Disney's initial plans for its Star Wars land included a meet and greet with Darth Vader inside a prison cell, from which guests would be rescued by Princess Leia. That was one of the many nuggets shared this morning during the final episode of the Themed Entertainment Association's Thea Award Digital Case Studies.
Today's episode featured Thea Award winners Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios, with creators from Walt Disney Imagineering sharing details about the development of the attraction. Executive Producer Jon Georges started at the beginning, when Imagineers had some very different ideas about what their Star Wars land would be.
"All of the attraction ideas, and the land itself, had one thing in common," he said. "They were all based on events from episodes one through six. At the end of our blue sky phase, we presented our ideas to Bob Iger. It was at that meeting we were told not to look back at old Star Wars movies, but to the next episode of the Skywalker saga, being directed by JJ Abrams. Since the script wasn't complete yet, our teams took a break while the new one was ready. Six months later, we reformed our team under Scott Trowbridge to develop a single design for both coasts."
"We knew that we wanted to not just create a place that was about remembering the past of Star Wars, but a place where you could live your Star Wars story - you can live your present and even the future of Star Wars as the new stories, characters and worlds who we're going to explore became shared with the public," Trowbridge said.
Creative Director John Larena detailed some of those older plans and how they influenced what Disney's guests see today in Rise of the Resistance and elsewhere in the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land.
"Many of the seeds for Rise of the Resistance were planted in the initial effort," he said. "For example, we developed an exciting idea for a Darth Vader meet and greet. To keep our guests' encounter with Vader in story, we'd have you detained by stormtroopers and then taken on to the Death Star. There you would be taken into a prison cell just like Princess Leia was, and your photos of Vader would actually be part of his interrogation of whether or not you were rebel spy. When you left the cell, Princess Leia would then break you out, giving our guests a surprise second meet and greet before exiting the attraction.
"While the idea was discarded for complexity and throughput challenges, it was the kernel of an idea that is the basis for the second act of Rise of Resistance [the interrogation room with Kylo Ren]. Other ideas included an escape pod ride or possibly a Death Star hallway chase ride. And while none of these ideas progress past conversations or a rough animatic, they all gestated in our minds until one conversation over coffee in 2014. The idea was simple - as rebels, your ship gets tractor-beamed on to a Star Destroyer, and you'll have to break out of your detention cell can commandeer a trackless vehicle piloted by an onboard droid and then eject off that Star Destroyer on an escape pod."
[You can hear more from Larena in my interview with him at the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opening at Walt Disney World in 2019.]
With the concept in place, then Imagineers faced the challenge of bringing that concept to life.
"The number one goal with Rise of the Resistance was to take storytelling to a level with zero suspension of disbelief - to make an experience that was indistinguishable from reality," Principal Production Designer Ric Turner said. "Like the scene where guests are stepping off the captured transport ship and need to feel like they're now in space. We created this space window with hyper-rich blacks and super-smooth motion, using Disney's patented moving mirror system. [Follow the link to read the patent.]
"In a traditional projection, motion is simulated with a series of still images with objects in slightly different positions in each frame. The moving mirror system looks like it's really moving. The images are razor sharp, and it looks like it's really moving because it really is moving. And that sense of reality helps our guests feel like they really are rebels that have now been captured by the First Order on a Star Destroyer in space."
Imagineers also helped sell the illusion of Rise's other "space windows" by distorting the media on those screens as guests moved past in their ride vehicles, resulting in a perfect view of a raging space battle.
"Show programming is the stage manager of the show," Benjamin 'Frodo' Froman said. "We take all of the different pieces, audio, video, lighting, special effects, Audio Animatronics, big pieces of show action equipment, and we make sure they all run together, because we need to make sure that the show is seamless, no matter what happens with all of the different permutations of what can happen on this attraction. This attraction has 162 different paths, and every single one of them needs to be built and put together so that it is a seamless show every single time."
It's cliche that something goes wrong on a theme park attraction, but Imagineers also had to plan for what the ride would do when something actually went wrong on it, as inevitably happens.
"Anytime we have a backup at unload or load, we wanted to be able to keep them immersed as we had a backup through the rest of the attraction," Show Programmer April Warren said. "We've got many branching paths to accomplish that. We've got over an hour's worth of droid animation. We've got over two hours' worth of ride animation just on our free-range vehicles, so that when we cascade and stop in locations that we don't usually stop in the attraction, the story continues. Our droid continues to talk to us, and the story is still unfolding around us at all times."
Enjoy the award-winning results with our video of Disneyland's full Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Other Thea Award winners honored today were the Chailey Heritage Foundation Dream Centre and the entrance experience at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. While the Thea Awards Digital Case Studies have concluded they remain available to watch on demand through the end of the month. Here is the link to register, via the TEA's website.
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