Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Hatbox Ghost, a familiar face returns to Disneyland...

For those that still follow this blog I say thank you. I miss writing each day and think about how prolific I used to be. But there is no time to lament when we have cool things to talk about. As many of you may (or may not!) know I am a big Disney fan. I like the animation and Disneyland Park. One of my favorite attractions was updated recently. Actually it was "retro"-fitted recently. On the occasion of Disneyland's 60th Anniversary several attractions have been getting updates and new fireworks shows, parades, merchandise and other goodies are in store for visitors. The one that seems to have everyone most excited is the return of the Hatbox Ghost to the Haunted Mansion. For those that don't know there was an animatronic in the Attic scene of the ride, just after the Ballroom and before going into the Graveyard. Anyhow this animatronic was called the Hatbox Ghost because his head would disappear from his shoulders and reappear inside a hatbox he was carrying. The effect never worked great and audiences could still see the head in both locations even under low light. So the character was pulled after two weeks on opening in late 1969 by Imagineers. Yale Gracey, the effects Imagineer was the person that most likely made the call. As the years went on most forgot about the character, attractions in Disneyland rarely stay the same for long. Little details are added or changed on a year-to-year basis.

The Hatbox Ghost became a sort of urban legend in the park. He was there for such a short time that only the most die-hard fans even knew about him. Over the past decade there was a revival on the character. He began turning up on official Disneyland merchandise and audiences couldn't get enough of him. The Hatbox Ghost built a cult-like following which was unique considering that the attraction itself had so many wonderful characters that most of them could have symbolized the attraction. Yet fans seemed to gravitate towards the ghost that stuck around the shortest amount of time. When the merchandise began materializing over the past decade many hoped that the figure would find his way back home. It didn't happen for the 40th, 50th or 55th celebrations but this year would be it! I did want to say something about the update character. The park had to update their presentation in order for the effects to work the way they were intended.

The majority of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion were audio animatronics wrapped in transparent plastic clothes. This looked his the hydraulic components well and looked convincing in low light. However the Hatbox Ghost sat so close to audiences that they could clearly see where his head was hiding within the hatbox. In the updated version the Imagineers gave the ghost dark colored fabric that they painted to appear semi-translucent. The artists highlighted the seams as skeleton legs and ribcage in backlight colors over the fabric. This hid all of the new hydraulics and electronics that went into the figure. The head itself was a projection map on a black screen. The head inside the box was also a projection so that no matter how close audiences looked the physical head was not in either location. This was similar to an effect that I proposed on a blog entry over at MiceChat. With the effect and animation in place the ghost had finally found a permanent home and would be haunting visitors for many years to come.

The team at Imagineering did a fantastic job of recreating the original designs from Yale Gracey, Marc Davis and Colin Campbell. I did want to say that there was an artist that I think deserves some recognition for the updated look. Brandon Ragnar Johnson is a well-known name in the art community. The Southland resident is a huge fan of Disneyland and his mid-century-meets-pop aesthetic compliments the company very well. Many years ago he did a piece inspired by the Haunted Mansion. In the illustration there is a green room with a portrait of the Hatbox Ghost hanging on the wall along with a crystal ball with the head of Madame Leota. He created a second piece with the head inside the hatbox and the letters HM. It was a brilliant tribute. The use of colors and strong shapes made it one of the best Haunted Mansion illustrations ever made.

A few years after that illustration came out Disney announced that they were working on a new Haunted Mansion movie with director Guillermo DelToro. This was a surprise to the 2011 San Diego Comic Con attendees. Some in attendance won posters for the movie. The illustration by Ragnar was redone to include the name plaque of the Haunted Mansion and words 999 Haunts.

The Hatbox Ghost looked slightly different than Ragnar's previous illustration. The hair was much thinner and the colors were just a bit stronger on the new poster. The sneer, sinister stare and gold tooth were unmistakable in both versions.

When the new Hatbox Ghost was revealed I couldn't help but notice how similar the animation was to the design of Ragnar. The artist clearly knew what elements were the most important to create to capture the spirit of the character. With a few shapes and color choices fans could make out the face from across the room or even while sitting right in front of the piece. The same clean shapes and colors were obvious in the remake. Neither Disney nor Ragnar had to make the face hyper-realistic in order to make it unique. In fact the less-is-more approach worked wonders for the new animatronic.

A few years prior, in 2013 Disney had shown off an animatronic during the D23 Expo in Anaheim modeled after the Hatbox Ghost. This figure was hyper-detailed. It had a complete wardrobe and physical head sculpt. The Imagineers did not mean for this figure to ever be used in the Haunted Mansion. They just wanted to show off the most advanced animatronics the company had to offer. The basis of this figure was known as the A100 model, it was the type featured in Abraham Lincoln and the Pirates of the Caribbean auctioneer, making it very fluid and lifelike. If just so happened that Disney wanted to dress up the robot for the Expo in an iconic costume.


Audiences interpreted the gesture as a confirmation that he was returning. Thankfully the version in the ride was nowhere near as garish as the D23 one. The hyper-detailed look detracted from all of the other ghosts in the attraction. That level of costuming would have worked well in the Pirates ride but simply stuck out on the Haunted Mansion. But I digress, I was mentioning that the face animation was very reminiscent of the designs created by Ragnar. The head inside the hatbox was a projection as well and it preserved the same qualities that Ragnar had done years earlier.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the updated look and maybe it is all a coincidence. But I'll let you Disney fans check out the ride and tell me what you think.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Introducing Gigas, an original idea or more of the same? Let's take a look!

Fighting game fans were in for a shock when the fighters for Tekken 7 were unveiled. Familiar faces had returned along with a new young girl and handsome man which were part of the long-running Namco themes. What caught fans off guard was a massive bruiser that looked completely unlike anything featured previously in the series. The massive red humanoid, known only as Gigas, seemingly came out of nowhere and was poised to topple the most powerful fighters in the series.

Fans from the west were certain that the Japanese developers were catering to Western tastes. It seemed that many heroes and villains from Western video games, comics and movies were massive, muscle-bound monsters. It didn't take long for the comparisons between Gigas and his influences were being pointed out in online forums. An obvious similarity between Gigas and US designs could be seen with the Red Hulk, a villain from the popular Marvel Hulk comics and the mysterious Big Daddy from the BioShock series.

Yet there was several design cues that came from a different property also from the West. The Batman: Arkham series of games has featured several versions of the character known as Bane. The one featured specifically in Arkham Origins seemed the one directly responsible for the appearance of Gigas. There was the massive torso, large arms and tubes connected to the various major muscle groups on both characters. Yet there was much more to Bane than simply being a genetically-enhanced monster. When the character was introduced decades ago he was created to be the ultimate rival of the Batman. The man was a former prisoner-turned-assassin. He was subjected to various surgeries and treatments which enhanced his natural abilities. Batman was considered to be the supreme human physical specimen in DC comics. He was the perfect fighter and Bane was trained to match him in every mental and physical arena. The advantage that Bane had over Batman would be a drug called Venom which gave him a temporary increase in muscle mass, speed and dexterity. He used this to defeat Batman in unarmed combat and even break his back.

Sadly for Bane the writers and artists working at DC could not find a way to improve the character so they began changing his purpose as a worthy rival to the Bat. The character became over-reliant on Venom and in just about every subsequent appearance Batman would either cut off Bane's supply of Venom or cause him to overdose on it. Bane went from a cold, calculating villain to a musclebound stooge over a matter of years. The Joker would return to prominence as the main rival to Batman and Bane would be a supporting character in comic story arcs. The changes for the character were easy to see in animated form. When he first appeared in the Batman Animated Series he was very much rooted in his original comic book design. When he returned a few years later in the new Batman shows he would become more and more exaggerated and dark in his designs. One of his last designs made the character look more alien than human. Part of the reason for that was because the team of artists working on the character designs had previously worked on the Ben10 animated series. Ben10 if you may know was based on a kid that could change from a human into an alien host. The muscle on the new Bane were far larger than ever before, his strength increased tenfold and ability to withstand punishment increased. His skin had even been turned red. If these were not the roots of Gigas then I don't know what else to tell you.

The changes in the appearance of Bane were only part of the equation. Over the past few years many artists had been experimenting with how far they could push the designs of fan-favorite characters. The Joker had been a staple in the Batman comics for decades. His look had changed only slightly over the years but DC shook the community with a recent redesign. The character had cut off his own face and wore it as a mask to add a certain level of grotesque to his already macabre appearance. Many of the Batman villains received the same make-over. In order to give Bane a new look the artists working at DC and even at video game publisher Rocksteady had to push the envelope. As with any design the question remained; how far could the character be pushed and still retain the core elements? How would this character be identified by fans? It seemed that Bane could be made very grotesque and audiences would still recognize the character.

Yet even Bane was not an original idea. The man-becoming-a-monster was a staple of classical storytelling. It was not always a physical transformation to show a person becoming man, such as with Ahab in the story of Moby Dick. Other times a monster represented the mistakes of man, such as the creature created by Dr. Frankenstein. More than a century before Bane was created there was a character called Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) wrote a novel on a scientist named Dr. Henry Jeckyll that used a chemical mixture to become a powerful monster known as Edward Hyde. The monster was more beast than man and terrorized the citizens of Victorian England. The characters of Jeckyll and Hyde would become synonymous with extreme personality changes and not necessarily physical changes.

The Hyde character would be revisited by Alan Moore in his graphic novel the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The story would be turned to film and Hyde would get yet another on-screen interpretation. In order to create a monster even more terrifying than Hyde the movie introduced Dante, a soldier that overdosed on the secret formula. The end result was an extremely grotesque and disproportionate man. He hardly looked human at all and could be considered one of the first 3D representations of the extreme comic book proportions that artists were placing on their figures. Yet to say that Hyde begat Bane begat Gigas in Tekken would be an insult to the Japanese designers.

Game designers in Japan as well as artists and illustrators had been creating monstrous characters for decades. They had been working on absurdly disproportionate muscled figures for as long, if not longer, than Western artists had. In fighting games there were many presidencies set by Japanese studios before Gigas had even been dreamed of. Capcom, SNK, Arc System works and various developers had been pushing the envelope on the "strong man" character trope. To help the characters stand out the artists often gave them large shoulders and thick arms while keeping their legs thin and heads small. This visual made many of the bruisers memorable.

The proportions featured on Gigas were not as extreme as they were on characters like Potemkin or Abubo but they were close. What Gigas had going in his favor was that he was one of the few Japanese characters designed in 3D with the exaggerated aesthetic. Because Bane had been presented in 3D previously most audiences simply assumed that the designers at Namco had simply poached the style. This was far from the truth. Both 2D and 3D fighting games from Japan had characters like Gigas for decades. Monsters and demons of the Gigas scale had already prepared audiences for what was to come. One of the first 3D monsters that predated Gigas was also from Japanese designers. Gandara appeared in Samurai Showdown / Samurai Spirits 64. The title from 1997 was not well received by audiences. It lacked polished control and featured crude graphics. Something that was well done however were the character designs, especially the demonic Gandara.

Gandara lacked the tubes and mad science theme of Bane, but was still bound in service. It was not technology but rather magic that kept Gandara enslaved. The tortured appearance was a bold artistic statement and made Gandara one of the most memorable fighting game designs of all time. Shifting the focus back on Gigas though we should note that Namco had actually set a precedence for massive fighters ever since the very first Tekken was released in 1994. The "strong" type fighter in the original game was a cyborg named Jack. The character looked like an army soldier, with a square blonde mohawk and a massive torso. As the series evolved so too did the designs for Jack. The skin would be replaced by metal and even hexagonal armor. Although the character developed a personality the Jack models would become disposable within the canon of the Tekken series. The character was bound in servitude to the Mishima Zaibatsu. The private military conglomerate run by Heihachi Mishima. Any version of Jack that demonstrated self consciousness would be destroyed by the company. It made Jack a likable cyborg especially as he became a pacifist. There was an earlier build of Jack that was also in the original Tekken tournament, known as P-Jack or Prototype Jack. This all-metal version of Jack wore sunglasses and was absolutely loyal to his programming. It made the character more dangerous in canon.

The robots of Tekken continuity were considered some of the strongest fighters in the series. The proportions of each version of Jack were similar to those of Gigas. But there was a missing-link of sorts. An MMA brute named Craig Marduk was introduced in Tekken 4. The seven-foot Australian was a champion fighter and an absolute genetic freak. He could out-muscle his opponents easily but was also a well-rounded technician in the ring. He was as close to being a Bane-type character minus the Venom. Marduk could go toe-to-toe with the Jack robots and just about any other character in the series. I would argue that Gigas was a mix in between Jack and Marduk. Whomever invented this fighter wanted the best of the physical abilities of Marduk but with the programmable loyalty of P-Jack. I believe Gigas is an entirely new weapon being developed by the Mishima Zaibatsu. The company has undoubtedly learned from their genetic experimentations. Many of the Tekken Tournaments are a front for the company. The plot of the games involve genetic manipulation, stolen DNA and cybernetic enhancements to soldiers and assassins. The characters Yoshimitsu, Anna and Nina Williams and Brian Fury have a mix of genetic manipulation if not all-out cybernetic enhancements. These figures were created to lead robots into battle, if not to act as a fail-safe in shutting down the machines. As impressive as Jack and P-Jack are they are far from being the biggest robot bruisers in the series. That honor would belong to NANCY-MI847J, a robot as large as a trailer truck.

Gigas could be deployed where the Robot NANCY would be a target to missile launchers. With the ability of some reasoning Gigas could also replace the faulty logic of the Jack models. It is the science-fiction that the Tekken series adheres to that I find most interesting. The teams working at Namco are intimately aware of how each game connects to a bigger storyline. They also know that the continuity of one series often marries into the canon of a different title. The Ridge Racer racing game, Tekken fighting game and Ace Combat fighter jet titles are all part of the same universe. The technology developed by one fictional conglomerate in the universe will turn up again and again and even become refined in different games. One of the more interesting features of Gigas is the helmet.

Cybernetic eyes and helmets had been featured in the design of the cyborg ninja Yoshimitsu. The multiple cameras where the eyes should be act almost like spider-eyes. They allow Yoshimitsu and in this case Gigas to have a greater view range than regular human eyes. The helmet worn by Gigas is a bit different than the ninja however. The hexagonal series of cameras are reminiscent of the COFFIN interface from the Ace Combat series. In the most advanced fighter jets in the series the pilot can see a full 360 degrees around the plane without ever having to turn their head. Cameras replace the open canopy of traditional fighter jets and feed the visuals directly to the mind of the pilot. In the case of Gigas he can see above, to the side and even almost all the way behind without having to turn his head. This makes the genetic creation impossible to sneak up on and even more dangerous in unarmed combat. Tekken is an amazing series from a design standpoint because it has humans fighting robots, but it doesn't end there. Monsters and even Angels and Devils could be seen as genetic anomalies rather than supernatural creatures thanks to the science in the series. I can't wait to see how Gigas develops and what his role will be in the greater scheme of things. What do you think about his design?