NAB 2015: Behind the Scenes of Walt Disney Imagineering

Disney fans with a desire to know what goes into the magic will enjoy learning about Greg Kadorian’s talk at NAB this year. Kadorian is from Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), who is part of the Walt Disney Theme Parks & Resorts division, creates content for Disney’s theme parks, cruise lines and resorts, spoke on how they use digital cinema technology in a non-traditional way. That is, creating content not for a theater but as a means of enhancing a guest's experience in one of Disney’s various attractions.

Requirements for a theme park

Although their final product may be different from a movie in a theater, Kadorian pointed out that the requirements for WDI are really the same as any motion picture studio in that they're trying to get people out of their houses and deliver something that can't be experienced at home. On any given day, a Disney theme park attraction has a huge audience going through it, seeing up to 2,500 people an hour. Another requirement for content in theme parks is high resolution. A lot of times, guests at a Disney theme park may be less than a picture height away from the display displaying the content created by the WDI team, so it needs to be shown in high resolution so it can be add to the immersion. content_1 Along those same lines, to maintain an immersive experience the content may need to be displayed in 3D, 4D, filling a guest's field of view or even high frame rate in some cases.

A brief history

According to Kadorian, starting with Epcot Center in 1982 there was a significant use of film projection with 35mm circle visions, dual 70mm 3D, 70mm, as a few examples. Epcot's Magic Journeys film was the first film to feature 3D CG animation. These innovations helped pave the way for use of video in a Disney theme park. "Three gun CRTs," Kadorian recalled. "Remember those? And GE Talaria projectors with 2,000 lumens at $100,000 in 1982. It was a bargain." The team at WDI, which was WED in 1982, used laser discs for their sources. "We had a little dance we did," Kadorian remembered. "We made the edits in Glendale, California and flew to 3M in Menomonie, Wisconsin. They'd test it, and then we’d go to Florida and hopefully get a buy-off. If not, came back to Glendale and did it all over again." In 1986, Star Tours used a 70mm film projector on a six degree of freedom motion base. Everyone said it wouldn't work, but it did. Another attraction, Captain EO Theater, used dual 70mm 3D projectors. Moving forward a few years to 1998, Disney's Animal Kingdom opened. "This was very different," Kadorian said. "The creative team wanted this to be a more natural environment, so you didn't have the traditional cinema or queue lines full of TV monitors. They didn't want to see any of that." The solution for this was through what is referred to experiential attractions. Simply, the story isn't told in 3D on a screen but is actually being told through the entire environment around the guests. "We like to call it VR without a helmet," Kadorian laughed. "One of our creative executives had a great quote when he said, 'You don't have to create pixels to create an immersive environment.' That's what a Disney theme park is all about." For example, the It’s Tough to be a Bug attraction used a 70mm 3D projector was used to help guests get a bug's eye perspective from the world of dung beetles. content_2 "This is where the special effects really invaded your space," Kadorian said. "You get poked in the back, bumped in your seat; you've got rat tails around your ankles. That's the 4D side. The installation for It’s Tough to be a Bug was done with 31.1 audio, using a lot of speakers hidden in rockworks around the theater. In 2001, Disney's California Adventure allows guests to soar over California. The film was done in large format 15/70 film running at 48 fps in an 80-foot diameter dome. By having guests move into the center so the screen fills their field of view and allowing their feet to dangle and having wind blow in their face, a sense of flying is achieved. Another film, Mickey's PhilharMagic, used four 70mm projectors on a 150-foot wide wrap-around screen. Two projectors were placed in the center of the screen for 3D and then 2D projectors on either side helps give a great experience to the guests. "Is it the end of film?" Kadorian asked. "Many film shows are still running in the parks, and it really becomes a return on investment and the question of when it’s not maintainable anymore. So I don't know the answer." The main problem Disney has with films, Kadorian explained, is the dye fading as it runs through a very bright lamp in the projector countless amounts of times throughout the life. This means the films need to be changed out eventually. "Where can you find a 70mm film lab these days?" Kadorian said, implying it's only a matter of time before film simply won't be a viable option. In 2007, the Muppet*Vision in California started the conversion from film to digital cinema. For the attraction, digital projectors and servers were used. To transition this particular attraction, WDI scanned the positive, cleaned it up and did some stabilization. "It looked really good," Kadorian said. "We were sitting in the front row of the theater with our show producer and some media folks, and we were quite amazed at how good it looked."

Benefits of a closed system

"Standards? Yeah, maybe not so much," Kadorian laughed. "We use standards when we can use standards. We're really in a closed system. We produce the media and it goes into a given theater and it's optimized for that installation." While a lot of the industry has had to deal with piracy, no doubt thanks to this closed system; it really hasn't been much of an issue for WDI. "It's pretty well locked up, so [piracy] hasn't really been an issue for us in the theme park world," Kadorian said.

How Disney uses video in their attractions

As is expected, Disney has a lot of video and audio tracks to manage around their theme parks. "A recent attraction," Kadorian gave an example, "had 192 audio tracks and over 80 video tracks. So that's a huge logistical effort." There's a lot more than just the audio/video side as well. To get the 4D aspects, a lot of the video needs to be synced with things like the attraction's lighting, animated figures and other set elements. As hardware becomes available using precision protocol on the SMPTE standards, Kadorian predicted Disney would be moving to that. Although the new parades are using precision time protocol to synchronize the wayside audio and float audio together. "We're still living in the NTSC legacy world of non-integer frame rates," Kadorian admitted. "If I could ever convince the audio production guys to change their master sync generator to 30, it would be a wonderful thing."

Shows using video these days

Toy Story Mania! is a ride-through 3D game experience that uses 56 polarization-switching projectors. "The new installation we're doing in Hong Kong," Kadorian said, "we're talking about doing 56 4K projectors for that. The game engines don't care; they can upres whatever we want." Not to be confused with the original Star Tours, the reimagined version of the attraction, Star Tours - The Adventures Continue, is now located in multiple Disney theme parks around the world. The attraction uses dual 3D HD projectors that were originally designed for military simulator use along with the same motion base as the original. content_3 "It's a five minute show cycle," Kadorian explained. "So 12 hours a day times 365 days a year, we're running about 50,000 cycles a year. So these things get beat up, but they stand up to use." In the attraction, Darth Vader picks a 'random' guest from the audience as a Rebel spy. "It's the same scene every time," Kadorian laughed. "The guest's image is captured and that guest's image is keyed into the poster. So it's a bit of a personalization and people really like it. That personalization aspect is really driving a lot of attraction development these days." Every time you get on Star Tours - The Adventures Continue cycle goes down a different path. There's over 50 different adventures that are randomly played. You start at the same path and end at the same path, but the content in the middle varies, offering some replay value. Another branching storyline is the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland. You start in a vehicle and leaving the loading dock, you get to choose between three doors. "Obviously the ride track is the same," Kadorian explained. "It’s a big giant moving set that moves and puts the appropriate one of the three doors in front of you. To rehab that moving set was going to cost over one million dollars." Because of the steep cost, instead of replacing the original set, this summer before the 60th anniversary the set will be replaced with a video equivalent of the set.

Projection mapping at Disney

Projection mapping is popular at Disney. Some examples are, obviously, the castles in theme parks around the world, as well as in special cases such as the entire Disneyland Main St. for the 60th anniversary this year will be mapped in conjunction with the fireworks show. "We do complex surfaces, rockwork, 3D sets, projecting on water for Fantasmic! and World of Color," Kadorian said. "Those are things you don't get at home." As an example of what it takes to create these projection mappings, for the climactic scene of Mystic Manor, which just opened in Hong Kong, there were four 4K, 30 fps projectors and 18 HD projectors working on conjunction to pull off the effect. "The monkey king figure gets upset," Kadorian explained of what happens in the Mystic Manor attraction, "and there's a swirling vortex when the whole room tears apart and spins around you. Then it goes dark and you move onto the next scene. So that's something that just wouldn't be possible with real set pieces." Another example Kadorian gave was with the Ratatouille attraction in Paris, which is a 3D show containing 14 pairs of cinema 4K, 30 fps projectors that are mounted on catwalks in the show area. content_4 "Reports from the maintenance folks have been very positive," Kadorian said. "They've been using the cinema calibration tools to keep the white balance and colors accurate, and the alignment is very stable. So that's a testament to the reliability of the projectors." The attractions are hard surface domes, which are an audio nightmare to figure out focusing, reflections and where to put speakers. "We tried to encourage the teams building the attraction to put in perforated screens with absorption behind, but it doesn't always happen," Kadorian said.

Budgetary concerns for going digital

"It's got to be cheaper to make it on video, right?" Kadorian laughed. "Not really." This is especially true when you're working with high frame rates the rendering costs start to go up significantly. The WDI team gets assets from Lucas Film, Pixar or other Disney entities and does their own in-house editing. "We've got people stacked up in conference rooms, closets and everywhere," Kadorian laughed. "So it's not easy and it's not cheap." So what is one of the big benefits? Other than being able to achieve some things that just aren't possible with physical set pieces, like the Mystic Manor attraction, maintenance is a big cost saver. "It's longer lasting and you get constant quality compared to film," Kadorian explained. "There's less daily maintenance, you basically just have to turn the projectors on. And obviously, there's zero print cost." As complex as the Disney attractions are, this quote-unquote 'easy' maintenance is actually not that easy at all. "When you have a show with 100 projectors all stuck in catwalks or behind rockwork or wherever," Kadorian explained, "it's almost a continuous process to replace the lamps in these projectors." To help with this, the team at Disney networks all of the projectors together so they can monitor the status of the projectors easier and figure out where issues are when they arise. "I would say lamp degradation and failures are the biggest problems we're facing now," Kadorian said.

Looking into the future for Disney attractions

The WDI team at Disney uses specialized servers that come out of the live entertainment market that allows them to do things like real-time warping and blending onto complex surfaces, such as the rockwork. "One of our upcoming shows has 28 HD projectors on an 80 foot dome," Kadorian said. "So you could do that manually, but it'd take you several days. This is just easier." Another way the WDI team is enhancing the attractions' capabilities is through editing and rendering in the field. "It's a closed system, and we're taking a render farm out to the field these days for those last minute changes," Kadorian said. "We do have a rule that the day before the big release you stop making changes, but that doesn't always work." Something else new is 120 Hz with laser illumination, coming to Disney's California theme park in the next month. Laser illumination not only gives consistency and reliability, but they can also do other cool things like 6P 3D. content_5 "The main thing is," Kadorian explained of laser projectors, "we can do it horizontal or vertical. So we can put the projector straight down or straight up!"   Considering the amount of amazing work the team at WDI has been able to do with the more traditional projectors, it's crazy to think about how much more they'll be able to take advantage of with the new technology they're rolling out with in the near future.