Disney's StudioLAB accelerates filmmaking innovation
For nearly a century, The Walt Disney Studios has held a long and storied reputation for integrating some of the most cutting-edge technologies into the world of entertainment.
From pioneering fully synchronized sound and animation in the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Steamboat Willie," to the graphic and auditory splendor of "Fantasia" in 1940, to the computer-generated imagery of Pixar Animation Studios and Lucasfilm, the entertainment giant has continually made cinematic history using next-generation technology to bring memorable stories to life.
The Walt Disney Studios StudioLAB is where executives, technologists, and filmmakers can share and experiment with a treasure trove of emerging technologies—virtual reality, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, drones, and more.
StudioLAB is partnering with Accenture Interactive, Cisco, Verizon, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise to accelerate innovation. HPE, for example, is applying AI, deep learning, and high-performance computing to explore advances in the filmmaking process to enable more immersive experiences.
One of StudioLAB's first wins came with its contributions to the Pixar-developed social VR experience "Coco VR," which was nominated for the 2018 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Interactive Program. Later accomplishments include providing new technical elements to major motion pictures such as Marvel Studios' "Captain Marvel."
We recently caught up with Evan Goldberg, manager of technology innovation research at StudioLAB, to learn more about where StudioLAB is headed and how this new creative space will play a role in staying at the forefront of storytelling innovation.
Tell us a little background about your role at Disney.
I've been with The Walt Disney Studios for 14 years now. My background is in computer graphics, so I'm part technologist and part artist.
My job—and this remains true at StudioLAB—has always been to try to understand the imaginative needs of a film, the creative visions of filmmakers, the inspired desires of artists, and to identify gaps where current technology is not allowing us to achieve our vision. Similarly, part of my role is to bring innovative technology in, write new software, and improve the artistic process in ways that will deliver higher quality standout images to the big screen.
What is StudioLAB's mission?
StudioLAB's mission is to be an innovation catalyst for all of the entertainment businesses under the Disney Studios umbrella—Disney Live Action, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox—because everyone is busy making films and solving challenges unique to their own disciplines. StudioLAB is there to keep a pulse on the latest technological trends and tools and to disseminate that information across the studios for use in both making and marketing movies. We seek out new tech for filmmakers today and new platforms for storytelling tomorrow.
It sounds like StudioLAB has a rather unique environment.
Yeah, it's a modern and interactive hub located inside this iconic animation building in the middle of a studio lot.
As you come in, there are digital projections on the walls, some that are interactive as you pass by. As you go further into the space, you see all sorts of technology. There's a whole room that we call Tools and Tech, where our creators can experiment with different types of camera stabilizers or discover various ways that photogrammetry or drone technology might help them with artistic projects. We host immersive content demonstrations in there too, for those who want to try that technology hands-on.
We also have some great spaces for ideation and meetings: a boardroom with telepresence conferencing systems and digital whiteboards; a living room with AR app demos; tech-centric consumer products; all our latest trailers playing on a big TV; and a Zen-like nature room, which is great for taking phone calls and having quiet conversations.
Which technologies in StudioLAB have your team most excited?
For example, we have a relationship with The Void, a location-based virtual reality entertainment company, and recently released a one-of-a-kind experience called "Avengers: Damage Control." Similarly, we have established other VR partnerships via StudioLAB to develop unique VR experiences like "Coco VR."
For each of these efforts, we basically took a look and said, "How do we bring these fictional characters into other experiences?" because people watch these beautifully curated movies for 90 minutes but want to continue exploring those fictional worlds. They want to keep engaging with the characters, so we are always looking for avenues to extend our storytelling journeys beyond what happens in theaters.
We were surprised to hear you are also experimenting with drones. What's that about?
Drones have definitely proved to be a valuable experiment. One of our teams had success with a project called Scout in a Box, drones that take pictures of a filming location to inform where action should be staged, which is evolving into something of a photogrammetry service.
What we do is send a drone up to scan a location, take pictures, and convert those programmatically into what are called point clouds, tiny little dots of 3D information you can reassemble to create a view of the entire location. We used this technique on "Captain Marvel." We sent a drone over a mall in Van Nuys [California], scouted it from the air, and used the resulting point cloud to help make a digital asset for the movie.
So you brought the movie set to you instead of establishing a set somewhere else?
Yes. And what's really cool is that what started as a tool for filmmakers and location scouts now influences other parts of the company. For example, we have a whole archive group at Disney with an array of props, models, and historic memorabilia from previous films and sets. And they are now utilizing a lot of their photogrammetry knowledge, with tools beyond drones, to digitize and scan assets that formerly would have been sitting in a warehouse and proved difficult to find without going in person and spending significant time searching the facility.
Digital innovation has come a long way over the past decade. How has it changed animation?
The pixels on the screen today are much higher quality and higher precision. I won't get too technical, but one example is how rendering technology has changed from "Frozen"  to "Frozen 2" [released Nov. 22, 2019]. We evolved from old rendering techniques to ray tracing and path tracing, which is basically going from an approximation of what lighting and materials look like to, literally, digitally shooting rays of light and photons and then tracking them around a scene to create an image that looks more realistic, more physically plausible. When you see the side-by-side, there's a notable difference in the richness of those characters. They're the same art direction, generally speaking, but are much more elaborate in their texture, services, material properties, and other things of that nature.
Ray and path tracing have been around for years, but the compute power is so much better now. You can throw better hardware at a problem and get results back much faster, which means you can accomplish a lot more compute in the same day's work. And by that, I mean the whole fabric of compute, everything from storage to data latency to the speed of the CPUs and GPUs—all of it.
So compute power is enabling us to rapidly expand our capabilities. If you look at another example of a film and its sequel, "Wreck-It Ralph" versus "Ralph Breaks the Internet," those Internet scenes are enormous. They're huge. Just count all the buildings, all the crowd elements, all the netizens and compare them to the first movie, where there were certainly crowd elements but fewer of them, and you'll see the difference in the number of elements on the screen and the overall pixel quality. Then you can truly grasp how computing power has accelerated the industry across a variety of artistic disciplines.
What do you think sets Disney's StudioLAB apart from similar facilities at other studios?
At StudioLAB, we have a great mix of talented people―a wonderful blend of artists and technically savvy, creative individuals. What makes us unique is that, while everyone embraces innovation, we're not embracing it for innovation's sake. For us, it's all about finding and applying the right technology to support our filmmakers so that we can continue to elevate our productions and deliver exceptional, captivating experiences for viewers.
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