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Flubber Flies Again
Sci-Fi Entertainment, January 1998
Cory Doctorow

I thought I was going to get to interview Robin Williams. I didn't get to. My heart was broken.

This was the perfect live-action Disney flick: a lightweight, gimmick-driven comedy with a personable lead and a credible love interest, plus cool tunes.


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The original Absent-Minded Professor was a little Disney live-action flick released in 1961, hot on the heels of the 1959 blockbuster The Shaggy Dog. Shaggy Dog proved that Disney could make money without spending money on the stupendously expensive animated features that built the Studio's reputation. Professor sported much of the same cast, included a shaggy dog, and generally followed the successful formula. If it works, Disney doesn't fix it.

Both films have been remade several times, as sequels, colorized versions, and as made-for-TV features. Flubber is the fifth incarnation of The Absent-Minded Professor, following the original; Son of Flubber, a sequel; a colorized version; and a made-for-TV flop starring Night Court's Harry Anderson. But just as chromakey and stop-motion animation elicited a stream of SFX-driven wacky family comedies from Disney (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug), the computer-graphics revolution has stirred Disney to try 'em out all over again.

Hence: Flubber, directed by Les Mayfield and produced by John Hughes.

As with the original, Flubber is the story of Professor Brainard, a forgetful genius whose love life suffers depredations as a result of his work; plainly put, he keeps forgetting to show up for his own wedding. His long-suffering fiancee, the improbably named Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Hayden, Spy Hard) delivers an ultimatum: show up for our third attempt at matrimony, or lose me forever.

Wackiness intervenes. While tinkering in his lab on the morn of his wedding, he sneezes and inadvertently marries a few chemicals, the product of which is a "meta-stable compound: if you apply a small amount of energy, it liberates an enormous amount of energy."

Flubber ("Flying Rubber"), the "meta-stable compound" in question, is an expensive-looking special effect that, when given a halfhearted nudge, responds by zooming away at a trillion mph. That's the setup -- the rest of the movie involves the cast's antics as they chase the stuff around, use it to cheat in varsity roundball games, nearly cripple the bumbling residents of the surrounding environs, all the while evading the bad guys who want to steal the secret of Flubber for their own nefarious purposes.

This is the latest in a series of projects that Williams has undertaken with Disney, for whom he appears to have genuine affection. From his starring role in the Animation Tour at Walt Disney World's Disney/MGM Studios to his award-winning Genie in the breakthrough Aladdin, Williams' presence in a Disney production has been a tremendously positive omen.

This is something that hasn't escaped the notice of the Studio heads, who allowed Williams to insist that his likeness be kept off of all merchandise tie-ins that Disney licenses to McDonald's, no doubt a costly decision.

Williams isn't the only old Disney hand on-board. Danny Elfman, score-composer for Nightmare Before Christmas, dons Mouse-Ears for Flubber, lending his trademark sound to the slapstick. Will Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation's Wesley Crusher) shows up in his usual role as the perky, whey-faced sidekick.

As with many new films, the star attraction in Flubber is a computer. Peter Crossman, the special effects supervisor brought on-board for the film, was the head Flubber wrangler, in charge of the technical wizardry that added all those zeroes to the production budget.

To put it mildly, he was excited by the project. "John Hughes' script was pretty radical, relative to the Absent-Minded Professor I'd seen as a child. Particularly, I was excited by the computer-generated Flubber extravaganza that came to be known as the 'Mambo Sequence.' It was like a candy-store for someone like me."

Crossman built effects that showed the world that this wasn't his father's Flubber. One of the most elaborate of these was the flying car sequence. "For the flying car, we set out to exceed in every way the flight of the Model-T from the original, which was just a floating vehicle, not exceeding speeds of 10 or 15 mph. We tried to go for full aeronautic quality. We shot on a six-axis oil-hydraulic Air Force flight simulator; it was challenging to get the movement nice and smooth in the original photography, and then marrying that to a variety of night skies. We replaced the cockpit in a normal simulator -- the kind used to train pilots -- with a car: a full-sale, full-weight Thunderbird. For backgrounds we used real footage and miniatures."

The trickiest part was coaching the actors and extras to interact with non-existent props that would be digitally added in later. "During the virtual basketball scene, we had a marker -- a guy with a long stick -- running up and down the set, cueing the extras where to look," explains Crossman. "It was unbelievably hard to get the players to keep their eyes on the ball, when the ball wasn't there."

Flubber is a dream to model: as a blob, it is a relatively simple animation, and it freed up the animators at Industrial Light and Magic to render lovingly detailed 3D sets that duplicated the real-life locations, so that as Flubber flies and dances about, the scenery around it is reflected perfectly in its surface.

There was, incidentally, a real-life absent-minded professor, who inspired the original movie. He was, if anything, even higher-tech than today's effects wizards. Hubert Newcombe Alyea, a Princeton professor, toured a live show called "Atomic Energy: Weapon for Peace" that became the basis for an Emmy-winning TV series. Walt Disney was so taken with the professor's show, in which he performed seemingly dangerous chemical and atomic experiments as a teaching tool, that he built "The Absent-Minded Professor" around Alyea, using him as a consultant for actor Fred MacMurray.

For Flubber, the Studio retained the services of a University of Oregon chemistry grad student, Jeff Curzan, to provide a touchstone for realism on the set. It was Curzan who conceived of the chemical formula for Flubber, a variant on buckminsterfullerene: ([Rb2Cs@C60]-R)n. Curzan also assisted Williams with his dialog and reactions to the film's scientific disasters, all the while working on his thesis on a laptop. Filling in the blanks was Bill Nye the Science Guy, who coached Williams on classroom science.

Flubber is set for release 26 November, 1997 in the USA, and 12 December 1997 in the UK. Trailer-clips and other diversions can be downloaded from the Flubber website at http://www.flubber.com.

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