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Visit the Disney StudioLab and Step Inside Tomorrowland

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StudioLab’s tools and tech space contains examples of each type. Disney is using a DJI drone, for instance, to take photos of production locations and then turn them into 3D virtual models. Cameras on the drone take hundreds of photos of a location, then software created by Accenture Interactive stitches those photos together. A production scout can use the drone to produce a 3D model of a proposed area for a shoot, giving the director a more complete feel of the area than 2D photos alone could do. If the location is approved, designers can start building sets directly from the 3D models without needing to visit the area. They can plan logistics like where to put the generators and craft services and even plan how much cable they’ll need, all without actually visiting the site. The DJI drone is an existing consumer model. A big win for StudioLab is when its tech is used in the production of a movie, and the first time it used the drone system, it created video that made it into a movie. In that example, the production team liked the drone’s footage so much that it brought it into the visual effects process.

Disney uses drones to take photos of production locations and then turn them into 3D virtual models. Cameras on the drones (at right in the photo) take hundreds of photos of a location, then software created by Accenture Interactive stitches those photos together.

One of the more useful toys is the proprietary Disney Virtual Production System. There are several of these types of systems on the market, and their purpose is to give creators instant real-time feedback so they can visualize on the set what changes in a fully rendered film will look like. Disney’s system is built on a game engine and can be viewed with a VR headset or on a monitor. Instead of waiting several months for computer animation rendering, creators can see what camera and lighting changes will look like. Then, when they’re happy, they send the request to a render farm.

With Disney’s system, multiple people can control different areas of the production, such as cameras and lighting, at the same time. Operators can choose to save one person’s changes while deleting another’s. But while the visualization system is high-tech, the controllers aren’t. Disney has outfitted the system with the same kinds of sliders, dollies, and dials that filmmakers have been using for decades, so the virtual tools work exactly like real-world tools do. It’s “a nod of the hat to the future, but also respect for the past,” Havey says.

The Disney Virtual Production System lets multiple people control different areas of the production, such as cameras and lighting, at the same time.

Plenty of tech at StudioLab is about the fan’s moviegoing experience. A VR system created with Oculus lets digital characters appear projected on a wall at full height, then interact with fans. An actor uses a motion-capture system to control the character’s movement and can activate visual effects. In a demo, a skeleton character from Coco gave a greeting and removed his head.

“The idea here is we would love to have our characters appear, say, in retail, but it actually costs a lot of money, and it’s really complicated to get our characters to shelves, even the costumed ones,” Havey says. “So imagine for the rollout of the film, we have the actor here in L.A. on a volumetric capture stage performing and then that can be streamed out to hundreds, if not thousands, of locations. You basically have a virtual presence of the character, but being driven by the person who created it originally.”

It’s a smart way to repurpose content. The studio has already spent time creating the animated assets. A system like this puts the actors in existing assets and has them act out new content. Havey sees it as a great tool for marketing. It’s in the experimental phase, but he’s getting a lot of interest inside the company.

Heigh-Ho

Havey might be the head of StudioLab, but as mentioned, he has people he needs to answer to. First among them is Jamie Voris, CTO for The Walt Disney Studios and Havey’s immediate boss. But he also works with an advisory board that enlists the CTOs and heads of creative for the five film divisions. The people in this group are not only experienced tech advisors, but also the end customers of StudioLab’s work. They bring ideas for new innovations that Havey judges with two main questions: Does it work, and does it help tell stories? These are high-profile individuals, he stresses, and the fact that they show up at every StudioLab meeting and stay for long discussions shows how passionate they all are about the division.

The StudioLab team gets more suggestions than it can run with, so winnowing the possibilities is essential. During Streaming Media’s interview, Havey said he’d green-lighted 26 projects out of a proposed 87. After receiving suggestions, he goes back to the CTOs and project leads and ensures it’s something they really want. Projects are grouped into three categories: ideation tools that help writers and other creatives develop movies before forming more detailed pitches, content creation tools (the vast majority of StudioLab’s work), and experience tools that help marketing share the experience of a project.

Not all of the work at StudioLab is about advanced tech creation; a lot of its work is keeping employees informed. For that, it has a living room (stocked with a TV and multiple game consoles) and a kitchen (stocked with the most fashionable sparkling waters). Havey estimates that 150–200 people at Disney have badge access to StudioLab and can drop by anytime. Some execs drop by to hang out, while others use the space for meetings. Some teams like to get direct briefings from the StudioLab teams on what new tech is available. Somtimes, StudioLab is a stop on a tour: A few times when executives have been trying to lure a hot filmmaker to Disney, they brought that person to StudioLab to show how he or she would get access to a lot of cool tech.

Disney’s StudioLab features a living room with gaming consoles and a fully stocked kitchen. Between 150 and 200 people at Disney have badge access to StudioLab and can drop by anytime.

It’s all about immersive entertainment, Havey says of StudioLab. The big ideas it’s playing with are AR and VR, working with real-time graphics and game engine technology, and thinking how AI and machine learning can improve the process.

“First and foremost, it’s about enabling our creatives,” Havey says. “We have filmmakers that work all over the world creating our feature films, and our job is to identify, develop, and deliver the best technology to be able to extend their reach. So whether it’s AI to help them fill in aspects of animation, real-time graphics to give them better tools that provide instant feedback, or augmented reality or virtual reality headsets that help them better see the scene that they’re in, that’s really job one.”

At Disney, StudioLab is the real Tomorrowland, ensuring that Disney’s magic is always a little bit ahead of what the others are doing. Walt Disney once said, “The only problem with anything of tomorrow is that at the pace we’re going right now, tomorrow would catch up with us before we got it built.” The StudioLab team is working as fast as it can to ensure it’s always a few steps ahead.

[This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Welcome to Tomorrowland."]

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