Monday, June 29, 2009

The House on the Hill

As a young lad, I grew up listening to stories about a certain haunted mansion... no, not THE Haunted Mansion, but the Harry Packer mansion in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. It was a spooky old place on the side of a very steep hill overlooking a very beautiful valley not far from where my father grew up.

You have heard of Mauch Chunk, haven't you? What do you mean you can't even pronounce it? How do you think I feel? My Dad grew up in Nesquehoning, so just learning how to spell and pronounce Mauch Chunk and Nesquehoning put me way ahead of the other kids at the spelling bee. :0)

ANYWAYS... Dad used to sneak into that spooky old place long before it became a Bed and Breakfast, and well after it was abandoned to the elements. Upon crawling through a basement window he said that the walls still had huge dusty wall hangings, and crumbling furniture, and apparently the world's first air conditioning unit, composed of an ice house and a big fan that blew cool air up into the house.

So, imagine my excitement when I read in an old Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon that said that Disney's Haunted Mansion was modeled after the Harry Packer mansion! Coolness!

As I grew older, I realised that the Harry Packer mansion is one of two mansions on that hill in Mauch Chunk, and that The Mansions in Disney World and Disneyland were different, so it took a while for me to piece it all together. Yes, it was the Harry Packer mansion, and not the neighboring Asa Packer mansion The Mansion was modeled after, and it was the Disney World Mansion that was modeled after it. The original Disneyland Mansion was modeled after a place near Baltimore, MD.

Those familiar with Disney World's Mansion can see the resemblance... that fantastic turret on high, and those brick walls with that thick painted trim. Oh, it's not an exact match, but The Mansion in Florida was definitely inspired by the Harry Packer Mansion, and walking by it you can really see why. The Harry Packer mansion sits HIGH on that hill, and as you can see in some of the photos it looms over you. This is the idea the Imagineers wanted to capture when they created the two wings of Florida's Mansion that loom over visitors to Disney World.

I'm not going to go over all the architectural details, but the resemblance is strong not just in appearance but 'feel'. There's a lot of layers and details to the Packer Mansion, and even not in it's current overgrown state, it has a presence. Not seen in the photos is the tall leaning black iron gate that runs up the path to the mansion and all along it's front. Disney doesn't have that black gate, but it sure adds a spooky air to the place.

Today I saw some people talking outside, and lots of large lights around the place, and what appeared to be a van full of Actors. My guess is there is a commercial being filmed here, but who knows? Maybe Disney is revisiting the HP mansion? I did see some shovels leaning against a wall, and a creepy pumpkin standing beside them. Maybe this mansion is getting a Halloween make-over?

The Asa and Harry Packer mansions are neat places to visit, but after all these years of walking around outside, I still haven't been inside the place. My timing has been bad, but so far seeing the outside alone has been inspiring, and has certainly added to the magic of The Mansions at Disney, and to those stories from my childhood. As long as I remain outside, the inside is still quiet and covered with cobwebs, and long tall faded tapestries stil hang from the walls, and the crumbling furniture covered with dustcloths remain as ever ghostly images in the filtered light spilling through that broken basement window.

Cheers, and "hi" to my friends at DoomBuggies! JOHN :0)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Summer Blockbusters

Since I'm losing my Optimum Account when I move, I've been taking advantage of the free movies, and enjoying the Summer Blockbusters so far. Here are some quick reviews of what I've seen so far, and will add more if I see 'em.

Land of the Lost ***1/2

I've reviewed this earlier, and may hav ebeen a bit harsh. As I mentioned, the potential for greatness was there, but they fell short. A few dumb moments really took away from an otherwise fun movie. Worth seeing for the fun of it.

Star Trek****1/2

Much better than I thought it would be. I mean, the original Star Trek series was so long ago, and seems hokey upon viewing these days. Then again, Next Generation looks a bit hokey by today's standards. Still, once the movie started, it was exciting to see certain events coming together that any Star Trek Fan will know about from the famous first episode all those years ago.

Once the story deviates, however, expectations go out the window as the characters remind us "We're in an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE.", and things are now very different.

As a stand alone movie it rocks... exciting, and fun, and a fair addition to the Star Trek legacy. I believe that even a non Star Trek fan can appreciate this movie for its self.

Night at The Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian ****1/2

I may be being generous with my 4 and a half stars, but I really enjoyed this movie. As Johanna Carlson mentioned in her review, Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart really stole the show. Her character's spunkiness, and outgoing spirit were great, as was her mix of vocabularly that nicely shows her from another time, but still fiting in. Other critics have said the movie was crowded with all of the old characters appearing in this movie with a whole host of new characters, but I do not see this as a negative. It just added to the zaniness of the movie that I'm sure kids especially, but many movie-goers will love.

Special affects were nice, and even though reality was stretched a bit, and the villian conquered quite suddenly and easily, there is much to appreciate here.

Hank Azaria was a nice surprise, as he played the villian with a bit of an unsuspected twist. I'm glad I came into this film without any foreknowledge of the plot. Other actors all added to the movie, and I even like Ben Stiller in these movies.

I am not a Ben Stiller fan in general, nor am I a Will Ferrel fan, but I can appreciate these actors when they do such good jobs as they do in these movies.

UP was really well done, as expected. Very enjoyable, and there's a lot more going on than you see in the commercials. Not as good as Wall-e, perhaps, but top notch. Great animation... I really like the retro feel to the movie, and the blend of exxagerated cartoon and realism.

Watchmen (on DVD): Very good. True to the graphic novel in many ways, and thankfully left out much of the disgusting, long-winded stuff. Also, thank goodness, they changed the ending which probably would have been too hard for many people to understand. Captures the spirit of the comic well, and the characters are well done.

Time Traveler's Wife: absolutely one of the best movies I have EVER seen. Not only true to the book, but it really brings to life the very best of the book in a wonderful way, and leaves out the few weird little bits of the book that I prayed they would leave out. The editing, filming, casting... everything is perfect about this film. Tragically sad, wonderfully beautiful. Beautiful is the best word to describe this movie. I loved it.

Still to see.... Terminator, Harry Potter, and others.

I've heard mixed reviews for Terminator... none of them good, but I really love the franchise, so have to see this. Who knows? maybe I'll be surprised?

I'm a bit tired of Harry Potter, but I loved reading each book for the first time, and I will probably enjoy this movie when I see it, and the old fun comes back.

I'll let you know, and please, let me know if youv've seen any of these.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Imagineering 101: Haunted Mansion SFX II

I know... I'm a Cartoonist, so should be cartooning, but I had this sudden urge to reproduce the Pepper's ghost effect that makes the Haunted Mansion's Ballroom so very special... and haunting!

As you can see in the photo above, this was a very low budget stunt, cobbled together in my studio very quickly. I promise that one day I will do this much better.. and hopefully wil not be as embarrassed as I am now of the results. :0)

Here 'tis... live and in color;

So the dancing ghosts in The Mansion's ballroom are an illusion... another happy accident in which it is discovered that you can see images reflected off of glass while at the same time seeing objects through the glass. This effect actually goes back decades ago, and was a quite popular effect in the theatre.

So... if there is an award out there for Worst Movie Created by a Cartoonist, please be sur eto nominate me. :0) And if you liked this, you'll love the Haunted Statue demonstration I made last time, here.

And please forgive me for explaining the magic behind The Mansion, but I really don't think anything can take away from it's wonder.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

UPDATE: I actually have done this on a larger, better scale, so check it out, please! At this link.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Imagineering 101: Haunted Mansion SFX

I love my work. I have two very different parts of one company, and each keeps me expanding my creative horizons. However, working for oneself can be nice, but working with other creatives can be very invigorating. For this reason, if I were to work for someone else, it would have to be as an Imagineer with Disney.

With this in mind, I'm going to demonstrate today one of the secrets of that wonderful experience, Disney's Haunted Mansion! Yes, I will reveal the secret of the haunted marble busts that watch visitors as they stroll, or ride, through the Mansion.

Before you ask, I don't think this will in any way spoil the experience for you. The Haunted Mansion is something one can enjoy over and over again, and while you are in there, you're too busy enjoying yourself to think, "oh, so THAT's how they do that!"

Here is a video clip I made, demonstrating the effect. Please enjoy it because it took 9 takes, and much of my patience, to create. :0)

Hope you saw that. So, the marble busts aren't marble busts after all! They are the negative, or reverse impressions of busts, turned around and lit from behind. The very subtle shadowing created by the back-lighting creates the illusion that the busts are three dimensional objects, and the shadows moving as you move create the illusion of movement. (say THAT three times fast!)

To make this work, the 'cast' of the 'bust' must be realistic, as seen in the first photo, and deep enough to capture the details of the face. Keep in mind that in the photo below, you are seeing an optical illusion... the face is actually facing away from you, but the light and shadows make a convincing 3-d appearance. The photos are all taken at different angles, but the face is still, so really does seem to be moving. The video shows this best, though... what appears to be a ghostly skull moving around and turning to face you!

A very convincing optical illusion, eh? By the way, today's model came from a paint it yourself plaque that came with a Pirates of the Caribbean model kit I got as a kid. Nothing like keeping it in the family. :0)

Hope you enjoyed today's lesson. Please check our homepage for my current comic experience, The Ghost Pirate Skeletons of Three Craters Lake, in which The Inquiring Minds create their own haunted Pirate Ride!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Land of the Lost, the movie: a Review

The best thing about the new movie Land of the Lost is the fact that they've been showing the original tv series on SciFi channel, and some episodes can be found on I know... that doesn't say a lot for the movie, does it?

I actually enjoyed the movie, or at least most of it. The video clip above sold me on it: it's brilliant, funny, and well edited... 3 things that the movie itself is a bit short on. The movie had the potential for greatness, and though it does have its moments, somewhere along the line they took what could have been a blockbuster family movie, and decided to dumb it down to a typical potty humour movie we expect from many Saturday Night Live Alumni. Anyone named Jethro who managed to grajiate the 6th grade will love this movie. Will Ferrel fans will probably love this movie. Fans, like me, of the original tv series will like this movie, and go away wishing the creators would have had more consideration for us.

What went wrong? Well, those of us who grew up on this show, and who were heavily influenced by its imagination and creativity, are labeled as Baby Boomers. The Creators of this movie obviously decided to aim this movie at us Boomers, 'adults', and dumbed it down to adult level, and therefore left out the huge potential of the kid market. They also forgot the fact that us 'boomers' love to share our glorious childhoods with our kids, who were deprived of that glory.

On to the review.

The Land of the Lost was a brilliant television show in the 70's that had us kids glued to the tv set every Saturday morning. Although a bit goofy looking back at it, it still stands up as a great show. Hidden within were many messages like 'do your chores' and 'be honest and fair', but that was all subliminal. We loved the dinosaurs, and the lizard people, and even the primitive Pakuni, and all the wonderful weirdness that occured in a pocket universe that can only be accessed through transdimensional portals in time and space. Yeah, that's right... pocket universes, alternate realities and dimensions... advanced physics in a 70's show made for children. And it was great.

The Marshall family... Rick, a Dad who cared for his kids, and taught them the values of self reliance and hard work, and his two kids Will and Holly, who fought all the time, fall into this strange pocket universe and spend several years trying to find their way out. Meanwhile, they explore ancient civilisations, missing links, degenerate lizard people, aliens, alternate and future versions of themselves, and many others passing through the Land of the Lost.

The Movie is loosely based on the show, and pays homage to it. Right off the bat, though, we're dissapointed to learn via the Internet that the original Will and Holly Marshall were in the movie and then cut out at the last minute. Strike one.

Then there's Will Ferrell. Strike Two.

Okay, so I'm not a Will Ferrell fan, and I blame him for whatever faults this movie has. His famous ego, and his 12-year-old-boyish potty humour, dumb this movie down a bit too much. Silliness I can stand, but not stupidity.

I actually watched the Bewitched remake, another tv show turned movie starring Will Ferrel, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It was hard to get past his other stuff and watch Bewitched, but I did and was convinced that Ferrel could actually do grown up stuff like Jack Black or Jim Carey before him. Apparently that didn't last. He is actually a good choice for the job, so I have to blame the writers a bit as well, although the parts I did not enjoy seem tailor made for him.

Any writer worth his weight in salt knows that in fiction you need to keep your audience with you. There is about a ten minute segment of the movie that involves a 'trippy' scene in which the three 'men' ingest a hallucinogenic substance and act uncomfortably weird. There seems to be no point to this scene other than a funny moment when a giant crab falls into a steam pit and gets cooked before their hungry eyes. A nice scene for the movie, but the lead up is enough to make you get up and walk out. It's long, pointless, and stupid, and worst of all takes you out of the action except for a brief scene in which Holly wanders off alone and gets captured. Why this smart sensible girl wanders off, alone, in a strange place, is beyond me, and not the best plot element by today's standards.

The actors who played Will and Holly played their parts well. The actor who played the missing link Chakka could have been better. The special effects were downright brilliant, and very convincing. See the video clip above for some great scenery and fantastic dinosaur animation.

The clip shows that with some decent editing the movie could have been better. Personally, though, I think with a different focus this movie could have been awesome. Why ignore the family element of the movie? I mean, even Terminator:Salvation has a line of kid's toys, and I can't imagine anyone taking their kids to see that! As a family movie, you can sell more tickets, have movie tie-in toys at McDonalds, and action figures and books, and oh so much marketing stuff that any kid, and many a grown up, would enjoy. More importantly, though, you could have had a better movie.

In this movie, Rick Marshall is supposed to be a brilliant 'scientist' with multiple disciplines, but for the most part is portrayed as a loser. Somehow he created this amazing device, and convinced Holly that his theories are sound, but this is all very hard to believe. Sure, there are some humorous moments, but why couldn't he be a brilliant scientist and father, who has created an ingenius device but is ridiculed for the subject matter of time travel and multiple dimensions? Why couldn't it be his kids who convince him to try it out and thus get the family stuck in the Land of the Lost. Better yet, the kids could activate the device, and either take him with them, or he has to rescue them. We would then be in a position to explore this 'dumping ground of multiple universes', instead of it just being in the background.

Well, I can go on and on.... obviously. :0) This review is long enough, so I will say go see the movie if you're looking for some summer fun. Keep your expectations low enough, and you'll enjoy the good parts all the better. You may want to keep the kids at home, though... there's a good bit of language and situations that are just not for them.

JOHN :0)

PS I'd love to hear what YOU think. :0)

And you can see the original shows at this link until November 2009