The ThemedReality Interview: Cynthia Sharpe on Princess Leia, Disney heroines, and the impact on theme park attractions

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NOTE: This piece originally appeared on Kinotech’s sister blog, ThemedReality.

When I was six years old, I saw Annie Hall.  It wasn’t until I watched it again in my 20’s that I recognized the complex relationships and fully formed persona of Oscar winner Diane Keaton’s title character.  In the intermittent years, if you asked me about Annie Hall, the only thing I could remember was Woody Allen’s memory of growing up in a house underneath Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt coaster.

The same year, 1977, I also saw Star Wars. We went to three theaters before we finally found one that had tickets – and it was standing room only.  For much of the film, I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the back of the theater, taking in every breathtaking moment.  From the age of six on, I could recite almost every line in that film.  I related to Luke, to Han, to the droids, to the Wookie, and even to Leia.  But as a young boy, I lacked something.  I couldn’t relate to Leia as a girl would.

When Carrie Fisher passed away this week (my piece relating her performance to that of mother Debbie Reynolds in How The West Was Won can be found on InPark Magazine’s website), Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe posted her perspective on what this meant to her as a woman on Facebook, which I hereby republish without her permission, because such is the ThemedReality way.

Two really important things happened to me within the same horrible year of junior high, which shaped me immeasurably. One, my school librarian slipped me “The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’, whispering to me to not let my particularly humorless about girls reading ‘boyish’ things principal see me with them. Two, I finally got to see the entire Star Wars (original) trilogy.

Combined, they rocked my world. Girls could be heroes. *Girls could be heroes*. Girls could be self-rescuing princesses. Girls could be smart, and crafty, and clever. They could be snarky and sarcastic. They could have complicated love lives. They could be actual well-rounded characters, instead of window dressing. They could be the masters of their own destinies. I couldn’t quite verbalize it at the time, why seeing Leia in a slave bikini pissed me off so damn much, but even then it did. Nice try, stuffing her back in the window dressing box, guys.

As a child, I appreciated Carrie Fisher’s characters. As an adult, her wit, wisdom, audacity. She opened the door for me to talk about addiction and mental health with my kid. You can keep your ‘when I am old I shall wear purple’ simpering crap. When I’m old, I wanna have Carrie Fisher’s total willingness to live out loud, unfiltered, no bullshit. A year ago I sat in a darkened movie theatre, behind my child, and though I had seen stills and clips, nothing prepared me for the moment that General Organa filled the screen. Older. Battle hardened. Not a magic sparklepony force user. No, a woman who had lead the resistance through loss after loss (both personal and sweeping). My hands flew to my face and I must have gasped, because Sean craned around in his seat and eyeballed me. I watched her weary face and no nonsense demeanor and saw countless female execs, professors, political leaders who’ve been through a similar grind. Carrie Fisher once again was representing so many of us. Not pretty. Not perky. Not conventional. *Competent*. Good- nay, great- at what we fucking do. And thoroughly done with bullshit.

David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. I can draw an arc through and with all of them, all people who profoundly shaped what it meant to embrace yourself, to live life unapologetically, to be authentic in a visceral, norm-defying kind of way. They were our generation’s torch bearers, who lit the way for those of us who didn’t quite fit inside neat boxes. And while I felt the first three keenly, it’s the loss of Carrie Fisher that makes my face crumple. Maybe because of what next year will bring. Maybe because it feels like we haven’t come that far from 1977 when a princess who could wield a blaster was so boundary breaking.

I was so moved by Cynthia’s piece that I tracked her down to the island in Indonesia that she calls her winter home and invited to join me for a conversation about Fisher and Leia over that second of grandest inventions by Al Gore (following global warming) – the internet.

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If you’re not familiar with Cynthia, she is the Prinicipal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and as such oversees the development of all educational programming. She has worked on three projects that have received the prestigious Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, including that Harry Potter studio tour that the Mrs. keeps insisting I fly her to London to visit.  And this is why our discussion moved into theme parks.

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I’d like to discuss how Carrie Fisher’s performance had a profound impact on the Disney heroines that followed, creating an empowered generation of young girls, which in turn changed the way Disney approached its shows and attractions

Well, Princess Leia – and later, General Organa- certainly had an enormous impact even thought at the time of her creation, Leia wasn’t a Disney property.

When she first filled the big screen, most of our film heroines of a certain age were of a type. They were objects of romance, or scream queens. They were pretty and not the drivers of their own destiny, often. Princess Leia was a princess with a blaster! She had agency, skill, wit, and was- forgive my language- a badass. She wasn’t solely defined by her relationships to other men.

Despite the occasionally cheesy hairstyles, lack of bras in space, or that god awful slave bikini, you can draw a direct line from Leia screaming through the forests of Endor on a speeder to Merida galloping through the forests on her horse, or Anna taking off to find Elsa.

One thing I’ve noticed is that much like Leia, the Disney princesses seemed to transform from damsels in distress needing a man to save them to empowered women that were considered equals.

Exactly. And it makes sense. I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia.

So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theatre seats.

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As the Disney parks are very character-centric, how have you seen this change in female character design affect the design of attractions in parks?

Great question. I’ll admit there are ways in which I think they haven’t pushed it enough (I, for one, would burn every fastpass I could on a Brave ride rather than just a character meet-n-greet). But, having said that, we see it in ways both big and small. Re-skinning Maelstrom into Frozen could have been the equivalent of the Journey of the Little Mermaid- a rehash of the movie – to satisfy the need. Instead, it is bar none one of the smartest dark rides I’ve seen in ages. It’s thoughtful, witty, emotional- the use of that track is brilliant- and it *advances the story of the two sisters more*. They continue to be the heroines of their world.

On the ‘Small’ side- it won’t be small for long, given the Star Wars land work- but the gender parity and inclusion we see in Star Wars events in park is great. You don’t see only male staff in character- you see men and women and there’s absolutely no ‘well you can only be a princess’ exclusion of girls. Leia kicked butt. Rey kicked butt. There’s room for girls now and Disney is embracing that as fast as they can, given the realities of how long it takes to build a ride or land.

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A modern actress that I see having many of the same traits of Leia up on screen is Zoe Saldana. In 2017, we’ll see a new Disney attraction and a whole land based on franchises she starred in – Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Will having lands or attractions based on films with strong female characters result in attractions that give a strong empowering message to young girls?

I think so. It plain makes good business sense. When we look at the statistics of who drives disposable income spending in families, tweens have huge, huge influence- over 70B USD, on everything from what movie the family goes to on a weekend, to what car mom gets, to where they vacation. Tweens and teens are embracing films and characters where girls are empowered, are shaping the action and are right there in the thick of it. And this generation doesn’t hesitate to call out what they see as unfair or not doing justice to source material. Simply put: if you’re doing a land or attraction on a property with a strong female character, you had better get her right, or you’re going to hear about it from the fan base and you’re not going to get their (or their parents’) income and attention as thoroughly as you want.

One last question – what are your thoughts about her scene in Rogue One and the timing of the film’s release being so close to her death?

I think it’s actually going to be way harder to watch the next film- I understand she was done filming- than to see Rogue One again. Because in the next film she’s General Organa. She’s Princess Leia after Seeing It All, Losing So Much, Pushing Through The Horror. I personally felt from a storytelling standpoint it was important to end Rogue One- which, wow, it’s not like you didn’t know what kind of a mood it had to set – on a note that brings it full circle to the ‘start’ of the mythos and the opening of A New Hope.

The reminder that after all of this horror, after so much loss, there’s still hope- that was an important beat. But, personally? I think the punch of watching General Organa and knowing she’s gone will be much, much harder.

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Q&A With Giant Screen Films/D3D President Don Kempf

Don Kempf and I recently had a discussion about his company’s work in digital giant screen cinema.  You can find it at ThemedReality.com.

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GSCA 2012 Coverage

Follow my coverage of the 2012 GSCA International Conference in Sacramento at http://inparkmagazine.blogspot.com/  Last night included a tribute to the late Roman Kroitor, a co-founder of IMAX, by Graeme Ferguson, the only remaining founder and a surprise screening of the very first IMAX film.

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ThemedReality August 2012 Update

Newly added at ThemedReality.com:

  • Walt Disney, Theme Park Character

And coming later this month:

  • Batman, laser projectors, and what theme parks can learn from IMAX
  • A new kind of branding for museums
  • What We Know About Shanghai Disneyland: The Director’s Cut
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ThemedReality March Update

The following posts are available on my new blog, ThemedReality, found at www.themedreality.com.

  • ETI and the Future of Ride Design: ETI’s Brian Edwards discusses what the future holds for cloud technology and attractions, then ThemedReality re-envisions two blockbuster Disney attractions.
  • SeaWorld Parks and its Animal Spirit Guides: SeaWorld and Busch Gardens make a radical change from human expedition in the animal world to becoming the animal itself.
  • Super 78 Played Bridge at a Singapore Resort: How Super 78 Studios created an emotional bridge connecting a museum and an aquarium.
  • Obscure Trivia Break: Two theme park chains and two horror franchises about carnivorous fish.

Posting later this month on ThemedReality:

  • Jobs in Museum Interpretation: How iOS technology and hardware are revolutionizing the way we experience museums.
  • The Museum Terminator: Remembering when California First Lady Maria Shriver expunged a carefully laid out themed design from the “state museum.”
  • Three Generations of Walt: Disney Parks takes three different approaches with interpreting Walt for three generations of guests.

My articles publishing this month:

  • 4D Comes of Age in Sound & Communications Vol. 58 No. 3 (March 19, 2012): Covers Northern Light at Capitol Theatre, Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton, Alberta and Airboat Adventure at Museum of Discovery and Science, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  Interviews with Robert Wyatt, Artisan Design; Doug Yellin, Mathilda Entertainment; David Willrich, DJ Willrich, Ltd; Andy Hanlen, LA ProPoint; Maris Ensing, Mad Systems; and Kim Cavendish, Museum of Discovery and Science.
  • How the TEA and Themed Entertainment Design Altered the Museum Experience in the Official Program, 18th Annual Thea Awards Gala: Covers EPCOT, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, FL; National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, Columbus, GA; The Changing Climate Show at Science North, Sudbury, Ontario; Fernbank NatureQuest, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta, GA; and Air Force One Discovery Center, Ronald Regan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, CA.  Interviews with Brian Edwards, Edwards Technologies (ETI); Doug Yellin, Mathilda Entertainment, and Mira Cohen, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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The Final Post – The Force vs The Max

In 2005, I began a two year investigation into a lawsuit between IMAX Corporation and a stereoscopic conversion firm called In-Three.  Over 20 people with various companies and studios were interviewed for the pieces that appeared on the World Enteractive website.

IMAX had been having difficulty converting live action portions of its giant screen documentary Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon and called in In-Three for assistance.  The two companies signed an agreement allowing IMAX to explore In-Three’s technology.

Now, 2005 was a year of transition for digital cinema and the introduction of digital 3D.  That year, a company with the know-how to compete against IMAX announced its first deployment – RealD.  Its CEO had produced films for IMAX, its President had worked on IMAX 3D productions with James Cameron, and the man leadiing its worldwide deployment had been head of one of IMAX’s largest North American cinema customers.

While RealD was preparing their rollout, Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema division introduced a single projector digital solution for 3D.  And In-Three was hard at work on what was then scheduled to be the first film completely converted into 3D – Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

Just days before ShoWest, the big cinema industry event where George Lucas was scheduled to present a series of film clips converted by In-Three into 3D, including the entire first reel of Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope), IMAX announced that it had licensed a 3D conversion patent from a New York computer graphics artist and patent agent named David Geshwind and they promptly sued In-Three for patent infringement.

The case would carry on for years, with IMAX and In-Three settling out of court.  But, as of IMAX’s last financial reporting, it was still being held up in arbitration between IMAX and Geshwind.

So what does that have to do with Star Wars?

Lucasfilm had agreed to allow Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones to be shown in IMAX theaters.  They were not too happy with the fact that they had to cut 22 minutes off the film due to system limitations, especially when they found out that IMAX had fixed this issue by the time of the next film to be released by IMAX: The Matrix Reloaded, some seven months later.

When Episode III was in production, IMAX again approached Lucasfilm with the idea of releasing the film in IMAX and the last 20 or 30 minutes in 3D.  (a strategy that would be used on Superman Returns and a couple of Harry Potter films, allegedly with the Geshwind patent working hard behind the scenes).  Lucasfilm wanted all or nothing in 3D and told IMAX to use In-Three, who had been conducting tests with Lucasfilm’s ILM visual effects unit for quite some time.

IMAX in turn told Lucasfilm that they had successfully developed their own live action 3D conversion technology.  Lucasfilm gave them a short clip of Episode III to convert, but IMAX missed the deadline and never showed the clip converted into 3D to Lucasfilm executives.

Instead they showed the converted clip to executives at Universal in an effort to get King Kong.  Without permission of the copyright holder.

And that, dear friends, is why instead of seeing the incredibly sexy Natalie Portman in IMAX 3D tomorrow, you’ll be seeing the incredibly sexy Luis Guzman.

As a footnote, In-Three was aquired last year by visual effects house Digital Domain, while IMAX finally completed its first full 3D conversion of a Hollywood film – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – which was shown around the world in RealD.

That’s it.  The Blog is over.  Take the next leap and step into ThemedReality at www.themedreality.com

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BREAKING NEWS: Remember When IMAX Won the Large Format Wars? Well, Now Barco’s the New IMAX

Last night, after watching the new film “Chronicle” on a Barco 4K projector at my local Cinemark, I received an advanced copy of a rather interesting press release that I decided not to post anything about until it was actually publicly released.

Earlier on the Kinotech Blog, I reported on confusion stemming from Barco projectors being installed in IMAX theaters and the possible missappropriation of IMAX publicity materials.  This led to a rather nice interview with the Barco folks at their Rancho Cordova, CA headquarters and an article about the company’s digital cinema products in the LF Examiner.

DAMN! HOW THINGS CHANGE!

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