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The sad tale of Disney's Secret Lab

Jim Hill

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The sad tale of Disney's Secret Lab

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Have you seen those ads for "Kangaroo Jack" that have been all over the television lately? They make me sad.

Why for? Well, it's not because I think that this Jerry O'Connell comedy (which opens at a theater near you this coming Friday) is going to be particularly awful. But rather, because this Castle Rock / Warner Bros. film is the very last picture that Disney's Secret Lab worked on.

You all remember the Secret Lab, don't you? That state-of-the-art CG character animation and visual effects facility that the Mouse announced with much hoopla back in October 1999? At the time, Mickey seriously thought that this digital movie-making operation would soon put Disney in the same league as Pixar and George Lucas' ILM.

Less than two years later, Disney abruptly announced that it would be shutting down the Secret Lab. Why did Mickey pull the plug? Not because the top flight animators and FX artists who worked at TSL did shoddy work. But because poor planning and short sighted-ness on the part of Disney studio execs.

Like I said earlier, this is a really sad story, folks. One that relates one of the greatest wastes of talent and resources in Hollywood history.

Oddly enough, our tale begins on a somewhat upbeat note 'way back in 1996, when Walt Disney Studios announced that it would be acquiring Dream Quest Images. Dream Quest was one of the very best effects houses in the business. Co-founded by industry legend Hoyt Yeatman, this company had done Oscar-winning work for James Cameron's 1989 spiritual undersea epic, "The Abyss." DQ had also done (literally) eye-popping work for the 1990 sci-fi thriller, "Total Recall," as well as some superior sub stuff for the Mouse House's own 1995 undersea adventure, "Crimson Tide."

It was actually those submarine sequences that Dream Quest crafted so skillfully for this Denzel Washington / Gene Hackman action epic that caught the eye of Michael Eisner. Over the past few years, Disney's CEO had become convinced that the studio's own FX operation -- Buena Vista Visual Effects -- just wasn't up to the task of competing with the likes of ILM.

Whereas Hoyt and his boys ... well, Yeatman had had a hand in the creation of some of the most impressive visual effects films ever made (I.E. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" to name just a few). So it stands to reason (to Uncle Michael's way of thinking, anyway) that Hoyt and his Dream Quest Images crew could help Disney become competitive once more in the field of visual effects.

So Eisner ordered that Buena Vista Visual Effects be dissolved and that Dream Quest Images be installed as Disney's new in-house effects operation. (Were the folks at BVVE upset with Uncle Michael's decision? Well, the very last film that Buena Vista Visual Effects worked on was Paramount Pictures' "Escape from LA." Which -- as part of its action-packed finale -- featured an epic gun battle in the Main Street U.S.A. area of a long abandoned Disneyland. Which the staff of BVVE rendered in loving detail. Co-incidence? I don't think so ... Anyway ...)

And -- for the next three years -- Dream Quest Images did absolutely beautiful work for the Mouse House. Creating killer effects sequences for Touchstone Pictures' projects like "Armageddon" and "Con Air," as well as memorable CG characters like Shep (the elephant who thought that he was a dog) in Walt Disney Pictures' "George of the Jungle."

And Hoyt and his Dream Quest team would still probably be working for Mickey, churning out superior FX, if some enterprising Disney executive hadn't gotten the idea that there might be a better way of doing things. That maybe Disney could combine all of DQ's effects wizards with all the guys who do CGI for Walt Disney Feature Animation and create ...

Well, to be honest, what Disney was really looking to do was create a division of the corporation that would be capable of taking on Pixar Animation Studios. Then, as now, there were concerns that Steve Jobs would eventually walk away from his co-production deal with the Mouse. Which would then force Disney to enter into direct competition with Pixar.

And Disney desperately wanted to be ready to face that situation (should it actually ever come down to that). Which is why it opted to merge Hoyt Yeatman's Dream Quest crew and certain elements of Disney Feature Animation together to form "The Secret Lab."

It should be noted here that lots of folks at WDFA found that "Secret Lab" name to be pretty pretentious. Which is (perhaps) why they went out of their way to make fun of it as soon as possible. (Why else do you think that Ezma -- as she was getting ready to have her revenge on Kuzco in "The Emperor's New Groove" -- turned to Kronk and said "Quick! To the secret lab"?)

Well, even if the studio's other animators were making fun of the "Secret Lab"'s name, Disney execs were certainly taking the launch of this whole new division of WDFA very seriously. I mean, why else would the Mouse have poured tens of millions of dollars into retooling one of Lockheed's old "Skunk Works" building out by the Burbank airport in order to create a state-of-the-art production facility for the Secret Lab and its staff?

Did Disney ever have any second thoughts about throwing all this money around while it got the Secret Lab up out of the ground? It didn't seem so. And why was that? Because the Mouse was positive that it had an ace up its sleeve. A film that just couldn't miss with the public: "Dinosaur."

And why couldn't "Dinosaur" miss with the public? Because Disney executives knew that little kids just loved dinosaurs. I mean, look at how popular those "Land Before Time" videos are. That series is up to its ninth installment now ("Journey to Big Water") and shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Each year, those direct-to-video sequels to that Don Bluth dino flick earn tens of millions of dollars for Universal Studios.

Disney knew that an animated film that features these prehistoric creatures would go over big-time with movie-goers. Particularly a movie that used digital film-making techniques to overlay hyper-detailed CG dinosaurs on top of live action background plates. Which would create a totally life-like illusion. Something that movie-goers had never seen at the multi-plex before: realistic dinosaurs.

If all went according to plan, "Dinosaur" would be a huge hit at the box office. Garnering great reviews as well as racking up huge grosses at movie theaters around the world. Then the Mouse's competitors -- who would be anxious to cash in on this new digital movie-making craze that would erupt in the wake of "Dinosaur"'s enormous success -- would come crawling. Begging Mickey, offering up large piles of money, if Disney would just allow the folks at the Secret Lab to produce a few eye-popping effects sequences for their upcoming movies.

This is honestly how Disney executives saw the whole "Dinosaur" scenario playing out. They were so supremely confident that they never gave any thought to the idea that the competition might be working on the very same idea.

Which is why the Mouse was caught flat-footed when the Discovery Channel aired "Walking with Dinosaurs," that cable network's own CG-prehistoric-creatures-overlaid-on-top-of-live-action-background plates in April 2000 (a full two months before "Dinosaur" was due to hit theaters). This BBC mini-series (produced at a 10th of the cost of Disney's "Dinosaur," by the way) totally stole the Secret Lab's thunder.

What was once supposed to be a unique event in cinema history now looked like a TV rerun. Which is why "Dinosaur" under-performed at the box office. Though it did pull in an impressive $38 million on its opening weekend, the film eventually ran out of steam. Earning just $137 million during its entire domestic run. Which wasn't exactly a flop. But -- due to the movie's extremely high production costs -- "Dinosaur" didn't even come close to breaking even. Let alone covering the additional tens of millions that the Mouse spent on promoting the picture.

It had honestly never occurred to Disney executives that "Dinosaur" might be a box office disappointment. That the film would not be a smashing success. Which is why the studio had no contingency plan in place for its Secret Lab.

According to the animators that I've spoken with, it had always been assumed that -- once "Dinosaur" opened -- the staff of the Secret Lab would get right to work on a sequel to the film. Using the very same wire frame and live action background plates to create the further adventures of Aladar and family. (Thereby giving the Walt Disney Company a way to get a taste of all that "Land Before Time" dough.)

This was what the Secret Lab was supposed to be doing from 2000 to 2002, as it also went about creating innovative new special effects sequences for Disney Studio films (as well as any of the Mouse's competitors who would be willing to pay Mickey top dollar for TSL's services). But -- when it became apparent that there was no need to begin production of a sequel to "Dinosaur" -- the big question was: What do we do with the Secret Lab now?

That's when WDFA executives decided to put a picture that still had a lot of story problems on the TSL production track. So the staff of the Secret Lab spent at least six months (and as much as $20 million) working on "Wild Life," the bizarre tale of an elephant who somehow became a sensation on the New York City club circuit.

Okay. I know. That sounds like a kind of an odd story to build a Disney animated cartoon around. But the thing of it is ... "Wild Life" directors Howard Baker and Roger Gould weren't actually out to create your typical Disney animated film. They were hoping that -- once "Wild Life" was completed -- this CG feature (with its adult-tinged humor) might be released under the Touchstone Pictures label or even (perhaps) through Miramax.

Unfortunately, the project never got far enough along in production for this option to even be seriously considered. In the fall of 2000, Roy Disney caught a work-in-progress screening of "Wild Life" and -- appalled by the film's adult humor (I'm told that one joke in particular - where one gay character teased another gay character, as they were entering the New York City sewer system, for claiming that he'd never been down a man hole before -- really set Roy off) -- immediately ordered that production of the picture be shut down.

So -- with no "Dinosaur" sequel on the horizon and "Wild Life" suddenly DOA -- the brass at WDFA felt that they had little choice but to begin laying off animators and FX artists at the Secret Lab.

Some 110 people were let go during TSL's first lay-off. Which was really unfortunate, given that -- now that Yeatman's FX department had suffered such deep staff cuts -- it found itself unable to handle (all on its own) the few big special effects pictures that Disney would toss their way.

Case in point: Touchstone's 2000 release, "Mission to Mars." When Disney decided to accelerate production of this Brian DePalma picture (in order to beat Warner Bros.' own Mars-based movie -- "Red Planet" -- into theaters), Hoyt didn't have enough people on hand to handle all of the FX shots necessary to complete this picture. Which is why Mickey was forced to ask ILM to take on several key visual effects sequences for "M2M."

And -- when word got out that the Secret Lab wasn't actually able to handle the few feature assignments that Disney studio brass had given it -- that made film-makers nervous about using Yeatman and his crew to do their Mouse House pictures. This is reportedly why Michael Bay wouldn't allow the Secret Lab to do the finished effects for his Summer 2001 film, "Pearl Harbor." Oh, Michael was perfectly happy to let Hoyt's team do all the pre-visualization of the film's FX shots. Just not the finished work. Which is why ILM ended up doing most of the visual effects for "Pearl Harbor."

Which just wasn't fair. Given that Hoyt and the artists that remained with the Secret Lab really were capable of doing truly superior FX work. Just look how they handled that train wreck sequence in M. Night Shymalan's 2000 hit, "Unbreakable." Or all of those CGI puppies that were used in "102 Dalmatians."

Yeatman and his crew kept hoping that a film would come along that would really show what the Secret Lab was capable of doing. And Disney almost did put a picture like that into production: "The Gemini Man." A special effects-laden thriller that told the tale of a professional hit man who was being stalked by his 20-year old clone.

Unfortunately, in spite of some really impressive test footage that TSL put together (which showed Mel Gibson's character from 1982's "The Year of Living Dangerously" seemingly interacting with Mel's character from 1999's "Payback"), Disney opted not to go forward with "Gemini Man" immediately. The projected cost of the film (as well as the difficulty that the studio had in landing a bankable star like Gibson or Harrison Ford) forced the Mouse to postpone production for a while. The studio even hired screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh to rewrite Darren Lemke's original script for "Gemini Man" in order to make the film easier to shoot, lowering production costs.

But -- as Howard and his crew waited for Hensleigh to finish his revamp of the "Gemini Man"'s script -- the staff of the Secret Lab found themselves further and further out of the loop. With Disney Studio executives reportedly refusing even to return their phone calls to find out what was going to become of TSL.

The breakdown in communication between senior Disney Studio staffers and Secret Lab personnel got so bad in the Spring in 2001 that Yeatman was reportedly forced to take drastic measures.

Some of you may recall -- as part of the promotion for "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" -- that Disney Auctions offered animation fans a unique opportunity: whoever bid the highest on eBay could win the right to have lunch with Roy Disney in the exclusive executive dining room in the Team Disney Burbank building.

Well, Hoyt and his crew had supposedly grown so desperate to meet with someone in Disney management to discuss what was going on with the Secret Lab that they began bidding on this lunch with Roy. Just so Walt's nephew would then be forced to sit down with Yeatman and explain what WDFA executives intended to do with TSL.

Unfortunately, Hoyt allegedly lost out on that auction. Supposedly getting outbid at the very last minute by some un-named individual who ponied up $12,000 just for the privilege of breaking bread with Roy Jr. So the TSL staff went back to doing they'd done for the last six months: small filler assignments, like animating a CG version of the Magic Mirror from Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to serve as the host of the Platinum Collector's edition of that film's DVD.

In October 2001, the ax finally fell. Disney officially announced that it would be shutting the Secret Lab and that -- from here on in -- it would be farming out the studio's visual effects assignments to other FX houses like ILM. As a direct result of this decision, over 300 animators and FX artists lost their jobs.

Yeatman (who I keep hearing is a pretty decent guy) stayed behind to supervise the transition. Overseeing a skeleton crew as they completed the CG dragons for Touchstone Pictures' Summer 2002 release, "Reign of Fire," as well as the CG kangaroos for WB's "Kangaroo Jack." Now that that picture has finally been buttoned up ... who knows what Hoyt's next move will be?

So that's it in a nutshell, kids. The sad, sad story of the Walt Disney Company's great experiment in digital film-making which flamed out after just two years.

And you want to know the REALLY sad part? All of these visual effects artists that Disney let go? They're now working for Disney's direct competition. Creating great FX sequences for films like "Spiderman," "Stuart Little 2," and "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones."

You see what I'm saying here? Walt Disney Studios appears to be having a really rough time lately because its pictures haven't been nearly as appealing to movie-goers as big FX-laden epics like "The Two Towers" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Unfortunately, the very people who could have helped pull the Mouse out of this hole aren't available anymore because Disney execs can't plan ahead anymore. These suits couldn't see that -- given the way that the rest of the industry was aggressively embracing digital film-making -- that they might actually need Hoyt Yeatman and his Secret Lab staff in the not-so-distant future.

All these Disney execs saw was an immediate cost savings for the corporation if they shut down the Secret Lab. Which is why they went for it. Walking briskly away from that $100 million-plus investment in hardware and talent. All just to save a few bucks.

It's that exact quality that I personally find so exasperating about the Walt Disney Company's current management team. No one thinks ahead anymore. These days, everyone in the executive suite is concentrating on how they can look good right now. What they can do today that will guarantee that they still have a job tomorrow. It's all short term thinking. With little thought as to what the long term ramifications of today's actions might be.

Given the success of recent FX heavy pictures like "The Two Towers" ... I'm now certain that there are Disney Studio execs who realize that it was a mistake to shut down the Secret Lab (or -- at the very least -- to not have any other animated projects lined up for TSL beyond that "Dinosaur" sequel and the ill-fated "Wild Life"). Particularly now that Disney wants to have its affordable version of "The Alamo" out in theaters in time for the 2003 holiday season.

So who are they going to get now to create those thousands of CG Mexican soldiers to storm the fort in this film? I'm guessing ILM. I'm also betting that George Lucas will make Mickey pay through the nose for the privilege of using his FX artists.

Which is just so sad. Why? Because Disney Studios really could have handled this John Lee Hancock picture in-house if they'd just thought ahead a few moves and kept the Secret Lab alive.

Well, the secret's out now. The Walt Disney Company lost out on the chance to be a major player in the digital film-making field. All because Disney studio executives' idea of advance planning seems to be something along the lines of "What am I doing this coming weekend?"

Now do you understand why a TV commercial that features a rapping kangaroo makes me sad?

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