Saturday, June 23, 2007

Managing the Creative Factory

An old Imagineer once told me this about WED in the 50’s and 60’s:

“You had Walt, and all that great talent thrown together with him… something great was bound to happen! It was just a magical time!”

But was it just magic? Or is there some logical formula for managing the creative process to get superior results? Throughout the entertainment industry there have been many other times when just the right mix of people came together and exceptional things were created. Look at MGM during the 30’s and 40’s. We hear it was a factory that ran like clockwork, yet they produced classics like the Wizard of Oz, Grand Hotel, Philadelphia Story, Meet Me in St. Louis and so many other quality musicals and dramas.

The same type of thing happened at the Disney studio in the 30’s with the birth of feature animation and amazing films like Snow White and Pinocchio. It was also another factory with a creative product and Walt successfully figured out how to manage it. Later, he did the same thing with WED.

Today the same thing is happening at Pixar. John Lasseter knows how to manage creative talent and the result has been one mega-hit after the other. If you look back, you can come up with many other examples of the right mix of people getting together to create great films, television shows, and, of course, themed environments.

So what did these successful ventures have in common?

They all had a great leader and a commitment to quality product. And although they ran their businesses like factories, they realized that they were different than other factories that made things like paper clips. The difference was that these factories ran on the creative process.

So we can see three things those successful ventures had in common; a knowledge of how the creative process runs, a commitment to quality product throughout the organization, and a great leader. How or why did WDI stray so far from these basic concepts and is the current re-structuring considering these points?

Over time WDI began to be run more like a paper clip factory and a culture emerged where an artist or craftsperson that was better at working with administration was considered more valuable than those with exceptional talent. (Can you imagine if back in the golden days of MGM they sacked people like Vincent Minnelli or Clark Gable in favor of those who excelled in planning and scheduling meetings?) And some WDI departments are run with their own survival as the goal, rather than by the desire of producing the finest end product. It takes a special talent to manage a department that is part of a greater creative process. You can’t run it with blinders on as if paper clips are your only responsibility. One of the most important jobs of a manager is to be able to recognize talent and nurture it for the overall good of the organization.

Under Eisner’s direction the idea of producing top quality themed attractions was replaced with a commitment to product based on marketing calculations (Pressler). That’s how we got DCA. At the same time, the Oriental Land Company in Japan believed in quality product, and made the commitment to have WDI produce the fabulous Tokyo DisneySea project. So the idea of a commitment to quality product has to come from the top, and the people at the top have to know what a quality product is. Right now this is Bob Iger’s responsibility.

Finally, John Lasseter’s appointment as creative advisor to WDI makes perfect sense. But will he be able to fill the role of the great creative leader, or will he be spread too thin running Pixar, Disney Animation and WDI at the same time? With Imagineering easily being one of the biggest white elephants in the room at the Disney Company, one can only hope full-time attention will eventually be paid.

Friday, June 15, 2007

“When Mickey Comes Marching Home Again…”

It is a sparkling Southern California day as I step off the Monorail into Tomorrowland. The kind of day I associated with Disneyland as a kid, when the drive to Anaheim brought sunshine, ocean breeze and brilliant color to eyes more accustomed to the miserable grey of a Tule fog winter.

Fitting weather for a celebration. Walt Disney’s Submarine Voyage is recommissioned nearly ten years after a critical battle, when the historic attraction was torpedoed by sharp-shooting accountaneers of a tragic wartime Kingdom.

Now the fleet has returned to a hero’s welcome.

Watching the gleaming yellow subs circle though their shimmering lagoon, the future again looks bright, fading the long nightmare of an era when all life was drained from these once-vital waters. Looking across the landscape, there are further signs of that miraculous Tomorrow we were promised by Walt, a world that in recent years was left to rot and ruin for the duration.

Though the hulking skeleton of the Rocket Jets, now a dismembered mechanical corpse, still dominates Tomorrowland’s skyline to remind us of past atrocities - signs of utopia’s reconstruction are evident everywhere. The spires of Space Mountain shine white once again. Modernist sculpture graces the civic spaces of the future city. It’s a world slowly on the move and the mend.

But beneath the surface of Tomorrowland’s lagoon, renewed life is fully vibrant.

As I climb down that spiral staircase into the submarine, I'm embraced by the joy of finding an old friend lost in battle. My sense memory streams with déjà vu of the voyages we had shared. As I dutifully polish a porthole with my sleeve to remove a greasy nose-print, as I had so many times before, I'm carried back to those simple, happy times before the fall.

This is no wallow in nostalgia. Through the bubbles, a new adventure unfolds, colorful, detailed, filled with character and delight. The new voyage is not a pasteboard paradise, but a living environment of quality and imagination, to a depth we have not experienced in many years. The new “Finding Nemo” show elements fill the enormous flippers passed down by fondly recalled sea serpents, giant squid and mermaids. The unique infrastructure of the original Submarine Voyage provides an incomparable platform from which to launch new technological wonders, resulting in a fully animated hybrid that would not be possible to build from scratch today. It is worth every penny, and the smiling crowds that have turned up to greet the fleet underscore the success.

So who are the true heroes of the campaign? To whom do we dedicate this octopus’s victory garden?

We salute those who fought for the Magic Kingdom, those who risked politics and livelihood to pass Walt’s world of wonder to a new generation. Prime among them, Tony Baxter and his fellow Imagineering traditionalists, who kept the lights on in the lagoon during every blackout. And to Matt Ouimet, former President of Disneyland, who recognized the value of the shared treasure with which he was entrusted. Without their passion, dedication and perseverance through the dark decades, these waters might now be landfill; the subs scrap metal, like their Florida cousins.

Along with the submarine fleet, another long lost unit has come marching home again… the animators. And they are bringing the “Walt” back to Disneyland.

While cartoons have never strayed far from the Kingdom, in fact they have been rather persistent in expanding their reach, the specialized cartoonist's-eye and the inventive ideas that made characters into something more than franchise floggers has increasingly become an offshore import.

Walt Disney’s original voyages into theme park design benefited greatly from the taste and talents of Walt Disney Productions artists and animators, the creators of his classic cartoon features. Studio stalwarts like Marc Davis, Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Ken Anderson, Claude Coats and so many others that helped set the style for the films, did the same for Disneyland. These initial Imagineers knew how to tell stories visually, to art direct an environment that brought the unreal to convincing life. With personality, detail, color and corn, they took us to other worlds without a trace of irony. Their contributions helped make a trip to Disneyland like stepping into the frame of a Disney film. After all, they had created the originals.

Since the early 1990’s, when corporate gatekeepers began to close the inner-kingdom to animators, artists and other creatives of the Walt kind, we began losing portholes of imagination to MBA-holes of management efficiency. Yet that time too has passed.

In the acquisition of Pixar, Disney has bought back their wandering soul and healthy inner child – at a premium – and it could not have been a better move. Here are to be found the traditional Disney talents and ideas, the Walt spirit in exile.

While Pixar’s artists had contributed ideas and comments to their attractions in the past, their people were more-or-less peripheral to the process. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is the first opportunity WDI’s new creative skipper, John Lasseter, has had to fully supervise the execution of a major attraction - - and the increased level of creative spit and polish is more than evident. His efforts to “plus” the project ensured that the fleet’s return was well-worth waiting for.

On sparkling display too, is the Pixar eye for design through the efforts of “Finding Nemo” alumni, including Robin Cooper, texture art director for the film, who helped bring the look and feel of the movie environment to three-dimensional life – and “Nemo” production designer Ralph Eggleston, whose dazzling attraction travel poster at the main gate pays homage to the stylish mid-century original, while adding the fun of the film, ride and characters to the design. While only part of a larger hardworking team, the animation artists help to bring that special “Disney touch” back to the park, with colorful detail at once fresh and new, yet part of the timeless whole.

Through Pixar, we can only hope the entire Disney Company will again be animated by animators, as it has always been, as it ever should be.

As I step from the submersible with a happy heart, I catch an angle on Tomorrowland that I haven’t seen in a decade. From that vantage point, other phantoms of The Happiest Place on Earth live again in my mind’s eye. The bleak Observatron spins again with stellar Astrojets high above, the PeopleMover carries relaxed travelers of tomorrow’s highway on its slender beams, Skyway gondolas fly overhead into icy caves of the mighty Matterhorn, giving a rarified bird’s eye view of this World on the Move. And there are new wonders too, attractions that surprise and delight beyond expectation… It is Walt's utopia reborn from the depths of decay.

The union of Pixar artists and Disney Imagineers will help to further renew, revive and define that dream Tomorrowland for the next millennium, perpetuating the optimistic futurism of the founder though creative application of design and technology, visual storytelling and immersive experience. The triumphant return of the submarine fleet is only leading a pageant of promise from the past to future voyages of discovery in waters of the imagination yet to be explored.

Walt Disney’s great, big beautiful tomorrow is on the horizon once again, thanks to those who let their hearts soar above the bottom line. Though there are surely still mid-level monkeys in the machine, clinging to their spreadsheets on remote islands long after surrender, the news will reach them sooner or later - - or they will simply be left behind.

“When the world is truly ready for a new and better life, all these things will one day come to pass, in God's good time,” predicted Captain Nemo in Walt Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Maybe “God’s good time” is now...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Nature of the Business

For decades, the relentless expanding and contracting of Walt Disney Imagineering has been explained away as "the nature of the business." WDI (formerly WED Enterprises) has existed for over fifty years, and has been conducting cyclical mass layoffs since the early 1970s. The most notable layoffs have taken place after the completion of Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland (1982-1983), after the completion of Disneyland Paris (1992) and after opening three theme parks in nineteen months, Disney's California Adventure, Tokyo Disney Sea and the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (2001 - 2002). Perhaps Disney's twenty-five year massive worldwide theme park expansion is taking a breather--providing us with the perfect opportunity to reevaluate the validity of the oft-used phrase: "It's just the nature of the business."

Why is it the nature of the business? Perhaps because WDI is project driven and projects fluctuate based on the needs of their clients. WDI however has only two clients; the Walt Disney Company (WDI's own parent) and the Oriental land Company (which operates Tokyo Disneyland and is beholden to the Walt Disney Company per their licensing agreement).

WDI doesn't exactly have to exist in the competitive world of independent design firms. If fact, for decades WDI held all the cards. They dictated every little detail to the park operators. But things changed and now the park operations folks are in charge. Park executives order what they want from WDI the same way a client would from an independent firm. This causes WDI to behave like an independent firm, always looking to sell its wears to whatever park executive has the money to spend. WDI is constantly begging for work, which leaves no time or motivation to prepare for the future, and no opportunity to play the role of master planner.

WDI is a reactive organization, not a proactive one.

For Your Consideration

Consider that it’s WDI's job to maintain the identity and theme of eleven parks around the world as well as dozens of resort experiences. Consider that WDI is responsible for painstakingly designing and updating minute details on a canvas that covers more than 35,000 acres of land around the world and must do so in a four dimensional environment (in addition don't forget about the basic wear and tear of time). Consider that the attention to detail, which is one hallmark of WDI, is actually what first separated Disney Theme Parks from amusement parks, and the consistency and continuity of those details creates the show that elevates Disney theme parks above all the rest (along with the contribution of a tireless front line operations cast).

Consider that the other hallmark of Imagineering is creative and technological innovation, which generates new attractions and drives repeat guests to return to Disney parks (again, with considerable help from cast members). And let's be practical here, too; this attention to detail plus innovation is what allows The Walt Disney Company to charge more for their parks than any other firm, and thus create a distinctive experience for which the public is willing to pay a premium price--wider margins and more profit.

Considering all this, if you were an executive at the Walt Disney Company and your jurisdiction included theme parks, shouldn’t it be important to make sure that Disney maintains its premium status, and shouldn’t you know the role that Imagineering plays in that maintenance?

With all that considered, let's move to the topic in hand.

Photo courtesy Bernie at

The Nature of the Business

The decade-long cycle of layoff, rebuild, expand, reinvent, innovate, renew, release, and layoff, has had some positive effects. It allowed the addition of new blood, people from different fields and backgrounds to come into WDI and to keep the perspective fresh and vital. It allowed WDI to explore new directions. A fluid work force adapts quickly to change.

But, it also had a very serious downside. The choice to layoff uniquely talented and experienced workers is like ringing the dinner bell for the competition. Arguably the most impressive non-Disney theme park in the world is Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, just a few miles up I-4 from Walt Disney World. Islands of Adventure was designed almost entirely by laid-off Imagineers and now sits on Disney's front door step siphoning off guests who could be spending an extra day of their vacation on Disney property. Add Harry Potter to the mix and suddenly the trickle of departing muggles becomes a flood.

But the concern of losing good talent to the competition is minor in comparison to the other drawback created by WDI's expand-and-contract cycle. In the wrong hands, the constant threat of layoffs can be used as a political tool by management. It enables a corrupt management to rule through fear and in doing so negate all the positive effects of a cyclical change-out of talent. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened at Walt Disney Imagineering for the past several years.

Dream On Silly Imagineer

Try to imagine, just for a moment, that you have, since the age of eight, wanted to work in a magical place called Imagineering. In your mind, it is a dream factory more spectacular than any created by Santa Claus or Willy Wonka, and you work your whole life to get there. Then one day the Flower Street gates open to you and you are allowed in. Walt Disney Imagineering! (For a more visceral explanation of this emotion please see the wonderful short film "Dream on Silly Dreamer" by Dan Lund. Much of what happened at Animation applies to Imagineering as well).

Now you're working, you're drawing, you're building and it's great. But then one day you discover you've said something to upset an executive. You didn't realize it at the time, because it was a brainstorming meeting and it was a free exchange of ideas. You were just trying to contribute the best input possible with no idea that saying, "We need more Audio-Animatronics figures in the parks," or, "Why don't we write original songs anymore?" could upset someone, but it did...and does...a lot.

You see, some executives at WDI believe that it is just as effective to tell a "story" by using film rather than Audio-Animatronics figures. And loads cheaper. Those executives just made an argument that the AA guys and gals need to go and the filmmakers need to stay, and your little comment is not helping their agenda. So, a friend tells you that you need to keep your mouth shut or they’ll get rid of you during the next round of layoffs. At WDI nobody needs an actual reason to fire you.

So, now you choose your words carefully in “brainstorming” meetings, you try to appear dispassionate about your work, moving silently from task to task. After all, dispassionate people are less likely to have strong opinions and are therefore easier to manage. Maybe you even try to fit in with the cool kids; best way to do that is to make fun of diehard Disney fans; call them geeks or foamers (because they foam at the mouth when they see something Disney).

And most important, you don’t suggest anything that might be original or creative. You never ever suggest building an original attraction as you now understand it’s better to just repackage an old idea (unless that old idea was created by somebody now unpopular with management, or unless it necessitates the involvement of a department management is trying to eliminate.) Hmm...maybe it’s best if you just don’t speak at all.

Welcome to WDI. Welcome to a culture of fear.

The WDI of 2001 - 2007

So let’s recap. WDI’s role is vital to maintaining the Disney Theme Parks’ position in the minds of the consumers as a premium product. The culture of fear created by WDI’s management (the guys who wear jeans and sit behind desks in Glendale) discourages innovation and creates a hostile work environment for creative people. The results of this culture of fear are quite evident. We call them Disney’s California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, Stitch’s Great Escape, Tiki Room Under New Management, DinoRama, and Journey into YOUR Imagination among others.

Unfortunately the management of the Walt Disney Company (the guys who wear suits and sit behind desks in Burbank) don’t have the time or the interest to look at the problems within Imagineering. They just see that their newest parks are losing money and that the Imagineers are spending too much. Like most of the world they see Imagineering as one solid amorphous blob, and they are more than happy to throw out the baby with the bath water. What they don’t see is the enormous talent that still exists at WDI just below the surface.

On the promising side WDI just went through yet another restructuring in the hope that a new management team will succeed where their predecessors failed. And despite what some people think, this blog’s mission is to help build a happier, healthier, more creative, more efficient WDI by chronicling past mistakes in the hope that WDI can learn from its own history to build a better future.

What could the new Walt Disney Company management do if they wanted to?

Let's return to the original question. Is the constant expanding and contracting of Walt Disney Imagineering necessary? Is it really the nature of the business? This contributor would have to say, "no". Even if it was unavoidable once, it’s not today.

The Walt Disney Company has 11 theme parks around the world, plus water parks, resort hotels, entertainment districts, a sports complex, cruise ships, a private island, and all of these things need to be held up to Disney quality. A steady stream of work should be coming into WDI from all these sources, because every one of them needs attention. Because of the aforementioned client/design firm relationship, however, this is not the case.

If WDI were given a standard budget to make improvements and enhancements (which could be as small as a flower bed or as big as an E-ticket attraction) to existing parks, the basic staff of WDI should be kept busy indefinitely. WDI would have a set amount of money to work with (adjusted for inflation each year) and the Walt Disney Company management should prioritize what work needs to be done first. When a big project comes along like a new theme park or two huge cruise ships then some of the work on the existing park would have to be deferred. If this sounds like harsh neglect of the existing parks, it's important to note that this is work not being done at all today.

Of course there is no way to eliminate layoffs completely. Economic fluctuations make that an impossibility. But given the size of the Disney empire and the constant need for updates and improvements to existing parks, a smart management team could minimize the modulation...if they wanted to. And the payoff for guests and stockholders would be enormous.

Walt Disney Feature Animation was at its best when it was only making one film a year. Those were the days of Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and Pixar is enjoying an incredible run making new films every 18 months. There is something to be said for restraint, especially when it comes to creative organizations. The Walt Disney Company’s decision to build three theme parks at the same time is what doomed WDI (like its decision to make multiple animated features and dozens of cheap sequels destroyed Animation a few years back). With three park projects to feed, Imagineers were promoted to lofty positions and given even loftier salaries. Labor rates soared. This was all digested into the budgets of three very large-scale projects. But when all three parks opened, WDI was left with a gaggle of Vice Presidents with no work to do. Try justifying absorbing those salaries into overhead costs.

The fatten-up-slim-down fad diet WDI has been on for the past three decades just isn’t healthy. WDI will be fifty-five years old in December, and it’s time to appreciate the value of moderation. As for the culture of fear that resides within WDI, it will take a lot more than a steady stream of work to fix that problem, but removing the constant fear of layoffs is a good first step.

Unfortunately the fear of layoffs has proven such an effective tool for controlling unruly creative types so some old executives at WDI may see no reason to change it. Here's hoping some renegade executive has the courage to make a selfless decision that would be in the best interests of the company and remove the culture of fear at Imagineering; to challenge the very 'nature of the business'.

All of us here at Re-Imagineering wish them the best of luck.