Interview with Ethan Reed

Interview with Ethan Reed

We have been really lucky over the last few weeks and managed to grab some of Ethan Reed’s time. Ethan was one of the Imagineers who worked on various parts of Mystic Manor but is probably most notable to us for the character design behind Albert the monkey.

Hi Ethan, can you start off by explaining a little bit about you and your roles at WDI?

I started at WDI as an intern in the Show Animation and Programming department in my senior year while studying Animation at CalArts. While at CalArts, I became an Annual Passholder at Disneyland and went to the park as much as possible, so WDI was perfect for me.

In October of 1998, I was invited to come to WDI for what was called a 3 day test. You were invited into the training lab, at our former WDI Tujunga facility, and you were asked to sit down and animate 10 seconds of park audio on an Audio-Animatronics Figure. After completing the test, I was asked to come in 2 days a week starting in January of 1999 to train on animating Audio-Animatronics figures. It was great, I’d be at CalArts 3 days a week, and at WDI 2 days a week animating test bits of animation on hydraulic A.A. figures, A-1’s, A-100’s, and my favorite figure, the Hippie Crane from America Sings.

Audio-Animatronics were very different from any form of animation I had worked on as I had done CGI, stop-motion, and hand drawn animation. Drawing was, and still is my passion. I had always wanted to be an Imagineer and my idol was Marc Davis.

After animating the Hippie Crane for a few weeks, Marc and Alice Davis came by WDI’s Tujunga facility for lunch with the Animation and Programming department, it was amazing! I asked Marc if he would be willing to review my animation of the Hippie Crane from America Sings. Marc was happy to, and gave me fantastic notes, he was so kind and it will be a memory I’ll never forget. Shortly after meeting Marc, I graduated and my supervisor asked if I wanted to come in full time, my answer was yes!!!

So I was brought in to animate Sindbad for Tokyo Disney Sea. After Sindbad, I animated numerous attractions for Disney California Adventure, The Hall of Presidents, The Road to Gettysburg Lincoln Attraction, Expedition Everest, Pirates of the Caribbean and many more attractions. Also during this time, I was getting involved in the early conceptual design of many attractions.

In 2005, I was asked to take on a new role as one of the Art Directors of Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue where I was responsible for the day to day art direction of all the characters for the attraction. At that point, I started splitting my time between animating and design.

Today, I am 100% focused as a Concept Designer and Creative Director, but I still love animation and typically get involved in the upfront design of the figures. For the yet to open Beauty and the Beast attraction for Tokyo Disneyland and Rise of the Resistance for Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, I sketched up all the character vignettes during the initial conceptualization of the attractions. I’m really looking forward to the opening of the Tokyo Disneyland expansion as I worked on every attraction in some capacity and served as the Creative Director for Minnie’s Style Studio. I know our guests will love it.

We absolutely love Mystic Manor, can you give us an overview of what you were involved in?

My involvement in Mystic Manor began in the middle of leading the animation on Mr. Potato Head for Toy Story Mania. Since Mr. Potato Head is interactive, we had a large crew of Animators as we had approximately 20x more animation to create then we would on a typical figure.

After about six months into animation on Mr. Potato Head, I was asked to start attending meetings to start development of the Audio-Animatronics characters for Mystic Manor. It was a much needed break from Mr. Potato Head dialogue. I love Don Rickles, but 6 months of Don Rickles was a little much.

As Mystic Manor continued to develop my involvement grew. Ultimately on Mystic Manor, I wore multiple hats lending my talents in Character Design, Story, Show Design, Art Direction, Media Direction, Programing and Animation. To this date Mystic Manor is the last attraction I animated. It made sense since I was so invested in the story and characters, no one else knew these characters like I did.

The initial concepts for Mystic Manor had photo-realistic concepts (like Harrison Hightower). Why was this changed?

The concept art that was on display at the first D23 in 2009 was produced very early on and no character design had taken place yet. About a year before the D23 expo, we had a design competition within Walt Disney Imagineering to design Albert the Monkey. I took all of the best elements from all the different designs and created the original look for Albert which was realistic with only slight hints of caricature.

After we had initially developed Mystic Manor we actually hit pause on development for about one year. During that time, Imagineers like myself had some time to think about the attraction, what was working, what was missing, what could make this attraction unique. After the show was turned back on, I convinced Mark Schirmer, our newly minted Show Producer/Creative Director on the attraction, to storyboard the entire attraction so we could workshop it with the team and follow a process more similar to what would be done at the Animation Studio.

When producing the storyboards, we went rough and loose so we would make sure not to “fall in love” with any of the drawings. I think that storyboard process was key to making the show what it is today. I actually remember taking breaks at the inaugural D23 convention and working on the storyboards for Mystic. It was also at this D23 convention where I chatted with Richard Kraft, Danny Elfman’s agent, who I’d met previously with Tony Baxter, and introduced him to the attraction. When I was at that D23, I was on display animating Lincoln for the current Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction and old Abe actually ties into the redesign of the characters in Mystic Manor.

Lord Henry Mystic concept

What was your inspiration behind Lord Mystic and Albert?

So right after the D23 convention, we were feeling really good about the show. We were adjusting story points and most importantly visual storytelling through the storyboard process. Mark was not convinced that the design we landed on in the previous iteration was working, so Mark asked me to take another stab at redesigning Albert. At the same time, he asked me to develop some sketches for merchandise opportunities for the attraction. I told Mark I would work on it, but my focus at the time was finishing up Lincoln for Disneyland.

I produced dozens of realistic Albert designs and one day while animating Lincoln at the theatre at Disneyland, I took a break and pulled out the sketchbook. So many things were going through my head, Danny Elfman had expressed interest in joining our little team, I had just watched Nightmare Before Christmas with my kids and was thinking how great the stop-motion look could be, and I was struggling with the expressive Lincoln head, many of the expressions I could get where comical and completely inappropriate for the such a reverent attraction.

Marc Davis and Walt Disney understood that exaggeration was key to expression in animation. How could I make sure the expressions of these characters from Mystic would read quickly from a ride vehicle? So what came out was Lord Henry we know and an Albert with an elongated muzzle which I based on the Tiki Room drummers, which are Monkeys, not the Crocodiles I always thought they were as a child. I was happy with the sketch and thought they would never do anything so bold, but I thought it could work for merchandise, a stylized look something that would look great on a coffee mug.

So I got back to Lincoln, made him look great, and returned to Glendale. I shared my sketches with Mark and he really liked them. He asked me to pin them up so we could take Joe Lanzisero, the overall creative leader of Disney Parks in Asia, through them. Mark was sure to ask me to make two separate boards, one for redesigns, and one for Merchandise. The image I drew in the Lincoln theatre was in the centre of the Merchandise board. We had the room set up and Joe walked in. Immediately upon entering the room, Joe zeroed in on the Lincoln theatre sketch, exclaiming “that’s it, I love it!” Mark, Joe and I discussed it with him explaining it was for the merchandise but Joe knew what would work as Joe had come from the Animation Studio, trained by Walt’s Nine Old Men. He knew that for these characters to work, they had to read quickly for the attraction. So then I started a redesign effort on all the characters for the Manor as we wanted them to feel like they all came from the same visual world.

Albert concept

Where did the fez caps come from?

I played around with many costumes during the initial version of the attraction. I drew the Fez because I thought it was fun, and Joe happened to have a collection of monkeys wearing fezzes in his office. I knew my audience!

You were involved in animating the audio-animatronic characters. Can you take us through that?

Most of my time with the figures in the attraction was spent art directing them. At WDI, we were so busy building figures for the Little Mermaid and Cars Land that all of the figures for Mystic were built at different shops all around the globe. I spent a ton of time directing the sculpting and fabrication of the figures. When it came to animation, it was the easiest part for me since I had designed the vignettes and knew the characters so well. Animating it was like icing the cake, the hard work had been completed.

Albert concept

Did you have to spend a lot of time in Hong Kong? I know a lot of Imagineers never get to ride the attraction they worked on, did you manage to experience it?

Yes, I got to ride it during Cast Previews and subsequent Business Trips. After finishing animation on The Little Mermaid at California Adventure I made my first trip to Hong Kong to visit some of our Asia based vendors. I had many business trips to Hong Kong over the next two years as we were finishing up both Grizzly Gulch and Mystic Manor. Hong Kong is a fantastic city!

Which is your favourite room in Mystic Manor?

The Solarium is my favorite room as it was much different in the original concept. During early development, we needed to shrink the room. I did the first sketch of the new solarium and got to follow it all the way to the end. I love being able to work from concept to completion and the Solarium is the best example of that.

Did you have to make any compromises in the characters or animation?

You design for the moment with an Audio-Animatronics character. Part of storyboarding the attraction was to make sure we were not compromising any quality with the story we were trying to tell. In fact, the Chinese Salon with the Monkey King drastically changed during the storyboard process. At one point, we had a bunch of animated props that were cut for budget in the previous iteration. During the process of storyboarding, we felt we didn’t have a dramatic ending. The tension built and remained flat for the rest of the attraction. It just wasn’t working, so I suggested we needed the music dust to destroy the Manor. We needed to rip the roof off the house! While we didn’t rip the roof off the house, we ripped off the side wall and it’s really one of the best moments in the attraction, a complete surprise!

Albert concept

Did you know much about S.E.A. before starting the project?

Absolutely, my first assignment at WDI was for Tokyo Disney Sea on the Sindbad attraction so I was well aware of the S.E.A.

Chris Turner took your concepts and turned them into portraits, what was it like working with him?

Chris and I started on this attraction around the same time and we were both key to developing it. We had a lot of fun on it and chat about it as we both got to add to the story. I didn’t work with him on the portraits as I was art directing the figures at vendors around the world, Joe and Mark worked with Chris on the portraits. I really enjoy working with Chris when I get the opportunity


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