One of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on is about to enter its tenth year. In 2009, the nighttime lagoon show at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park enters what may well be its last year in this current version. Many theme park attractions are refreshed or changed periodically and I suspect that, the economy notwithstanding, it will be time to revamp this popular show, as well. IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth was designed to usher in the new millennium and was to be activated a on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Due to logistical reasons Reflections of Earth was actually fired up in October, 1999. This marked the culmination of nearly a yearlong effort on the part of the video team and a total of several years for the show designers.
Themed attractions are often out of the ordinary and this was no exception. IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth closes out each night at EPCOT in a celebration of fire, fireworks, lasers, fountains and a 29-foot tall globe that opens like flower petals – all tied together with an outstanding music score. The globe is mounted on a floating barge. A series of LED video screens in the shape of five continental masses (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa and Australia) are mounted onto the skeletal struts of the globe. Much of the show plays out as video on these screens in harmony with the music and fireworks.
Unlike other Disney shows, Reflections didn’t consist of a cast of Disney characters, but instead was designed as a celebration of humankind. The show loosely takes the audience on a journey that start with the big bang and symbolically progresses through the formation of earth, water and land, then to the creation of plants and animals and finally to the introduction of humans and their impact through transportation, architecture, creativity and communication. This story is told visually in a combination stock footage, original footage and some animation.
Reflection of Earth was driven by show director Don Dorsey, an independent creative consultant who handled every aspect of the show’s design, including music, video and fireworks. The score itself is an outstanding piece of work composed by Gavin Greenaway. It features a symphony consisting of London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic players recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Greenaway is closely associated with Hans Zimmer and mixed the final score at Zimmer’s Media Ventures facility. Even if you’ve never visited EPCOT, you’ve probably heard pieces of this score under ABC network special event promos and bumpers.
Creating the video content
Century III at Universal Studios Florida won the bid to produce the video portion of Reflections. In the year that we developed the video content for the earth globe, I served as one CIII’s project managers, as well as the lead editor/compositor. As one of the leads, I headed up a remarkable team of artists, animators, directors and editors who contributed to the success of Reflections of Earth.
You’d expect that screens on a 29-foot tall globe would be of extremely high resolution, but in fact, the opposite is true. The five continental masses amount to about 15,000 LED clusters. These are electronically linked to pixels on the graphics display card of the computer playing back the files. The video itself appears as a flat map of the earth that fits into a file size of only 364×160 pixels. Of course, just like a real map, much of this is blank in the location of the oceans. Our world map aligns to the upper left corner of the display card and these pixels correspond to their companion LEDs on the globe.
Early on we had lobbied for a doubling of the resolution of the screens to a density of at least 720 pixels wide. This idea was quickly dropped because such an increase is actually a square factor that would not only affect the screens, but the weight on the barge, time to hand-wire the LED matrices and last, but not least, the budget. The barge and globe sit at the center of the World Showcase Lagoon (EPCOT) and audience viewing distances range from 500 to 700 feet away. In reality, the resolution of these 364×160 pixel files turned out to be acceptable.
Test, test, test …
We actually spent quite a lot of time testing images for their readability. The company that manufactured the screens and the player software was able to provide us a sample panel that eventually ended up as the Australia screen. Even at a proportion that was cheated to be larger than Australia really is relative to the other land masses, this panel was only about 40×40 pixels – about the size of a computer desktop icon.
Between lack of pixel resolution and the different ways in which LED screens display contrast, saturation and gamma, a lot of testing was required. Our Australia test screen was set up at the Magic Kingdom maintenance area in a location where we could actually view images at the proper distance. If an image was discernible on Australia, then there would be no difficulty identifying images on larger screens, like North America. In the end, thousands of images were reviewed for technical and creative suitability. Eventually this process whittled down the content to roughly 400 stock clips that made the cut.
Putting it all together
As the lead editor for this show, I ended up doing most of the post on an Avid Media Composer (version 7.2) with AVR-77 as the best image resolution. Media Composer isn’t usually considered a compositor, but it was ideal for this project, with some sections having over 50 video tracks. Not every 4×3 image neatly fit a sweet spot inside our oddly-shaped, land mass screens. Many clips had to be augmented to blend or extend portions of the image to bleed outside of the matte formed by the continent’s shape. This task was handled on the Avid Media Illusion compositor. [Illusion was eventually discontinued by Avid. Many of its features ended up as part of the Avid DS tool set.] Once a clip was fixed, I’d edit, assemble and composite it into each continent as a full screen image (720×486). The tracks for the five continental masses would then be nested into a timeline combining all five sets of composites into a master sequence resembling the flattened map of the earth.
The master timeline would be exported, scaled and cropped into the 364×160 AVI file. We soon realized that the late-90s-era PC on the barge didn’t have the performance to play and decode compressed files, so these AVIs are actually uncompressed. In fact, the show is divided into seven files, which are played back through custom playlist software. Reflections of Earth is edited to music and the show is driven by timecode. The start of the video is only triggered once and continues in free run for the entire performance. The music plays separately from an external multitrack source, so our biggest fear was that the video would drift out of sync. Much to our delight, these AVIs held sync and, in fact, I’ve never seen the video hiccup in all the years that I’ve been back to see the show.
The audience’s delight
One of the unique aspects of working on a show like Reflections of Earth is that you can actually see it as often as you like and experience it with a real audience – feeling their reactions anew. We designed the show with a rotating globe and different images on all sides. Through a bit of guesswork, we settled on a speed of three rotations per minute. This means that you only see any given image for a maximum of 20 seconds. Even less, when you consider how long the audience has to lock on that sweet spot for each shot. By design, you will not see all the images during one performance of the show. The next time you see the show or if you stand in a different place, the experience will be new again. Hopefully you’ll discover images and think about concepts and ideas that are different than the last time.
Don Dorsey’s intent was not to be literal in how and why our team placed certain images onto specific screens. Sometimes images not specific to European or Asian history or culture might be placed on the Eurasian continental mass, simply because it provided the ideal canvas for that image. A fun moment of serendipity came in the transportation section. We had used an image of a Viking ship, which fit nicely across our Eurasian canvas and instantly communicated the idea of ancient travel and the spirit of exploration. EPCOT happens to have a Norwegian pavilion as one of the many countries that surround the lagoon. These attractions employ foreign students who work as part of the EPCOT cast. The first night that Reflections of Earth ran publically, some of these cast members were outside watching the show. It just so happened that the rotation aligned the Viking ship to face Norway – resulting in a resounding cheer from the Norwegians. I’ve been back a number of times and seen this happen more than once.
Disney doesn’t release attendance figures, but if Reflections of Earth makes its full ten year run, it has been estimated that at least 70 million people will have seen this show. There are few projects that any of us have worked on with sort of an audience! IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth was intended to celebrate the start of the new millennium with an expression of hope for humankind. So far that has been a challenge, but it’s nice to know that spirit is still alive somewhere. Here’s hoping we will rekindle that spirit worldwide some day soon.
© 2008 Oliver Peters