Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rick Harper: A Conversation -- Impressions de France

In the introduction to my Disney Music Project, I said that before I started on my top 76 song rankings, I was going to do my top 10 "arrangements," or songs that were originally not written for the Disney company.  Well, here's a spoiler alert!  One of my top 10 selections is the arrangement from "Impressions de France," the 18 minute movie that has been shown at the French Pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase every day since Epcot opened in 1982.  While the arrangement does include some new music from composer Buddy Baker, it is most heavily rooted in some of the finest compositions from the French romantic era. The music is incredible from start ("Aquarium" by Camille Saint-Saens) to middle (soaring over the Alps to "Clare de Lune" by Claude Debussy) to finish (scaling the Eiffel tower to Saint-Saens' glorious organ Symphony number 3, one of the finest songs ever written).

I wanted to get the Disney Music Project off to a flying start and also to pay tribute to this fantastic film, and I was beyond fortunate to be able to talk to Rick Harper, the film's director and the person who not only came up with the idea to set the movie to Romantic-era music but also chose all the music itself. It was wonderful talking to him, and I'm extremely grateful to him for his time. "Impressions de France" made an enormous impact on me as a child, and it is a movie that I never miss when I am in Disney World and one that I never tire of.

Here is a link to the movie.  Obviously seeing it on Youtube is not the same as seeing it in the theater, but at least it gives some context if you've never seen it before or if it's been a while. One quick side note: Clare de Lune was memorably featured in "Ocean's 11," and Saint-Saens' organ symphony was used in "Babe" -- it's such a good song that it doesn't even sound bad when sung by mice.

NS: What was your background before working on this movie, and why were you chosen to direct?

RH: I had wanted to work for Disney since I was about 6 years old.  When I was in high school I had a chance encounter with Herbert Ryman, an imagineer who was instrumental in the design of Disneyland, and we exchanged letters for a few years.  I ended up starting art school, but it was horrible.  I bugged the HR person at Disney to hire me, and in 1971 they hired me into their model shop at WED Enterprises, the forerunner of Disney Imagineering.  It was wonderful to be working with all these great people who had been working on Disney films long before Disneyland.  It was like a playland -- I absolutely loved being there.  I did designs on things like Space Mountain, and I was also making movies on my own time outside of Disney.  

At one point after about 7 years at Disney, my outside films were doing so well that I wanted to start my own film company.  When I talked to the bigwigs at Disney, they were kind of shocked that I was leaving because we were on such good terms, and I really did love working there. Later they told me about the films they had planned in Epcot's World Showcase for several different country pavilions, and they said, "Why don't you take a look and see if you want to do one of those?"  I chose the French film because I thought, "Oh boy, would I love to do that."

NS: Why was the French film your top choice?

RH: It's related to my love of music.  I grew up being exposed to a lot of great music.  My mother is a fantastic musician and pianist, and when I was in grade school, she would take me out of school to go the San Francisco opera and symphony.  I built a classical music collection of records starting from when I was about 6 years old.  I was really familiar with music from the Romantic era and primarily French music.  It's almost in my DNA.  Even to this day, that's the music of my preference.  And there's a lot of great film composers that are influenced by that era -- basically, that's where film music comes from.  

Because I was so familiar with French music, I built the soundtrack before we shot the film, and I cut together the music with the original arrangements.  Then Buddy Baker, who I had known previously and was just a really wonderful person, jumped at the opportunity to arrange the rest of it and write some additional transitional music to complement the classical pieces.  Overall, the film was a golden opportunity for me.  I directed it and was deeply involved with the lighting, the editing, and the music.  

NS: What was it like in the early stages of working on the film?

RH: In the early stages, it was wanting to build something that was like a really wonderful dream, and not something heavy-laden like "Here we are in Paris...Here we are in Chaumont."  It was a tough sell initially.  The higher-ups at Disney went, "How's anybody in the audience going to know what they are seeing?"  And I said, "Listen to the names of the places where we're shooting: 'Here we are in Chaumont.  Here we are in Chamonix. Here we are in Cheverny.'  Who's going to know or care?  Let's just make it a really pleasant experience."  And then I realized that I needed to show the higher-ups what I was talking about because they weren't as familiar with the music as I was, so that's what made me build the music track early on.

NS: Tell me about the recording of the music. 

RH: When it came to doing the recording itself, the fellow in the sound department was Glenn Barker.  I'm proud to say I had a lot to do with him getting hired -- he had worked on some of my outside films and I recommended him.  For the French movie, he wanted to record everything digitally and play it back in the theater digitally, which made it the first movie in history ever made that had a digital soundtrack all the way through.

Sony had only two prototype recorders in existence.  One was in Japan and one was in Los Angeles.  Glenn made it his business to work it out with Sony to get the machine, and it was shipped to Abbey Road Studios in London where we worked with one of the big orchestras there -- I think it was the Royal Philharmonic. In fact, we recorded on the day of London's worst snowstorm in their history!  All members of the orchestra had difficulty getting to the studio as the city became gridlocked in snow.  We had to delay our session by about three hours, but all went well with the session once we got started.

NS: How did you end up choosing the towns to film in?  Some places, like Versailles or Paris, are obvious choices, but there are some other spots that are off the beaten path.

RH: We wanted to hit some of the key things like the Alps, the Riviera, and Versailles, but we also really wanted to get off the beaten track too so that you had a sense of the grand and the small.  We could have done a marketplace scene in a bigger city, but the permissions and crowd control would have been a nightmare.  When you're filming this kind of panoramic thing, you've just got to have total control over the area and everyone has to be hired.  So we ended up choosing a nice looking town in Normandy for our marketplace scene, and we got the whole town involved.  And as an added bonus, it was a different look than what we had seen elsewhere in the film.  

NS: Was the wedding scene a real wedding?

RH: No, it was all set up.  It was a little church in Brittany, and we made arrangements to take over the place for 3 days.  In those days, lighting for film was a lot more complicated than it is now.  It takes a lot more light than it looks like, and when you're shooting in panoramic, you've got to do all these clever things to make it work. So just doing the lighting of that church interior took a couple days.

There's a subtlety to that scene that I really enjoy.  When you first enter that scene, you're not just going forward, but you're also dropping and lowering into the scene.

NS: What was it like shooting the climactic scene at the Eiffel Tower?  I imagine you must have had to get permissions at a high level.

RH: Oh, it was crazy.  Filming that scene was really, really cool.  We basically went on the roof of one of those elevators.  The elevator track had almost like a parabolic shape, and it went from less steep to more steep.  We did several tests, and what a thrill it was to ride on top of that thing.

NS: I think that Eiffel Tower scene is the perfect way to end and climax the movie -- going up the tower to the sound of Saint-Saens. 

RH: That Saint-Saens piece we play while going up the tower -- I just love it and am crazy about it. To be ascending, that's what you gotta do to that music. 

NS: What was the camera like that you used to shoot the film?

RH: The camera weighs about 500 pounds.  It's the same system used on the Circle-Vision 360 films, but we took the back 4 cameras off.  The basis for that was that I could do much more interesting camera moves that way, and also that caused it to be a sit-down theater which was more of an elegant experience and something a little different from the other two Circle-Vision films in Epcot. You'll notice that almost every shot in the film is a moving shot which helps create dimension in the film.

NS: How was the French film crew that you worked with?

RH: The French crew was wonderful.  The music really helped get them on board.  I wanted to get them on board with what we were doing, and showing them the story outline and playing them the music caused some of them to get very emotional.  

NS: What kind of reception did you get at the time once the film was complete, and how often do you still hear from people today about it?

RH: It was a wonderful reception.  The first showing was a press screening, and there were a whole lot of French people there.  And they went nuts -- they loved it.  I was so glad for that. They said, "I can tell you really love our country."  Even today, if I could figure out a way, I'd live in France 6 months out of the year.  I just found the French people to be really, really wonderful, and I loved the whole feel of the country.

Occasionally I see comments on the internet that it is "the most boring thing I've ever seen," but those seem to be in the minority.  It's not "The Avengers" or like these movies of today.  It's supposed to be poetry, not a prizefight.  And it's really fun when occasionally I get a message from someone that the movie has changed their life.  I recently heard from a couple who had made a point to see the movie every year, and for their anniversary they decided to go to France and see every location from the film.  And they wanted to renew their vows at the church where the wedding was shot.  That is a neat thing, and I still tear up on the rare occasions when I'm down there at Epcot and I see it.  It's emotional to me because I'm very fond of France and that music.  Somehow that got through to some people who see it.  

NS: For me, I think it holds up extremely well.  If you see it today, you may not realize that it was made in 1982.  It does not feel dated at all.  

It's funny, that scene in the marketplace we were talking about earlier, I remember there was a girl in a red sweater leading the way that stood out to me as a kid.  I remember how she used to be older than I was, and now when I see her she looks like a little kid.  It's funny how those people haven't aged at all.

I did an estimate of how many people have seen the movie.  I figured at an average of 100 people per show times 20 shows a day times 365 days a year times 33 years equals 24,090,000 people.  That's not an exact number, but it at least shows that there are a lot of people who have seen this movie.  In fact, as we speak right now, someone is sitting in the theater in Epcot watching the movie. 

RH: It's a strange feeling.  I can relate to what you said about the people aging.  I think of old movies and photographs as time travel and a way to see into the past.  For a brief time at Disney, I worked with Ray Bradbury and we would talk about that.  It just blew him away that we can see into the past.

NS: What are you up to now?

RH: I still do my own artwork and am retired from film.  I'm very involved with my family.  I have three grown children and a granddaughter, and my life is primarily about family. 


  1. Great interview! I love the film and enjoyed learning more about how it was made.

  2. Just saw it again yesterday. I remember seeing it in 1982 and many times since then and it is always powerfully moving to me. I appreciate that it’s still shown just as it was back in 82.