From Myth to Mountain: Insights Into Virtual Placemaking
Many of us are engaged in one form or another of story-crafting, whether in two dimensional and virtual media, or in the three dimensional world of built environments, in which I work. Common to all of this is the importance of a good foundational basis for creative expression, through the rigorous application of narrative design principles to all aspects of a project.
Author: Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President, Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering
I’ve worked at Walt Disney Imagineering for over twenty-five years, much of that time as a design leader, guiding teams towards the fulfillment of a creative vision. Most of you share a similar challenge -- threading a path between the aesthetic and functional aspects of designs.
This presentation focuses on my own practice and experience in creating dimensional stories at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida where I’m in charge of design. The park deals with the subject of animals and adventure and bids guests to embark on a series of journeys into worlds populated by animals real, prehistoric and imaginary.
Most classic Disney parks offer guests a very particular type of experience: an idealized, fantasy world where Guests escape for a while into a world of narrative order, visual harmony, and physical and emotional delight.
In order to create a theme park where the animals were harmonious with the visual environment, we needed to change the premise of the park itself, because the animals were, of course, disinclined to change their nature. This gave our team of Imagineers an opportunity to deeply examine the underlying basis of the story, to craft a theme which could guide the park into qualities consistent with the animals that would live there. After many sessions of analysis and exploration, we settled on several themes; the universal human love of animals real and imaginary, the power of physical adventure, and the intrinsic value of nature itself
These themes informed everything in the park, starting with the icon. Each Disney theme park has a centrally-located defining monument - a castle, a huge sphere, a mountain – that iconically ironically defines the park as space, and as story. Because of our themes, the Animal Kingdom team was driven towards a natural icon. We developed the “Tree of Life”, a hundred-forty foot tall sculpted tree composed entirely of the shapes of animals from every realm of the Animal Kingdom. The name is derived from a term used to describe the vast diversity and connectedness of the animal world. Visually, it serves as a tribute to the richness, variety, and majesty of living creatures. It dominates the skyline of the park, but because the tree itself is a visual expression of the park’s values, this does not compromise the park’s narrative. In fact, the tree’s complexity and richness of detail compel people to examine it ever more closely, discovering new creatures as they do, in a poetic echo of the rewards one can experience by examining nature itself.
By staying in touch with these themes, we were able to construct a wide variety of attractions and fill up a park with adventures that hung together to make a broader story. Being compelled to think so much about narrative and theme also led us to strong opinions on the matter of narrative placemaking. I personally feel that the lessons we learned have applications far beyond the world of theme parks.
|"Tree of Life"||Detail - "The Tree of Life"|
Story structure is the way we form the thoughts that define our lives. The brain is a story-making machine. And story sense is something different from logic. That’s why a well told story, even though it may be logically untrue, affects us emotionally as if it were true. Story structure seems to be an inherent part of language and thought. We also conceive of abstract thought itself in spatial terms. We feel up and down. We work our way through a problem and arrive at a solution. Our mind wanders…to where? Spatiality and narrative combine to form the basis of thought itself, so narrative placemaking is basically the building of ideas into physical objects.
Story structure mirrors fractal structure. Unlike reality, in which an endless number of unconnected, internally contradictory events and objects collide randomly, story has shape. Narrative structure proceeds from a large overall shape to tiny micro detail in a series of modified repetitions. Each element of a well-crafted narrative, no matter how complex, can be traced back to restatement of the most fundamental and deepest statement of the story, its theme.
What exactly is theme? Theme is centrally important to all narrative. A theme is the driving universal idea that each moment in the story revolves around. It is the philosophical premise that drives the storyteller to tell the story, the spine and bones of every tale. Developing a theme and committing to it allows the subsequent story-building to proceed in a unified direction and achieve some coherent meaning.
The chosen themes become guidelines for deciding which information is, and is not, relevant to your presentation. Themes become the screening devices for judging which architectural shapes are and are not appropriate, which colors best suggest your theme, which style of landscaping evokes your theme. This translates directly into design standards.
When developing Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for example, we first adopted the theme of the intrinsic value of nature. We posed a series of questions and answered based on this choice of theme. If our theme is the intrinsic value of nature, will our project be dominated by architecture or by landscape? Landscape. If our landscape expresses the intrinsic value of nature, will it be formal and geometric or informal and unstructured? Informal. We developed a mission for the landscape based on this approach. Our landscape would express the intrinsic value of nature through irregular forms, the appearance of natural accident and avoidance of the appearance of deliberate design, the unlimited growth and decay of trees and shrubs, and deep vistas of open land.
Narrative space is theatrical space. What matters are not the functional realities of the buildings and landscape, but their use as language to communicate ideas. Theatrical space exists only in the viewer’s imagination and is shaped only by story. Literature, cinema and live theater can create stories that are linear because they have complete control over the journey of your imaginary presence.
But in the public environment of narrative space, the guests’ real physical bodies are all moving inside the imaginary narrative space. Guests make choices as to how to travel through the space or where to look. In the layout of common circulation space, such as the public areas of any theme park, linear storytelling doesn’t read. If the space is designed to allow free, self-directed flow, then the designer cannot know what linear sequence each person may follow. Since we can’t control the guest’s point of view or force a purely linear sequence of events, as in a film, we create concentric layers of space with a sequence of idea and impacts. This is at the heart of narrative placemaking. The place itself, in every detail, must reiterate the core ideas that drive the story. The guest freely passes through the layers at all kinds of tangents but always passes through some sequence of narrative logic and emotion.
We explored this technique in creating Harambe, the village that precedes the Kilimanjaro Safari ride in the African area of our park. In our Africa, one of the goals was to create an impression of scale, of a huge open nature, our savanna, (CUT) threatened by intruders, poachers. In order for the dramatic premise to have any effect, the audience has to accept the naturalness of the areas through which the ride travels. We created compressed spaces in the Swahili town of Harambe, leading up to Kilimanjaro Safari. We did this in order to promote the perception of a wild open African landscape. The guest is free to go wherever they please prior to queuing up for the ride, but the quality of the space they inhabit changes as they approach the queue. We deliberately chose the most urban and geometric elements from Swahili architecture for our town of Harambe, to create an antithesis to the open and natural feeling we wanted when the guests were finally released into our savanna.
The space changes incrementally as guests move through the queue and then ride the safari vehicle, and all the way through to the concluding sequence of the attraction. It proceeds from very compressed and small space in the town, to very open and large in the savanna; widest where we see the elephants, as if the bigness of the space was part of their bigness. Then, the space proceeds to compression again, as we confront the elephant poachers, who make the world small by destroying the wildness of nature. None of this is overtly stated to the guests. It’s simply part of the underlying storytelling of the place itself. Our savanna is completely artificial, after all, and not really very big, but within the context of the spaces that surround it, it feels enormous. Thus the point of the story, the value of preserving wilderness, was embedded in the space, not just the plot.
We Imagineers had to confront this conflict between function and narrative head on with our latest project. We recently completed the Expedition Everest attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It’s a high-speed adventure ride into the Himalayas to confront the yeti, the legendary abominable snowman. It’s been a great asset to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, drawing countless new visitors to the park. But at the outset, it had every possibility of destroying all we had done. Think about it. We had spent years crafting a park that expressed the intrinsic value of nature through the use of wild landscape, free-roaming animals, and quietly moldering picturesque buildings, and now we were proposing to add a thrill ride, which by implication meant a roller coaster. Hundreds of feet of steel, thundering cars, screaming people!
Every park needs a full palate of experiences, from the lush and romantic, to the light and humorous, to the sweeping excitement of physical thrills. We had always known that the park would require a thrill ride to be a fully fleshed-out theme park, but how to do this without compromising the park was the big challenge. To answer the question, we turned to the secondary goal we had been asked to achieve, which was to expand the menu of the park beyond living biological creatures. Add to this that we needed a big iconic feature to identify the ride. We had a tree already, and there aren’t that many huge natural icons. We knew that we could not and would not create a large man-made object as a park icon. So this led us to the idea of a mountain, one that would be added to the grand list of Disney Mountains. We searched for a narrative that would transform the assignment from potentially contradictory to potentially harmonious.
We didn’t know what the mountain would look like or where the mountain would really go until we hit upon our story…the legend of the yeti.
The people of the Himalayas imagine the yeti in two distinct ways. On the one hand, the yeti is seen as a real creature, an animal that may come and eat your yak. On the other hand, the yeti is seen as the magical defender of the remote, sacred places of the Himalayas. These are pristine environments, usually forests that have been set aside for all eternity never to be disturbed, used only for meditation and enlightenment. It happens that these areas are also great repositories of biodiversity. Expedition Everest, our attraction, would focus on this aspect of the yeti as a protector of valuable natural places. We felt that, because these are pristine environments, this would place the yeti in an interesting role as a symbol of traditional conservation practices. And, since the yeti is also a huge scary creature that lives high up in dangerous mountains, we would have a great premise for a thrill ride.
We imagine a story in which entrepreneurs in our little Tibetan town of Serka Zong have restored an old tea train, which used to serve the tea plantations of the Himalayan foothills. They’ve run it through the mountains to the foot of Mt. Everest, offering travelers a quick way to bypass the normal weeks of trekking. The only problem is that the train runs directly through the ‘Forbidden Mountain’, the traditional realm of the yeti. ‘Forbidden mountains’ abound in the Himalayas, peaks too special and revered to ever be climbed. Our mountain would be such a peak.
The design follows our narrative theme. The name of our story is Expedition Everest, but nothing in the shape of the “real” Everest says, “forbidden.” So we created the narrative device of a foreground mountain range made of shapes that say, “Don’t go here!” Everest rises beyond this wall of claw like spires, a tempting goal. The forbidden mountain expresses its forbidden-ness in a shape that echoes the teeth and claws of the yeti itself, dominating the entire land across which the story plays out. This is one of the key principles in narrative placemaking. It’s essential that the underlying idea of the story permeate the entire atmosphere in which the story takes place.
The environment through which the guests move on their way to the mountain is carefully designed to project ideas relevant to the story. For some guests, the story is absolutely simple: a fast, fun ride with a scary creature in it. But any good story is constructed for various levels of appreciation and with various levels of meaning. For those guests who are looking for a larger story, that story exists. We establish the change in environment as the trees and shrubs around the guests go from palms and philodendrons, tropical plants, to pine juniper and heather, plants suggesting the drier atmosphere of the mountains. We also chose a species of juniper which echoes again the claw like, spiky quality of the mountain.
Guests encounter a pair of buildings whose function is a real rest-stop, providing shade, water and restrooms. But their narrative function goes beyond that. One is a graceful old traditional inn, with ritual paint around the door and artful carving on the columns and windows. Adjacent to it is a brutally simple concrete building, unfinished, with iron re-bars projecting from the roofline. This Yeti Palace Hotel, “opening next season”, is a sign of things to come as the traditional environment of the village is transformed by the wave of travelers caused by the revival of the train.
Further on is the gateway to Serka Zong, our little village. Serka Zong consists of a series of buildings that blend influences from the Katmandu Valley in Nepal, with traditional Tibetan influences from the highlands.
While the environment is visually convincing and filled with accurate details, including architectural elements and props made for us by craftspeople in the Himalayas, its real purpose is to convey messages. The idea of the yeti as a protector is embedded in shrines depicting the yeti holding the mountains in his hands, bronzes of the yeti in the traditional ‘keep out’ posture of a Tibetan guardian, flyers printed from wood blocks warning visitors against offending the yeti.
Other details establish the place of the guest in the story. In spoken narrative, and in theatrical narrative, the audience is passive, but in narrative placemaking, the audience is a part of the visual environment. They are given roles within the narrative. In our case, our guests are almost exactly what they really are, tourist visitors to an exotic location. Our guests themselves are ‘Expedition Everest’, welcomed by a temporary banner set over the trekking office where they begin their journey. To the extent that they desire, they may imagine that they are mountaineers, trekkers, or just thrill seekers. There are advertisements for lodging and equipment, addressed to trekkers and mountaineers, government notices of permits needed for mountain travel, even a sign for an internet café. These details establish that the story is not set in the past but the present, the same reality in which we live. Because our story is about a legend that turns out to be real, we need a visually ‘real’ looking reality for that legend to become real in.
The queue line passes through spaces representing booking offices, permit offices, a large pagoda structure entirely dedicated to the yeti-protector, a small trekking shop, and the yeti museum, a local natural history museum in which all the plot point and thematic ideas of the whole land are reiterated with museum labels. Having passed through all this, the guests finally arrive at the train platform…the ride at the center of this narrative.
The ride vehicle appears to be a rebuilt old train, but, of course, is a roller coaster capable of high speeds and full inverted loops. Up to this point guests have been surrounded by traditional architecture and landscape of the village, echoing the natural colors of the mountain itself. The loading platform of the station and the train together are a visual contradiction of those textures, representing an intrusion into the harmonious system that existed between village and mountain.
The only linear narrative sequence in the whole story is the ride itself. We board the train, and during our trip, see a huge mural of the yeti as the mountain guardian looms over us, a final warning. After entering the mountain we sweep through canyons and up to the highest point, where the track has been destroyed--evidence that the yeti is not merely legend, but real. At this point the physical ride itself transforms from a structured and human-controlled ride to a chaotic and ‘scary’ escape. We fall away from the barrier, backwards into darkness and into the unknown. Finally, just as the journey is about to end we get our only true sight of the yeti, huge, fierce, proud and awesome, warning us away from the forbidden mountain. The ride itself does not follow the natural logic of a gravity-based coaster. It is neither the fastest nor the highest roller coaster in the world, but it surprises coaster aficionados because the sequence is based on narrative logic, not the logic of gravity.
The look of Expedition Everest is based on careful research into the architecture, landscape and culture of the Himalayas: research and design guided by our theme. Our goal was not to create a replica, nor to represent every aspect of Himalayan life, but to gather those specific details, which were both authentic and supported the thrust of our theme, the intrinsic value of nature. Expedition Everest is not meant to be a substitute for a trip to the real Himalayas; it is a fictional story told in a realistic style.
The story of Expedition Everest revolves around the value of nature, a story that fits well with the fact that The Walt Disney Company through the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund supports wildlife conservation throughout the world. For this particular attraction we funded a conservation mission with Conservation International and the Discovery Channel in areas where the oral tradition of the yeti still survived and still protected natural areas from disturbance. Our goal was not to hunt for the yeti, but to look into those regions protected by the legend to see what animals and plants had been conserved by the oral tradition, and to do what we could to preserve those areas and those traditions.
While the scientists did their work, our Disney team traveled to the adjacent monasteries and temples to talk to the lamas about the legend and its effect on the environment.
When we left, with our scientific equipment and our film crew, the lama said, “We are so impressed by your attention to our oral tradition that we have been inspired to create a new oral tradition project. We will go to all the neighboring villages and monasteries and collect all the tales of the yeti into a book which will be preserved here at this monastery, so that the legend will not die.”
It was a perfect closure. We had embarked on this effort years earlier, inspired by these very oral traditions. The success of our own story depended on the survival of those traditions. And our effort had now made some small contribution to that survival.
Was it worth the effort? The ride is a success. Millions have ridden it already. Most of those have come for the simple fun of a great ride. But of those millions, some have come away inspired and informed by the richness of the story. And as a percentage of the huge total, that number is also large.
I believe in depth. Theme parks are meant to last a long time, and to run as assets for most of that time, remaining relevant for decades. To do that, they need to stay attractive, compelling, thrilling. They need depth.
In the end, our work is offered up to a public that is free to accept it or reject it. At Disney, we refer to our audience as ‘Guests’ and try in every way to treat them as such. One of the ways we show this respect for our guests is by preparing for their visit, just as any good host would do. When they walk in the door, we hope that they can see the effort that we’ve gone through to welcome them and to provide the best in comfort and entertainment that we can provide. They want to return to where they feel welcome and respected. And when they come back, they’ll notice something new and surprising because no Disney park is ever complete as long as there is imagination in the world. And not just our own imagination, but the imagination of our Guests.
Joe Rohde is an Executive Designer and Vice President with Walt Disney Imagineering. He is currently in charge of design and development for Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Joe has led conceptualization, design, and production for Disney's Animal Kingdom since its inception in 1990.