Friday, December 4, 2015

Tony Baxter: A Conversation -- Journey Into Imagination

Tony Baxter, 2010.jpg

Tony Baxter is a Disney Legend (officially, in fact) who has worked on countless projects during his years at the company.  But there's one in particular that has special meaning for me, and that's Journey Into Imagination, my favorite Disney ride of all time.  It was a whimsical, dreamlike experience with fantastic music and a transcendent character: Figment, the purple dragon. Figment was not only my favorite character (as a kid I got a Figment doll, Figment hat, Figment magnet, and the whole 9 yards) but also a favorite of many kids from my generation.  

Tragically, Figment and Imagination were overhauled in 1998 and replaced by what I've heard was a disaster (I say "I've heard" because I refused to ride it out of protest).  Eventually they brought Figment back in 2002 after public outcry, but the new ride is a shell of its former self. The whole thing still bums me out, and I know I'm not alone.  

Tony was the principal mastermind behind the original Imagination along with Steve Kirk, and getting a chance to talk to him about it was extremely special and an experience that I won't soon forget.  Before we get started, here are a few links:

Season Pass Podcast -- Tony talks about the origin of the ride (1:10:43 mark) and how the ride changed the life of a terminally ill boy (1:24:08 mark)
Magnum PI -- That's right, Magnum!  In the clip above, see the scene where Higgins the butler mentions "Figment."  Tony had watched this when it first aired and got the idea for Figment's name from this scene.
Figment Marvel Comic set, with forward by Tony
Tony Baxter biography paperback that came out on 10/30 of this year
The ride itself on Youtube (thank God there are videos out there like this), and a super cool virtual reality depiction of the ride on the Journey Back to Imagination site. 

NS: The original Journey into Imagination was my favorite ride as a kid and still on lives in my memory as my favorite ride of all time.

TB: That's good to know.  It's amazing how many fans turned up once they pulled the plug on the original.  The outcry was enormous and it helped get Figment back in there, but the way he's used now is not in the proper way. (More on this later!)

NS: For me, the music in Imagination really takes the experience to a whole other place.  I know the Sherman Brothers wrote "One Little Spark," and I read somewhere that Buddy Baker was involved too -- did he write the arrangement for the ride?

TB: It wasn't Buddy Baker, it was George Wilkins.  Buddy was knee-deep in things like The American Adventure at the time.

NS: What was Billy Barty, the voice of Figment, like as a person?  

TB: We worked so hard to find the right voice.  We had women in to audition, and I remember the actress Connie Stevens tried out.  It just didn't work, and the guy in charge of Epcot Films, Randy Bright, said, "You know what you're struggling with?  Figment is only like two and a half feet tall, and all these voices are coming out of humans that are big, and maybe you need to have a little person do it."  We had exhausted everything and so that seemed like a good idea to try.  

Billy said, "Not every little person is an actor...but I am an actor!"  And it was true -- he was a great, professional actor who had been in a lot of films and was a great person to work with.  We were so lucky to get him.  We did give his voice about a 10% push upward in pitch, but it was still his voice.  If he was on a good day, he could give that voice without too much trouble.  We just gave it a little bit of a push to move it up in register.

NS: I think his voice is just perfect for the character -- it's got a lovable, endearing quality. No disrespect to the person doing the voice in the current ride, but it's just not the same.

So now let's go through the ride scene by scene, room by room.  We start out with the four-minute sequence with Dreamfinder on the blimp.  I read about some of the technological challenges of doing that scene, and it's worth it because I think it's a great introduction to the characters. 

TB: I thought it was one of the most brilliant things Disney has ever done.  If you're telling the story of Little Mermaid or Snow White, everyone already knows who they are, what they talk like, how they sing, etc.  But in a ride like Imagination, you're not familiar with the characters going into it.  This opening scene allows you to meet Dreamfinder, understand how he created Figment, and get to know Figment's personality, so at the end of those four minutes you know the characters.  

Once you take that out like the way the ride is now, all it is is a weird purple dragon thing -- nobody knows what it is or how it thinks.  That was the biggest error they did in reconfiguring the show.  It was probably the most expensive part of the whole ride, and it was the last thing that I would have removed.  It was the gathering phase of Imagination where they're gathering input to make new things, and it was a bonding experience with the audience.  It became the thing that I think linked all kids your age to wanting to go home with a Figment or a hat that has Figment ears on it, or that lets you take a little bit of that home with you.

This scene is like being stopped in a theater to deliver the heart of what you need to understand regarding how these two characters think.  One is obviously wise, scholarly and knowledgeable, and the other is impish, scatterbrained, and has a million new exciting things every second to change his focus.  You learned all that so that then as you go through the ride and pass by them, you understand how they're reacting to the environments they're in, but in the ride now it's just something along the track and it doesn't have any meaning.

A story I heard was about somebody who wanted his kids to see Figment and once Figment came back, this person was really excited to take his kids in there and have the same experience he had when he was young.  After the ride he asked, "What did you think? Did you like Figment" and the child said, "No, Daddy, Figment's mean."  And I thought, wow, that's what comes across if you don't have any background on the character, that he's kind of a bratty something that you don't really understand.  The lesson learned there is that the first scene, while it was disproportionally expensive to do -- because there were five dream vehicles on that turntable, so you were only getting to see 1/5th of the money that was spent to do it -- it was worth it because it cemented that relationship.

NS: I totally agree that in the new version, Figment is more bratty and obnoxious.  I hadn't really thought of that first scene as an origin story, but you're right, you don't really know Figment from anywhere else so it makes sense to give him a good introduction. 

TB: The thing too is that with great comics teams like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, there's always a straight guy and a goofy guy.  Figment was the crazy one, like Costello, and Dreamfinder was the loving, caring one.  But in the new ride, Eric Idle is goofy and crazy and Figment is goofy and crazy, so they don't have anywhere to go or to play off each other.

NS: After the intro, we go into the Dreamport and then the art section where Dreamfinder is painting a canvas.  Then there's a white, dreamlike room which is one of my favorite rooms -- the music is amazing -- and features Figment holding a rainbow.

TB: Yeah, that rainbow effect never got done the way we wanted it.  It was supposed to be better than that, but we ran out of time and money.  I wish we could have done a better effect of that rainbow coming out.

The whole point of that sequence was that they were storing all the input in the Dreamport after having gathered it in the intro sequence, and then each of the verses that Dreamfinder sang would introduce the next realm of imagination.  The first one was the more clichéd one, which is art.  Everyone says, "Oh you're an artist, you're so imaginative!" so we started with the cliché.  

And the idea of the all white room says that nothing has been determined yet.  All the colored lights were showing the possibilities of what the imagination could transform those amorphous shapes into.  And Figment was opening the rainbow jar because that was one of the things they gathered in the opening when Figment says, "A rainbow -- I'll use that to paint with."  It was him letting loose the colors into that room.  And the goal of that effect, if we would have had all the money in the world, those rainbow colors would have gone out and influenced and changed the whole room.

NS: The next part is the scary section, and the part that I remember most clearly is Figment with his back on the book of monsters and desperately trying to keep the monsters from coming out of the book.  I always used to wonder if the monster was actually going to come out. 

TB: That was going from art to literature, and we thought the cliché in literature is "a dark and stormy night."  So we took that and gave the Sherman Brothers those lines like "creating a mystery story." And then all the words chosen for the word art like dungeon, lightning, and avalanche were all words that a writer might use to set up a mystery story or something that was frightening and foreboding.

NS: It's kind of like the dark side of imagination. 

TB: Yeah, and we ended it with Figment closing the door on that with the monster book and the monsters trying to get out.  That was before Disney really got back into doing good animation, and I felt like the things we got from the studio for that ride was like the best animation that had been done in ten years.  All those goblins trying to get out of the bed when he was writing on the book bed, and then the creatures and shadows coming out of the monster book and the fairies coming out of the Once Upon a Time book.  There was some really good animation in there considering that the studio was in their weakest state about that time.

NS: After that it changes to a much happier tone with the performing arts section.

TB: Emotionally, that was like, let's flip people 180 degrees so that you come out of this dark, foreboding thing and then suddenly it's razzamatazz.  And then there's a laser show scene that is the very first time that laser light had been animated, and it was an experiment.  We were about halfway through working on that and had blown the budget trying to figure out how to program a laser beam to animation.  They said, "You have one more week and then we're shutting the tap off and there's no more money."  

That would have been really neat animation there if we had gotten to go all the way.  It ended up as birds and a couple of shapes and worked ok with Dreamfinder conducting, but I think that it could have been a fantastic room.  When we did upgrade the show, that's the type of thing that I would have wanted to improve rather than tearing the whole ride out the way that they did, but I didn't have any say in that.

NS: Just in hearing you talk about this, I can tell you really have a great sense of storytelling and feel for the audience. (Tony also designed Splash Mountain, my all-time favorite Magic Kingdom ride and another ride that has great storytelling elements). 

TB: You gotta be careful to not make the ride something that's off putting because it's too intellectualized.  You want to be saying, "I want to do what he's doing.  I want to be out there wearing all those costumes.  I want to be opening rainbows and having them color the whole world around me.  I want to be pounding on a typewriter that's spewing out volcanic letters."  It was such a wildly aspiration thing, and that's what I always looked for.

I look at it now, and there's a toilet on the ceiling or you're smelling a skunk and I'm thinking, "What's that?  Who cares about that?  Who chose these things?"  None of these things are in anyone's dreams of what they really want to imagine or do.

NS: Yeah, I feel the exact same way.  I wonder if it's a left brain/right brain thing.

TB: It is, because I'm left handed and that means I think with the other side.

NS: After that is the science section.  What about science-science-science-science, as Dreamfinder so memorably posits.

TB: The attraction was sponsored by Kodak, and they were really open to us doing a lot of things because they felt their products were tools that let people use their imagination. And they said, "OK, you've done all this stuff with the arts and the performing arts and writing, but we need something from science."  And I remember in a meeting they actually said, "What about science?"

NS: Haha, I love it!

TB: I said, "OK, that's going in and you're gonna hear that until you get sick of it!"  And so what we settled on is that film is a tool which has allowed us to see things that are too fast and too slow and things that are too small and too far away.  To sell that idea, we did a painting that showed a ballerina dancing in a water drop while the sun set.  They said, "What is that?" and I said that your product, film, has allowed us to speed the sunset and slow the water drop and real time the ballerina so that they could all be choreographed into a ballet where all three of these things that could never be seen in context with one another because they're too fast or too slow or too big or too small can all be together only because of Kodak film.  Well, that sold the thing right away.  So that whole science room was, "Wind this dial and time escapes.  Watch crystal change into prism shapes" and whatnot, all of those things that were about what film allows us to do.  It was a blatant Kodak moment. 

NS: And speaking of film, after that is where your picture was taken and then shown at the very end of the ride.

TB: The ending was, "We've done all these amazing things, so what's next Dreamfinder?" And he says something like, "Well, you can be anything with your imagination."  There were two roller coasters segments that never happened because the ride system wouldn't behave.  One was down into the monster dungeon, and the second one was into the spiral of film in the finale.  And because you were thrilled and excited and screaming, that was where we would take that picture.  And then when they put the ride in, because there's a danger of the cars going on and off the turn table, they couldn't guarantee that we could allow the vehicles to speed up like that. 

So they took that out and we crawled down that hill where the picture was taken.  I can still remember the sound of the mechanisms grinding in that section, and it was disappointing how that section ended up.  But it was the first time ever that a video capture had ever been done like that in a ride. Kodak was so far ahead in the digital thing -- they had all the patents on photoshop, digital reproductions and all that.

The photo technology in the ride took up a whole room.  There were full 8 foot high cabinets, and we stored 12 frames in advance and each frame was one entire 8 foot high by 2 foot rack to store that one frame for like a minute.  And there had to be a technician in there watching it so that if anyone did an inappropriate hand gesture, we could blank it out. I remember saying, "We could give people the option of buying the picture," but the Kodak people said, "Never, as long as this company is in business, will a digital photo ever replace chemical photography."  It was like a done deal -- if you brought that up again, your head would have been cut off.

So we chose not to do the digital capture there and not to give guests a printout.  And we chose not to give a video in Dreamfinder's School of Drama in the Image Works.  We were going to have video inputs there where you could feed them into your camera if you had the jacks to take home your performance in Dreamfinder's School of Drama.  And Kodak was so afraid of that, and as a consequence they're essentially out of business now because they didn't get on the bandwagon when they had the shot.   

NS: Yeah, my parents have friends who live in Rochester and have talked about how much Kodak has declined.

The finale room was actually my favorite room of all.  I especially loved the clip of Figment lifting the barbell.  It takes him a while and then he finally gets it over his head, but then he falls backward and completely out of the shot.  That always tickled my funny bone.  

TB: Yeah, we had the cowboy on the horse, the mountain climber, the pirate chest, and the captain of the ship.  That was supposed to be animation, but the only real Figment animation was in the little circle in the end of the science room where he's caught in what's like a washing machine.  That was real Disney animation.

For the ending scene, we were fighting with, I think it was, Tron for studio time.  We were always the last in line, and they ended up taking an audioanimatronic figure and taking the guts out of it and putting a puppeteer underneath it and trying to do those Figment scenes as a puppet show. The skin of an animatronic is always really tough and thick, and the poor guy would have to rest after five minutes because his arms were so sore holding them above his head and trying to move the arms.  It was absolutely awful.  

And then because we didn't have the money, they printed two frames of that show on a single projector.  So they had a cinemascope lens on a 16 millimeter projector projecting two of the shots and then the next two and the next two to cut down on the number of projectors by half.  And there again, had you the wherewithal to redo the show, you would have filmed all those in animation and in digital quality.  

Those are the kinds of things that should have been done.  They should have said, "What works in this show and what can be greatly improved by where we are today?"  You could have gotten the roller coaster things working on the ride, you could have had beautiful animation and high quality at the end, you could have gotten the laser show going.  You could have had Figment's rainbow jumping out of the pot and lighting up the whole room. All that could have happened because of what advancements there were by 2000.

NS: What was the primary motivation for scrapping the ride?

TB: There was some politics in it.  They were tired of the show.  It was due to be rehabbed, and I think the person in charge saw it as a time that they could show their own creativity. But the danger of that is if you don't understand why something works and who your audience is and what the effect will be on that audience if you damage it -- you have to consider all those things. 

And so much of the money they had was spent on taking out rather than putting back in. The removal of the turntable alone was a million dollars just to take it out.  That's crazy. Why not enhance it or make something better?  All the projections behind the dream vehicles were slides for the most part, and that all could have been done in gorgeous digital stuff.  It was foolish decisions spending maybe half of the budget just to remove the track and the ride system and the turntables -- why not spend that money to make the show better?  I just couldn't understand that.

And the Image Works upstairs gave it a kind of protected environment whereas now when you just pass by the things they're just sort of like second rate exhibits in the Innoventions. You don't really pay attention to them.  But when you went upstairs to the Image Works, it was like going to Tom Sawyer's Island or like a magical place.

NS: Yeah, I totally agree.  The Image Works now is just a shell of what it used to be.

TB: You gotta study people's psyche, and adults won't jump around on the floor and make music if they're conscious that they're on stage and people are watching them.  But when we did the stepping tones back in the dark, there wasn't anybody who didn't get hooked by that thing and go back there and dance around on the floor.

NS: I just LOVED the stepping tones in the old Image Works.

TB: Yeah, and now you move it out in the front and only little 4 year-olds will do it because it's too babyish, so adults will just walk by and say, "I'm too old for this."

NS: What do you think is the future of the pavilion, because it seems that no one is totally happy with it the way it is now.

TB: The best thing for me is that they're now in the second Figment series of comic books for Marvel, and I just think someone in the studio should wake up and say, "Let's do a Figment animated feature film."  It seems like a natural.  You've got people who already know the character, and it's Disney so you don't have to pay anything to own it.  I'd do the film and then based on the success of the film, I would then look at how do we now honor this movie and this character by making a new ride that's really really good and plays to the story, not just putting a rubber doll along a track that is shaped like a dragon and is purple. That doesn't mean anything -- it has to be a character that you understand who it is and what they do and how they think.

I have a story where I have a little Winnie the Pooh doll and a teddy bear, and the teddy bear is clearly more expensive and better made than the Disney Pooh bear.  I say, "Which one has the appeal," and everyone points at Winnie the Pooh because you hear how he talks, you know how he moves, you care about him and all that stuff.  So it doesn't matter that the stitches and the fabric on the teddy bear are better because you care about the emotion.  And that's what you lost with the Figment you have now -- it has no emotion and you need to be able to build that back again.  


  1. To bad, there isn't a new sponsor out there, with a CEO who has kids, and remembers how good that ride was and has the imagination to bring it back for a new generation.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, and I agree!

  2. Nicholas, great article and fun read! Forgive my ignorance but how where you able to get an interview with him?

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I'm not sure how many interviews he does but I feel fortunate that he was willing to talk to me about Imagination. I just got in touch and he agreed to it -- as far as how I got a hold of him, I've learned a few techniques (all legal of course!) for getting in touch with people dating back to my MacGyver cast/crew interview days. But contacting them is only half the equation -- they have to be willing to talk and I'm always very grateful when people do.

  3. Great article! I grew up with the original Journey into Imagination as well, and also miss it dearly. It was really interesting to hear about the making of the ride from Tony Baxter himself! The current version doesn’t even hold a candle. I love the new comic series though. It sticks to the original story, yet adds so many new and interesting layers. I continue to hold out hope that one day Disney will listen to the fans and return the ride back to its former glory. No doubt that with today's technology, it would be nothing short of amazing!

    1. Thanks Amy, glad you enjoyed the article! I was actually unaware of the comic until I started reading up on the latest news surrounding Figment and Imagination in preparation for talking to Tony. Clearly I have to start paying better attention! It's great to hear that the comic sticks to the original story, and I will definitely buy it very soon.

  4. Thanks for this interview. It hurts my heart to hear about how all the work that went into this show got flushed down the toilet when there were so many easy fixes that could have been done to upgrade the old show. I am sorry Tony. I was just in WDW and I rode the new ride again and was so sad about the loss of something so magical, that should have been allowed to become an untouchable classic like it's a small world. But then really so much damage has been done in Epcot. So much magic removed. It is really sad. I miss all the old catchy songs, I miss Cranium Command and Horizons and the illusion of Sea base alpha. But most of all I miss the imagination pavilion.

    At least you get to keep Splash and Thunder forever Tony. Thanks for all you have done!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave. I agree with you about Epcot -- I really miss the Future World of 1986.

  5. An amazing interview. I believe the reason Dreamfinder & Figment remain so popular is the outstanding storytelling of Mr. Baxter and the Imagineers... and the original ride's turntable scene. It was there that we came to identify strongly with Figment and to appreciate the respect and affection of Dreamfinder for his little friend.

    1. Thanks Ron, I recognize your name as the original Dreamfinder -- much respect!

  6. The interview brings out excellent points in how Figment, as a whole, should be portrayed today as he had been in the beginning and how the storytelling and emotion of these characters, not just Dreamfinder and Figment, but EVERY character should effect the audience's appeal. My highest hope is for Journey Into Imagination to reopen with a fresh story with these characters in it. And if it does, I'd love to see the reaction in myself and everyone.

    Additionally, there are quite a few things about the original ride I had never heard about, such as the roller coasters and Figment's rainbows, that has left me completely fascinated and astounded. I would have SO loved it if none of the financial crises and poor choices had gotten in the way. Of course, I still appreciate the original ride for what it was, but that would have been AWESOME to see! Who knows? If Disney decides to bring Dreamfinder, Figment, and the JII ride back into glory, we may be surprised at what they might bring back to the table [not just the turntable XD] with all of the state-of-the-art advanced technology we have today.

    Let's hope the sparks remain alive. ^^