Circle Vision. Captain EO. Star Tours. Giant screen projection.
Don Iwerks played a pivotal role in creating all these visual and technical marvels during his 35 years with Disney and later with his own company. He’s being honored tonight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a lifetime achievement award for his significant technical contributions to film and entertainment.
Iwerks, 68, will be given the Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards presentation dinner held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He’s the 13th recipient of the award; past winners include such technical innovators as Linwood Dunn, inventor of the optical printer, and Ray Harryhausen, who developed stop-motion animation.
A father of four from Burbank, Iwerks is semi-retired from Iwerks Entertainment Inc., which produces big-screen theater systems and motion simulator rides. He co-founded the company in 1986 after leaving Disney.
In an interview this week he talked about his award, his career at Disney and Iwerks and the future of film technology.
Question: What did you think when you found out you were an Academy Award winner?
Answer: It came as a total surprise. I got the call that I’d won, and I thought they were telling me I had won a magazine subscription or something. What an honor to be considered with people of such stature. But people don’t do things by themselves. It comes from the collaboration of many talented people.
Q: Your father, Ub Iwerks, worked alongside Walt Disney in founding the Disney empire. What did that mean for you?
A: He was absolutely my inspiration because he was technically minded. He made my childhood and formative years one of the greatest times of my life. He had a darkroom where he taught me how to develop my own prints. He gave me my first camera when I was 14 years old.
Q: For years, a popular Disneyland attraction was Circle Vision (it’s being updated now as part of the Tomorrowland revisions). You worked on that with your dad. Tell us about it.
A: Circle Vision is a 360-degree theater where you stand at the center and see a panoramic image around just as if you’d stand out on the corner and turn around in a full circle. My dad was very instrumental in developing a special camera for that in the early ‘60s. [Disney] has even taken a different tack on what they put on the screen. They did one in China that . . . had more of a storytelling feature than a travelogue.
Q: After so many years with Disney, why did you leave to set up the Iwerks company?
A: Stan Kinsey and I worked at Disney together for some years. The decision was made for me in some way. The new [Disney] company management decided it best for me to move to Glendale and become part of Walt Disney Imagineering, offering me a different position as director of manufacturing. But I could see by that move that I probably wouldn’t have had as much to do with film and projection anymore. I really wanted to stay close to film, like I had been all my life.
Stan and I believed we could bring some new ideas to entertainment, particularly to out-of-home entertainment. We formed the company with two employees, going nine or 10 months before we got our first job.
It just sort of began to grow after a Canadian company asked us to provide a simulator for a Japanese company. It was called “Tour of the Universe.” People went into the “space port,” entered the vehicle and went on a tour of the universe. The seats were fixed inside of a cab. You entered it and the whole cab would move on a base.
Q: Since that first contract, what has Iwerks worked on?
A: We’ve got into the giant screen area. We have had a product for many years that we call 870 [projection system]. It’s 70-millimeter. . . . We’re a giant screen provider for theme parks, world fairs, museums.
We’re not in mainstream movie houses yet, but over time, a theater might include a giant-screen as part of the complex. Whether Hollywood would ever buy into the concept of making a feature in that format, it’s hard to say. It’s more expensive. The question is could they have done “Titanic” better if they did it on another format? I don’t know.
Q: Where do you see motion picture technology heading?
A: It’s very obvious that computers are playing a big role in motion pictures today. The digital technology in film is able to put elements of scenes together on a film and have them look lifelike. It’s hard to know where that will go. My view is that technology should support a good story and add to it. Technology for technology’s sake? [He shrugs.] You still need good films.