Milestone: Record-Setting ‘Impressions de France’ Turns 35 Along with Epcot
Movies like “The Sound of Music” continued to play for many years, but not continuously at the same theater, and not every day. “Impressions de France” unquestionably stands alone. It has played daily, once or twice an hour, without creative modification, for 35 years. This world-record run is a testament to the exceptional quality of the film and the extraordinary efforts that went into making it a timeless production. How and why was this possible?
Break the Mold
“Most Epcot shows thought they were about information, but ‘Impressions’ was about emotions,” recalls Bob Rogers, who wrote and co-produced the film before going on to found BRC Imagination Arts in Burbank, California. “Other films on countries try to interpret them for you. This one gets out of the way and lets you experience it.”
“Impressions de France” has remained a timeless treasure, due in no small part to the conscious efforts of Rogers and Rick Harper, the film’s director, to make it evergreen. “We chose to emphasize the timeless beauty of French rural areas and experiences, with a touch of the charm and grandeur of Paris,” explains Harper. “We also did our best to avoid visual elements that quickly date a film, such as trendy hair styles, fashions, and cars. We certainly tried to make a film that would play for many years, but for it to play for over a third of a century was beyond our wildest hopes.”
It all started in 1980 when the late Marty Sklar, then vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), asked the two young filmmakers to develop an idea for a 20-minute Circlevision film for Epcot’s France pavilion. Harper and Rogers had worked as a team at WDI developing film concepts; a couple of months later, the two men were surprised to learn that Sklar now wanted them to make the film.
Capturing the essence of France would require a dizzying variety of shots filmed throughout the country. Further, Disney wanted it filmed in Circlevision, a process using nine 35mm film cameras arranged in a 360-degree rig, then presented in a theater with nine screens completely encircling a standing audience. Harper and Rogers wanted to distinguish “Impressions de France” from Circlevision films already planned for Epcot’s China and Canada pavilions by having the audience seated and presenting the film on five screens instead of nine, with the back four cameras removed.
Also, the delicate but ponderous 500-pound Circlevision camera rig was previously kept level at all times. But Harper and Rogers wanted to gradually tilt it for dramatic shots, such as one scene looking up the Eiffel Tower. To alleviate fears that tilting the one-of-a-kind cameras would damage them, Don Iwerks built a balanced gimbal rig that smoothly and easily adjusted the cameras, and any remaining doubt about it vanished. The result created numerous truly breathtaking shots in “Impressions de France.”
Sounds of the Scenes
The film also soars on a wonderful musical score. Long before filming began, Harper selected French music from the late Romantic to early Impressionistic eras for each specific shot, and the film was edited using the music selections. Then, renowned Disney composer Buddy Baker arrived. “He was a total gentleman and professional,” Rogers recalls. “He immediately saw and loved what Rick was trying to do, and he fully embraced it. Buddy used Rick’s same selections but re-orchestrated these classics so as to smooth the transitions, create bridges, and fill in a couple places where Rick was still unhappy with what he’d found. The collaboration between Buddy and Rick resulted in one of the great scores of our industry.”
Bob Rogers, the founder of BRC Imagination Arts who wrote and co-produced “Impressions de France,” provides his advice on making an attraction timeless: