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Disney's Joe Rohde details the parasites of Pandora

May 5, 2017, 5:02 PM · While we're on the topic of theme park attraction backstories, let's return to the amazing work that Walt Disney Imagineering has done in creating the world of James Cameron's Avatar for the new Pandora land at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

We've talked about about the floating mountains, the bioluminescent forest and even the Mountain Banshees that will play a leading role in the Flight of Passage ride in the new land, which opens officially May 27 at the Walt Disney World Resort. Today, in an Instagram post, creative director Joe Rohde introduced us to another life form on Pandora... one that is not native to the world.

I doubt anybody will post about this. The Velocivirus is not native to Pandora. It's origins are unknown, but it survives space travel on transport vehicles, which are supposed to flare their thrusters before entering the atmosphere to burn it out. Of course, that takes fuel, and costs money… So not everybody does it. It only takes one jerk, and there you have brown tree snakes on Guam, coqui frogs in Hawaii, zebra mussels in the Mississippi, lionfish off the coast of Florida, pythons in the Everglades, feral cats eating migratory songbirds, hordes of starlings, kudzu, Water Hyacinth, cane toads, anopheles mosquitoes, and of course, here, the velocivirus, a colonial -cooperative virus that can use its own micro-vibrations to echolocate and travel. It functions like a hemorrhagic virus to dissolve and coopt any tissue it comes in contact with, and, as with many introduced species, nobody has quite figured out how to eradicate it yet. The biologists of the Pandora Conservation Initiative are desperately trying to find a way to kill this thing, just one of the charming legacies of the exploitative reign of the RDA. Of course there are also beautiful floating mountains, bioluminescent flowers, flying creatures, and a wonderful indigenous culture… But this little phenomena appeals to my dark sense of humor. Cost savings gone terribly upside down.

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

Human beings, of course, are the ultimate invasive species on Pandora, as the 2009 blockbuster film made obvious. But Disney's Imagineers have decided that we are not the only life form that's made its way to the surface, with potentially destructive results. Here's the text of Rohde's post:

I doubt anybody will post about this. The Velocivirus is not native to Pandora. It's origins are unknown, but it survives space travel on transport vehicles, which are supposed to flare their thrusters before entering the atmosphere to burn it out. Of course, that takes fuel, and costs money… So not everybody does it. It only takes one jerk, and there you have brown tree snakes on Guam, coqui frogs in Hawaii, zebra mussels in the Mississippi, lionfish off the coast of Florida, pythons in the Everglades, feral cats eating migratory songbirds, hordes of starlings, kudzu, Water Hyacinth, cane toads, anopheles mosquitoes, and of course, here, the velocivirus, a colonial-cooperative virus that can use its own micro-vibrations to echolocate and travel. It functions like a hemorrhagic virus to dissolve and coopt any tissue it comes in contact with, and, as with many introduced species, nobody has quite figured out how to eradicate it yet. The biologists of the Pandora Conservation Initiative are desperately trying to find a way to kill this thing, just one of the charming legacies of the exploitative reign of the RDA. Of course there are also beautiful floating mountains, bioluminescent flowers, flying creatures, and a wonderful indigenous culture… But this little phenomena appeals to my dark sense of humor. Cost savings gone terribly upside down.

Oh, Joe, of course Disney fans are going to post about this! Rohde has made clear in past interviews that he and the team at WDI have addressed Pandora as a metaphor for the natural world on Earth and the challenges that human beings face in finding a sustainable balance with the animals, plants, water, soil, and atmosphere around us.

Invasive species long have created problems by disrupting established environments. As Rohde wrote in a reply to his post, "Let us ask the Hawaiian Mamo Bird it's opinion....oops!! No can-do. Completely wiped out by invasive introduced rats and mosquitoes in the space of 30 years."

I happen to live just a few miles away from NASA's JPL in Pasadena and have attended the annual open house at the facility. It's amazing to see the lengths to which NASA works to keep any living cell from "hitching a ride" on its planetary exploration vehicles, in an attempt to prevent Earth's life forms from contaminating another world. So this is a real issue that Disney is addressing with Pandora, one that has animated the science of astrobiology for years.

So as you walk through the queue and see this ink blot, you can dismiss it as just another installation of theme-appropriate decoration... or you can take a moment to consider the real-world issue that Rohde has raised... not to mention the detail required to create a convincing fictional world for theme park fans.

Update: Rohde continues with a post on water quality and its effect on an ecosystem:

The Pandora Conservation Initiative focuses a lot on restoring water quality. In fact, the entire Mountain Banshee Project, which has enabled our participation in the Flight of Passage, boils down to water quality assessment. Banshees are an apex predator, which implies that they have to eat something that eats something else, that ultimately eats fruits, or plant material, or insects that are dependent on water quality. Environmental damage is not always obvious. It might be many steps between the problem and its final result. Polluted water might inhibit the gestation of a larval creature that grows up to migrate a thousand miles and fertilize the flowers of a tree that produces fruit that is eaten by a creature that is the seasonal prey of a flying creature, and that flying creature ultimately the main food source of Banshees. The banshees don't even have to live anywhere near the environment where the problem started. I recall an article about the total collapse of a marine ecosystem in Alaska that was caused by pollution that weakened sea lions off the coast of California and somehow changed the feeding habits of orcas, who began eating sea otters instead...depleting their population, which caused the sea urchin population to explode, eating everything into a marine desert. The interconnections of ecological systems are mind boggling. The word "eco" in ecology does not mean "nature." It means "everything." Everything is connected...like on Pandora. #design #animalkingdom #animalkingdomdisney #atanimalkingdom #pandora #pandoradisney

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

And he continues this Instagram master class with a more general post on theme park design.

Detail, the inner berm. Everyone who understands theatrical design can understand the concept of onstage and offstage. A performance is framed in such a way that the audience can tell what is and what is not performance. Only those things that contribute to performance are allowed on the screen, or on stage. In the themepark world, this stage is surrounded by a massive landscape curtain call the berm, which separates the entire stage from the outside world and prevents anyone from being able to look offstage and see contradictory information. The berm surrounds and creates a kind of handmade virtual reality. Now, the only place left for a viewer to find contradiction is inwards. Detail exists for only one reason, to uphold the narrative reality of the story being told. Detail is entirely dependent on how closely people are able to observe. But when they are able to stand very close, and look very closely, and for a long time, then the requirements for detail are absolute. The detail is the inner berm. When the detail is greater than the viewers ability to observe, the viewer is then caught between two berms, the huge outer berm that surrounds the world, and the infinite inner berm of detail that makes that world undeniably real. Every single knot in the entire ceiling of the cute area for the Na'vi River Journey his hand-tied, as are all the knots and all the weaving of all the totems in the land, and every other woven object. It's enough saturation of detail that eventually you surrender to the detail, stop analyzing, and just live in the world.

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

Replies (7)

May 5, 2017 at 6:44 PM · When have human beings (or any other species in a broader sense) ever been in balance with nature? Even before civilization we were causing the extinction of some of the largest species of the time. We may have had less of an effect on our environment but that was simply due to our far less population. It is a myth that we were ever in any sort of "balance" with nature. The notion that that is even possible is an illusion, based on the very slow movement of evolutionary time. Every species evolves, has some sort of effect on the environment and eventually goes extinct. Even in the fictional Pandora it is an illusion being presented in the current time frame. The Navi, at one point did not exist. Something in their environment changed which allowed them to evolve to the beings they are, and if they continue to be succesful as a species they will indeed effect their environment more and more until they either face extinction themselves, evolve into a different species or leave their own planet to colonize others (which they are ironically fighting humans about). The environmental message is nice but an illusion nonetheless.
May 5, 2017 at 9:55 PM · In a video of a walk-through the queue, that's one of the first things I noticed(the way it moves... So cool!). Even if I didn't know all these cool stuff, I would not have ignored it! Also, it's really nice the way they're treating the Avatar IP. It's like a new IP in a lot of ways, because it only had one movie, so they get to create a lot of stuff around it.
May 5, 2017 at 10:57 PM · Will they eradicate pigeons too? They are everywhere and we don't need them in Pandora.
May 6, 2017 at 2:54 AM · If the 'Velocivirus' moves by itself, it is not a virus. It may belong to Protozoa or to Bacteria, but not to the virus group because viruses can't move, they are simply transported by fluids or something else
May 6, 2017 at 3:48 AM · In response to the first comment: You are correct, all species have an effect on their environment. But the difference nowadays is that we are changing our environment very drastically and in a rapid pace. The ecosystem has no time to adapt. It cannot handle the amount of CO2 and trash that we release. Maybe you regard this as a natural process that simply happens when a species evolves. I, however, would like to leave behind a functioning, liveable planet for my children and their children. I do not want that they have to "colonize another planet" because of my actions. To me, "the environmental message" is not an illusion.
May 10, 2017 at 7:58 AM · So this is the virus that killed beastly kingdom
May 10, 2017 at 11:31 AM · And... we have a winner!

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