Friday, December 9, 2016

Disney's The Black Hole (Mega Post!)

Thirty-seven years ago this month, Walt Disney Productions released the film, The Black Hole. I purchased this poster at Disneyland back in 1979 (before the movie's release) and it hung on my bedroom wall for quite some time.

The Fall/Winter Disneyland guide book announced the film's upcoming release on the inside of it's back cover.

The Black Hole was the company's first PG-rated film, because of some swearing and the depiction of human death (the death of Bambi's mom and Simba's dad didn't warrant a PG rating?) Regardless of the more mature rating, the movie was paired up with the second re-release of Sleeping Beauty and billed in some newspaper ads as "Two Worlds of Disney Fantasy."

I clipped this ad out of the Los Angeles Times.

My grandfather took me to an evening showing of this "double feature" at the Rolling Hills Theater in Torrance (now a BevMo!). I remember my grandfather nodding off during parts of Sleeping Beauty! And I nodded off during parts of The Black Hole! It was unfortunate because I had been looking forward to seeing the movie ever since I first read about the making of it.

The Fall 1979 issue of Disney News Magazine had included a cover story about the movie's upcoming release.

The back cover featured an ad for the movie:

I always thought that this movie was Disney's response to Star Wars, but Disney was reportedly planning this movie as early as 1974. After rereading the Disney News article, I see that it even starts out by saying "After five years preparation....."

Going back a few years earlier, here is what the company had to say about the film in their 1977 Annual Report. It's working title at that time was "Space Probe."

And here's what was written about the movie's progress in the 1978 Annual Report.

After it's release, the film had several mentions in the company's 1979 Annual Report. The caption for the photo below reads, "Maximilian Schell, commander of a massive derelict spacecraft in The Black Hole, stands amid some of his ominous creations. Four Academy Award Winners contributed to design and execution of film's spectacular special effects."

And the caption for this next photo states, "A team of technicians from WED Enterprises and Disney Studio developed the film industry's most advanced computerized motion-control camera, "Automated Camera Effects System (ACES)," to accomplish the complex miniature effects in The Black Hole.

The following info abut the ACES system is from Wikipedia: "Although Star Wars had revolutionized the use of computerized motion control miniature effects, The Black Hole was shot using a blend of traditional camera techniques and newly developed computer-controlled camera technology. Disney had wanted to rent equipment from Industrial Light and Magic, but it was unavailable during the film's production schedule and was also prohibitively expensive. In the end, Disney turned to its own engineering department, which spawned the A.C.E.S. (Automated Camera Effects System), the Mattescan system (which enabled the camera to move over a matte painting), and a computer-controlled modeling stand. The movie's opening credit sequence featured what was then the longest computer-graphics shot ever filmed."

The 1979 Annual Report also mentions a December episode of Disney's Wonderful World, which included a tribute to special effects in (Disney) movies and a sneak preview of The Black Hole. Joseph Bottoms, who played Lieutenant Charlie Pizer in the film (and pictured below in the "M.E." costume), played "Major Effects" in the episode.

Here is the listing for that episode, from the December 15, 1979 issue of TV Guide. (Fonzie Alert!)

Below, composer John Barry is shown conducting the musical scoring of the film, and the merchandising campaign for the film is discussed. (Disco Mickey Mouse Alert!)

I remember that there was a lot of The Black Hole merchandise available at the time. The photo below shows action figures, models, lunchboxes, coloring books, shoes and more. Right now on ebay, there are also ViewMasters, Colorform playsets, comic books, board games and even bed sheets. I had/have the 1980 Calendar that is shown in the lower right corner.

I also purchased several packages of "The Black Hole" trading cards at the local "Stop 'N Go" store. I remember asking the clerk if I could have the display box that the packets of cards came in.

I even saved a wax wrapper from one of the packages. Each packet contained ten "movie photo cards," one sticker, and one stick of gum, which was standard at the time for "Topps" brand trading cards. I had been collecting various Topps cards from a very young age, starting with "Wacky Packages."

I never got the complete set of 88 cards, but here are 47 of them.

Spoiler alert! The gruesome "human death" scene was shown on a couple of the trading cards!

And here are 9 of the stickers:

In 2009, it was announced that a remake of The Black Hole was planned. In the meantime, while we wait to see if this really happens (Helloooo, Jungle Cruise Movie?), here is the original trailer for the film:

And this is a fan's "modern" version of a trailer:

Here's one last little (obscure) detail that I remember about the 1979 release of The Black Hole. Space Mountain at Disneyland received some large rear-lit photos from the movie, along the wall of it's exit corridor (which were later replaced with photos of the cosmos and then again with photos of "aliens" in advertisements for Fed-ex). Another change that was made to Space Mountain at that time, was the addition of three small video monitors that were placed above the exit speedramp. The monitors played a short video, which placed us, the viewers, traveling around the outer rim of a black hole and eventually being sucked into it. It ended with the title of the movie coming up on the screen. The black hole in the footage was represented by an animated green line grid, just like the one visible in the original trailer above. The video was very short and would repeat on a loop over and over. Does anyone else remember this?

After the film came and went, the monitors were removed and the holes where they were located were covered up with square panels. For years however, you could look up and still see the recessed areas in the ceiling where the three monitors had been. I believe the ceiling remained that way until Space Mountain received it's massive redo in the mid 2000's and the exit speedramp was replaced with stairs, however I don't have photos or video to confirm that. I do have some home video footage from the nineties of the ramp itself (in case anyone is feeling nostalgic about that old exit ramp!) Below, is a screen shot from that video footage. The monitors were located in recessed niches, just above the guest's heads.

If you have stuck with me this far today, thank you! And I hope you have enjoyed this "Journey that begins where everything ends!"

****Just in case anyone is interested in watching that entire Space Mountain video (even though at this point in time, there weren't any "Black Hole" movie tie-ins), it does include footage of the old Space Mt. loading station, the Fed-ex robot that used to be located in the station, and a complete ride-thru prior to the first on-board soundtrack being added to the vehicles. And by the way, as was usually the case with Disneyland's speedramps, the one at the exit was turned off and guests were having to walk up it!

*****POST UPDATE***** (May 2024)

I recently came across this 1979 advertisement from The Los Angeles Times. A robot "inspired by" V.I.N.CENT, from The Black Hole, was going to be appearing at select May Co. department stores. Someone was going to win this clone of the robot, valued at $1,000. According to the ad, he could "play games, tell jokes, answer true, false, and multiple choice questions, and even play cassette tapes."


K. Martinez said...

Wow! This truly is a mega post! I love that poster that you hung on your bedroom wall and I do have that particular Disney News magazine with “The Black Hole” article. Those bubble gum trading cards are pretty cool too.

While The Black Hole was in production before Star Wars was unleashed on the public, I can’t help but wonder if the cute robots V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall) and B.O.B.(voiced by Slim Pickens) were added later during production as a response to the success of C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars. I think that’s a possibility. As far as Star Wars goes, I think The Black Hole more closely resembles Walt Disney’s earlier film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. You have Maximilian Schell as the commander of the USS Cygnus filling in for Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.

“The Black Hole” came out at a time the Disney studio product was at an all time low and out of touch with the public’s taste in films. I believe it was given a PG rating because at that time Disney thought a G rating would be the kiss of death at the box office for the film that they spent a lot of money on. Star Wars was rated PG and was highly successful. Regardless of its rating “The Black Hole” was considered a critical and financial failure at the time and just another nail in the coffin and reason why five years later Disney would go through a radical change in management and change their studio output.

I think you might’ve nodded off during ‘The Black Hole” because it really wasn’t that exciting a film. It was an example of Disney following instead of leading. I enjoy the film today on its own terms and as an example of the Disney Studio product of the time, but it was no “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or “Star Wars”. The last huge success Disney had at the box office at that time was “The Love Bug” and that was more than decade earlier.

Great post! Thanks, TM! There’s lots of great imagery here. I really enjoyed it.

And one other thing! I always thought it would’ve been cool if they went with “The Black Hole” instead of “Star Wars” for their new simulator ride in Tomorrowland, a sort of simulated journey into the black hole. After all, it was a Disney property. Of course we all know why they picked Star Wars and thus was born the first non-Disney IP attraction at Disneyland.

Thanks again!

MRaymond said...

That mega post jogged some brain cells. Nice work.

TokyoMagic! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TokyoMagic! said...

Ken, Thank you! I wondered the same thing about the robots in "The Black Hole" and also about what other influences "Star Wars" might have had on this film while it was in development. I hadn't thought about it before, but you are right about the similarities to "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea."

I remember that Disney was trying to break free from it's "Rated G" fare at this time. There was even an article in "TV Guide" about it. (I'm trying to find that article!)

I'm afraid you are probably right about the reason for me nodding off during the film. I had never done that before while viewing a movie in a theater!

I would rather have seen Star Tours have an original storyline and characters (original to Disney, that is). Just think, if "The Black Hole" had been a huge success and had spawned some successful sequels, maybe the northern half of Frontierland would still be standing right now. Or maybe Disney would have still bulldozed it and built a "Black Hole Land"?

MRaymond, Thanks! I'm glad I was able to help out with some memory triggering!

Major Pepperidge said...

I think I remember the green wireframe black hole graphics video at Space Mountain.

This movie had me so excited - the Disney publicity had totally worked on me - but I know I was ultimately disappointed by it. It's been a long time since I've seen it, but some of the production values are so cheap. Control boards on the spaceship literally look like they are made of foam core and cardboard.

One impressive thing was the actual view (CGI) of the black hole, with stars swirling around - even today I think that looks pretty cool!

Thanks for the fun post, this was a big deal at that point in Disney history.

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, I'm glad someone else remembers that video from the Space Mt. exit! You are right, this was a big deal at the time. And I agree that the special effect for the black hole itself, was done very well. It's too bad they didn't maintain that same standard for the rest of the movie. I remember thinking the tin foil that Yvette Mimieux was wearing (in the scene where she's about to be lobotomized), made her head look like a baked potato! And they really should have found a way to work the name "WEEEE-NA!" into her character's dialogue.

Snow White Archive said...

What an awesome post Tokyo! Now you've made me want to go back and watch the film again (it's been years). Love all the film tie-ins you shared, including the trading cards, plus the Space Mountain ride-thru video.

TokyoMagic! said...

SWA, Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed all of it! I actually would have shared a couple more items, but I couldn't find the 1980 calendar, or a storybook version of the movie that I also have. If I come across them, I'll add them to the post.


Great post! One of mt early Black Hole Disneyland memories was seeing the Black Hole animated windows at the Emporium ....I knew very little about the film except for what was shown in the Disney News issues of the day (I tended to read park related articles over and over and skim over film related Disney News articles)But I remember being very confused at seeing the floating robots.."was this a mistake?? are those cartoon robots really in this movie??"

I had several packs of the trading cards, and almost started to get the action figures....but STAR WARS won out at the time.

I think that those illuminated windows at Space Mountain's exit may have been specifically added just for The Black Hole -I can find no drawings or plans that show anything but a mural painted along the exit corridor (that matches the mural design painted on Space Mountain's construction fences in 1976-1977)

I too wish Star Wars never infected the Disney magic Kingdoms = as much as I love Star Wars, Indian Jones and the Muppet's -I despise seeing them in the Magic Kingdoms! It was Emperor Eisner's way of saying we are afraid - don't really understand what Imagineering is really about and are not going to allow WED/WDI to do what they do best.

TokyoMagic! said...

Mike, Thank you! I forgot all about the "Black Hole" scenes that were recreated in the Emporium Windows! I wish they still did that for the latest movie releases. Do you know what the last movie was that got a multiple window treatment? I know Ratatouille got just one window back in 2007.

I also came close to buying a few of the action figures. I remember them being for sale in The Character Shop in Tomorrowland.

As for the rear lit pics at the exit to Space Mt....yeah, I don't remember anything like that being there prior to 1979. It'd be great to see pics of that corridor over the years, but who takes pics of an exit corridor? Or I should say, who did it back in those days? I'm pretty sure that I have video footage of the exit with the rear-lit FedEx advertisements, but I wasn't able to find that footage for this post.

I love Star Wars too (with the exception of Episodes I, II, and III!) but I still don't want to see it shoehorned into Disneyland and certainly not at the expense of the Rivers of America, Tom Sawyer Island, and the park berm and it's 50-60 year old trees. :-(

Chuck said...

TM!, awesome post! As with so many others who commented here, this dredged up a ton of memories.

The WDW MK guide books from the summer of 1979 also included ads for The Black Hole, although since I haven't seen mine in at least 30 years (snif...gimme a sec...I'll be all right), I can't remember if it was on the back cover or inside.

I remember being so excited about this coming out, and being a bit disappointed at the final product. Back then, we would often wait to see a movie as a family until it hit the theater at our local Air Force base because of the significant cost difference, but that also meant that we usually saw movies long after everyone else did since the contract agreements in place at the time meant that they couldn't show a film on base until after it had finished its first run (Star Wars didn't screen on base until 1979!). I had read the Alan Dean Foster novelization once or twice before I ever saw the filmed product, and I think having read the book actually added a depth to the story that you miss on screen (although it also meant that sometimes the on-screen visuals didn't live up to the description in the book).

I had a friend who was absolutely in love with the film who seemed to have everything that Disney merchandised to promote it. We spent hours playing with the action figures while listening to the storybook record. There was also the occasional universe-bending storyline that brought his Star Wars figures into it (hey, the Cygnus' probe had the go somewhere after it fell through the black hole, right?). He gave me a model of Maximilian for my birthday, which I still have in a partially-completed state.

I remember reading a Readers' Digest article around that time period that discussed the special effects. If I remember correctly, the black hole effect (not the CGI credits) was created by putting reflective or florescent paint in a tank and draining it under special lighting. Been easily 36 years since I read that, so I'm probably misremembering part of it.

I also have vivid memories of watching that "Major Effects" episode of DWW. My favorite part was the clip of Joseph Bottoms shooting it out with the robots, them blowing on the "barrels" of his laser gun as if it were a Colt Peacemaker. That just seemed really cool as a kid.

Watching the film again years later (and it's been probably 15-20 years since I've seen it, so my analysis should be evaluated accordingly), I think part of what hurts the movie is its pre-Star Wars pacing and heavy themes. Like Star Trek: the Motionless Picture, it fits better into that early '70s cycle of cerebral sci-fi that was inspired by 2001 rather than the action-oriented fare that came later.

Thanks again for another great post!

Unknown said...

The Black Hole Should Deserves to be a Bluray Release.

TokyoMagic! said...

Chuck, Thank you! I like the fact that you and your friend had the "Star Wars" and "Black Hole" action figures intermingling. I think that shows some creativity. I wouldn't mind seeing that "Major Effects" episode of Disney's Wonderful World again. I didn't think to look on YouTube to see if it's there. I wish Disney would release more shows like that on DVD. I think they are really missing out on something there.

Josh, I would think they would have done that already. Maybe it will happen soon?

Guy Selga said...

Great post! Now I need to see pictures of the Black Hole pictures at the exit of DL's Space Mountain.

TokyoMagic! said...

Thanks, Guy! Yeah, please let me know if you come across any pics of those panels. There has to be some out there somewhere!

Peppermint Snowdrift said...

I have seen pictures of the window figures, and I truly wish that there were some really good photos of them as they looked during 1979, because I love the movie!

TokyoMagic! said...

Peppermint Snowdrift (I love that name!), I would love to see some good photos of those displays from 1979. Please let us know here, if you ever do come across any! Thanks!

Peppermint Snowdrift said...

Thanks, TokyoMagic! :) I am fascinated by Disney park stories, pics, displays, etc. I grew up during the 1980s, when animated displays were still a thing at Disneyland, but my family didn't have much money, so I didn't actually go to Disneyland much until around the latter half of the 1980s, and I had only been born during the latter half of the 1970s, so I'd missed movies like, "The Black Hole" upon their initial releases.

alexop2000 said...

I thought I had imagined the Black Hole theme at the exit ramp on Space Mountain way back in 1979! You are the only one I believe to have mentioned this from all my internet search for any clues! Thank you for proving I was not dreaming or gone crazy!

TokyoMagic! said...

alexop2000, I haven't come across very many people who remember that clip playing on the exit ramp. I'm so glad that I was able to confirm it for you! :-)