Inside Walt Disney Studios’ original animation building, where artists once drew “Cinderella” by hand, a 15-person team of innovators is trying to create a moviemaking Tomorrowland.
The Burbank studio’s 4-month-old, 3,500-square-foot innovation hub is a short walk from Walt Disney’s old office. Instead of pencils and light tables, visitors find experimental virtual reality editing equipment, location-scouting drones and digital projections that wrap around walls.
The 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 movies. Initiatives have included promotional efforts for the big-budget animated film “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”
Studio technology centers are hardly a new idea. 20th Century Fox founded its own Innovation Lab in 2014, and Sony Pictures earlier this year announced its Innovation Studios project in Culver City, California.
Disney 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 develops long-term technological advances in entertainment through its Disney Research division.
The new 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.
“We 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 complex problems.”
Executives declined to say how much money they are putting into the lab, which is funded by Disney and its partners: Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., Cisco Systems Inc. and consulting firm Accenture Interactive.
The unit appears to be moving aggressively, greenlighting about 25 projects to tackle in the next year.
“We 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.”
The debut 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 connection.
For 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.
StudioLab 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.
StudioLab 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.
“They 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.”
StudioLab wants to improve the filmmaking process itself. For “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 films.
“It 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.”