The Black Hole (1979)

PG | 97 mins | Science fiction | 21 December 1979

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HISTORY

Referring to the picture by the “tentative” working title, Space Probe One, a 24 Jun 1975 HR article announced a “percentage pact” deal between Walt Disney Pictures and writers Richard Landau and Bob Barbash for an adventure story set in outer space. Landau and Barbash had already spent one year working on the screenplay and were granted a portion of the film’s box-office gross, as well as an unstated flat fee for the script. The movie was set to become one of Disney’s highest-budgeted live-action pictures to date, with an estimated cost of $6 million, but Disney executives declined to confirm this amount. Landau and Barbash noted that their screenplay would be Disney’s first “disaster film,” with more than 200 characters dying in unspecific and non-violent ways. However, the studio maintained that the genre was “action-adventure,” and insisted on appealing to family audiences with a Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) G-rating.
       The early Landau-Barbash treatment featured a colony of humans living in outer space, but its lead character was a robot. When the space station veers into a supernova, it is pulled into a black hole and its residents race to reach an escape capsule. To ensure authenticity, the writers interviewed scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Barbash told HR that principal photography was scheduled to begin in spring 1976.
       A Jan 1980 Reader’s Digest article stated that the project was first conceived by filmmaker Winston Hibler, who produced and narrated many documentaries in Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Before his death on 8 ... More Less

Referring to the picture by the “tentative” working title, Space Probe One, a 24 Jun 1975 HR article announced a “percentage pact” deal between Walt Disney Pictures and writers Richard Landau and Bob Barbash for an adventure story set in outer space. Landau and Barbash had already spent one year working on the screenplay and were granted a portion of the film’s box-office gross, as well as an unstated flat fee for the script. The movie was set to become one of Disney’s highest-budgeted live-action pictures to date, with an estimated cost of $6 million, but Disney executives declined to confirm this amount. Landau and Barbash noted that their screenplay would be Disney’s first “disaster film,” with more than 200 characters dying in unspecific and non-violent ways. However, the studio maintained that the genre was “action-adventure,” and insisted on appealing to family audiences with a Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) G-rating.
       The early Landau-Barbash treatment featured a colony of humans living in outer space, but its lead character was a robot. When the space station veers into a supernova, it is pulled into a black hole and its residents race to reach an escape capsule. To ensure authenticity, the writers interviewed scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Barbash told HR that principal photography was scheduled to begin in spring 1976.
       A Jan 1980 Reader’s Digest article stated that the project was first conceived by filmmaker Winston Hibler, who produced and narrated many documentaries in Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Before his death on 8 Aug 1976, Hibler hired Academy Award-winning Peter Ellenshaw to be the film’s production designer, and drawings for a space station were already underway. Walt Disney’s son-in-law and future president of the studio, Ron Miller, took over Hibler’s role as producer.
       Four months after Hibler’s death, a 3 Dec 1976 HR article stated that casting was underway for the picture, now titled Space Station I. The story was set in the year 2125, and British filmmaker John Hough was named director. At the time, Miller had taken over as Disney’s executive vice-president of production and creative affairs, and was eager for the studio to venture away from animation to high-budget, live action filmmaking.
       By 9 Aug 1977, Disney was formally preparing The Black Hole to be its most expensive live action picture to date, with an estimated cost of $10 million, according to an HR article published that day. The studio was thinking about changing the title back to Space Probe I, even though Richard Landau and Bob Barbash had been phased out of the scriptwriting process, and Jeb Rosebrook was listed as the film’s sole screenwriter. The story was now set in the year 2100. Although industry insiders speculated that Disney was ramping up production after the unprecedented box-office success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977, see entry), which was released several months earlier, Ron Miller explained that Disney’s space film had been in development for over a year, with a planned Christmas 1978 opening. However, the release date was pushed back to summer 1979. On 4 Jan 1978, HR announced that filming for Space Probe was scheduled to begin in Apr 1978.
       Still, the project remained in limbo until late 1978. Referring to the picture by its release title, The Black Hole, a 13 Oct 1978 DV article announced that principal photography for the now $17 million production began two days earlier, on 11 Oct 1978, with a 122-day schedule. Gary Nelson was listed as director, and Gerry Day was added as a co-screenwriter with Jeb Rosebrook.
       Although Jennifer O’Neill was initially cast in the role of “Dr. Kate McCrae,” she was replaced by Yvette Mimieux after O’Neill’s “recent” car accident, according to a 1 Nov 1978 Var news item. An undated, uncited contemporary news item in AMPAS library files and a 2011 autobiography by actress Linda Evans reported that Evans was considered for the role, and was set to replace O’Neill, but the filmmakers changed their minds in favor of Mimieux.
       The Black Hole was the first film to take up all four soundstages at Disney’s Burbank studio, and the set was shrouded in secrecy. Two separate units worked independently, not knowing what their counterpart was doing, and few filmmakers were informed about how the movie would end. According to a 12 Jan 1978 HR news item, none of the actors were given a complete script.
       In order to keep up with the special effects innovations of Star Wars and lure a new, teenage audience to Disney movies, the filmmakers invented two “special photographic effects” devices. Articles in the 22 Jul 1979 NYT and the Jan 1980 Reader’s Digest distinguished between “special effects” and “special photographic effects,” explaining that “special effects” were used to portray cinematic tricks such as weightlessness in space, but “special photographic effects” were needed to improve the quality and use of mattes, animation, and miniatures.
       Production designer and miniature effects creator/supervisor Peter Ellenshaw, who had drawn plans for Winston Hibler in the early days of the production, wanted the space station to look distinct from real-life designs by the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He envisioned Cygnus as a “half-mile-long” skeletal structure of beams and glass, making it both transparent and ominous. As stated in Reader’s Digest, one of Ellenshaw’s paintings was “translated” into three separate, three-dimensional miniatures, one at a quarter-inch scale and the remaining two at a one-sixteenth scale. The miniatures took nine months and $250,000 to build, and were constructed with “hand-machined pieces of brass.” The models were enhanced by a thirty x forty foot canvas backdrop, portraying a “miniature galaxy.” It was backlit by 1,000 light bulbs shining through the same number of “star” pinholes.
       Ellenshaw wanted the spacecraft to appear dimly lit, as if illuminated by a distant star, but this type of exposure required hours of filming. To defray the cost of man-hours, Disney spent $1 million to develop a computer “Automated Camera Effects System” (ACES) with WED Enterprises, Disney’s subsidiary for research and development. A 16 Nov 1978 HR brief, which announced the creation of ACES, noted that the camera was built through a partnership between the film’s director of miniature photography, Art Cruickshank, its composite optical photographer, Eustace Lycett, and an uncredited team headed by Disney executive Don Iwerks. In addition, David Snyder and David English were listed as the main “imagineers” on the project at WED, but neither is credited onscreen. The camera’s remote controls were lodged in “a multi-window shed” on the soundstage, and were capable of making thirteen separate movements at the same time. In the 22 Jul 1979 NYT, Cruickshank compared ACES to Lucas’s technology on Star Wars, noting that Disney’s camera was “superior” because it had the capacity to “turn, tilt, roll and pan.”
       According to Reader’s Digest and a 3 May 1979 DV article, Peter Ellenshaw’s son, Harrison Ellenshaw, was an uncredited matte painter for Star Wars. He led a team of artists to complete 150 matte paintings for The Black Hole. The younger Ellenshaw told the 22 Jul 1979 NYT that Lucas’s technology only worked with “static shots,” so the Star Wars effects crew used quick editing techniques to create an illusion of movement over the mattes. In an effort to streamline the process of reshooting painted glass “mattes” over live action film, the Black Hole effects team invented the $100,000 “Matte-Scan” system, involving an “automated camera” that combined multiple live action shots on a single matte and conveyed motion. Harrison Ellenshaw noted that Matte-Scan allowed each shot of the matte cells to “have a little ‘drift,’” creating, “a depth of reality previously impossible.” He told HR that Matte-Scan’s computer both planned out and recorded camera shots, making it possible to repeat the exact motion multiple times. It took almost two years to fabricate, and was used for nearly 85% of the film’s matte sequences.
       The robots in The Black Hole also represented a deviation from Lucas’s “See Threepio” (C-3PO) and “Artoo-Detoo” (R2-D2). Both Star Wars characters were performed by actors, while The Black Hole’s “V.I.N.CENT” and “B.O.B.” were completely mechanical. Director Gary Nelson feared the film’s technology would upstage the humanity of the story, so he emphasized personal relationships between the space station crewmembers and their robot colleagues.
       The illusion of the black hole was created by a mixture of lacquer-based paint with a “whirlpool” of water. The spinning liquid was contained in a 6 x 6 foot clear plastic tank and filmed from below at 360 frames per second, fifteen times the regular shooting speed. The film was then taken to matte artists, who created “cross-dissolve triple frames,” and shot “with a painting of the black outside the hole.” During this effect, the artists used “diffusion glass” to slowly rotate the black painting. They also “burned in” additional elements, such as a piece of black velvet, spotted with white paint. Afterward, the layered image was projected “through an anamorphic lens” to create a flattening illusion, and the end result was a rotating ellipse rather than a perfect circle. A 15 Nov 1978 Var news item stated that Disney decided to use Technovision, a relatively new anamorphic lens at the time. Technovision was able to achieve the same 2:1 screen ratio as the more commonly used Panavision, but offered higher resolution and sharper images, according to a company spokesperson.
       The end of principal photography was announced in the 9 May 1979 Var. Three months later, a 15 Aug 1979 Var article stated that Disney had six or seven weeks to finish the film’s special and photographic effects because Harrison Ellenshaw was due to leave the studio for Lucasfilm Limited. By 29 Aug 1979, Var reported a $17.5 million budget, but various contemporary sources, including the 22 Jul 1979 NYT and a 25 Jul 1979 Var news item, listed the final cost as $20 million.
       The Black Hole marked Disney’s first PG-rated film, as reported in the 26 Sep 1979 Var. In the early stages of production, the 24 Jun 1975 HR stated that Disney intended to preserve their record of all G-rated films, and writer Bob Barbash admitted that he was required to omit the word “damn.” By late-Jul 1979, however, Ron Miller told NYT that the studio decided to keep “four-letter-words” in the film and were embracing the PG-rating since the studio was “trying to grow up slightly.” A 30 Apr 1999 LA Weekly news item claimed the rating was based upon the Anthony Perkins character, “Dr. Alex Durant,” being murdered by the spinning blades of the evil robot, “Maximilian.”
       On 24 Oct 1979, Var announced that The Black Hole was scheduled to make its world premiere on 18 Dec 1979 at the Odeon Leicester Square cinema in London, England, with representatives of British royalty in attendance. The 25 Jul 1979 Var news item stated that the picture’s domestic debut was planned for 20 Dec 1979 at Plitt’s Century Plaza No. 2 theater in Century City, CA. The Los Angeles, CA, premiere was a benefit for the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which had been established ten years earlier by an endowment from Walt Disney.
       The Black Hole grossed $4,738,000 domestically its opening weekend, setting an all-time high for a Disney release, according to a 26 Dec 1979 HR news item. As of that date, the film was screening at 891 theaters, but only 830 had reported box-office receipts, making the projected earnings even greater than early estimates. By 23 Jan 1980, the picture had grossed over $27 million, as stated in an HR article published that day. At the time, Disney predicted The Black Hole would be their top-grossing picture to date. Almost two years later, DV announced that Disney’s Mary Poppins and The Black Hole were the top “homevideo bestsellers” of any studio, each earning over $1 million in less than six months of their video release.
       The Black Hole has been reissued theatrically three times since its 21 Dec 1979 opening.
       A 1 Dec 2009 HR article announced that Disney was planning a “reinvention” of The Black Hole with directors Joseph Kosinski and Sean Bailey, as well as screenwriter Travis Beacham. The film was set to mark one of the first projects developed by Disney’s new chairman at the time, Rich Ross. On 4 Apr 2013, HR announced that Disney had renewed the project, hiring Jon Spaihts to revive the script. Kosinski was still in line to direct, and Justin Springer was brought on as producer.
       The Black Hole (1979) was nominated for two Academy Awards in the following categories: Cinematography and Visual Effects.
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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
9 Apr 1979.
---
Daily Variety
13 Oct 1978
p. 1, 6.
Daily Variety
1 Dec 1978.
---
Daily Variety
29 Mar 1979
p. 6, 14.
Daily Variety
3 May 1979
p. 6.
Daily Variety
19 Dec 1979
p. 3, 28.
Daily Variety
10 Apr 1981.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jun 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
3 Dec 1976
p. 1, 29.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Aug 1977
p. 1, 10.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jan 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Jan 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Nov 1978
p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Dec 1979
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Dec 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 Jan 1980
p. 5, 100.
Hollywood Reporter
1 Dec 2009.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Apr 2013.
---
LA Weekly
30 Apr 1999.
---
Los Angeles Times
21 Dec 1979
p. 1.
New York Times
22 Jul 1979
Section D, p 17, 25.
New York Times
21 Dec 1979
p. 16.
Reader's Digest
Jan 1980
pp. 94-98.
Variety
1 Nov 1978.
---
Variety
15 Nov 1978
p. 26.
Variety
14 Feb 1979.
---
Variety
9 May 1979.
---
Variety
25 Jul 1979.
---
Variety
15 Aug 1979.
---
Variety
29 Aug 1979.
---
Variety
26 Sep 1979.
---
Variety
24 Oct 1979.
---
Variety
19 Dec 1979
p. 18.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
Walt Disney Productions presents
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
2d asst dir
Prod mgr
PRODUCER
Prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Key grip
Gaffer
Key grip
Pitching lens relay systems by
Stillman
Dept head
Dolly grip
Grip dept head
Elec dept head
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
Prod illustrator
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Dept head
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Set coord
Paint dept
2d prop man
Const
COSTUMES
Cost supv
Cost des
Costumer
Costumer
Men`s ward
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Supv mus ed
Mus ed
Mus scoring mixer
SOUND
Sd mixer
Spec sd eff
Spec sd eff
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Addl spec sd eff
Dial replacement
Dial replacement
Dial replacement
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Boomman
VISUAL EFFECTS
Miniature eff created and supv by
Dir of miniature photog
Composite opt photog
Mechanical eff supv
Matte artist and matte eff
Robots created by
Opt photog coord
Asst mechanical eff
Asst matte artist
Asst matte artist
Sentry robot coord
Spec eff photog by, Miniatures unit
Miniature mechanical eff and chief model maker, Mi
A.C.E.S. op, Miniatures unit
A.C.E.S. op, Miniatures unit
Matte photog, Miniatures unit
Matte photog, Miniatures unit
Opt printer op, Miniatures unit
Opt printer op, Miniatures unit
Opt printer op, Miniatures unit
TV monitor coord
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Transportation
Crafts service
Crafts service
Casting
Casting
STAND INS
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
ANIMATION
Anim spec eff
Anim by
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Space Probe One
Space Station I
Space Probe I
Space Probe
Release Date:
21 December 1979
Premiere Information:
World premiere in London: 18 December 1979 at Odeon Leicester Square
Los Angeles premiere: 20 December 1979 at Plitt's Century Plaza No. 2
Los Angeles and New York openings: 21 December 1979
Production Date:
11 October 1978 -- early-May 1979 in Burbank, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
21 December 1979
Copyright Number:
PA52703
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Lenses
Filmed in Technovision
Duration(in mins):
97
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

In outer space, the U.S.S. Palamino heads back to Earth, manned by Captain Dan Holland, Dr. Alex Durant, Dr. Kate McCrae, Lieutenant Charles Pizer, and newspaper reporter Harry Booth, as well as the crew’s “Vital Information Necessary CENTralized” robot, nicknamed V.I.N.CENT. On the way, V.I.N.CENT detects a ‘black hole,” a region of space with an infinitely powerful gravitational pull, making it impossible for mass or light to escape its force. When V.I.N.CENT projects a hologram, the Palamino crew see a space station hovering at the edge of the black hole and identify it as the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus. The vessel was piloted by the notorious Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and Kate McCrae’s father was one of its missing astronauts. When Palamino fails to make contact with the spacecraft, it navigates closer to Cygnus. However, the Palamino is thrust toward the black hole and becomes inoperable. The Cygnus suddenly illuminates from within, and Capt. Holland has no choice but to dock for repairs. ... +


In outer space, the U.S.S. Palamino heads back to Earth, manned by Captain Dan Holland, Dr. Alex Durant, Dr. Kate McCrae, Lieutenant Charles Pizer, and newspaper reporter Harry Booth, as well as the crew’s “Vital Information Necessary CENTralized” robot, nicknamed V.I.N.CENT. On the way, V.I.N.CENT detects a ‘black hole,” a region of space with an infinitely powerful gravitational pull, making it impossible for mass or light to escape its force. When V.I.N.CENT projects a hologram, the Palamino crew see a space station hovering at the edge of the black hole and identify it as the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus. The vessel was piloted by the notorious Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and Kate McCrae’s father was one of its missing astronauts. When Palamino fails to make contact with the spacecraft, it navigates closer to Cygnus. However, the Palamino is thrust toward the black hole and becomes inoperable. The Cygnus suddenly illuminates from within, and Capt. Holland has no choice but to dock for repairs. As the astronauts cautiously board Cygnus with laser guns in hand, they are surprised to discover that the space station has gravity, and Kate, who has extra-sensory perception (ESP), detects life aboard the ship. Their weapons are shot out of their hands by hidden lasers, but they proceed anyway. Leaving Lt. Pizer with the Palamino, the others are shuttled to the space station’s headquarters. There, they see cloaked, humanoid figures, masterminded by Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the lone survivor of the Cygnus mission, and his ominous robot guard, “Maximilian.” Reinhardt explains that the space ship encountered a meteorite shower twenty years earlier. He and Kate’s father, Frank McCrae, stayed aboard Cygnus while the others returned to Earth. Reinhardt tells Kate that her father died, and seems surprised when he learns his former colleagues never made it home. While living alone on Cygnus, Reinhardt invented a way to maintain gravity and built robot “companions” to help him with his “research.” He intends to make scientific history by navigating through the black hole. The Palamino astronauts are suspicious of Reinhardt, but Dr. Alex Durant is impressed by the man’s genius and wants to be his protégé. Durant offers to bring Reinhardt back to Earth, but the scientist insists upon staying on Cygnus and mastering the black hole. He orders Kate, Harry Booth, and Durant to stay with him while Capt. Holland, Lt. Pizer, and V.I.N.CENT return to Palamino, closely guarded by Maximillian. The scientist’s operation is veiled in secrecy, but he admits to “pirating” the Cygnus mission so he could study the black hole. He also reveals his latest invention, a power source that can support human life in outer space. Hoping to dispatch a provocative news story, Harry Booth secretly steps into the ship’s living quarters and notices that the Cygnus astronauts did not pack their belongings for their reported return to Earth. He also observes the human quality of Reinhardt’s cloaked drones, and discovers an extensive garden to supply Cygnus with food. At the same time, Capt. Holland sees a corpse launched into space in a strange funeral ceremony, and V.I.N.CENT befriends “B.O.B,” an older, beat up version of his own computer model used as a “BiO-sanitation Battalion.” That evening, the Palamino crew reunites in Reinhardt’s lavish dining room and Capt. Holland announces that the spaceship is nearly repaired. However, Dr. Alex Durant is convinced that Reinhardt is on the cusp of an unprecedented discovery, and objects to returning to Earth. In addition, Reinhardt wants to delay Palamino’s voyage home so its crew can monitor his excursion into the black hole. Elsewhere in the space station, B.O.B. tells V.I.N.CENT the truth about Reihardt’s mission. Twenty years earlier, Reinhardt hijacked the space station and provoked a mutiny, led by Kate’s father, Frank McCrae. In response, Reinhardt murdered McCrae and lobotomized the other crewmembers, turning them into slaves. Back in the dining room, Reinhardt excuses himself to check data from a recently docked probe and the Palamino astronauts express increasing concern about their host. Capt. Holland wants to leave immediately, but Harry Booth suggests they use Reinhardt’s power source to launch Cygnus and the Palamino back to Earth. Leaving Kate and Durant behind, Capt. Holland, Lt. Pizer, and Harry Booth return to the Palamino, where V.I.N.CENT tells them about Reinhardt’s operation. Kate learns the news through an ESP message from V.I.N.CENT, but when she discloses the truth to Durant, he remains faithful to Reinhardt. However, Durant changes his mind when he unmasks a robed figure and finds a pale, human head underneath. Realizing he has been caught, Reinhardt plans to immediately launch Cygnus toward the black hole. Kate and Durant try to escape, but Reinhardt’s robotic henchman, Maximilian, kills Durant with his spinning metal arms. Reinhardt admits that Maximilian has taken control of the ship, and begs Kate to save him, but Kate defies her father’s murderer. In response, Reinhardt orders his guards to take her to the “hospital” for a lobotomy. He radios the Palamino, falsely reporting that Kate and Durant have decided to stay on Cygnus and giving them approval to launch. However, V.I.N.CENT cannot be fooled and spearheads a rescue mission with B.O.B. and Capt. Holland. As Cygnus plunges toward the black hole, a laser gun battle ensues, and Kate is rescued. She and Holland disguise themselves as humanoid drones and fight their way back to the Palamino. Reinhardt orders his minions to launch the Palamino, then shoot it down in space. While Cygnus shudders and crumbles apart with the force of the black hole, the Palamino crew fears take-off will be unsuccessful and evacuates, but Harry lingers behind and blasts the Palamino into space. The ship is hit by laser fire and crashes into Cygnus, damaging its anti-gravity device. When the space station veers into meteors, Reinhardt loses control and plans to escape in the ship’s probe. Reinhardt orders Maximilian to prepare the space pod, but the scientist is crushed by falling debris, and his humanoid slaves refuse to help. Meanwhile, the Palamino crew rushes to the probe, where they are confronted by Maximilian. A battle ensues, leaving B.O.B. and Maximilian forever inoperable. Finally inside the space pod, the Palamino crew realizes the ship has already been programmed to launch into the black hole. As Reinhardt and Max float in outer space to a planet of hellfire, the surviving Palamino astronauts are dragged into the black hole. Time slows and the crew is haunted by recent memories, but they soar through a glass tunnel and find themselves at the other side of the black hole, alive and gazing at a lunar eclipse. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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