Leslie Iwerks quite literally has Disney in her blood. Her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, is one of Disney’s most famed creative minds, as one of the co-creators of Mickey Mouse and one the studio’s pioneering animators. Iwerks has followed in her family’s footsteps, but in a different way. Instead, she’s largely documented the inner-workings of Disney to share with the world. Such is the case with her latest project, The Imagineering Story.
The documentary series is one of the first original shows produced for Disney+ and offers fans an unprecedented peek behind the curtain at what it takes to be a Disney Imagineer. These are the people that bring places like Disneyland and Walt Disney World to life. If there’s such a thing as Disney magic, Imagineers are the magicians. I recently had the chance to speak with Leslie Iwerks. We discussed, not just her new show, but her Disney family legacy and much more.
So the show just debuted with Disney+. How would you, in your own words, describe the show for people who may not know what it is?
Leslie Iwerks: I would say that this is a six-hour documentary series about the innovation, technology, story, evolution and drama behind the making of the Disney theme parks and the Imagineers who Walt Disney tapped to build them.
You have a lot of experience in this arena yourself. Imagineers are something that, if you’re a fan of Disney, they’ve definitely touched those fans’ lives. But they might not even be totally aware of who those people are, what goes into it. So with your personal experience, how would you describe the job of an Imagineer to somebody?
Leslie Iwerks: Well, the job of an Imagineer is widespread. It is composed of probably 100 different disciplines, and skills and, abilities that don’t fall under normal job descriptions. So the Imagineers on any given day they’re around the world, they’re coming up with new ideas for ride technologies. They’re storytellers, they’re engineers, they’re scientists. They’re costumers, they’re storytellers. They’re writers, they’re artists, concept designers. And they are always collaborating to find the most up to date technology and future technology that may not have invented to design and come up with new experiences, an immersive experience for the parks around the world. So from my perspective, they were all genius and everyone… in meeting a lot of the producers on these attractions was actually really interesting because how you produce a ride, how you produce an attraction or even an entire new park like Shanghai Disneyland. What goes into all of these particular things are, it’s so much detail and so much pre-planning that goes into it and the number of factors that can be unknown at the time that you embarked on a project that you have to account for and the time that you have to sort of estimate that may change over time. I would say that Shanghai Disneyland alone, which I was able to document, I think over five or six trips to Shanghai over the course of its construction and completion.
I was just blown away by how they even pulled that off and how they did it. And it took about five years to build that park. But working with the Chinese government and the Chinese construction workers and the Chinese artists that they had to find, I mean, it was just a huge task. A huge monumental effort by hundreds and hundreds of Imagineers and how they are able to get in alignment. Really, from the smallest detail, like a glass ship on a mural or to building the tallest castle in the world. So many details that go into being an Imagineer, and being able to see the small picture and the big picture. And I had the great fortune to meet so many of them and really get a firsthand glimpse into what their lives are like and what they’re working on.
I just don’t have memories that go further than Disney not being in my life, and I think a word that we always associate with Disney is magic. And there’s this magic that Disney has. So what level of responsibility as a filmmaker, with the series, did you feel in pulling back the curtain on something like this that really gives a window into how that magic comes to life?
Leslie Iwerks: It was always a fine line. I think when starting we were really documenting the making of a variety of different attractions and restorations, and then also the whole park. So I started out of the gate to take it inside, behind the curtain and to see how they were doing what they were doing. What were the challenges? What was the new technology? And what were the unknowns? Etcetera. And it was already kind of agreed upon that we would be documenting more behind the scenes and covering the how to of the magic that was created that we’re all familiar with or wonder about. We were sort of pushed back on to touch [the line] in some ways because we didn’t want to ruin the magic that is caught up in the lore and the nostalgia, and a lot of people’s lives and memories from when they were young. We don’t take the sheen off the magic in every possible way. I mean, there’s a lot left to see and experience, but we definitely treat the subject as an art form and what goes into this art form on every level so that the audience can come away and feel a real renewed sense of appreciation of how much goes into it.
Disney is for you especially, not only have you worked for them, but it’s quite literally in your blood. So how did that influence the process? Because you have this deeply personal connection to what you’re taking a look at.
Leslie Iwerks: Well, I think It’s a lot of respect. I mean, having grown up with a grandfather that was a designer of Mickey Mouse, a co-creator and animator and then a father that worked at Disney for 35 years. My grandfather also, Academy Award-winning technical genius that developed a lot of technology in the parks and for the Disney films. It was something I grew up around and kind of felt it was sort of just what they did. I think it was really, I really got to learn about my grandfather back in the day. I really got to appreciate his contributions. And then on this one, really documenting more about my dad, and some of the contributions that he did, it was really fun and finding footage of him at work and whatnot, and reminiscing about the way I grew up. But more importantly, I think the level of trust that I got from the company was really there from the beginning and my own films from prior, people had really liked and they trusted me to tell the story. And I had done Industrial Light Magic documentary and Pixar, and followed my grandfather.
So the tone of those and the depth of those, I think gave the Imagineers trust that I could pull this off. Little did I know this was a five-year project that was commissioned for me to do. But that was really exciting, because, of course, who wouldn’t want to travel all over the world. And I think that as I talked to people they respected me for my work, and they respected our family for what they had done. But more importantly, I respected these folks and really had to gain their trust now that I was going to tell their story in the best way possible. So I never took anything for granted. It was like I knew I was very fortunate to be the one chosen to tell the story and just really worked hard, to be as comprehensive and deep, certainly as I could on the content that they were sharing with me and information that they were giving me. So it was a wonderful opportunity, and there was a lot of trust on both sides.
You mentioned it took five years, which is a crazy thing. I can’t even wrap my head around working on something like that for five years. But Disney+ is a much more recent development. So was this always envisioned that way? Or did it just eventually morph into something that became a series on Disney+?
Leslie Iwerks: It became a series on Disney+. So it was commissioned as a 90-minute film in the beginning in 2012 and then filming for five years. Well, commissioned as a five-year project. The first three and a half years were filming only. And then the last year and half was headed into a 90-minute film, and so we didn’t edit along the way. So it was a lot of work at the very end and we realized we had way more material than we bargained for. Meaning I would really stretch that budget as far as I could to get as much in as I could. And then, in the end, we got all of this great material from the Disney archives. Actually, 174 separate archives and libraries that we gained material from, so that led to hours of archival footage that we acquired and considered. And that was comprised of about 82,000 archival photos and videos.
So we cashed out a lot of material. It was just a ton to go through. And at that point, why don’t we make a series? Then I had to go back to the studio and ask for a meeting to see if they would consider putting up a little bit more money to make it into a series, but fortunately, we were able to get a fine cut out of the budget we had and everyone really was impressed with it. Then it was not long thereafter that Disney+ was announced, so the timing was just perfect. I mean, you couldn’t have bet on the situation five years ago. Things just work out perfectly, and you’ve got to trust the process.
This is very much about the history of Imagineering and what that’s meant to Disney. But Disney has so much on the horizon, and there are so many places to go. So, as someone who spent so much time with these people, what do you think the future of Imagineering will be? And how do you think it will change from what it’s been?
Leslie Iwerks: Well, I think that’s a big question. I think that right now there’s a lot of new Imagineers coming inI think with every new generation comes a new learning and keeping that tribal DNA, that tribal knowledge of Disney Imagineering within the company. The core of Disney needs to be there with everything higher within Imagineering. I think, with any company, that cultural shift. The people come in and the current administration starts to retire. There’s always challenges there from a learning standpoint. However, with that comes all these young people and all these new people that are excited about pushing the envelope just like Walt [Disney] tasked his Imagineers to do.
I think there’s no lack of excitement and inspiration about taking the current IP that was bought by Bob Iger. Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Star Wars, and taking the technology that we have now and just tossing the pencil to give us new experiences that we’ve never had before in the parks. So I think, on many levels, people go to Disneyland to experience new immersive technology they’ve never experienced before. They may not know it, but when they do, they’re shocked and surprised by it. They’re like, “Wow, how did they do that?” So I think Imagineers are really good at figuring out years in advance where a current ride system could go and what hasn’t been done yet. How can they actually improve upon it? They’re always talking. And that’s the cool part about the Imagineers.
So much of the work that they do is years in advance. They’re designing, conceptualizing ideas that won’t be seen for five years out. And I think that staying with the project for as long as they have to in many times is not always easy. It’s a big secret. They can’t talk about it, but when it’s released. When you think about [Star Wars] Galaxy’s Edge. How much pent-up demand and anticipation there was for that alone. It’s really exciting when you’re behind the scenes and you’re documenting this stuff, and how excited they are to do what they do and to have a sense of what they were working on for so many years. So there as big of fans as the fans are, and it’s a really cool place to work and a cool place to have documented.
The Imagineering Story is now streaming on Disney+ and DisneyPlus.com. You can see the trailer for the news Disney+ series below.