Part of their World
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 12 (Dec 2006)

Part of their World

In a unique behind-the-scenes reveal, Disney unveils a 3D version of The Little Mermaid attraction that almost was

Part of the magic of visiting a Walt Disney theme park is the ability to experience something new and exciting. That’s because Walt Disney Imagineers are constantly devising novel ways to thrill and entertain guests, whether it is through a mountaintop encounter with the legendary Yeti or a performance-driven interactive chat with Crush from Finding Nemo.
For instance, during a two-year period, park visitors glanced at the barrier blocking the construction site in Epcot’s Future World before they were able to experience the excitement and intensity of "Mission: Space," one of the park’s most anticipated attractions. Long before the contractors broke ground, however, Walt Disney Imagineers spent years conceptualizing, designing, planning, and developing the concept, as they do for every new attraction in Disney parks throughout the world.


But for every new installation that opens, there are countless more that never make it beyond the drawing board, so to speak. Recently, though, one such attraction, inspired by Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid, got a second chance after it was shelved for more than a decade: It finally made its debut, albeit virtually.

Back in the early 1990s, Disney began focusing on adding new attractions to its Disneyland Paris venue, and the Imagineers set their sights on a Little Mermaid-inspired dark ride. However, after nearly two years of development, that attraction was nixed and replaced by a thrill ride. Through Disney magic, that ride was brought to life virtually on Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s Special Edition DVD release of the Academy Award-winning film The Little Mermaid as a bonus feature. Watching the DVD, consumers experience the ride from the viewpoint of sitting inside a vehicle—in this case, a seashell—as they travel through the 3D animated ride, which was constructed digitally based on drawings, photos, and models from the original project plans. An option on the DVD enables viewers to experience the ride with Imagineers, as their hosts, providing commentary en route.

"Including this virtual experience on the DVD gives consumers an extended film experience, as well as the opportunity to go on a ‘Disney theme park ride that almost was’ from the comfort of their own living rooms," says David Jessen, vice president of DVD production at Buena Vista Home Entertainment, the marketing, sales, and distribution company for Walt Disney, Touchstone, and others. For the Imagineers, meanwhile, the virtual ride enables the team to view the fruits of their labor from years before.

"We are documentarians, film archaeologists, and interactive game producers," says Jessen. "On classic animation and live-action films, we dig deep into our studio archives to uncover material and stories long lost or forgotten. For new releases, we partner with the filmmakers to capture their journey to bring their project to the screen. Whether it be a documentary film, a short making-of piece, or a fun interactive game, we look at ourselves as storytellers."

In fact, producing a virtual ride for a DVD is not new for the Home Entertainment group; it has created this type of animation for The Lion King, The Lion King 1½, and Aladdin. However, this was the first time the team had created a virtual ride based on existing archival plans created by Imagineering.

"This project presented an exciting opportunity to work with Imagineers to create something new with historical significance," says Jessen.

Concept Phase

To understand the original plans, Tony Baxter, senior vice president of Imagineering, turned back the clock to 1989, when Disney embarked on what many refer to as the Second Golden Age of Animation, with The Little Mermaid. "The movie took the world by surprise; it wasn’t a kiddie film, but something timeless that everyone loves throughout the world—what we call an evergreen property," he says. "These become great candidates for something in the parks that gives people a chance to go beyond simply meeting the characters by stepping into the characters’ worlds."


The DVD animators teamed with the Imagineers who worked on thedark ride concept, using their models and plans as references.

The CG artists tempered their animation style to refl ect the look of aride-through from 15 years ago, as opposed to today’s film imagery.

In 1992, after Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disneyland) opened its gates, Imagineers followed their usual practice of searching for other attractions to expand the venue. At the time, they began developing The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast attractions as parallel projects. In the end, Ariel and Belle were displaced for "Space Mountain" when management determined that the priority was for a thrill ride. (The Little Mermaid-based ride was also planned for the California location; the Florida venue already had a theater presentation based on the property, which fulfilled the needs of that park at the time.)

"Because we are dealing with things that don’t exist, we have to get everyone to a point where the client—in this case, Disneyland and Disneyland Paris—could understand them, evaluate them, and see how they worked," explains Baxter. "It wasn’t as if anyone had negative thoughts about this project; they all loved it. But in the end, it was determined that the need for thrill was the park’s priority, since the venue opened with just one thrill ride, ‘Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.’ " Soon after, Disney experienced hit after hit with movies such as Aladdin and The Lion King, giving the group a number of other evergreen properties to choose from when the time came once again to select a new theatrical attraction for the park. (Lion King- and Tarzan-based shows eventually got the nod.)

Getting the ride to the evaluation stage required various entities within the Disney organization—writers, illustrators, dimensional designers, architects, and area development engineers—to brainstorm the concept over a year-and-a-half period. In addition, the teams were in constant communication with the studio, and in this instance, particularly, with the film’s directors, John Musker and Ron Clements.

Story Time

Taking a 90-minute movie and converting it into a four-minute environmental experience was no easy task. "You can’t tell the exact same story," Baxter says. "So we concentrated on the emotions and environments that stand out, along with that one key theme that drives the property. Here it was these two characters, Ariel and Eric, from two incredibly different worlds, dreaming of being a part of each other’s world."


The virtual ride takes viewers through two diverse worlds—belowand above the water—reflecting the physical ride plans.

Thus, uniting these two people became the theme that drove the ride concept. "Then we realized we had two astonishingly different realms we could weave people through—the underwater world and the terrestrial world," Baxter recalls. "Part of the fun of the original film was that it jockeyed between the worlds, and we challenged ourselves to do the same when thinking about the ride. Was there a way to have this hanging boat go above and below the surface in an environment that literally transformed from an above-water world to a below-water world? And the fun of crossing back and forth between those realms would be the magic of what we could do in the ride that you can’t experience in a film or any other media—that is, take people through that transition."

The ride would begin with Ariel longing to become a part of Eric’s world, and this occurs above the water. The next scene occurs under the sea, in Ariel’s world, followed by a "dark" scene from the depths of Ursula’s lair where her wish is fulfilled, then into a bright, colorful pond for the Kiss the Girl finale—with a few stops in between. Once the team was satisfied with the story line, the crew created a full-size physical mock-up of the Kiss the Girl scene. The mock-up was about 25 feet tall in total, and the first 15 feet of that was "underwater."

"There was a simulated water surface; we showed it to the animators and others, and they were amazed by it," says Baxter.

The group could walk up and down a staircase. They could get above the water and look down upon the rowboat holding Eric and Ariel. By walking down the stairs to the ground level, the group could look up through the water surface with the same perspective of Ursula’s plotting eels. "We were so effective in creating that water-level plane that all the visiting animators bent over and tried to touch it, but obviously they couldn’t; their hands went through the illusion," says Baxter.

The water line was created in the mock-up using a multitude of illusions that, as Baxter notes, were state of the art in 1991. The effect involved creating theatrical smoke effects that added atmosphere to the room—enough for lasers to trace a plane by sweeping a beam rapidly across the horizon. "We were able to create a plane that got very water-like because you would see the smoke elements being cut by the beam, which produced a swirling pattern as if it were a water surface," he explains.

"The nature of smoke is that it is very placid and swirls, so we had to find ways of introducing air to agitate the air currents," Baxter explains. "To augment that, we took every license we could to add floating leaves, willow branches, and so forth to hit that line and then go flat as they floated on the surface." Thus, lily pads, fish, and other elements were half in and half out of the "water." When the boat’s oars hit the surface, optic fibers created ringlets that spilled outward in sync with the agitation, providing a sense of surface disturbance.

"Everywhere you looked there was something that tricked your mind into believing you were underwater," says Baxter.

And it was that mock-up that gave everyone the confidence that this project would be something special and fun to do, Baxter adds. "We showed we could let people pass through a kind of magical border between the two worlds, and create two different emotional themes: above the water, with this romantic scene, and below the water, with these two villains ready to upset the apple cart," he says. As a result, the Imagineers received the green light to continue with the project, developing blueprints and plans, and working them into architecture.

In the CG World

Initially, Imagineers had to translate a lengthy, beautiful 2D animated film into a short theme park attraction. Then, for the virtual ride animation, CG artists at Buena Vista Home Entertainment had to translate the physical properties of the ride into a 3D animation. "The CG animators [for the virtual ride] had to temper their way of animating so the result reflected the look of a ride-through from 15 years ago, as opposed to a beautiful animation we see on the movie screen today," says Baxter. For instance, had the attraction been built, visitors would have had about 12 seconds to view each scene. Therefore, fluid film animation no longer becomes the same issue that it is in films.


The 3D artists translated the original blueprints into After Effects, where the timing wasaccomplished. The rest of the modeling and scene creation, such as this one, was done in Maya.

"The animators had to think of [the guest’s viewpoint as] a window rather than the edits and dissolves that are the vocabulary of a movie screen," says Baxter. Therefore, the animators cannot use conventional methods to cut from one frame to the next, but rather a single shot has to continue from the minute the ride is dispatched until the end.

In total, a group of approximately 20 people from Buena Vista Home Entertainment spent six months creating the virtual ride, a process that entailed studying the plans for the ride, co-developing the creative with Imagineering, and producing the animation. "We were true to the Imagineers’ vision, and expanded on ideas they had thought of over the years in an effort to improve their original design," says Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s Jessen.

For the assets in the animated ride, the animators used blueprints, concept drawings, a foam-core model, and archival footage of the full-scale room mock-up from the Kiss the Girl sequence for reference. The Imagineers also took the group through the story points of each scene and provided a script. "The mock-up footage gave us an idea of how we were going to re-create in CG the water surface effect with atmospheric lighting," says Jessen.

First, the CG crew used the original blueprints, which contained details down to how long each car would take to traverse the entire ride track. The artists then translated that information into Adobe’s After Effects, and laid out the ride experience in terms of timing. "By doing this, we knew exactly what the person riding the attraction would see and when, and how long they would see it," Jessen notes. Next, the artists brought that data into Autodesk’s Maya, where they then extrapolated the information from the blueprints, in effect pulling the foundation and the walls from the blueprints—"much like a CAD designer would craft a house," he adds.

After that framework was complete, the artists placed a virtual camera into the newly built virtual structure and timed it exactly to the output of the After Effects render. "Now we had, in essence, the ability to ‘sit’ in our virtual car and move around the environment," explains Jessen. "From there, we knew what the camera was truly looking at."

This rendering gave the artists the ability to work closely with the Imagineers, to get their feedback on what they originally conceptualized in their design. Next, they modeled the objects in the rooms using Maya, and textured them by hand using Adobe’s Photoshop. In fact, all the models were built from scratch except for the seashell cars, which were crafted based on a maquette. The artists composited the imagery into the scenes using After Effects, and used Maya for the camera motion.

"The difficult part was designing this as if it were a real ride. We could not take any of the liberties that our normal fantasy rides allow," says Jessen. The artists had to take into consideration all the real-world obstacles that the Imagineers would have to face when building an actual ride—for example, gravity, (physical) space issues, building layout, speaker and lighting placement, and trying to tell an entire story in only minutes.

"Those were only some of the many obstacles that we normally take for granted in a virtual world," says Jessen. "And we did work closely with our feature animation partners to access original character model sheets, maquettes, and turnarounds for accuracy."

One of the most difficult aspects of the production, Jessen recalls, was simulating the water without using a 3D water effect. "The original concept called for a stylized simulation of water using practical lighting effects, and we called upon a little Disney magic to re-create what the Imagineers had originally envisioned for their attraction," he says. "In the end, we had to get that surface-water effect just right so that you would feel like you were actually riding on a ride at Disneyland."


While Disney considers The Little Mermaid an evergreen property, the technology that would have been used to create the ride is anything but. "The Little Mermaid, like Cinderella, is not locked into a time period, and the ride would be fine if we constructed it today," notes Baxter. But, he points out, the crew would do it differently today. That’s because the technologies that existed in 1989 are certainly different from those used to create animated features today. And that, he says, would have a profound effect on the present development of a ride.


To re-create the feel of a theme park ride, the CG artists had totreat the ride animation as one long, continuous shot.

"We couldn’t have done this CG ride-through back in 1989," says Baxter. "Today, though, we would begin with something like the ride-through to educate ourselves in a number of areas such as how to light a scene for emotional impact."

If produced today, Baxter expects that the attraction would be a more sophisticated dark ride, since the Imagineers undoubtedly would integrate some of the present 3D animation techniques into the attraction, as they have done for the new Finding Nemo-themed attractions, "The Seas with Nemo & Friends" at Epcot and "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" opening this coming summer at Disneyland. "Both benefit from animation techniques that weren’t available in 1989 when we planned this ride," he adds.

Will The Little Mermaid-based virtual ride ever find its way back to the Imagineers’ drawing board for development into a park attraction? While Baxter believes it would be fun to do, he is not holding his breath. "There are so many Disney evergreen properties to choose from, and the list continues to grow," he says. Despite this, there is a positive note: A person can board and re-board the virtual experience without having to wait in a long line.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.