Friday, March 25, 2011

Mr. Lincoln & Lee Romaire

For those of you who have enjoyed the refurbished “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” this post should be a treat. The talented Lee Romaire, the man behind the new sculpt of Mr. Lincoln, was gracious enough to let me interview him for my site.

Q. Please give us a brief background of how you came to be a portrait sculptor.

A. Actually, I'm not a portrait sculptor. I am a creature and character special effects artist, with a strong background in sculpting. The reason I was brought on to the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln project is because my studio has been working with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development (R&D) for about seven years now on various projects. One of the projects we have worked on together has been the development of a more realistic designs for human Audio Animatronics figures, which turned out to be an all-new head for the Abraham Lincoln figure at Disneyland, and they asked me to be a part of the team.

Do you have any memories of the original Great Moments attraction? Was this a special project in that regards to you? And have you any other history with Disney and/or Disneyland?

I do not have memories of the original Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln attraction, but I certainly have memories of the original Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World in Orlando. I was there two weeks after opening day; that trip changed my entire life and is a big part of why I do what I do for a living. I am a bit of a Disney geek. I remember my parents bought me a Country Bear Jamboree vinyl album when I was in first grade, and when I got home, I asked the teacher if I could play the album for the class and I acted out each of the bear parts for my classmates. Of course I asked the teacher to leave the room because I was too embarrassed to act in front of her, and she respectfully honored my request.

As far as other projects I have worked on for Disney, they include the Remy figure, the Muppet Mobile Lab, the Tower of Terror at Tokyo DisneySea, and quite a few other things that aren't public yet but will be in the near future.

Discuss the process of creating this Mr. Lincoln; did you do the research on your own or were you given some guidelines/materials as to what Abe should look like by the team at Disney?

I was asked by Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development to sculpt Mr. Lincoln, but I also wanted to be a part of the figure finishing: the hair, eyes, skin etc. They eventually asked me to be part of his entire look with the exception of the clothing and the animation. Tony Baxter, who is the Senior Vice President of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering, and Valerie Edwards, who was Head Sculptor of Imagineering, in addition to my team members at R&D , all had various notes, both aesthetic and technical, that I had to follow. Tony wanted the Lincoln figure to be a bit more attractive and heroic than previous versions, yet we had to keep Lincoln exactly how he is. We did this by “cheating” certain elements in his face up or down to make him a bit more symmetrical; I also gave him a more generous hairline than Lincoln had. The thing about Lincoln is that there are so many photographs taken of him, and in each one he appears a bit different; he’s quite a chameleon. So we did have a bit of license to make him more attractive.

We went to great detail to make him authentic though; Lincoln’s eyes are particularly important. We had to make one eyelid lower than another. He also has white showing under his irises so we had to include that as well. One eyebrow has a peak in it, and his lip is crooked and one side is jutted out. All of these details have to be present in order for him to appear authentic.

I did help with some of the research into color and the way the hair is attached, etc. It was an ongoing project of about 8 months, but from a mechanical and skin standpoint, they had been working on it for 3 or more years on and off.

When doing the sculpt, did you have to take into consideration that the face would be moving? And how far into the process were you on board? For example, once the mechanics inside the head were added, did you have to come back for any touchups or was your portion already a done deal?

I had to sculpt the face in a relaxed, slightly open mouthed position. I can't go into great detail about the skin, but it did have to have a certain thickness in certain areas to make it move well. I had to first sculpt him in his classic look with a closed mouth, and then gently open the mouth, but keep his same characteristics, so that when he closes his mouth, he will look like Abraham Lincoln. As you can imagine, it was very difficult.

I have noticed that the Mr. Lincoln Audio-Animatronics figure has much more realistic eyes than the ones in the Hall of Presidents in Orlando. Can you explain the difference?

That is a very interesting question and I'm glad you asked it. The eyes are one of the most defining aspects of any character or likeness, and if you can get the look in the eyes right, you can find the character. This all new electric head created by R&D has some amazing new skin technology created by Imagineers Phil Jackson and Bryan Tye. It allows us to really shape the outer eye, eyelid, and eyebrow, so that it's less like a doll eye and more like a real person. We could really hone in on that wise look that Lincoln had. More importantly though, we can keep the look consistent as the skin comes on and off for repair. The older figures, while cutting edge for their time, did not have the skin adhesion technology that this new electric head has. So when the mechanic would take the skin off for repairs, it wouldn't go on exactly like it was before. The eyebrows were pinned on and off, and that slight change also changes the character. So over time, the character slowly loses the look that was originally created. Now, with the new Lincoln figure, there will be a consistency that Disneyland can maintain and he will always look the same for decades to come.

See more vintage and contemporary Disneyland Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln photos at my regular my main website.


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Fascinating interview! Lots of great details for those of us the really enjoy this attraction - thank so much!

I nominate this post for a Pulitzer Prize!

Anonymous said...

Wow, not even ONE mention of Blaine Gibson?

With all due respect, something Lee, Valerie Edwards and so many others fail to understand is that to be effective, these portrait sculptures need to be LESS "authentic" and more "theatrical" so they'll ultimately be more believable under show lighting. I've stood a foot away from Lee's Lincoln and it's nice work, but in the show it looks phony.

Go look at work-lights-on photographs of Blaine's Lincoln and you'll see how exaggerated some of the coloring, etc. is. But in the show… Blaine's Abe was amazing; much better than Lee's.

Mr. Romaire is a super nice guy and I wish him all the luck in the world. Still, I hope he learns the lesson that Valerie's multiple failed attempts (and subsequent dismissal from WDI) to come up with a decent Obama sculpture taught all involved: Sometimes, when it comes to realistic human portrait sculpture, make sure the thing looks good from 20 feet away.

This is, of course, all just my opinion and is not meant to disparage Lee in any manner. As I said, he's a terrifically talented man. I just feel his Lincoln sculpture missed the mark for the purpose of making the audience forget that it's just a robot with a rubber mask up on that Opera House stage.

Daveland said...

Why is it that the negative comments typically come from "anonymous"? If you have the gumption to put out the negativity, then how about having the same gumption to put your name out there? Regardless, this column does not mention Blaine Gibson (who I am a huge fan of) because it is about Lee. Maybe you missed the name of the post. And if you don't mean to be disparaging...well, best not to make disparaging remarks.

Ron Schneider said...

Dave - A WONDERFUL interview and a landmark post. Congratulations & thanks... Ron