Larry Nikolai was a young boy when he first saw the humanoid Audio-Animatronic of President Abraham Lincoln take the stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland in 1965. From this moment on, he was inspired. Not only by the Walt Disney Imagineering marvel of the audio-animatronic technology, but by Lincoln himself. Much like Walt Disney who recounted the following on an episode of Wonderful World of Color titled, “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair,” “Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois, I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln…” so too would Larry Nikolai develop a deep admiration for the famous president (which you can go back and read about in Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet).
“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened Larry’s eyes to a whole new world of show creation and Imagineering possibilities, it only seemed fitting that Larry Nikolai would begin his first day at Walt Disney Imagineering as a Senior Show Designer on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th right at the beginning of what has commonly been referred to as the “Disney Decade” and as Larry tells me, “The New Golden Age of Imagineering.”
I do not believe there would have been a Disney Decade nor a “New Golden Age of Imagineering”, if it were not for the partnership of the then President of the Walt Disney Company, Frank Wells and its Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner. Their partnership, which began in 1984 until Well’s untimely death in 1994, was as important to the Walt Disney Company as its original partners, brothers Walt and Roy Disney. Eisner was the man seen out front, the strong head of the company, while Wells was the man behind the scenes.
After Well’s passing, Disney Legend and former Attractions Chairman Dick Nunis commented in the April 5, 1994 Orlando Sentinel, about the partnership of the two men, “We had the combination that made our company great from the very beginning.”
When Wells and Eisner were first brought together in 1984, the Walt Disney Company had been floundering for years. According to fiscal reports, the reported net income fell 18% in 1982 followed by another 7% drop in 1983. But with the partnership of Wells and Eisner, together, the two men helped revitalize the company and as a result, annual revenues shot up from $1.5 billion to $8.5 billion within ten years, Disney stocks increased 1500 percent, and the theme parks and resort revenues tripled. What these two men set in motion at the Walt Disney Company would propel what would be known as the Disney Decade.
THE DISNEY DECADE
As a Cast Member who began to work for the Walt Disney Company in 1992, I felt as though the next ten years working for the Mouse was truly a very exciting time and what I believe to be one of the most magical eras in Disney history. For Disney, the years 1990 – 2000 was an unbelievable time of creativity and growth. Set forth in motion by the team of Eisner and Wells and further fueled by the beginnings of the Disney Renaissance of Walt Disney Animated films, which started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, followed by hit after hit, Beauty and the Beast 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994.
That forward momentum would be the impetus into the creation of new lands, hotels, attractions, and theme parks, all of which were imagined and created at a seemingly rapid pace.
Just the year prior to the official Disney Decade era, MGM Studios would open in 1989, Walt Disney World’s 3rd theme park. Four new resort hotels opened at Walt Disney World in 1990 alone. Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom opened in 1992, but only after Tokyo Disneyland opened their Splash Mountain the day before. Euro Disney, Disney’s second international park opens in 1992. Mickey’s Toontown, a whole new land opened in 1993 at Disneyland. New attractions and dining locations were opening left and right at MGM Studios including Twilight Zone Tower of Terror which opened in 1994. Tomorrowland reopened after refurbishments at Magic Kingdom in 1995 and that same year, Blizzard Beach, WDW’s second water park opens. Back at Disneyland, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye opened in 1995. In 1996, Tokyo Disneyland opened their Toontown. Downtown Disney had a groundbreaking ceremony in 1997, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, and the list goes on and on, and let’s not forget two additional theme parks that would have their opening dates in 2001, Disney’s California Adventure Park followed by Tokyo DisneySea. The two parks opening dates would spill out of the official Disney Decade by one year, though I think should be included, as the planning and building of these parks began much earlier.
Larry had worked for the Walt Disney Company as a consultant prior to his hire in 1990 at WDI, he would help to design such characters as the colonel for the Adventures Club at WDW’s Pleasure Island. But now the dream he had of becoming an Imagineer had finally come to fruition. On February 12, 1990 Larry would begin his career as an Imagineer during one of the most exciting and magical eras in Disney design, the New Golden Age of Imagineering.
THE NEW GOLDEN AGE OF IMAGINEERING
During the Disney Decade and the New Golden Age of Imagineering, Larry would work on several projects both at Disneyland Paris, at what was then called Euro Disney, and at Tokyo Disneyland. I asked Larry about these projects.
C: What was the first project you worked on for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)?
L:I was assigned to work on the post show for “it’s a small world” at Euro Disneyland, which was currently being built in France.
C: Was there someone at WDI who inspired you or you looked up to when you first started your journey with the Disney company?
L: I was inspired by Tony Baxter and Tom Morris, and the other creative lead producers of the lands in Euro Disneyland. I could see how extremely important their creative input was to the design of the park. And of course, I was inspired by all the former ex-Disney folks that I had worked with leading up to my actual hiring at Disney.
During the Disney Decade, Nikolai would spend his time working on projects not only for Euro Disney, but he would also work on many attractions at Tokyo Disneyland as well. Having worked at Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) for many years, I wanted to know more.
C: During the Disney Decade it seems you were primarily creating the magic at Tokyo Disneyland, correct?
L:Even though I worked on Tokyo attractions for a total of 13 years, I actually bounced around a bit, and projects between parks frequently overlapped. TDL Swiss Family Treehouse (Larry was the Show Designer for the exterior sets and props based on the classic Disney film) which was after Jingle Bear Jamboree (show designer and art director). Then after TDL Splash Mountain (art director for the audio-animatronics animation, figure finishing and prop painting) I went back to Euro Disneyland in 1992, though still working on TDL Critter Country props.
Larry would go on to inform me that at Euro Disney he was the concept and show designer for the unrealized expansion project for a Beauty and the Beast theater attraction as well as the very much realized Storybookland “Le Pays Des Contes De Fees.”
Larry truly did jump around from Disney Park to Disney Park the first half of the 1990s, he even worked on the San Francisco Disney Store update in 1994, then back to Tokyo Disneyland to work on props for Critter Country and Splash Mountain. By 1995, Nikolai was promoted and would be assigned to a very special project, The Arabian Coast a brand-new port of call located inside a brand-new Disney theme park called Tokyo DisneySea.
As a cast member working for the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.) in 2001, the opening of Tokyo DisneySea was truly an exciting time. I was able to preview the brand-new park before it opened to guests, and I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever visited. I would be very happy to pay for an entrance ticket and not go on any attraction. The landscape of the park alone is well worth the price of admission and my favorite land, or as Tokyo DisneySea calls it, port of call, is without a doubt, The Arabian Coast. To be able to ask THE LARRY NIKOLAI, the overall art director AND lead show designer for this entirely distinctive land, questions about his work was so very incredible for me. I’m still getting a bit giddy thinking about it, so I’ll calm down a bit, and share with you what you’re really hear to read about, my interview with Larry Nikolai.
C: I have long believed that Tokyo DisneySea is the most beautiful of all the Disney Parks. When I worked in Japan, I was under the impression that O.L.C. (The company that owns and operates the Tokyo Disney theme parks) were held to a higher standard than the Parks in the states and elsewhere because the Japan Parks are not owned by Disney and instead are under a strict licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. While I do not think that is necessarily 100% true, I do understand that O.L.C. licenses the rights to use the Disney name and contractually all items designed must come directly from WDI.
L:This all takes some explanation. The Japanese parks are not necessarily held to a higher standard than the other parks. Oriental Land Company owns only the two parks, so the budgets for their attractions are very focused, and I found that they have an intense cultural desire for perfection. As I’m sure you know, the Japanese audience for Disney parks is extremely enthusiastic, making them two of the most attended parks in the entire world. Expectations for “Disney Magic” are high so O.L.C. is expected to deliver the best possible.
THE ARABIAN COAST
Delivering the best possible was certainly delivered when it comes to this enchanting seaport. It’s here where the streets of Agrabah seem to be calling you into its story. One of seven ports of call at Tokyo DisneySea, the Arabian Coast is stunning, and every last bit of detail is pure perfection. TDS describes this area as an “exotic world of The Arabian Nights.”
My favorite part of the Arabian Coast is its marketplace. The sites and scent of curry in the air sets the stage for the adventures that await you.
I can certainly envision Aladdin running through the streets of Agrabah, can’t you?
In fact, you can find Aladdin, Jasmin, Genie, Jafar and other friends to meet and greet in this lovely coastal port.
But what really grabs you, is its scenery, the architecture, it’s all so very stunning. As I write this I remember Larry telling me that buildings are characters too, and you can certainly see what he means when you look at the buildings that surround you in the Arabian Coast. Stepping into this port of call is like you are venturing into a land that is so incredibly immersive that you could quite easily forget that you’re in a theme park and we have the talented Imagineers like Larry Nikolai, Concept Architect Oscar Cobos, in-field Art Director Chris Crump, and many more artisans to thank for that.
C: Was your project at Tokyo DisneySea primarily focused on The Arabian Coast?
L:I was the lead Art Director for all of The Arabian Coast. Chris Crump was the in-field Art Director for the whole land as well as the Producer for the Magic Lamp Theater.
I also did concept work on Mermaid Lagoon and designed some attractions for American Waterfronts that were never built.
C:Not only was The Arabian Coast my favorite land at Tokyo DisneySea (TDS), Sinbad’s Seven Voyages was my favorite attraction. Can you tell me more about your process in creating this attraction?
L:Sindbad’s Seven Voyages (the original attraction name) was a project that went through many phases. It started with a very rough early concept of a Pirates style attraction, and then morphed into a boat ride with small, puppet sized characters (“mini-matronics”) that followed the classic stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights. I was asked to be the Show Designer/Art Director after this particular concept was deemed to be impractical in scope and character count. It then became more centered on just the Sindbad stories. We did decide to keep the overall theme of a boat ride through an elaborate puppet show, however, with the human puppets now being of a larger size- around 1 meter tall or so. We ended up with over 160 animatronic characters- mostly the 1-meter size but also some pretty huge ones like the Ruhk, Giant and Whale. The human figures were very animated for their size and the show was quite elaborate in scope. Overall, the attraction took 6 years to design, produce and install.
The trouble started almost immediately upon installation completion.
It’s important to understand the original concept for Tokyo DisneySea overall. The guests that the park was originally supposed to appeal to were supposed to be dating couples and an older audience- thus the emphasis on “ports of call” that featured a strong sense of adventure and romance. Sindbad’s Seven Voyages was designed to be a dramatic retelling of the sailor’s adventures in the Arabian Nights. The music was to be reminiscent of a Bernard Herrmann cinematic score, full of danger and drama. Disney Legend Buddy Baker was the composer and conductor, and he was a joy to work with. Unfortunately, even though the music came out great, it was the first thing to arouse criticism by Disney executives as being too dark and ponderous- and things went downhill from there.
We had been told all along that the Japanese audience was familiar with the Arabian Nights tales. Now we were informed that they weren’t, and that the guests were confused with the attraction’s storyline. The attraction was also underutilized- the large queue was never very full. There were two good reasons for this: as a through-load boat ride it had a high theoretical hourly ride capacity (THRC) of 3600, a real “people eater”. It also was located at the furthest point from the main entrance in the back corner of the park- nobody ran for this attraction at park opening!
The redesigns started after a short while. I participated with some new scene ideas until OLC declared that they wanted a fresh perspective, and I was off the project. That’s when the attraction was given a radical new lighthearted theme with an Alan Menken song and score. One prominent OLC exec didn’t like Sindbad’s beard- voila! He’s given a makeover. Now he needs a cute sidekick in order to sell merchandise- here’s a cute little tiger to accompany him on his adventure. All the menacing monsters are too scary? No problem- we’ll make them friendly and helpful to our newly youthful protagonist. And now a new name was needed for the altered attraction- thus it became what we see today: “Sindbad’s Storybook Adventure”.
The attraction is still about 80-85% of what was originally designed, but it is so radically different in tone now that it no longer resembles the show I was the Show Designer/Art Director for. My only consolation is that our creative partners at Pixar declared that it was their favorite attraction at TDS, and they were surprised that we were changing it.
C: Are there any Easter eggs (hidden Disney references or inside jokes) that are hidden on the attraction?
L:I can point out the biggest “Hidden Mickey” that I know of in an attraction – he’s on the front of the whale.
The entire land is so immersive. I loved meeting the camel and street merchant, riding the two storied Caravan Carousel in the Royal Courtyard and of course gazing upon the beautiful Princess Jasmine fountain.
L:That camel was designed by Chris Merritt, built by Garner Holt.
C: What inspired your design of The Arabian Coast?
L: I traveled with two other team members to Spain and Morocco to research Islamic and Moorish architecture, and we found that fountains were important elements there.
L: Princess Jasmine seemed like the perfect character for a decorative fountain.
L: I designed the tile mural and tiger “spitter,” and the overall fountain architecture was designed by our Creative Architect, Oscar Cobos.
C: The two-story Caravan Carousel is a marvel to me; can you tell me more about it?
L: I designed and art directed all the custom animals for the Caravan Carousel. The originals were hand-carved out of wood in the traditional carousel way. The elaborate color designs for the other horses were done by Andrea Bottancino.
Larry was not able to attend the official opening of Tokyo DisneySea on September 4, 2001, he was already assigned to new projects by then, like Flik’s Fun Fair ride vehicles for the new A Bug’s Land being built at Disney’s California Adventure.
Larry Nikolai has worked on, in some capacity, every Disney Park except for Disney Hollywood Studios in Florida. I of course had to ask him which was his favorite park.
L:My favorite foreign park will always be Tokyo DisneySea, because I feel it is the most beautiful park we ever built. I was the overall art director for The Arabian Coast so I was involved from the beginning and even after the park had officially opened.
Larry continues to consult as a freelance designer on projects for Tokyo DisneySea.
C: Do you have a favorite project, foreign or domestic?
L:There are three projects that hold a special place in my heart, foreign and domestic:
The Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare for Tokyo Disneyland
The Little Mermaid– Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure
C: Which of the three is your favorite?
L: The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Disney California Adventure
Oh, I’d love to learn more about Larry’s creative direction and design of this attraction, why this project is his favorite, and learn about a very cool hidden Easter egg that many do not know about. Wouldn’t you?
The 20th anniversary celebration of Tokyo DisneySea is on the near horizon. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever had the privilege to work at and visit. Because of this momentous occasion, I thought the perfect person to reach out to would be the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) Lead Art Director for my favorite port of call, Arabian Coast, one of seven themed ports of call (lands) located inside Tokyo DisneySea. I have been wanting to learn more about the inspiration that led to the design of this beautiful land and knew that I needed to speak to none other than WDI alumnus, Larry Nikolai.
With a career at WDI spanning 28 years, I was excited to talk to Larry about many of his other projects as well, like “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” at Disney California Adventure Park, Tokyo Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare,” his work as a Disney Gallery Artist, and the merchandise collectibles he designed for the Parks like the Main Street Electrical Parade Collectibles from 1996.
I know where I want to end my blog, but where to begin? My initial interview with Larry led me down a path craving for many more questions to be answered. Larry graciously answered another round of questions about a month after our initial interview. What I’ve come to realize is that although I knew Nikolai was an Imagineer who worked on many projects, (all of which were during my years of working for Disney and the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.)), what I understood after my interview was how truly little I did know about ALL of his projects. I yearned for a better understanding so that I could, in turn, introduce or reintroduce him to you. You may think you know Imagineer alumnus Larry Nikolai, but I’m not so sure you truly do, yet. My hope over the next few weeks, as I continue to write my blog about Larry and his many contributions to the Walt Disney Company and its theme parks around the world, is that both you and I will have a better understanding of his many talents.
Ah yes, I must not forget, where to begin? Well, I do believe at the beginning is almost always the best place, so we’ll start there.
It All Started When He Was Two Years Old
Larry Nikolai was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to California in 1956 when he was just two years old. It would be that very same year his parents would take him to Disneyland. Larry explained to me the impact visiting the park had on him.
L: When my family moved to California from Kansas City in 1956, we visited Disneyland the first year we were here. After that it became an annual event, and I grew up with the park.
L: I was always fascinated with the attractions and in later years I made my own crude versions in my garage and backyard.
C: Can you tell me more about that?
L: I have always felt compelled to make dimensional objects with my own two hands- my early visits to Disneyland inspired me to want to have some of the magic in my own backyard and garage, so I had to create it myself!
C: What were some of the attractions you built and out of what materials?
L: I made some small Jungle Cruise elephants at first and graduated to very crude Lincoln figures after seeing the show when it first opened at Disneyland (1965). When Pirates came along (1967), I had to make my own walk-through version with a few figures and lighting effects. Everything I built was of the crudest materials- scrap wood, cardboard, wooden produce crates, paper mâché, plaster, used clothing and some homemade vacuum-formed plastic faces. I also made a number of Tiki birds with string-puppeted mouths.
C: Do you have any photos you could share?
L: I am WAY too embarrassed to show any photos of those very crude early creations!
Although Larry was too embarrassed to show me any photos of his childhood creations, he did let me know that his parents and family were all very supportive of him, sitting through many “garage-based Lincoln shows.” There were apparently many shows as Larry would continue to work on his Lincoln, improving his version overtime. Nikolai’s Pirates of the Caribbean however, as Larry states, “lasted just a season and a few viewings.”
C:Were you always an artist? Even as a young child?
L: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or creating something. My favorite first cartoon character was Popeye, so he is the first thing that I drew. I never really cared for coloring books because I wanted to make the pictures myself, and when we made cards for Mother’s or Father’s Day in school I used to put characters in them. And I’ve always had a desire to paint, even if I didn’t know how to properly use the materials. I once painted a portrait of a sea captain using tubed watercolor paints straight out of the tubes on canvas. I treated them like oil paints. It paid off in the end, though- I entered the painting in a junior art show at a local shopping center and won second prize.
C: I had read that you are both a classically trained fine artist and animation designer. Where did you obtain your training?
L: I took art classes in high school, but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to them as at the time I was more interested in theater and film making. After high school I attended California State University at Northridge where I concentrated more on my art and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art 2-D painting. When I say I’m a classically trained artist I mean that I went through the classic process of life drawing and learning the various mediums and how to properly use them. I also took the required art history courses and available 3-D design classes to round out my education.
“I OWE EVERYTHING TO THIS MAN”
C: How did you get into theme park attraction design?
L: I was working in the Merchandise Department at Six Flags Magic Mountain during and right after college, and one day it just struck me that- because I loved Disneyland since I could remember- it made sense to bring my art and Disney together for my career. I applied at WED (Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering) but did not have enough experience to get hired there at the time. I stayed at Magic Mountain and a couple of years later I met David Gengenbach, an ex-Disney executive who was also working there.
David Gengenbach worked for the Walt Disney Company as both a project engineer, project manager, and later the vice president of Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises. He oversaw many of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions at Walt Disney World including Space Mountain, the Mark III and Mark IV monorail systems, and the Carousel of Progress. After twelve years with the Walt Disney Company, David left Disney to work for Six Flags Corporation as Manager of Corporate Engineering.
L: He saw a little raccoon sculpture I had done and said that the company was planning to do a dark ride at the Atlanta Park, and that I could join the team if it was approved. I owe everything to this man and mentor who took a chance on me, because the ride “Monster Plantation“ was approved and suddenly I became a professional artist working through the Six Flags Engineering department on a real theme park attraction.
L: On that project (Monster Plantation) I worked with some very talented ex-Disney (and non-ex-Disney) folks, and with their help I ended up working in the theme park, movies, publishing, and cartoon animation industries for the next 12 years before finally being hired at Imagineering.
Almost an Imagineer…But First…One More Question
C: Please tell me a little bit more about the 12 years before finally becoming an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company. Films you worked on, cartoon animation, and theme parks.
L: The 12 years includes a couple of years still at Magic Mountain before I met Dave Gengenbach and was brought onto the Monster Plantation project.
After Monster Plantation it turns out that Six Flags no longer needed me, so I made the move over to the company that produced all of Monster Plantation’s animatronic figures, AVG Productions. I mostly worked on shows that fulfilled the pizza restaurant craze of the 1980s. I also worked on a show for Six Flags’ Movieland Wax Museum, “The Black Box.” While at AVG I met and worked with many Disney alumni, including Rolly Crump and “Big Al” Bertino.
Shortly after this, my mentor Dave Gengenbach was hired as president of Advanced Animations in Connecticut, and he invited me and some other AVG colleagues to join him there. I moved my family to the East Coast, where we thought we would be for at least 5 years. We did a number of conceptual proposals and some small to mid-size shows for the mostly local eastern states, including a chance for me to finally sculpt a real Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure for a museum in Gettysburg.
Nikolai Meets Lincoln
In 1965, at 11 years old, Nikolai became instantly fascinated with Abraham Lincoln when he saw the 16th President of the United States stand on Disneyland’s Lincoln Theater stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Just as Walt Disney was fascinated with the beloved president at a young age, so was Larry Nikolai, who would go on to study Lincoln’s life.
The opportunity to finally sculpt the head of Abraham Lincoln must have been exhilarating for Nikolai. The many childhood attempts of creating Lincoln in his garage would finally pay off. Larry would sculpt the head while another sculptor created the body for the animatronic figure who would deliver the Gettysburg Address at the Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.
Larry personally owns copies of the famous Abraham Lincoln life mask and hands that were created by Leonard W. Volk, Chicago sculptor, on March 31, 1860. Volk created the mold prior to Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. It involved a process that encased Lincoln’s face and ears in plaster. The plaster was left on his face for about an hour to dry and set and was then carefully removed from Lincoln’s face. A process Lincoln is reported to have said was, “anything but agreeable.” It would be this mold that would become the reference for artists who would create busts and statues of Lincoln including Imagineer Blaine Gibson who would also use the Volk mask for Walt Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Nikolai explained that the Volk mask that both Blaine and he used as reference for Lincoln were invaluable as it provided them both with the measurements they would need to bring Lincoln to life.
Returning to California…Why So Soon?
L: A Warner Communications Company (the parent company of Advanced Animations), fell on hard economic times and they cancelled our projects and laid us off after only one year. Rather than look for work locally or start commuting to New York City I moved my family back to Los Angeles, the true hub of the entertainment industry.
After returning to LA, I was unexpectedly hired into the world of Saturday morning cartoon animation at Ruby Spears Productions. Ken Spears and Joe Ruby were the creators of Scooby Doo during their years at Hanna Barbera before leaving to start their own studio. I had never worked in 2-D or cartoon animation before, and I was lucky to be around some amazing artists who taught me the business. I was initially hired as a maquette sculptor, but I ended up transitioning and was lucky to have five years of working around some amazing professionals in the industry where I got the solid practice I really needed at drawing both background scenes and animated characters. I also did character and show concept work between seasons when new series ideas were being pitched to the networks.
Also at that time my network of friends and associates had grown considerably, and I did many freelance jobs: magazine illustration, film and television character design, collectible merchandise concepts, puppets and costumed character design for both Disney, and Universal Studios- among many other opportunities. I worked on a couple of “Nightmare on Elm Street” films, and I even got to work with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark on her first movie. They were busy years full of good practice in many fields.
All of this led up to 1990, when I was finally hired at WDI.
If you’ve visited a Disney theme park, then you’ve most likely seen the detailed artistry of the talented scenic artist John Rayburn. But who is John Rayburn and how was he able to paint some of the most iconic and beloved attractions and parade floats? From Splash Mountain, to Abraham Lincoln’s hands, to the very popular Disneyland holiday overlays at both the Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world,” it all came about with a bit of luck, a lot of talent, and the “Baroque Hoedown.”
I first met John when I started at Disneyland as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade back in 1992. John’s long career with the Mouse started 12 years prior in 1980 when he was cast as a performer in the same nighttime classic parade. An amazing and talented performer with a seemingly unending amount of energy, John would continue to perform and entertain guests in various roles over the years until his final parade performance in the Christmas Fantasy Parade in 1998.
It was fun talking with John about his 18 years with Disneyland’s Parade Department and to reminisce about the time we were in the same unit for the “Cruisin’ the Kingdom Parade.” We had some good times during that parade, just don’t get him started on “Light Magic,” which John claims to still have vivid nightmares about. I’ll definitely have to save that story for another time. For today’s blog post, I want to share John Rayburn’s talent as an artist that began when he picked up a paint brush at the age of six.
It Was a Game Changer
John Rayburn is a self-taught artist and has been painting nearly his whole life. At the age of 12 years old, he was painting models so expertly that the Military Shop, a local model hobby shop, asked him to paint their display models. He was too young to work for them, so instead, he was paid in merchandise. Being able to choose whatever he wanted from the store, as payment, was a deal John gladly accepted.
It was at this hobby shop in Lakewood, California where he met an employee named Jim Murphy. John likes to make the objects he paints look real and credits Jim with his first breakthrough into doing just that. John told me that the painting techniques Jim taught him, like which colors to look at for shading, were a game changer that would inevitably end up giving him a career.
Art and the Disneyland Connection
In the late 1970’s, John’s older sister worked in the Parade Department. He said some of her friends from the parades would come over to the house and one of those friends was a guy named Richard Ferrin. John told me that Richard would always make a point to look at John’s models when he came over. At that time, Richard was not only a ride design Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, he also moonlit as a performer in the Main Street Electrical Parade.
John reconnected with Richard Ferrin in 1980, when John was finally old enough to work as a parade performer at Disneyland. Richard let John know that he was leaving Imagineering to start his own company with his friend Rick Bastrup called R&R Creative Amusement Designs, Inc. (R&R). As a ride engineer, Richard explained to John that he would need people to build architectural study models and asked John if he’d be interested in creating and painting the models. John jumped at the chance and started to work for R&R in Anaheim, California.
After approval of one of John’s completed architectural model builds and paint samples for a job, John shared with me a conversation he had with Richard. It was a brief conversation that would further propel John on his career path:
Richard: “What if you did that a bit bigger?”
John: “What do you mean?”
Richard: “You’ve already done the paint finish that we wanted, it’s approved, and now it needs to be done on the job site. Why can’t you paint it bigger? Instead of using a small brush (like the ones used on models) get bigger ones. Instead of a small air brush, get a larger one.”
It was not an outrageous suggestion, but it would take Richard in that moment to illuminate John’s mind to the possibility of taking on a new endeavor and hone new full-scale artistry skills. From that moment, John’s life as a model builder and painter would forever change, he was now a full-scale scenic artist.
Living Close to the Castle Has Its Advantages
Richard started to send John on various job sites where he would meet folks from Disney who would end up pulling him in on various projects. Plus, folks from Disney knew Richard from Imagineering and would ask if he knew anyone local that can paint finishes fast and Richard would always recommend John as he could fix and match paint faster than anyone, plus he was a local and could get to the park faster than someone from Los Angeles. That’s how, as John says he, “got the in” at Disneyland.
At first Disney would use John to produce quick paint finishes, as well as paint repairs and paint blending for attractions including, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and the Jungle Cruise.
You May Get Wet at This “Laughing Place”
Paint repairing on existing attractions to perfection undoubtedly proved to Disney that John was up for his first big job at Disneyland. For this project, John was assigned to scenic paint a new attraction, one that would be billed by Disney as the “Tallest, fastest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours,” and that of course is none other than Splash Mountain, based on Disney’s 1946 film, “Song of the South.”
John, along with an estimated 10 to 12 other scenic artists, age and grain artists and as John said, “a ton of general painters,” all contributed to the painting of the exterior and interior parts of the mountain. For any scenic elements that were added to the attraction after it opened, however, John became the sole scenic artist.
Splash Mountain would open the summer of 1989, after a few months of delays, but in the minds of many guests, it was certainly an attraction that was well worth the wait.
The Work Keeps Coming
John would continue to work on several more projects for Disneyland throughout the years, including painting the brand new Mickey’s Toontown, which opened to guests on January 24, 1993. John was also made the sole scenic artist the year after it opened, tasked with maintaining the land’s vivid hues as well as painting any and all upgrades.
1993Toontown Photos Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
AND…ACTION…CUT…CUT…MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN!
By 2001, John was a proven scenic artist. So much so that he was assigned as a scenic artist for the brand new, yet to open, Disney California Adventure Park. John would work on the initial paint for the Park all the way up until the February 8, 2001, opening date. He was also the only scenic artist approved to be in the Park the full day prior to opening, as he was tasked specifically by Chris Runco, Concept Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, to touch up paint at surrounding restaurants and the iconic Grizzly Mountain.
John shared with me about an incident that I had all but forgotten until he brought it up, which I thought was quite humorous.
By 2001, I was now working mostly in the TV Productions/Broadcast Services Department at the Disneyland Resort and was working on a commercial film shoot for the new Disney theme park. We were supposed to film Grizzly River Rapids, but we couldn’t get a clean shot because there was a man painting on the mountain. Turns out, that man was John.
John was given a mandate from Imagineering that he had full run of the entire park for 24 hours, allowing John to scan the park for needed touch ups. He had until 8AM on opening day February 8th , to complete the job. What John thought would be a relaxing day of just him and his paint brush, turned into something quite different.
John told me, “I was doing a lot of touch up work on Grizzly for Chris (Runco) and I caused a big problem. There were about 300 people, all over the mountain. They were going to film a commercial but failed to ask Imagineering if they could have permission to do it. Runco’s answer was no, they couldn’t have permission because little old me needed to do a bunch of paint in the waterways. The film crew was furious with me! They had to remove their cameras and proceeded to stare at me for an hour and a half until I was finished.”
We were both able to laugh at it now, and it was certainly a good thing the film crew waited, not that we had a choice, but because of John’s extra touch of paint on Grizzly Peak mountain and it’s River Run waterways, it made for even more gorgeous scenery, not only for the crew to film, but for the guests who would be introduced to the park for their very first time once Disney California Adventure Park opened the next day.
John Meets Garner Holt
John was introduced to Garner Holt by Richard and Rick of R&R. They would work together on various projects, like the MGM theme park in Las Vegas. Garner would build the animatronics and John would paint the set pieces.
During the 1990’s Garner had been trying to get his foot in the door with Disney to get some jobs going. But that proved difficult as Disney was using mostly internal staff and only a few outsourced vendors. Since John was working on projects with Disney, he was able to take some of Garner’s products to Lloyd Bressler, who was in charge of Imagineering Construction, and suggested that he should really take a look at Garner Holt because he was doing some amazing things with audio-animatronics.
Garner’s first breakthrough with Disney was the creation of the puppetronic character Phil for the “Hercules’ Victory Parade” in 1996.
Who’s This Garner Holt and Rayburn Fellow?
Garner Holt Productions was now beginning to work more frequently on jobs with the Walt Disney Company, from parade float builds for Disneyland to set pieces for Tokyo DisneySea. But it wasn’t until after John Rayburn and Garner got into the Great Moment’s with Mr. Lincoln Theater that Garner Holt Production’s reputation was solidified.
John said, “Redoing Lincoln Theater caused some nervous moments because it was something that Walt worked on. You had people on the internet wondering who was doing this stuff and who is this Garner Holt Company? Who’s this John Rayburn guy doing the paint? What are they doing and are they going to wreck this attraction?”
Brad Kay, Imagineering Art Director, would assign John with the solo job of painting one of Walt Disney’s most beloved attractions. John painted the entire theater. He even painted Lincoln’s chair and touched up Lincoln’s hands.
The rehab was a great success for both John and Garner Holt. So much so, that they were both hired on for one more project of that year.
One More Job For 2001
While working on Lincoln Theater, John shared that Brad Kay had told him that there was something coming up in the works for both he and Garner, but, he couldn’t tell John what it was. John persisted, and all Brad would say was that, “It’s going to be a very haunted overlay.”
John said, “So I thought cool, it might be an overlay for the Haunted Mansion. I didn’t think too much of it. Then it came down from Brian Sandahl, Senior Art Director at the Disneyland Resort, to hire Garner Holt Productions for the overlay and Brad said I should paint it. So we ended up doing the overlay.”
This last big project of the year for John would prove difficult, painful, but oh so memorable. I am of course talking about the Haunted Mansion Holiday which is themed after Tim Burton’s film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘TWAS THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS…
Contrary to popular belief, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay at Disneyland was not dreamed up nor produced by Walt Disney Imagineering, rather, it was a collaboration between Disneyland’s Creative Director Steven Davison (who has since been promoted to Creative Director/ Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment) and Senior Designer Brian Sandahl, (who has since been promoted to Senior Designer/Show Development and Producer at Disney Entertainment Productions).
After the success of “it’s a small world” Holiday, which opened in 1997, Davison’s next idea for an attraction overlay would be for the Haunted Mansion. Davison, along with Senior Writer Carolyn Gardner, would rewrite the classic poem, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” for the attraction overlay.”
Once guests enter into the foyer of the Haunted Mansion, the Ghost Host begins to recite the following “‘Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas poem:”
‘Twas a long time ago (now longer than it seems).In a place that perhaps, you have seen in your dreams.For the story that you are about to be toldBegan in the holiday worlds of old.I know you’re curious to see what’s inside.It’s what happens when two holidays collide!
(Guests now enter the stretching room and the poem continues)
Welcome, my friends, to our Christmas delight.Come witness a ghoulishly glorious sight.It’s time for our holiday tale to begin.There’s no turning back now-please, come all the way in. Our holiday tale is a tale that’s quite charming.But during this season, it’s sometimes alarming.So relax and reflect, feel free to take pause,While we tell you a tale about dear Sandy Claws.‘Twas the nightmare before Christmas,And all through the house,Not a creature was peaceful-not even a mouseThe stockings, all hung by the chimney with care,When opened that morning would cause such a scare.The children, nestled all snug in their bedsWould nightmares of monsters and skeleton heads!
Blacklight Paint, Blood, and More Blacklight Paint
John shared with me that the installation of the overlay was a huge build out. There were a lot of unknowns for them because nothing had ever been taken into the ride since it’s opening on August 9, 1969, especially as an overlay.
“The Install was horrendous. It was crazy. They had to get these big giant pieces back into places that had no access. The piece that really comes to mind that was really hard to bring in was the pumpkin mountain.” John said.
John explained to me that the famous pumpkin mountain, which is made up of “3 to 4” pieces that stack on top of each other, are built within a metal frame. The problem was they had to get the mountain, piece by piece, to where it sits for the overlay, which is located behind the statues in the graveyard scene. There was no way to get the mountain into that area without having to tie ropes to each one of the pieces. The crew would then have to get up to the catwalks that are located high above the tracks of the attraction to be able to lift the pieces up on pulleys.
John describes it as such, “The pieces had to all be swung over like Tarzan while crew were up on the high catwalks. Then they’d have to get the piece into position to bring it down in front of where the statutes are located because you can’t just slide it over. Below the statues is about a 15 foot drop down to the projectors below. It all had to be lowered in there, piece by piece.”
By the time the pumpkin mountain was Tarzan swung below the catwalk and put into place, it had been chipped up pretty bad, so John had to spend several weeks to repaint and repair it. The problem with the mountain, was, it’s situated in the pit where the projectors are. The tallest ladder they had that would fit in that area only got John halfway up the mountain, so he’d need to get a 15 foot pole to attach his paint brush to so that he would then be able to paint the areas located at the top half of the mountain.
John tells me, “What sticks with me, is, it’s a lot of long hours, and you’re in the dark a long time and you kind of lose perspective. Is it day? Is it night? Everyone’s tired, and all of a sudden I begin to see these blotches going up the mountain. I was thinking, what is going on? I’m wearing socks, because I don’t want to leave shoeprints on it (blacklight paint picks up everything). I’m in my socks and so dust my socks off and climb back up the mountain but I keep seeing these big giant black blotches of something. I’m tired, my feet hurt really badly for some reason, and it’s cold! WHAT IS THIS STUFF?! I’m trying to wipe it off, I don’t have any regular latex paint on here, what have I got on this thing?! I’m trying to clean it off, but it’s semi dried. I didn’t know what was going on, so I had to start to paint over it, but see that it’s coming through the paint…and…OH MY GOSH, it’s going from bad to worse!”
Then John Realized…
Those black splotches he saw all up and down the mountain was blood! John’s feet were bleeding! Located down below in that area are dead broken Manzanita branches used for scenery. Those branches were slicing up John’s feet as he was going up and down the mountain, leaving a trail of blood. Seems rather fitting, being the Haunted Mansion and all, but poor John. He tells me he had to get peroxide to clean up the mountain to get it pristine again so that he would be able to reapply the blacklight paint. He tells me, “IT WAS CRAZY!” Every time I go past Pumpkin Mountain now, I’ll forever think of John leaving his trail of blood.
John would paint all the lettering on the signs for the attraction, he’d paint the Jack Skellington and Zero animatronics that Garner Holt created, he’d paint the wreaths and design their snake like eyes in the stretching room, as well as paint the singing Venus Flytraps, and so much more. An installation that was supposed to last 3 years, has gone on to be an 18 year tradition (due to park closure the attraction did not run in 2020).
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
With a Disneyland Entertainment Art budget, Art Director Brian Sandahl did not have enough in his budget for an animatronic Sally for the 2001 opening, which he so desperately wanted. He would eventually get a Sally several years later…but not until Tokyo Disneyland got their’s first.
Chris Crump, Larry Nikolai and Tokyo Disneyland Open Their Haunted Mansion Holiday with Multiple Animatronic Versions of Sally in 2004
Shortly after the success of the Mansion’s holiday overlay, John was back at Garner Holt Productions working on something else when he gets paged to go to the phone and it’s to talk to Larry Nikolai, an Artist and now former Art Director/Producer at Imagineering. Larry asked John if he had any paint left over from when he painted the Haunted Mansion Holiday. John let him know he that he did. Larry then immediately told John that he’d meet him at Garner’s the next day.
John continued to tell me, “The next day both Larry and Chris Crump (former Principal Show Production Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and son of Disney Legend Rolly Crump) walked into the shop at Garner Holt Productions. Larry introduced me to Chris. He’s a great guy that likes to have fun, he’s always laughing and is a very sharp designer. So they walk in and asked if I could produce all new paint samples, exactly as I had done it before for the mansion’s holiday overlay. I asked why, what’s going on?”
The build for Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday went quite smoothly. John painted everything the exact same way he had done for Disneyland. The banners requiring lettering were all done the same way, same lettering, same colors, as he was able to use the original artwork as reference. He said all that was simple, the only difficult part was getting Sally’s lip color perfect.
“The only colors that I had to do differently were for Sally. Larry came down for the day, he wanted to make sure Sally was perfect. He said ‘I want a perfect red. Once you get it, I’ll go home.’ I got the specific skin tone color he wanted, he signed off on that. But the lip color was his big thing, reds are extremely hard to mix. If you go one way a little bit, it’s wrecked. You have to throw it out and start all over again. You can’t add any black that’ll make it go too dark, because then it turns grey. You have to bring the color down to the purples and magentas. It’s a very fine line you have to walk. If you put just a tiny drip, it changes everything and it could go too brown, and then you have to throw that out and try again.
I can mix color really fast. I can go into Splash Mountain and they would say the ride is opening in an hour and we’ll need you out of here; I can field mix it and it’s done. It’s fast. But reds are really hard to mix. Even spectrometers, if you go to a hardware store, and ask if they can mix a specific red… (John laughs) GOOD LUCK because spectrometers can’t do it either. But, I finally got it set and Larry approved it. I saved the colors and have the documents Larry signed approving the colors in case Magic Kingdom or another Disney park ever wanted to add the holiday overlay. (Did you hear that Walt Disney World?!)”
John now had the colors and painted all the Sallys. The only exception, was he did not paint her pupils. Larry wasn’t sure where she would be positioned exactly at the Haunted mansion in Japan, so instructed John to not paint her pupils. Chris Crump would end up painting her pupils once she was installed into her positions at the mansion.
All of the set pieces would be delivered to a facility called the “Airport” where Imagineering had a hangar for the staging and packing of items to be shipped overseas. John would met Chris Crump at the “Airport” for one last minute touch up and to provide him with a paint kit before their overseas departure.
It was at this time that Chris shared some fun tidbits with John about his father Rolly Crump, retired Imagineer and Disney Legend who worked on the design of the original Haunted Mansion.
One of these fun tidbits was a story Chris would go on to recount about the ballroom dancers in the Haunted Mansion. He told John that as a little kid, he was walking through the mansion with his dad and the other Imagineers when he noticed something in the ballroom scene.
Chris said to his dad, “Why are the women leading the men?”
Rolly looks at everyone and shouts, “SEE! Even my kid sees it!”
What had happened was the figures were set up with the men leading the women in the first room, but, when their image is reflected back into the ballroom, for the Pepper’s Ghost Optical Illusion, their image is reversed, so it appears as though the women are leading the men in the ballroom dance scene. Next time you go on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, make sure you look at the dancers, the women are leading the men!
John went on to tell me that the Nightmare Before Christmas project for Tokyo Disneyland was all the fun from the first show, but without any of the problems they had originally encountered. No blood trails were left by John this go around! John said they could all relax and have fun while working on Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, that’s why John said it was one of his all-time favorite projects at Disney to date.
Brian Gets His Sally!
And as for Brian Sandahl and his dream of a Sally at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, well he would get one, eventually. Brian had always intended to have a Sally, but Disneyland Entertainment Art and Imagineering are two different beasts with two vastly different budgets to work with. Now that Garner had the molds, because he created them for Tokyo Disneyland, and John saved all the color information for her skin color and lips, the dream of a Sally at Disneyland was becoming a closer reality for Sandahl, but, it would take 15 more years from the time the holiday overlay first began for Brian’s dream to come to fruition. In 2016, Sally finally made it into the Holiday Mansion Overlay. After being painted to perfection by John Rayburn, she now resides in the graveyard scene, lovingly looking at Jack Skellington.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Garner Holt Productions was the first outside company Disney has ever used to create an animatronic character for one if its attractions. Since then they have created more than 400 figures for Disney and its theme parks around the world and now are the world’s largest manufacture of Animatronics and Animatronic figures, parade floats, and so much more. When Disney shut down its Walt Disney Imagineering’s MAPO division, back in 2012, they turned over all the manufacturing of the attractions to Garner Holt Productions. In a statement made by Disney Legend Bob Gurr, he said, “Garner inherits all of Imagineering’s historic animation and show production designs and tooling.”
And as for the Scenic Artist? John Rayburn has never been busier. His scenic artistry can be seen on Mount Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, throughout Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and of course Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
John works on many projects outside of Disney too. His top two favorite projects he’s ever painted were painting both the Timber Mountain Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park located just 7 miles from Disneyland.
John Rayburn has his own business and you can find him on Facebook at John Rayburn Consulting. He paints themed paint, Trompe L’oeil, Faux Finishes, Glazes, Artistic Refinishing, Portraits, Aging, Graining, and Marbling.
John has a diverse clientele, whatever you can dream up, John will be able to create it. From adorable nurseries to dental offices, to even backyard scenic artistry, like the famous Orange County backyard of architect David Sheegog. Imagine having a model of Splash Mountain in your backyard painted by THE GUY that painted the original Splash Mountain.
I’ll be writing more about John in future. This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg.
An in depth interview with Misty Rosas of “The Mandalorian.” Written by Catherine Ramirez
George Lucas once described the late Peter Mayhew as a mime actor. Mayhew, who portrayed Chewbacca in the Star Wars Films for almost 40 years, had only the use of his eyes and body language as a means of expression as the 7’2” tall Wookie. To be able to express and convey so many different emotions across a cinematic screen is no easy task, and yet Mayhew did it to utter perfection, all while performing within a suit. I have not seen another suit performer convey such emotion as Peter Mayhew did when he performed as Chewbacca, until I saw the Ugnaught Kuiil in, “The Mandalorian.”
Who is Misty Rosas?
To understand Kuiil, you’ll have to understand the character’s suit actor, Misty Rosas. Misty was born in Mission Viejo, California and raised in the mountains at Los Piños in the Cleveland National Forest. She had a unique upbringing, enjoying the forest as her backyard. She also became quite a skilled gymnast. Misty said that her mom took her to her first gymnastics class when she was 2 ½ years old, and quite often there would be tears when it was time for Misty to leave.
Misty tells me, “Class was never long enough. I was immediately hooked! I loved gymnastics! I loved it so much that it was my life from age 2 ½ until I was 16. By the time I was 12 years old I was a Child Elite gymnast on the U.S. National Gymnastics Team, and again as a Junior Elite at age 13.
The Olympics were in my sights, but some dreams don’t come true. For me personally, I loved doing gymnastics, but I did not like competing! The mental, physical and emotional pressure just became too much for me, and all of that pressure manifested into an eating disorder. At 16 years old I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life, I had to walk away from the sport I loved so much because I was losing my battle with Anorexia. A battle I would fight for many, many years.”
Memories of Misty’s childhood were bittersweet. There was joy but there was also heartbreak. Even with the heartbreak Misty was appreciative of the lessons she learned from her years of training and competing as a gymnast.
“Like all things in life,” Misty tells me, “you’ve gotta take the good with the bad, and learn from the lessons! The invaluable lessons!”
Misty went on to tell me that gymnastics not only taught her how to strength train, but the sport also trained her mentally and gave her emotional strength as well. All those years of gymnastics training gave Misty an understanding of how hard and how long she would have to work at something for it to become a reality.
She went on to explain, “You just gotta have faith in your journey and keep checking in with yourself. Do you love what you do? You have to love it more than anything because (for most of us) success doesn’t happen overnight. At the end of the day, something like Star Wars is the icing on the cake, and I appreciate it so much more because of all of the struggles I endured and the very long journey I’ve taken to be here now.”
A Twist of Fate…and Some Imagination, Huh?
Misty walked away from gymnastics, choosing to give up the dream of being in the Olympics at the age of 16, bravely disclosing to me that she was lost for a while. Misty ended up graduating high school early and enrolled at Saddleback College, a local community college located in Mission Viejo, California. There she enrolled in dance and voice classes. It’s in those classes where Misty would find her joy once more.
There were a couple of young ladies in Misty’s dance classes that were parade performers at Disneyland. Because of Misty’s demure height, they told her that she should audition at Disneyland because there were parts in her height range.
Misty tells me, “I didn’t know how to approach auditioning, so I called up Disneyland and I went in for an interview but it was perhaps a lack of communication because the interview was not to work in Entertainment in the Parades Department, it was to work at the hotel. I told the interviewer that I was really trying to figure out how to be a dancer in the parades at the theme park.”
By a twist of fate, Disneyland Entertainment had just sent over a stack of flyers and Misty was given one. She was told that there was a new show coming out called Fantasmic! (Yes the exclamation mark is part of the title of the show) and she could audition for that.
Fate was certainly on Misty’s side. She would end up being one of the original Fantasmic! cast members in 1992. In the now world renowned show with two other incarnations, one of which was performed at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and the other version was performed at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan, Misty was cast as one of the dancing monkeys on King Louie’s Barge, based on Disney’s animated feature film The Jungle Book. On the same night, she would also become very good friends with Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and sometimes even Mickey Mouse, who liked to frequent the Mark Twain riverboat during the finale of the famous nighttime show.
“It was fun to be a part of because it was a brand new show. The rehearsals during that period of time were long and grueling, but to be 18 and in a show that everyone wanted to see was pretty special.” Misty said.
Full disclosure, I began to work at Disneyland in 1992, starting as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade. That same year Misty began her debut on the River’s of America in Fantasmic! I also worked in Fantasmic! first as a barge driver from 1993 to 1994 (Ursula and Tick Tock) and then as a performer in Fantasmic! from 1999 to 2001. Though we both worked Fantasmic! in the early years, I didn’t know Misty until we both performed in the Lion King Celebration Parade at Disneyland.
We were both cast as the only two female pole climbers in the parade. From the moment I saw Misty climb and execute her stunts on the pole, 10 feet in the air, I was instantly humbled by her strength and elegance. Misty seemed to possess a strength that few others had. The ease and transitions of her skills going into every stunt looked as effortless as breathing in and out, but believe me, few skills on that pole were easy, but they certainly appeared so for Misty.
Timing is Everything
While Misty was performing at Disneyland, she also landed her first Motion Picture film role in Congo, directed by Frank Marshall. I asked Misty about her role and how she got it.
M: “It’s timing. Timing is everything! My gymnastics career was the reason I was right for that role. Looking back, you only remember the joyous moments, but I know how hard it was to execute this role well because it took the producers a very long time to find the right people that would be able to handle the demands, especially for the role of the main gorilla character, Amy. It was a nationwide search to find Amy!
Production had called my former coach at SCATS Gymnastics (in Huntington Beach, California) and told him that they were looking for people under 5 ft tall. Little people. STRONG, little people, and the role was quickly narrowed down to gymnasts to perform as a Gorilla Artist, which is a type of suit performance work. They asked if he knew anyone over 18 years of age that he could recommend. I was 20. He called me knowing I was performing at Disneyland and that I had some suit experience, and he thought I should try for this role.”
I asked Misty what it was like auditioning for the role of a gorilla and she shared with me that she had to go through a series of 3 separate auditions, each building upon the prior audition.
First, she had to show them her upper body strength and overall coordination. The most extreme stunt that she could show the better because they wanted to see if Misty could handle weight on her arms. She performed a few impressive gymnastics skills. She also was given arm extensions and they wanted to see if she could walk and run using the arm extensions, in quadruped, like a gorilla.
Misty says, “It was easy having been a gymnast. I have spent as much time on my hands as I have on my feet! Walking and running in quadruped felt quite natural to me. I made it through the 1st audition.”
The second audition would become more intense.
Misty describes, “They brought the arm extensions back and these auditions were more intense because it was one on one with Peter Elliott (veteran gorilla performer). He wanted to see if I could act. We were in a dance studio. Just Peter, a camera, me and arm extensions.”
Peter would direct Misty to very slowly walk around and mill about as if it was a typical ordinary day for the gorilla, and then he explained to her that, “Something is going to scare you and you have to react to it. You have to be scared! However you feel you would react, will you cower? Will you try to get away?” After that challenge Misty goes on to tell me about the next challenge, to be aggressive.
Once again Peter gave a direction. Misty recalls him saying, “You’re milling about in quadruped and a threat comes and this time charge at me and be aggressive, you’re welcome to vocalize.”
Misty tells me that she knows she did end up using her voice, because her friend Jane, who was just outside waiting to audition, was stunned to learn that the voice she had heard so loudly was Misty’s.
“That was you?” Misty remembers Jane asking.
Misty went on to share with me about the final audition.
M: “The final audition was at Stan Winston Studios. I got to meet Stan and fellow veteran gorilla suit performer, John Alexander, and Peter Elliott was there to guide us through this final call back audition. This audition would solidify who they were going to choose and for what roles. I didn’t know if I would get it but knew I had a good chance by that point. Stan wanted to meet everyone that was going to be a part of the film. He not only wanted to see movement, he wanted to see personality, a willingness to work well with a team, and the actor’s response to direction.”
Misty is Cast as the Gorilla Amy in “Congo”
M: “I gained a lot of suit performance experience having worked at Disneyland, but there is NOTHING that can prepare you for this type of suit performance work! I remember going in for the fittings, the various stages of fittings. The head cast, body cast, arm casts, hands and feet cast. Trying on the muscle suit, which is the first layer; then the hair tech. suit that goes over the muscle suit; then the animatronic head (The “blind” head. You do not have any line of sight in animatronic heads) and the head’s attached pack of batteries (Yes! Plural!); lastly, the arm extensions. It was overwhelming at first! …to say the least! I couldn’t see, and I felt like I couldn’t move! I had a lot of hard work and training ahead of me, but I was ready for the challenge and so thrilled to be cast in Congo!”
“I was originally cast as one of the grey gorillas, the aggressive, violent protectors of Zinj. During preproduction it was soon realized that the workload for the role of Amy the gorilla was going to be too intense for one person alone. Production would need two people for the role, so they brought me on board Team Amy with actress, Lorene Noh. Congo was my first job ever in the film industry. I will say that it was incredibly overwhelming. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had never been trained, never taken any classes to understand about film, but I was lucky, I learned this art and technique from the best of the best, but again, I have gymnastics to thank for that too.
This job required a tremendous amount of discipline. When we started training, a three month preproduction preparation, we worked out every single day. We did circuit training, weights and cardio, for 3 hours every morning. In the afternoon, 3 to 4 hours of movement training and acting class learning how to move, feel, breathe and BE a gorilla. Lorene and I also had sign language class. The training was intense, but the job was going to be incredibly intense, so it was necessary! I loved every moment of it! I trained twice a day as an elite gymnast, so I was used to this type of workload, and this once in a lifetime opportunity felt like a gift from gymnastics! I didn’t make it to the Olympics, but because of my years and years of training as a gymnast I was awarded this role in a major motion picture! I am forever grateful!”
C: “From working on Congo, is that when you knew you wanted to go into stunts or an acting career?”
M: “While shooting Congo, I did all of the stunt work for Amy. I worked with the stunt coordinator and the stunt men often, and that made for a smooth transition into the world of stunts. And so it goes, EVERYTHING we put our hearts’ into always leads to the next, which leads to the next, which leads to the next.”
The Gorillas ARE REAL!!!
A few years after Congo wrapped, the film Instinct, which was released in 1999 starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr., would be Misty’s 2nd film as a Gorilla Artist. Stan Winston Studios would once again be the studio to build the gorilla suits. It would be a much smaller troupe of gorilla artists that would be needed for this casting. Stan Winston handpicked the troupe he wanted to work with and Misty was one of the gorilla artists chosen.
M: “I was incredibly proud of my work in the film, Instinct! Congo was my very first film role, a once in a lifetime opportunity, but Instinct was an opportunity for me to improve! To take all that I learned while shooting Congo and use that knowledge and experience to really master the craft of, Gorilla Artist. To make my performance really beautiful and believable, that was my goal, and I believe that our Gorilla Artist team did just that! I’ve had some fun interaction with fans about Instinct. They insist that the gorillas are real. I told them, no, they were people in suits, in fact I was one of them, but they want to believe that they are real, and that’s fine with me. It’s a tremendous compliment that people think the gorillas in the film were real, it means we did our job well.”
WOAH! I WANT TO LEARN HOW TO DO THAT!
Misty credits working on the film Instinct as one of the most important moments of her life. It would be due to witnessing an intense and emotional scene involving Sir Anthony Hopkins. For one specific scene, no one would be allowed on set except the director, Jon Turteltaub, and the cast and crew that needed to be present to film the scene. Since Turtletaub was on set, Misty ended up sneaking over to the director’s chair at video village, where a monitor was present enabling Misty to see what was being filmed.
M: “I saw Tony (Anthony Hopkins) go from zero to 1000% in half a second displaying a tremendous amount of emotion, energy, anguish, anger, pain, humility, etc., etc. I had never witnessed something so heartbreakingly beautiful, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to learn how to do that!”
With quite a few films, television series shoots, and a couple of commercial shoots under Misty’s belt as a stunt and suit performer, and after seeing Hopkin’s brilliant performance in action, she was instantly inspired and soon thereafter wanted to continue to build upon her craft and soon began to take an Acting on Camera class at Cypress College. taught by Theater Arts Professor Mark Majarian. After studying under Majarian’s tutelage for a few years, he told Misty that if she really wanted this career, she would have to move to Los Angeles and hustle by truly hitting the pavement.
It’s Not Easy…But it is a Piece to the Puzzle
Misty was incredibly uneasy about moving to Los Angeles, but she was determined to make it in film and went for it, even though not everything went according to plan.
M: “I moved to Los Angeles, and then everything fell apart. What am I going to do? I had assumed that I solidified a role on Planet of the Apes but as fate would have it, they had written out all of the female roles and mine was one of them. So here I am in Los Angeles, my big job just fell through, and no other work in sight. Budget time! For a couple of months, I ate just one meal a day in the middle of the day, and I would drink a lot of water, and take a lot of vitamins. To say, “The hustle is real in L.A.,” is an understatement! This moment was a good learning lesson about assumptions! In this business, never assume that you are booked on a project until you are literally driving to set! My parents asked me why I didn’t ask them for help, and I told them that this was my choice and not theirs. I was either going to figure this out on my own or I’m not going to figure it out at all. If you really want to be in L.A., and you know your, ‘WHY’ you’ll find a way. AND, every once in a while, a residual check from Congo or another film I had worked on would come through the mail at the last minute to help me pay my rent and other things. I lovingly refer to those checks as, ‘Pennies from Heaven!’ A.K.A., grocery money!”
Misty Meets Brian Henson
While Misty had been in Los Angeles for several months trying to survive, she was called in by the Jim Henson Company to audition for Disney’s The Country Bears Movie.
M: “It was my first audition with the Jim Henson Company. I went in and I thought I completely blew the audition. But it never fails, because honestly, most of the auditions I think I’ve aced, I never get the callback, but the ones I think I didn’t do well at, I get the call back.”
The movie The Country Bears would be Misty’s first job with the Jim Henson Company. She was the suit performer for Beary Barrington. Misty grew up watching The Muppets and FraggleRock, and shehad always wanted to work with the Jim Henson Company and truly enjoyed the experience, especially filming the final concert scene! The dream of singing and performing live on stage was born here in this movie making experience, but it would be a few more years before her music journey would begin! After all, timing is everything!
Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS) is Born
After The Country Bears movie, Brian Henson called in the suit performers for a meeting. He let them know that the company was no longer going to be doing practical, suit performance work. Misty shared that she was disappointed because she had only just begun to work for the Henson Company and now, as it would seem at the time, her journey with the company was over before she had the opportunity to truly begin, or so she thought.
A month after Misty learned that the roles of suit performers were going to be cut, Brian Henson invited her to return to the studios to work alongside actor and fellow suit performer, Michelan Sisti. Misty and Micha were hired to work on a test pilot assisting Brian and the Henson Company in the further development of their brand new system called Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS), which is the Henson Company’s motion capture technology.
It was not only Misty’s first time working in motion capture, it was the Henson Company’s first time too. Misty was at the forefront in testing this new technology which allows performers to puppeteer and voice three-dimensional CG characters in real time. The Henson’s proprietary software allows for live performance control of computer graphic characters, which means that the animated characters are streamed in real time and are directed just as live action actors would be.
M: “My introduction into Motion Capture came about because of my experience as a suit performer, and my suit performance work as Beary Barrington in The Country Bears movie. After working on the motion capture test pilot with Brian and Micha, the next big job for us with Motion Capture was TJ Beary Tales, and then I did the test pilot for Sidthe Science Kid. That project got green lit and the show became a big hit.”
Not only was it a big hit, Misty would go on to star as the title character, Sid. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would end up receiving a special Emmy Award Laureate for Special Recognition in the Computer Smithsonian Awards, Media, Arts and Entertainment Category for their Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS) use in Sid the Science Kid.
Another Piece to the Puzzle
Other jobs came up for Misty, both in motion capture, stunts and suit performance work.
It would be on the set of the 2006 Horror/Sci-fi film Altered in which Misty played an Alien Foki Scout, where she would meet Brad William Henke (Orange is the New Black). Their meeting and friendship would propel Misty forward in her acting training. After the film wrapped, Henke encouraged Misty to attend his acting class. Misty shared with me that acting class always made her nervous, but after about a month of Brad’s persistence she finally relented and Henke would end up becoming Misty’s acting coach. The first assignment Henke would give Misty was to purchase a book called The Alchemist, by author, Paulo Coehlo. To Misty, that book was everything.
M: “The book forever changed me. To realize my ‘Personal Legend’ (Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist) It will take everything I’ve got, but it is worth it! Acting class in L.A. intimidated me. Many of the actors here in town are classically trained. I really struggled at first, and I had a tough time dealing with my nerves, but I kept going to class week after week, and devoted a good, solid two years to Brad’s acting class, all the while continuing to work on films, commercials, and television shows, and continue to audition, and take dance classes at the EDGE (EDGE Performing Arts Center located in Los Angeles). You always need to be training, and improving your craft.”
Bikram Yoga and Finding Self Worth
Misty was dedicated to her craft, taking both acting and dance classes continuously but, after a decade of stunt work and suit performance work, it had taken a toll on Misty’s body that not many are able to fathom.
M: “The Country Bears movie was incredibly challenging and physically demanding on my body! My body was pretty beat up by the end of the shoot. My puppeteer, Alice Dinnean, invited me to come with her to a yoga class just after the film wrapped. She felt it would help me. After the first class, same as with gymnastics, I was hooked. I began practicing yoga in the summer of 2001, and I’ve been practicing ever since.
Bikram Yoga is where I discovered a great deal of healing. I didn’t take to Bikram at first. I remember walking into the room and thinking, ‘oh wow, it’s hot in here!’ But I signed up for a month unlimited Bikram yoga series because the teacher suggested that ample benefits from the yoga come with steady practice! And there was a big ol’ first time student discount! So, I went every single day, and within a month my body had changed so rapidly and dramatically in all lovely ways possible, I thought to myself, ‘THIS IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!’
After experiencing the tremendous, transformational, healing power of the Bikram series, I decided that I wanted to teach the yoga too! I wanted to give to others what I had been given; a happy, healthy mind, body, spirit connection. And a smoking hot body! Ha! My mama couldn’t understand why I would want to walk away from my career and spend 9 weeks in the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, but I told her it was something I needed to do for me. I don’t feel that I am contributing to society, and teaching yoga will be my small contribution. I want to help other people heal too, and I know that the Bikram series works!
My height. I’d like to say that I stand proud and confident and unwavering, but often times I experience shyness and insecurity. I’m not very comfortable in social settings unless I have my posse with me, oh, and my stilettos on. For a short girl, those ‘stilettos’ inches matter! However, when I walk into the Bikram studio to practice or to teach, I’m not wearing stilettos. I simply stand on my flat, bare feet in the hot room. It is a space where I have not only found peace and compassion for myself, but I’ve also found my confidence in a social setting. Through the 90 minute class, you’re in that room with the heat that pushes not only your physical buttons, but your mental and emotional ones too, and as you learn to really look at yourself in the mirror for those intense 90 minutes you begin to become your best friend again! Most of us are really skilled at breaking ourselves down, and I remind my students during practice that there isn’t anyone that they judge more harshly than themselves. I encourage them to use the 90 minutes in front of the mirror to begin to learn how to be more gentle and compassionate, and in doing so, they are able to share that same gentleness and compassion with everyone in their life. The Ripple Effect! The Bikram Yoga journey isn’t just physical, it is a mental and emotional journey too. I became my best friend again, and I found my confidence too! To stand in front of a big group of people and talk to them for 90 minutes, that was a big win for this shy girl!”
Becoming a Certified Bikram Yoga instructor helped Misty to find confidence in herself once again. Misty continues to practice and teach the Bikram series at Christie William’s Bikram Yoga Encino studio.
Music Is In Her Blood
When I asked Misty about The Mandalorian and how her audition was, I did not expect to hear the story she was about to tell me. As I type this, I am fighting through water filled eyes (I know what is about to written and I need to pause for a moment). I knew Misty when we were in our early 20’s performing at Disneyland, I thought I knew Misty well, I idolized her really, she has always been such an incredible one of a kind talent and yet I never knew many of the things she so bravely shared with me during her 90 minute interview with me. Like, I knew she was a talented singer/songwriter. OH, YES! Misty can sing too!! She’s a quintuple+ threat! Actor/Singer/Dancer/Stunt Performer/Suit Performer/Motion Capture Performer/ETC/ETC.
So when I asked Misty about TheMandalorian, she back tracks a bit to tell me about her singing career, because the two would mesh and come together in an unanticipated way.
M: “It was a culmination of things that happened, leading up to the audition for The Mandalorian. At that time in my life, I would tend to go off on little tangents, letting my heart and spirit guide me. When I auditioned for Sid the Science Kid, I was asked if I could sing. My head was saying, ‘Well, sort of. I sort of sing.’ While my heart was shouting, ‘YES!!!! I DO SING!!! I LOVE TO SING!’
I have always loved singing. I didn’t really know why until more recently that music was a big deal on both sides of my family. One of my second cousins was Rick Rosas (a long time bassist who performed with Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Ron Wood and Jerry Lee Lewis and who Neil Young describes as, “One of the greatest musicians to ever play with me”).
Music and singing has always been a part of my life, but it was not the forefront of my career. So when I went in for my singing audition, knowing Sid the Science Kid was a children’s show, I chose to sing a song in a cappella that I had always sung to my nieces and nephews, “You Are My Sunshine.”
The creator of the show, Halle Stanford, never forgot Misty’s voice and referred her to a music producer who told her that in order to make it in the music industry, she’d have to write her own songs too, luckily, Misty did indeed write her own music. In 2009 Misty pitched the one song she had written to her music producers, Paul Bushnell and Paul Graham. They took her on as a client, and they’ve been creating songs together ever since.
M: “I’ve taken the biggest risk in my life choosing to create my music and music videos, as well as, perform live on stage. Every penny I’ve ever worked for, including my entire savings, I put into this journey of being an artist. A music artist. There are no guarantees, it’s the hardest business I’ve ever been in, and by 2018 I had absolutely nothing to show for myself except for my songs and music videos. January, 2018, I had to hustle extremely hard again to simply make ends meet! I taught as many yoga classes as I could without dying of dehydration. I got certified to walk dogs, and I walked 3 to 4 dogs every day. I must say, despite having nothing, I was really happy! I was living moment to moment and day by day reminding myself that, ‘In THIS moment, I have enough!’ I’m fine. Keep going!”
Though 2018 was a turning out to be a rough year for Misty, she never lost faith and continued to return to that favorite book of hers that Brad William Henke had her purchase many years prior, The Alchemist.
M: (Referring to The Alchemist) “Your ‘Personal Legend,’ The Universe isn’t just gonna hand it to you! Everything will go wrong at first. You will lose everything you have, but you will find yourself in the process! JUST STAY THE COURSE NO MATTER HOW HARD IT GETS.”
Misty Gets The Call
Misty would receive a call from her agent saying that Sarah Finn, casting director known for Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and TheMandalorian, just to name a few, was casting a new show and had requested Misty’s acting reels.
M: “At this time in my life I was incredibly focused on my music and not on my reel (an actor demo reel is a video of clips of the actor’s best performances which helps casting directors get a sense of the actor’s abilities). I had no idea what I was blowing off!”
Misty gave her agent what she had, which her agent submitted, but Sarah Finn Casting wanted to see more.
M: “My agent told me that casting wanted me to come in for an audition. Despite my nerves about cold read auditions, I really wanted to try for it! A few months earlier I had done a favor for a friend and acted in her short film, and although it was terrifying to not be under an animatronic head or in a motion capture suit as an animated character; to be on camera as myself, it was new and scary for me, but I really enjoyed the process, and I wanted to do it again! So I agreed. ‘OK! YES! I CAN DO THIS!’”
Misty shared with me that she wears hearing aids. She was born with a congenital hearing loss in her right ear and after years and years of wearing ear pieces in her left ear for suit performance jobs, she has suffered nerve damage in the left ear. Even with the nerve damage, her left ear is still the strongest of the two, and she relies on her left ear a lot. Unfortunately, she was having trouble with her left ear the morning of the audition for TheMandalorian. Misty had hoped that all she would have to do was go to the doctor, have her ear examined and then the doctor would insert a new hearing aid back in and she would be fine. But that didn’t happen for Misty.
M: “I called my agent immediately after the appointment with my ear doctor and told her what was happening! I had mixed emotions! I really wanted to go to the audition, but I was so uncomfortable with the fact that I could not hear well at all, AND it was a cold read audition with Sarah Finn! It was an incredibly frustrating moment for me, but ultimately, I listened to my heart, and my heart really wanted to go to the audition! It was an opportunity to get to meet Sarah Finn, one of the biggest casting agents in town. And my agent, always being positive and supportive said, “If you have trouble hearing them, just ask them to speak up. YOU NEED TO GO TO THIS AUDITION! Also, I’ll ask if you can go in early so that you can spend a little time with the script.” She asked, and they said yes!”
I got there an hour early, signed in, signed the NDA agreeing that I wouldn’t share anything, and I just sat there in the front waiting room and began reading my script, and in that moment I had an epiphany as I read the character’s words, OH MY GOD, I KNOW THIS CHARACTER!!!! And again…”
Misty begins to get teary eyed and tries her best to hold back her tears and then she continues…
M: “Kuiil (she is barely able to muster out his name) I know him and I understand him from my struggles in life, not my triumphs. I know him from my struggles as a gymnast. I know his wisdom from my years of practicing and teaching yoga. I know him from having a similar wantonness to help people to help themselves. So when I went into the audition room, the choices I made were derived from a very honest place. My life’s journey! And it was the first time that I got to say the line, ‘I Have Spoken.’”
It wouldn’t be the last time Misty would get to say this now famous line, the next time would be on the set of The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian, But First Air Supply!
After Misty learned she landed the part of Kuill in The Mandalorian she thought all her struggles were over, but life had one more lesson for Misty to learn.
M: In July of 2018, just prior to filming The Mandalorian, I was still having issues with my left ear. I went to my ear appointment at House Ear Institute thinking I was having a simple, painless procedure, and that I’d be in and out of the doctor’s office in no time. It ended up being one of the most scary and painful days of my life! I had 3 incredibly painful procedures in one day. Multiple doctors came into the surgery room (never a good sign!) they couldn’t stop the bleeding in my ear. After the third ear surgery they administered a special medicine used for internal bleeding, packed my ear with tons of cotton, medicine and tape, and sent me home. The next day I went in for a CAT scan, blood work, and a return visit to my ear doctor just to see how I was doing. To be honest I was really scared and frustrated! I didn’t know if my left ear would recover. I could feel my music career slipping away, and it would be a week and a half of waiting. Waiting for the test results, and waiting to see the doctor again! THE LONGEST 10 DAYS OF MY LIFE!
The day after the surgeries, when I returned home from all of the appointments, I received an email from my music promoter Zac Garfinkel, asking me if I wanted to open for Air Supply in about 3 weeks? As always, my heart and spirit immediately scream, YES! OH MY GOSH! YES! While my head is spinning with the thoughts, ARE YOU INSANE? You just had 3 ear surgeries. You don’t know what’s wrong with you, or if you’re ok? You don’t know if you’ll be able to hear well out of your left ear again?
There I was, sitting alone at the dining room table, tears streaming down my face from frustration and confusion. What kind of timing is this?”
Fortunately, Misty has a strong group of close friends she calls, “The SheTribe.” She sat alone at the table and began to send out texts to them. One by one messages of encouragement began to come back.
M: “Messages came back saying things like: “Remember, life happens in the yes!” “Stay positive and trust that in 1 ½ weeks from now you’ll get good news. Everything is going to be fine.” “JUST SAY YES MIST!”
Misty was now cast in an epic new Star Wars series, she had just undergone three ear surgeries, and she now had an opportunity to open for her favorite band of all time, Air Supply. She had just three weeks and 3 days to prepare for her set. She had no hearing aid in her left ear to hear her pitch, her ear was still jam packed with cotton and medicine as she began planning for the show, and rehearsing with her band mates. She took a leap of faith and she said, YES! because it was AIR SUPPLY!! Thankfully, everything turned out OK for Misty.
M: “Just one week before the show I went to my final ear doctor appointment and was able to put my hearing aid, that I rely on, back in my left ear. It was a truly joyous occasion for me! I got to rehearse one final time with everything FINALLY back to normal! Words could never properly express the joy I felt!
The Rose, a live music venue in Pasadena, California, was sold out on the night Misty would be opening up for the Air Supply.
Photos Credit: Nyk Fry/Air Supply at The Rose in Pasadena
M: “It’s crazy because when you’re backstage, the volume of the crowd and their collective excitement, it can be overwhelming! For my first song, I decided to start with a three-part harmony, a cappella, and we were trying to hear the note to get prepared for that. When I walked onto the stage that night I felt so happy, excited, and proud! It felt good, like I really earned the right to be there, and I sang my heart out that night for Air Supply’s fans. It was the best show of my life because of everything that I had endured just a few weeks before the show! I shared about my experience with the audience that night, and for the first time ever, I experienced the beautiful connection between us all. The human connection! They took a journey with me that night! It was one of the most incredible moments of my life! …because of the lesson: JUST SAY YES!”
Misty would tell the audience that night she was so excited to be opening up for her favorite band since she was 8 years old. She also went on to tell them that 3 weeks and 3 days prior to that very performance she had three ear surgeries and had no idea if she would ever be able to hear again.
But then, there she was, standing on stage, singing in the best show of her life and then when it was over, it was time to start shooting The Mandalorian.
And So It Begins…
After Misty’s stellar opening performance at The Rose, she was now ready to start shooting the epic new Star Wars series, streaming on Disney+. The Mandalorian, written and executive produced by Jon Favreau, is the first live-action Star Wars series that has many Star Wars fans on edge. The familiarity of many of the new characters Favreau has introduced has many fans instantly wrapped up and invested in the character’s storylines, like The Child, Mando, and Kuiil. This saga takes place 5 years after the Return of the Jedi, just after the fall of the Galactic Empire and yet prior to the rise of the First Order. I was eager to ask Misty all my nerdy Star Wars fan questions, but I tried my best to keep it cool…at first. So I went in easy, though my heart started pumping a bit quicker by this point.
I asked Misty what it was like when she got the scripts for The Mandalorian.
M: “It was amazing and so special! Logging into my Lucasfilm account for the first time to get my scripts, it felt like an incredible gift! A reward for working so hard for so long, and staying the course no matter how tough life got! (ALERT…If you haven’t yet seen season one of The Mandalorian, there are spoilers ahead…skip ahead to WHO IS KUIIL?)
The scripts. By the time I finished reading Chapter One, I was hooked! I was a Mandalorian fan! The scripts were so good! I was so excited! Kuiil is such a cool character! I could not believe I was going to be a part of this incredible Star Wars story! Then I got to the end of Chapter 7, and I was like, ‘NOOOOOOO! NOT KUIIL! NO! I just got to Star Wars!’ I read through the scene twice just in case I misread it. I didn’t. I sat on my bed in silence and in shock. I put the script down and I cried! I was so genuinely sad for this character that I didn’t even know yet, but I was also extremely proud to be playing such a cool, funny, kind, courageous character that is willing to sacrifice himself for the innocent, and for the greater good of all! I had a lot of work to do in order to ensure that I could deliver a genuine, heartfelt performance that people would be moved by. A performance that people would remember because he has such a short time on screen in this Star Wars story. I wanted him to be memorable. I think he was.”
WHO IS KUIIL?
Kuiil was certainly memorable and I believe there is more to his story that needs to be told. The Ugnaught, Kuiil’s race, first appeared in Empire Strikes Back in Cloud City. In The Mandalorian, Kuiil tells Mando that he was once an indentured servant to the Empire. I asked Misty if she knew if Kuiil was one of those Ugnaughts’ who had to prep the hyperbaric chamber for Han Solo before he was frozen in carbonite.
Misty politely laughed and replied, “Maybe. Dave Filoni was my first director on The Mandalorian. I asked him if he could give me Kuiil’s backstory, anything really. Dave told me that because Ugnaughts have always been background characters, it was up to me to create what I wanted to create with him. So YOGA! That’s how I know him. Because he is wise and passive. There is no jibber jabber with him, he says exactly what it is he needs to say and then he is done. HE HAS SPOKEN…he’s moving on.”
I then asked Misty if she had a favorite line, or dialogue as Kuiil.
M: “I Have Spoken, is special! This line was in the scene when I auditioned for the role. Casting directors and writers often choose dialogue for auditions that will cue them quite quickly about an actor’s understanding of a character’s complexities and depth. The line, I have spoken, I understand it because of my yoga journey. When I teach I try to be very specific with my words because I know my students have a lot going on internally, and less is more. I teach yoga simply because I want to help people to help themselves. I never imagined that it would help me book the greatest role of my life! “I HAVE SPOKEN.”
I love that line too, and I better understand the power in Kuiil’s line after Misty shared the back story. Misty then pauses for a moment during our interview, thoughtfully going through her lines in her head for a moment and then she shares with me a beautiful moment, it would be the very first day of shooting for The Mandalorian and she would be in that very first scene.
Photo Credit: Lucasfilm
M: “It was the very first day of shooting. We were on set with the sunrise! The first scene up was Kuiil and Mando on the blurrgs at the top of the ridge overlooking the encampment. It was one of Kuiil’s most important monologues, and it was first up! I had butterflies in my stomach! I needed to continuously take big, deep breaths in order to stay calm. I was standing next to Dave Filoni on a Star Wars set! Yeah, deep breaths were necessary! With my sides in hand, we read through the scene. I didn’t need my sides because I was off-book, but I had them just in case! … you know, THE NERVES! Brad William Henke taught me well. He reminded us all (when Misty was in his acting class) ‘The dialogue is the last thing you’ll be focused on in the scene! There are many other technical details unrelated to the dialogue that will need your attention. Your words should come naturally! Have respect for the writer’s words! Know them well! Be off book when you arrive on set!’ Thank you Brad!
So I had my lines down, we ran through the scene a couple of times for timing and pacing, then it was time to get dressed; walk onto my first Star Wars set; jump onto the blurrg and do my thing. We did a few takes, and then we were done! It felt strangely easy! I think that the crew was quite shocked at how well the first scene went too! It was seamless! The two characters looked great, and it was a beautiful exchange between the two of them! I am very proud of that scene!
My puppeteers at Legacy Effects were so excited too! In between takes they would come up to me to give me air and water, and they were just so happy! They kept saying over and over, “He looks so good!” That first day on set, and every day to follow, I experienced little victories in the form of courage and confidence! I have my yoga journey, my music journey, my acting classes journey, gymnastics, and all of life’s ups and downs to thank! I AM FOREVER GRATEFUL! For all of it! Especially the tough stuff because it is what has made me who I am, and who Kuiil is! I brought all of my life experience and put it into Kuiil! In fact, another one of my favorite lines is, “None will be free until the old ways are gone.” Like me, he understands empathy, compassion, kindness and peace, and we all need strive for those beautiful qualities, rather than power, violence and dominion.”
It Takes a Team
Misty was the suit performer for Kuiil, but it would take more than Misty to help bring the character to life.
M: “Kuiil was a team effort. In addition to me, the suit performer, and Nick Nolte’s voice, I worked with 3 puppeteers on set. Legacy Effects puppeteers: Jason B. Matthews (puppeteered Kuill’s eyebrows), David Covarrubias (puppeteered extra mouth and jaw movements, and Rodrick Khachatoorian (cued the dialogue tracks). Often times our first couple of takes would be a little off, but once we felt the timing and the flow of a scene, the ‘mind meld’ would occur, and suddenly 4 people would blend and mesh into one character! Also, the excitement that everybody felt knowing that this project was a new Star Wars show, we were always ready to work, we came to set prepared, and we were very excited to be there!
As soon as me and my team arrived on set, Kuiil’s dialogue was our first priority. David Covarrubias would set up the dialogue tracks on his puppeteering rig, hand me headphones, and I would listen and listen and listen. Nick Nolte not only gifted us with beautiful delivery of the lines, but he also gave us 2 to 3 options for each line varying speed and emphasis on different words in a line. After our morning rehearsal with the cast and crew, I would have a good idea of what lines I’d like to use. Each director I worked with (Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, and Deborah Chow) would also have a listen, and they too would help me choose. Once the choices were made, David quickly pieced the lines together, and Kuiil’s dialogue would be ready to go! PHEW! It was quite a process!”
Misty also shared with me that because of the expert craftsmanship of Legacy Effects artist, Jason B. Matthews, who sculpted Kuiil’s face, she didn’t have to be glued in anywhere around her eyes, which, to me, is astonishing.
M: “Kuiil was a unique animatronic head for me to wear because of the tight sculpt. I’ve never worn a head that had to fit so tightly against my face, nor have I ever worn an animatronic head that exposed my eyes. The head had to be a super tight fit against my face in order for the skin around my eyes to blend well with Kuiil’s face. Also, Kuiil’s eyes are my eyes, just a different color. I wore custom made, bright yellow-green, sclera contacts. I thought they were cool and beautiful, but Jon Favreau would always smile and laugh and say, ‘It’s challenging to chat with you when you have those things in without the head on!’ Ha!!”
What Happens in Season 2?
I had interviewed Misty prior to the release of Season 2, The Mandalorian, which she was not allowed to confirm or deny any of my questions about it. So I waited with baited breath until its release. And then I saw a new character, a sweet character, one that is referred to as Frog Lady, and I knew instantly who the actor was inside this suit.
In Chapter 10, you’ll see some awesome moves that reminded me of Misty when she was a gorilla artist in Congo and Instinct. In two seasons of TheMandalorian, Misty has now portrayed two very different characters in the Star Wars Universe. I am eager to find out what happens in season 3, will Misty play a third character? Just think of all the Star Wars action figures! And Mr. Favreau, if you ever end up reading this, please oh please Kuiil needs an origin story! There’s so much more I want to know about him!
FROM DISNEYLAND TO DISNEY+
M: “It’s special to come full circle! I consider this my Alchemist journey! My very first professional audition was at Disneyland, and now to return to the Disney Company to play a role that has forever changed my life, well, it’s like the icing on the cake, and it’s incredibly special to be a part of the magic again.”
Misty is an inspiration to many. She has always been someone who leads with her heart, and I do admire that about her. She is so very kind and her humility is humbling. When I tell her that she is an inspiration, someone who is strong both physically and mentally, and that I wanted to tell her story, because I thought others should be aware that someone like her exists in the world, she smiles graciously and she then tells me the following:
“All I really want is for my story to inspire people. I want them to see that it’s never too late. Age is just a number really! You have your entire life to constantly be inventing and reinventing yourself. I believe our stories become more and more interesting as we get older, having endured all of life’s ups and downs, and through it all having the courage to just keep on going. Keep on fighting! To me, that’s what’s inspiring. Like RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), that woman right there is one of the most amazing people I have ever come to know! I was absolutely blown away when I watched her documentary, RBG. (Misty recites a quote) ‘There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt.’ – RBG Thank you for the inspiration RBG! I am doing just that!”
Misty has a new song that she just finished recording entitled, “Thank You.” It’s a song about gratitude. A ‘thank you’ gift from her to all of the essential workers, her family, friends, and the fans. It is set to be released around Christmas time. It’ll be available on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and anywhere else you may stream music. Until it’s released be sure to check out “Paper House,” which landed on Buzz Music’s Spotify top 10 Best of 2019 list.
Misty is continuing her motion capture artistry in the Jim Henson Company/Netflix series, “Word Party.” Netflix greenlit the adorable, educational program for its 5th season. Filming is set to begin in December.
Will Misty Rosas be in the 3rd season of The Mandalorian? I guess we’ll have to wait and see…
*Star Wars Autograph Universe Fans, reach out to www.swau.com for autograph information for all your favorite Star Wars Universe characters.