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David Schweninger

Director, MAPO / Imagineer, WED

In the late '60s, David Schweninger worked side-by-side with Marc Davis to bring Davis' characters to mechanical life. Schweninger was involved with the development of many of the animatronic and mechanical effects found in the vintage Disneyland attractions. Jesse Guiher spoke with Mr. Schweninger about his history with the Haunted Mansion for DoomBuggies.com.

Jesse Guiher: What exactly did you do on the Haunted Mansion?

David Schweninger: I was responsible for the design of the Audio Animatronic figures, and animation. I ran the animation shop at MAPO - we built all the figures.

Okay, and by the design, does that mean you sculpted them or...?

No, [I meant] the mechanical design. They were sculpted by the sculptors at WED, [MAPO handled] the control systems, and manufacturing the bodies and all the structure. All the mechanical end of it.

Were the Audio Animatronic ghosts see-through on purpose? Is that part of what you did?

Yeah, they were see-through because that material you can - it’s not brittle, and you can vacuum-form it easily.

So the see-through part wasn’t only a consideration to make them more ghostly?

Well they had to be, that was the whole point, because they had to be see-through or appear to be partially so that you could see through them. All of the clothes were made out of polyethylene and what have you, so they had the look of transparency.

There are some characters in there that weren’t transparent, like at the bottom of the down-ramp, there’s a caretaker figure and a dog in 3-D, I mean they are regular animation, you can’t see through them.

Right and the raven...


What kind of process did you have to go through to put these together? Did you have to take them from the models themselves that were sculpted, and did you have to do some way to make a mold, or did you do them from the figures themselves?

They were sculpted full-size in clay, and then there was a plaster cast taken off of that, off the clay. The clay is cut up once the figures are done, then the arms come off... usually the legs come off, and of course the head, arms at the shoulder, then those are put into plaster laying on top of those.

Then the plaster is put back together, and a rigid foam is blown or put into the plaster, then it expands, and it’s a very high density foam, and that gives you the shape that you can vaccuform over.

How many years did it take to make all of those figures?

The whole mechanical part of them was part of a program we put together to do all of the figures at Walt Disney World, so the mechanical inside of them was a bunch of standard pieces that were all adjustable so that you could make whatever figure you wanted, virtually.

We had several series that were down to where you could do little things like Huey, Duey, and Louie that were 12 inches long, up to Abe Lincoln using virtually the same parts.

So you worked only on the Walt Disney World Mansion, not the Disneyland one?

No, I did both of them. I ran all of the animation shop at MAPO, and we also did a lot of other stuff. We did the generator that charges the batteries on the ride system, and we did all of the sound systems for the ride... that was all MAPO.

So you handled all of the looping tapes and everything?

We made our own tape machines, at some point - I don’t remember whether that was during Haunted Mansion or not. It was at some point, because we couldn’t get tape machines that would last, so we made our own cartridge machines.

Did you have anything to do with Madame Leota’s scene too?

I was there when - Leota was Leota Toombs, or Leota Thomas, and I was there when we filmed her, in the special effects department. It was mainly to know what was going on and we set up the camera and got the framing right - that was really Walthel Rogers overseeing it, the filming of Thomas. We did a number of takes because it was hard to keep her from moving.

Were you there when they filmed Thurl and the singing busts in the graveyard too?

Oh sure... we made the statues in the plastics shop at MAPO which I also ran.

Design-wise, were there any specifications that the statues had to be flat in the face so that the projection would work right?

Well they had to be. They were sculpted and that was all handled at WED, and they were fairly flat, not completely flat, but they didn’t have any eyes, they were just very soft looking and all the detail was put in with the projectors.

(Jesse Guiher publishes an audio theme park fanzine on CD titled "Magic Memories." For more information, email Jesse.)

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