'The spirit of imagineering': New documentary goes behind the scenes at Disney

Given that her grandad helped design Mickey Mouse, Leslie Iwerks was the perfect candidate to make a film about the creatives at Disney, writes Esther McCarthy

'The spirit of imagineering': New documentary goes behind the scenes at Disney

Filmmaker Leslie Iwerks grew up in movie-making royalty. Her grandfather, Ub, was a close friend of Walt Disney and the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. Her dad, Don, was also a filmmaker who worked on such epic projects as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

No pressure, then, for Leslie to take on the mammoth task of bringing one of Disney’s greatest legacies to screen.

The Imagineering Story, now on Disney +, celebrates the creatives who brought the studio’s theme parks to the world.

Using archival and contemporary footage, the six-hour documentary series chronicles the designers, creators and engineers - known as imagineers - who brought Walt Disney’s big and often challenging ideas to fruition.

On visiting the theme parks around the world, she quickly learned that the story was too big to condense into a single film. “Shortly into filming, I realised that this is going to be a hard film to tell, a 65-year history in 90 minutes,” she says.

“So we went and told the editors to just go long, you know, let’s just see where we go. Because there’s got to be a lot of really great stories in here.

At the end of the day, even if it was a 90-minute cut, we still could use other stories that can be told later, somehow.

The long-form series, as it turns out, is perfect for the new streaming platform and tells of a lengthy span of Disney’s history. “International audiences like Disney, and they like Disney characters and Walt learned that through his animated films and his movies, and I think by the time the 1950s came around, he knew that this could be another outlet for people to experience his creative projects.”

Some of the archival footage, in particular, captures the spirit of thinking big that the business empire endorsed as it expanded around the world.

“There were a lot of folks that we only knew through archival footage, or through stories that friends of mine had told me. I knew (top imagineers) Harriet Burns and Blaine Gibson really well.

They would tell me stories about others, or my dad would tell me stories about previous imagineers. Those are fun to research and get more involved with, get my arms around a little bit more to make them a 360 degree human being.

'The spirit of imagineering': New documentary goes behind the scenes at Disney

“As a documentary filmmaker, you’re often telling stories of people that are deceased, and you don’t really have a way to make them come alive except through photos and archival footage.

So that was the challenge how to make the archival interviews and people very real. But some of the archival footage we found had a lot of personality to it.

“Then today there’s Kim Irvine, and Joe Rohde, Kevin Rafferty, just so many interesting imagineers who have great stories and passion. This is a very humble group of people who are just brilliant and it makes it very easy to interview people, when they just want to create and create happiness.”

In many ways, it also helped her discover more about her own father and grandfather’s creative contributions to Disney.

“I grew up in this world and I knew a lot about Walt, my grandfather and Walt worked together so I knew a lot about the history. But it was fun to come into this and approach it like it was just brand new to me.

'The spirit of imagineering': New documentary goes behind the scenes at Disney

"I was able to hear the stories from my dad who did know Walt and worked with him. And what I heard from my dad that he was just a nice man he was respectful. He had his frustrations, of course, and he was very disciplined and he wanted things done.

He really wanted people to say, to say yes, we’ll figure it out. That was the spirit of imagineering. And I think that was the spirit of the studio.

Disney +: A great addition to the family entertainment roster

Disney+ has launched in Ireland, with lots of the top studio’s movies and series available to stream. As well as its own vast back catalogue, the platform will feature all Marvel and Pixar titles, including recent releases Captain Marvel and Toy Story 4. Star Wars and National Geographic will also feature. Disney+ costs €6.99 per month, or €69.99 for an annual subscription.

The service will also include many original and exclusive series and films. Here are some to watch out for:

The World According to Jeff Goldblum

'The spirit of imagineering': New documentary goes behind the scenes at Disney

One of America’s most quirky and charismatic actors turns presenter for this series destined to be as offbeat as he is. Each episode is poised to focus on an everyday item that is common to our lives, such as runners or ice cream, and the science and facts behind their development and enduring popularity.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

This new, 10-episode series is set in East High, where the original film was shot, and focuses on a group of students as they prepare to stage, of all things, High School Musical. There are meta references a-plenty and some real-life elements to the modern take on the original film. The story centres on a romance between East High students Ricky and Nini.

The Mandalorian

Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Lion King) has been hired by Disney to direct the first-ever live-action series in the Star Wars franchise, exclusive to the new platform. Set after the fall of the Empire but before the emergence of the First Order, the series centres on a lone gunfighter who plays by his own rules in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Reviews for the series have been very strong in the US prior to its Ireland debut.

Free Solo

Among the new film titles to feature is the 2019 Oscar-winning documentary that defies gravity.

Renowned free solo climber Alex Honnold is the subject of this film, shot as he attempts to take on a lifelong dream - to scale one of the world’s most fearsome rocks. That is the 3,000ft El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he’s planning to do it without a rope.

Forky Asks a Question

Toy Story 4’s most loveable new character has some questions about how the world works in a new ten-part series of shorts created by Pixar. He has many queries, including what is love? What is time? What is cheese? Best known for its impressive feature films, Pixar has won numerous awards for its short films.

Lady and the Tramp

One of Disney’s most-loved movies gets the live-action treatment in this updated take of the 1955 hit. Geared towards younger audiences, it tells the tale of the unlikely bond that forms between a pampered pet and a tough but endearing street stray. The big-name voice cast include Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux and Sam Elliott as Trusty.

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