Exploring Shanghai Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure attraction with Disney Imagineer Luc Mayrand
Interview by Martin Palicki
Luc Mayrand joined Walt Disney Imagineering in 1999, and is currently Creative Executive for Shanghai Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, focusing on future developments for those parks. “It’s a pretty amazing job,” says Mayrand.
ABOVE: Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is the anchor attraction in Treasure Cove at Shanghai Disneyland Photo: Disney
Most recently, Luc held leadership positions with the creative ideation team for Shanghai Disney Resort tasked with mapping out initial concepts for the park. He was Executive Creative Director for Treasure Cove, the first land in any Disney park based entirely on Pirates of the Caribbean. The land and attraction have been so popular and so tightly tied to the movie franchise that the world premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales happened earlier this May in the Shanghai resort.
InPark Editor Martin Palicki sat down with Luc at the 2017 TEA Summit in Anaheim, California to talk about the Thea Award winning Shanghai Disneyland and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure.
Martin Palicki: How did your career path lead you to Walt Disney Imagineering?
Luc Mayrand: I have always loved inventing things and reading books. I loved the combination of designing things and telling stories, which led me to pursue industrial design. To me, that was all about creating anything that could be part of telling a story – every object and place and material.
My initial work was in movies and television. Then I was hired by a company to be a production designer on a TV show that was cancelled a week after I was hired. The company also worked on theme park projects. Wanting to keep my job, I started working on that and fell in love with it. I ended up going to Japan working on projects there and leading projects in Asia and Europe and also here in Las Vegas and Orlando for other companies. After doing that for about 12 years it seemed to be an interesting time to get in touch with Disney. I started working on Mission: SPACE at Walt Disney World Resort and enhancements to Space Mountain attractions at the Disneyland Resort and Disneyland Paris.
I guess I was doing a lot of work “in space” for a while, but at Shanghai Disneyland I saw a real opportunity to do something different with the Adventureland side of the park. I initially developed both Adventure Isle and Treasure Cove. Eventually, it became time to focus on one area, so I continued on with Treasure Cove, building the team and leading the attractions.
What was your first project in the industry?
Sanrio Puroland in Japan was my first project. There was an interesting coalescing of people there that went on to become strong leaders in the industry. It was a great training ground – we had to make up so much on our own. I came away knowing a lot more. It was great.
Many of us stayed friends after that project. I think part of that is going to another country, which was similar to Shanghai Disneyland, in that you are in a new place and learning and working with people from other cultures. It opens your heart and mind to everything. I found it to be a wonderful discovery because you are creating together, and it ends up being incredibly life affirming. It’s not just a cool creative experience, it’s a great human experience.
How did you go about building the concept for Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure?
At the very start when working on the story, I wanted to first explore what would drive the show. I had an idea to begin with for a hyperimmersive long format experience that would be a motion base on the water – which was very complicated. But we needed to hone the story and figure out what would be different about these pirates from the pirates of the original park – which were great in their own, but they were from 1967 and we wanted today’s pirates.
One of the significant takeaways was that we felt the boat should move in very unpredictable directions and really be used to put you in the situation. That led to our ride group being brought in and asked how we could accomplish that. Imagineer Mark Sumner suggested a boat powered by a new, submerged ride system and so we said: Let’s develop a whole ride that would be based on that!
We wound up committing to doing this entire experience around a ride system that didn’t exist. We went from something that was going to be difficult to something that was going to be really difficult and high risk, but we measured the risk all along and tried to be very careful.
Early on I asked Mark Sumner what I would need to know about building water attractions. He told me that every time you do a water attraction, water is going to teach you something. And boy we learned a lot! There is so much, you can’t know all the things that are going to happen with the physics of water. Fortunately it worked and it allowed for the attraction experience to really shine.
Just like a movie is continuous and you follow the camera all the way through, during Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, you are in that perfect spot to catch everything that happens, and that happens to be the greatest story of Pirates ever told.
The attraction successfully blends fabricated sets with giant screen media. Is there a specific ratio you think is ideal for a media-based attraction?
We didn’t design around a number, we just did what we thought would be right for the story [Editor’s Note: The attraction feels roughly 30-40% media based]. I do like the visceral feeling of being in a real set. Film has the capability to do that as well to an extent, but you put them together and the experience is multiplied. Things are much more than what either one of them could be.
One thing I think really works is that sometimes you take your time in those scenes. It’s not always about whipping you here to look at this, and then spinning you around you to the next scene.
One of our early important realizations was to embrace the transition. Don’t try and just get out of it, don’t try and just mask it or make people forget about it. Embrace the fact that you are going from here to there and design it until it is just perfect. And that turned out to be a huge payoff because there is this sense of wonder from guests on the attraction.
In this version of Pirates of the Caribbean, language seems to play a more important role in the storytelling. The characters actually speak to us, and not just “above” us to one another. What was your experience being a storyteller in Chinese?
That was really a fascinating process. First I watched a lot of Chinese movies and tried to immerse myself in a lot of Chinese entertainment to try and figure out what that balance should be. We know that our guests don’t get on an attraction to listen to the words, but if you get the right words in the right place then you are helping to explain the story.
We tried to locate the most significant narration or explanation with Jack Sparrow when he appears and also when Davy Jones appears. I wanted you to have your moment with Jack. Then you can move on and proceed to the action without trying to do both at the same time. So you spend your time to get that explanation and see that character up close and then you can move to the rest of the experience. So there is more dialogue than other iterations, but I think a lot of it is functional. We wanted to set up the story and make it clear.
To begin with, we really needed to establish first the voice of Jack, because it’s not the English voice of the actor for Jack Sparrow. One of the decisions we made throughout the park in the “Authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese” approach was that the whole park would be in Chinese, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, so we had to cast those voices with regional talent.
I wanted to have the ghostly voice follow you around, and establish himself as Jack. So there’s a little bit of that in the beginning. “Ah treasure…that’s what it’s all about, mate. That’s why you’re here. You want to be a pirate – like me, Jack Sparrow!” So it establishes that character voice, but it’s also the thing that says why you’re there.
After that it’s more of the story mechanics: why we are going after THIS treasure, why it’s at the bottom of the ocean and what we are going to do to get it.
In many Western languages there are so many words associated with nautical and pirate activities, and these words are baked into our language. But they don’t exist in the Chinese language because their relationship to seafaring is very different. We had to find the right kind of words that would work to convey the character and feel like they were the right atmosphere for the pirates. Fangxing Pitcher wrote the Chinese dialog, guests love it.
Pirates of the Caribbean evolved from an attraction into a film and now an entire land – how did it become clear that it had to be more than a ride and turn into a realm?
I think that is a direct result of the magic of the team. Basically, working with Imagineers Nancy Seruto and Ric Turner as we built the attractions, coupled with the multiplying effect of Bob Weis, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. The idea of Pirates was initially part of an Adventureland. Pirates of the Caribbean was a huge element but at some point Bob said, you know what, let’s divide it up into two things. We will have the kind of classic Adventureland content in Adventure Isle and let’s just allow Pirates of the Caribbean to be all the ideas it can be. That’s when it really took off. We then created the complete story and place of Treasure Cove. We added water activities and canoes and such. All of that really started to make sense as a place. As ideas kept coming out, we thought we had to find a place to fit them in. I’m so happy Bob gave us a chance to make a place for all of that to happen.
Why didn’t you simply import one of Disney’s other Pirates of the Caribbean attractions?
Early on we felt like we needed to raise the bar. You ask any Imagineer and they are going to want to keep inventing something new, given the license to do so. This felt like a great opportunity with a brand new audience.
We did have people look at the existing Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. While they appreciated them, Chinese guests politely told us they would like something more active.
It makes sense because the films changed everything for the audience in China. They knew the movies but not the attraction. So we chose to make the adventure about the film characters. It’s a brand new place and brand new adventure, but its those characters in it and so it makes sense to the audience.
Even though I grew up with the mystique and incredible excitement of the original attractions and felt their presence baked into me, going into a brand new place with a new audience was actually kind of freeing.
Does this sense of realm design inform other projects going forward?
As far as Pirates of the Caribbean goes, it’s such a great world, I’d love to explore it more. I don’t know where it’s going to go from here, but there is another movie coming out and who knows what happens after that. People love the pirate life and pirate world and we have plenty of imagination with which to deliver more. • • •
Diving deeper into the story
Although understanding Chinese is not necessary to enjoy the ride or follow its storyline, there are two moments in the attraction that Martin Palicki specifically asked Luc Mayrand about.
Who are the two characters in the underwater stockades?
They are the guards of the treasure. They’ve been on duty for about 50 years. The back story is that they were pirates and part of Davy Jones’ crew. They did something wrong and got stuck on guard duty. Now they are so addled and encrusted that they don’t even remember why they are there.
It’s a little bit of comic relief. When we were going through and did a lot of 3D pre-visualization work I could sense when there was something a little too quiet, and that’s why we put them there.
They have a handful of different lines, each one is different. Some of the lines tell their story a little bit more. One of them is about us coming to steal the treasure, but they have forgotten why they are there. In another sequence, one remembers that the other tried to steal a spoon and that’s why they are in the stockades. There’s one whole back and forth routine where they say “It’s your fault; No, it’s your fault; No, it’s your fault…” and guests like that.
What is happening at the end when the treasure disappears?
The story is you and Jack Sparrow have made it out with the treasure and you are about to divvy it up. Jack says: Thanks we couldn’t have done it without you. Let’s enjoy this together.
Just as he says this, Davy’s voice says: Oh come on, Jack, you didn’t think it would be that easy…you can’t come in and just steal my treasure. Davy uses his magic to turn the treasure into crabs and algae and seaweed. The final injury is that Davy doesn’t just make the treasure disappear, but he also makes Jack’s table, goblet and bottle of rum vanish as well. There is also a surprise ending that plays at random intervals, where we and Jack actually keep the treasure; Jack then sings the Yo-Ho song … in Chinese!