When you have a legendary Disney designer on the line, you never know what amazing stories you might hear. In this second installment (2 of 3) of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob tells how he thinks through a project at the beginning, and how it never abides by a prescribed process.
He reveals some of his most incredible show pieces made for clients other than Disney. Can you say King Kong, the King of Pop, and Queen? And he tells how he keeps a careful eye out for that most deadly of Imagineering traps, no, not hippos. Hubris.
Freddy Martin: In building the nuts and bolts of somebody else’s dreams, how did you work through some of the big ideas?
Bob Gurr: Well, first off you’re okay. You didn’t say the word “process.” When I’m doing my lectures and somebody says, “Bob tell us about your process,” I start laughing, and look at them. And then they catch on that they’d asked a boo-boo question.*
So many people are highly educated, they’re trained in college, they got a 4-year course. Everything is by rote. In other words, if you start with A and you end with Z, and you do all the steps in between, ergo, you will have a successful outcome of whatever it is you’re doing.
Well, that’s the theory, but I can assure you that’s not the way the world works.
And specific[ally] at Disney, and for the 27 years that I was there, I jumped on whatever it took to get started on anything, and modified it as I went – [without] a total idea of “process.” And that methodology, if you want to call it that, went 45 years of doing things exactly the same way, in which you do not have an organized way of doing anything.
Because every job is different. Every client is different. Every question is different. Some are big and take years. Some are quickie and might take a day or two.
You do whatever it takes, making it up as you go, based upon the goal that you see the thing is ultimately going to have to go through and everything that’s involved in it.
The only thing that might be [considered] “process” would be, as you’re looking very quickly at everything that’s going to be involved, you sort of form a general idea as to what our, what we would call, “long lead” items or expensive items or things that are items that would be a make-or-break as differentiated from a lot of conventional stuff that will come along in its own time.
And that way you can automatically prioritize what are the big sticky ones you’re going to jump on immediately, to get those solutions underway, so that you can then share it with anybody else working on it, generally where you’re headed and what has to be done first and why.
For example, later in life I had this 26 year-old kid who can do a moon dance, a guy by the name of Michael Jackson. He comes over. I show him around our place for two hours, and then he asked me if I can do a custom lighting device.
I know nothing about lighting, but I’d be willing to learn. And within two days we were having a business meeting to seal the deal. And then he says, “What do you need?”
I said, “Well I need fifty thousand bucks in the bank from you tomorrow, because this is a 9 week job and the hardest parts to get that are very expensive, that are long lead, are a thing called servo valves for some of the pneumatic controls. And to get this in time, it takes several weeks to get em, but I’ve got to order em tomorrow morning and we gotta have a deposit paid.”
It’s things like that. In other words if you had a process, and you were a trained engineer, and you had a license, well first off, you would lay out your parameters of the job. You’d begin to identify the elements and then you would do estimates of labor and materials. And then you would assign people to it, and then you would gather a budget, and then you would submit the budget, D’you follow me?
No! Don’t do it that way. Goodness sakes!
Sometimes you have to, on complicated jobs that are going to take a couple of years. Yes, you better do it that way. But you can see the futility of applying a standardized way of working across the board as if you were a licensed trained engineer. The less training you’ve got means generally, I think people have their minds really wide open as to, “Okay, what do we do next? What do we jump on?”
Freddy Martin: What did you build for Michael Jackson?
Bob Gurr: Do you remember The Victory Tour back in 1984? It went to, I believe, 27 different venues for the entire summer. A massive amount of trucks. It’s still the biggest rock and roll tour show ever done in America because it had so many sets. It was such a massive, massive collection of stuff, normally in the lighting business you write out your lighting plan, and you select the instruments, and most times you rent the instruments at a lot of venues. And then you rent the lighting trusses and all that stuff, because this is store-bought, catalog stuff that’s available all over the world.
He [Michael Jackson] wanted something that is not rentable. He wanted something that is different than anybody else is going to have. And he’d been looking at people outside the rock and roll industry and he happened to wind up looking at our shop (which at that time I think we were called, let’s see, it was before The Sequoia Company, Applied Entertainment Systems. That’s what it was) because we’d done a little of the rock and roll stuff. We reworked some of lighting equipment for Queen, a band called Queen.
So he was looking sort of outside of the industry. And then I guess he was kind of surprised to see, “Oh my gosh! They’re doing some Queen stuff.” So then that’s when he, at the end of the tour, he just went off the top of his head, and said, “Could you do lighting? It was the same thing as the business of going to Disney. “Well I don’t.” I didn’t, but I said, “Yes.” Because you always say, “Yes.”
So it was a 9-week, very fast job. Learned a ton. Got to meet a whole bunch of people in this industry. A lot of them from England to do with lighting, audio, set direction, y’know, putting stuff together, taking it apart. I learned how roadies work, all that kind of stuff. Great people to learn from.
And out of that job came another job which was only 5 weeks long. The guy that designed the custom stages for Michael, a guy name of John McGraw, he was working on a deal for a flying saucer for the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Los Angeles in August of 84.
And then he ran out of time and money, but he had a lot of vendors pulled together on the “if come,” nobody paid. And then he said, “Oop, can’t do it, so why don’t you take the job?”
And I said, “Why sure, I’ll do it.” (laughs)
So I wound up with a 50-foot diameter flying saucer held by a helicopter and more lighting stuff. But this time I knew more about lighting so it went quick.
Freddy Martin: I’m going to have to look that up on YouTube.
Oh yeah! There’s pretty good videos of it that last a couple minutes and it gives you an idea, “What in the world was that?”
Freddy Martin: What was your biggest challenge?
Bob Gurr: Y’know, that’s the other word I don’t respond to is the word “challenge.” Challenge implies that you’re stuck and you’ve been brought to a halt.
I’ve always seen that in the other way around. It’s like when you get in a discussion with some people about a new project up potential thing to do, I can see several ways to do it very quickly in your mind, if you’re talking and looking at something.
So by the time somebody says, “Well hey! Yeah let’s go do this thing. Yeah, hey, let’s do it. Okay, make a deal. We’ll do it,” you actually might have two, three, or four general ideas. And the challenge, if there was a challenge at that moment, you would say, “Well, which one has the most likelihood of being successful and can get going the easiest?” Knowing that, if the one you just picked starts to bomb out in a day or two, or in a week or something, don’t worry about it. You have these other ideas, We can shift over to the other ideas.
So it’s kind of a long-winded way of saying I don’t ever recall seeing a challenge. And the only thing that would have come close is when you’re designing something that’s super simple and it’s only a two-week job or something and then suddenly a part of it doesn’t work.
That’s usually because you trap yourself in your own hubris.
And those are the ones you that I absolutely hated. I don’t think there was more than just two or three. Cause I really did not like the idea of I’m standing there and the shop guys are there and their money is burning and the time is burning and my thing doesn’t work. And then the look on everybody’s face, if you can visualize this in a way, they generally know my stuff works. And then, all of a sudden, they’re standing there and my stuff doesn’t work. The look on their face kills. You know, you’ve seen people, just like, “Okay smarty-pants. Oh look, you bombed out. We’re standing here and we’re watching.”
In one case it took 2 hours to come up with a brand new design and they stood and waited and watched me draw. (laughs)
The only worst one was we were putting King Kong together at Universal. We had the legs installed. We had the whole upper middle body installed and we were getting ready to install the torso, which was a big assembly and it had never made it up to the pelvis frame because we couldn’t do it in the shop. It was physically impossible. Everything else had been pre-fitted.
And this great big thing is hanging from a big crane and we were starting to set it in place and there’s a bind! There’s about a half inch of metal in the wrong place and I’m mortified. And so I look at the crane operator and I say, “Oh, just a minute. Hang on. Hang on. Go get a grinder. We’ll get this thing cleared here. Just give me a little bit of time.”
And the guy looks at me and says. “Mr. Gurr, the crane is $600 an hour. Take all the time you want.” (laughs)
If there was a challenge, it was like, “Oh God! How can I make this thing less than $600?”
It was only about 15 minutes, and I would just grinding off a little piece. But it was something that had not been pre-fitted. Cause I like to prefit everything. Because if you’re doing a field installation and and it’s big and expensive and there’s a big crew, your burning money. So you try to not get in that fix.
Freddy Martin: As a Jungle Cruise Skipper, I’m always curious about Jungle Cruise stories. Did you have anything to do with the Jungle Cruise?
Bob Gurr: Jungle Cruise? Yes.
One of my more spectacular, unsuccessful pieces of show action equipment was a couple of charging hippos. And this was long before good animation systems were available, and I was trying to do something – this was in like 1957 or 8, I think.
We were trying to do stuff where the hippos would come out on two different tracks to attack the boats. And then, when the boats go by, the hippos would turn and go back to where they were, and then turn around and reset themselves. And I was trying to do it with a spring set up, so that it went out one way and came back another way.
Due to the unpredictability of, y’know, falling leaves in the machinery, and water, y’know, and you never know what the hippos were gonna do anyway, every once in awhile the Jungle Cruise guys would come back with a report to the management and say, “You got to do something with the hippos!”
“What’s wrong with the hippos?”
“Well, some days they come out backwards and they moon everybody in the boat!”
And so the mooning hippos had to go. (Laughs)
Freddy: (Laughs) There’s a “backside of water” joke in there.
Bob Gurr: You probably caught my joke on the bus tour, where we stood out there (behind Imagineering headquarters in Glendale) and we talked about 1401 Flower – everyone knows 1401 Flower, and this bland colored building here, “That’s the backside of 1401!”
Which is about as important.
Freddy Martin: You were there with the original team that mapped out Epcot. How did Future World and World Showcase actually come together?
Bob Gurr: Epcot was a very lengthy development. It was, I would probably say, the classical, long-winded committee project with people coming and going. Obviously then opinions would change from week to week. You know it was just a long, long arm wrassle [sic].
The company figured out about where they were going to put Epcot, so that pretty much stayed the same. And then we had a place called TCC or Transportation Control Center where the Monorails, and the parking lot trams, and the ferry boats that go over to the Magic Kingdom. That’s kind of a central place.
And there was an area Southwest of that juncture where the land was very good. Everything [else] down there was pretty much sinkholes.
And somebody started an idea where, and I think they did refer to it as, like a “world showcase.” This was like an extra activity. It had nothing to do with Epcot.
And the idea was that it was going to be a round installation where if you were in the center of the thing, if you look all around at these different countries, they all had the same width frontage. But if you look at it in the plan view, some countries might be tiny and some might be massive. And of course the property would be like expanding pieces of pie going way out pretty much unrestricted behind the opening. And they made they made models. They made drawings of this stuff, nice paintings. And somebody from marketing, I guess, comes in and says, “What makes you think all these competing civilizations are going to share the same front window?”
I mean it was such an obvious, obvious fact of history. But everybody was so close to the idea of this thing, nobody bothered to draw back and look at the historic reasons why civilizations fight to kill one another. And they’re still doing it!
You know, we’ve got the Ayatollahs, y’know, are bound and determined that, y’know, the Shiites are going to beat up the Sunnis, even though the Sunnis got them outnumbered by 5 to 1. But they’re not going to give up. That still goes on and on and on. You know, that’s just the way civilizations behave.
The United States says, “Well, we’re on top. We’ll be on the top forever and nobody can challenge us… Hello! China? Who? Who’s China?? What? How many? What? You got a billion people? You got a big Market! Let’s sell you something!” (laughs)
Well, what happened was, one day John DeCuir Jr was working on the job – he had a famous father. That model (World Showcase) just sort of slid over into the Epcot area and they said, “Well, it’s different. Well, we’ll put a lake between them. And they built quite a few models and then one day somebody said, “How big is this? It looks good on the floor, here in the model [shop] on the table. How big is this?”
And then they went out and they measured how big it really is and they had to cut the whole thing in two! They were making it twice as big as you could do it, (laughs) and they’d built models and drawings and everything before somebody said, “Well, how big is it?”
I remember that was, sort of, everybody looked at everybody and everybody went, “Oops!”
Freddy Martin: Wow! They were dreaming way too big.
Bob Gurr: Yeah, so designers, you know, there’s a hubris in every endeavor throughout history. I imagine, y’know, there’s a reason why the Greeks invented the word hubris, cause you know, you can be good at what you’re doing and one day you will fall on your Plutarch.
And it’s something you really, really have to pay attention to. Don’t let that happen to you.
You know we’ve got a famous guy that’s got a rocket company. It’s very successful and he’s going to build a half million cars a year and he can’t even get the first cars to work… Mr. Musk, up there. He made some assumptions that, ergo, if robots are good for some things well, ergo, there good for everything.
So he said, “Oh, well then we’ll have the cars final assembly. We don’t need people to put the parts together. We’ll have the robots put the parts together, you know, the self assemblies of course will build the car. And he says, “It will be so perfect. We don’t need to build a prototype, pre-production pilot line to prove it out. We’ll just save all that time and money. Hmmm, read the continuing story of Mr. Musk’s Tesla Model 3.
Well, I’ve been up to the factory. I met Musk years ago. And I’ve got a lot of friends with Teslas, but I follow two things; the technical decision-making side and the financial side.
So that hubris is there, and I’ve got burned a couple of times, but not too bad.
As long as you’re on that subject, one of the things about while you’re designing stuff, you’re in a constant reiteration, literally hourly as you’re doing stuff. You keep going around and around and around, looking at the stuff, trying to say, “What is wrong with this? What is the Achilles heel of everything I’m sketching, or thinking about doing?”
And you go round and round. And you got to do that all the time, cause you want to be the first person to find the Achilles heel in your designs and then fix them before anybody knows about it. You don’t want to know that you’re a proud and famous designer and have someone else point that out after you spent the time and money.
So this anti-hubris thing is, I think the people are pretty good if they pick that up early in life.
*Full disclosure: I did actually ask Bob what his “process” was, but he somehow missed it. I edited it out above because it was confusing.