LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – How do you carve out a niche as the principal Disney sculptor when you’re following a bona fide Disney Legend? For Valerie Edwards, director of sculpting for Walt Disney Imagineering, the passing of the tools from the fabled hands of Blaine Gibson has involved the challenge of sculpting the likeness of President Barack Obama.
Edwards’ sculpting is for the Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World Resort, which is being readied for a red-white-and-blue reopening on July 4. The vintage attraction in the Liberty Square section of Magic Kingdom features Audio-Animatronics likenesses of all the United States presidents. All previous “heads of state” were sculpted by Gibson, now 91 years old.
As Gibson was sculpting the bust of George W. Bush following his election in 2000, he “hinted at the possibility” his role might pass to his protégée, Edwards, when the next president came to office. He’d been mentoring her for a dozen years and recognized the talent of the second-generation Disney artist. Now a 21-year Disney veteran, Valerie is the daughter of Disney animator George Edwards, who worked on projects such as the classic film “Sleeping Beauty.”
As for Valerie: She had a couple of very familiar “portraits” on her resume when she got the call to create the Obama bust. She wielded the sculpting tools behind the uncanny
Audio-Animatronics figures of Captain Jack Sparrow and his feature-film nemesis, Barbossa, at the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Magic Kingdom.
Of her latest project, she comments, “It was a great challenge and, certainly for me, it was time to put my best foot forward. After all, Blaine is a tough act to follow.
“There are techniques and tools that I learned to embrace from him and add to my repertoire,” Edwards continues. “For this kind of work, it’s not only sculpture as fine art, but sculpture as a mechanical art as well – because of all the internal mechanisms built into the figures. Blaine was the guy who developed this type of sculpture, and he had – and still has – so much to share.”
With Gibson providing oversight, Edwards’ hands were firmly on the tools for this latest “head of state.” Here are some facts and insights about the project …
The Wonder of the Reducing Glass – A tool that functions like a magnifying glass – except in the opposite way – can be valuable to the sculptor: “It takes big things and makes them small,” Edwards says. “Using it, you change the scale of your work to see it as it will appear to the guest. By changing your distance from your work, you also can match the scale of the reference you’re using. It’s such a valuable asset.”
Internet Research – To gather much of the physical information she needed to begin her Obama sculpture, Edwards pored over Internet photographs from the campaign that showed the candidate from many angles – from the back, the side and all views of his head. “On the Internet you can see so much and select what’s actually useful for detail, because what we’re creating has to be as realistic as possible.”
Art, Math and Science Converge – It helps that Edwards has a background in science as well as art. “Naturally, there is anatomy involved, but also math. Because so many parts of his face are moving mechanically, you have to be vigilant about diameters and circumferences. The calibration all had to be done through photos and scientific references for musculature.”
From a Block of Clay – Edwards employed traditional sculpting methods to begin the Obama sculpture. “It’s about finding a pleasant overall look in the facial composition and paying attention to his speech patterns, the muscles that work his face and his expressions both at rest and during speaking. Once it’s done, there are a lot of progressive meetings to meet criteria of other groups that handle the figure and create the movement.”
Fine Tuning – Living up to audience expectations was “daunting,” Edwards says. “Certainly this is a figure of a person everybody is acquainted with – they see him on the television and in media constantly. We had an expert anatomist look at it to make sure it was structurally sound and to guide us mechanically. We’re always working to find new materials and techniques that will deliver a more realistic figure – it’s a constant search for new materials and technology.”
Movement, Hair and Makeup – Once the presidential figure passes from Edwards’ hands to
Audio-Animatronics programmers, myriad functions are keyed into the figure’s mechanical substructures for the mouth, eyes and every “perfectly synced facial movement,” she says. As the figure is completed, artists work on the finishing facial touches and hairpiece. Edwards checked on the figure while in the manufacturing phase “to make sure the external package was not compromised.”
Obama Delivers – Imagineers agree that the Audio-Animatronics Barack Obama is the most dynamic presidential addition – ever – thanks to new materials and refined technology. When the Obama figure begins to deliver the presidential oath of office on the Hall of Presidents stage, the array of subtle movements and facial expressions are convincing. And the words spoken by the president – including the oath of office and Obama’s thoughts on “the American dream” – are his own, recorded soon after his inauguration in the White House Map Room.