D23’s Fantastic Worlds Celebration concluded with a Gold Member exclusive event called “Creating Fantastic Worlds: A Journey into Disney Worldbuilding.” This event brought together some of The Walt Disney Company’s biggest brands, specifically Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, and Walt Disney Imagineering. The event was moderated by author Justina Ireland, whose Star Wars books include the upcoming Star Wars The High Republic: A Test of Courage.

The event ran over an hour in length and a lot of the first half was spent getting to know the special guests, which included:

  • Paul Felix – Walt Disney Animation Studios Production Designer
  • Noah Klocek – Pixar Animation Studios Production Designer
  • Luc Mayrand – Walt Disney Imagineering  Creative Executive
  • Ryan Meinerding – Marvel Studios VP of Visual Development
  • Andy Park – Marvel Studios Director of Visual Development
  • Mark Miller – Lucasfilm’ ILMxLab Executive Creative Producer

Fans of Walt Disney Imagineering have likely heard a lot about the opportunities of a blank page and each of the creative guests had a different outlook on it. For Noah, it can be a little scary at first, but he likes to think of it like springtime, a new beginning. For Luc, who can’t read anything without visualizing a lot of elements, it’s not so much about how to start, but what to start with. Mark has the entire Star Wars galaxy to use as a starting point and often finds himself filling in the gaps in the 3D space. Ryan and Andy also have 80 years of Marvel history to draw from, but the challenge is often translating that into something that looks good on screen. And for Paul, the blank page doesn’t stress him out because at Disney Animation, you’re not expected to have all of the answers on the first day of a new project.

The focus then got a little more granular into each of the brands, starting with Walt Disney Animation Studios. Paul shared that his first film at the studio, Tarzan, actually started as a Disney Television Animation feature (with the same director and crew from A Goofy Movie) and they were initially trying to emulate the pulp art quality of the original novels. A research trip to a real rainforest drastically impacted the look of the jungles in the film. On The Emporer’s New Groove, another art director named Colin Simpson had the idea of using shapes from Incan jewelry and incorporating it into the architectural style of the world. And on Lilo & Stitch, it was equally about emulating Chris Sanders’ personal style while also trying to harken back to the watercolor background at Disney in the 1930’s and 40’s. He also shared a fun detail about designing San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6 where the backstory is after the 1906 earthquake, the city was rebuilt by Japanese immigrants. Paul also shared a little look ahead at Raya and the Last Dragon, the art direction for which is inspired by Southeast Asian designs. The artists had to stay true to these design elements because each of them have a symbolic meaning to the culture.

For Noah at Pixar, research is actually a lot more challenging when you’re creating a fantasy world than it is with a realistic world because you have to work extra hard to make it believable. With Onward, one of the big challenges was creating New Mushroomton. They were striving for a mix of “Fantastic and familiar,” but it took a lot of trial and error to find just the right amount of each.

Ryan started with Marvel Studios on Iron Man, their very first picture, and has played a key role in creating the design of each one. For him, it’s always about the character and what feels right for them. In the case of Iron Man, they were able to create a new visual language that sold audiences on how his suit works while also tapping into the iconography from the comics. Andy grew up in the 80’s and 90’s as a Marvel Comics fan and seeing Iron Man on the big screen made it his goal to join the team on future films.

Mark worked on films at Lucasfilm before ILMxLab was created, so he jumped from bringing Star Wars worlds to life on screen to bringing them to life in a 3D space. The development process is pretty much the same and he still works closely with the Lucasfilm Story Group and the team at Skywalker Sound with the same degree of care that goes into a feature film. On Vader Immortal, for example, conversations about whether Darth Vader’s castle would even have an AT-ST or how many Stormtroopers would be guarding it were debated back and forth. He also shared that not every story lends itself to VR, so it has to be the right fit for the medium. His most recent project expanded the planet of Batuu in Star Wars: Tales from Galaxy’s Edge, where the team started by creating a map of the planet the way Disneyland’s plans became grounded with Herb Ryman’s map. Now fans can step beyond Black Spire Outpost to explore the rest of this exciting new world.

At Walt Disney Imagineering, Luc brought his film and TV experience to theme park design, the biggest challenge of which was creating worlds in all 360 degrees. One of his favorite projects was Treasure Cove at Shanghai Disneyland, which brings together all of the versions of Pirates of the Caribbean. The land and signature attraction blend real pirates with fictional pirates in new places created just for the park. Another challenge with each project is creating primary and secondary stories so Guests can experience something new each time they visit.

“Creating Fantastic Worlds: A Journey into Disney Worldbuilding” was a great way for D23 to close out their Fantastic Worlds Celebration. After a week of online content devoted to these brands, it was cool to bring them all together, wrapping up the event in a shiny bow just for Gold Members. Click here to read all of our event recaps from this week. To learn more about becoming a D23 Gold Member, visit D23.com.