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Walt Disney: An American Original

In honor of the 102nd anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth, Wade Sampson serves up a column that pays tribute to the very best Disney bio that’s out there today: Bob Thomas’ “Walt Disney: An American Original.”

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I know of at least five authors who are hard at work even as I type these words on biographies of Walt Disney. My personal book shelf bulges with almost three dozen biographies of Walt, some of them published in foreign countries and never translated into English and some of them “juvenile” biographies meant for younger readers.

However, nearly four decades after Walt Disney’s death, I still highly recommend WALT DISNEY:AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL by Bob Thomas as a fair and accurate view of the life of the great Imagineer.

While his daughter Diane Disney Miller claims that “my father was not a complicated man”, biographers are still intrigued by this deceptively simple man who each person he touched saw him somewhat differently than others.

Walt Disney so feared a biography about him while he was alive that rumors that one was in the works prompted him in 1956 to sit for a series of intensive interviews with his daughter Diane and writer Thornton “Pete” Martin (a feature writer and associate editor for Saturday Evening Post who had proven himself a “friendly” writer about celebrities especially with his popular “I Call on…” series) so that Diane could write a series of eight articles about Walt’s life for Saturday Evening Post. These installments proved so popular that they were later re-edited and combined into a book, THE STORY OF WALT DISNEY published by Holt in 1957 with a paperback edition from Dell in 1959 and at least three foreign editions. In the early days of Disneyland, a person could have purchased an autographed copy of the hardcover for less than five dollars. (Personally autographed by both Walt and Diane.) For many years, this was the only biography of Walt Disney available.

Bob Thomas wrote a “juvenile biography” of Walt entitled WALT DISNEY-MAGICIAN OF THE MOVIES published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1966. Walt provided four lengthy interviews to Thomas in the preparation for that biography. (Thomas had previously written a book with Walt Disney’s co-operation entitled THE ART OF ANIMATION which was used to publicize the production of SLEEPING BEAUTY which was released in 1959. Thomas had the opportunity to learn exactly the Disney approach to animation and the history of the studio through countless interviews with animators, composers, directors and more. That original book is still much more impressive than the later editions in the 1990s to hype BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and HERCULES.)

After Walt’s death, the first unofficial and controversial book biography of Walt Disney appeared in 1968 from Simon and Schuster, THE DISNEY VERSION: The Life,Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney by Richard Schickel. It was the first biography of Walt to paint him in darker tones as a difficult man and hard taskmaster at times. Schickel was a film critic for LIFE magazine and later TIME magazine (beginning in 1972) as well as a film historian and author of several books.

“Asked late in life what he was proudest of, Disney did not mention smiling children or the promulgation of family values. “The whole damn thing,” he snapped, “the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it.” Richard Schickel observed: “These were not the sentiments of anyone’s uncle – except perhaps Scrooge McDuck.”

Bob Thomas in 1976 commented: “There was some mix-up. Schickel wanted to do a biography. Somebody gave him the wrong answers and then when he was not given access to the studio, he decided to write an anti-Disney book. He went to all the ex-employees who were disgruntled. He dwelled on Freudian aspects, claiming that the Disney films were obsessed with baby bottoms and that they scare children. He was purportedly writing a biography, but it was a denial of truth in advertising.”

Schickel at one time was a journalist associated with Life magazine and he had toured the Disney Studios in that capacity and even had lunch with Walt himself. According to Schickel, Walt himself told the writer to contact READER’S DIGEST who was interested in doing a biography of Walt. After Disney’s death, he was denied access to information from the company so he was forced to develop independent sources. When the book was published, Schickel was denied access to Disney screening rooms even though he was a respected tilm critic.

“I wanted to do an independent, objective book. I don’t consider it an assault. In many respects, I gave Disney high marks,” Schickel commented. (When the third edition was printed in 1996, Schickel wrote a new foreword where he acknowledges that some of his assessments were too harsh and he was too swayed by academic pretensions but that basically the book presents a positive image of Walt overall.)

Schickel’s book was immediately met by outrage at the Disney Company who were upset at many of the opinions and the fact that other than Diane’s long out-of-print biography of her father, it was the only Walt Disney biography available to the general public.

After Walt’s death, the Disney Company had a number of writers begin work on a Walt biography over the years but none of the results were satisfactory to the management. Finally, Card Walker who was then President of the Walt Disney Productions started thinking about Bob Thomas who had a reputation as a strong writer and fair-minded reporter who had worked on covering the Hollywood scene since 1944 and who more importantly had frequently interviewed Walt.

Thomas was the reporter whom Walt drove in a Nash rambler through the dry riverbed of Adventureland as Walt described what future guests would see along the bank. Thomas still recalls that during that experience Walt was such an enthusiastic storyteller that Thomas could actually “see” what was going to be on the Jungle Cruise instead of the dusty, unplanted ditch that actually existed at the time.

At a cocktail party in 1973 at UCLA (where both Walker and Thomas had attended college), Walker ran into Thomas and told him that if anyone could write a fair biography of Walt that Thomas was the one to do it. Although the book contract was negotiated by a Disney executive, Thomas declared himself a free agent. He requested that the book not be labeled an “official” biography. Thomas informed the Disney Company that he would write neither a hatchet job nor a whitewash but try to capture an accurate depiction of the Walt Disney as a human being. So this was the first time that the world learned of Walt’s nervous breakdowns and his getting tipsy at his wedding anniversary at Disneyland before the park officially opened and the frightening last weeks with cancer. Thomas was given complete freedom to write the story of Walt Disney as he saw it.

The Disney family as well as the Disney Company extended its complete cooperation and Thomas had full access to documents, records and personnel, something that had never been given to anyone outside the family or company let alone many who actually worked for the Disney Company. When it came time to view the completed manuscript, only a few points of fact were corrected and at the family’s request no mention was made of Sharon Disney Lund being adopted.

Thomas wrote the book on weekends and vacations while still maintaining his regular schedule of four articles and two columns a week for Associated Press. Unlike his other books, Thomas adopted an uncharacteristic storyboard style of organizing the material and went through three drafts before he was satisfied. Roughly, it took him almost three years to research and write the book.

“Each life is different, each subject requires a different approach,” Thomas explained in an interview in 1976 with the Los Angeles Times, “Garson Kanin once told me that all my books deal with power. Thalberg, Cohn, Selznick, Hughes-all had tremendous power of a kind that is virtually nonexistent today. Disney, too. Some see him as a political conservative, some see him as a benefactor of mankind, some as a benevolent despot, some as the tyrant of the studio. The truth is somewhere in between as it most often is. With Walt, his daughter Diane told me that he once said he pitied his biographers because he had lived such a dull life. I found myself going into the creative aspects of his life to try and explain where his creativity came from, how it worked.”

And so, in 1976, Simon and Schuster released WALT DISNEY: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL (which was revised and updated in 1994). As we celebrate Walt Disney’s birthday, it is a good time to take the Thomas book off the shelf yet again and enjoy a “good read” from someone who knew Walt and someone who gathered information from people who knew and worked with Walt. With all the biographies on Walt that have appeared since 1976 and all the ones being worked on, no one has yet matched the accessible writing style and informative, straight-forward presentation of the life and times of Walt as this book by Bob Thomas.

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Seward Johnson bronzes add a surreal, artistic touch to NYC’s Garment District

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Greetings from NYC. Nancy and I drove down from New
Hampshire yesterday because we'll be checking out
Disney Consumer Products' annual Holiday Showcase later today.

Anyway … After checking into our hotel (i.e., The Paul.
Which is located down in NYC's NoMad district), we decided to grab some dinner.
Which is how we wound up at the Melt Shop.


Photo by Jim Hill

Which is this restaurant that only sells grilled cheese sandwiches.
This comfort food was delicious, but kind of on the heavy side.


Photo by Jim Hill

Which is why — given that it was a beautiful summer night
— we'd then try and walk off our meals. We started our stroll down by the Empire
State Building


Photo by Jim Hill

… and eventually wound up just below Times
Square
(right behind where the Waterford Crystal Times Square New
Year's Eve Ball
is kept).


Photo by Jim Hill

But you know what we discovered en route? Right in the heart
of Manhattan's Garment District
along Broadway between 36th and 41st? This incredibly cool series of life-like
and life-sized sculptures that Seward
Johnson has created
.


Photo by Jim Hill

And — yes — that is Abraham Lincoln (who seems to have
slipped out of WDW's Hall of Presidents when no one was looking and is now
leading tourists around Times Square). These 18 painted
bronze pieces (which were just installed late this past Sunday night / early
Monday morning) range from the surreal to the all-too-real.


Photo by Jim Hill

Some of these pieces look like typical New Yorkers. Like the
business woman planning out her day …


Photo by Jim Hill

… the postman delivering the mail …


Photo by Jim Hill

… the hot dog vendor working at his cart …


Photo by Jim Hill


Photo by Jim Hill

… the street musician playing for tourists …


Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention the tourists themselves.


Photo by Jim Hill

But right alongside the bronze businessmen …


Photo by Jim Hill

… and the tired grandmother hauling her groceries home …


Photo by Jim Hill

… there were also statues representing people who were
from out-of-town …


Photo by Jim Hill

… or — for that matter — out-of-time.


Photo by Jim Hill

These were the Seward Johnson pieces that genuinely beguiled. Famous impressionist paintings brought to life in three dimensions.


Note the out-of-period water bottle that some tourist left
behind. Photo by Jim Hill 

Some of them so lifelike that you actually had to pause for
a moment (especially as day gave way to night in the city) and say to yourself
"Is that one of the bronzes? Or just someone pretending to be one of these
bronzes?"

Mind you, for those of you who aren't big fans of the
impressionists …


Photo by Jim Hill

… there's also an array of American icons. Among them
Marilyn Monroe …


Photo by Jim Hill

… and that farmer couple from Grant Wood's "American
Gothic."


Photo by Jim Hill

But for those of you who know your NYC history, it's hard to
beat that piece which recreates Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photograph of V-J Day in Times Square.


Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, a 25-foot-tall version of this particular Seward
Johnson piece ( which — FYI — is entitled "Embracing Peace") will actually
be placed in Times Square for a few days on or around  August 14th to commemorate the 70th
anniversary of Victory Over Japan Day (V-J Day).


Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, if you'd like to check these Seward Johnson bronzes in
person (which — it should be noted — are part of the part of the Garment
District Alliance
's new public art offering) — you'd best schedule a trip to
the City sometime over the next three months. For these pieces will only be on
display now through September 15th. 

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Wondering what you should “Boldly Go” see at the movies next year? The 2015 Licensing Expo offers you some clues

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Greeting from the 2015 Licensing Expo, which is being held
at the Mandalay Bay
Convention Center
in Las
Vegas.


Photo by Jim Hill

I have to admit that I enjoy covering the Licensing Expo.
Mostly becomes it allows bloggers & entertainment writers like myself to
get a peek over the horizon. Scope out some of the major motion pictures &
TV shows that today's vertically integrated entertainment conglomerates
(Remember when these companies used to be called movie studios?) will be
sending our way over the next two years or so.


Photo by Jim Hill

Take — for example — all of "The Secret Life of
Pets
" banners that greeted Expo attendees as they made their way to the
show floor today. I actually got to see some footage from this new Illumination
Entertainment
production (which will hit theaters on July 8, 2016) the last time I was in Vegas. Which
was for CinemaCon back in April. And the five or so minutes of film that I viewed
suggested that "The Secret Life of Pets" will be a really funny
animated feature.


Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, Universal Pictures wanted to make sure that Expo
attendees remembered that there was another Illumination Entertainment production
coming-to-a-theater-near-them before "The Secret Life of Pets" (And
that's "Minions," the "Despicable Me" prequel. Which
premieres at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival next week but
won't be screened stateside 'til July 10th of this year). Which is why they had
three minions who were made entirely out of LEGOS loitering out in the lobby.


Photo by Jim Hill

And Warner Bros. — because they wanted "Batman v
Superman: Dawn of Justice
" to start trending on Twitter today — brought
the Batmobile to Las Vegas.


Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention full-sized macquettes of Batman, Superman and
Wonder Woman. Just so conventioneers could then see what these DC superheroes
would actually look like in this eagerly anticipated, March 25, 2016 release.


Photo by Jim Hill

That's the thing that can sometimes be a wee bit frustrating
about the Licensing Expo. It's all about delayed gratification. You'll come
around a corner and see this 100 foot-long ad for "The Peanuts Movie"
and think "Hey, that looks great. I want to see that Blue Sky Studios production
right now." It's only then that you notice the fine print and realize that
"The Peanuts Movie" doesn't actually open in theaters 'til November
6th of this year.


Photo by Jim Hill

And fan of Blue Sky's "Ice Age" film franchise are in for an even
longer wait. Given that the latest installment in that top grossing series
doesn't arrive in theaters 'til July
15, 2016.


Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, if you're one of those people who needs immediate
gratification when it comes to your entertainment, there was stuff like that to
be found at this year's Licensing Expo. Take — for example — how the WWE
booth was actually shaped like a wrestling ring. Which — I'm guessing — meant
that if the executives of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. didn't like
the offer that you were making, they were then allowed to toss you out over the
top rope, Royal Rumble-style.


Photo by Jim Hill

I also have to admit that — as a longtime Star Trek fan —
it was cool to see the enormous Starship Enterprise that hung in place over the
CBS booth. Not to mention getting a glimpse of the official Star Trek 50th
Anniversary logo.


Photo by Jim Hill

I was also pleased to see lots of activity in The Jim Henson
Company booth. Which suggests that JHC has actually finally carved out a
post-Muppets identity for itself.


Photo by Jim Hill

Likewise for all of us who were getting a little concerned
about DreamWorks Animation (what with all the layoffs & write-downs &
projects that were put into turnaround or outright cancelled last year), it was
nice to see that booth bustling.


Photo by Jim Hill

Every so often, you'd come across some people who were
promoting a movie that you weren't entirely sure that you actually wanted to
see (EX: "Angry Birds," which Sony Pictures Entertainment / Columbia
Pictures
will be releasing to theaters on May 20, 2016). But then you remembered that Clay Kaytis
who's this hugely talented former Walt Disney Animation Studios animator — is
riding herd on "Angry Birds" with Fergal Reilly. And you'd think
"Well, if Clay's working on 'Angry Birds,' I'm sure this animated feature
will turn out fine."


Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, there were reminders at this year's Licensing Expo
of great animated features that we're never going to get to see now. I still
can't believe — especially after that brilliant proof-of-concept footage
popped up online last year — that Sony execs decided not to go forward
with  production
of Genndy Tartakovsky's
"Popeye" movie.  But that's the
cruel thing about the entertainment business, folks. It will sometime break
your heart.


Photo by Jim Hill

And make no mistake about this. The Licensing Expo is all
about business. That point was clearly driven home at this year's show when —
as you walked through the doors of the Mandalay
Bay Convention Center
— the first thing that you saw was the Hasbros Booth. Which was this gleaming,
sleek two story-tall affair full of people who were negotiating deals &
signing contracts for all of the would-be summer blockbusters that have already
announced release dates for 2019 & beyond.


Photo by Jim Hill

"But what about The Walt Disney Company?," you
ask. "Weren't they represented on the show floor at this year's Licensing
Expo?" Not really, not. I mean, sure. There were a few companies there hyping
Disney-related products. Take — for example — the Disney Wikkeez people.


Photo by Jim Hill

I'm assuming that some Disney Consumer Products exec is
hoping that Wikkeez will eventually become the new Tsum Tsum. But to be blunt,
these little hard plastic figures don't seem to have the same huggable charm
that those stackable plush do. But I've been wrong before. So let's see what
happens with Disney Wikkeez once they start showing up on the shelves of the
Company's North American retail partners.


Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of Disney's retail partners … They were
meeting with Mouse House executives behind closed doors one floor down from the
official show floor for this year's Licensing Expo.


Photo by Jim Hill

And the theme for this year's invitation-only Disney shindig? "Timeless
Stories" involving the Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm brands that
would then appeal to "tomorrow's consumer."


Photo by Jim Hill

And just to sort of hammer home the idea that Disney is no
longer the Company which cornered the market when it comes to little girls
(i.e., its Disney Princess and Disney Fairies franchises), check out this
wall-sized Star Wars-related image that DCP put up just outside of one of its
many private meeting rooms. "See?," this carefully crafted photo
screams. "It isn't just little boys who want to wield the Force. Little
girls also want to grow up and be Lords of the Sith."


Photo by Jim Hill

One final, kind-of-ironic note: According to this banner,
Paramount Pictures will be releasing a movie called "Amusement Park"
to theaters sometime in 2017.  


Photo by Jim Hill

Well, given all the "Blackfish" -related issues
that have been dogged SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment over the past two years, I'm
just hoping that they'll still be in the amusement park business come 2017.

Your thoughts?

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It takes more than three circles to craft a Classic version of Mickey Mouse

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You know what Mickey Mouse looks like, right? Little guy,
big ears?

Truth be told, Disney's corporate symbol has a lot of
different looks. If Mickey's interacting with Guests at Disneyland
Park
(especially this summer, when
the Happiest Place on Earth
is celebrating its 60th anniversary), he looks & dresses like this.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc.
All rights reserved

Or when he's appearing in one of those Emmy Award-winning shorts that Disney
Television Animation has produced (EX: "Bronco Busted," which debuts
on the Disney Channel tonight at 8 p.m. ET / PT), Mickey is drawn in a such a
way that he looks hip, cool, edgy & retro all at the same time.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights
reserved

Looking ahead to 2017 now, when Disney Junior rolls out "Mickey and the
Roadster Racers
," this brand-new animated series will feature a sportier version
of Disney's corporate symbol. One that Mouse House managers hope will persuade
preschool boys to more fully embrace this now 86 year-old character.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

That's what most people don't realize about the Mouse. The
Walt Disney Company deliberately tailors Mickey's look, even his style of
movement, depending on what sort of project / production he's appearing in.

Take — for example — Disney
California Adventure
Park
's "World of Color:
Celebrate!
" Because Disney's main mouse would be co-hosting this new
nighttime lagoon show with ace emcee Neil Patrick Harris, Eric Goldberg really had
to step up Mickey's game. Which is why this master Disney animator created
several minutes of all-new Mouse animation which then showed that Mickey was
just as skilled a showman as Neil was.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc.
All rights reserved

Better yet, let's take a look at what the folks at Avalanche Studios just went
through as they attempted to create a Classic version of Mickey & Minnie.
One that would then allow this popular pair to become part of Disney Infinity
3.0.

"I won't lie to you. We were under a lot of pressure to
get the look of this particular version of Mickey — he's called Red Pants
Mickey around here — just right," said Jeff Bunker, the VP of Art
Development at Avalanche Studios, during a recent phone interview. "When
we brought Sorcerer Mickey into Disney Infinity 1.0 back in January of 2014,
that one was relatively easy because … Well, everyone knows what Mickey Mouse
looked like when he appeared in 'Fantasia.' "


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"But this time around, we were being asked to design
THE Mickey & Minnie," Bunker continued. "And given that these Classic
Disney characters have been around in various different forms for the better
part of the last century … Well, which look was the right look?"

Which is why Jeff and his team at Avalanche Studios began watching hours &
hours of Mickey Mouse shorts. As they tried to get a handle on which look would
work best for these characters in Disney Infinity 3.0.


Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And we went all the way back to the very start of Mickey's career. We began
with 'Steamboat Willie' and then watched all of those black & white Mickey shorts
that Walt made back in the late 1920s & early 1930s. From there, we
transitioned to his Technicolor shorts. Which is when Mickey went from being
this pie-eyed, really feisty character to more of a well-behaved leading
man," Bunker recalled. "We then finished out our Mouse marathon by
watching all of those new Mickey shorts that Paul Rudish & his team have
been creating for Disney Television Animation. Those cartoons really recapture
a lot of the spirit and wild slapstick fun that Mickey's early, black &
white shorts had."

But given that the specific assignment that Avalanche Studios had been handed
was to create the most appealing looking, likeable version of Mickey Mouse
possible … In the end, Jeff and his team wound up borrowing bits & pieces
from a lot of different versions of the world's most famous mouse. So that
Classic Mickey would then look & move in a way that best fit the sort of
gameplay which people would soon be able to experience with Disney Infinity
3.0.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"That — in a lot of ways — was actually the toughest
part of the Classic Mickey design project. You have to remember that one of the
key creative conceits of  Disney Infinity
is that all the characters which appear in this game are toys," Bunker
stated. "Okay. So they're beautifully detailed, highly stylized toy
versions of beloved Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm characters. But
they're still supposed to be toys. So our Classic versions of Mickey &
Minnie have the same sort of thickness & sturdiness to them that toys have.
So that they'll then be able to fit right in with all of the rest of the
characters that Avalanche Studios had previously designed for Disney Infinity."

And then there was the matter of coming up with just the
right pose for Classic Mickey & Minnie. Which — to hear Jeff tell the
story — involved input from a lot of Disney upper management.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"Everyone within the Company seemed to have an opinion
about how Mickey & Minnie should be posed. More to the point, if you Google
Mickey, you then discover that there are literally thousands of poses out there
for these two. Though — truth be told — a lot of those kind of play off the
way Mickey poses when he's being Disney's corporate symbol," Bunker said.
"But what I was most concerned about was that Mickey's pose had to work
with Minnie's pose. Because we were bringing the Classic versions of these
characters up into Disney Infinity 3.0 at the exact same time. And we wanted to
make sure — especially for those fans who like to put their Disney Infinity
figures on display — that Mickey's pose would then complement Minnie.

Which is why Jeff & the crew at Avalanche Studios
decided — when it came to Classic Mickey & Minnie's pose — that they
should go all the way back to the beginning. Which is why these two Disney icons
are sculpted in such a way that it almost seems as though you're witnessing the
very first time Mickey set eyes on Minnie.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"And what was really great about that was — as soon as
we began showing people within the Company this pose — everyone at Disney
quickly got on board with the idea. I mean, the Classic Mickey that we sculpted
for Disney Infinity 3.0 is clearly a very playful, spunky character. But at the
same time, he's obviously got eyes for Minnie," Bunker concluded. "So
in the end, we were able to come up with Classic versions of these characters
that will work well within the creative confines of Disney Infinity 3.0 but at
the same time please those Disney fans who just collect these figures because
they like the way the Disney Infinity characters look."

So now that this particular design project is over, does
Jeff regret that Mouse House upper management was so hands-on when it came to
making sure that the Classic versions of Mickey & Minnie were specifically
tailored to fit the look & style of gameplay found in Disney Infinity 3.0?


Copyright Lucasfilm / Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"To be blunt, we go through this every time we add a new character to the
game. The folks at Lucasfilm were just as hands-on when we were designing the
versions of Darth Vader and Yoda that will also soon be appearing in Disney
Infinity 3.0," Bunker laughed. "So in the end, if the character's
creators AND the fans are happy, then I'm happy."

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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