Imagineer Rock Hall Remembers

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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One of the dreams that countless people have had for decades was to become either a Disney animator or a Disney Imagineer. Very few folks actually got to realize that dream and, even when they did, they discovered that it wasn’t like the days of Walt when that position guaranteed job security. Unfortunately, some extremely talented people only had a brief opportunity to enjoy either of those positions before economic circumstances resulted in layoffs.

However, it is important to remember and celebrate the many contributions of those artists who helped to make the Disney magic. One of those talented people was Rock Hall who was involved with the New Fantasyland for Disneyland in the early 1980s.

Hall became a consultant to Walt Disney Imagineering in 1980 and then, in 1982, was hired as a full-time WED Imagineer. He worked on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland project (specifically the dark rides, including Snow White's Scary Adventures, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, and Peter Pan's Flight) and then was laid off in 1984 along with other talented people, including Monty Lunde, when the project was completed.

Hall and Lunde formed their own company, Technifex, a company that created special effects (visual illusions, 4-D theater effects, lighting, water, fire effects) for theme parks, water parks, casinos, trade shows, retail centers and many other industries and events. Technifex has won numerous awards for their contributions to Star Trek: The Experience, Revenge of the Mummy, Titanic: the Experience, Tomb Raider: the Ride, Disney Quest, Terminator 2: 3D, General Motors Test Track at Epcot, Journey to Atlantis and enough other credits to fill pages and pages.

Technifex has consulted on several Disney theme park projects over the years, including the recent Sleeping Beauty castle walkthrough at Disneyland, as well as the special effects in the now sadly closed Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island in Florida. They worked with Bob Gurr on the Treasure Island Pirate Battle sinking ship for Steve Wynn’s Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

Rock was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his love of Disney and his handful of years as an Imagineer.

Wade Sampson: What was the first Disney film that you saw?

Rock Hall: Fantasia. It was incredible animation put to classic music. It was unique and risky to say the least.

WS: What was your first experience at Disneyland?

RH: The first time I went to Disneyland I was 5 years old, so that was 1956. It was magical just like the advertisements said it would be. My favorite attractions when I was young would be Peter Pan and Mr. Toad. As I got older, and the park evolved, Pirates [of the Caribbean] and the Haunted Mansion became favorites. I still love the classic Disneyland attractions but also enjoy Indiana Jones a great deal.

WS: What background did you have before you became an Imagineer?

RH: I loved the theater and eventually joined the staff at the University of Utah Theatre department. As my career there progressed, I was more and more often asked to do the “weird” stuff. This meant anything that didn’t fall into the scenic or lighting category. I motorized scenery, did special lighting effects, built fake fires, did smoke systems and explosions, gun shots and wind. Eventually I helped teach classes in theater special effects. I also worked on many productions through the stagehands union as a journeyman mixing audio.

WS: How did you become an Imagineer?

RH: After seven years working in theater and working with the stagehands union, I started to crave something more and started to look for future opportunities. I had worked with Mark Fuller during my theater years and knew that he was working at WED. In fact, the tech director from the theater department at the university went to work for Mark and Bill Novey in the special effects department. My dream was to work for Disney, and I was so envious of the fact that both Bill and Mark were working there I couldn’t stand it. I was reading a Theatre Crafts magazine one day and there was a drawing of Mickey Mouse with a finger pointing outward and a caption that read “Mickey wants you.” I talked with Bill and sent in my resume. After several weeks and no response I asked Bill to look into it for me. I found out that they had lost my resume, so I resent it. Two weeks later they flew me down for an interview. I accepted the job as a consultant and eventually was made a full-time employee. There was no decision to make about being a full-time Imagineer. It was my dream being fulfilled! In fact when I was laid off in the spring of 1984 I was devastated. I still miss the magic.

WS: What was it like working at WED?

RH: For most of my time there I was located at the Tujunga building. My office was there and for much of the time I shared that office with Yale Gracey. Since I was hired to work on the New Fantasyland project, my time was spent directing crews and inventing effects with the rest of the team for Peter Pan, Mr. Toad, Pinocchio, and Snow White. We would stage mock-ups of the suggested effects and then show the actual completed effects staged with the scenery from the production department. Most of the events consisted of buy-offs for the executives. You needed to have things perfect before Marty walked through.

Things were changing at WED and the original Imagineers were not shy about telling you how it used to be when Walt was around.

WS: What was it like working with Yale Gracey?

RH: Yale was a sweet mild mannered guy, polite and respectful at all times. He worked at a very meticulous pace, setting up his illusions with everything done to a precise level. He got a real kick out of illusions that were done with the unique use of optics. Parabolic mirrors, Pepper’s Ghost type effects, sculpture and lighting tricks, you name it. Delicate effects such as Blue Bayou fire flies were a specialty of his. He constantly complained that the replacements were never done according to the original design and every time someone tried to improve on them they fouled their performance in one way or another. Yale could show you the right way to build a fire fly like no one else could. He always said that the best effects were simple effects. Like finding out that a sculpted face when vacuum formed and viewed from the back seems to follow you. This was an accidental development that Yale discovered and ended up using in the hallway at the Haunted Mansion. He talked a lot about Walt and the way it used to be. Walt gave the people he trusted carte blanche to create and design using their own unique ideas to help his visions come true, it was great back in those days, every day became fun and rewarding. He also talked a lot about a book the Walt gave him in which many of his co-workers had signed and decorated. As you might imagine every animator left his mark in Yale’s book. He showed everyone this book and was so proud of it. I believe this was one of his favorite things. Unfortunately I seem to remember that this was stolen from him and never recovered. This would be a very valuable book and its loss absolutely crushed him. One other story that I just recalled a few days ago that Yale told me about Walt. He was telling me a very funny story about how Walt was trying to learn how to properly sign his signature. Of course this was designed for him by a team of Disney artists. I guess he was complaining about how difficult it was to follow their designs. Yale said he never quite mastered the signature. The one thing that was a carry over from his real signature was the dot on top of the “I”. Now mind you this was after Yale had two martinis at lunch. Yale always had his martini lunches, it was his tradition. The last thing I remember him working on was a parabolic reflection of a humming bird sipping from a flower. This created a virtual image out in space, he was great with these types of effects. The two sinking ship effects (one for Disney’s Adventurers Club and one that Gracey worked on) were very similar with video projections replacing drum projectors and more mechanical animation.

WS: What was it like working on the New Fantasyland?

RH: By the time I had been brought on board, the basic designs were complete. Designers like John Kavelin and Joe Rohde stayed true to the original spirit of the attractions while enhancing them with new technologies. That’s were we came in, working closely with the creative team a list of effects were determined, mocked up in full scale and finally fabricated. I don’t recall many effects that didn’t make it into the shows. I enjoyed these attractions because that’s what I remember best from my first visits as a child to Disneyland. I was the responsible special effects designer after the project had been under way for some time. Because of that most of the designs were already in play. I led the special effects team to create the mock-ups and some of the final fabrication for the shows. Certain designs did evolve as we mocked them up but many were stock special effects systems that had been developed for other attractions including EPCOT Center. I think the original magic of the rides is that they were done simply with incredible UV painting, a classic story and a tight budget. New Fantasyland was not that different, some new technologies like fiber optics and scenic projectors, a new façade and a tight budget. Most people would not know that many of the ride systems are basically unchanged from the originals.

WS: Tony Baxter contributed significantly to the New Fantasyland.

RH: Tony is a fantastic visionary, seeing his work on New Fantasyland when I first arrived at WED amazed me. Tony is a Disney purist who has made a career of maintaining the magic at the parks. He sees everything with childlike enthusiasm and knows what will entice and excite the audience. Tony was well on his way to great success when I started to work with him, he was already a master. For me he was a continuation of the first Imagineers and their theories and visions. He was the protectorate of everything that the Disney name meant when it came to quality entertainment.

WS: Joe Rohde was also involved.

RH: Joe is fun and funky with a great eye for design, he really gets into the artistic details of everything he does. He’s a trip to work with and you know that if Joe is involved, the end product will make everyone proud. Joe was on his way up and quickly accelerated every time he completed another project, he also knew how to keep the quality up and make the show entertaining and magical

WS: How would you update those attractions today?

RH: I would love to see more reflection effects like the Blue Fairy included in the attractions. Whatever it is can’t look too two-dimensional or too high tech. Again maintaining the classic nature of the ride is key.

WS: At this time, you met and became friends with Monty Lunde.

RH: Monty and I became good friends from the get go. Very diligent, creative and hands-on. Monty had great work ethics, was smarter than most of us and made a great beer drinking buddy. He arrived a few months before I did and we were both designers within the special effects department. He mostly worked on Horizons and the Mexico pavilions with some of his time dedicated to American Adventure. After New Fantasyland opened, I worked a few show up-grades at EPCOT Center. The one I did the most work on was the Sperry computer show. I also did trouble shooting on several other attractions prior to being laid off. Both Monty and I were laid off in March of 1984. It wasn’t unexpected. We could see it coming, but we were some of the last few to be laid off. My biggest disappointment was being laid off from a job that I dreamed of having for much of my life.

WS: Why did you form Technifex?

RH: Because we were laid off. Seriously we thought it would be great to offer other companies even a taste of the kind of show value that Disney had.

WS: Technifex has done some work for the Disney Company on several projects.

RH: The most recent, of course, was the Sleeping Beauty walkthrough, but we built the original fountains for Fantasmic! We have created water cannons for [Tokyo] Disney Sea parade etc. We worked on the signage for the Neon Armadillo on Pleasure Island and some illusions for the Adventurers Club, including a big Pepper’s Ghost-style illusion. We haven’t done as much work for Disney as we would like to do, hopefully that will change in the future. Disney expects a lot from their outside vendors from a contractual point of view. Once the contracts are worked out the methodology is not that different on the outside. If we are doing projects for two competitors which is frequently the case we try to stage them in secure areas or separate buildings. Again the contracting can be difficult but once you are on the project you feel as welcome as if you worked there.

WS: What is your method of working when approaching a project?

RH: I think you have to have a certain amount of vision or be able to manipulate someone’s vision that is more creative than your own. I think that is what a good special effects guy does, he joins in the vision, thinks about what new and existing technologies are out there, and teaches the art director/designer how these technologies become their tools and become part of the building blocks of the show. We are constantly researching new technologies but we have become very adept at using technologies that are created for other applications and with a twist adapted to become show technologies. For example: Steam boilers are not new technologies, but take that steam, design and engineer a nozzle that will create a wall of steam and, voila, you have a nearly invisible projection screen. I mostly think visually but sketches, models and mock-ups are also part of the equation. Mock-ups being at the top of the list for me. Visualize it then try and make it, then see if it really has show potential.

WS: What Disney project would you have liked to work on?

RH: [Tokyo] Disney Sea and Animal Kingdom. Mostly because they seemed to be quite a departure from the usual attractions.

WS: What is your favorite accomplishment for Disney and why?

RH: The one that is yet to come because the future is most important to us.