The location is Disney World in Orlando. The scene is the World of Avatar, the newest major attraction at the theme park, based on the most successful movie ever.
Avatar lends itself to superlatives.
We are entering the most realistic fantasy world yet created as a theme park ride, the Na’vi River. Here, luminescent vegetation brushes our boat, glittering creatures bound past us, and the elusive Na’vi people lurk in the background.
“I helped create that sentry,” says my traveling companion, pointing to a magnificent, eerily real Na’vi guard that watches over the boats that brave this river. Even with this reminder of the manufactured nature of the scenery, the illusion persists.
“Arthur C Clarke one said that any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says my guide, Ron Martin, referring to the great science fiction author who wrote, among other, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ron himself is something of a specialist in mixing technology and magic. He is vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, which has consulted on some of the great science fiction movies of our times.
This division of Panasonic has collaborated closely with movie-makers in the research and development of visual image processing technologies. It also works with cinemas in cutting edge projection technology. This legacy was brought strongly to bear on the World of Avatar and the planet Pandora.
“Our projection technology enables this lifelike imaging on the Na’vi River,” says Martin. “We sat down with Disney Imagineering, we listened to their creative vision, and we applied technology that satisfied that vision. We don’t move them to what we want, we make technology that enables the creative vision. It’s what I call technology under creative control.
“Anywhere you see something non-physical, a projected image, that is our projection technology. All the physical elements, the lighting, the plant life that is illuminated, are built by Disney. But the characters and animals you see moving, and the multi-layer environment that creates the illusion of depth and looking deep into the jungle, is all Panasonic projection technology.”
The end-result is, as intended, both other-worldly and visually compelling. It is designed to elicit both oohs and aahs at the dazzling visual feast, and a sense of wonder at the exquisite detail, complexity and richness of the alien environment.
The biggest surprise of all is the extent to which the technology behind it is entirely invisible. It stands in stark contrast to “traditional” Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, where decades-old animatronics – in effect robots programmed with limited movements – are used to bring pirates and their environment to life.
Or, at least, a semblance of life. The creaking technology is all but visible, as the characters make their stilted and jerky movements.
“The key is that we don’t want to be pushing technology for technology’s sake, but for the story’s sake,” says Martin. “If we achieve that goal, the guest is going to respond, gasping for joy, rather than saying. ‘Gee, that looks fake’. Everything we do in this arena is to that end, to not being a distraction, to make the story the thing.”
The World of Avatar is simultaneously evidence of how realistic ally a movie world can be replicated as an experience, and the beginning of a new wave of immersive theme park attractions. This year Disney World will open Toy Story Land, in which the visitor appears to have been shrunk to the size of a toy. Next year, it will debut Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which will be the theme park culmination of Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise.
“More and more, that level of entertainment is media-driven, so what we want is media that fulfils the creative vision,” says Martin. “It includes issues like resolution, brightness, and colour imagery, so that imaging blends into environments precisely. In a theatrical story-telling environment, precision is everything. When we come in and blend that into a physical environment in a theme park, everything must blend in and complete the story rather than be a distraction from the story.
“Projection will continue to feature heavily in this process. These are contributory technologies to the idea of taking the cinema world and turning it into physical worlds you explore. The evolution of projection has to go forward, and brightness and colour accuracy and colour reproduction are a big part of the competitive nature of what we want to achieve.”
Having worked on ground-breaking titles like Avatar and Gravity, Martin is no stranger to both the imagination and technology it takes to create new worlds. He won’t go into detail on the specific technology that is used, but is happy to elaborate on his work on the original Avatar movie.
“The Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory worked very closely with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in the development of the 3D imaging systems for Avatar, both on the cinema in terms of the specifications for the 3D cinema and for home video and the production of 3D Blu-ray and 3D televisions.
“We’ve worked very closely with many film-makers. Much of the movement in home video in particular and in theatrical presentation was done through some of the work of Panasonic through research and development at the Hollywood lab.”
Martin is a personal friend of Cameron and has worked with him since the making of the record-breaking Titanic movie, but is reticent about elaborating on his personal role.
“It’s a collaborative effort when we sit down with directors and cinematographers and post-production teams, to determine work-flows, colour correction systems and presentation systems, transmission systems to get the data out to the theatre, or out to the home user, whether in packaged media or streeaming services. This is part of Panasonic’s broad reach of technology in the entertainment sector.”
Ultimately, the technology will go beyond movies and theme parks, spilling over into destination resorts, museums and the like. But don’t expect an overnight revolution, Martin advises.
“Technology moves at a slow developmental incremental pace and, the smarter we can be about that evolution, working with creative companies, whether it’s on the theatrical cinema side or the theme park side or the home video side, it’s an advantage for us to be part of that.”