The Original Disney 3-D

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

A few weeks ago I took my very excited 4-year-old nephew to the movie theater to see heavily armed guinea pigs flying at us in vivid 3-D. It is difficult for me to accept that he has spent most of his young life going to a movie theater to only see films in 3-D from the latest Ice Age to Monsters Vs. Aliens to Up.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how live-action films and animated features may soon all be released in 3-D, a process that can be very effective in a theater. but has yet to reach that same level of wonder on a television screen. This is not the first time that Hollywood has become enamored of this technology in an attempt to get people out of their homes and into theater seats.

Animator and director Chuck Jones has stated that the reason that studio executive Jack Warner closed the classic Warner Bros. animation studio in the mid-1950s was his belief that all future films would be made in 3-D and it was too expensive to do animated shorts in that process.

Several major animation studios did release a handful of 3-D animated shorts in the mid-1950s, including Warner, which released a Bugs Bunny cartoon (Lumberjack Rabbit, 1953). Famous Studios released a Popeye cartoon (The Ace of Space, 1953) as well as a Casper cartoon (Boo Moon, 1954). Walter Lantz produced a Woody Woodpecker cartoon (Hypnotic Hick, 1954).

However, 3-D died out almost as quickly as it flared up. Lantz commented: “It was just a fad. It wasn’t really worthwhile doing.”

Of course, just as the fad was taking off, Walt Disney got there first.

In 1953, the Disney Studios decided to explore the new trend of 3-D film entertainment by producing two 3-D cartoons: Adventures in Music: Melody and Working for Peanuts.

Melody was reportedly already finished in 2-D when Walt Disney asked Ward Kimball and Eustace Lycette, who was the head of the camera department, about converting the film to 3-D. This explains why there were not extreme and frequent “coming at you” effects throughout the short.

Released May 23, 1953, Professor Owl taught his classroom of distinctive bird students about the musical concept of melody. The teacher demonstrated that melody follows a human being from birth to death, as well as the many inspirations for melodies from love to the sea to cowboys. Remember this was the mid-1950s when Westerns were highly popular in movies and television.

In theaters, it accompanied the first live-action feature 3-D western, Columbia's Fort Ti at its Los Angeles premiere.

Co-directed by Charles Nichols and Kimball, this Disney short had a story by Dick Huemer. It was the first in a series of Disney animated cartoons to be known as “Adventures in Music,” but the only one filmed in 3-D. Only one other short was made in the series, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which employed widescreen Cinemascope rather than 3-D to attract attention.

Studio publicity claimed that Melody was “the screen’s first animated cartoon in 3-D,” but it was more accurately the first U.S. animated short. It was beaten to the distinction of first animated cartoon by Halas and Batchelor who released the British Stereoscope cartoon The Owl and the Pussycat in 1952, as well as possibly another British animated 3-D cartoon short shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The Disney process of 3-D did not use a dual unit like many of the other live-action 3-D films of the era, but rather used one three-strip camera that photographed each cel frame three times through the necessary filters to create the matrix employed by the Technicolor process. It was a very time-consuming process. For 3-D, each cel was shot six times with the camera moved after the first three frames to a slightly different position in order to simulate binocular viewing. The laboratory then created the separations for the dual prints.

Released November 11. 1953, Working for Peanuts featured Chip and Dale stealing peanuts from Dolores the Elephant, but zoo keeper Donald Duck steps into the battle to protect her treats. Donald uses Dolores’ trunk as a machine gun filled with peanuts to shoot at the chipmunks and the audience. Chip and Dale disguise themselves as rare albino chipmunks to find a home at the zoo and literally “work for peanuts” from the patrons.

The short was released with RKO’s Son of Sinbad in “Future Dimension, ScenicScope and color” but not Stereosound. Research shows that the Disney short received a great many more bookings as a single-offered short.

It was directed by “Duck Man” Jack Hannah who, at the time, was primarily responsible for the Donald Duck and Chip and Dale shorts. It was written by Roy “Big Mooseketeer” Williams and Nick George, with background art by Eyvind Earle who would later gain fame for his design work on Sleeping Beauty.

Working for Peanuts”also played at the Fantasyland Theater in the Magic Kingdom as part of the pre-show for Kodak’s Magic Journeys, and not so long ago the 3-D was reformatted so it could accompany the film Meet the Robinsons in selected theaters.

I talked with director Jack Hannah about this film and he told me: “That was the rage about then to have 3-D pictures on the screen, so we tried one. The main thing I remember about working in 3-D was to be sure there were plenty of effects. The effects had to be designed so that they would come out at you. Anything we could do to take advantage of the third dimension we used. I was ‘green’ at it and didn’t know much about it so we loaded it with animated effects like water and peanuts coming right at you. Later I think they turned around and re-shot it as a conventional short, but I don’t think I ever saw it in anything except 3-D.”

Both Melody and Peanuts were also photographed as regular flat 2-D animated cartoons, and that is how most Disney fans have seen them on television and video over the years.

Disney producer Harry Tytle's primary responsibility at the early years of the Disneyland theme park was the Mickey Mouse Club Theater in Fantasyland. Tytle began by putting together special programs of Disney shorts tied to holiday periods like Christmas and Easter. In those early days, the theater was closed during slack periods and opened over the weekends and summer when the crowds were the heaviest.

I recently was told by a woman, whose parents both worked at the early Disneyland, that some Disney animated features were occasionally shown in the theater, as well, because she was dropped off there for babysitting while her parents worked.

The souvenir book from the time only claimed “30-minute cartoons running continuously from 11 a.m. to closing” and it would have cost a “B” ticket to attend.

“A big boost in attendance came from an idea of Walt’s,” Tytle remembered. “Walt proposed a show, utilizing 3-D cartoon shorts which we made years before, which would run for 20 minutes. This meant a new show every half hour, with 10 minutes between screenings. He had director Bill Beaudine, direct a special live-action opening, utilizing the Mouseketeers. We were to use between 15,000-20,000 3-D glasses per week. The attendance at the Mickey Mouse Theater grew and grew.“

So many glasses were being used (almost 4,000 a day) that Tytle talked to people working there about the possibility of cleaning the glasses for re-use.

3-D Jamboree at Disneyland ended up being closer to 26 minutes and premiered in the Mickey Mouse Club Theater (near the carousel) in Fantasyland at Disneyland Park around June 16, 1956 and ran until sometime in 1959. I found conflicting records about the actual dates for the closing of that particular show. The theater was rechristened the “Fantasyland Theater” in 1964.

The live action was directed by William Beaudine and written by Larry Clemmons (with the live action 3-D camera supplied by Arch Oboler known for one of the first live action 3-D films, Bwana Devil). This presentation combined the 3-D versions of Melody and Peanuts with the newly filmed live action.

3-D Jamboree featured the only known color-film footage of the original Mouseketeers in 3-D. The colorful poster outside proclaimed: “All in color. All in Music. All in Fun.” Annette, dressed as a ballerina, appeared to soar toward the audience on a swing, while Jimmy Dodd seemed to douse the audience with a bucket of water. Lonnie Burr had an old-fashioned camera that had a clown head that popped out of the lens toward the audience and Roy Williams participated in a comical pie fight.

Both “Melody and Peanuts were shown in 3-D at the 3-D Film Expo II at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood in September 2007. Audiences also got to see an additional unannounced treat in 3-D: The live-action Mouseketeer segment (so the material does still exist and is accessible to the Disney Company). The Film Expo also showed the other animated 3-D cartoons from other studios mentioned at the beginning of this article and more.

When the show closed in 1959, it took until 1982 for the Disney theme parks to showcase another 3-D film experience. That’s when Magic Journeys opened as part of the Journey Into Imagination pavilion at Epcot.

Viewed with the now-familiar polarized lenses on plastic glasses for the first time, Magic Journeys looked at the world through the imagination of a child, with amazing images of a circus, a school of fish, a carousel and more floating over the audience.

There was a concern that the film would not be ready in time so a “backup” six and a half minute film (not in 3-D but using the Mike Jittlov style of pixilation movement) of Dreamfinder rushing through the studio to deliver the film was hastily shot in just one day at Imagineering—just in case. It would have ended with some 3-D clips from Magic Journeys which did indeed meet its deadline so the Dreamfinder’s Run film was never shown.

The traditional 3-D glasses were the then standard anaglyph color-filter glasses (the ones with one red lens and one blue lens). They simply fool the eye into thinking that two different images are the result of different distances.

The glasses used at the film presentations at the Disney theme parks today are polarized glasses with the orthogonal polarizing filters that create the illusion of three-dimensions by restricting the light that reaches each eye.

Magic Journeys later moved to the Magic Kingdom Park to make room for Captain EO, the Michael Jackson 3-D musical that had premiered at Disneyland Park in May 1986.

This 17-minute science-fiction adventure from executive producer George Lucas and director Francis Ford Coppola told the story of Captain EO (portrayed by Jackson) and his eclectic crew (Hooter, Fuzzball, the Geex, and Major and Minor Domo) as they set out on a mission to deliver the gift of music, dance and light to the frightening Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston) of a planet of twisted metal. At the time, Captain EO was the most expensive film (per minute) ever produced, at approximately $1 million per minute.

It was choreographed by Jeffrey Hornaday, photographed by Peter Anderson, produced by Rusty Lemorande, and written by Lemorande, Lucas and Coppola. The score was written by James Horner, and featured two songs ("We Are Here to Change the World" and "Another Part of Me") by Jackson. Famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro acted as visual consultant.

Personally, I always found the film less impressive when it came to 3-D than its predecessor, Magic Journeys. I also find it curious that in all the recent tributes to the late Jackson, this project doesn’t seem to receive any attention. There are lots of stories to be told about the project, including the fact that talented and charming puppeteer Teri Hardin sometimes substituted for the Supreme Leader and once unintentionally scared Jackson on the set.

The Disney-MGM Studios introduced a comical 3-D experience in May 1991 with Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3-D, a truly interactive experience where bubbles and a remote-controlled banana cream pie floated over the heads of guests. This was the last Muppet project completely supervised by Jim Henson, although Frank Oz was called in to do the final post-production when Henson died.

In 1994, the 3-D interactive experience went to yet another level with Honey, I Shrunk the Audience at Epcot. Professor Wayne Szalinski's shrinking machine goes out of control, and the shrunken audience experiences everything from flying shards of glass to a monstrous sneezing dog.

Disney 3-D was used four years later when It's Tough To Be a Bug opened at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park in 1998. This was only the fourth time in history that an attraction based on a Disney film opened before the film itself.

Mickey's PhilharMagic had its grand opening in October 2003 at the Magic Kingdom Park. Donald Duck tries to retrieve the magical Sorcerer's Hat while visiting a variety of classic Disney animated locations on the world's largest seamless-projection screen, which measures 28 feet high and a 150 feet wide.

The Golden Age of 3-D films, comic books, and Viewmaster was in the 1950s, when many entertainment companies, including the Disney Company, experimented with a variety of Stereotopic techniques to make things appear more three dimensional.

Surprisingly, small-town cinemas actually continued to play 3-D films long after the city theaters had ceased to do so. In fact, bringing back earlier Stereovision films was fairly popular in some areas for “kiddie matinees.” As a result, it was actually fairly inexpensive for studios to provide prints to the few movie houses still having access to a twin projection system.

So, with all the 3-D films coming from the Disney Company these days, it might be nice if they re-released these two classic 3-D shorts (and the Mouseketeer material) and use them as an “opening act” for the new theatrical feature releases.