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Spacewreck: The Captain EO Story

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After months of production delays and millions of dollars spent covering budget overruns, the film editors working on the "4D" Disney theme park attraction dubbed Captain EO began to get frantic feedback from company executives who had seen some of the film's early footage: Michael Jackson was grabbing his crotch way too often.

The star of EO, Jackson was just three years removed from one of the biggest albums in music history, 1982’s Thriller. Disney had approached him with the idea of helping to create an exclusive, ambitious film with in-theater effects like fog and lasers that could be experienced only in Disney-branded theme parks. With the assistance of George Lucas, the production had created a 17-minute space musical, nearly seven minutes of which featured Jackson performing while frequently putting his hands in places Disney would never approve of.

The footage was zoomed, edited, or clipped to remove the gestures. But a bigger problem remained: Would enough people show up to justify Disney’s $20 million investment—on a per-minute basis, the most expensive film ever made at the time?

Meredith P. via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Disney of today is a monolithic enterprise, one that seems to be able to print money as quickly and easily as the U.S. Treasury. They own a sizable portion of pop culture’s most appealing brands—Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars—and reap billions from merchandising and films.

But the Disney of the 1980s was operating under markedly different circumstances. It would be years before their animated films experienced a resurgence, first with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and decades before they began to acquire other character libraries. One of their largest assets of the era was their theme park division—Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with a satellite park in Tokyo and one planned for Paris. The continued success of those parks was crucial to their business as a whole.

In 1984, newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided to pursue an attraction that would blend Disney’s resources in both live entertainment and film. His idea was to approach Michael Jackson, a recording artist who was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world at the time. Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller, had been released in two years prior and went on to sell 30 million copies in the U.S. alone. With director John Landis, he had proven himself to be a master of the music video form with an elaborate mini-movie of the title track. Most importantly, Jackson was a tremendous fan of Disney, often visiting their parks in disguise so he could enjoy the rides without being solicited by fans. He traveled there so often he bought his own private suite at Disney World.

Eisner asked Jackson if he’d be interested in appearing in a short film shot in 3D and accompanied by lights, smoke, lasers, and other sensory effects that would be accomplished live in the theater. He also assured Jackson that the production would be overseen by George Lucas, the filmmaker behind Star Wars, who had a working relationship with Eisner thanks to the numerous park attractions based on his space saga.

Jackson was enthusiastic for two reasons: He loved Disney, and he was eager to explore acting. He agreed to star in the project and provide the original music if Eisner could convince Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Eisner couldn’t; Spielberg’s schedule didn’t allow for it. But he and Lucas did enlist Francis Ford Coppola, the Oscar-winning director of the Godfather films. While Coppola didn't usually go for elaborate, effects-heavy fantasy flicks, he and Lucas were close friends; he also perceived EO to be a possible way of rebounding from various setbacks he had suffered early in the decade. Films like The Cotton Club had put his production company, American Zoetrope, in financial turbulence.

With Lucas, Coppola, and Jackson in place, four of Disney’s brainstorming Imagineer employees were asked to come up with a premise that incorporated music, outer space, and 3D effects. The result was The Intergalactic Music Man, a parable about an interstellar performer who can "heal" distressed civilizations with song. That morphed into Space Knights, which kept the weaponized music angle but was less of a fantasy.

After the Imagineers pitched Eisner, Lucas, and Jackson, the story settled into a kind of space saga that would feature Jackson as the captain of a starship that harbored alien life forms, including a flatulent, elephant-snouted creature named Hooter. When they crash-land on a planet ruled by an evil queen, Jackson’s performance art helps to break her influence over the population. It was Coppola who suggested the title be changed to Captain EO, after the Greek word eos, or "dawn."

Captain EO began production in the summer of 1985 and was conceived as a 12-minute film with a budget of $11 million. As the production dragged on, it became apparent that was an absurdly optimistic figure. Disney believed Lucas would help keep the film on schedule, but his work prepping Howard the Duck and various Lucasfilm projects meant he only checked in periodically. Coppola and his director of photography also had no experience shooting footage in 3D, which required deliberate lighting and camera set-ups. Learning on the job led to overruns, which Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to control. But Coppola found an ally in Lucas, who wasn't involved in day-to-day decisions but backed extravagant spending on things like the installation of a giant gimbal that could shake the spaceship set on command.

The problem grew larger after principal photography had finished. The planned 40 effects shots grew to 140; editors spent time avoiding Jackson making any dance gestures parents visiting the park would find objectionable; the Magic Eye Theater, which was being constructed to incorporate the live effects, suffered from delays. Executives even toyed with modulating Jackson’s speaking voice, since they considered it too high-pitched. (Since no one wanted to confront the issue with Jackson directly, the concern was dropped.)

Originally planned for a spring 1986 launch, EO was pushed to September. In the industry, the soaring budget, nine-month post-production schedule, and number of high-ranking entertainment names involved led to a new working title. In Hollywood, the lavish effects film was being referred to as "Captain Ego."

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With a minimum of $20 million spent on the production, there was little point in sparing any expense for the premiere of Captain EO on September 13, 1986. Disney hosted a screening at Epcot Center in Orlando, inviting the film’s stars and other celebrities. Anjelica Huston, who played the Supreme Leader in the film, rode in a motorcade with her then-partner Jack Nicholson and waved to park guests; Lucas put in an appearance. Jackson’s sisters La Toya and Janet were also photographed at the event, along with Dolph Lundgren and O.J. Simpson.

Curiously, Jackson himself was nowhere to be found. Eisner joked he was probably there in disguise "as an old lady"—something Jackson had actually done at one point in order to meet with the Imagineering team without drawing attention. But the more likely explanation was that Jackson had been embarrassed by the reaction to pictures of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, a publicity stunt he had orchestrated earlier that week that had gotten negative attention.

If the crowd was bummed by Jackson’s absence, they didn’t take it out on the film. Using fog machines, twin 70 mm film projectors, and 3D glasses for dramatic effect, EO debuted to hugely positive reviews from those in attendance and grossed an estimated $2 million its first weekend, confirming Eisner’s theory that original theme park attractions would help populate their front gates. In one poll, 93 percent of attendees listed EO as a main reason for wanting to visit.

 
Captain EO ran at Epcot until 1994 and in Anaheim until 1997, when it was replaced by a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids attraction. In 2010, the Disney parks revived the film following the outpouring of sentiment that accompanied Jackson’s death the previous summer. It ran until December 2015, at which point Disney announced it would be closing the attraction for good.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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