As fans of animation, we love to get behind the scenes information of our favorite movies, and the stories of the companies that make them. And the company with arguably the most fascinating history is the Walt Disney Company, which started out as two guys in a tiny studio, drawing a mouse named Mickey. Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ creation spawned an empire that became so much more than animated shorts, including multiple theme parks around the world, dedicated to creativity, innovation, and of course, the studio’s animated creations.
On November 12th, Disney+ will launch, and among its slate of new programming, there is a new documentary series called The Imagineering Story, chronicling the history of the Disney Parks. The woman behind this series is none other than the granddaughter of Mickey Mouse’s co-creator, Leslie Iwerks! I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Leslie about her work on the series, some of the history of the company, and her family’s Disney legacy.
So to start out, for those of our readers who may not know who you are, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! My name’s Leslie Iwerks, I’m a filmmaker, largely doing documentaries for the past almost 20 years, and I’ve covered a wide variety of subject matters in my films, from movies and entertainment and animation, to environmental issues, social issues, political issues. [I’m] currently getting ready to launch my latest six hour series on the Imagineers called The Imagineering Story.
I know it will be interesting to our reader base here, you have a familial connection to the Walt Disney legacy. Can you tell us a little bit about that too?
Yeah! My dad and grandpa both worked at Disney, my grandfather started with Walt back in 1918-ish, 1919, and they were business partners, and friends and collaborators on early animated films. And then he came out and met with Walt in California, and animated the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, Alice in Cartoonland, and Mickey Mouse. He co-created Mickey Mouse with Walt and animated the early cartoons, and then was a chief pioneering technical genius for the studio, innovating on projection systems, and cameras and technologies that helped to further the Disney films and theme parks in new, innovative ways.
I noticed that your dad was featured in the episodes that I got to preview before the interview, were you involved in interviewing him at all?
Yeah, I interviewed everybody. [I did] all the research, and questions, and was there filming with everybody, so yeah!
I noticed a big chunk of it was up to date interviews, and some of it was archive footage. Was it mostly new interviews, or was it mostly archive throughout the whole series?
I would say we did around 250 interviews, individual interviews, for the whole show, traveling around the world and interviewing folks. But there were a lot of people that we interviewed multiple times, and there were a lot of, not sit-downs, but capturing people in the field, working on stuff, [and then] the archival interviews amounted to a whole lot more.
So I was curious, because you have such a long history of doing documentaries, was this Disney project your idea, or was this something that Disney brought you on to?
[Imagineering] brought me onto it after seeing The Pixar Story. Marty Sklar really liked [that film] and said, “When are you going to do The Imagineering Story?” and I said, “You tell me!” [We] started talking about that because I was quite excited about that opportunity, and he saw how Imagineering would be a great story, and he knew a hell of a lot more than I ever did, ‘cause he was there!
So I said, “You’ve gotta help me figure out what the story is.” So we sat down, and I worked out kind of a story structure, did [we did] a lot of research. We went back and forth on email, on a bunch of different versions of the outline, and he illuminated me into a lot of things I didn’t know, so it was great!
It was very fortunate and fortuitous that I had Marty to help in those early days. I think the series has [been] largely expanded upon from that original outline, it went in new directions here and there, but overall, the major story beats are there. So his DNA is in the series and [I was] very fortunate with that.
So was the project originally conceived as a series, or did it start out as a film?
It started out as a 90 minute film that was commissioned over five years. Imagineering said we want to hire you for five years to document the behind the scenes of the parks, and the making of Shanghai Disneyland as well. [So] instead of getting a budget for what I thought would be a year, year and a half of work, it turned out to be five years!
And then after we had our first cut, it was this amorphous, really long cut, and it was almost impossible to say we could do a 90 minute film based on the amount of material we got in the can, so much would be left of the cutting room floor, so I suggested to Disney, “Would you guys consider, taking this into a series? [You’d] probably get a lot more bang for your buck.”
[Then] Disney+ came along shortly thereafter and learned of this project and said, “Why don’t we take it over, and acquire it from Imagineering? We’ll fund the completion of it, and give you some good insight as to what might be good for additional filming.
[So] we filmed this spring, both in Anaheim and Orlando, for final filming and interviews, and then really got into the archives. [Then we were] able to get funding for further research [so we could] keep digging [and] get things transferred, [and get] really high res footage of material that no one’s ever seen before.
When I was watching the first two episodes I was thinking to myself, this probably started as a film, but Disney+ is the perfect outlet for something like this. I just thought it was such a great idea to have it as a series.
Yeah, [and we] never would have known that when we started. [You just] have patience in the process, and trust that [if] you make a good product, it will be seen at some point, somewhere. Or it will get acquired by some entity who will help to turn it into something even greater, you know?
Yeah, and I think that a lot of people don’t know a lot about the behind the scenes stuff for movies or theme parks, and I think that this is just the perfect opportunity to teach people what all goes into making something like that. Disney+ just seems like the perfect way to get the general public more interested in this kind of thing.
For sure. And it’s done in a way where it’s personal, with [real people] that already have a fan base within the Disney world, so we get to see them in a more personal setting as well.
Yeah, it’ll be really interesting to see what’s in the rest of the episodes. The first two were so interesting, I’m really excited to see more of the modern day stuff.
Cool, yeah, episode six is one of my favorite episodes, largely because we can all relate to it more than some of the other episodes that are kind of historical. We weren’t there when they happened, but Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the current projects, we all sort of grew up around, [so it’s] fun to see how those evolve.
In filming this whole thing, was there anything that stands out as the best part of the whole experience?
I have moments that I like, that I felt were points I really wanted to get out, like the Roy Disney section in episode two. I really wanted to make sure that we had a bow to Roy a little bit, because of all the hard work that he did. I just feel like Walt Disney gets so much of the credit, as he should, but his brother Roy was so instrumental in getting the financing in place to make these projects happen.
It was just kind of interesting, we got ahold of one of Roy’s audio interviews from back in the 60’s [or] early 70’s, during the time he was building Walt Disney World, and you just realize how much he was doing this for his brother and that creative spirit that he felt, when his brother was no longer around, and he got to work with the Imagineers, and really get a sense of all the things his brother was [trying to do.]
It seems like there was, not [a] newfound, but a personal appreciation for his [brother’s] creative spirit, his risk-taking, and not very often do you hear Walt complimenting his brother either. So I wanted to get those audio interviews in, [to really] have the audience feel this brotherly love, and the spirit that was there.
And you know, there was a point in time where [Walt and Roy] didn’t really speak, and they had a bit of a falling out, which we don’t really go into; there’s so many story lines we [could have gotten] into on this project that we didn’t use; but at the end of the day, it’s so rare to have two brothers that have created such a big enterprise, that launched the Disney company. So that was fun.
And I knew Roy E. quite well, [he was like] an early mentor for me, because he helped to greenlight my Hand Behind the Mouse film, [about] my grandfather, and he was a real champion of that, and a champion of my work as I moved forward in my career. [He] always took meetings with me, and [he became a real] friend, he was a family friend, so I had [him] in the back of my mind too while I was making this. I wanted the film to feel like it was told kind of from a family member, you know?
Yeah, it’s nice that the two families are still kind of connected in that way.
Yeah, and you know, my grandfather was friends with Roy, and obviously grew up with Walt, and Roy E. really respected my grandfather, and was friends with my dad, so all that was cool.
So anyway, I have a special tie to the Disney history, and it felt like now as [an] outsider, but still kind of an insider, to be able to witness, and partake in goings on in Imagineering, and witness all these geniuses that are just doing their thing, continuing that DNA of Disney and that spirit, and appreciating those that came before them.
So many people [at Disney] speak so lovingly of their predecessors, and they say they stand on the shoulders of those who came before. A lot of regimes or administrations, want to start fresh with a clean slate, but in this case, I feel like so much of Disney’s success is about knowing what that Disney DNA is, and not forgetting it. And I think you’ll see that in future episodes where certain mistakes are made because they bring in a whole new regime and things aren’t appreciated or revered like they should [be.]
I think you can even see that in the Disney “Eras.” Through most of the films of the 80’s, Disney fans call the “Bronze Age” of Disney, but then when you get to The Little Mermaid, they go back to all the old principles that Disney used to use for his films, and once they got back into all the old principles, it brought new life into all the movies after that.
Right, exactly! Well put.
I’m sure you learned a lot about Disney history in the process of making this series, but was there anything you learned that really surprised you?
Every decade has its own surprises, and its own stories. I think the Disney California Adventure story was interesting, and to hear it from Michael Eisner’s point of view; [and he] was an illuminating interview, as was Bob Iger, just to kind of get their points of view from a top-level business standpoint, and how things were run.
I think at the end of the day, this film was kind of a combination of three storylines that are all interwoven. One is the Imagineer’s story, and their own technical challenges, creative challenges, and what they’re tasked to do. How did they overcome it? Given the [limitations and resources] they’re given, what can they do with that? That’s the Imagineer’s challenge.
And then you’ve got the second layer which is the CEO and the overall company administration. Who inspired what, and what was the take by various regimes, above Imagineering, and what Imagineering did? Did they inspire them? Did they curtail them? Did they hold them back for financial reasons? What were the things that impacted Imagineering from that level?
And then the third level is the overall arc, which is what’s happening in the world around them that impacts them as well? Whether it be economics, or natural disasters, or you name it. Weather. Anything beyond their control that impacts how they do their jobs, and how they achieve their goals.
For my last question, I’ve heard in interviews, some people talk about what they wished they would be asked, so in doing all these interviews, is there anything you want to talk about that you almost never get asked? Or anything you want our readers to know?
[I want] to give a nod to my crew, my editors. Mark and Moe and Ian and the gang, because it was just a huge monumental effort to go through all that material and cull it down. And to have a great team of storytellers as editors was a real gift. With editors it can go really good or really bad, and I felt like I was on the lucky side, to have such a great team of really passionate editors.
I could tell from the finished product, the episodes I saw looked really good.
I think my takeaway on this film was that Walt Disney created the happiest place on earth, but when you really look behind the curtain, creating happiness is hard work, and that became our through line. And I hope that people that watch this film will have a newfound respect for the work and the time and the people behind all these amazing experiences [in the] parks. And I was just the lucky one to be able to tell the story. And [I] hope that I did it as good as they do their parks.
Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his Podcast and YouTube channel, where he reviews animation, movies, TV, or whatever else his guests feel like talking about. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @jonjnorth.