In part one of our conversation with Ron Logan, the former executive vice president of Walt Disney entertainment reminisced about the various lagoon shows at Disney’s Epcot, as well as the upcoming final performance of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth in September. Logan talks about the history and little known facts about one of Disney’s longest running nighttime shows.
The Music of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth … a brand new sound
Now that they knew what the theme and what the general direction of the show was, Logan said they had to make other decisions. One of them was about the music. “With the past shows, it had always been the same music,” said Logan. “I think we changed one number once. It was always classical music since that is what the world knew. Because it was Epcot, we didn’t use Disney music because Disney music belonged in the Magic Kingdom.”
“At the time Hans Zimmer was working at the [Disney] Studio. I knew Hans before he became famous. He was under contract with us to find composers for various movies. I went to Hans and asked him if he would do the music for this show because I knew his work and I knew he’d do a good job.”
Logan said they talked about all kinds of styles of music for the show including jazz, opera, and Broadway, but they decided it could not be any of that. “It had to be a brand new sound. A fresh sound,” said Logan. “Hans said that he really wanted to do it.”
Logan hired him. He drew up a contract and paid him an advance, but after several months on the project Zimmer said he couldn’t do it anymore because Jeffrey Katzenberg had hired him to go to DreamWorks. Zimmer suggested Gavin Greenaway.
- Logan: “Who’s that?”
- Zimmer: “He’s one of my ghostwriters.”
- Logan: “Well, I don’t know. Can you introduce me to him?”
- Zimmer: “Yeah, go to England. Go to the Beatles’s studio and you can meet him there.”
- Logan: “How old is this guy?”
- Zimmer: “He’s 22 years old.”
- Logan: “No [expletive] way am I going to take a chance with a 22-year-old on this project!”
- Zimmer: “Just go meet him and listen to what he writes. He will be great for you!”
Gavin Greenaway/Photo: Gavin Greenaway
Logan went to England to meet Greenaway. He said that when he first saw Gavin, he looked more like 17-years-old than 22. He decided to give him a chance. Logan would send him paragraphs with instructions to write music based on a topic. He would tell him to write something about a boy and a dog or something that has some heart or has a spectacular feel. “He won us over,” said Logan. “He wrote really original music. It didn’t sound like anybody’s music. It didn’t even sound like Hans Zimmer’s music. It was just different.”
“I was very much in the position of the underdog,” said Greenaway. “I had not presented a show reel or demo. All Disney had was Hans’s recommendation. In many ways this was a gift to me. I had nothing to lose and nothing to live up to. It was very freeing.”
Even Don Dorsey initially wasn’t sure of Greenaway. When they met, Gavin didn’t even take notes which made Don a little nervous. “I didn’t need to take notes,” said Greenaway. “It was all in his [Dorsey] storyboards. I have never seen an outline so detailed and thought through.”
Logan’s team eventually came around and thought that Greenaway’s music was great and would fit perfectly into what they were doing with the show. He said that they made sure they supported Greenaway even when he was not sure of himself.
The music that Greenaway wrote had to reflect the musical traditions of the world without being overtly world, classical, or pop. “From the first time someone heard the music I wanted it to be accessible and understood,” said Greenaway.
“Back in those days, as I got promoted,” said Logan. “I had a war room in Los Angeles across from Walt Disney Imagineering. I dedicated one Walt Disney World theme park per wall and kept track of all the entertainment, music, and live entertainment in each of those four parks. I did this primarily for Paul Pressler, who at the time, was the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. We updated the lists every week.”
“When you do a spectacular-type of show like IllumiNations, you map out where the highs are and where the lows are. Where’s the contrast? Where’s the heart? Where’s the drama?” We thought ‘boy, we really got something here.’ And we did. It was the best kept secret because Eisner never came and saw any of the rehearsals.”
In addition to Gavin Greenaway’s instrumental music there are two songs with vocals: “We Go On” and “Promise.” Kellie Coffey, who was the Academy of Country Music’s 2003 Top New Female Vocalist, was the singer on both of those songs. However, she was not originally supposed to sing both songs.
Kellie Coffey / Image: Kellie Coffey
“Someone had come in before me to record ‘We Go On,’” said Coffey. “They were not sure that they got what they were looking for. Therefore, the vocal contractor recommended me to give it a go. While we were laying down the demo recordings I kept thinking how stunningly beautiful these songs are and that this was going to be very special.”
Interestingly, the vocals you hear in the current show are the actual demo tracks that Kellie laid down during those sessions. “I recorded the final vocal right out of the gate,” said Coffey. “I think that’s really unusual as well. Normally you go through rounds of recording for a project of that magnitude, but I guess that’s part of what made it so special. It happened so quickly and it was its own perfect experience.”
The Disney Company asked Gavin for play out music after the show was over. He took the chorus music from ‘We Go On’ and the verse of ‘Tapestry of Nations’ and then gave Don Dorsey an instrumental combination. All of the songs written for the show needed to speak to the show, but not about it. They needed to reflect feelings of hope, joy, and promise. Dorsey said he knew ‘Promise’ would also be a popular wedding song for that very reason.
In addition to ‘Promise’ becoming a popular wedding song, other pieces of music from IllumiNations have been used for other shows. ‘Reflections of Earth’ won an Emmy Award for ABC for their millennium television coverage – “ABC 2000 Today.” A modified version was used for the New Year’s Eve coverage the following year, as well as for the 2000 and 2004 election coverage, and for the coverage of the Presidential Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“The music was also used by the U.S. government,” said Logan. “I actually heard it with Harris Rosen when we went to South Africa about six or seven years ago. Disney gave it to the immigration department. Additionally, I heard it playing in the Miami airport. I was also proud of that. Even Michael Eisner loved it.”
“When Don Dorsey would be in Florida, I used to invite him to speak to my students,” said Logan “At the end of one of the sessions he pulled me aside and said he wanted to talk to me.”
- Dorsey: “We got to fix a problem.”
- Logan: “What’s the problem?”
- Dorsey: “There’s one place in the show where the music is not in synch with what the fireworks are doing.”
- Logan [again]: “What’s the problem?”
- Dorsey: “Bar 140.”
- Logan: “What’s the issue with it?”
- Dorsey: “It’s not synched right and it drives me crazy. We missed that one.”
- Logan: “Well nobody knows.”
- Dorsey: “”Well, I know. Can we fix it?”
- Logan: “We don’t need to fix it.”
- Dorsey: “We need to fix it.”
Logan went to Eisner and explained to him the issue and asked if it could be fixed. Because he thought it was a good show and he wanted it to be perfect, Eisner agreed.
“We assembled the same musicians along with Gavin [Greenaway] and re-recorded 12 bars,” said Logan. “One bar was changed from a 4/4 bar to a 3/4 bar. It cost us somewhere around $80,000 to fix that section, but it’s absolutely perfect now with no mistakes. I don’t know what section it’s in, but all I know is that it’s fixed.”
Drawing a Blank at the V.I.P. Dress Rehearsal
Logan said the night they premiered the dress rehearsal of IllumiNations for Eisner, other executives, and VIP guests, everyone was watching it from Rose and Crown Pub at the U.K. pavilion. Eisner brought his friends Connie Chung and Maury Povich to see the show. “We were all really nervous because this was the first time Michael was seeing the show,” said Logan. “Although we’d meet with him about the show he never saw anything because he was involved in other things.”
During the preview, after Chaos ends, the Earth Globe starts to make its way to the center of the lagoon. As the globe makes its way to the center, the video screens that wrap around the globe should be playing. First colors then images. Instead, it’s blank. There’s no forests, there’s no trees, there’s no galloping white horse moving across the ball. [The video of the galloping white horse was filmed in a remote section on the Walt Disney World Resort property.]
“So here comes the ball and there’s nothing but a test pattern on the ball,” said Logan. “Eisner then looks at me and says, ‘Well, evidently something’s wrong. Go tell Maury Povich and Connie Chung how you screwed up.’”
What actually happened was Logan’s team was so nervous about Eisner being there someone forgot to turn the circuit breaker on. Logan said from that point on the last person out of the globe turns the switch on and locks it so no one can mess with it.
“IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth was a smash hit because it was different. It had unusual elements, including the size of the ball. However there were things that we wished were different,” said Logan. “One of those things was the Earth Globe. We wished it was bigger. The problem is we were at the mercy of the size of the bridge by the China pavilion. We were limited by the height restrictions of how tall we could make things that would be able to get in and out onto the lagoon.”
And the World Goes ‘Round
As mentioned earlier, all of the pieces for IllumiNations were constructed at Walt Disney World, including the Earth Globe. It is one of the most complicated pieces of show equipment at Disney. Coming in at 28 feet in diameter and three stories high, it is the world’s first spherical video display system. It sits on top of a 350 short ton barge. In order for the globe to do what it needed to do – rotate and open – it required a special base. Because there was not time to construct a mechanism, the Disney Imagineers came up with a ready-made solution. They eventually tracked down the largest U.S. Army tank turret they could find and fitted it on to the barge.
“It took two-and-a-half days to get the ball from the shops in the back area of Walt Disney World to the waters at Epcot.” We had to take signs down along the route. It was so heavy, the flatbed that transported the globe had to have 32 tires to support the weight.”
Video: ©1999 Disney Enterprises Inc.
Logan loved everything about the show: the story, the fireworks, and the globe. “I love the song We Go On. It’s such a great song,” said Logan. “Not only was it tied into the millennium, but also to Epcot’s marketing campaign for that year. Every time I hear that song I tear up. It has a message to it. The one thing that I am proud of was that Don and the team got what the show was supposed to be. The show has heart. Most of the stuff we produce has heart.
How to launch a firework without smoke?
The fireworks added to the uniqueness of this show. Don Dorsey and award-winning pyrotechnics designer Eric Tucker were largely responsible for their design. Walt Disney Entertainment, along with Walt Disney Imagineering, created a new way of launching fireworks for this show – Air Launch Fireworks. This technique uses compressed air instead of black powder to launch shells into the air without seeing the ignited shell’s trail. It also creates less pollution. Click here to hear Eric Tucker talk about creating the fireworks for the show.
“This technology has been used in other shows,” said Logan. “We have a patent on this as well. We could have sold it for millions of dollars or even leased the technology, but we’re not doing that. When I left Disney we had 127 patents that we had come up with to use in our shows. We were offered a lot of money for them. We could have had a separate business renting it out. The air launch system is one of the safest systems in the world to launch fireworks. Unless you push the button on the laptop for that shell to ignite nothing will happen.”
The first time they used this technology was during a Christmas show. Logan said they launched a shell sideways from the Mexico pavilion. It was to represent the shining star of the east.
This led to a lot of truly spectacular moments throughout the show, including the opening shooting star firework, the 1,000 fireballs towards the end of the show that light up the entire lagoon, and the fireworks that come out of the torch from the center of the Earth Globe.
Logan said that although they weren’t working on a replacement show after a few years into IllumiNation’s run, what they were worried about was how it would physically hold up. During the early years of the show’s run they had replaced the sound system, but maintenance didn’t do a good job of keeping everything in working order. The issue was moisture. In Florida there is always moisture in the air, and it would affect the speakers. “When we put this show in we redid all the speakers,” said Logan. “That is one of the other things that made this show so special. You could really hear this show as if it was right in front of you and not somewhere off in the distance.”
Although some Disney fans say that the show is too abstract or that guests won’t get some or all of the show’s storyline, Logan and his team felt differently. “We made the decision that the show was going to be abstract,” said Logan. “I think that was the best decision we made because everyone who sees the show can interpret what they are seeing in their mind.”
“This is a show that touches everybody. We made a long list of things that we didn’t want to eliminate. It showed diversity, the evolution of technology, transportation, people, and ideas. The thing that I am most proud of as a person who has a background in the arts is that it’s very artistic.”
Photo: Hoosier Tim’s Travel Videos
“The lagoon, in my opinion, makes it very difficult for any show to be anything but abstract. Because it’s so big [the lagoon] one of the big things you need to worry about is the smoke from the fireworks. The abstractness allows guests to see something different on repeat viewings. That’s the key to the whole thing.”
Occasionally, Logan will give presentations about IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth with an accompanying video showing live footage of the show along side flat images of what is being shown on the Earth Globe.
Logan is right. The show is perfect. It’s a show that never got old, never failed to entertain, and was a true spectacular in every sense of the word. “Epcot Forever”, the new interim show and “A Celebration of Disney Music”, the new permanent show, have very big shoes [or in this case a lagoon] to fill!