SimEx-Iwerks and the legacy of Iwerks Entertainment
by Judith Rubin
THIS ARTICLE ORGINALLY APPEARED IN INPARK MAGAZINE ISSUE #42, 2012
Featured photo: Stan Kinsey, Michael Needham, and Don Iwerks
“The creative atmosphere was created mostly by Stan when discussing venues, new shows, new ideas to entertain. My contributions were more along the line of how we might accomplish these new ideas from a technical point of view. Stan and I both encouraged ideas and solutions from our employees.” — Don Iwerks
I’m so happy for the years that I spent. I have only the warmest thoughts and respect for Don. I couldn’t have had a better partner.” — Stan Kinsey
“The turning point for SimEx was the merger with Iwerks.” — Michael Needham
Iwerks Entertainment, co-founded in 1985 by Don Iwerks and Stan Kinsey, left a legacy still visible and influential in today’s themed entertainment industry. Many significant trends, technologies, attraction genres and business models trace roots back to the company. Iwerks and Kinsey assembled and inspired a boldly inventive team, and an impressive number of Iwerks alumni have become creative leaders in the industry.
“A vitality seemed to be in the water, running through the company,” said Eddie Newquist, now EVP/CCO of Global Experience Specialists. “There wasn’t anything we didn’t think we could figure out or invent or put together.”
“Don Iwerks pioneered a lot of the technologies other people have taken forward, and that have become the basis for the digital revolution,” says Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts, which partnered on numerous projects with Iwerks in the 1980s and 1990s.
Don Iwerks’s industry accolades include an Academy Award (The Gordon E. Sawyer Award, aka the Sci-Tech Oscar, in 1998), the Lifetime Achievement Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association (1997) and official Disney Legend honors (2009). Long before his name was put on the door at Iwerks Entertainment, Don had iconic status from his 35 years at Disney Studios, which included 20 years as head of the Disney Studio Machine Shop developing special cameras and projectors for Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland. Don’s father, Ub Iwerks was likewise a unique, legendary Disney artist, animator and innovator whose contributions are chronicled in “The Hand Behind the Mouse” documentary and book by Don’s daughter Leslie, herself an accomplished filmmaker/author.
Neither Don Iwerks nor Stan Kinsey is part of the company today, although both are still active in their fields. But the rich legacy is upheld in the successes of the present company, SimEx-Iwerks.
In 2000, Michael Needham joined the resources of his firm, SimEx, to the assets of Iwerks Entertainment. Iwerks was by that time debt-ridden after a turbulent, downward business trajectory following a blockbuster IPO in 1993. Company resources had been drained by a long, competitive battle with Imax Corp. for a share of the 1570 giant-screen projection market. “It was relatively simple what happened,” says Needham. “It cost Iwerks a lot to come up with their alternative product and take it to market, and then the two companies fought to the death for 7 years.” The company had many viable products and had continued its innovations, but couldn’t offset its losses.
Needham, a former venture capitalist, got hooked on the business when he invested in SimEx (then Interactive Entertainment Inc.) to build Tour of the Universe, a flagship motion theater attraction at Toronto’s CN Tower in 1980. The film was produced by Douglas Trumbull. Conceived as a one-off, the 40,000 square foot attraction influenced the template of motion theaters to come.
“We spent way too much money building Tour of the Universe,” says Needham, “but it was one of the few investments that my company, Helix, had made that I felt a real affection for. I was interested in the ideas, the people and the creativity and I sensed a new sort of niche in the attractions marketplace.” He bought SimEx in 1990. Ten years later, he acquired Iwerks Entertainment, returned it to private ownership and eventually to stability and profitability.
Today, SimEx-Iwerks does most of its business in content licensing & distribution, 4D attraction development, and co-ventures with zoos and aquariums. “The company leaders are good businesspeople who recognized our true market niche,” says Scott Shepley, Vice President, Film Post-Production, who started at Iwerks Entertainment more than 20 years ago and has remained with the company through all its transitions.
SimEx-Iwerks has its corporate headquarters and manufacturing in the Toronto area, with a base in Southern California, another in Baltimore and satellite offices overseas. Company revenues are about $30 M (USD), growing at the rate of 8%-10% a year for the past 5 years.
Iwerks Entertainment did pioneering work in digital and video systems for special venue applications. “They were making things accessible to smaller parks and museums – a tradition that has continued with SimEx-Iwerks,” says former Iwerks-ian Cecil Magpuri, now CCO of Falcon’s Treehouse.
The film division led by Eddie Newquist and Jon Corfino (now of Attraction Media & Entertainment) produced breakthrough content. Their library included original animations from Chris Wedge and his then fledgling Blue Sky Productions, and influential, custom music videos (think Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss that Frog” for Pepsi, as well as videos starring Clint Black, Willie Nelson and Duran Duran). “We were some of the first to make music available in this way,” says Corfino. Iwerks also led the way in attraction films based on licensed big-name IPs – early examples were Aliens and Robocop.
Today, SimEx-Iwerks Senior VP of Licensing & Distribution Mike Frueh works with studios and IP owners to develop new shows and adapt existing content for the company’s global network of 4D and motion theaters. Like Scott Shepley, he’s been with the company some 20 years. Current titles include “Ice Age 4D” (Fox); “Yogi Bear 4D” and “Roadrunner 4D” (Warner Bros.); “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora & Diego” (Nickelodeon) and “Planet Earth” and “Frozen Planet” (BBC). A seasonal favorite is “Polar Express 4D” (WB).
TurboRide to 4D
Les Hill, presently a system sales engineer at Electrosonic, was instrumental in developing the original Turbo Tour Theaters (later re-dubbed TurboRide) – and Craig Hanna, now CCO of Thinkwell Group, was in charge of developing the marketing for same. “We were doing something that the market wanted – seats that were articulated with a film, to add a different dimension to a short motion picture,” said David Snyder, former Iwerks VP of Engineering. “We could now provide them as an independent product, a new entertainment experience and open up smaller specialty theaters – first in places like Pier 39 [San Francisco] then with a series of touring theaters at air shows [the “Blue Angels” motion film]. We built 5 of these big tractor-trailer rigs, and the theaters had little computer controlled systems, both film and video.”
Iwerks TurboRide motion seats were key to turning the company around after the merger. “The TurboRide seat was a terrific product,” says Needham. “It complemented our platform simulators really well. TurboRide seats sold themselves all over the world; they ran out of steam eventually and were taken over by 4D seats, but by 2004 we had between 100-150 TurboRide theaters in 40 countries. That was probably one of the most successful product lines ever produced in specialty attractions.”
SimEx-Iwerks 4D seats are based on an Iwerks prototype acquired in the merger. “The 4D seats that are at the basis of our business now were how we got our teeth into the marketplace,” says Needham. “Iwerks was well ahead of us – already into digital projection, and deeply into 3D. There was a whole series of things they’d been working on.” This included Cinetropolis and Virtual Adventures, both ahead-of-their time concepts that didn’t succeed for Iwerks but were forerunners of things flourishing today. “Cinetropolis was basically the idea of grouping attractions,” comments Needham. “They’re doing that in Asia right now. We recently pitched something that looks a lot like Cinetropolis.”
Early to Asia
Iwerks Entertainment’s primacy in the Asian market also proved hugely valuable. “They had been very early into Asia,” says Needham. “Because of that, SimEx-Iwerks was well positioned in what has been the most buoyant marketplace of the last 10 years.” Mike Frueh cited former Iwerks employee Don Savant (now head of Asia-Pacific theater development for Imax Corp.) for his groundwork in Asia. “If a recession hits, nothing is going to rescue you other than a marketplace where there is not a recession. Asia has been that for us,” adds Needham.
Iwerks TurboRide Theater markets in Asia included Taiwan, Indonesia and mainland China (an anecdote about one installation has former operations manager Doron Golan hastily arranging with a local tablecloth factory to replace a torn screen).
SimEx-Iwerks as operator
SimEx-Iwerks has kept up the tradition of creative partnership and market expansion. In addition to building theaters and producing licensed content, the company is co-investor on some 36 attractions, placing specialty theaters into zoos, aquariums and other facilities in North America. Mark Cornell, a business development dynamo seasoned in attraction operation and motion simulation, came to SimEx-Iwerks about 10 years ago from the former Imax Ridefilm division and is the primary actor for the co-ventures, working from the company’s Baltimore office where he leads a team of six. Clients include Shedd Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo and the National Aquarium. The company’s hands-on approach to partnerships includes assistance with feasibility studies, sales training, marketing and educational guides.
What’s next? Michael Needham looks ahead, and he looks back. He maintains a friendship with Don Iwerks. He gives the company, its founders and the many innovators who have been part of it unhesitating credit for the achievements that fortified the combination. “The turning point for SimEx was the merger with Iwerks,” he says.
Needham forecasts “very exciting and buoyant opportunities ahead for SimEx-Iwerks. “We started off selling our theaters and licensing films; we moved into revenue share arrangements that have been successful. The natural extension of that is to move into owned-and-operated. We’re not going to be the next Merlin, but in our world of specialty attractions there is room for us to grow in new and interesting ways.” • • •
Legacy: World Expos
A landmark custom project was the Lucky Goldstar (now LG) Pavilion at Taejon Expo 93. “It was a hit,” recalls Eric Rodli, who started at Iwerks in 1988 and rose to company president (currently an investor in entertainment technology businesses). “Our joint venture with Ride & Show Engineering produced a 3-axis motion theater for which Iwerks provided projection and audio. We had Dave Barnett doing R & D.” (Among the engineers with whom Dave Snyder and Don Iwerks interacted as Disney colleagues, were Eduard Feuer and William Watkins, co-founders of Ride & Show.) The Lucky Goldstar film was “Journey to Technopia,” produced by Charlotte Huggins, then with Boss Film Studio – Huggins (now with Rhythm & Hues) reported that the show was still playing in the original theater on the original site when she visited a few years ago. Project manager was Iwerks veteran Tisa Poe, currently senior director, design services, Universal Parks and Recreation.
For the Spanish National Pavilion at the 1992 world expo in Seville, Iwerks furnished 80 Turbo-Ride motion bases, each seating two guests. The film “Vientos de España” produced by Summerhays Films using Iwerks 870 cameras, took audiences on a grand tour of Spain. The show was one of the most popular attractions at the fair and presaged by many years something just now starting to happen in mainstream cinemas – the addition of animated seats to accompany full-length movies.
The Venezuela Pavilion at Seville 92 had no TurboRide seats, but was equipped with an Iwerks 870 projection system showing “Tierra de Gracia,” produced by Summerhays with Iwerks 870 cameras. (Iwerks 70mm cameras and rigs are still popular rentals, especially for Hollywood studios shooting 3D movies.)
Key to the Iwerks business plan as the IPO launched in 1993 was Cinetropolis: a high-concept, mixed-use development integrating the whole family of Iwerks media-based attractions with retail, dining and other elements. Two opened: at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut and in Chiryu, Japan. It provoked a slew of similar concepts from other developers and operators. The less successful included Sega Gameworks, Sony Metreon, Blockbuster Block Party, Mills “shoppertainment“ malls and DisneyQuest. More successful descendants include Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney and integrated resorts such as Resorts World Sentosa and Macau’s City of Dreams.
There were many unique Iwerks film and video systems. A 360 Dance Club venue was a component of Cinetropolis, for which Iwerks developed a video-based, 9-screen version to deliver 360 degree imagery to envelop and immerse dancers in a hip atmosphere. This system descended from the original 9-camera Circlevision that Don and Ub Iwerks developed and perfected at Disney Studios. Iwerks Entertainment also worked with famed Swiss filmmaker, Ernst Heiniger to further develop his single-camera, single-lens, 360 degree system “Swissorama”; it was renamed “Imagine 360” and the camera leased to BRC Imagination Arts to produce “Mi Pais Vasco” for the Basque Pavilion at Seville Expo 92. In conjunction with Iwerks, a custom designed 70mm,10-perf projector was designed and built by Ballantyne of Omaha and connected to a newly Iwerks designed 70mm film loop cabinet allowing for continuous operation without rewinding the film.
Reflecting back on his days as co-founder and original CEO of Iwerks Entertainment, Stan Kinsey remarks, “I now realize the LBE [location-based entertainment] complex is a very difficult financial model to execute.” (Kinsey currently invests in select startups.) “Cinetropolis was the big dream. We raised $50 million and had real estate partners verbally committed. We had great designs for locations in Chicago and Seattle and we went a long way in talks with Taubman but then markets changed, the financing model changed and the developers balked. Our vision may have been too aggressive to get the attendance and per caps. But 15 years later there’s still a part of me that says it would be fun to do it.”
“As Stan Kinsey frequently said, ‘Pioneers get a lot of arrows in the back.’ Iwerks bet on Cinetropolis and eventually the marketplace voted against that concept,” says Vito Sanzone, former director of marketing for Iwerks Entertainment. “But Iwerks will always have the credit for coalescing the LBE mega-entertainment destination.”
Legacy: Virtual Adventures
Virtual Adventures was a 1993 collaboration between Iwerks and Evans & Sutherland to create real-time, multi-user simulation. The windows of the ride vehicle were computer monitors that displayed the real-time results of the vehicle’s navigation through digital databases loaded onto multiple E&S image generators. The cost of such technology was much higher than it is today and was one of the factors that kept VA from progressing beyond the first few installations. It won eight awards, including the first ‘Best Virtual Reality’ award from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.
“There’s a lot of Virtual Adventures in today’s platform games,” comments Newquist, “- in how they are designed, and the concept of what gameplay is. We decided, with VA, to have some stopping points with canned media to help fill in the story and provide closure – and that is a standard for all multiplayer games.”
Michael Dulion (former VP of Operations with Iwerks Entertainment; now a business consultant) remarked, “VA was without a doubt the most advanced technology that Iwerks developed. Stan was in charge of the concept and I led the team developing the technology, which included Eddie and Kirsten Newquist, Celia Pearce and Mike Haimson for Iwerks and a team led by Mike Ryder at E&S. Together the two companies probably spent between $7 M and $10 M on the development.”
An Iwerks-Minolta collaboration that helped advance planetarium projection was the 12k 70mm fisheye film system. This 870, 12,000-watt, partial-dome film projection system could share space with a starball projector. According to Bob Chambers (former project engineer at Iwerks): “It often had to be positioned downstage or upstage because of the starball, making lens distances tricky.” The projector rose into position via elevator. Chambers caught the entrepreneurial spirit at Iwerks; he founded his special effects company, It’s Alive in 1995 and with Edward Marks recently set up a new business, The Producers Group, which boasts Don Iwerks on its advisory board.