When Epcot Center theme park opened in Florida, the Journey to Imagination pavilion featured two characters who captured the heart of audiences: Dreamfinder, a bearded character who was a combination of Santa Claus and the Wizard of Oz, and his little purple dragon companion, Figment who was a literal representation of the famous “figment of the imagination”.
Imagineer Tony Baxter who helped create the characters recalled that “[Dreamfinder] was a Santa Claus-type who is wise and older and knows all the great things, a great thinker. But we needed a child-like character that had like a one second attention span and was a little crazy.”
At the time, an offshoot of Disney Educational Media was created entitled Epcot Educational Media. This department produced everything from comic books like “Mickey and Goofy Explore the Universe of Energy” (1985), to books, filmstrips and videos that were meant primarily as supplements to be used in schools.
One of Epcot Educational Media’s projects was a series of eleven fifteen-minute videos featuring an animated Figment interacting with real children on a variety of imaginative topics.
Figment supposedly lived in the world of “Figonia” and each episode would include a boy and a girl who were different actors in each episode and from a variety of ethnicities whom Figment would help solve a problem. There was an episode featuring Alice who needed help getting back to Wonderland so only a young boy was involved in helping write a story that would allow her to do so and another with Peter Pan who was unable to read so only a young girl was included to help him find his way back to Neverland.
The live action was directed by Robin Allison Smalley who was a producer on the series along with Bill Scollon, Peter Sauers and Sallie Zemlin-Kisor. Some of the writing was done by Jamie Simons.
While there was newly created animation, often there were clips from classic Disney animation as well. For instance, in Would You Eat a Blue Potato? dealing with how we react to colors there are brief segments from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940), Pecos Bill (1948), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Jungle Book (1967) and the Silly Symphony Funny Little Bunnies (1934) to help illustrate the discussion of colors (eg. the yellow of a panther’s eyes, the red flames in a courtyard or the red of Slue Foot Sue’s hair).
In the interests of being “cost effective” the Disney Company in the 1980s often outsourced animation for its educational films to smaller independent studios who could produce the work faster and cheaper than Disney Feature Animation who had a tremendous amount of overhead cost to cover.
For instance in 1981, Reinert Productions run by animator Rick Reinert in North Hollywood was responsible for producing and animating the educational film Winnie the Pooh Discovers the Seasons for Walt Disney Educational Media.
The Disney Company was so impressed with their work that the studio was given the assignment to produce and animate the next theatrically released Winnie the Pooh animated featurette, Winnie the Pooh and A Day for Eeyore (1983). It was the first time in nearly forty years that Disney outsourced one of its theatrical cartoons. The first time was in 1938 when Harman-Ising produced and animated Merbabies (1938) for the Silly Symphony shorts.
The new animation for the Figment films was credited to the small Chicago animation studio Cioni Artworks with Ray Cioni and Jon McClenahan being credited as the directors.
In October 1987, animator Jon McClenahan had just come back to his hometown of Chicago after a stint working at Hanna-Barbera’s Australian studio on several Saturday morning animated shows including Kwicky Koala, Private Olive Oyl and the animated Mork and Mindy show. The studio had just closed and McClenahan started looking for work.
“I went to Cioni Artworks,” said McClenahan in an interview with Playtpus Comix. “Ray Cioni had a staff of three (including himself) and some two-bit jobs for Golden Books going on. He met with me and after finding out what I had done, he hired me.
“I spent a year at Cioni Artworks, and then Ray ran into some financial shortages, and by that time the whole Chicago animation industry was looking pretty suspect to me, so I thought I should try opening my own studio.” McClenahan opened StarToons which did some episodes of Tiny Toons and Animaniacs.
Interestingly, the model sheets of Figment for the series were done on paper that McClenahan had left over with the Hanna-Barbera Australia studio markings. The Disney Company did open its own animation studio in Sydney, Australia in 1988 in the same H-B building and hiring many of the same animators. The studio worked on television animation series including Darkwing Duck, Goof Troop and Aladdin among other projects before being closed in 2006.
Many of the Figment episodes began with a minute and a half animated segment featuring the character dashing about to various locales as he sang an upbeat, catchy tune entitled “I’m Figment” by Phil Baron and Jamie Simons. It was also repeated at the end of the episode. Here’s a clip of that animation:
For the series diminutive actor Billy Barty supplied the voice of Figment just as he did in the Walt Disney World attraction.
Here is the complete listing of the Figment films produced for Epcot Educational Media. I assume that the Disney Company has a complete collection but have not been able to verify that statement. I do know that a complete set in 16mm does exist in a private collection:
• WOULD YOU EAT A BLUE POTATO? (September 1988 – 15 min)
• WHAT CAN YOU SEE BY LOOKING? (September 1988 – 15 min)
• HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE AN ELEPHANT? (September 1988 – 15 min)
• HOW DOES IT FEEL TO FLY? (September 1988 – 14 min)
• HOW DOES SOUND SOUND? (September 1988 – 14 min)
• READING MAGIC WITH FIGMENT AND PETER PAN (August 1989 – 15 min)
• WRITING MAGIC WITH FIGMENT AND ALICE IN WONDERLAND (August 1989 – 15 min)
• WHAT’S AN ABRA WITHOUT A CADABRA? (September 1989 – 15 min)
• WHERE DOES TIME FLY? (September 1989 – 17 min)
• CASE OF THE MISSING SPACE (September 1989 – 16 min)
(I would like to thank the Friends of Figment for their help in my locating material for this article.)