A Hippie in the House of Mouse (Jim Henson at Disney, 1980)

I hadn't realized how petty the Disney Old Guard could be and were, both to each other and outsiders, to the point that I'm wondering what sequence of events would have lead to Disney folding or being bought outright by someone else if not for the restructuring in OTL. "The Long Death of Disney" would be an interesting timeline, but not one I'm prepared to try.
It's not just Old Disney. Revenge-releases and "dualing movies" are a common practice that IMO simply makes for a lose-lose situation. Dreamworks was notorious for doing this to Disney. Disney under Eisner did this to others. MGM studios was a much driven by a desire to poach from Universal as anything else.
Chapter 22: City of Tomorrow Today: Bringing Epcot to life! (Cont’d)
Excerpt from: From a Figment to a Reality: The Imagineering Method! by Marty Sklar

In 1980 Jim Henson joined the Disney team, at first as a consultant and then later as CCO in 1982. This brought some interesting changes to the parks in general and to Imagineering specifically. Jim and the Imagineers were a great fit right from the start. Jim absolutely loved visiting the Glendale shops and offices starting with that first visit. He and his son Brian were enthralled with every contraption, design, and plan that we had. Like kids in a candy store! And the Imagineers immediately loved Jim as well. He was displaying all of the childlike enthusiasm and boundless, unrestrained vision that I used to see in Walt. The Imagineers and I saw a kindred spirit, the type of man who sees a blank sheet of paper as the greatest of gifts, as it represents endless possibilities! He and I quickly became good friends and compatriots.

Marty Sklar (R) with designer and fellow Disney Legend John Hench c. 1982 (Image source “cladglobal.com”)

Back then we were still known as Walt Disney, Inc., or WDI, and Epcot was the big deal at the time. What Walt had always envisioned as a fully functioning City of the Future had been drastically tampered down into what was essentially a permanent World’s Fair. We had a section of sponsored pavilions to showcase things like science, energy, communications, and industry, all crowned by the geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth, and a section of “national pavilions” hosted by various nations to promote tourism and investment. Some in WDI quietly feared that the whole thing would be a spectacular bomb. Every historical World’s Fair had ultimately lost money, including Knoxville’s World’s Fair just the year before, and the whole idea seemed, ironically, old fashioned. Furthermore, the marshy, unstable soils of central Florida had proven challenging to build upon and we’d vastly outspent our budget, topping $800 million at least, possibly passing a billion[1]. So alas we’d yet to build many of the central rides and attractions we’d originally envisioned when it opened as planned on October 1st, 1982, as Card had insisted.

This meant that sustaining visitors after the initial interest died down came down to our first truly unique attraction, the Imagination Pavilion and the ride therein, to bring in guests. Jack Lindquist had some ideas involving multi-day passes to encourage guests there for the Magic Kingdom to stay an extra day or two for Epcot, but still, everything was riding on the Imagination Pavilion to make Epcot viable once the initial thrill wore off. The ride itself followed the concept of a “Journey into the Imagination”, led by a friendly Victorian-looking gentleman ultimately named “Professor Dreamfinder[2]” and his dragon sidekick “Figment”, a literal figment of his imagination whom he brought to life.

Our Timeline’s Dreamfinder and Figment (image source “D23.com”)

Thankfully, Jim Henson was very interested in Epcot[3], particularly the Imagination Pavilion concept. He spent hours touring the WDI facilities and chatting excitedly with the Imagineers, and looking through the drawings. You could tell he was living a dream, and it brought a lot of us back to those exciting days when we first joined the team, before it became a job. And Jim had several ideas for us. Some of these ideas we had to delay due to cost, like his chorus line of audio-animatronic Figments, but others stayed and amazed the guests, like a cleverly-timed series of TV monitors, each playing loops of animated Figment footage, making it appear that Figment was jumping from screen to screen.

But one of his ultimately most helpful contributions, beyond the creative input and simply advocating for us at funding meetings, was sending us a couple of new team members.

The first was a man named Franz “Faz” Fazakas, a goateed middle-aged man who was one of the major designers at Henson’s “Creature Shop”. Faz was already known to most of us since he’d helped design the audio-animatronics for the Muppet Show Live! attractions. His animatronics creations, including a remote controlled “waldo” system that let a puppeteer directly control animatronic Muppets with his fingers, like he would with a real Muppet, were beyond cutting edge and derived from NASA technology. He’d eventually win an Oscar for his creations. Needless to say, everyone was happy to have Faz on the team.

The second new team member was initially far less welcome. Jim’s oldest son, Brian Henson, 16 or 17 at the time, was sent to us with the idea that we could use him as a summer intern and show him the ropes. Needless to say, the younger Imagineers, many of whom had worked hard for years to get a coveted slot at WDI, were put out by what they saw as a flagrant case of nepotism. Brian received a lot of degrading “gofer” jobs at first, and faced plenty of resentment, both overt and subtle. Attitudes quickly softened for all but a handful of stubborn holdouts, however, as it was quickly discovered that Brian was friendly, hard-working, and had an almost instinctual understanding of mechanics and electronics[4]. Even so, it took direct intervention by Faz to get Brian a real job.

Brian Henson (center, back) in 1985 (image source “muppet.fandom.com”)

The very first job we assigned to him was to design the Figment the Dragon puppet that the Professor Dreamfinder actor could carry around. We figured that, as the son of the Muppets guy, it was an area he could manage. Brian was given a set of drawings by ‎Tony Baxter and Steve Kirk and some basic instructions: flexible vinyl external housing, what kinds of expressions we wanted, etc. We didn’t really expect much more than a simple rubber hand puppet[5]. What we received amazed us all.

I assembled some of the senior WDI managers, artists, and engineers for his demonstration. We were surprised and dismayed when a pair of employees carried in a big box and started setting up some electronic controls at a table. Finally, after all was set up, in walks Brian with Figment on his shoulder.

I don’t mean he had a Figment puppet—he had Figment. The Dragon. Alive and real.

Figment sat on Brian’s shoulder with his long tail wrapped around Brian’s waist. Figment’s scales stood out and caught the light beautifully. His stubby wings flapped. His forelegs moved and grasped and pointed, His neck turned. His eyes moved and blinked. He smiled and he frowned. He laughed. He spoke, a voice coming directly out of his mouth.

It was, of course, all remote controlled. At the table in the back, Figment’s controller, veteran Muppet performer David Goelz of Gonzo fame, controlled it all. He spoke and listened through a headset. His right hand controlled the head, neck, and mouth movements with a waldo rig. His left hand controlled a series of levers and buttons for initiating the other movements. Goelz’s hands and arms moved like a concert pianist making it all flow together. It was so fluid and naturalistic that we were stunned.

Brian and Figment/Goelz had a conversation, bantering back and forth. It was the typical pun-filled, Vaudeville-inspired Muppet stuff, Brian as straight man. But even when the jokes fell flat the performance was spellbinding.

They topped it all off when Figment shot a puff of purple “smoke”, actually a harmless aerosol, from his nostrils! “Mind if I smoke?” Figment asked.

After the show, Brian and Goelz demonstrated the engineering of the system. They pulled back Brian’s specially-tailored jacket to show the underlying harness that held up Figment, they peeled back Figment’s rubber skin to show the electromechanical linkages, the aerosol generators for the smoke puffs, the mike and speaker assembly that allowed Goelz to speak through the puppet, and the remote control system that animated it all[6].

When some of the engineers expressed concerns that the puppet was intended to be carried through the park, and that the waldo rig was impractical for such a thing, Brian promised he’d get back to us on that. Sure enough, a few days later he walks in once again with Figment on his shoulder and once again with Goelz standing behind him. This time Goelz was dressed as a wizard with a long, star-spangled robe, head covered by a huge hood that concealed the audio headset. His hands were clasped in front of him, buried underneath huge, sagging, billowing Fu Manchu sleeves. Once again, Figment and Brian had their conversation. Once again, they showed us the magic: this time the robe. The “sleeves” were false, simply a wire-supported façade to conceal the harness he wore under the robe, which of course supported the waldo rig and secondary controls where he could work them with his hands.

It was perfect. Professor Dreamfinder could now walk around Epcot, Figment on his shoulder, and both could talk with the guests. They would be escorted, of course, by the “Great Wizard Gellzz” in his oversized robe, who stood silently behind the Professor. If you saw the wizard’s lips moving, it was simply because he was “meditating”. Eventually, a “Wizard’s Apprentice” would be assigned to Gellzz, a park employee there to remind the guests to please not disturb the wizard during his meditations.

Many at the time assumed that Brian had some or even a lot of help. They were partly right: Faz, Goelz, and some of the Muppet team helped with the execution. But the vast majority of the principle design and engineering, Faz assured me, was all Brian.

None of my Imagineers could have done that at the time[7]. Not because they lacked the skill or the imagination, but because they all “knew” that you “couldn’t” create something that complex in a wearable form. But no one ever explained to Brian that you “couldn’t” do that, so he just did it. Just as no one ever explain to his father that you couldn’t make puppets move fluidly and realistically, I guess.

Ultimately, Professor Dreamfinder would be played by actor Chuck McCann in the TV segments and by Disney Parks veteran Ron Schneider at Epcot. Figment, via the Wizard Gellzz, would be played by Dave Goelz in the TV spots and by a talented young U. of South Florida grad named Jason Chao at Epcot. When Schneider retired in 2007 Chao would take over for him as Professor Dreamfinder and one of Chao’s veteran “Apprentices”, Elena Gonzales, would take over as the “Wizard Gellzeya”[8].

In the end, the ride and characters would go on to be the most popular at Epcot, and some of the most popular in all of Disney history. As the animatronic technology improved over the years, so did Figment, each iteration that much more fluid and realistic than the last, and each new control rig that much smaller and lighter. Figment would quickly become a guest favorite, and the official mascot of both Epcot and Imagineering.

Not bad for a teenage intern who was only there because his dad was on the board.

There’s a valuable lesson there: check your expectations, because they may, in fact, be your limitations.

[1] Some figures say as high as $1.2 billion!

[2] Just “The Dreamfinder” in our timeline. The character and Figment evolved from an earlier “Professor Marvel” and his dragon concept. The dragon was originally green, but reportedly pavilion sponsor Kodak didn’t want the character to be the color of rival Fuji Film, so he became purple to compliment Kodak yellow.

[3] Henson loved Epcot the most of all the Disney theme parks.

[4] True. He showed a great aptitude for technology as a child. He studied physics and astronomy at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, as a teen. In our timeline, still a teen, he designed an impressive suspension rig for controlling multiple bicycling Muppets for The Great Muppet Caper and was instrumental alongside Faz Fazakas in designing the Oscar winning animatronics for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)

[5] Which is what they got in our timeline. Admittedly, it was a very good simple hand puppet, but not capable of much more than turning his head a bit and opening and closing his mouth and eyes. I’ve been unable to discover the control mechanisms (no pictures that I can find), but it appears from the outside to have been a classic central rod puppet like Charlie McCarthy.

[6] All of the capabilities and features used here in Figment would have been possible using technology the Henson Associates company had developed by this time. This technology saw use in Emmit Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, The Muppet Movie, and big time in The Dark Crystal.

[7] Are Faz & Brian’s animatronics really that good? Could Disney really not have done that? I’ll explain in a new Meta-Commentary, coming soon!

[8] Chuck McCann and Ron Schneider played “The Dreamfinder” in our timeline as well and actor Billy Barty originally voiced Figment. In this timeline Disney briefly considered using a celebrity voice actor for Figment, but ultimately couldn’t get Goelz’s voice out of their heads. Coincidentally, in our timeline Golez would eventually take over from Barty as the voice in 2002’s revamp of the ride. Jason Chao and Elena Gonzales, are fictional.
I was slightly amused when they made the reference to the waldo gear being "NASA technology," because the inventor and main (or at least a major) user of the technology was actually the nuclear industry, both the power and the bomb portion. It turns out that sort of gear is useful when you're working with toxic and radioactive materials, so that you can keep workers well protected from them. But it doesn't take a genius to see why Henson and Disney would play up the NASA connection and play down the Department of Energy one...
Man, if that had been the Figment the first time I saw it back in '89, I wouldn't have rolled my eyes at it nearly as much.
But it doesn't take a genius to see why Henson and Disney would play up the NASA connection and play down the Department of Energy one...
:winkytongue: Pretty much. Disney of 1955 would have absolutely played up the nuclear connection (some day we'll find it...). A few years after Three Mile Island in the Endgame of the Cold War...not so much. But NASA is always cool!!
Sometimes it is just nepotism, sometimes lightning really does strike twice.
I was looking forward to what might result from Disney's Imagineers and Henson's creature-makers teaming up and was not disappointed! 'Figment' is our first real taste outside of the Muppet Show Live! of what's in store for the future of the Disney parks and the future looks bright.
This version of Figment the Dragon sounds really cool.

Brian seems like a decent, smart kid!
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I'm vaguely imagining a next step beyond Figment--a full body control anti-waldo rig in which a puppeteer is mounted amid articulating feedback arms, head encased in an early model VR rig--the highest resolution and fidelity binocular video feed possible for the unspecified day, quite possibly counterweighted and mounted in an articulating motion feedback rig so the puppeteer can turn their head pretty normally, with the video feed coming from the eyes of the character and audio feed straight from its ears, the body motion mimicking every motion of the puppeteer's arms and legs and torso and turn of their head. I envision kinetic feedback--that is, the puppeteer stands on footrests (tilting and merged with their "shoes" of course) that react to shifting ground with position and acceleration guided by the character's own pressure and inertial feedback sensors in the character feet; the animation operator has a grid of pressure points to at least somewhat mimic the feel of objects in the character's hands and what I called "anti-waldo" pressure pushing their hands down in accord with the dead weight of such objects (and inertial side forces too, it is all one integrated package of feedback). Mind that just as one can break one's arms or legs tripping and falling, truly faithful feedback might injure the operator; perhaps safety thresholds prevent that or perhaps it is found that introducing these distort the correspondence between the animated character and animator's guiding motions and position too much and operators just have to be careful.

I have to wonder how well human operators can learn to move such waldo-androids; if the weight distribution does not differ too much from that inside the operator's body I suppose reflexes are generally good enough for walking and so forth, but it might be necessary to introduce an "autopilot" that can interpret the actual intentions of the operator and translate them non-linearly to the waldo-character.

Time lag issues come to mind too--I'd think that with operators secluded within a few hundred meters or so of the character operated, at some point even very high byte flows can come fast enough that the human does not notice the time lag; depending on the level of information flow needed and its fidelity, this horizon would be crossed on a certain date of evolving high speed data transfer tech and of course a mobile character requires input and output wirelessly--but it should be possible to make the WiFi transceiver inside the waldo-character very large and using high power, which should push back the date on which this level of information exchange can be achieved. The fixed base station relays can be gigantic and very powerful, as long as the RF interference doesn't pose hazards for guests with pacemakers and so forth anyway.

The neat thing is that once the basic issues of a human operator coordinating well get solved on a human scale, bigger waldoes can be scaled up to make giant characters, and then miniaturized to make tiny ones. And of course the tech has applications other than character animation--it might soon be possible to make androids to walk into and operate in environments dangerous or fatal for human operators (the original function of the waldo after all), eventually nanobots for surgery, etc. Or a virtual spacewalker set for astronauts on a space station or large space ship to do risky and tricky spacewalk missions--perhaps with a fractal setup whereby a human sized android can switch its hand for a mini-scale android held on the arm tip, foot pedals commanding being shoved around in space while miniature arms do highly delicate work with near microscopic precision. Or going the other way, a really gigantic waldo-puppet that is shoved around on something like the Canadarm and manhandle docking spacecraft or large truss/panel assemblies like so many tinker-toys and Legos.

Wonder if Disney can make a lot of side revenue with these real world utility applications of what starts as a bit of Muppet show biz?

Or it might go the other way round of course--NASA or NIH makes the feedback waldoes first, then Disney licenses some for Imagineering purposes.
...next step beyond Figment...
The full-body remote exoskeleton rig has already been done (as far as I know) but only really works in a seated/stationary position because unless the balance of the 'puppet' and 'puppeteer' rig are identical then the operator can't effectively keep their balance. Motion sickness is just one of the issues with such remote rigs, but mostly the robot just falls over a lot because the operator can't tell they're off balance until they actually start falling over. I remember watching a video ages ago on the subject and it's pretty funny watching drunk robots.

All that said, for a puppet carried around like Figment or for a character that remains in one place (seated or anchored by one foot) it's a totally viable method of control but I doubt it would be much more effective than the hand puppet rig or animatronics. As the radio tech improves the operator can stay further away, thus eliminating the need for The Wizard Gellzz, probably finding its ultimate expression in park-wide wifi networks carrying operator signals along discrete channels.
probably finding its ultimate expression in park-wide wifi networks carrying operator signals along discrete channels.
Disney buys Aironet Wireless Communications in 1988, and by 1992 their 900Mhz Mesh Network is active all thru all Disney Parks for far more than just the puppets, and expanded to Business and Home networking in 2.4Ghz in the year 2000
True genius, there, Shevek. Jim would no doubt approve.
Apparently as I feared this has been tried in real life and fails because people can't adapt to their masses and mass balances being off. One possible simple solution is to make a waldo-puppet with closely similar mass and distribution--but even then, while I think we can give the operator accurate force feedback, we can't simulate the inertial experiences involved in actually moving, or rather accelerating. And the omission of this kinetic input might be what throws people off.

This is why I suggested a kind of autopilot in circuit, but that might just make the experience more confusing for the operator and make even successes at learning to keep balance of the puppet look weird and awkward. It seems to be no easy problem.

I still suspect it can be done; I am thinking of those arcade VR things pretending to be a car or roller coaster where you strap into seats and the video cues on the screen combined with moving the car short distances and tilting it give the illusion of motion. And of course flight simulators.

But we are told the waldoes trip and fall down and the operators get dizzy and nauseous. Still ought to be fixable with training I suspect! But it is harder to prove now.
A Scanner Darkly animated in the late 80's by Disney
Not Disney, but Touchstone maybe.
Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars.
I could see animatronic green martians. The costumes would be put on stilt walking performers with a second pair of animatronic arms for far shots like running and fully animatronic for close shots.
Meanwhile I don't think Disney can touch A Scanner Darkly, not and remain distinctly Disney. But I do think the people who did handle it OTL did it particularly well, at least from the point of view of faithfully capturing Dick's style and intent--his daughter in the audio commentary thought so too.
As I said above Touchstone Pictures (founded and owned by Disney in 1983) could do A Scanner Darkly.
With Tim Burton at Disney. Maybe he doesn't direct Batman 89.
Could still do it through Touchstone.
I highly doubt that a good Batman or superhero film is not bound to happen. Maybe we could get a Ridley or Tony Scott Batman in the early 90's. Oh my maybe a John Carpenter Batman with Kurt Russell. As much as I love Burton's Batman I know there is potential out there for another excellent alternate version.
The movie is gonna happen regardless in 1989. Rami would make the best kind of Batman movie. Not too dark, but not too light. Besides, this frees up tom Burton to potentially help with the Animation and score for The Spirit movie. Johnny Depp as The Spirit anyone?
No Batman, no Birdman, no Vulture and Michael Keaton is still seen as "the funny guy".