Walt Disney Studios’ original animation building,
where artists once drew “Dumbo” and “Cinderella”
by hand, a 15-person team of innovators is trying to
create a moviemaking Tomorrowland.
Burbank studio’s 4-month-old, 3,500-square-foot
innovation hub is a short walk from Walt Disney’s old
office and is furnished with Kem Weber chairs
reminiscent of a bygone era. But instead of pencils and
light tables, visitors find experimental virtual reality
editing equipment, location-scouting drones and digital
projections that wrap around walls.
purpose of the space, dubbed StudioLab, is to use
Silicon Valley-style experimentation to help studio
executives and filmmakers stay ahead of rapid advances
in technology by developing and showcasing new ideas for
making and marketing movies.
its ideas have already spilled into the real world.
Initiatives have included promotional efforts for the
big-budget animated film “Ralph Breaks the
Internet,” which opened this week; and helping
filmmakers shoot scenes for the upcoming superhero movie
start-up-meets-Wakanda vibe was pretty much what we were
going for,” said Ben Havey, vice president of
Disney’s Technology Innovation Group, during a tour.
“To be able to sit with those teams of storytellers,
and basically give them superpowers through technology,
is really our mission here.”
technology centers are hardly a new idea. 20th Century
Fox, for example, founded its own Innovation Lab in
2014, and Sony Pictures earlier this year announced its
Innovation Studios project in Culver City. Paramount
Pictures last year hired entertainment “futurist”
Ted Schilowitz from Fox.
executives said their hub can succeed by combining the
brainpower of its various studios, including Marvel,
Pixar and Lucasfilm. The company has a storied history
of technological invention through Disney Imagineering,
its famed park design and research arm. Disney also
develops long-term technological advances in
entertainment through its Disney Research division.
lab is focused on helping filmmakers such as
“Avengers: Infinity War” directors Joe and Anthony
Russo address the nuts-and-bolts technological
challenges that arise daily. Those difficulties include
analyzing overseas film locations, finding faster ways
to render animation and protecting sensitive data while
working on scripts and effects.
needed to push our own industry forward,” said Jamie
Voris, Walt Disney Studios’ chief technology officer.
“By pulling together, we can solve these big and
declined to say how much money they are putting into the
lab, which is funded by Disney and its partners: tech
companies Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. and Cisco
Systems Inc. and consulting firm Accenture Interactive.
But the unit appears to be moving aggressively,
greenlighting about 25 projects to tackle in the next
don’t want this to be a one-and-done project,” said
Dave Ward, Cisco’s CTO of engineering and chief
architect. “We want to make it easy for the artists
and creatives and allow them to use this technology
seamlessly in their productions.”
of “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” a sequel to the 2012
computer-animated hit “Wreck-It Ralph,” was an ideal
chance for the studio to test new uses for tech,
including projection mapping, virtual reality and mobile
gaming, executives said. In the film, the arcade game
characters Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz
take a trip to cyberspace via their arcade’s new Wi-Fi
is such a great property, and we wanted to put it in
multiple dimensions,” Havey said.
screenings of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” at the El
Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, the studio created a
display of colorful, moving light images, representing
internet traffic, to project onto the auditorium’s
intricate interior. StudioLab developed software to make
the projection mapping process easier and more efficient
for Disney employees. Using a device resembling a
surveyor’s pole, it took just an afternoon to scan the
El Capitan, a task that once might have taken months to
complete, Havey said.
of StudioLab’s projects was to help quickly create a
free mobile game called “Pancake Milkshake” based on
a popular clip from the film’s teaser trailer in which
Ralph feeds copious stacks of pancakes to a bunny and
milkshakes to a kitty. The game lets players easily
share their scores with friends through their messaging
also shepherds Disney’s relationship with virtual
reality company the Void, which recently unveiled its
“Ralph Breaks VR” experience, created by Industrial
Light & Magic’s ILMxLAB. The game lets four
players, equipped with headsets and vests, travel the
internet with Ralph and Vanellope.
oversees the slate of Disney’s film tie-ins for the
Void, which this week launched the 11-minute virtual
experience at seven locations in the U.S. and Canada,
including the Glendale Galleria and Downtown Disney. The
Void charges $29.95 to $36.95 a ticket. The Void
previously featured the popular “Star Wars: Secrets of
the Empire” virtual reality project, and is expected
to create a Marvel offering for next year.
saw (the Void), and rightly so, as a really innovative
way to tell stories,” said Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive
in charge of ILMxLAB. “They’re shepherding
innovation on behalf of the studio, and we’re bringing
that to life.”
Breaks the Internet” is expected to collect more than
$80 million in ticket sales Wednesday through Sunday in
the U.S. and Canada, according to early studio
estimates. The film cost at least $175 million to
also wants to improve the filmmaking process itself. It
fashioned software called Scout-in-a-Box, an iPad app
that uses drones to view and digitally re-create filming
locations to help filmmakers assess feasibility, plan
logistics and set up shots.
“Captain Marvel,” the studio used a drone to take
images of an abandoned mall in the San Fernando Valley.
Not only did the studio approve the location, it also
used the data from the app to digitally re-create it as
a Blockbuster Video store for the film itself. Danielle
Costa, vice president of visual effects for Marvel
Studios, said she plans to use Scout-in-a-Box for future
definitely makes for a much more well-oiled machine when
you’re shooting,” Costa said. “You can plan an
entire move in advance and hand that template to a
rigging crew, and it will be completely accurate.”
recently used videoconferencing technology to conduct a
remote set visit to “Stargirl,” a movie planned for
its Disney+ streaming service. Studio Chairman Alan Horn
and President Alan Bergman were able to see and interact
with the actors and crew on the New Mexico set and get a
detailed sense of the action on the soundstage.
ideas are in the works. One room in the lab showcases
how a future production studio could work, by letting
visitors use virtual reality controllers to change
camera angles on “Tron” images. Instead of typical
lightweight gaming controllers, the lab uses wheel
cranks and dolly sliders that resemble the heavy
equipment used on real sets.
also wants the lab to address major long-term
challenges. For example, the process of rendering
computer animation remains expensive and time-intensive,
and the lab is working on ways to make it more
efficient. Improving data security during the filmmaking
process is another priority.
some of the ideas remain in early stages, Havey is
optimistic that more of the lab’s experiments will
find practical uses.
happy when innovations get out of the lab and into the
real world,” he said. “That’s what I live for.”