The new Disney+ streaming service launches today with more than 80 years worth of material from the Disney archives, plus everybody’s favorite stuff from Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, National Geographic, and much of the Fox catalog (including all 30 seasons of The Simpsons). There’s also a slew of Disney+ Originals including shows from Jeff Goldblum, a very bizarre show-within-a-show meta take on High School Musical that I’m still trying to wrap my head around, and the highly anticipated six-hour documentary series The Imagineering Story by Santa Monica-based filmmaker Leslie Iwerks. The series features remastered archival footage, interviews with some of the earliest designers that Walt recruited to work on Disneyland, and amazing access to this highly secretive division of the Walt Disney Company that has created 12 theme parks around the world.
Iwerks has made Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary films about entertainment history and environmental issues for more than 20 years. She has gone behind the scenes at Pixar Animation Studios and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic to capture the legacy of those companies as they were folded into the Disneyverse. Her first directorial credit, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story, looks at the profound contributions her own grandfather made to the Walt Disney Company, first as an animator and one of the creators of Mickey Mouse, and then as an Imagineer working on It’s a Small World and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Leslie’s father Don joined his father as an expert technician making special camera equipment for the company in the 1950s. He still works the company (and the Walt Disney Family Museum) today at age 90. We talked to the filmmaker about her family roots in the company and the origins of The Imagineering Story.
Your grandfather Ub Iwerks was sort of the first unofficial Imagineer. How did he come to work with Walt Disney?
My grandfather and Walt Disney were partners in Kansas City starting around 1919 and when Walt came to California to take a crack at animating films he called my grandfather out and he became Walt’s chief animator. He did the animation for Alice in Cartoonland and ultimately created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was the co-creator of Mickey Mouse with Walt and left the studio in 1934. He came back to focus on all things tech at the studio from the Multiplane camera to an optical printer he created that was used on Mary Poppins and many films. He was a technical genius not only in the movies but the theme parks as well. My dad has a book coming out December 10 called Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks.
Your father Don was also a big part of the company, right?
My dad came in as a technical assistant on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and worked his way up into the machine shop and headed it later in his career. He oversaw lots of projection systems for movies and parks including the motion simulator for Star Tours. He was a real innovator and won a lifetime achievement Oscar. He’s working with the Disney archives and refurbishing animation cameras from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. He has a memory like a steel trap.
What was it like being around all of this as a kid?
I was a Disney brat running around the back lot and had the great opportunity to see how things are made, up close and personal. I have memories of seeing the sets for Herbie Goes Bananas and the Shaggy D.A. and seeing behind the scenes. I used to roam around the machine shop where they had these systems being constructed and I had an appreciation for the technical side of it through my dad and grandfather. I felt like filmmaking was my passion and I went to USC film school.
What is the origin of The Imagineering Story?
I had made a film about my grandfather and soon thereafter John Lasseter and Steve Jobs hired me to tell The Pixar Story and after seeing those, Imagineering president Marty Sklar said, “When are you going to do a story on us?” The original idea was a 90-minute film, but it turned into a five-year project going deep into the new golden age of Imagineering. We had a six-hour cut and then Disney+ was announced so it was serendipity that we could turn it into a series.
Tell me about Walt Disney and the beginning of Imagineering.
Walt was one of the most innovative people on the planet. He was always pushing the boundaries of things that had never done before. He had done animation, television, documentaries, all these things, and he pushed the art form forward. In the 1940s he had gone through a strike at the studio and wondered what the next frontier was for him. He had two daughters and sitting there on a park bench watching them play and he thought about how the amusement park industry was back then. It had a reputation for being dirty and inhospitable. It took a lot of persuasion and experimentation and belief in himself to make Disneyland happen. He felt that his films could be transplanted to live at the park and be given new life. He said that when a film was done it was a dead issue. He couldn’t touch it anymore, but the park could keep being improved. We really wanted to portray him for who he was. He’s so revered, for very good reason, but we wanted to hear his voice, his human side, and what does that look like and sound like. He wasn’t Mr. Cheery all the time. You can hear the pressure that he would put on his Imagineers.
Imagineering is one of the most secret divisions of the company. How much access did you have inside?
We had unprecedented access. I would say no one has gotten this level of access since Walt Disney did his original TV shows. I was thrilled to go deep. This is not a fluff piece. I could have made this a 12-hour series and it would have been engaging. It keeps your interest the whole time. We found a sweet spot where we’re not giving away too much or too little. We go backstage, we see how things are made, we have tours and walkthroughs and one on ones. We see the most modern animatronics and the trust they felt with me was an honor. I’ve had to keep secrets close to my chest for years.
Did you get to meet some of the early pioneers?
[Designer] Bob Gurr is a crackup. He adds a lot of color. His memories of that period are so strong. My dad is about Bob’s age and they were high school friends. I was able to get as many of the key Imagineers as we could. Some are no longer with us like Marty Sklar. I was really fortunate to get that interview in the can. Some are not well and can’t speak. I feel like time is running out for that era to be chronicled. There’s an old African proverb that a library burns every time an old person dies. I feel like that knowledge should be preserved somehow. That drives me.
This is going to be a real dig.
You can see lots of little videos about Imagineering, little bits here and there, but nothing has been told in a chronological fashion and explored the whole 67 years of history. No one has tied every era together in one long narrative way. Our choice was to start at the beginning and move through time so everything builds on itself. The DNA of Disney is the thread that holds this whole story together. Every Imagineer rests on the shoulders of the Imagineers that came before and they all rest on the shoulders of Walt.
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