An Interview with audio producer Greg Meader

As Audio Producer, Greg Meader was closely involved with the final development of Phantom Manor. In 2001, he took the time to share details about his own background, his other projects as well as his personal views on the attraction.

What was your introduction to Disney theme parks?

Since I basically grew up in the city of Orange, California, about 8 miles from Disneyland, the park was always just a part of my life. Anytime relatives would come visit, our family would take them to Disneyland. Every night in the summer, at 9:30 pm exactly, you could (and still can) hear the fireworks at the park. When I was in my teens, my friends and I would spend the whole day at the park riding rides and looking for girls. In the seventies, Disneyland used to have concerts by fairly big-name groups of the era (The Carpenters, The Buddy Rich Big Band, etc.) so my friends and I would go to the park for that. Just about anyone who was around in the 70’s remembers seeing a big band concert at the Carnation Plaza at Disneyland.

Everyone had an older brother or sister who worked at Disneyland at one time or another. When I turned 21, I got my first job at the park as a musician in the Christmas Parade. My sister worked at one of the restaurants in the park and my father worked over at the Disneyland Hotel. A real family affair. I can’t really remember an official introduction to Disneyland; it was always just there. I do have a picture of me and my grandmother standing in Tomorrowland in 1961 when I was just 2 years old so I guess I would have to say that that was my first official introduction to the park.

When and how did you get involved with the Phantom Manor project?

I started working at Walt Disney Imagineering in January 1989. Phantom was already an on-going project at the time. It was started in about 1987. I don’t remember exactly when my name was assigned to Phantom but it had to be somewhere around the beginning of 1990. I remember going to a typical Audio/Video Department meeting and we were given a Euro Disneyland assignment sheet by Ken Lisi. At the time, Phantom was considered a small project so nobody really gave it much thought. I had three people above me who had a choice of projects and they all chose not to do Phantom because they felt it wasn’t going to be that interesting. Generally, everyone thought it was going to be a re-make of the Haunted Mansion and all they would have to do is simply copy audio tracks from the Disneyland show. Fortunately for me, they hadn’t talked to Jeff about the show and it turned out to be a great project that is still one of my favorite all time shows – both Disney and Non-Disney.

How much was Tony Baxter involved in your work?

Tony wasn’t involved at all on any of my Euro Disneyland projects. He was the overall designer for the park but his main focus was on the big picture, not each individual attraction. He let his show producers have a lot of creative say when it came to their respective areas. Jeff was pretty much left alone as far as I could tell with a minimum of involvement by Tony. In 1994 I did do all of the dialogue recording and editing for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. At that time Tony and I did spend quite a few hours in the studio together. Because Indiana Jones was his personal project, he spent time doing things he wouldn’t normally do on a project such as dialogue recording and editing. Normally, Tony was a concept person, not a production person.

How did the work for Phantom compare with that for Pirates? Was it very different working with Adventureland designer Chris Tietz in comparison to Jeff Burke?

Working with Chris was the total opposite of working with Jeff. I don’t want to sound too critical but in my opinion, Jeff was a designer and Chris was a Project Manager. Jeff had a vision of what he wanted Phantom to be. He knew what it should look like, sound like and he knew the story he wanted to tell. Chris seemed to focus more on getting Pirates completed on schedule rather than doing any new storytelling ideas. We simply took the Disneyland version of Pirates and re-recorded the dialogue in French.

The basic scenes were simply lifted from Disneyland and the new French dialogue was inserted in place of the English. We even used the exact same music tracks from Disneyland that had been recorded back in 1964. A few new scenes were added such as the fighting scene, the basic order of the ride was changed from Disneyland and the sword fighting pirates were added but other than that the ride was basically just an expensive re-do of the one in Disneyland. I always felt it could have been so much more. There was some new Pirate music written as Background for the restaurant that is inside the ride but the actual show music is the exact same music that is heard at Disneyland. The ride isn’t bad but I always felt the potential for it to be a great new attraction was never fully explored.

You’ve mentioned that Phantom was one of your favorite projects; can you think of any other favorite projects at Walt Disney Imagineering?

I have two other favorite projects after Phantom and they were the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the American Adventure, both in Florida. Tower was a totally unique type of ride and the Twilight Zone T.V. series has always been a favorite of mine. I was in position of being the creative sound designer on that ride. Joe Herrington was moving out of the Sound Effects department at the time and had named me as the new Sound Effects guy. Fortunately for me the Tower of Terror was scheduled to be done at the same time I was put in charge of Sound Effects and since Tower was 80% Sound Effects driven I had the reigns of a great new attraction.

I will say that Tower was a group effort in that Don Lewis was the Florida Audio installation supervisor, Sam Buckner mixed the music, Ron Fish created the ghostly background music track heard in front of the ride, Joe Herrington created the Fifth Dimension sound FX and Greg Krueger recorded and mixed the first version of the preshow. I was the Supervisor and had the responsibilty of creating all the sound heard in the interiour queue lines and the ascent/drop shafts. I also had the responsibility of mixing the Fifth Dimension, ascent and drop shafts, as well as re-mixing version 2 of the preshow.

The idea was to create a ride that sounded like no one had been in the building since 1939. It was creatively quite fun to work on and allowed me to create some very unique sounding environments. Unfortunately, as with all Disney attractions, the sound heard in the studio was not quite what is heard in the attraction but overall it is very good attraction.

The other favorite of mine is a re-do of the “Golden Dream” song sequence of the American Adventure attraction at EPCOT. The show was originally created in 1982 for the opening of EPCOT so it was decided to update the finale film sequence to include images that had occurred in the ten years since the show opened (the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in 1986, etc.). The goal was to increase the length of the song by 30 seconds to include this new footage.

We re-recorded the ryhthm section and a vocal choir at a studio here in Los Angeles, we used the original orchestral recordings done in Philadelphia in 1979 and we re-recorded the vocals over again using the original male singer and a new female vocalist. The male singer was Richard Page from the 80’s group Mister Mister. He did the original recording before he hit it big with Mister Mister and by the time we went to re-record him the group had disbanded, which was good as we couldn’t have afforded him if Mister Mister were still selling CD’s.

The original female singer, Marti McCall, had unfortunately died of cancer so we hired a another singer named Siedah Garrett. She wrote and sang on Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” CD and Tour. I then took all of the elements I had recorded and re-mixed the song in Studio A of Walt Disney Imagineering.

I also got to play some drums on the song as well in a section that features President Kennedy giving a speech, as well as his funeral. I played the funeral drums that are heard when we see images of Kennedy’s funeral procession. After all was said and done I edited the show together so well that a maintanance supervisor that had been hearing the show for ten years asked me what I had changed because it didn’t sound any different to him. That can be taken in both a good and a bad way but in this case it was a good way. The re-recording and editing had been so smooth that it was difficult to tell the old show from the new which was the goal from the start. In this case the better you do your job the less it is noticed. Those are probably my two favorite Disney shows aside from Phantom that I worked on at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Back to Phantom Manor: Do you remember any ideas that you would have liked to use for the show but couldn’t? Is there anything you’d like to change?

I wasn’t involved in the initial concept development of Phantom so I never had any real complaints about the direction of the show. I do remember that Jeff and I would be editing the show together in the studio and Jeff would have to leave to go to another meeting. But before he left he would explain to me with great dramatic detail what the concept of what each scene was supposed to be about so I could continue working without him there. As he was explaining it to me I would think to myself “wow – this is a pretty detailed story that Jeff and Craig [Fleming, show writer] have come up with, almost like a movie.” It was through these explanations by Jeff that I came to understand what the Phantom story was about. Unfortunately, I never wrote any of this stuff down so I can’t remember with any accuracy all that was said.

My only regret is that the sound track sounded so much better in the studio. You could hear every little nuance of the SFX, you could feel the low end of the subwoofer track during certain scenes, you could create a sonic environment that was pretty creepy sounding. In fact that’s how we would present the ride to Michael Eisner and other corporate types. We would set up paintings of all the different scenes around the room and we would lower the lights and then we would play the sound track back in total surround sound. The music would play from all over and we would hear Vincent’s voice coming from in front of us as we heard wind and chime SFX coming from the rear. All in all, it was a pretty good way to get a sense of what the attraction was all about. As I’ve said before though, once you take the sound out of the studio and put it in attraction building you lose a lot of the subtleties of the sound. It is a shame that Disney fans are never able to hear the rides in this way as they sound completely different.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

I just completed work on three films. Two of them were 9- screen 360 degree circlevision type films in Germany. One was for Sony and is playing at the Sony Center in Berlin. The other was for Volkswagen and is playing at the Autostadt complex in Wolfsburg. The last film was a Large Format concert film titled “Bigger Than Live” featuring the boy band N*SYNC. Currently I am getting ready to start work on a ride simulation film for the Daytona 500 Motor Speedway. It is a motion based simulation film about the NASCAR WINSTON CUP racing circuit. After that I’m not sure what is next, but whatever it is, it is sure to be interesting.

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