Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Epcot's Spaceship Earth: A Technical Marvel, Both Inside and Out

This is the first in a continuing series of posts focusing on Walt Disney World attractions. Please be sure to check back for more whether you are a casual or crazed fan of Disney World.

photo - darthmaz314

As visitors enter the main gate of Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park, they are greeted with the awesome sight of Spaceship Earth, a massive 18 story geodesic spherical structure, which houses an original Disney attraction of the same name. Spaceship Earth is Epcot’s most recognizable icon and is truly remarkable to behold. A veritable wonder of architectural design, this towering marvel of technology contains a 16 minute “dark ride” that chronicles the development of human communication from our species’ primitive days through the not too distant future. The structure itself is so massive that it instantly dwarfs visitors as they approach it, climbing starkly, yet elegantly into the central Florida sky.   

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The Spaceship Earth attraction took twenty-six months to construct and was completed for Epcot Center’s opening on October 1, 1982. The design was modeled after the Biosphere, a United States pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Spaceship Earth’s geodesic sphere structure stands a dizzying 180 feet in height and has a vast circumference of over 518 feet.
A little known fact about Spaceship Earth is that it is actually comprised of two inner structural domes. The upper structural dome sits upon a steel ring at the sphere’s perimeter. This ring is mounted atop six legs which are supported by piles driven over 120 feet into the Florida earth. The lower dome is hung below the central supporting ring, completing the sphere shape. An intricate arrangement of trusses within the ring supports the internal “ride and show architecture.” This ring and truss system forms a table-like structure which in essence, divides the upper and lower domes.

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The dual dome spherical structure supports and is surrounded by a “cladding sphere” to which the silver triangular exterior panels are mounted. This cladding sphere is separated from the inner structural spheres by a distance of three feet. One amazing and hidden feature of Spaceship Earth is the service car that resides in the space between the inner spherical structure and the outer cladding sphere shell. This device can transport a prone service technician along the surface of the sphere to sections of the outer shell that may require repair. 

photo - darthmaz314

Another ingenious design feature that has gone unnoticed by millions of Epcot visitors since 1982 is directly linked to the often erratic central Florida summer weather. Anyone who has visited Orlando in the summer will tell you that violent afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon. In the decades since Epcot opened its gates, countless Disney visitors have sought refuge from the deluge of those afternoon thunderstorms under “that huge golf ball thing.” Without realizing it, they chose an excellent location to escape the rain. Spaceship Earth’s exterior shell was designed so that no rainwater runs off the surface of the sphere and onto the ground or anyone standing below the sphere itself. Rainwater is absorbed through one inch gaps in the triangular surface tiles, is collected in a gutter system, and ultimately drains into World Showcase lagoon at the center of Epcot.
photo - darthmaz314
Beyond the main entrance gate and in the shadow of Spaceship Earth’s majestic structure, is a collection of granite monoliths which escalate in height as they approach the giant sphere. These monoliths were part of a Disney millennium campaign entitled “Leave a Legacy,” which enabled park guests (for a fee) to have their photo taken then digitally etched upon a metal tile which was later affixed to one of the monolithic stone slabs. 

photo - darthmaz314

A commemorative duplication of the etching produced on a transparent plastic sheet and held in a souvenir cardboard sleeve was mailed to each guest that purchased a Legacy tile. The sleeve also provided information on how guests could locate their Legacy tile upon future visits to Epcot. The Leave a Legacy promotion was discontinued in 2007, but the half-million plus tiles created during its eight year duration remain on the monolithic slabs which stand as sentinels in the forecourt of Spaceship Earth. 

Please click the link below the photo for Part Two of this post....

Spaceship Earth: A Technical Marvel Inside and Out: Part II
photo - darthmaz314

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Star Wars in 3D: The Force Unleashed in Three Dimensions

...3D was dead. In 1977, when Star Wars (the movie that is now too often referred to as “A New Hope” or “Episode IV”) was released, 3D was a gimmick that had long since fizzled out. In fact, the science fiction genre was ready for embalming as well. But a young California filmmaker named Lucas changed Hollywood forever with his “little space movie.” With Star Wars, George Lucas revitalized the sci-fi genre and laid the foundation of an empire forged from artistic, technological, and financial genius. In February, Lucas will bring us all back to that galaxy far, far, away (again) and perhaps succeed (again) where Hollywood is currently failing.

Perhaps wishing to follow in Lucas’ footsteps, over the last few years, Hollywood seems determined to revitalize the 3D genre by almost force-feeding us a steady diet of three dimensional movies. These days, every major action or animated movie is simultaneously released in standard 2D, as well as the 3D and 3D Imax formats. Some argue that the push for 3D is just the studios’ plot to generate additional revenue with the same product. They would never do that, would they?
Worse than simply making a blatant attempt to separate us from our money, Hollywood has been attempting to do it with, in many instances, a substandard product. True 3D films, during which we are often prompted to swat away objects jumping off the screen at us, are very few and far between. Many of the films released in 3D are shot in traditional 2D and then converted to 3D. The conversion will introduce a little depth perspective between objects in the foreground and background of a shot, but nothing that will blow your hair back. The 2010 Clash of the Titans re-make brought us to a new 3D low, with a conversion that actually distorted the film itself to a point where the visual quality was almost that of a bootleg DVD bought out of some guy’s backpack in a laundromat.

Enter our friends at Lucasfilm. In February 2012, the 3D saga begins as The Phantom Menace will be re-released in theaters in the 3D format. The other five films will reportedly follow, one each year, climaxing with Return of the Jedi in 2017, the forty year anniversary of Star Wars. Many will say that this is just another Jedi mind trick to separate us from our money and there is of course some truth to this. If nothing else, George Lucas is a capitalist. He has built an empire (literally and figuratively) and amassed incalculable wealth from a story that no one believed in and even fewer people wanted to see transformed into a motion picture. More amazingly, he did it his way. Even more amazingly and incomprehensibly in this culture, almost completely devoid of originality, he did it with a new and different idea. He crafted his plot based on timeless mythical themes and a basic tale of good versus evil, but his story was fresh and original and he translated that story onto film in such a visionary and groundbreaking way that it made Star Wars unlike anything that had preceded it. Lucas did not regurgitate an old idea and shove it across the table at us like the countless remakes Hollywood seems to churn out these days (a few of which are in fact, very good and in rare cases, better than the originals.) George Lucas dared to combine two now filthy and subversive words together “original thought” and created not just a story, but a world that his fans have been using as their own private escape for decades.

Throughout those decades, Lucas and his Lucasfilm enterprise have ensured that their brand is associated with quality. He may not always deliver what his millions of fans want, but when he delivers, he does his best to ensure that the product is one of quality and care. When he released the Star Wars Special Editions, which stirred up controversy within the legions of Star Wars fans, (see our previous post “Does George Lucas Have the Right to Tamper With His Star Wars Classics?”) Lucas waited for both CGI and theater projection
and sound system technology to progress to a level that would allow him to deliver a quality sensory experience to his audience. In fact, he basically required most theaters to have digital projection and his THX sound system (or a suitable equivalent) in order to exhibit the prequel films.
Considering this, we can expect the Star Wars films to be painstakingly converted to 3D, not thrown together in a haphazard manner. The conversion process will literally require years to complete and in the hands of the artistic and technical geniuses at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic, we can expect nothing less than the finest quality 3D experience. More importantly, these 3D releases will once again bring the Star Wars films back into theaters, which will allow a whole new generation of fans the opportunity to experience the galaxy far, far away on the big screen. I wonder if they thought of that over at Lucasfilm…?
One concerning point is that Rick McCallum at Lucasfilm (producer of all three prequels) has reportedly said that the success of The Phantom Menace will dictate the probability of the subsequent five films being re-released in 3D. One can only hope that the traditionalists distaste of the prequels doesn’t extinguish the chance to see the original and only true “trilogy” from being released in 3D.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On 9/11, We Honor Our Heroes and Celebrate America

Ten years ago today, the most heinous and cowardly act ever perpetrated on American soil took place on a late summer morning that would forever be etched into our collective hearts and minds. On that day, an immaculate and pristine sky was marred with the smoke of hatred, the ash of envy, and the fire of false righteousness. The ground was not only pelted with the debris of falling buildings and airplane fusillade, but with the emotional shrapnel of families and lives, ripped apart by hatred and extremism. What seemed like an otherwise nondescript and quiet September morning deteriorated into a date that now has taken its place as one of the darkest in our nation’s history.

Many terrible events took place on that morning of September 11, 2001. None of which will be chronicled here. The innocent dead taken from us on that day deserve far more respect than that. As do the heroes that gave their lives to save them. Those brave souls, regardless of the color of their uniforms or the letters etched upon them, were there when they were called. Some were there even though they had not been called. Many of them did not return home that day. Others returned home, but were diminished, whether physically or emotionally, in ways that most of us will luckily never know.

Thousands upon thousands more heroes have answered their country’s call to fight since that day. Whether they believe that they are on the right soil or fighting the right enemy, they stand for us. Ever the pawns in the international and political game of chess, these men and women stand anonymously between us and our enemies. Their uniforms do not differentiate them as either Republicans or Democrats, or as liberals or conservatives. They are simply our protectors.

The experiences and memories of September 11, 2001 vary greatly across the members of this great nation. Yet, whether you were in New York, D.C, or Anchorage, you felt the sting of loss on that day. In the intervening decade, the phrase “our lives were forever changed on 9/11,” has been uttered countless times. There is some truth to this. Our lives may never be the same again in some ways. America took a collective kick in the gut on that now infamous day.

Yet, if there is a truth that is undeniable, it is this. America has endured. The center of the financial world was nearly obliterated but our economy did not completely crumble. We are still the capital of the world, regardless of whether our credit rating has slipped this year. Our nation did not disintegrate and fracture following the acts of a band of extremist cowards. We united in a way that only Americans can and although we were kicked in the gut, we brushed ourselves off and stood up again ready for the next round.

Therein lays the failure of all those who seek to pierce the heart of our nation and do us harm. America may be a patch quilt of religions, races, ethnicities, and political ideologies, but there is one defining thread that weaves us all together and binds us in a way that the perpetrators of September 11th’s vile acts cannot comprehend and will be forever envious of…freedom. It is that freedom that defines our nation. It is that freedom that fortifies us not only as a nation, but as a people. It is that freedom which terrifies those that seek to do us harm. That ideal of freedom, unattainable and incomprehensible to those like the cowardly perpetrators of that fateful day, gave birth to this nation and has nurtured it for over two hundred years. It is a flame that cannot be extinguished by bullets or bombs or blood. It is who we are and will always be.

So as you go about your day this September 11th, 2011, think not of the fallen towers or the damaged Pentagon, or the charred wreckage of a plane in a Pennsylvania field. Do not dwell on the evil and the destruction. Instead, celebrate the lives of the heroes we lost on that day and have lost since. Celebrate the courage of those who answered the call and continue to do so. Celebrate the good in life. Celebrate the fact that we live in a nation where we are free. Celebrate…America 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Does George Lucas Have the Right to Tamper with His Star Wars Classics?

As we draw closer to the Phantom Menace 3D release date in 2012, the controversies will swirl around again as to whether George Lucas should be tinkering with the Star Wars films. It is hard to imagine that it has now been almost 15 years since the theatrical release of the Star Wars Special Editions, which caused a greater shockwave through the Star Wars universe than the destruction of the first and second Death Stars combined. With these 3D releases, some of the same questions will be dredged up again. Here is my take on a few of those questions:
Should Lucas have tampered with the Original Trilogy and released the Special Editions?
Yes…and no…
Traditionalism is nearly lost in our society today. The emphasis is on new, cutting edge technology, breaking, up to minute news, and on the latest and greatest toys that we can lay our grubby little hands on. Anything that existed prior to 1990 is now considered “classic.” Classic Rock used to be music from the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Now a song from the late 80’s is “classic.”  Why? Most likely this is driven by the fact that much of pop culture entertainment (movies, sports, and television) is geared toward an 18 – 25 year old audience. If you are 21 now, you were born around 1990 and music from the 60’s pre-dated your birth by three decades.
Our culture is driven to change and adapt. We colorize old black and white movies. We restore priceless works of art. We renovate old historic landmarks. We tear down old attractions that no longer generate interest and revenue in amusement parks and sometimes tear down the amusement parks themselves. We use instant replay in sports. We stopped speaking Latin. The point is that as time marches on, many times it knocks down and tramples anything in its way. Apparently, the Star Wars universe is no different.
I have been a Star Wars fan my whole life. In fact, since I was a young child when Star Wars hit theaters, I consider my generation to be the “Star Wars Generation.” In that way, I can understand the point of the traditionalists who lament Lucas’ tampering with their history, their childhood memories. However, we lose sight of something as fans, which by the way, is an abbreviated form of the word “fanatic.”  The Star Wars movies are George Lucas’ creations. They are his children. As fans, we may have spent countless hours watching and re-watching the movies and yes, we have invested in them both emotionally and financially, but Lucas spent years of his life making them and risked his health, career, and family life to bring his vision to the screen. He rolled the dice when making the deal for Star Wars and agreed to make less money so that he could retain more creative control and sequel rights. This seems ludicrous now, with 20/20 hindsight, well over a billion in revenue, and five sequels in his back pocket, but at the time, making Star Wars was a big risk for Lucas. Should he now have to answer to all of us, if he wants to clean up some scenes and drop in a digital dewback or two? No, he shouldn’t have to. Similarly, he shouldn’t be able to dictate what I post on this site. Nor should he have the power to force your kids to wear those horrendous plaid shirts he wears. However, once Lucas made the decision to “tread on hallowed ground” by releasing the Special Editions with changes and not merely clean-up work, he had to be prepared to live with the backlash. Whether prepared or no, it is safe to say that he has had to live with the backlash.
Should the original theatrical releases of the Original Trilogy be available for fans to purchase?
Although Lucas may look at the theatrical versions as his first drafts, upon which he was able to improve with CGI technology, they are part of pop culture history and are biblical to millions of fans across the globe. Obviously, these fans loved them in their original condition, blemishes and all, so why not make them available? If they weren’t legendary and beyond criticism at this point, it might make sense to hide them away forever, but when you’ve reached the top of the insurmountable mountain, does it matter how you made it up there?
There are many who consider the imperfections of a classic to be the very aspects that make it special. Was the Vaseline distorted area under the land speeder pretty? No, but it was an old camera trick that Lucas and his crew utilized to hide the wheels that were actually propelling the land speeder. Does it look better cleaned up? Sure, but it did not need to be changed. There are dozens of other special effects that I may have felt needed improvement, which Lucas left untouched. The point is that George Lucas wanted to change it and he is in complete creative control of the Star Wars universe, which is more than can be said of many artists who have built an empire as large as his. The downside of having such total control over an intellectual property is that when your ideas are not top notch, they make it to the screen rather than winding up on the storyboard trash pile or editing room floor. Can anyone say Jar Jar Binks? I understood the purpose and intent of Jar Jar, but I think he may have needed some tweaking before being “green lighted.”
Should Greedo have “shot first?”
Absolutely not. I have read that George Lucas’ reasoning for changing this scene was that he did not want Han Solo to appear to have shot Greedo in cold blood. It is a film for all ages and that includes children, some of whom may be very small when they first see Star Wars, but I think that the rest of the film and the subsequent sequels serve to develop the character of Han Solo as anything but a cold-blooded killer. Let’s face it, Greedo was there to take Solo prisoner or kill him on the spot. Wouldn’t blasting Greedo first be self-defense? Above all, that scene in its original form established the ultimate cool of Han Solo. In that initial ten minutes of screen time, the Han Solo legend is forged in film history. Without that establishing scene, nothing Han solo does during the rest of that film is as impactful. His moments of comedic bumbling are not as funny because they are not juxtaposed to his icy cool demeanor. His return at the end of the film to help Luke and the rebels destroy the Death Star is not as dramatic. If there was one other shred of genius in Star Wars, aside from the story and special effects, it was the effective development of the characters and their relationships. The inability to achieve this same character development was the main drawback of the prequels, in my humble opinion. If Greedo should shoot first, maybe Leia should not have strangled Jabba in Return of the Jedi. Cold-blooded bimbo.
Lastly, you can watch The Star Wars Special Edition twenty seven times and not realize that the film was altered to have Greedo shoot first. You may realize that there is a laser blast ricocheting off the walls of the cantina, but how many people really knew what was going on there, before they read that Lucas had changed who does the shooting in that scene. I know I didn’t catch it.
Should Darth Vader have been “emasculated” with the infamous “Nooooooooo scene” in Revenge of the Sith?
The first three Star Wars movies (the Original Trilogy) cemented Darth Vader as one of, if not the, baddest villain in film history. A faceless, towering and imposing villain, whose coldblooded methods, perfectly complemented his terrifying appearance. Then there’s the breathing. The greatest sound effect ever in film? I vote yes! The sound effect on its own is great enough. The genius manner in which it is used only enhances its effectiveness. How terrifying are the scenes in which Vader is not visible and his presence it only revealed by the off-screen commencement of that bone chilling breathing?
The icy cold and remorseless manner in which Vader cuts down his elderly mentor Obi Wan in Star Wars gave us a glimpse into his seemingly black soul. Granted, when those of us in the "Star Wars Generation" saw that, we weren't privy their little encounter on the shores of the lava river on Mustafar from Revenge of the Sith. I would have wanted revenge too, even if Obi Wan had Depends on under that ratty brown cloak!
The point being that Vader was as close to merciless as he could be in the first two movies. Until...the finale of Empire. Vader has Luke disarmed and helpless or as he himself says, "beaten." He was ordered to bring him back to the Emperor, but if he really believed that Luke was a threat and would replace him at the Emperor's right hand, why would he not just kill him right there and let his body fall into the clouds of Bespin, never to be found? Instead, we see another side of Vader as he implores Luke to join him to defeat the Emperor and rule the galaxy together as father and son. Maybe he's not the totally evil villain we thought he was after all.
At the finale of Return of the Jedi, Vader, ever dutiful and loyal to his master, witnesses his Emperor's failure to turn his son to the Dark Side. He stands by and listens to his master entice his own son, to kill him and take his place. If Vader were truly as cold blooded and heartless as the image we have built up around him, wouldn’t he have just slain the Emperor and Luke and seized true control of the Sith as those before him had done? Instead, he remains a spectator as his Emperor, realizing that he will not turn the son as he did the father, unleashes his force lightning upon Luke in an attempt to eliminate the only threat to his dominance of the galaxy.
Here is another chance for Vader to show us the true nature of his dark soul and again he contradicts the “legend.” After years of blind devotion and obedience to the Emperor, Vader redeems himself and saves his son from certain death by destroying the Emperor. Was this a castration of our favorite villain as well? Did this make him any less fearsome of a character? Did this ruin him forever as the villain we had come to know and love? It didn’t seem that way. I don’t recall anyone ever whining about how Vader should have thrown Luke down the Death Star shaft or let the Emperor toast him to a crisp.
The point is this. The entire Star Wars saga is built upon the duality of its main character, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. He has the capacity for great love and compassion as well as great anger and vengefulness. Episodes 1 through 3 detail how his fear of losing those he loves eventually drives him to the Dark Side. That aspect of the story could have been revealed better in Episodes 1 through 3. The portrayal of the Anakin character left much to be desired in the prequels. It is true that there were some very big boots to fill in the prequels, yet Ewan McGregor delivers a phenomenal performance as the Obi Wan character leading us to believe that it was possible to successfully link the two Star Wars generations.
Considering all of this, does the scene where Anakin rises as Darth Vader (in the suit) for the first time and discovers that Padme is dead really emasculate the character that was so villainously legendary? I don’t think so. If we are to believe Lucas’ storyline, Vader’s obsession with keeping Padme safe is what drives his turn to the dark side and all of the heinous acts he commits for the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith. Should he simply shrug his shoulders after the Emperor informs him that it was HE who killed Padme and their unborn child? The display of anger and uncontrollable power that Vader unleashes after the Emperor lies to him about the death of his true love is exactly what we might expect. Then comes the now infamous “Nooooooooooooooooo.” That is what most people have had issue with and I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing need be said by Vader as that scene draws to a close. We got it. We understood. His uncontrolled use of the Force destroying everything in that lab, the loud Force hum, the devilish delight of the Emperor at the sight of his new weapon, all these things perfectly communicate to the audience the emotion and significance of the scene. That is where that scene could have ended. If it does, it brings the Vader character right up to where we met him in Star Wars. The rage and uncontrolled anger mask the hurt and the despair. He appears invulnerable.
The inclusion of the shot of Vader falling to his knees does further develop the notion that he is a tragic character, a point that Lucas was trying to drive home throughout the prequels. The cry of despair (the infamous “Nooooooo”) drives home the tragic character aspect a bit too hard and leaves us with a diminished image of Vader as a villain and a Dark Lord of the Sith. We almost pity him. Yet, maybe that is the point. For those of us who grew up with the Original Trilogy Vader, the transition is not an easy one. Maybe the point is that the lines between good and evil, between the Dark and Light Side, are not as clearly defined as we want them to be. They usually are not that clear in real life, so why should art not imitate life in a galaxy far, far away?