The audience only hears the Seven Dwarfs as they make their first appearance in the new Disney production of Snow White — An Enchanting New Musical. They stream in from the back of the house as the classic song “(Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho) It's Off To Work We Go” fills the Fantasyland Theatre. Then, suddenly, they're dancing and singing in the aisles, marching through the crowd, and climbing on stage where their exotic cottage sits. It's a thrilling moment, as the iconic characters from one of Disney's most beloved animated features spring to life.

Since 1937, when the groundbreaking cartoon debuted at the movies, the images of Snow White, the Wicked Queen, the Seven Dwarfs and, of course, the Magic Mirror have been indelibly etched in the collective consciousness. But that was just one of the hurdles the creative crew working on the Anaheim, CA-based Disneyland stage show of Snow White had to clear in transforming the two-dimensional story into three dimensions.

No Ordinary Venue

“The Fantasyland Theatre is a semi-outdoor venue,” explains scenic designer Tom Butsch. The stage-house is a concert shed. The audience seating area is covered by an enormous tensile structure that is comprised of a Teflon-coated material. “Most of the shows are done in what is essentially a daytime environment,” he adds. The designers had to create a set that would look good without the benefit of much lighting, yet also work at night. It took almost three months for F&D Scene Changes to build the set in its shop in Calgary.

“I was given an empty venue, a budget to purchase equipment, and a show that performs five times daily, more often in daylight than at night,” comments LD Paulie Jenkins. “We did shootouts with various moving fixtures and the VARI*LITE® VL3000 cut through daylight better than any of the others. I used the static fixtures for color and atmosphere and the VLs to highlight principal characters and action, as well as for effect.

“The biggest challenge at Fantasyland Theatre is that it's outdoors,” Jenkins continues. “No longer under the blazing sun as it was when I lit Beauty and the Beast there years ago, but under a translucent white canopy that acts as a giant diffuser and makes the venue, if anything, brighter during the day,” Jenkins notes. “We (my associate, Ilya Mindlin and Wholehog® programmer Josh Hutchings) began as we always do with the night show, pre-programming for seven days before the cast came on stage, then working during and after rehearsals for another 22 days. When all but a few elements were set, we spent two days programming the day show. We have four separate shows at the moment (day and night/day and night rain) and more to come as situations arise.”

Temperatures on stage range from 50°F in the winter to 107°F during the summer, which provided a unique test for costume designer Ellen McCartney. “Making character costumes that include paddings, wigs, and structure that can be worn by an active cast comfortably in all weather conditions proved the biggest challenge. The dwarfs have the most clothing and may, unfortunately, suffer the most this summer!”

Audio was also difficult, as KC Wilkerson, the technical director of the Fantasyland Theatre can attest. “The seating area floor is concrete and the seating is aluminum benches,” he says. “Given that the sides of the theatre are not enclosed, we also have a substantial amount of noise intrusion from the rest of the park.”

“The most challenging part was definitely having to deal with providing quality show audio and intelligible vocals to 1,700 guests, given the acoustical challenges of the venue,” agrees Jeff Peterson, audio system designer and engineer. “The empty theatre has considerable reverb time and a noise floor of about 75dB SPL from all of the outside noise intrusion. Since there are safety guidelines on how loud the show can be, we had a much smaller dynamic window for quiet and loud parts of this show than if we had been inside an enclosed space or theatre. We had a usable dynamic range of about 25dB. Otherwise the loud parts would be too loud, and/or the soft parts would get lost in the background noise.”

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Beyond the theatre, the designers had the pivotal character to deal with. No, not Snow White, but the Magic Mirror, which acts as narrator. “The Magic Mirror was originally going to be done with a front projection-we liked the idea of being able to project live video of the Queen as well as prerecorded footage of the face in the mirror,” explains Butsch.

Front projection was discarded, as the designers toiled with the idea in the daylight, and the projection was completely washed out by the ambient light. After testing a plasma TV, which, while brighter, was still too small to be effective, the designers finally came up with the solution. “I can't remember who came up with the puppet idea — it seems like we all simultaneously came to the conclusion that it was a much more theatrical and interesting solution to have the face in the mirror be an animated head,” Butsch says.

The designer then contacted Michael Curry, who had done a great deal of Disney work over the years, including, of course, the remarkable puppets for The Lion King on Broadway. “I had at first designed a sort of typical animated, talking mask,” Butsch says. “But Michael came up with the wonderful idea of making the face from mirror as well as the background — all revealed by the opening of a shattered iris.”

“You cannot really see the mirror, you see what is reflected in it,” explains Curry. “I stubbornly tried to create the mirror as an object, but finally I placed back-painted Lexan in key feature areas such as eyes and mouth parts. My goal was to present this fractured character as a shifting mass of mirrors. By animating each individual piece, we were able to create a complicated negative/positive shape study.” Curry's creation is an imposing face made from mirror fragments, which blends into the background of the witch's lair.

Lighting the mirror became crucial. “I spent several days in Michael Curry's shop discussing how the mirror would take light,” reveals Jenkins. “Since mirror reflects, we had to come up with a way to make portions of it absorb light so the face could be lit. There was one day when at least six of us (all highly paid professionals, I might add) crawled around on the floor shining various lights from different angles on mirror fragments with a variety of treatments.”

Since the creation of the Magic Mirror's character, voiced by Patrick Stewart, relies so heavily on its lighting, Jenkins mentions that the designers spent one evening “programming the internal mirror lights and the VL3000 that illuminates the face. The mirror cues are the only lighting cues in the show that run off SMPTE.” The show's talented stage managers call the remaining 227 cues of Snow White's production.

“What I find interesting about today's audiences is that they are no longer awed by monitors or projection techniques as they once were,” Curry remarks. “We are being asked frequently to render an element in real space with object and light. Sculpture lives!”

Snow White

LIGHTING GEAR LIST:

2 ETC 50° SOURCE FOURS
54 ETC 36° SOURCE FOURS
82 ETC 26° SOURCE FOURS
27 ETC 19° SOURCE FOURS
32 ETC 10° SOURCE FOURS
4 WILDFIRE 400W LONG THROWS
56 THOMAS PAR20 FIXTURES
49 PRO CAN PAR64 FIXTURES
39 ETC SOURCE FOUR PARS
5 ALTMAN THREE CELL FAR CYC
3 ALTMAN SINGLE CELL GROUND CYC
10 L&E MR16 STRIPS, 3 CELL
19 VARI*LITE® VL3000 SPOT LUMINAIRES
1 LIGHTNING STRIKES 40,000W
8 MARTIN ATOMIC 3000 DMX
1 MARTIN WIZARD
2 PPS WAVE LIGHTS
21 WYBRON COLORAM II SCROLLERS
PLUS
VARIOUS PRACTICALS: LANTERNS, CANDLES, AND FIXTURES BUILT INTO SCENERY