Monday, May 30, 2016

Polly Magic vs Theatre Magic vs Disney Magic

So, over a year ago I went to Disneyland with two people who, at the time, both worked at Walt Disney World, and that got me thinking about the nature of magic.

Not Harry Potter magic, but theatrical magic.

See, I can't turn my anilitical theatrically-trained brain off a lot of the time. I have to know how things work. It drives me completely nuts to watch a magic trick and not know how it works. I watch plays and count the light cues and wonder what's going on in the box, and I figure out where seams are on dresses and wonder is the fabric's bias-cut and is it actual silk chiffon or is it a really good poly-nylon blend because it's not moving like I'm used to.
First time I say Yumimissa it just blew my mind.

So, Disneyland's a place that I just love because every element of it is designed in a way that most theme parks aren't. There used to be a little kids snake-themed roller coaster at Six Flags: Marine World, and the queue had some snakes on it, but Disneyland's got queues that add to the story, and you miss out on some of the story if there's no line and you just breeze through the queue. The cast members (not 'employees') all wear costumes (not 'uniforms') that match what they're doing. There's no generic Disneyland uniform. People who are serving hot dogs in one area of the park are dressed totally differently from other parts of the park. Attractions that are based on live-action movies (Roger Rabbit's thingy with the spinny stuff that I forgot the name of) has cast members with the same cartoony scale of the trims on the costumes, which is one of my favorite parts of that movie.
Which loops back around to, when I was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was noticing the trims and going, "Oh, that's cool, they made the cartoon world blend in with the real world by increasing the scale of the trims and prints on the live action character's clothes!" And noticing that for me is more special(?) than watching the movie and not noticing that they blend because they blend seamlessly. Also that movie was made before digital compositing was a thing, so keep that in your mind when you watch it (if you're an analyzer like me, that is!).

The Haunted Mansion is one of my, maybe absolutely my, favorite parts of Disneyland. And I've broken it down as much as I can. I watch other people's filmings of it on youtube and look for all the things I didn't know. I stare at satelite pictures of it. I devour trivia about it. I look to see if I can fail to see the floor in places that I know don't have floors, and knowing that there is no floor but not being able to see that there is no floor is a magical thing for me.

While we were there, we saw a show that I think was called Mickey and the Magic Map, and I was really impressed with it. I didn't want to dissect it for a while, because one of the people I was with found it magical because she didn't know all the behind the scenes and could enjoy it for what it was. But now it's been a while and I'm going to.
Plotwise, Mickey…unpaints a map that Yensid was making and he has to…repaint it? Honestly, I've forgotten the plot of the show. There was Mickey. There were princesses. There was some really, really on-point dancing and more princesses, and Sebastian was there and then there was a giant steamboat on stage. I remember the pictures but I don't remember how they connect.

***<CAUTION: I am now going to start breaking down the aspects of how I saw the show created. If your Disney Magic isn't about knowing how things work, scroll down to the *** break>***

Anyway, the show. There was a live-action Mickey/Mickey actor, who had this really cool thing going on with his face. I think it worked the same way the puppets in Thunderbirds worked, where the face was programmed to move with the backing track and the actor didn't really need to talk. If this is the case, I want to point out the absolute precision that it takes to be that actor. There's no flubbing your line or tripping and stalling things while you catch your balance. Your line is going to come if you're ready or not, so you better be ready.

For over half the show, however, Mickey was a projection on the stage. There was a lot of projection work in this show. It's pretty rare for me to see a stage show with video projections and not think, "Wow, that was better than what could have been done live-action,"
but that's a personal biaS. Problem directors I've worked with think that projections can solve all the budget problems a show has. I guess the projections in Avenue Q were pretty good in that they were mimicking the "Today was brought to you by the letter B" segments of Sesame Street, but if they'd done that live-action it would have had the same effect. That's the nicest thing I can say about projections. If done well, they can be on equal level with live action.

In this case, the CGI of Yensid (the wizard dude) didn't look finished. It looked like a 3D model does before you go about texturing it. It kind of reminded me of the Butt Ugly Martians and that's a horrible thing to be reminded of. It has about the same level of sophistication as the textures in Foodfight!, but much smoother animation. It kind of threw me through a loop because I know that somewhere in Disney are good animators, and while there was nothing in that part of the animation that looked bad, but it didn't look like the animation I expect out of Disney. The rest of the projections was largely filmed live-action of Mickey that moved around the screen. In a couple cases it was really obvious to me that the actor they'd filmed was running in place and then they slid that video across the floor. For the majority of the show, the actors onstage and the projections did not interact. There were cherry blossoms while Mulan was singing and there was a sea theme while Sebastian was there.

I think Sebastian's puppet worked similarly to Mickey's face (breaking that disbelief wall there. To me, they're always actors, always puppets, always animations, always props, always costumes. It's the main reason why I don't watch TV anymore) and like the Team America puppets with the preprogrammed facial movements. I'm not 100% sure of that, though, because the vocals were coming live from the puppeteer, and they matched seamlessly. Anyway, a+ eye blinks on that puppet to whoever made those happen. A lot of puppets have really unnatural eye blinks. That puppet was my second-favorite part of that show. It was really seamlessly controlled, and looked like a single cohesive thing. I found myself focusing on the puppet's face, and not the actor/puppeteer's mouth, even though I knew that the sound was coming from the actor and not the crab. The actor very seamlessly matched the expressions and faces of the puppet, so nothing looked wrong that I could focus on and my eyes kind of slid off him. Very well done.

But my favorite part was watching Mickey (the physical, non-projected one) interact with the blank spot (which was a projection). Mickey wanted to paint the spot because it was the only blank spot on his magical map (I think? Again, I lost the plot somewhere in the last year), so we have this actor, whose visibility is impaired due to costume, running through three levels of stage, making sure he isn't blocking any projection or being projected on, who is holding a long prop, who has no control over when he says his lines, and is acting against nothing. And what it looked like and felt like was Mickey Mouse chasing a sentient ball of black paint. It was seamless.
And the other, WONDERFULLY seamless bit, the moment my mouth actually dropped open, was the transition from projection Mickey to physically present Mickey. There was something with a trap door and an elevating platform going on. I know how it happened. I can picture what it looked like backstage and what the stage manager's book looked like for that sequence. I know the how.
But WHAT happened was that 100% seamlessly they rose Physically Present Mickey out of the stage at the same time that Projection Mickey was rising (and disappearing, because projection) up, with perfect posing. With perfect speed. And I believe Mickey was also moving his arms during this sequence. It matched perfectly. I have never seen a more accurate projection in my life. The precision there, of an actor, who has limited vilibility, is standing on a moving platform, has to match something he can't see and can't feel (no "find your light" when the whole stage is projected onto), with a prop, while moving, and being unable to control his own lines, while also interacting with something that isn't there.
Knowing that all of that went into that makes me feel like I just watched magic.


So, yeah, there's a walkthrough of how I see magic. Of how, to me, a perfect illusion that I know how it happened is more impressive than totally being fooled. I don't think there's real magic anywhere in the world. I know the pingpong ball didn't appear out of nowhere. I know that the secret letter was in the orange the whole time. I know that even though I think I picked my card, the magician knows exactly which card I randomly selected. And even when I know there's only one alive bird and the others are fakes and I know where he put the bird in his sleeve and then pulled it out with his thumb while the other thumb lit the match, even when I know EXACTLY how the trick is done, not being able to see that it was done, that's magic. Knowing it's a trick, but still being tricked.

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