The Black Hole Memories
From the autobiography of Dorse A. Lanpher
“Flyin’ Chunks and Other Things to Duck”
In early 1979 I was working at Walt Disney Productions on The Black Hole, a live action film with animated effects. The spectacular success of George Lucas’s brilliant Star Wars inspired Walt Disney Studio’s to do a film which would cash in on that sci fi success. I had just finished working on the hand drawn animated effects for Pete’s Dragon, another live action film. Don Bluth who had directed the 2D animation for Pete’s Dragon was talking about leaving the studio with John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman to do the animated film, The Secret of NIMH. Don had mentioned that he would like for me to join them as special effects supervisor. Even though I was intrigued by Don’s offer I felt I had a professional obligation to finish The Black Hole and was having a good time doing it. Jack Buckley, a long time Disney effects animator, had retired as effects department head and left me in charge as the animation effects department supervisor. Ted Kierscey, an effects animator, was helping me animate the laser blasts, rocket engine exhaust, and various visual effects that at the time, before computers, only 2D animation could accomplish. Don Paul was just out of the Eric Larson animation training group and he was assisting us. There was even some input from Brad Bird, later to become a successful director for Pixar Studios. During a conversation with Brad he revealed his successful directorial future when he expressed some ideas about how I might animate the laser beams when the actors fire their hi tech weapons. The production designer of the film was Peter Ellenshaw. A successful fine artist who was honored as a Disney Legend in 1993.
One day as I was exiting the animation building to go across the street to the main studio theatre to see dailies, Ron Miller, the films producer, stepped out of the elevator with the same intention. Crossing the street together forced us to become a social entity. As we walked across the street I made an effort to connect with Ron. I stretched my neck and looked up, way up, for he was way over six feet tall. I raised my voice to reach up where he was and said “Hi Ron, are we going to see some good stuff today?” Without diverting his eyes from his goal, the theatre ahead, and not looking down at me, he replied with an abrupt “Well are we?” It didn’t seem to be a friendly reply and sat me back a bit so I said what I thought could be a positive “hope so.” We walked into the theater and I sat down in the back as Ron walked on and sat down forward at the control console with a group of his chosen few. Before the dailies started rolling a guy came in and sat down next to me and introduced himself as the director, Gary Nelson. It had never occurred to me at the time but the guy that sat down next to me in that theatre could have been anybody for I had never met Gary Nelson. He made comments that led me to believe that he wasn’t happy with the movie. At the time I felt a kinship with the man for I wasn’t happy with the movie either. I think that Gary was director in name only for Ron seemed to be the actual director since he was producer and president of the company and wanted to do it all. I sensed a lack of unity.
The Black Hole was finally finished and it was decided to end the movie with one of the six endings which had been written for it. Shortly after the film was in the can I received a call from Ron Miller’s office and was instructed to be at a sweat box screening room in the animation studio at 7:30 AM the next morning. I was to view the film with Ron Miller and Eustace Lycett, the composite opticals photographer, Art Cruishank, director of miniature photography and Bob Broughton, optical photography coordinator. Early on in the production Bob had come to me and ask if I could make some diffusion filters. He said the studios commercial filters weren’t in good shape and I could make some by spraying clear lacquer fixative on cells. He wanted me to cut cells into squares that would fit in his optical printer. Then grade and number them 1 through 10, from slight diffusion, number 1, to a barely able to see through, number 10. All of the hand drawn effects we had animated for the movie, the varying glowing softness of the rocket engines, lasers, and various effects were created using Bob’s “home made” filters that I had constructed for him. Years later, in 2001, Bob was honored as a Disney Legend for his extensive camera and optical work on most all of the Disney animated features including Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as well as The Black Hole.
Well there I was with the big guys. In that pecking order I was the lowest of the low peckers. There was no one under me to peck. There was Joe Hale who had worked on the picture as liaison between live action and animated effects but he didn’t show up that morning. He received a screen credit for director of animated special effects but wasn’t there to support me. Come to think of it he was supposed to be above me in the film’s pecking order. Even though our animation department did the hand drawn animated effects in the picture Joe took all the credit for our work and got his name and picture in the publicity magazines. Ouch, ego damage! The studio didn’t give me my due credit because I had resigned from the studio right after the picture was finished so I could join the newly formed Don Bluth Productions. Walt Disney Studio’s rewrote history for publicity and said Joe Hale had animated the effects. In fact an article about the animated effects for The Black Hole appeared in Starlog Magazine. It had a heading which read “The magic is in the pencil of Joe Hale.” Hey, it was my pencil! Well, a lot of it was my pencil and some it was Ted Keirscey’s and Don Paul’s and a few other people. None of it was Joe Hale’s pencil.
The morning of The Black Hole screening I was very nervous because I was the only peasant in the screening room and wondered what I was doing there. The lights went down, the movie rolled and we all sat quietly as the film fumbled it’s way to the end. The lights came up and there was that long awkward pause, everyone waiting for someone to say something. Every one of the big guys looked at me, why I don’t know unless they didn’t want to have to tell Ron that his film was a piece of crap knock off of Star Wars. Ron Miller turned to me, peon of peon’s, and said “Dorse, what do you think of it?” Gee… my mind was going no where a mile a minute. Here I was sitting with the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company and I thought his film was a disaster. I really thought The Black Hole would be a black eye for the studio. It seemed like forever before I managed to get some words formed in my head. I wanted to weigh my words carefully. I couldn’t just blurt out how I felt for that would have made me sound like a crazy person. Since the film was in the can and I had never been invited to any production meetings I thought I was just there to offer support, a yes man kind of thing. The fact that I had decided to quit the studio to join Bluth was momentarily blocked out by my intense sense of survival. I could have said “Ron, this movie is a classic comic book film adventure and the youthful theatre public who inhabit the movie houses will love it.” But no, I didn’t say that, I didn’t believe that. I finally sputtered something like “Well, the good guys won.” It was a totally inane comment and I was embarrassed by uttering it. Still am. That moment was one of my most uncomfortable moments at the Walt Disney Studios. That experience caused a short circuit in my memory much like blacking out in a car wreck. I don’t recall what happened after that. I just remember it was a great relief to get out of that screening room and be on my way.
I resigned from the studio on November 8th, 1979, to join Don Bluth in his new independent animation effort. One of the first things I did for Don Bluth Productions was make two sets of homemade “Bob Broughton diffusion filters”. Those filters helped to create the magic in the first Don Bluth feature, The Secret of NIHM. The Black Hole opened on December 21, 1979, two weeks after Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened. The Black Hole wasn’t a successful picture but even to this day there are a few sci fi cult fans around who praise the film as a favorite. And the hand drawn visual effects are spectacular.