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In a League of Its Own

12.03.09 - Based on Jules Verne's classic 1869 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a commercial, artistic and critical success when it was released 45 years ago this month. Few realize that Walt Disney initially bought the rights to the story thinking to make it an animated film. But instead, 20,000 Leagues would become Disney's first big-budget live-action film after Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart and a handful of films made in Britain in the early 1950s (Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue).

Director Richard Fleischer (far right) at work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Soundstage 3 at the Disney Studio Lot. Peter Lorre and Kirk Douglas can be seen in the boat. Click here for more photos from the making of this landmark film.
Although an early film version of the story had been released by Biograph in 1905, it turned out to be primarily a fantasy film; a second version, this time a science fiction film, was released in 1916 by Universal. So to help make his new feature unique, Walt put filmdom's latest technologies to use: CinemaScope and stereophonic sound.

CinemaScope, which was first used for The Robe (Fox, 1953), was such a new technology that there was only one camera lens in existence. So Walt had to borrow it intermittently from Fox until Bausch & Lomb completed building a second lens. Until then, the crew was hindered, unable to do two-camera coverage during action scenes or send out a second camera unit during filming.

John Tucker Battle was originally hired to write the screenplay; while the script was monumental, its incorporation of all of Verne's scenes would have made the film more than four hours in length! A dissatisfied Walt hired screenwriter Earl Felton to give it a try and selected Richard Fleischer to direct. This proved to be a significant moment of irony in Disney history: Max Fleischer, Richard's father, had been a major animation competitor of Walt's years earlier! Felton and Fleischer had previously collaborated on several films for RKO.

Borrowing on his animation traditions, Walt had the entire film storyboarded — the first time this had ever been done for a live-action film — and more than 1,300 drawings were made over a year before filming began. Walt, ever the master showman, injected some humor to counterbalance the tense dramatic moments, such as incorporating Ned Land's scene-stealing pet seal.

When it came to casting, Disney went for top stars: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas. The character of Ned Land was a change of pace for Douglas, who normally played unscrupulous, high-strung characters. For Professor Arronax, Walt first picked Charles Boyer, but moved on to Paul Lukas when Boyer bowed out. In playing Conseil, Peter Lorre, long a villain, was able to show that he was also adept at comedy. And James Mason, selected for Captain Nemo, originally didn't even want to do the film; he feared it would be geared to children and didn't like the thought of Nemo being played down to a juvenile level. But Walt's aim, as it was for all his projects, was to make a film for the entire family — not just for children or adults.

Walt had no live-action staff, so he had to recruit one from Fox, Paramount and RKO. The primary element of the film, the Nautilus, was designed by Harper Goff, a Warner Bros. set designer whom Walt had hired to work on Disneyland. In the original book, the Nautilus was mistaken by observers as a terrifying sea creature. Instead, Goff decided to make the submarine a cross between a shark and an alligator.

He explained in an interview, "I always thought that the shark and alligator were quite deadly-looking in the water, so I based my design on their physical characteristics. The submarine's streamlined body, dorsal fin, and prominent tail simulated the traits of the shark. The heavy rivet patterns on the surface plates represented the rough skin on the alligator, while the forward viewports and top searchlights represented its menacing eyes."

When Goff built his first model, over Labor Day 1952, the thought was still to make 20,000 Leagues as an animated film. At first Walt didn't like Goff's model; he wanted a sleek, cylindrical craft. Eventually, Walt was sold by Goff's concept, and by late fall the animated film had become a live-action one. The full-size Nautilus ultimately measured in at 200 feet long and 26 feet wide at its broadest point; scale models from 18 inches to 22 feet were constructed.

Lavish interiors of the Nautilus were furnished by Academy Award®-winning set director Emile Kuri. In fact, Walt was so impressed that he hired Kuri to head the Studio's set decorating department. One of his more notable tasks would be designing Walt's apartment at Disneyland.

One day, Kuri saw a newspaper advertisement for an organ and went out to look at it in the seller's garage. Although the organ no longer worked, its keyboard and stops were all there. Buying the console for 50 dollars, Kuri knew it'd be the perfect one for Captain Nemo's parlor. Fleischer had to teach Mason how to finger Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor; the actor didn't even know how to play the piano. Today, Disneyland park-goers can see this same organ in the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion.

The cramped interior set, differing from most movie sets, was designed so that the walls, ceiling and floor were visible the entire time that shooting was taking place, so the set lighting had to be mostly behind the camera or hidden by furniture or cushions.

Test filming began on miniatures at the Disney Studio on October 7, 1953, with most of the miniature work done between December and April of 1954. The staff encountered some problems, such as when a sub model for the miniature shots was too big for the set of the subterranean entrance to Vulcania. Goff solved the problem by building a wonderful, squeezed model — perfect in every detail. (Even its rivets were oval!) It was shot with a standard lens, and later, when the results were projected with a CinemaScope lens, it stretched out to the right proportions.

Despite having access to useful studio tanks for the underwater scenes, Walt demanded more realism, so he surveyed areas with water that was clear, warm, filled with interesting fish and coral formations and free of silt. He found an ideal location: Lyford Cay, at the western end of New Providence Island. A 54-man crew, headed by Till Gabani, was sent over to the Bahamas isle, where filming began on January 11, 1954, and toiled for 8 weeks, 17 days over schedule. 20 tons of equipment — packed into 212 wooden crates — was sent from California, and a special pressurized water-tight case was devised for the Mitchell movie camera.

The first scene to be filmed, the complicated underwater burial, was the biggest sub-surface scene ever attempted, taking 8 days to film. Weighed down by their 225-lb. suits, divers only had limited time that they could spend under water. The crew filmed at a depth of 31 feet, where the light was most abundant and atmospheric pressure was minimal. At times there were up to 42 men on the ocean floor at a time.

The cannibal shots were filmed at Long Bay, near Negril, Jamaica, for a couple weeks. At Negril's disposal was a magnificent, crescent-shaped six-mile stretch of beach with towering coconut palms and brilliant white sand!

Back at the Disney Studio, shooting began on March 10, 1954. The first scene to go before the cameras? The iconic squid fight sequence. To film it, Walt had to build a whole new soundstage, Stage 3, which included a $300,000 tank for underwater filming. The tank, 90 by 165 ft., had a depth ranging from 3 to 12 feet. Designed by Chris Mueller and executed by Robert Mattey, the squid required a staff of 28 men to operate it, using wires and air compression. For a week, the crew toiled on filming, but Walt was displeased with the results; the squid had been filmed on a calm, flat sea at sunset, and the wires needed to operate the tentacles were all too obvious. So, two months later, the entire scene was reshot at an additional cost of $200,000. This time, a raging storm helped add more thrill to the sequence while hiding many of the imperfections. Wind machines, dump tanks and water cannons were rented from MGM. All three soundstages at the Disney Studio were utilized for filming the interiors of the Nautilus.

For a scene in which Professor Arronax and his friends are left on deck while the Nautilus submerges, Walt called upon the U.S. Navy for help. A full-scale afterdeck was fitted onto an actual submarine, the USS Redfish, and it was filmed submerging off San Diego. During the first take, the submarine dived too far and quickly, washing the stuntmen off the deck! Obviously, procedures had to be rethought. It took a week to set up and shoot this elaborate sequence.

For scenes needing an outdoor tank, filming was done at 20th Century Fox Studio, in what was known as Chicago Lake and the Serson Tank, noted by its huge painted sky backdrop. The scenes of the San Francisco waterfront and street were filmed on Universal's backlot. The exteriors of Rorapandi were filmed at the Alberhill Coal and Clay Co. in Corona near Lake Elsinore. Also, one day of filming took place at California's Red Rock Canyon State Park, north of Mojave on Highway 14.

For the film, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw painted 27 mattes. Most people don't notice the paintings, as they shouldn't, a testament not only to Ellenshaw's immense talent, but also to the realism that Walt demanded. There is some animation in the film — mostly jellyfish and seaweed.

During the editing phase, film editor Elmo Williams was unhappy with the sound effects provided for the humming of the Nautilus's engines. So one day, he went with a sound man to Los Angeles' Farmer's Market where there was a huge Chinese gong. They taped the sound as they beat on it very gently, then reversed the sound, and voila: humming engines!

As a few added notes of interest, RKO and Paramount had bid to distribute the 20,000 Leagues, but Walt decided to go with his new Buena Vista Distribution Co., which just the year before had been formed to release The Living Desert. The film, at 2 hours and 7 minutes, was released two days before Christmas in 1954, opening in 60 theaters to generally favorable reviews. The final cost of the film totaled in at $4.3 million; $250,000 went for the Nautilus alone. Yet it made $12.2 million in its first release and received two Academy Awards — one for Special Effects and another for Art and Set Decoration. And let's not forget: Esmerelda the seal won the Patsy Award as the year's best animal performer.

Just before the film was released, Walt aired an hour-long program on his television series called Operation Undersea, which explored the making of the feature. The episode was so well done, in an era when most movie studios were practically boycotting the new medium, that it received an Emmy® for best individual show of the year. Keep in mind: this award was granted to what was in essence an hour-long commercial for the film!

When Walt needed something to fill in his Tomorrowland section of Disneyland when it opened in July 1955, he had the Nautilus sets sent down to Anaheim to display in the park. While it was planned as a six-month exhibit, it became so popular that it remained for 18 years.

The film was reissued in movie theaters in 1963 and 1971, and was later released on video in 1980. A dozen years later, an extensive restoration of the film was accomplished by Scott MacQueen at the Disney Studio to achieve a high quality refurbished product for a 1992 video release. When director Richard Fleischer saw the restored version he was so impressed that he said it even looked better than it did in 1954. The film was released on DVD in 2003.

Walt Disney, Richard Fleischer and all the cast and crew should be proud; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been called one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

By Disney Chief Archivist and Disney Legend Dave Smith.

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