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Peeking Behind the Magic: Leslie Iwerks' 'The Imagineering Story'

By Darianna Cardilli

Walt Disney (right) with a Disney Imagineer, testing out animatronic gear. From Leslie Iwerks' 'The Imagineering Story.' Courtesy of Disney+

Creating happiness is hard work. Making something beautiful that brings joy to many, in reality entails, perhaps not blood, but certainly a lot of sweat and some occasional tears. That is aptly illustrated in Leslie Iwerks' sweeping, six-part docuseries, The Imagineering Story. The series, currently streaming on Disney+, chronicles the nearly seven decades of hard work that the designers, artists and engineers—or Imagineers—have poured into realizing the vision and dreams of Walt Disney. Part dreamer, part impresario, Disney had the ability to corral a unique army of talented people to think beyond their expertise, and turn his ideas into reality.

Iwerks, a prolific Academy Award and Emmy-nominated filmmaker, has a stellar pedigree: her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, was Walt Disney's first business partner and co-creator of Mickey Mouse, as well as the inventor of Circle Vision (her directorial debut was The Hand Behind the Mouse—The Ub Iwerks Story) and her father, Don Iwerks, was head of the machine shop for Disney Studios. This gave her unique insight and knowledge as to the inner workings of the Disney parks, and what really lies behind the curtain, where the magic is made.

Documentary spoke with Iwerks about the series. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Documentary: Was it stressful to have the first documentary to air on the Disney + docket?

LESLIE IWERKS: It was commissioned back in 2013, as a five-year project. I had a good four years to film, on and off. We shot interviews, footage and events, and we weren’t going to be editing until the very last year. Back in 2016 -17, when we started editing, that was probably the scariest moment—when you realize you have 200 interviews that you’ve done over the course of four years across the world, in every Disney park.

We had to cull it down to what was commissioned: a 90-minute film. I told the editors to just go long because I didn't want to cut things that could be really good. At that point, I hadn't really delved into the archives too much; we were really just focusing on acquired material. Once we started getting it all in, we realized it was a much bigger project than we anticipated. I just took the risk at that point and said, "Just cut away and cut it to where it feels right." So we had a six-hour cut.

Then I finally said, "Let's go to Disney Imagineering and suggest a series." It was risky, because at that point I would have to cut it back down to 90 minutes. I've done all lengths, so I know the challenges. We had a meeting and everyone agreed that this would be great if we could do a series. The next questions were, "How's it going to get finished and funded and where's it going to air?" And I think within a month of that meeting, Disney + was announced.

D: Where was it originally intended to air when it was commissioned in 2013 as a 90-minute doc?

LI: We didn't really know. It was a five-year project, so there was no real distribution plan at that moment. I think the goal was for Disney to document what they considered sort of a golden age of Imagineering: the openings of Fantasy Land, Walt Disney World. Then there was the new Peter Pan ride, the Matterhorn re-do, the Shanghai park being built in five years. I filmed all those things, among many, many others. I think they just felt like, I could go behind the scenes like I did on The Pixar Story and just be a fly on the wall, suggest things.

Lo and behold, Disney + comes around and I had a six-hour cut. They saw it, and they wanted it for their site. So that's how that happened, and they funded the finishing of it.

D: That's quite an undertaking, doing a series with two main editors, Mark Catalena and Mo Stoebe.

LI: A lot of it was edited over a couple of years. These guys are good, and they’re fast.  It was all of us shaping it and looking at transcripts and pulling quotes. It was a constant evolution of moving things around and finding the structure. But it was pretty Herculean towards this last year because we got more funding to keep filming new footage—vérité that we didn’t have as much of. We shot more in the spring of this year, and then had to cut it together, so I brought in more editors to help with each episode at that point. But Mo and Mark were leads in shaping the overall story.

D: Obviously you scoured the archives. But what is surprising is how much behind-the-scenes footage existed of the early days. Was that for internal documentation or for advertising?

LI: They had so many different things going on at the studio at any one time that there was footage being shot. For example, Disneyland—they definitely photographed the making of that park, and a lot of that was going be used for Wonderful World of Disney; that TV show helped to finance the park. That was all cool material to go through, but then there was just documentation of the park itself being built, hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff that still hasn’t even been transferred yet. For the Epcot story [Episode Two], that was material that no one's seen before, because we had to pull from negative to get the cut on high-res master. That’s the fun part of documentary filmmaking: You're working a lot of the time with what you have and what you think exists, and the quality level is not that great. When you finally get the finishing funded, it’s like this big gift wrap that's opening up. For so long we were working with really low-res footage. When we finally got it transferred, it was beautiful and we were so excited.

D: You have a unique pedigree, being the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, and the daughter of Don, so how much did you know already?

LI: I knew a lot about that aspect of it. My dad would take me to the Disney studio on weekends. So I grew up behind the scenes. 

My dad would bring home 16-mm prints of the animated classics. We had a projection booth in our house, so it was a fun way to grow up in the world of Disney. Then going behind the scenes in the parks, he would take us to Walt Disney World and we would go backstage and see the Animatronic dinosaurs and stuff like that. That was fun, and it was the spirit of what I wanted to bring to the series.

With the vérité that we were able to get, which was a great idea from Disney +, we give some people more screen time, so we feel like it's more character-driven versus interview-driven. At that point, we hadn't had really the opportunity to do that, so it really helped to bring that sense of magic that I felt as a kid, of having the access to go backstage. I wanted the audience to feel that, so that’s what we did with the Matterhorn and going underground in the tunnels—access that the general public wouldn’t necessarily have.

D: Were there things that you learned in scouring the archives and looking at old footage that surprised you?

LI: Certainly the amount of documentation was a gift to any filmmaker. I think what was really helpful was because I have grown up in this world: I did a film on my grandfather, I've read a lot of the history of Disney, we knew a lot of these Imagineers as family friends. So, going back into the archives and finding photographs of people, recognizing faces. But it's always fun when you go in there and you're discovering things that you'd never seen before. It's exciting because you're telling the story and then you can link this photo to that sound bite.

Of course, there were new photos of my grandfather that I hadn't seen before, working on some of the early Animatronics for the World's Fair and on certain camera systems, projection systems.

D: There were a lot personal risks taken by Walt in creating Disneyland. He sold his house in Palm Springs to finance it, the park opening had bad press reviews, there were counterfeit tickets, electrical fuse blowouts and the cement was barely dry. It certainly wasn’t all that easy, despite appearances.

LI: One of the mottos we had that I thought was a good line to live by for our show was, "Walt Disney created the happiest place on earth, but creating happiness was hard work." You walk through a Disney park today and everywhere you look there's something unique and all the detail that goes into it. But when you go behind the scenes, you are seeing so much painstaking detail that goes into it by the Imagineers. 

The other part of that was, we pulled interviews from the archives of Roy Disney. I don’t think any of those audio sound bites have been heard before. Roy Disney was somebody I really wanted to bring out, because Walt gets so much of the credit for Disneyland, as he should. But the real genius of making it happen financially was Roy, and also he was about to retire, and after Walt's death he picked up the baton and ran with it to create Disney World. That really solidified the Disney Company from a park standpoint going forward, because now they had a park on each coast.

That through-line between Walt and Roy was a special thing that I really wanted to get in there: The risks that Roy took in the later part of his life to solidify this business and this business model. And also the fact that this was hard work when you've got Walt's voice being very stern in talking about how he treats his Imagineers. If you said no to him, I don't think you lasted long at the Disney Company. If Walt asked you, "Can we do this?" you would say, "Sure, there's a way to do that. Let's figure it out." 

I think the reason he and my grandfather got along so well was they both had this innate curiosity and can-do attitude, and they both had extreme talent.

Walt had so many partnerships and alliances with great people; that's an example of seeding an idea and then putting the right people on it, and then letting it blossom. The Disney theme park was the amalgamation of so many talented people throughout Walt’s career all brought together to make this park that was the ultimate combination of storytelling, technology and innovation. 

D: Was Walt just gifted at spotting talent and creativity?

LI: I think he was a master talent scout, and he had an amazing instinct for talent and good storytelling and character development and feeling and emotion. I think he really thrived on knowing his audience and trusting his instincts about that. He was such a risk-taker, doing these classic animated films to music. He was taking animation and moving it into directions that hadn't been done before.

D: Can you binge-watch the series? The episodes end quite suspensefully.

LI: They're going to be unveiled one episode a week for the first six weeks, and then after that, obviously you can binge-watch. But yes, that was kind of the key. We really worked to look at this over-arching storyline over almost 70 years and ask, Where are the ups and downs? There were so many ups and downs that we didn't really have a problem with that.

There were three layers of storytelling in this narrative. One is the over-arching, big picture: What's happening in the world economically, physically, environmentally, all these things that could impact the park? Then there's a second layer: What's happening within the Disney Company that is impacting the Imagineers? How did those CEOs shape the work and the evolution of Imagineering and the creativity? Did they give them more free rein or did they pull back on the creative rein?

All of this—business, financial, conflict—is layered into the second layer of conflict that impacts the creative spirit. Then the ultimate is the Imagineering narrative storyline, all the different Imagineers who make up this group, each one faced with their own challenges and their own hurdles. How are they going to overcome this new idea? How are they going to achieve it? Creatively, what are the opportunities? Technologically, where are they limited? 

There are so many conflicts within the Imagineering story, we could've used that as our one and only thread. But instead, there were all these other layers of conflict that helped to create these natural divides—or, I should say, cliffhangers.

D: How much of Walt's original concept behind Epcot, intended as futuristic urban planning, is known?

LI: I think it depends on what you know, because Epcot was built with this vision. If you read an Epcot book, you know this history, so a tricky part for us was that Disney fans will know a lot of this material already. At the same time, we really pushed hard to appeal to the Disney fanatics who are totally immersed in the subject, and then also to the general public, who really don't know much. It's always that fine line between how deep and nuanced you get that’s going to make people interested who don't know a lot about this subject, and giving the diehards something new. I think we were able to balance a lot of that throughout the whole six hours.

The Epcot Center, under construction. From Leslie Iwerks' 'The Imagineering Story.' Courtesy of Disney+

D: How much autonomy did you have in the final edit?

LI: Throughout the whole making of the film. ­­We really didn't have a cut until towards the very end, and I think that was the first time that Imagineering had seen anything. I think it’s the first time that Disney Imagineering has had its story told in such a thorough way as a chronology of 70 years.  You see bits and pieces of it online and little sections on certain parks or certain things, but nothing that’s like the whole breadth of the whole history.

D: Apart from the volume of material, what was the biggest challenge in making this series?

LI: With any documentary, you don't necessarily know when you’re making it if will it see the light of day, what the distribution is. But if there's anything I've learned as a filmmaker, you just have to have faith that your passion will your film to completion and get it seen. I felt like this was going to get seen no matter what, but we were not sure where. Then to have it on Disney + with six hours is way beyond what we ever imagined; we were just thrilled with that. I think keeping the length of time on the project was really a gift, to have that length of that time and that level of funding for as long as we did. 

At the same time, you really have to keep up your energy around it and keep it fresh in your mind all the time. When you're on something for so long, it's easy for things to get antsy. I had a bunch of other projects that I did during that whole time-frame that we completed and got distributed. So it's just a matter of having patience really to see it all the way through.

I'll always look back at this period of my life and think that was a dream, because I got to work with people I really admire and respect, and people I knew as a kid growing up, and got to interview people that are no longer with us.

Disney + launched on November 12; Episodes 1-3 of The Imagineering Story are available for streaming on subscription.      


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. Her work has aired on Bravo, A&E, AMC and The History Channel. She recently completed editing the environmental documentary feature 8 Billion Angels.