MouseInfo is proud to share a very special interview with sculptor and effects artist Lee Romaire who was part of the team responsible for bringing “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” back to Disneyland last winter. When the attraction reopened on December 17, 2009, the Honest Abe that greeted guests was, by far, the most realistic version of the President that had ever been seen in the park. Part of the success of this new figure can be attributed to the sculpting and effects work done by Lee Romaire and his team.
Romaire spent several weeks working on the completely new sculpt of Abraham Lincoln’s head and several more after that establishing the look and finish. Although the same body was used for the figure, a brand new fully electric head was created that upped the number of facial functions from 7 up to 20. These new functions give the President more subtleties including the ability to purse his lips and furrow his brow.
Part of the realism brought to the figure’s face is the attention detail which included hand placing every single facial hair and hand shaving it for a natural stubble appearance. Details layered upon details helped to create what is arguably the most convincing Animatronic version of Mr. Lincoln.
MI: Did you ever watch Great Moments with Lincoln when you were younger? Did you have much interest in the show before becoming a part of the refresh?
LR: First, let me give a big “thanks” to Disney for allowing me to speak about this very special project.
I didn’t see Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln until I was in my mid twenties, but I was exposed to The Hall of Presidents at a very young age. My first trip to Walt Disney World was at age six, two weeks after it opened. It had a profound effect on my life. I remember all of the walk-around characters, the amazing environments and shows. I loved visiting the magic shop on Main Street at the end of the day, and begging for one of the multitude of Don Post Halloween masks they used to sell.
One year, my parents bought me a COUNTRY BEARS vinyl album, and I went back to my first grade class and acted out the musical numbers in front of the whole class. The funny part of that is I was “doing the robot”- actually moving like an Animatronic to act out each character in the show. All through grade school and into my teens, I was fortunate to be able to go to WDW several times each summer, so I became a Disney geek early on.
As I said, my first trip to Disneyland occurred in my late 20’s. I loved the proportion of the park, the maturity of the greenery and Walt’s indelible stamp on everything. Disneyland has its own unique charm. What I love about WDW is the expansiveness. And I was fortunate to be able to watch it grow.
MI: How did your collaboration with Disney for this project come about? Was this a one-time production, did they find you or was it vice versa?
LR: I have been working with Disney Imagineering R&D for about seven years now, helping out as a freelancer with various projects. We have a great working relationship. I was told that something really cool was coming up soon that they wanted me to do, but it was top secret. When I learned that we were going to re-imagineer Abraham Lincoln, basically start with a clean sheet of paper and try to make him more realistic, the pressure of what I was about to do was almost too much to bear.
Lincoln is the most significant and historic Audio-Animatronics figure, guided by Walt himself, sculpted by legendary Imagineer Blaine Gibson and figure finished by Harriet Burns. Now I was being asked to be part of that lineage, helping advance that technology and history. It was very exciting but very scary at the same time. It was like being asked to restore the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, but add my own twist. Yikes!
MI: When tasked with sculpting America’s 16th President, what kind of research did you do before you started sculpting? Did you research Abraham Lincoln yourself or did Disney have a direction for you to go in?
LR: I did a lot of research. Fortunately, there are many photos and books about Abe and two life casts to glean information off of. There are also many great and not so great portraits to learn from. I also had access to the original Blaine Gibson sculpture which was very helpful. My friends at R&D had technical restrictions for me to follow, and then there was a specific design direction that Tony Baxter wanted me to follow for the new Lincoln.
MI: Were you familiar with the previous work done by Leonard Volk or Imagineer and Disney Legend Blaine Gibson? Did their work have any bearing on your brand new sculpt?
LR: Absolutely. Blaine Gibson is a hero to me, a true legend and amazing talent. His realizations of Marc Davis’ designs are amazing. Volk did an amazing heroic realistic depiction of Lincoln. Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the Lincoln memorial sculpture, in my opinions captured Lincoln’s character the best. French’s sculpture has both strength of character but also a beauty to it that is hard to match. The sculpture rises to the level of the reputation and legend of the man upon whom it is based.
MI: Blaine Gibson himself has noted that his original sculpt, while created from a life mask, was a bit of an exaggeration and characterization. Was that the goal with the new figure or was believability and accuracy key?
LR: That’s an interesting question. One thing about Lincoln that gives us a bit of license is he is such a chameleon. Almost every picture of him has a different look. He must have been fascinating to look at in person.
I have been told that there were certain things that Mr. Gibson had to do to accommodate the capabilities of the Audio-Animatronics figure back then, like enlarge the cranium. But I think what you are talking about is the theatricality of Lincoln as a figure. You have to think about how it will appear from the back of the theatre to the audience, so some of the features are a bit exaggerated.
What R&D wanted me to do was to create a Lincoln that was great from the back row, but also great from 5 feet away, so it was a balance. With people today carrying video cameras that can zoom in very close, you want the figure to hold up to the highest scrutiny.
When you sculpt a likeness, you aren’t necessarily duplicating the subject exactly, but recreating it in the sense of what you want the subject to represent. Tony Baxter wanted me to create a “better-looking” Lincoln, in a heroic sense. So I had to figure out how to keep the character and accuracy of Lincoln, but tone down some of his more severe features to even out his look just a bit. We also gave him a more generous hairline.
The coolest thing about the new generation of Audio-Animatronics heads created by R&D is that you can control every aspect of the look. Lincoln has very specific looking eyes and his eyes are very important to his character. One eyelid is rather lazy, one eyebrow cocks up, etc. With the old Lincoln figure, that level of detail could not be achieved and maintained consistently. But now we can do it, and that look will remain consistent. It was great working with R&D on this because they encouraged me to indulge in all those little details that are so important. We actually punched a moustache into his face and shaved it off so he has stubble. That is the level of detail we went to on this project.
I must say that both Tony Baxter’s and Valerie Edwards’ input were invaluable. Valerie is a great sculptor. She and Tony met with me three times to review the sculpt and offer input. They both made me feel very comfortable doing a very difficult subject. There is nothing better than having a “good set of eyes” reviewing your work and seeing things that you may have missed.
MI: Knowing that your sculpture would then be used to make the skin for the face, were there any special steps that you had to take or be wary of when sculpting the figure?
LR: Oh, yes. There were technical restrictions that I can’t really talk about, and lots of challenges that had to be worked out. For the head, R&D literally took a blank piece of paper and redesigned how an Audio-Animatronics head was built, from my sculpt to Phil Jackson’s brilliant design of the skin system and adhesion to Bryan Tye’s incredible mechanical design and then the finish work- I can’t mention everyone who was involved – but it was a complete redesign of the process. The list of innovations that R&D created on this head are almost too numerous to mention. The outside of the head is always noticed, but what you don’t see on the inside of the head is far more amazing.
MI: Were you involved at any point in the process after your sculpture was done? Ie, were you tasked with anything regarding the creation of the final skin that was put onto the Animatronic figure, or painting the face, etc?
LR: Yes, I designed Lincoln’s overall look- and sculpted him. I also worked with Phil Jackson to develop the skin tone that was appropriate for the theatre lighting. I also developed the painting process, painted the skins, developed the hair process and created new hands that matched the new head, and I worked closely with the artists in my studio to do all of the hair work, eyes, teeth, hands, etc. I worked very closely with R&D and Tony Baxter from the very beginning of the process to the day before opening in the theatre to make sure Lincoln was exactly right. The only thing I wasn’t involved with regarding the look was the body (which is the original Lincoln body that is refurbished), the costuming and the animation of the figure.
MI: How was your experience working with Imagineering for Lincoln?
LR: Working with Imagineering R&D is the greatest job in the world. Working with Tony Baxter is – well, being a Disney geek, I still don’t believe it happened.
MI: There is a statue in the lobby for the new show that is for the visually impaired to touch and get an understanding of how Lincoln might have looked. Were you responsible for that figure?
LR: From what I understand, that is Blaine Gibson’s original sculpture study of Lincoln. He did several sculpts, I think the original for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the new one for Disneyland which was then used for all subsequent figures.
MI: Are there any other places in the Disney Parks that we can see your work?
LR: Yes, I worked on the Remy from Ratatouille Audio-Animatronics figure for Epcot and Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris, the Muppet Mobile Lab for Hong Kong Disneyland (after making a brief debut at Disney’s California Adventure), and some realistic looking leopard skin rugs and mummies for Tower of Terror for Tokyo DisneySea. I’ve worked on several things you’ll never see, and there are several amazing things I’m helping out with now that you may see in the future.
MI: What are some of your favorite creations you’ve done with or without, for or about Disney?
LR: Lincoln hands down is the coolest thing I’ve ever worked on – ever. But I am proud of my make-up fx work for director Brian Henson of the Jim Henson Company and recently my studio worked with Animatronic supervisor Dave Barclay in creating the Animatronic cats and dogs for CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE coming out this summer from Warner Bros.
MI: Is there anything else you would want to do with Disney?
LR: Yes, I would love to continue being asked to work in any capacity with Disney. It is truly a privilege to be asked.
MI: Do you have any other projects currently in development with Disney that you could share?
LR: Yes, I am working on some new cool stuff but no, I can’t say anything about it.
MI: What do you find more challenging when it comes to bringing your creations to life? Is it more difficult creating believability with makeup and prosthetics on a live person or more difficult to convey life and authenticity with an inanimate medium like sculpting?
LR: It is much harder to create life with an Animatronic or a puppet than with makeup because with makeup you have the advantage of having a living breathing person in there- you have a real person’s eyes. The hardest is something like Lincoln, which is entirely mechanical.
MI: What’s more FUN, creating mythical creatures like monsters or realistic figures like Lincoln?
LR: When you are creating a realistic figure like Lincoln, it’s not fun. It’s hard. Monsters or creatures can be fun because they are less demanding- you’re making them up. But realism is tough, hard work. It’s very rewarding though. Seeing people enjoy Lincoln is extremely rewarding, far more rewarding than any of my movie work.
Lee Romaire is well established as a sculptor and character effects artist. He won an Emmy in 2002 for prosthetic design fork for HBO’s Six Feet Under and has worked on several film projects including War of the Worlds, Stuart Little 2, White Chicks, CSI, Days of Our Lives, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can learn more about Lee’s work at Romaire Studios.