With Michael Jackson’s tragic death in June 2009, there was a flood of special magazines and media tribute projects that detailed the life and achievements of the innovative singer/dancer. I eagerly flipped through all of those magazines and watched the specials in hopes that there would be a section devoted to the film Captain EO, a high-profile Disney project about which I really wanted to know more. Strangely, it wasn’t even mentioned in most of these tributes.
Even in Jackson’s own autobiography, Moon Walk, published just two years after the premiere of Captain EO, there are barely three paragraphs. One paragraph devoted to Jackson’s affection for Walt Disney, another describing briefly the plot of the film, and, finally, a mention that Jackson flew up to Skywalker Ranch to consult with George Lucas on the project. That’s all.
Jackson’s affection, some might even say obsession, with Disney was well-known. He often visited the Disney theme parks (sometimes in disguise), the entrance to Neverland Ranch was inspired by the entrance to Disneyland, and he had a large collection of Disney memorabilia (some of it exclusively created by Disney artists).
“Jackson was a huge fan of our parks, sometimes visiting several times a month, in and out of disguise,” said Michael Eisner. “He knows more about Walt Disney than anybody who ever existed. He certainly knows more than I do.”
Michael's older brother Jackie once stated: "[Michael] always studied Walt Disney. He loved Walt Disney. He read books on him every day on the road. He worshiped the guy."
With the announcement that Captain EO will return for a limited engagement at Disneyland this February (test screenings have already been done for Disney executives and the Jackson family, including Jackson’s three children who had never seen the film), this seems like a good time to write as much of the story of Captain EO that I know in the hopes that others will help fill in the gaps to this little documented footnote in Jackson’s amazing career.
A month after Eisner took over as CEO of the Disney Company in 1984, he arranged for filmmaker George Lucas to take a tour of Disney’s Imagineering facilities in Glendale and encouraged Lucas to create some new theme park attractions. Having a good relationship with Eisner when he was at Paramount and supported Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas was very open to coming on board, especially on developing a flight simulator ride based on his popular Star Wars franchise.
Soon afterward, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had just come on board as chairman of the Disney Studios, took Michael Jackson around the Imagineering facility and first opened discussions with the pop star about appearing in a Disneyland attraction.
In 1984, Jackson had been considering developing several movie projects as he discovered he enjoyed the process of filmmaking. David Geffen had suggested that if Jackson was serious about starring in a movie that he should make a movie for Disney. Geffen called his long-time friend, Katzenberg with the idea. Katzenberg and Eisner countered with creating a 3-D movie/rock video for Disneyland to duplicate the unprecedented success of the innovative Thriller video that had been released about two years earlier and was still popular.
“We wanted to create something with Michael Jackson, who appealed to teenagers, but also to young kids, and even their parents,” Eisner said.
Jackson liked the idea, but to protect himself, insisted that either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg be a part of the project. Imagineering's Rick Rothschild drew up three different storylines. Both he and Jackson picked the same one to do: Captain EO.
The name EO comes from the Greek Goddess of the Dawn—EOS. Her rosy fingers open the gates of heaven to the chariot of the sun. Rothschild became the Show Director. In addition to many other credits, Rothschild would later head the teams for other Disney 3-D attractions including Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, It’s Tough To Be A Bug and Mickey's Philharmagic at Walt Disney World.
Spielberg was unavailable, working on the film The Color Purple. On the other hand, Lucas was already working closely with the Disney Company on Star Tours.
Lucas brought in Francis Ford Coppola, Rusty Lemorande, and Angelica Huston for the film. Coppola, a longtime friend of Lucas, needed to repair his reputation after the recent box office failure of the film The Cotton Club so he was brought on as the director.
Lemorande, who had produced and scripted a recently released science-fiction-themed film with comedy elements, Electric Dreams, was to script Captain EO with input from Coppola and Lucas. Lemorande had also recently produced Yentl, so he would be the on-site producer. He later did uncredited work as a second unit director and film editor. Lucas would be credited as the executive producer.
Huston, who would win the Oscar for her performance in Prizzi’s Honor, which was released in 1985, would play a spider-like H.R. Giger Alien-version of the Evil Queen from Disney’s classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, suspended in the air by web-like cables.
In later years, Lemorande shared that one of the factors that made Captain EO a troubled production was the resentment that Disney Imagineers had about “outsiders” being brought in to handle a Disney theme park attraction. In fact, the high hourly rates charged by Imagineering resulted in Katzenberg giving some of the work on the film to outside contractors.
Tony-award winner John Napier, who had just been recognized for his work on the musical Cats, was brought in and he built a miniature theater in scale to demonstrate the interactive effects for the show. That model greatly impressed Eisner and later, when Napier wanted to lift the ceiling of the theater to eliminate an interfering beam, Eisner quickly approved the additional expense.
Napier worked on the costumes that not only had to represent the evil nature of the dark planet and its twisted metal and steaming vents, but still had to have the flexibility of movement for the dancers to showcase Jackson’s style of movement.
“What I am doing with the costumes is trying to make people able to move in these things, where they won’t fall apart in these robotic characters," Napier said. "I put in a lot of detail that should work well in 3-D.”
Most of the project was supervised by Katzenberg but Eisner occasionally dropped by to see the work in progress and felt that this was “his” project that would demonstrate how he could revitalize Disneyland.
Jeff Hornaday had done the choreography for Flashdance (1983), and had recently worked with Paul McCartney and Jackson on the Say, Say, Say music video so he seemed a natural addition as choreographer.
“We wanted the dances to be a storytelling element, directly connected to a character,” said Hornaday, who was supervising 36 dancers. “Working with Michael for me has been a unique experience in that usually a choreographer will devise sequences of dance and then give it to the dancers to do. Michael’s talent and approach is so unique that you are limiting yourself by just giving him what you do.”
Rick Baker who had done the makeup for Jackson's Thriller video was brought in to supervise the makeup for Captain EO. Tom Burman (who had done work on the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special) did the makeup design for Huston’s character and it took three hours each day to apply that detailed makeup.
Lance Anderson, who among other credits was a creature designer on the recently released Ghostbusters is credited as the co-designer for EO’s ragtag crew of Hooter, the Geex, and Major and Minor Domo. Baker was credited as being responsible for Fuzzball.
James Horner, who had recently scored Disney's Something Wicked This Way Comes (and decades later would score Titanic) provided the original score for the film. Jackson himself wrote the two songs featured in the film: "We Are Here to Change the World" and "Another Part of Me."
“Another Part of Me," later appeared on Jackson's hugely successful Bad album (1987) but "We Are Here to Change the World" was not officially released until 2004 as part of Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection.
Pre-production on the project began March 1985. There was three weeks of principal photography. The same big blue screen from Disney’s sci-fi film Black Hole was used for filming the scene where Michael Jackson danced out over the audience’s heads.
It was not surprising that this production, with all this high-profile talent, quickly ran over the budget. While Disney never confirmed the actual cost, it was reported that the 17-minute film ended up costing somewhere between $17 million and $30 million, or roughly more than a $1 million a minute, making it at the time the most expensive film ever made. The original budget was $11 million.
“Captain EO ran over budget. The biggest factor was special effects, some 150 of them, more per minute than Lucas had used in Star Wars,” Eisner said.
The film tells the story of Captain EO, the leader of a spaceship's “ragtag crew," which included a dwarfish, clumsy green elephant-like creature called Hooter; a small, long-tailed orange flying creature called Fuzzball; two conjoined creatures know as the Geex (Idy and Ody—also sometimes spelled Idee and Odee) who served as the navigator and pilot; and a robot security officer named Major Domo who had a smaller robot, Minor Domo, attached as a module to his back.
Commander Bog (a holographic head performed by the talented comedian Dick Shawn who was never on the set) was displeased by the bungling of this group of misfits and has given them one final mission to redeem themselves.
They are to follow a “homing beacon” to a forbidding, dark industrial planet of sinister twisted metal and to give a gift to the Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston). Crashing on the planet, the crew finds its way to the palace of this witch queen creature and are captured by her army and threatened with torture for their unauthorized visit.
Captain EO agrees to that punishment, but also tells the queen that she is beautiful, but without a key to unlock that beauty. His crew transforms into a musical band, but before he can share his magical song, Hooter accidentally stumbles into the equipment rendering it momentarily useless, angering the queen who orders her guards to capture Captain EO and his crew. A short battle ensues before Hooter repairs the equipment. EO’s song transforms the dark, mechanical inhabitants into agile and colorful backup dancers.
EO is able to defeat the queen’s Whip Warriors and change not only the queen into a beautiful woman, but also her palace into a peaceful, vibrant Greek temple. The planet is transformed into a verdant paradise reminiscent of the work of artist Maxfield Parrish. EO and his crew dance off back to the ship and leave the planet as the grateful inhabitants wave them good-bye.
The finished footage, supposedly hidden for a time from Eisner, was not as impressive as hoped. Jackson lacked a commanding presence as the lead character, Huston’s role had been trimmed severely and the attempts at humor and urgency felt flat and forced. Even the staging of the 3-D effects seemed to pale in comparison to Kodak's “Magic Journeysthat had previously run in the theater.
By this point, Coppola was already involved in his next film, Peggy Sue Got Married that would open a month after Captain EO, and Lucas was struggling with Howard the Duck, which would open one month before Captain EO—and work on the “Star Tours” attraction was falling behind schedule.
Reportedly, Lemorande and Jackson did some reshooting and recutting for the film (at one point using a spray painted ball cock from a toilet as a stand-in for the head of the Minor Domo puppet that couldn’t be found). While there had been plans for Disney’s Imagineering to work on the special effects (the talented Harrison Ellenshaw is listed in the credits), Lucas gave the film to Industrial Light and Magic to “fix” and delays on giving the film to Disney was credited to Lucas’s notorious “perfectionism.”
However, it could have been the worse film ever made and it would have made no difference, because it was done at the height of “Jackson Mania” and the opportunity to see Jackson singing and dancing to two new songs he had composed guaranteed its success.
Captain EO opened at Epcot on September 12, 1986, but the big premiere was scheduled for its Disneyland opening on September 18, 1986. The film would later open in Tokyo Disneyland in 1987 and Disneyland Paris in 1992.
Although built for Captain EO, Disneyland's Magic Eye Theater, that seated about 700 guests, opened in May 1986 with the amazing Magic Journeys, the original 3-D movie from Epcot's Imagination pavilion, in preparation for the Captain EOdebut. Live theater special effects were added for the Captain EO presentation including lasers, fiber-optic stars, and fog effects that were all painstakingly synchronized with the action on screen.
Frank Wells renegotiated Kodak's contract so that Kodak agreed to pick up some of the costs of producing the film, building a theater at Disneyland and renovating Epcot’s 3-D Theater to accommodate the new special effects.
The week of the grand opening, the “National Enquirer” printed an odd photo of Jackson lying inside a hyperbaric chamber. It was theorized that, in order to live to be 150 years old, he slept in it each night to get that influx of oxygen. In reality, several biographies of Jackson pointed out that Jackson himself leaked the picture purposely at that time to draw attention to the premiere of Captain EO, especially with its “sci-fi” aspect.
There were more than 200 members from the international press who attended the Disneyland premiere and were herded into the Tomorrowland Space Place eatery, where they were given a press kit containing nine separate releases, six photos and a commemorative Captain EO T-shirt. Surrounded by free coffee, soft drinks and croissants, the press could watch a trailer about the making of the film on an endless loop.
Also in the Space Place were opportunities for interviews with people connected to the production like choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday and Tom Smith.
Smith, the former general manager of Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic effects shop recalled, “The special effects shots were done one camera, two passes.” Smith also revealed that the last effects shot for Captain EOwas that of the logo that juts out into the audience
The big parade of celebrities started around 2 p.m. A variety of celebrities attended the grand opening of the film at Disneyland, including Catherine Bach, Elizabeth Montgomery, Alan Thicke, Erik Estrada, John Ritter, Lisa Hartman, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Bronson, Sissy Spacek, Sarah Purcell, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Debra Winger, Elliot Gould, Dolph Lundgren, Apollonia Kotero and even Jack Nicholson, who rode with his then-girlfriend Angelica Huston down Main Street in an antique car waving to cheering fans.
However, Annette Funicello seemed to get the loudest and most enthusiastic response from the audience. Molly Ringwald was one of the few stars who refused to ride down Main Street as part of the parade.
Jack Wagner, well known as the “Voice of Disneyland,” announced the celebrities as they drove by. The parade from the front of the park to the Hub did not end until 3:30 p.m. and officially, there were 125 celebrities who participated. Even Michael’s sister LaToya and his mother Catherine were chauffeured down the street.
By 5 p.m., the rising heat had made things uncomfortable and the children brought by their celebrity parents were beginning to show how tired they were, but it was still not time to see the film. Jack Wagner introduced the Pine Bluff High School and Washington High School Marching Bands and Gregg Burge, from A Chorus Line who was perhaps chosen because he was a young male African-American with a singing and dancing background to perhaps represent the absent Michael Jackson.
Burge burst into an original Disney song about “Let’s make way for tomorrow!” followed by a float featuring costumed character versions of Hooter, the Geex and Major Domo.
At the end, CEO Michael Eisner smiled and addressed the crowd, “Michael Jackson is here.” The crowd got very excited but Eisner continued, “But he is disguised, either as an old lady, an usher, or an Animatronic character.”
Nobody in the audience, especially the journalists, believed Eisner.
After a speech by Kodak’s vice chairman, Coppola, Lucas and Angelica Huston gathered at a red ribbon drawn across the entrance of the theater. Nearby were Coppola’s nephew Nicholas Cage and the newest Jackson superstar, Janet.
Reading from cue cards, they proclaimed:
Huston: “For all those who still believe in the magic world of fantasy and imagination…”
Lucas: “For all those who are still moved by the wonders of music and dance…”
Coppola: “For all those who share Walt Disney’s dream and delight in the promise of the future, we cut this ribbon signifying the opening of the 3-D musical motion picture space adventure, Captain EO!”
Animation Historian Charles Solomon, reviewing the film in the “Los Angeles Times”, October 9, 1986 echoed the feelings of many people when he wrote:
“For all its wondrous imagery, Captain EO is nothing more than the most elaborate rock video in history, like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny, it’s a glorious surface over a void. No one expects an amusement-park diversion to be Gone With the Wind, but given that list of credits and the film’s lavish budget, audiences have a right to expect more than empty flash.”
Over time, the film attracted fewer and fewer guests and odd behavior by Jackson in public certainly didn’t help encourage guests to attend the show.
Captain EO closed quietly and without fanfare at Disneyland April 1997. It had closed July 1994 at Epcot, September 1996 at Tokyo Disneyland, and lasted until August 1998 at Disneyland Paris.
I know there must be much more to the story of Captain EO, but nobody has written much of anything, so here, for future researchers, is what little I know to help them better understand that small footnote in Jackson’s life.
In fact, Captain EO is a wonderful example of people trying to build their own little empires (often by overstating their contribution or pointing an accusatory finger at someone else) and, as a result, it got out of control. When I mentioned that Captain EO was a troubled production, I didn't fully appreciate how troubled it was and one of the reasons again was too many chiefs not listening to the common sense of others and the lack of necessary pre-planning.
I was quite flattered when a former Imagineer, who was involved in the Captain EO project, wrote to me after reading my previous column on that project (link) that "a lot of what you wrote was pretty darned accurate" but that there was, as I suspected, even more to the story so I went back and dug a little deeper and through some reliable sources came up with some additional insights.
The Disney Company lectures its cast members who work in the parks to never mention attendance figures or money issues to guests. However, that has never prevented guests or reporters from making some pretty accurate guesses about these figures. For years, people have estimated that the final budget for Captain EO was around $17 million dollars with some estimates going as high as $30 million, based on information from some people who worked on the production or in the business and knew what things cost. It has always been assumed that the true cost would never be known.
As an exclusive for MousePlanet readers, here is the actual cost of Captain EO: $23.7 million dollars. How do we know that figure is accurate? Because that is how much money was transferred to the project code by the studio when all was said and done. For accounting reasons, when WDI does a project, those charges are collected and transferred into a project code. The project is then "sold" to the park so it can be capitalized on favorable terms.
Now $23.7 million dollars was quite a chunk of money, especially in the mid-1980s and especially when the vice president of finance came up with an incredibly detailed original budget for the project that came in at only $10 million dollars.
Why did the project run almost $14 million over budget? Certainly, the talent and technology was expensive (although that was supposedly addressed in the original budget) but the real cause was that the project went into production without a firm story (in fact, Michael Jackson would come in each day with different versions of the songs). This was one of the first examples of a park project where "everybody had to approve everything" whether they knew anything about that aspect or not.
At the time, George Lucas was working on Star Tours, which Michael Eisner kept insisting be called Star Rides because he liked the word "ride" right up until the attraction opened. I had always heard that Star Tours was running behind schedule because of the technology and Lucas' notorious need for perfection. I recently learned from sources that worked on the attraction that it was ready to go on time, but the opening was purposely delayed so as not to detract from Captain EO's debut. In those days, the plan was that the Star Tours film would be updated every three years with eventually a different experience in each module.
Interestingly, Lucas was assured that he would be involved in all the new projects for Disneyland's Tomorrowland, making it a non-Disney universe like the proposal of a space craft crashing into the Carousel of Progress theater with the passengers on the ship performing a show. Needless to say, some Imagineers were not pleased with Lucas being given this opportunity.
Disney was also trying to woo Michael Jackson and invited him out to meet with the Imagineers at their Tujunga facility where the Imagineers had prepared a mock-up of a dark ride attraction that would feature Jackson. Supposedly, it was to be in 3-D. One of the Imagineers recalled that shaking hands with Jackson was like shaking a "limp, dead fish." Jackson liked the mock-up, but didn't want to be involved in a ride attraction. There were also discussions about a 3-D film that would be housed in the Carousel of Progress building and that caught his interest.
There were indeed three proposals for the film, and both Jackson and Disney agreed that they liked the idea of Captain EO the best. Part of the problem was the proposal itself. It was one page, barely four paragraphs, but as one Imagineer described it, it was pretty close to the final idea that "Jackson and his space crew would magically transform the ugly people.” There was only a general mention of EO's crew and an unnamed queen.
Why was this proposal a problem? Precisely because it was just a quick proposal, not even what might be considered a treatment in the film business, and WDI was tasked with coming up with a budget estimate, which is one of the reasons the original estimate was $10 million despite some dissenting voices. WDI realized it didn't have any show director on the staff that could really handle this innovative project so there was a short list of outside directors.
At least one Imagineer suggested John Landis, based on that director's success with Jackson in the video "Thriller." However, the final decision makers opposed that suggestion supposedly for budgetary reasons, including the fear that they wouldn't be able to "control" Landis and he would go over budget. The whole discussion became moot when Lucas decided that Francis Ford Coppola would direct.
WDI believed that even though Coppola was the director of record that Lucas himself would step in and do most of the directing. That didn't happen as Lucas was not on the set a lot and was getting frustrated at the typical Disney politics surrounding the project. Lucas had become used to working independently and not being answerable to others after his Star Wars success.
There was indeed three weeks of principal photography with Coppola at the helm but when he left the Second Unit spent nearly six months trying to fill in holes in the story to make the entire thing work with additional filming. It was not just to add in special effects, but to fix the story. One Imagineer described the raw footage of the three weeks shooting to be "a mess." To make matters worse, there were three moments in the film where it was out of sync: two audio moments and one instance of 3-D. It took WDI a week to verify that the projectors were fine by running myriad technical tests and more to prove that the problems were in the finished film itself. Those problems, by the way, were supposedly never fixed.
While there is still debate whether Michael Jackson showed up for the official premiere, he did indeed pop in to watch the "test" shows at Disneyland. Since he had taken to wearing the surgical mask, he was often easy to spot by guests. When that became an issue, Jackson sought sanctuary in the projection booth to watch the film and the reactions from the audience. As expected, the show opened to long lines of crowds but it became apparent that there was no significant repeat business, nor did it generate a desire from the guests to buy related merchandise.
One of the things Lucas learned from the experience was that he should probably do theme park projects on his own. To assemble a team, he made very attractive offers to some of the Imagineers. Most of these Imagineers could not accept the offer, because Frank Wells had recently instituted the practice of doing contracts for members of the WDI team and there was a "no-compete" clause for the length of the contract if anyone decided to bail out of their contract early.
Some WDI folks also learned from this experience. When Muppet Vision 3-D came up, before a budget was estimated, a full storyboard was completed … but not just a typical storyboard. The storyboard also showed what the 3-D effects would look like from the side view. The final budget estimate was $8 million dollars and the project came in for a $1 million less, despite changes (originally Jim Henson wanted it to be the Bean Bunny Show) and additions (like a last minute enhancement of the "changing theater wall" at the end of the show). In fact, the money that was "saved" was used to enhance the final project with re-shoots and special effects including adding in the section where the CGI Waldo transforms into Mickey Mouse. (CGI was fairly expensive in those technologically pre-historic times.) As the show opened, it was still a good $100,000 below its original budget.
It was even proposed that Muppet Vision 3-D open at Disneyland in the Main Street Opera House at the same time as its premiere in Florida at the Disney MGM Studios. However, one Imagineer was concerned that the ending didn't look like Disneyland and needed to be re-filmed. He was informed that contractually they weren't allowed to change the film and, in addition, that scene was not shot in Florida as suspected but on the old town backlot at the Disney Studios.
The story of the making of Muppet Vision 3-D is deserving of an entire column and I am only mentioning it here to demonstrate that Captain EO could have been a better film and cost less money. Certainly Muppet Vision 3-D has been inspirational in other similar projects that have been developed over the years, while Captain EO became a trivial anecdote.