How James Cameron’s Film Tech Company Helped Disney Bring Avatar to Life in Florida
J.D. Harrison | May 17, 2017
Welcome to #BizUnited, a new series highlighting innovative partnerships between large corporations and smaller businesses across America. Check back periodically for new installments.
Sitting there at breakfast, James Cameron thought he knew what to expect. After all, this wasn’t the first time Disney had come knocking, and Cameron—an award-winning director and founder of Silicon Valley-based film tech startup Lightstorm Entertainment—was confident that the media and entertainment giant wanted to turn his biggest blockbuster into one new ride at Walt Disney World.
“I thought ‘Okay, this will be about a ride attraction for Avatar,’” Cameron said about being asked for a meeting with then Disney President and Chairman Bob Iger and Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Thomas Staggs in 2011. But as the conversation unfolded, Cameron says, “I quickly realized that their vision for this thing was far beyond what I had imagined, and I’ve got a pretty good imagination.”
What Staggs and Iger pitched wasn’t a single ride, but rather an entire new section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. Their vision: An expansive park within a park that would allow visitors to explore, interact with and fully immerse themselves in the world of Pandora, the fictional planet on which Cameron’s Avatar film takes place.
In the six years since, Disney’s army of theme park “imagineers” has been working hand-in-hand with the technology wizards at Lightstorm to bring the world of Avatar to life just outside Orlando, Florida. Spanning a massive 12 acres and featuring several new high-tech attractions, entertainment experiences and dining venues, the Pandora area will officially open later this month.
It’s debut will mark the culmination of countless hours of collaboration, innovation and creative melding between the world’s largest media and entertainment company and one of the film industry’s most technologically advanced up-and-comers.
“In this project, similar to all our projects, collaboration is key,” Djuan Rivers, Animal Kingdom theme park’s vice president, said in an interview released by Disney. He added that Cameron and Lightstorm “believe in the same things we do: creativity, technology, innovation.”
Joe Rohde, portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering and the creative director on the Pandora project, echoed similar remarks about the partnership.
“It’s a really remarkable collaboration between Walt Disney Imagineering on one side and Lightstorm on the other,” Rohde said in the video. “There’s a lot of crossover in knowledge base and skill, but there’s also a lot of exceptional skills on both sides, and when we put this team together, we’ve been able to create a kind of super team with extraordinary abilities to approach the job.”
Pandora Ð The World of AVATAR opens May 27, 2017, bringing exciting new experiences to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. New attractions include the family-friendly NaÕvi River Journey. The adventure begins as guests sail in reed boats down a mysterious, sacred river hidden within the bioluminescent rainforest. The full beauty of Pandora reveals itself as the boats pass by exotic glowing plants and amazing creatures. The journey culminates in an encounter with a NaÕvi shaman, who has a deep connection to the life force of Pandora and sends positive energy out into the forest through her music. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Steven Diaz, photographer)
Those unique skills – including unrivaled storytelling knowhow and theme park development expertise for Disney, coupled with groundbreaking visual effects technology created by Lightstorm – were on full display during the development of one Pandora’s signature attractions, in which guests will have the sensation of flying on the back of a winged banshee creature from the film.
As Rohde explains in the interview, the Disney team leveraged Lightstorm’s pre-visualization technology to simulate and map out the flight path that the virtual banshees would take through an imaginary 3-D world. It’s the same technology Lightstorm initially built to produce flight scenes for the movie.
“We went to their giant sound stage, and we’re using their technology, where we actually hold these little banshees and – like 10-year-old kids playing with toys – we’re flying them around, basically doing the flight path that the guests are going to go through,” Rohde says. All the while, he continued, Lightstorm was “recording it on… I don’t even know what kind of giant motion-capture system… it’s pretty incredible.”
Disney has brought its own flare for innovation to the partnership, too. Disney Imagineers have, for instance, deployed their new “multi-branched” ride system (first seen in a recent Star Wars attraction update) to the aforementioned banshee ride, which generates a unique, randomized ride experience each time. In addition, new motion sensor technology developed by Disney Research will allow bioluminescent plant life throughout the area to respond when touched, as it does in the film.
“I think Avatar became synonymous with the use of technology to tell stories, and Disney’s Imagineers have embraced that,” Lightstorm’s Jon Landau, who produced Avatar and helped lead the Pandora project, said in the video. “They are bringing new technologies to bear that are going to create new experiences for guests that are going be more immersive and really more amazing than ever before.”
Not only was Disney the perfect partner for Lightstorm, but Animal Kingdom was the perfect home for Pandora, Landau added. “The same thing we tried to do in our film – which is to relate everything to earth, to challenge people, to open their eyes, and to understand that their actions have an implications and effect on the word around them – that’s what Disney’s Animal Kingdom does,” he said.
Neither Disney nor Lightstorm are new to strategic partnerships with other innovative companies. In Lightstorm’s case, for instance, the firm recently teamed up with Dell EMC, using the latter’s data storage, sharing and security technologies to help Lightstorm team members organize and share the petabytes of data (think illustrations, computer renderings, and video files) that will be used to make the upcoming Avatar sequels.
“Because we’re 100 percent digital, our storage needs have evolved,” Landau wrote in a blog post. “With the next three Avatar sequels, we’re going to be pushing the boundaries of technology. These movies couldn’t even be thought about without digital technology, or without strategic partners like EMC that help us to manage all of this data that needs to be stored and pushed out to different teams across the world.”
For Disney, partnering with innovative startups helps the company plug into innovative ideas and stay on the cutting edge of new technology. The media and entertainment giant three years ago launched Disney Accelerator, a mentorship-driven, early-stage investment program for startups that are pushing the boundaries of consumer media and entertainment. In the process, Disney has uncovered a growing number of startups that later became suppliers, technology providers or innovative partners.
“The Disney Accelerator program is a great way for the company to get an early look at new and evolving technology,” Scott Trowbridge, portfolio creative executive on the Disney Imagineering team, said in a video released late last year. “In addition, it’s a great opportunity for us to use the power of the Walt Disney company—our storytelling capability, our technology prowess, our global reach—to help provide a launch pad for these companies.”