Understanding the Complexities Behind Projection Mapping In Disney Park's Entertainment

This summer, Walt Disney World visitors are seeing a couple of elaborate theme-park landmarks in a new light.

After the sun sets, a Star Wars spectacular beams 13 minutes of movie scenes onto the exterior of the Chinese Theatre at Disney's Hollywood Studios. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Tree of Life becomes a display of clips featuring creatures from deer to dinosaurs.

Both new productions use projection mapping, a technology showing up more in attractions, museums and special events as projectors have become better and cheaper.

"Ten years ago … it was kind of a gimmick," said Daren Ulmer, whose California-based Mousetrappe design studio worked with Disney on its shows. "Now it's an accepted part of our palette."

Entertainment-industry executives say a presentation can cost from a few thousand to a few million dollars.

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

Disney World regularly has projection-mapping shows at three of its parks. One of them, an animated display on Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom, will soon go on hiatus to undergo improvements that will sharpen its images. "Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular" is the most recent.

Show director Michael Roddy said projection mapping highlights the movie series' stunning visual effects.

"We wanted to create a way where it felt like Star Wars was coming to you," he said. The goal was to give viewers the feeling "that Star Wars was erupting from the building."

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

Walls of the Chinese Theatre and adjoining surfaces feature massive versions of iconic Star Wars clips: Space battles, robots roaming the desert, menacing villain close-ups. Lasers intermittently fire from seven generators built into the theater. The movie images come from eight projection cameras stationed in spots including two specially constructed towers.

Transforming the buildings into a giant movie screen was a complicated project taking a little less than a year and spanning both the nation's coasts. Some of the scenes — such as ones of Darth Vader approaching — were reshot in a California studio to make them work better in the large, atypical format. About 60 percent of the footage is newly filmed.

In other instances, existing film was manipulated. For example, Roddy said, scenes with a lot of white are problematic because they highlight surfaces' textures and ornamentation. One scene of Hoth, the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back, was almost scrapped because of that. The team made it work, though, partly by making its color more of an off-white.

Back home at Disney's Orlando entertainment offices, Roddy's team perfected each frame by studying images on a model and spending late nights at the park working on the real thing.

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

Disney has used projection mapping on its theme-park buildings for more than a decade. Roddy's experience includes transforming Epcot's Spaceship Earth into Monsters Inc. characters for a summer promotional event. Two years ago, Disney began offering wedding cakes featuring a flying Tinker Bell and a traveling Cinderella's coach.

Experts who work with the technology say advances have improved the process and the product. Projectors have become "brighter, much more capable of working with those types of unusual surfaces," said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer at California design company Thinkwell Group, which worked with Universal Studios Florida several years ago on a summer "Cinesphere Spectacular" showing images on back-lot facades. Software has also become more sophisticated, allowing the work to be done more quickly and simply, he said.

Projection mapping has been used in a corrosion exhibit at Orlando Science Center and a holiday show on a Saturn 1B rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. "I hate to use the word 'wow factor,' but … it really catches people off guard," said Chris Brown, technical director at Winter Springs-based Ninjaneer Studios, which worked on the science and space-center projects.

Roddy said Disney will continue to use the technology when it makes sense. "If it's right for the story, absolutely," he said. "It's what's right for the show."

Source: Orlando Sentinel

Banner Photo Credit: Disney