Monday, October 2, 2023

INTERVIEW: Bruce Vaughn is back as CCO at Walt Disney Imagineering

Interview by Joe Kleiman

We were delighted to have the opportunity to speak at length with Bruce Vaughn on the occasion of his return to Walt Disney Imagineering as chief creative officer.

Unlike many creative executives in the industry, Vaughn did not “grow up in the parks,” nor did he start out in theater. With a literature degree and the desire to be a filmmaker, he started out in the visual effects industry as a producer and cameraman for Bran Ferren’s company, Associates & Ferren, gaining experience in motion pictures, stadium and arena concerts, theatrical productions, museum exhibition, and even industrial design. This foundation would serve him in all his future endeavors.

Vaughn began a 22-year stint with Imagineering when, in 1993, Ferren sold his firm Associates & Ferren to Disney. After leaving Imagineering in 2016, Bruce became CEO of VR experience company Dreamscape and then VP, Experiential Creative Product, with Airbnb. In March 2023, Vaughn was recruited to return to his CCO role at Imagineering. Vaughn’s return follows other recent leadership changes at Disney, including Barbara Bouza having become president of Imagineering in December 2021 and, in November 2022, Bob Iger’s return as CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

Vaughn was also a Professor in Art and Process of Experience Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, a post he held from 2004 to 2021.

You’re back at Imagineering. Congratulations. How does it feel?

Fantastic, incredible, and very special. I didn’t know exactly what to expect after seven years away, but I’m very honored to have the opportunity to be back.

Let’s talk about early influences. What got the young Bruce really motivated?

A few things come to mind. I had an aunt who was a photographer, and she got me addicted to photography at a very young age. She had beautiful Nikon cameras. That really opened up the world of art to me. My mother was a nurse and my father was a lawyer, and while they had a great appreciation of art and artists, it wasn’t really part of my life until my aunt came around. She was sort of an Auntie Mame type, British and very elegant.

The defining moment for me was when I was around 12 and Star Wars came out. My friends wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or Princess Leia, but I wanted to understand more about George Lucas. I began to discover magazines such as American Cinematographer, and to explore the world of creating and bringing stories to life through the visual medium of film.

Also, my father was sort of obsessed with museums and in particular the Smithsonian. One of our favorite places was the National Air and Space Museum, where I saw To Fly! [MacGillivray Freeman’s pioneering giant screen film, released in 1976.] That made a huge impression on me as a kid. I was just blown away.

I come from a strong narrative background. I was an English literature major. I was obsessed with all sorts of storytellers: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez … I love any sort of author who can just bring you into their world.

How did Bran Ferren influence you?

Bran was my first mentor who wasn’t part of my family. How it happened was almost random. We lived in Sag Harbor near East Hampton, New York, and Bran had a full visual effects facility nearby. They had just started ramping up to film Star Trek V. I went over for a tour, and it ended up defining my career.

Bran taught me that the real goal in life should be to align your career with your passion. That was a really important lesson for me. I did continue on to a brief stint at law school, but it lasted only a few months. Bran’s words were in my head. I thought, “What am I doing? I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be a filmmaker or tell stories through visual mediums.” And when I called him back, he said, “You’re smarter than I thought you were. I thought you were going to last a year there.” He welcomed me back to his company and honestly, that’s what really launched me into this career of immersive storytelling.

It wasn’t until you joined Disney that you first experienced a Disney theme park. Tell us about your learning curve.

Really, it’s kind of a tradition. The early Imagineers like John Hench — who helped create the original Disneyland — all had these great stories about their own very steep learning curves. They would say, “I didn’t know anything about theme parks, but Walt threw you in and next thing you know you’re designing restaurants.” And the generation before mine has awe-inspiring stories of the things they were thrown into when building EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland. But they learned so much.

The thing that I found so attractive about Imagineering was that its roots are in filmmaking. That was Walt’s first medium, and many of the original Imagineers were filmmakers. I had the great advantage of being brought in as a writer under creative leader Tom Fitzgerald. I immediately learned the brilliance of the talent at Imagineering. I didn’t know what to expect, and it really blew my mind.

There was some sort of film element to most of the things we were doing, so I kind of felt that one foot was on safe ground, planted in something I understood. At the same time there were these other dimensions that were a bit of theater, and some that were completely unique, like moving floors and being sprayed with water and other effects.

Two of Bruce Vaughn’s mentors, John Hench (center left) and Marty Sklar (center right) with fellow TEA Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Buzz Price (left) and Don Iwerks (right) during the TEA Thea Awards Gala. All four were also inducted as Disney Legends. Photo courtesy Marty Sklar.

John Hench and Tom Fitzgerald helped me bridge the gaps between the creative disciplines very quickly. John would talk about how the landscaping under your feet helps with the cross dissolve as you move from the hub to Adventureland, and how the texture changes, and even how the foliage is used. To think that you can do that with architecture and landscape and in the dimensional world — and not just through the lens of a camera — became super compelling to me. It really opened my eyes when John would say things like, “Wherever you travel, think about the streets. Think about how the buildings reveal each other and what’s interesting and what’s not.”

Being mentored in the field like that is extremely valuable. I always encourage our more seasoned people to push the people who are less experienced, give them a chance. I had these unbelievable mentors — Marty Sklar was another one — and I found it incredibly exciting.

Besides film, what are some other influences on themed design?

Creating physical spaces and creating VR spaces are very similar, and it has been fascinating to apply the lessons of one to the other. As a young Imagineer, I was very much into King’s Quest and those older video games. In many games you have agency, which means you can wander anywhere. But you really did have to direct the users’ focus and movement – because you couldn’t build out worlds as rich as you can now in digital media. You had to find ways to draw people’s eyes where you wanted them. In the best-designed games, there would be something to help draw the user through. For instance, of a million doors, one would have a red doorknob.

Focal points are also how we guide people through themed environments. It is the art of distraction, with a bit of magic in it. And throughout the decades, illusionists and magicians have been part of the talent at Imagineering. We don’t want to take away all of your agency because that’s what makes it fun, but we make sure that you’re getting the best experience and following a narrative thread of some sort.

When you do it right, on any platform, it’s about the memory. We learned at Dreamscape to create memories by stimulating all your senses — through vibrating floors, the wind, the mist, all the effects. This can deliver a more powerful experience than a typical film.

Where do you see VR and AR going?

Obviously, you run into throughput issues with VR. But so much is changing. It is an interesting medium for connecting people in unique ways. What really intrigues me is AR. We have the ability to overlay onto a world, without the need to completely encapsulate it, allowing guests to walk or move through real, dimensional environments — particularly when the environments are purposefully built to interact with the virtual overlay. It allows for all sorts of interesting storytelling and customizable layers of experience.

I think AR is inevitable. People carry their devices with them everywhere, and it is already becoming part of every experience. Built into glasses, AR is going to increase our capabilities and we would be remiss not to explore that.

Between your stints at Disney, you were with Dreamscape and Airbnb. What is the common thread between them?

It is the immersion into worlds.

In the case of Dreamscape, it was fantasy worlds, very close to what we were doing at Disney, but with a smaller footprint. Through redirected walking and some other techniques, Dreamscape VR experiences give the impression that you’re in massive spaces and exploring on multiple levels even though you never leave one level. It is a compelling medium.

Airbnb might seem like an outlier, but actually it’s very connected. A big thing for Brian Chesky, the CEO and cofounder, is human connection. Obviously the pandemic really blew that up for people. We didn’t realize that we took for granted the idea that we could actually get together and have fun in a shared space.

And as much as we, as experiential designers, go into these fantasy artificial worlds, we’re also obsessed with the real world. As most designers do, I travel and just love to discover places, and that’s where you get a lot of inspiration. I really want to figure out how I can unlock the best way to experience a place with authenticity. How to do that is something Bran talked about. Then at Airbnb, you get into the stories because you’ll have hosts. If you have a great host, it just brings so much more to the experience of being in that place.

At what point do you consider whether to apply already existing Disney IP or create entirely new IP for an attraction?

There are a lot of things we consider when we’re beginning to think about exactly what story or what world or what characters will be in a project. And given we’re a global company, there’s cultural things we want to think about. We need to know our audience and what is going to resonate with them. Walt knew to lean into the classic fairy tales that were part of the fabric of childhood, but he also explored other stories – of the past and future, of adventures in deep space and under the sea, and beyond. The thing that has changed over the course of my career is the amount of IP that we can consider when developing a new experience, and whether it is the best fit for what we’re trying to accomplish.

Bruce Vaughn (second from left), Joe Rohde, Jon Landau, and Tom Staggs at the groundbreaking of Pandora – the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2014.

For our guests, they want to see those characters. They want to be in those places. But there are other stories, real life stories. So, we always try to make sure we’ve looked at the edges of ideas and then narrow in on what we feel is going to really deliver the most compelling thing for the guest.

We often try to find the best idea, which might sometimes be something that is a little more perhaps just iconic or has some sort of nostalgic kind of feel, or when we’re thinking about future things, we look at aspirational things in the real world.

You’ve said you like to shake things up, keep your staff on their toes, which makes them more productive. Tell us about that.

It’s sort of a balance. You want people to gain expertise and there is some repetition in that. They’re going to continue to do something, but you’re always looking for people to evolve and hone their skills. The main thing that I’ve seen in my career at Imagineering and outside has been leveraging technology. This was very core to Walt Disney as well. He was a master at leveraging technology and one of my other heroes, George Lucas, did the same – just think of what he did to create Industrial Light & Magic, a firm that is now used by so many studios, not just Disney, because they’re so cutting-edge and high quality. Similarly, Walt endlessly brought in technical innovations to further immerse people into stories. And this also comes from my Bran Ferren days. So I had this exposure throughout my life.

The thing I always encourage in all of our Imagineers is to improve the process of bringing an idea from the initial kernel to its final product. I encourage adopting, playing with, and experimenting with new ways to go about it and technology is usually the most powerful tool.

What current and emerging technologies are you excited about?

Drones fascinate me a lot, and we’ve begun to use those at our parks in Paris and other places. I think that we’re just scratching the surface with what can be done with them. Our nighttime spectaculars are a huge win, but spectaculars don’t always need to be done at nighttime. The thing I also love about our business, where we’re putting people into physical environments, immersive worlds, is that there are all these dimensions, including above you. We mostly do it in a way that gathers people in one place, focused on one spot. I think with some of these new technologies, like drones, you can begin to think differently about how you deliver those kinds of shows and how you can spread it out or pepper these kinds of experiences throughout a day.

Bruce Vaughn (right) and Scott Trowbridge inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon during the construction of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

I’m excited about where advanced technology could take us. Some of us get resistant to new technology as we get older, but when you’re in a dynamic place where there’s a broad spectrum of people in various phases of their careers from just beginning to incredibly seasoned, I love this idea of reverse mentoring. Wisdom is being passed down from those who have the most experience, but they’re also learning from people bringing in new ideas and ways of doing things. I learned that from my students at UCLA when I was a professor there, and I hired many of them as interns many years ago, because they would come in and literally, with the new digital tools and other things, revolutionize how we could go about developing projects or demonstrating projects or getting prototypes up fast.

The faster you can evolve an idea, the better its state. I think AR is going to do this and AI could take us in that direction as well. I think then we can move faster without compromising the process. That’s the kind of thing I mean when I say you want to be disruptive and keep people fresh.

How do you and Barbara Bouza collaborate?

When I first met Barbara, I realized we’re two halves of one brain. That’s how we need to function as leaders, and we do. Her architectural background is different from mine. I’m from more of a story background.

We’ll do joint meetings where we want the two parts of the brain there — Barbara from a deeper business and architecture side, and me, from a creative design, story, theater, and movie background. Barbara has massive experience in delivering complex projects that serve the public, like stadiums, hospitals, and community gathering places. And so that half of the brain is super important, because the project has to come up from the ground and deliver in function and be maintainable.

What impact does Bob Iger’s mandate about returning control of the company to the creatives have on Imagineering?

That’s the Imagineering culture I know. You’ve got to keep creativity and innovation in a leading role. Of course, a designer spends a lot of time understanding the business as well, because ultimately this has got to function as a business. The various operators around the world are our partners, and they know what works in their part of the world and with their guests.

It’s important that the creative side and the business side stay in balance with one another. The creative process is very fragile. I think that’s what Bob Iger is being most clear about: we need to be respectful of the talents and appreciate one another’s strengths and let everybody be at the table together to help create. Our product is ultimately a creative product that also turns into really good business because it makes people happy.

Why is now the perfect time to return to Imagineering?

Around the world, we’re all coming out of our COVID caves, from the darkness into the light. If you look at the performance of our parks, it’s clear people have been yearning for them. There’s the pent-up need to gather and do things together, in safe, reassuring environments. There’s probably no better time to be an Imagineer than right now, because we’re the folks who create exactly those types of experiences. We’re seeing huge popularity around the world. We’re seeing growth, we’re seeing the brand and the various franchises that Disney stands for resonate around the world.

Returning after seven years brought home to me how unique this organization is. You have an idea and then you say, “Okay, well, how are we going to get this done?” At Imagineering, we have the resources to make things happen – and Imagineers will find a way to do it.

At the end of the day, this is all for the guests, not for us as designers. We’re serving the guests here. And we want them to come in and get what they are expecting and what they want in ways that are unexpected.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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