Inside Disney's The Black Hole

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson told Vanity Fair magazine in 2014, "When the original Disney Black Hole movie came out, I was so disappointed in that film. It is the most scientifically inaccurate movie of all time. They got none of the physics right."

The first Disney film to receive a PG rating (by choice so as to attract a more mature audience), The Black Hole released in December 1979 was Disney's attempt like other studios to try to capture the success of Star Wars (1977) which is why it was dictated that the film include a small cute robot (like R2D2) and big bad robot (reminiscent of Darth Vader). Actually, the final story is very similar in format, if not in tone, to Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Black Hole was the first Disney film to get a PG rating.

Actor Anthony Perkins told interviewers David Houston and Ed Naha, "It is sort of a Captain Nemo in Space thing."

The explorer craft U.S.S. Palomino is returning to Earth in the year 2130 after an unsuccessful 18-month search for extraterrestrial life when the crew comes upon a supposedly long lost ship, the magnificent U.S.S. Cygnus, hovering near a black hole like an abandoned ghost craft.

The ship is captained by Dr. Hans Reinhardt and his monstrous robot companion, Maximilian. (Maximilian has only one "L" in his name to mirror the name of actor Maximilian Schell who plays Reinhardt.) Director Nelson claimed that Schell, who was German, was cast to suggest space scientist Wernher Von Braun.

Initially unknown to the newcomers, Reinhardt has turned his former crew into android like robots when they revolted at his idea to enter the black hole 20 earth years ago. Being near a black hole, time slows considerably, so Reinhardt has not aged significantly.

The crew must escape before Reinhardt kills them and carries out his grandiose plans. The Palomino crew was composed of Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) an astrophysicist; Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) an astro-geophysicist who has ESP ability; Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) a journalist; Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and his first mate (Joseph Bottoms).

Because of the elaborate effects all done at the Disney Studio, and not outsourced, the film was 14 months in actual production, beginning in October 1978. In some scenes, as many as 12 different photo processes were used simultaneously on the screen. The film eventually took over every stage and production facility on the lot.

The movie cost more than $20 million, plus an additional $6 million in marketing, making it the most expensive Disney film ever produced up to that time. On its initial release, it made more than $35 million.

The score was composed and conducted by John Barry, including an overture for the film.

Disney CEO Ron Miller said, "Lately a lot of teenagers and young adults have stayed away from Disney films. They consider it kiddie material. Well, The Black Hole is not a kiddie film. We want to let people know that this is a different kind of movie than they're used to seeing from us."

Irwin Allen's all-star The Poseidon Adventure (1972) movie was so successful that it spawned several epic "disaster" films, including Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

It also inspired the writing team of Bob Barbash and Richard Landau to approach Disney Studios executive story editor Frank Paris early in 1974 with the idea for a space-themed disaster film they called Space Station 1. The premise was that a space station filled with an all-star cast was struck by "supernova wave" resulting in a challenge of getting the survivors safely back to earth in time before it falls apart.

The two writers had a long list of television writing credits for many popular shows. They came in with a sketch of a space station that they had drawn themselves and the general story idea. Paris took them in to pitch the idea to Ron Miller, who assigned Disney veteran Winston Hibler as the producer to help develop the project.

It was Hibler who came up with the idea of using the threat of a black hole as they wrote the initial outline for the screenplay.

A black hole is a place in space where the gravitational force is so powerful that even light can not get out. The gravity is so powerful because matter many times the mass of the sun has been squeezed into a tiny space. Space telescopes with special tools can help find black holes by examining the effect on things near the singularity. There are four types of black holes: stellar, intermediate, supermassive, and miniature.

As work continued, the black hole became more central to the story, but Hibler was not satisfied with the work the two writers were submitting, so William Wood was brought in to rework the screenplay.

The screenplay still did not seem suitable and Hibler retired from Disney, but offered to return if Disney did decide to do the expensive film. The idea was put aside for a year until winter 1975 when pre-production resumed on what was now called Space Probe 1.

Hibler returned and suggested to Miller to bring in illustrator Robert McCall to create some visuals to help focus the story and explore some possible ideas.

Illustrator Robert McCall created some concept art to focus the story and explore ideas.

McCall had done various commissions for NASA and spent three months producing images for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

As McCall told author Paul Sammon:

"Winston Hibler called me about working on what would become The Black Hole in late October 1975 and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing some pre-production design work for the film. I had a meeting with Ron [Miller) and Bob [Barbash] and Richard [Landau] and then in March of 1976 started working for Disney and stayed on the project for six months.

"My time was spent in producing close to 100 drawings. Most of them were black and white, but I also produced nine major color paintings in an attempt to illustrate the storyline as it then stood.

"I produced the initial design for the Cygnus which was then called the Centaurus (It was renamed Cygnus after the constellation where the first known black hole was discovered in 1964) and worked up some ideas for the Palomino and for Vincent (officially called V.I.N.CENT for "Vital Information Necessary CENTralized" but usually just referred to as "Vincent"). The Cygnus I designed was pretty much the same configuration of what was used in the film except that Peter (Ellenshaw) wanted a different kind of exterior textural look.

"The greatest changes involved the Palomino and Vincent. I'd designed quite a few numbers of robots in sketch form and did a large painting of Vincent in particular. Vincent was going to be graceful; he was not going to be your usual lumbering robot. I'd thought of him as a hummingbird, as being able to levitate and dart around very gracefully. I don't care for his final design at all. I think he looks a little absurd with his painted eyes and whatnot. My only real regret is that I couldn't have been more involved."

Production Designer/Director of Special Effects Ellenshaw stated, "I suppose that the primary reason for my design of the Cygnus was an artistic one. I felt that just having flat sides did away with the interest of the thing. Ron Miller said that initially my design looked like an erector set. I did keep the general outline of the version Bob McCall had done. The model was made out of brass rather than plastic because it held together better that way. Brass is much easier to handle than plastic. It's malleable to a certain degree and holds its configuration."

Ellenshaw had retired after a long career working on doing matte work for Disney films including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins. When he retired after Disney's Island At The Top Of the World (1974), his son Harrison took over as the department head of Disney's Matte Department. Harrison also did matte work for Star Wars.

Harrison was able to use the newly created Matte Scan computer driven camera that allowed for repeatable camera movements on matte paintings developed by Disney Studio's Mechanical Engineering Machine Shop and WED at a cost of $100,000.

As Peter Ellenshaw remembered, "I had become close friends with Winston Hibler. It was through Hib that I became initially involved with The Black Hole, little realizing the work would take three years out of my life."

Approximately 150 mattes are used in the film. Two of Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings disappeared during filming. and his son Harrison had to quickly recreate them, one being the corridor with the flaming meteor.

During this time, Disney asked John Hough, who had just directed Escape from Witch Mountain (1975), to come on board as a director. He liked the idea but he felt the screenplay still needed some work, so he brought in Sumner Arthur Long. However, by the time the work was finished, it was the summer of 1976 and the screenplay was still considered unacceptable, as well as the fact that the audience's interest in disaster films was waning.

In August 1976, Hibler died, but with the amount of work already invested in the project, Miller was convinced to step in as the producer. Miller decided to remove the disaster film format entirely. In October 1976, writer Ed Coffey was brought in to the production for four months to rewrite the screenplay.

Then by February 1977, Jeb Rosebrook was brought in to try and restructure the story under the supervision of Hough. There had been a large cast, a common element in disaster movies, and Rosebrook trimmed it down to a small core group. He shifted the emphasis from hardware to characters. He researched black holes to try to incorporate the most current information.

As Rosebrook recalled, "The [Disney] studio wanted a chance to show what they could do in the area of special effects and visual images. So my first emphasis was highly visual as I worked with Hough on it. We did use a number of characters from previous scripts but started in a different direction."

Hough was assigned to direct Return from Witch Mountain (1978) while work continued on the new screenplay. He then decided to take the job directing a non-Disney film, Brass Target (1978) and officially left Space Probe 1 but would later return to direct Disney's The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

Rosebrook decided the only way to really create a screenplay that would be acceptable was to have weekly meeting with Peter Ellenshaw, Ron Miller and Chris Hibler (Winston's son who was now involved as a co-producer). Along with Rosebrook, they would review what he had written that week and give their input for changes. Those meetings lasted from late July 1977 through the Christmas season, about the time that Gary Nelson, who had directed Disney's Freaky Friday (1976), was brought on as the new director.

As Nelson recalled for writers Houston and Naha, "In December 1977, the Disney people brought me 40 pages of a space adventure script and asked me to direct. I read it and turned in down. The producers then asked me to come to the studio and look at Peter Ellenshaw's pre-production renderings and some of the models which were already under construction. When I saw all that, I knew this was something I wanted to be involved with."

Once Nelson was hired, Rosebrook met with him several times a week to iron out script problems. "There was a good idea there but I knew it could be improved," Nelson said. Rosebrook finished his final script in March 1978.

Disney executives were still unhappy with the script and brought in Gerry Day, who had written extensively for a wide variety of television series and had done some script doctoring on Disney's Child of Glass (1978) made-for-television film.

She did enough significant revisions and additions on Rosebrook's script that she was awarded screen credit by the arbitration committee of the Writer's Guild. Among other things she expanded some scenes, developed the characters more and changed a game pool competition between the good and bad robot to a shooting match.

However, the film's climax was still unsettled and apparently director Nelson and art director Ellenshaw contributed as much to it as Rosebrook and Day.

Executive story editor Paris remarked, "The script of The Black Hole was very much a cooperative effort. Peter Ellenshaw and Gary Nelson came up with the ending we finally decided to use but Gerry Day actually executed that in script form. No one sat down and wrote any pages except the writers who get paid for doing it."

The seven-minute ending is a confusing series of surreal images, colors and sounds meant to capture the similar innovative, transcendental ending of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey while also trying to comment on heaven and hell, but ends up being very muddled, unclear, unsatisfying and scientifically inaccurate like much of the rest of the movie.

"None of us were shown the last 20 pages of the script. Only three people got to see them," actor Perkins said.

Disney publicity put out several rumors as to the ending of the film. The production team even drew up a variety of storyboard endings and filmed parts of them to try to create a smoke screen so that the real ending would be secret until the film premiered. Nelson even admitted to writing several of the rumored endings.

Casting was started before a shooting script was finalized. Two of the original characters disappeared during Day's rewrite, one of them a female character. The traits of that character were then incorporated into the role of the sole remaining female character, portrayed by actress Yvette Mimieux.

The production made over 500 of the film's unique laser pistols and those kept disappearing as souvenirs.

Gordon Cooper, who had been an astronaut on Mercury and Gemini flights, was approached by Ron Miller to be a consultant on the film when it was still called Space Probe 1. He was the one who suggested to Disney to use George McGinnis to work on the robots.

"Vincent and Old Bob basically have interchangeable designs. I used round forms, circles. They're both 33 inches tall with their heads up. With Vincent I came up with matrix Ferrani-Packard discs that quiver when they flip for the eyes. But they had technical problems getting them animated so they threw a couple of buttons there instead which bothered us a lot," McGinnis said. "For Max, I stressed angularity, the straight hard-edged line. I'd envisioned him being internally lit by electronics like a glowing furnace with flames pouring out of the cracks. They didn't do it because there was no time to complete it. He is six feet tall but since he is always hovering off the ground, he seems seven foot or taller."

The weight of Vincent and Bob, who were made of fiberglass and aluminum was roughly 80 pounds. A dozen different Vincents were built that each had a different specialty.

There was also a radio-controlled Max weighing 300 pounds used when he hung on wires over people's heads. Another Max was on a teeter-totter board to simulate weightlessness and still another on roller skates. Mime Tommy McLoughlin usually was in the Max costume, as well as supervising the sentry and humanoid sequences and portraying Captain Star during the shooting gallery sequence.

Disney wanted to use the Dykstraflex camera system used to film special effects in Star Wars, but it was unavailable during the shooting schedule. Disney developed its own superior computer automated camera system called ACES (Automated Camera Effects System) that could calculate and guide the camera through 10 distinct points in space and controlled 12 axes of movement including truck, pan, roll, tilt, focus and movement of the model stand.

At one time, more than 500 alternative titles were considered for the film, but the final decision was to call it The Black Hole because that was such a dramatic core in the film and Disney marketing had determined it would be a more powerful title because of an audience's curiosity about the phenomenon.

"In January 1978, work began on the black hole effect itself and, seven months later, we were satisfied with the results," Nelson told interviewer Jim Steranko. "This way we had the biggest problem solved before a foot of film was shot. When you title a picture The Black Hole, you'd better come up with something spectacular. We worked it out so that the character of the black hole changes as the Cygnus travels closer to it. While the ship is on the edge of the black hole it remains superficially consistent but at the end of the film, the black hole changes character, becoming progressively more dynamic."

Art Cruickshank, who was in charge of model photography among other roles stated, "In order to achieve that swirling central section of the black hole, it was necessary to build a clear plexiglass tank that was 6 feet in diameter and 6-feet deep. An impeller was installed at the bottom of it so that when we filled it with water we could create a whirlpool-like effect. Now when we had our vortex going, Peter Ellenshaw would climb up on a ladder and drop various colored lacquers into the water which stayed in a state of suspension and didn't combine with the water itself. He kept that up and we shot a lot of footage of those swirls until he finally got what he wanted.'

Ellenshaw added, "We lit it from below because I didn't want any reflection on the surface that would reveal it as real water. Art and I would be posed over the tank on ladders and pour lacquers in by the bucketful. We later matted-in stars and gradations of color. Harrison took our footage and made a matte of it. He added stars to it and then put it against a background of stars. We then used that as our plate to put behind the Cygnus."

Audiences generally found the film underwhelming, feeling that the script and performances were merely adequate and not offset by the visual effects. Some reviewers drew unflattering comparisons to Star Wars.

Producer Miller said, "We've tried to envision the unimaginable in this movie and we're hoping that audiences will go see it for that reason alone. We're trying to go beyond what people seem to feel Disney represents today. If we succeed with The Black Hole, it will mean a whole new beginning for us. And if we don't succeed…What a great attempt this movie is!