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The Imagineering Story

Leslie Iwerks

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After the SOW reading group wrapped Leslie Iwerks' The Imagineering Story: The Official Biography of Walt Disney Imagineering, we had a lot of questions. The book gives an overview of decades of growth at the legendary business unit, but technical details are scant. Luckily, our network includes folks who have worked behind the scenes at Disney's Imagineering campus in Glendale, California.

We caught up with Colin Godby, who worked as a principal mechanical engineer at Walt Disney Imagineering from 2012 to 2015, building a ride vehicle for Flights of Passage in Walt Disney World's Pandora Land. Besides Disney, Colin has worked at Sphero, Skullcandy, and Glowforge and today is the founder and CEO of the electric motorcycle company Dust Moto. His varied career in mechanical engineering and thoughtful perspective on the companies he’s worked at made him the perfect guide for understanding how Disney Imagineering functions, and how the culture (and budgets) differ from other firms. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

Colin Godby: I went to school at UC Santa Barbara, which was a great school for mechanical engineering. When I got out, I wanted to be a design engineer and eventually found a role at a company called MillenWorks, run by Rod Millen. He was a race car driver in New Zealand back in the day and originally built his shop to build interesting race cars.

They were building hill climb cars for Pikes Peak with really high downforce and crazy forced induction engines, and soon realized that the engineering skills needed to build advanced, interesting race cars could be deployed in other vehicle projects. When I joined we were doing military vehicle projects, concept cars for Toyota and Chrysler, and themed entertainment. We were already working with Disney, and I joined just as an individual contributor early in my career.

Millenworks was this wild, super fast closed-loop place to just apply your engineering skills. After I'd been there for about five years, Disney came to us for Radiator Springs Racers, the Cars ride. And so they're like, "Hey, we've got this ride we like in Florida, the GM test tracker. It's got a lot of reliability issues, but we'd love to use this space and turn it into something reliable, safe, and for Cars." So we did the first article design and engineering for that ride. We didn't do the production for the 36 or 40 ride vehicles, but we did the drawing package for the first vehicle. I was the project engineer - basically the technical lead and liaison for Disney at MillenWorks. And so that's how I got introduced.

I proved myself as a contract engineer and moved on from Millenworks to work on consumer products. Disney has a policy of not recruiting out of their partners, so when I left MillenWorks they came back after a year and mentioned there were openings at Imagineering, and would I like to join? I pushed them off because we were living in Park City, which was really nice for skiing and snowboarding! But eventually, I decided I needed to get Imagineering on my resume.

HP: I'd love to learn more about the overall culture of Imagineering. How did the creative versus technical tensions play out? How do people work together and how does it differ from other workplaces you've been in?

CG: The campus in Glendale is maybe a half mile by half mile square (~0.6 km2) with about 15 low-level buildings. Back in the day buildings were split out by discipline, but management realized a more integrated project team setting was really important. When I joined the Pandora project, they were working on a few new approaches. One was using BIM [building information modeling] to pull all of the trays together in a live model. The other one was pull planning, the concept of everyone getting in the room and figuring out what we needed in order to deliver this project.

Avatar Land as a whole, which ended up costing something like $1.4 billion, had about 300 of us in one building split out by ride. We had architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and structural engineering sprinkled around special effects and all that stuff. I think that was intentional. When you walk through the halls you can't hide - it helps spur conversations and reminds you who you owe work to. It's similar to the Pixar concept of the campus that Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull put forward, designing for these happy accidents.

The proximity of teams was critical. For the Flight of Passage, we had to develop the Link Chair. In the movie, there is a Link Bed where characters lie down and link into their avatars, but for the ride experience, we didn't want guests lying down. So we're like okay, "How do we get them on this motion platform and immersive screen? Well, the chair is probably the best idea, what are the different formats?" There's no direct example in the movie, so we had to invent what they look like. We were working with Lightstorm, James Cameron's production company, which is a technical but also really artistic group. We'd be back and forth with the Lightstorm people, sending designs. They kept sending OBJ models [OBJ is a 3D object file format that describes geometry via tessellated polygons] over and we were like, "These models aren't workable. It's just like dumb surfaces. There are no manifold bodies or anything!"

Eventually one of our leaders, Joe Rohde, a legend in Imagineering, decides this needs to be solved. He said, "We're going to hold a charette." As an engineer, I never heard what that term was - a charette is basically locking the two groups in a room and not letting us out until we figure it out. The intent was a creative mind meld between the teams. They would cater food first thing in the morning, and we'd stay in there all day - they'd bring lunch, they'd bring dinner. We had models open live, in the room together. [Lightstorm people] had their sculpting models and we had our SolidWorks models. We were just passing models, testing, and learning.

Whenever you're abstracted away from someone behind a screen or in a different location it's easy to have delays injected into the work because you can't quite get over that hump. As soon as you get together it highlights how easy it is to break through problems just by bashing your brains. It's about cultivating a really good kind of tension. I ended up deploying similar charettes at other jobs to move teams through sticking points.

One very unique thing at WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering] was that some of my colleagues were celebrating their 40th anniversaries at Imagineering. When you think about it, it's pretty insane - some of these people started at Imagineering at 18 and they're going to be retiring in a couple of years with only one job their entire life! That told you a bit about how the culture is different.

James Coleman: It's super fascinating work you've done with the Pandora ride - the ride vehicle in particular is super complex. You've got the lock-in mechanism, the screen, the bladders that inflate to simulate breathing, and it all tilts - it's a super complicated creation! I'm curious to hear you talk through the thinking behind creating so much complexity.

CG: First, I think the special effects group in WDI is a super unique and special place. There are a few folks that I really enjoyed working with and they just spend their life doing wacky and wild experimenting. It's like, "How can we use lasers and mist to do something crazy?" And then they just mess around for a month until something cool happens. If it becomes something usable, those concepts get developed further for special effects.

When designing the ride vehicle, the Link Chair, we knew it had to have two phases. In phase one, it's a cold industrial object, and then in phase two, it's a live warm organic creature called a banshee. The idea is the rider links in and suddenly they're in Pandora riding a banshee. [The special effects team] wanted to make the shift from an industrial object really clear, and wanted riders to be fully immersed on the Pandora side. We started with a big list of ideas for creating sensations that could define the experience for each phase of the chair to create that immersion.

One tool we ended up using quite a bit is what we call play testing - we were always testing ideas immediately. That was one of the ways to limit the scope and say no: If a fanciful idea just doesn't work, we know very early on. We built plywood bucks super early to test the breathing bladders that go in between your thighs [to give the illusion the chair is alive]. We used these vinyl bladders that you can buy on Amazon to pop your door and rigged them up as a series of really simple pneumatic valves to make the chair breathe in and out. We were testing: Does this feel good? Does this seem realistic as an animal's lungs expanding or not?

For the haptics, we grabbed some off-the-shelf stuff and rigged them up to test if it felt right. There are haptics in the chest, back, and in the seat bottom and we would test those at high and low frequencies. If the play test on the bucks proved very compelling, we'd find a way to implement it.

At Imagineering, we were developing something fantastical, and this next-level immersion is important for the magic at Disney. I think engineers get trained to be the source of reason on a project - we learn to reduce risk and we have to be able to focus and get stuff done. But at the same time, no one likes to be around an engineering team whose first response is always 'no,' or 'that's not possible.' We really had a culture of 'let's find out' at Imagineering. It also ended up creating six- or seven-year timelines! So, this mindset isn't necessarily compatible with an 18-month consumer product development cycle. But throughout my career, I try to keep that creativity and try to find that balance within the engineering teams I work with.

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