Pulling Back the Curtain on Disney’s Storied Imagineering Department

June 24, 2020

In this episode of One Quick Thing, Leslie Iwerks discusses her personal ties to the Walt Disney Company, what she learned making the docu-series “The Imagineering Story,” and what she envisions for the future of movie theaters. Iwerks is an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary director and producer, and the founder of the production company Iwerks & Co. She was joined on the show by her father, former Disney executive Don Iwerks. 

Iwerks’s ties to the Disney universe are deep; her grandfather Ubbe Eert “Ub” Iwerks worked directly with Walt Disney in designing Mickey Mouse, and her father worked at Disney for 35 years, and helped develop the Circle-Vision 360° immersive movie format.

Her most recent project is “The Imagineering Story,” a docu-series that takes an in-depth look at the 65-year history of Walt Disney Imagineering — the R&D arm of the Walt Disney Company. The Imagineering team is responsible for creating, designing, and constructing Disney theme parks and attractions. The team is made up of “Imagineers” — a combination of illustrators, architects, engineers, lighting designers, show writers, and graphic designers.

Former Imagineer Josh Wachman also joined the call and offered insights on his experience. 

Four takeaways from the conversation follow. 

‘Art Challenges Technology, and Technology Inspires Art’

Two Disney Imagineers create a ghostly head in a crystal ball for the Haunted Mansion attraction. A third Imagineer, Leota Toombs, was the model for the disembodied head.

While filming her documentary “The Pixar Story,” a behind-the-scenes look into the animation giant, Iwerks noticed the marriage between technical and creative innovation in the company’s culture. She compares Steve Jobs — one of three founders of Pixar — to Walt Disney. Both had an “amazing creative mind and…an amazing business mind, and that’s rare,” she says.  

“The idea that those two things — art and technology — work together is really what inspired Walt,” she says. “Every step in creative evolution takes a technological genius, somebody who has the courage to think uncommon thoughts. And the more uncommon thoughts we can have or we can train ourselves to have on a daily basis, the more uncommon things we will do and that’s really what all these guys [at companies like Pixar and Disney] did.”

Imagineers Cannot Succeed Without ‘Bean Counters’

While watching “The Imagineering Story,” a theme that former Imagineer Josh Wachman kept noticing was the need to balance creativity with sound financial decision making. 

“You’ve got, in the original days, Walt and [his brother] Roy [Disney] talking about ‘How do you finance this crazy, never-before-done theme park?’ And then [later Disney CEO Michael] Eisner and [President Frank] Wells had that tension of left-brain, right-brain where one was the bean counter and one was the creative, visionary. … From a management perspective, managing creative people is…not easy,” Wachman says.

Passionate, Engaged Employees are Integral to Making Innovation Possible

While certain processes were done very differently back in Don Iwerks’s day — he says that “there was no committee meetings [and no one would] give me a budget or any of that” — the passion and perfectionism of the Disney employees and Imagineers has been a thread running through the company’s history. “You had to be able to do things right the first time, and if you didn’t get it right the first time, then do it right the second time.” 

“I could hardly wait to get to work in the morning,” says Don Iwerks, who worked alongside his father Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. “It was so enjoyable, being surrounded by so much talent. … Walt had the wherewithal to surround himself with people who were as talented or more so than him, and he was directing all that like a symphony orchestra.”

According to Don Iwerks, his father also challenged him to test new ideas. “We were building all of these devices that Walt needed or my dad was coming up with, optical printers and various optical devices, that would help Walt make his films,” Don Iwerks says. “Walt sometimes would come up with an idea about something, and when I asked my dad…‘Do you think we could do this?’ … He’d say, ‘Why don’t you just look into it?'”

Let the Scope of Your Ideas Grow When Necessary

When Iwerks began working on “The Imagineering Story,” the project had been commissioned as a 90-minute film to be shot over a period of five years. However, once Iwerks and her team began filming, it became clear that there was too much footage to be whittled down to the length of a feature film. 

“It became this really long project, meaning we had more material than we could ever fit into 90 minutes. And so the editors and I, we just said, ‘Why don’t we just go long? Let’s just try to shape this and see what feels natural for this,'” she said. “We learned so much that I never knew as a kid. … I always knew that Imagineering was kind of this secret place. … I was just really impressed and blown away by so much of the creativity and the behind the scenes that nobody gets to see. … We were also getting in all this enormous footage that a lot of people had never seen before of the making of Disneyland,” the company’s first theme park in Anaheim, California.

This episode of One Quick Thing is sponsored by Startgrid. Startgrid is an innovation platform that helps companies make their external innovation efforts more successful. From tracking business needs to scouting startups to discovering the best solutions, Startgrid makes it easy for teams to solve problems, share intelligence, and measure the impact of their efforts on the business.

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