Since the opening in 1987 millions of people have been on the Star Tours ride in one of four Disneyland theme parks around the world. Besides the visuals, effects and animatronics the music has been a key to the success of this extremely popular ride. Responsible for this was Emmy Award winning composer Richard Bellis, who created the scores for Star Tours as well as other Disney attractions, like Indiana Jones & the Temple of the Forbidden Eye.
What inspired you to become a composer? Was it a movie, a record or something completely else?
I had a musical background growing up with a musician/music teacher father and I played trumpet and piano. When I was 12 years old in 1958, the television show Peter Gunn premiered with a jazz score by Henry Mancini and I loved that music so I imagine that’s when my interest in film music started.
How did you get hired at Disney in the late 70’s?
Buddy Baker, a Disney music legend (hired by Walt himself), was getting ready to retire and a friend and writing partner of mine, George Wilkins, was being groomed as the “heir apparent” to take Buddy’s position at the studio. George called me up one day and asked if I was available to work on something called EPCOT for which there were many, many hours of original music needed. I was, at the time, primarily an arranger in Los Angeles and was brought on board with a couple of other arrangers to work on this huge project.
If I’m correct Star Tours was your first solo project. How did you get it?
It was my first “major” solo project. I remember doing something called Atlas Of The World which was a short animation project for EPCOT. Disney Imagineering is a very tight community so having been in and out of the headquarters attending mixes, etc., I became a familiar face. I had also arranged a lot more EPCOT music in the 5 years since EPCOT opened and apparently the Imagineers liked what they heard and maybe more importantly felt comfortable working with me. And, because the music for the actual ride was all John Williams, the job initially was largely selecting, editing and reorchestrating JW’s music more like a music director. It developed into a composer job as the pre-show area was designed and implemented.
Can you remember how the creative process of writing the Star Tours music went?
I received various edits of the film for the ride as they were working on it which of course was also dependent on a coordination with what the flight simulator could do. I would listen to all of John’s Star Wars cues and then request the scores for the cues I’d selected from the Disney Studio music library. As the film and vehicle became closer and closer to being locked, some of us were invited to experience the ride which had been built at the Imagineering campus. This was an extraordinary experience as we could not only ride in the vehicle but also see it function (like a huge drunken spider) from the outside as another group of folks rode.
Did John Williams influence you?
Of course. Although his music is 100% of the ride and, other than what’s called the “spill” or exit music, the music in the pre-show was very different. The Status Board showed advertising-type ads for other Star Tours trips people could book like Endor, Tatooine, etc., and each short had its own “travelogue” type music. Then there was supposed to be an area called the Droid’s Room where many droids were repairing and working on the robotic pilots of the space vehicles. For this I wrote a couple of pieces which might have been robotic rock and roll. For this I referenced a combination of John William’s cantina cue and She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby. The track, Droid’s Room made it onto many park CDs. This became the music coming from the boom box of the single droid repairing a robot.
Did George Lucas himself give you any instructions?
Never met him or John Williams for that matter. Still haven’t.
I guess you went on the Star Tours ride. What is your opinion of it?
At the time it was revolutionary in that it changed thrill rides from massive physical structures to a small footprint combining the flight simulator technology with audiovisual enhancement.
A couple of years later you composed the music for the Indiana Jones stunt show and the ride at the Disney parks. The scores have re-recordings and segments of John Williams’ work and you were responsible for the adaptation process. Can you tell how all this went?
Live stunt show with performers who were not necessarily professional stunt people. My first visit to the site was when the performers were in training. Some were actors, some athletes or dancers being train to perform a specific series of stunts which they would do several times per day. After seeing the sets that were being built and watching the stunt rehearsals, I came back to L.A. and started going through John’s score for the Indiana Jones film. We were going to rerecord these scores for the final show but that would be an expensive session so first we put the recorded music into one of the first digital editing pieces of hardware and took it to Florida. This was the 80’s when the cell phone we had looked like an old military walkie-talkie and cost around $1,000 per month plus calls. We loaded a large van with audio equipment including the digital editing device, drove it onto the “playing field” and, with a stopwatch in hand, watched and timed the rehearsals. Then back into the van to edit the music for that run through followed by a playback from the van while the performers run the scene again and repeat the process ad nauseam. The problems were that the more the performers rehearsed, the faster they were able to do the stunts and that the climate would change the pressure in the tires of the vehicles and the plane (revolving in a circle while the fight goes on under the wing). Hot weather and the plane circles faster, cold slower. In order to create smooth musical transitions, we put a long tail on each outgoing cue so that an operator could use a visual cue to hit play for the next cue to start. That was in those days.
On the Lights, Motors, Action stunt show on which I wrote original music, there had to be away to keep the tempo going from the outgoing cue to the incoming cue. They came up with a more modern solution which allowed a new cue to come in on the next available downbeat. The Indiana Jones ride, many years later was again groundbreaking in as much as music for rides had always come from speakers in the environment of the attraction and in this case, each vehicle has it own speakers and its own music score synchronized to that particular vehicle wherever it is in the ride. In addition, each passenger has their own stereo pair of speakers sharing one speaker (left or right) with the person on either side of them.
The Star Tours and Indiana Jones rides have existed for over three decades now and are unlikely to go away soon. Thousands, millions of people have heard and enjoyed your musical creations. Every day, for many years to come. How do you feel about this?
I don’t really think about it. It was merely a great job not a legacy item. I do have students and mentees who say that the music in the Disney parks is responsible for their desire to be screen composers. One of the reasons composers love working for the Disney parks is that it allows you to do your best work. And that is a result of amortizing the production budgets, which are healthy, over those two or three decades you mentioned! Very different from other A/V work.
In your career you’ve scored several films and even won an Emmy award for IT. What’s the difference between scoring a theme park ride and a motion picture?
Well, there is a huge budget difference due to the reasons I mentioned. Other than that, if we look at the job of screen composer at it core level, the requirements are similar. Stimulate the emotions of the audience in the most effective and appropriate way.
When you were 20 you had a part in the original Batman TV series starring Adam West. Since I think that’s so cool I just had to ask. What was your role in the episode and what can you recall of it?
Oh boy. First, that was my final “acting” bow. I was not a good actor and even though that show was filled with exaggerated everything, it still makes me shutter to even see photos from it. I think I took because, at the time, it seemed pretty cool. I was on a high school basketball team in the episode, The Joker Goes To School.
I was also quite surprised to find out that when you were a kid you appeared in Them! A classic 50’s monster movie featuring giant ants and the great actor James Whitmore. How were you cast for this film?
…and James Arness (Gunsmoke) and Fess Parker (Davy Crockett). Not much of a story here, I’m afraid. I went on an “interview” and was selected. However, there is a story about my questionable acting skills. There’s a big scene in the storm drain where the kids are trapped just before the rescue, and the director wanted me to cry so I “acted” like I was crying. That wasn’t happening so he sent my mother and the child welfare worker to go to the commissary and when they were gone, he started to embarrass me with things like, “You call yourself an actor and you can’t cry?” The whole crew is waiting and finally I cried…for real. He said, “ACTION”. He later made up with me but that some real crying in that scene.
What do you regard as the highlight of your long career? What are you most proud of?
Frankly, I’m not proud of anything. I think there are some things that show sincere effort, that show a desire to do good, musical, drama and serve the film. I had a great time for the most part and fully expected the music to disappear once it had served its purpose. I am happy to have been a career-long advocate for those who create music and lyrics. And, I think the most rewarding part is to be allowed to share my thinking and experience these days with aspiring and emerging writers.
Thank you for your time and your wonderful stories! What better way to end than enjoy a virtual Star Tours trip?