How Environmental Immersion Leads to Creative Inspiration

One can be inspired by research as well as immersed in it for inspiration.  Rhonda Counts, Show Producer, Walt Disney Imagineering Florida

How you do research is dependent upon where you are in the process. Disney’s Imagineers value the story’s intent and the importance of being surrounded with or immersed in the story’s environment.

Here’s an example from one of my projects:

As you can see, there’s a definite pirate’s theme going on in part of my office. It’s both from previous work and work in process. I’ve used the theme of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” storyline – both the attraction and the movies – to develop training resources and presentations in the area of Guest Experiences.

Specifically, I created a tool – the Guest Experience Compass. And how better to demonstrate it, than using Jack Sparrow’s compass? I also created the Guest Experience Code – and based it on the storyline of the Pirates Code. Of course, both of these tools had to be introduced and used by a pirate – the Navigator – in a fully immersive learning environment. The result?

As a result of my pirate “adventure,” I created a blog series which you can read about here.

And it doesn’t stop with pirates.

There’s the Disney wall in my office…

 

It’s no secret that I am a Disney fanatic of the first degree! I had an early start in the 60s, both from watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” and benefiting from my father, who as a Gulf gasoline dealer received many promotional tie-ins from Disney movies.

Anchored by a Disney library of over 230 books (and growing!), I am literally immersed in all things Disney. As I research and work on various projects – especially Guest Experiences – I find great inspiration through the many resources at hand. My immersion is not limited to the visual and tactile – at any given time, the soundtrack of a Disney movie, or the background music from one of Disney’s theme parks is playing in the background.

Here’s how Disney Imagineers recommend immersion into an environment:

Select a project that you want to immerse yourself in. Make a list of all the elements of the project and find samples (the larger the better) that represent these elements. Find a place in your surroundings to display the samples so you can immerse yourself in them.

For example, if you wanted to fix up a vintage car, surround yourself with large detailed pictures of its original interior and exterior, very large color samples for its seat cushions, dashboard, etc., and exterior paint job, pictures of various locations you would drive to, and of course, spray the space with new car scent.

Research leads to inspiration.


part of a series of ideas to help shape and tone your creative muscles

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

written by The Disney Imagineers

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Capturing the Vision Lesson Behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Frequent readers of this site know of my fondness (well, let’s call it what it is – extreme fanaticism) for the genius of Walt Disney and the amazing empire that bears his name. Recently, I’ve been researching the early history of animation at Disney through various sources, mostly first-person accounts of the animators of that time.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Anaheim, CA at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure last week. In a unique dining experience while talking with Cast Members, I was reminded again of the vision Walt Disney exercised to bring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to life.

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Tucked inside the entrance gates to Disney’s California Adventure is an iconic reproduction of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. One of the most important theaters in the Golden Age of Movies during the Twenties and Thirties, it represents the premier of a tremendous achievement by Walt Disney – the first full length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Though we now view Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as an animation classic, in the mid-1930’s the idea of a full-length “cartoon” was unheard of. Walt Disney took one of the biggest risks of his career, putting almost all of his resources – both business and personal – into the film. Called “Disney’s Folly” by most of Hollywood (and more than a few inside Disney Studios itself), the film opened to critical and financial success, paving the way for Disney to continue expanding his creative genius.

With critics becoming more vocal, Walt Disney knew he would have to inspire his team of artists and writers as never before.

The rest is history…

Ken Anderson, Art Director for Snow White, remembered it this way:

Walt approached a group of employees late one afternoon, gave each of them fifty cents, told them to grab dinner across the street and then return to the soundstage that evening. None had any idea of what Walt had in mind.

When they arrived and took their seats on wooden tiers at the back of the room, Walt was standing at the front lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space.

Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the character; mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualize exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. 

He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs.

Anderson said the performance took over three hours. One animator later claimed, “that one performance lasted us three years. Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it on that night.”

– Neal Gabler, “Walt Disney-The Triumph of the American Imagination

But there’s more to the story…

Along about the same time, Disney demonstrated his vision in another way. The new medium of television, though in its infancy, was growing.

According to Keith Gluck, writing for The Walt Disney Family Museum,

Before Walt Disney even understood the new medium of television, he still had the foresight to invest in it. Walt had learned from dealing with shady characters in the past to pay close attention to contracts. When his distribution deal with United Artists was coming to a close, he chose not to renew. UA was insisting on the television rights to all Disney cartoons. “I don’t know what television is, and I’m not going to sign away anything I don’t know about,” Walt said. He ended up signing with RKO Pictures in late 1935.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937, distributed by RKO Pictures. It was a smashing success, and was later given an honorary Academy Award for its groundbreaking achievements. It was no typical Oscar, either – the award instead was one statuette with seven miniature statuettes!

There’s one more piece to this vision puzzle…

Over a decade later, Walt’s interest in television began to develop. In 1948 he spent a week in New York with the specific purpose of watching and learning more about television. By the time he returned to the Studio, he was convinced it was just the forum to help promote his work. He even told Studio Nurse Hazel George, “Television is the coming thing.” While other movie studios were trying to think of ways to thwart the coming of television, Walt was gearing up to embrace it. 

 – Keith Gluck, The Walt Disney Family Museum

By being the first studio producer to become involved with the fledgling medium of television, Disney was able to leverage that partnership into a financing arrangement that allowed him to bring another dream to reality – Disneyland.

Walt had a grander vision of what his shows could do on ABC, and how they could be used to promote Disneyland. Despite pressure from the other studios, Walt and Roy Disney signed a contact with Leonard Goldenson of ABC, in which the network put up $500,000 in cash, guarantee $4.5 million in loans, and receive one-third ownership in Disneyland (which it later sold back to Disney).

– J. Jeff Kober, Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz

With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Walt’s vision and imagination took on a reality that people could see, hear, and feel – an experience that changed entertainment forever.

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Walt Disney’s Vision Lesson for Leaders Today

Walt Disney’s unique vision, personalized in the telling of Snow White, demonstrated in the far-reaching aspects of a contract, and brought to life at Disneyland, can be a model for church leaders today.

When God wants change, He affects the heart of the leader first.

To help people see the invisible, the leader must first understand how to unlock the imagination. How does the leader influence the imagination? Through metaphors, blended with the art of storytelling and question asking.

If the leader has any hope of painting a memorable picture of the future, it will be with the vivid and compelling language of metaphor – living language – that penetrates the soul as much as it illumines the mind.

– Will Mancini, Church Unique

What vision is burning inside of you, a vision that can captivate your team, influence the influential, and be brought to life in your community?

From Storytelling to Storyboarding

 

Storytelling is probably the oldest form of communication. John Hench, Disney Legend and former Senior VP of Creative Development, used to insist that storytelling was ‘in our genes.’ – Tom Fitzgerald, The Imagineering Workout

Storytelling has played a vital role in our survival – allowing us to share information, knowledge, and values from generation to generation. Story is the medium through which we receive our early learning as to right and wrong, good versus evil, reward and punishment, social values, etc.

We respond to storytelling. It engages our attention; no matter how old we get, who doesn’t love a good story?

Understanding this, Walt Disney created a technique in the early days of his cartoon films that helped illustrate the flow and continuity of stories – the storyboard.

Donald Duck storyboard, circa 1937 - courtesy of Tom Simpson

Donald Duck storyboard, circa 1937 – courtesy of Tom Simpson

Storyboards are tools that allowed Walt and his artists to envision a film prior to production. It allowed his team to have a shared vision of the story they were telling and how it would unfold. As a bonus to driving the creative development, it also offered a cost-effective way to experiment with a film early on, so that when production began, costs could be minimized.

Decades later, the tradition of storyboards continues on, though it has long expanded past just films. At Walt Disney Imagineering, rides, shows, and films for Disney’s theme parks around the world are the objects of regular storyboarding.

Starting with brainstorm sessions, the Imagineer’s first thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings about the story they are creating are captured on note cards and quick sketches.

The storyboards are worked, re-worked, rearranged, and edited until the story is strong and clear. Only then will production proceed.

At Walt Disney Imagineering, everything they do revolves around the story – and storyboards have remained an essential tool in helping them tell the story.

What story are you trying to tell?

Let it start with words and images to single note cards pinned on wall. Step back and look at the story you are trying to tell. Rearrange, edit, and add to the cards. Work at it – hard – until the story is just like you want to tell it.

Now, it’s time to tell the story…

 

part of a series of ideas to help shape and tone your creative muscles

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

 written by The Disney Imagineers

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Practice the Process of Inspiration to Generate Ideas

An exceptional concept depends on good process as well as pure inspiration.

One of my favorite shows at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is Mickey’s PhilharMagic. In the image below, notice the music notes in the background circling around the showcases in the gift shop at the exit from the theater. They’re not random. If you hum them, you will get the opening to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – one of the most memorable sights and sounds from Disney’s Fantasia, and the core idea in Mickey’s PhilharMagic.

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That’s the magic that “Process Practice” can produce!

Being aware of the design process and knowing what phase the team and the idea are in is a big part of the show producer’s job. You probably aren’t a producer, but all leaders have a role in pulling various people and resources together in creating something – which is the role of a producer.

Inspiration generates ideas, and the process helps to shape efforts in a way to keep the team moving towards a fully developed idea.

It’s time for you to “get” it…

  • Get going. Toss a bunch of ideas out. Direction often comes from joyous chaos.
  • Get excited. Brainstorm. Dream. Take tangents. Notice where ideas go, what’s cool about them, and incorporate this into the design.
  • Get committed. Set up a regular project meeting time, discuss ideas, or just sit and stare at the wall. Ideas will come either way.
  • Get doughnuts or cookies and some toys. Brainstorming sessions go better when food or toys are around.
  • Get different opinions. Listen to someone else’s point of view and listen for things that improve the design.
  • Get confused. Ask yourself hard questions that you can’t answer.
  • Get unstuck. Try a different direction. Throw out an impossible action. Debating a wrong answer can help reveal the correct one.
  • Get your hands dirty. Build a rough model or stage a reading. You will learn more from this than from any debate, and you’ll learn it in time to fix things.
  • Get reactions. Show the idea to others. Listen to what they say, especially if it isn’t what you want to hear.
  • Get it on paper. Take everything you’ve learned and write a description of the goals and details of the design. If you write convincingly, you’ve probably got a good idea.

If everyone is comfortable with the process, the team members have the freedom to generate the best ideas for their project.


part of a series of ideas to shape and tone your creative muscles

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

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The Disney Imagineers

Sue Bryan, Senior Show Producer

 

Inspiration Comes from Things That Are Infused with Life

The word inspire means “to breathe into or upon; to infuse with life by breathing.” When we say, “I am inspired,” it has a deeper significance than we think. We are “breathing in” the living environment of ideas, enthusiasm, and energy that comes with the creative process.

If we look in the Bible, we see the same idea. In Hebrew and Greek the words for “spirit” are the same as the words for “breath” and “wind.”

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In fact even in English our word “spirit” comes from Latin word meaning breath. “Inspiration” and “respiration” have the same root. This is no mistake. From the earliest times people could see the connection between breath and active life. When a person’s body stops breathing, it also becomes inactive and dies. Breath is the outward manifestation of activity and life. This intimate connection between breath and active life is the reason why the same word is used for both “spirit” and “breath” in Hebrew (ruach) and in Greek (pneuma).

Inspiration comes from things that are infused with life.

In creating, Disney’s Imagineers always work from a basis of their training, exposure to others’ work, their research, and their life experience.  Working together, they are inspired by their collective histories, training, experience, predecessors, and mentors.

When we are inspired, ideas that are living inside us will find a way to be expressed.

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Here’s an exercise from the Imagineers: Select a creative challenge – painting, writing, inventing – anything that requires creativity. Now, make a list of creative souls that could inspire a solution: artists, scientists, inventors, musicians, writers. Select one or more people from the list, reflect on their talent, research their work, and let them breathe life into your thinking and imagination.

Now, find your own answers by letting your imagination soar with multiple solutions.


part of a series of ideas to shape and tone your creative muscles

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

The Disney Imagineers

 Imagineering logo

Immerse Yourself in the Creativity of the Disney Imagineers

My admiration for the creative brilliance of Walt Disney and the amazing group of geniuses he gathered around him runs deep and long.

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As a boy growing up in the 60s, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color television show was something I looked forward to every week. My father, an owner-operator of a Gulf gasoline station, was the recipient of various advertising tie-ins involving such Disney classics as 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and the amazing nature films. I was fortunate to be part of a high school band marching in Disney on Parade in 1975, just a few years after Walt Disney World opened.

Then marriage and four children came, just in time for the rejuvenation of Disney animation of the late 80s-early 90s. That meant endless viewings of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the rest of the Disney library.

By the time the 2000s had rolled around, I was beginning to accumulate different types of books on the Disney organization – biographies, behind-the-scene details, first-person accounts, and various types of business-related books. I was beginning to use them in leadership and teaching positions I held.

In 2011, the fortunate circumstances of my daughter graduating from college in three years before beginning her master’s degree and her request for a much-talked-about-but-never-fulfilled Disney trip led to a week-long adventure in Walt Disney World with a 23-year old graduate student and her two early 50’s parents.

Before that, I knew about Disney. That week, I experienced Disney.

That may seem like a small thing, but in reality it is a HUGE difference.

In the last five years, I have been to Walt Disney World at least several days each year, with the last year being the highlight: by the time this fall rolls around, I will have been on Disney property 19 days.

The experience of Disney – primarily in the theme parks, but now expanded to other resorts, retail shops, and cruise ships – can be traced back to Walt Disney. His untimely death in 1966 could have left a void in the creativity of the Disney empire.

But I believe his greatest act of genius had its origins in 1952, as he began to pull together veterans of film and animation work for a special project that came to be known as Disneyland.

That group of versatile animators and art directors was the foundation of a group that came to be called the Imagineers.

Out of this group, Disney historian Tim Hauser reflects, “came the theories, aesthetics, design, and engineering of Disneyland; the advancement of three-dimensional storytelling; the development of robotic techniques in Audio-Animatronics; and the perpetuation of an ‘architecture of reassurance’ as inspired by Walt Disney’s personal sense of optimistic futurism.”

Today Walt Disney Imagineering remains the design, development, and master-planning branch of company, with over 140 disciplines working toward the common goal of great stories and creating great places.

Walt Disney wanted Disneyland to be essentially a movie that allows you to walk in and join in the fun. Imagineers – many whom had worked with Walt Disney since the 1930s – literally brought those movies to life with their multiple disciplines. He knew from his filmmaking experience that story was everything to the audience. Disney knew he must immerse the theme park guest in living storytelling scenarios.

And for over 60 years, the Imagineers have delivered – time and time again. To date, the Imagineers have built eleven theme parks (with Shanghai Disney opening in just a few weeks); dozens of resort hotels; 4 cruise ships with two more under construction; 2 water parks; and ongoing development in existing parks.

The Imagineers deliver the experience of Disney.

Now I want to bring you full circle by highlighting the recent work of author Louis Prosperi in The Imagineering Pyramid.

Using existing material published by Disney plus conversations with Imagineers, Prosperi weaves together an interesting thought captured in the book’s subtitle: Using Disney Theme Park Principles to Develop and Promote Your Creative Ideas.

It’s a very compelling challenge: look at the existing body of work done by the Imagineers for Disney’s theme parks and translate those principles into a “pyramid” of 15 principles grouped into 5 tiers.

Here’s an outline for an appetizer:

Tier 1: Foundations of Imagineering

  • It All Begins with a Story – Using your subject matter to inform decisions about your project.
  • Creative Intent – Staying focused on your objective.
  • Attention to Detail – Paying attention to every detail.
  • Theming – Using appropriate details to strengthen your story and support your creative intent.
  • Long, Medium, and Close Shots – Organizing your message to lead your audience from the general to the specific.

Tier 2: Wayfinding

  • Wienies – Attracting your audience’s attention and capturing their interest.
  • Transitions – Making changes as smooth and seamless as possible.
  • Storyboards – Focusing on the big picture.
  • Pre-Shows and Post-Shows – Introducing and reinforcing you r story to help your audience get and stay engaged.

Tier 3: Visual Communication

  • Forced Perspective – Using the illusion of size to help communicate your message.
  • “Read”-ability – Simplifying complex subjects.
  • Kinetics – Keeping the experience dynamic and active.

Tier 4: Making It Memorable

  • The “it’s a small world” Effect – Using repetition and reinforcement to make your audience’s experience and your message memorable.
  • Hidden Mickey’s – Involving and engaging your audience.

Tier 5: Walt’s Cardinal Rule

  • Plussing – Consistently asking, “How do I make this better?”

But instead of building an object like an attraction, Prosperi challenges the reader to do something with the principles that may be even more daunting: be creative.

Even though I was familiar with most of the principles and their origins, I enjoyed reading how Prosperi linked the ideas together into a unified whole. Especially helpful were the questions at the end of each chapter, with a general focus as well as specialized applications for game design, instructional design, and management and leadership. The questions will help anyone have a better grasp of the concept and how to apply it an almost any field.

The Imagineering Pyramid was especially beneficial to me on a recently completed 3-day “field trip” to all four theme parks at Walt Disney World. As I walked through each park, the genius of the Imagineers inspired me to fill several pages of my Disney journal with new ideas for development as well as take over 1,000 photographs of design details – exactly what I believe Louis Prosperi had in mind when writing the book.

Leaders in any capacity will benefit from The Imagineering Pyramid as a helpful tool, providing a creative framework for solving problems.

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It’s Always Easier When You Work With Someone Who’s Been There Before

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the size and complexity of some tasks you undertake.

…like planning a week-long visit to Walt Disney World.

That’s the place I found myself in five years ago, when my wife and I began planning a Walt Disney World trip for our 22-year old daughter, as a delayed college graduation gift.

I had been to the Magic Kingdom once. As a senior in high school. For a day. In 1976. A long time ago…

Some things had changed a lot, and my memory wasn’t that good about the trip anyway. Being the research kind of guy, I began looking online at various websites about 9 months prior to the trip. I also checked out some guide books from the library. But the hands down, absolutely best way to plan a trip to Disney World is to use a travel planner. Better yet, a travel planner whose specialty is the Disney Empire, and is an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.

Enter Annette at Small World Vacations. When some good friends found out what we were going to do, they heartily recommended I get in touch with Annette. I’m so very glad I did! She walked me through the basics, helped me choose the best options for a fun week, made great recommendations for things to do and places to eat, and generally helped created a great week for us.

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This picture pretty much speaks for itself.

Through her services, we were able to get a fabulous room in a great resort, get all the dinner reservations we wanted, and plan plenty of surprises for our daughter. Annette’s service didn’t stop in the preplanning, either. When I had a couple of questions just before I left, she was quick to answer them. And waiting for us when we got back was an email welcoming us home and wanting to know how our week went.  And so, over the last five years, in preparing for many return trips to Walt Disney World, my first call has always been to Annette. Whether it’s a year in advance (planning a week-long trip for my immediate family of 13) or a week before (a last-minute change in schedule allowing me a day in the parks), the help and guidance of an expert is invaluable.

Planning is easier when you work with someone who’s been there before.

This takeaway doesn’t just apply to planning to go to Disney – I also found out it applied to what Disney itself does in their development for future attractions. While they are reluctant to just “copy” what has worked in one Park and transfer it to another, they do learn valuable lessons and apply a continuous learning cycle to all their operations.

The takeaway also applied to how they staffed Disney World prior to its opening in 1971: a year before the Park opened, they hired several hundred college sophomores for seasonal work; the next year, they went after juniors, and the following year, when the Park was really hitting its stride, they hired seniors. The best of this experienced group were offered entry-level management positions after graduation, and many went on to achieve high-level positions all across the Disney companies.

How do you take advantage of experience in planning and staffing at your organization?

 

Oh, there’s one other thing: Even with the best of outside help, you still have to do the work yourself.

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