostrils.

By the way, both of these enormous props — the leaky nozzle of that garden hose AND that giant dog nose — were manufactured out in California at WDI’s Tujunga facility and then shipped cross country. You gotta wonder what motorists in the Midwest thought of that as they saw a flatbed with a giant dog nose on it rolling by them on the interstate.

A lot of folks — when talking about the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” — remember that soggy material which covered the ground. It sort of looked like dirt. That was Safe Deck, a material that the Imagineers found which was made up of ground-up old truck tires. Mind you, to make it actually look like the dirt you have in your own backyard, the Imagineers had to scatter little handfuls of ground up green truck tires & red truck tires & blue truck tries. Which brings us to the real important question: Where do you get green & blue truck tires?

Kodak-themed Slide: Was Kodak the Sponsor of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”?

One of the most popular and famous props in the play area was a slide that was shaped as an enormous, partially opened cannister of Kodak film.

Because that huge cannister of Kodak film was so obviously on display in the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” — did that then mean that Kodak was the sponsor of this Disney-MGM attraction?

And the answer to that question is actually “No.” Eastman Kodak Co. signed a 15-year-long promotional agreement with The Walt Disney Company the year previous (On April 27, 1989. Just days before Disney-MGM officially opened to the public). And this was a deal that linked Disney & Kodak in multiple ways. On television, at the movies and in the Disney theme parks.

The Kodak-themed slide was actually something of a freebie. I mean, you have to understand that the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was one of the very first projects that Walt Disney Imagineering put into development after the Mouse House signed that new 15-year-long deal with Eastman Kodak.

And what better way to tell all of those Kodak executives back in Rochester, NY that we really appreciate you sticking with us for the long haul and being a participant at Disney Parks & Resorts but then surprise them with a slide that was shaped like an enormous cannister of Kodak film.

Mind you, all of this goodwill would evaporate just a few years later when the Imagineers went to Kodak and said “Hey. It’s time to redo the ‘Journey into Imagination’ ride at Epcot.” To which Kodak executives replied “Film sales are falling through the floor because of the rise of digital photography. We have no money available to fund a redo of the ‘Imagination’ ride. You’re on your own, Disney.”

Closing “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”

The “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” had a good long run at the Studio theme park. It officially opened on December 17, 1990 and then closed on April 2, 2016 to make way for an entirely different sort of movie set adventure. Maybe you’ve heard of the place? “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” ?

Up Next: Sequel Challenges and 3D Movie Experiences.

Anyway … On the next installment of this series (The third & final chapter of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” story), we’ll discuss Disney’s troubles when it came to developing a suitable sequel to the first film in this series. Not to mention the challenges that the Imagineers faced when they decided to build a new 3D movie experience around Wayne Szalinski’s shrink ray.

Get ready for way too many mice.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 374”, published on May 16, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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