Disney Transforms Park Icons Into Storytelling Canvases

An inspiring story can come to life on any surface. Whether you're looking down Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland Resort, watching the “Once Upon a Time” show at Tokyo Disneyland or seeing Cinderella Castle transform in “Celebrate the Magic” at Walt Disney World Resort, the experience is always breathtaking.
With the help of multiple teams working together, shows that involve projection mapping have become a true staple for Disney Parks & Resorts worldwide.

How does projection mapping work?
Projection mapping uses projection technology to turn objects, typically buildings, into a clean surface onto which video can be projected. The technology is often used to tell a story or project a powerful image, and it's commonly combined with audio to create an audio-visual narrative. This technique brings buildings and landmarks to life by adding moving images to create extra dimensions and optical illusions.

Chuck Davis, Principal Technical Director with Creative Entertainment, has worked on several projection mapping shows around the world at Disney Parks and Resorts. Over the past few years, he has seen the technology constantly change, and he continues to work with multiple partners to create beautiful shows. “Projection mapping is really an asset for the Disney Parks,” Chuck stated. “It’s a storytelling machine where we can create an immersive experience for the Guests.”

Understanding how projection mapping works also means understanding how many resources are needed for a project like this to be completed. After an initial show concept is developed, artists are brought in to begin work on the project. Recent technology and software partnerships have allowed these creative minds to work directly on virtual 3D models of the structures that are used for the shows. Using specialized software and mapping manipulation tools, these artists can draw directly on the 3D virtual models, drag the model in different directions and zoom in and out, to create and perfect each frame of the story.

This 3D mapping software includes locations where virtual cameras will be placed around the structure. For each projection mapping show, there are multiple virtual cameras strategically positioned around the area so the entire side of the structure, including every corner and crevice, is covered. Once the show is designed through the software, separate videos for each virtual camera are then rendered and uploaded to media servers that will match up with each of the projectors placed in the park. After the videos are added to the correct projectors, these unique angles all play together to form a magnificent show. The show fits perfectly on the structure due to the 3D model software, and the extra light that is projected but doesn’t shine on the structure just becomes “black light” as it fades into the night sky.

As the technology has continued to advance, projection mapping shows have become brighter with better resolution. Having this better resolution means there are more pixels per inch, but this also ends up being a lot of data that needs to be stored. The shows are uploaded onto media servers, so with the expanding amount of data, bigger servers are needed to hold this amount.

After the designs are created and uploaded to the media servers, the show can be projected onto the structure. New technology has now allowed artists to work on live feeds as the show is projected onto the structure, so they can actually see what they’re editing in real time. “The live feed allows us to make immediate changes,” said Chuck. “Since this can only be edited in low resolution, it is really used to correct color balance and understand the placement of each object. For example, if we are watching a floating lantern moving up the castle and we don’t like the way it looks, the artist can immediately go in and change the position.” Once an edit is made, these small changes can be rendered in separate pieces and placed back in the show.

Projection mapping shows take a lot of planning, design and testing before the final results are revealed to the Guests. Multiple teams work together to make these shows possible. Creative Entertainment works closely with Walt Disney Imagineering, The Walt Disney Studios and Pixar (who occasionally provide specific animation), as well as several external vendors.

Projection mapping is now used in many theme parks.
Several shows and firework spectaculars at Disney Parks around the world use projection mapping to enhance the experience. One of the first times projection mapping was used at the parks was in 2005, when the outside of “it’s a small world” at Disneyland Park turned into a colorful light show. The show impressed Guests because it was a new projection system that lined up perfectly with the facade of the building.

Creative Entertainment and Walt Disney Imagineering teams kept moving forward with projection mapping and in 2011 created “The Magic, The Memories and You.” Every night “it’s a small world” at Disneyland Park and Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park were transformed into a beautiful montage incorporating Disney PhotoPass images of the Guests that day making memories. As the technology kept advancing, projectors were getting smaller and images were becoming clearer, allowing for more shows to develop at parks around the world. “The Magic, The Memories and You” came to a close in 2012, making way for “Celebrate the Magic.”

The future promises to bring even more shows involving projection mapping.
Here are just two examples of upcoming Disney Park shows that will involve this great technology:

Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular: As the next generation of the current Star Wars-inspired fireworks show, this blockbuster nightly show, unprecedented in Disney’s Hollywood Studios history, will light up the sky with Star Wars-themed fireworks, lasers, light projections and other special effects combined with Star Wars-themed music and iconic characters and scenes from the saga.

Through these state-of-the-art special effects that project onto the nearby Chinese Theatre and other surrounding buildings, guests will gaze at the twin suns of Tatooine, push through a field of battle droids, navigate through an asteroid field, soar down the trench of the Death Star and deliver the final blow to destroy Starkiller Base. The show, which will unfold through a series of acts, will be punctuated by a tower of fire as well as powerful spotlight beams that create lightsabers in the sky.

The Tree of Life Awakens: Animal Kingdom’s iconic Tree of Life will soon undergo extraordinary “awakenings” throughout the evening as animal figures are brought to life by magical fireflies that reveal colorful stories of wonder and enchantment. High-tech projections of nature scenes take on a magical quality as they appear to dramatically emanate from within the Tree of Life.

Projection mapping transforms already-iconic buildings with creative stories that have been captivating audiences for years. The technology will keep advancing, and as long as Guests enjoy these shows, the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Creative Entertainment team will continue to use it.

PHOTOS & RENDERINGS © 2016 Walt Disney World Resort. All Rights Reserved.

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