Friday, October 2, 2015

Melody Malmberg: A Conversation

As part of my resurgent interest in all things related to Disney, I've been reading as many books as I can about the topic, and my latest is Imagineering by Melody Malmberg (click here for the link to buy on Amazon).  I've always been fascinated by Imagineers, the creative geniuses that power the Disney company, and this coffee table style book has an endless supply of fun facts, stunning photos, and amazing artwork.  I recently got in touch with Ms. Malmberg, and she was kind enough to answer some questions of mine. 

NS: How did you get involved with writing the book?

MM: Disney Publications approached me to update the first Imagineering book, which I helped with before I left the company to work as a freelancer. After I left Imagineering, I wrote The Making of Animal Kingdom, and two books for Hong Kong Disneyland that were cast giveaways (instead of a jacket).

NS: What was your favorite part about writing the book, and what was the biggest challenge?

MM: My favorite part of writing the book was talking to all the Imagineers and gathering stories. The biggest challenge was getting the artwork together.  It was a huge job because only some of the archives had been scanned at that point.

NS: What kind of response have you gotten from people regarding the book?  I really liked all the pictures, especially of Tokyo and Hong Kong.

MM: People seem to love the book. High ratings on Amazon!  We had great designers through Disney Publications, and my editor, Wendy Lefkon, is a great human being.

NS: What is the application process like to become an Imagineer?  Do they have any common majors or fields of study?

MM: People become Imagineers in a variety of ways. You can actually major in theme park design these days. Of course engineers, software designers and architects, construction management, media production, etc. need to have majored in those fields. Most people have a major (like illustration, graphic design, creative writing) that is directly related; some come to Imagineering from more tangential but comprehensive majors like dramatic arts, biology, materials science, studio art, music or literature.

There's an internship program called ImagiNations that is pretty rigorous, and some newer Imagineers have come in that way. Other people come in via working for Disney in the parks, consumer products, TV or animation, etc. And the theme park design world is quite small, so many people work for other companies like Universal, Bob Rogers Creative, the Hettema Group, or foreign companies during their careers in the business, either before or after Imagineering. Many people don't have college degrees at all, but extensive experience or portfolios to show. A lot of people who work in the business belong to TEA, the Themed Entertainment Association. It's world-wide, and the main convention and trade association is called IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).

NS: Is there one central Imagineering office location/building where Imagineers work or are they scattered about?

MM: The main HQ for Imagineers is in Glendale, CA, (1401 Flower St) which is actually a series of really non-descript buildings scattered around an industrial park. Disney also has consumer products, TV animation and ABC-TV (for LA) in that neighborhood. It's literally next door to Dreamworks Animation and about three miles from Disney Studios in Burbank.  Imagineers also work at all the parks, even after they are built; there are probably 10-25 Imagineers at every park location. And of course when building a park it's all hands on deck. I'll bet there are well over 500 Imagineers either living or doing long business trips in Shanghai right now. 

NS: Are Imagineers on the same level within the company, or are there different levels/titles in a hierarchy?

MM: There are different levels of titles like senior (whatever you do) (writer, graphic designer, ride engineer), director, vice president, etc. Nobody just calls themselves an Imagineer except to outsiders -- inside, you are identified by what you do (e.g. an illustrator, a model builder, a scientist in Research & Development).

Show producer is an odd title there -- they act like show runners in the TV business, working on an attraction to get it created, up and running. They could be from any discipline (writers, figure finishers, illustrators and animal keepers have all become show producers that I know of).  The management structure is called a "matrix" which means that when assigned to a specific project, if you are (for instance) an architect you report to the person in charge of architects PLUS the person who runs your project, who is the show producer. 

Show producers work for Creative Portfolio leads, who have overall responsibility for big areas (like all of WDW) -- there are only a few of those. Creative Portfolio Leads (who are called Creative Vice Presidents too) have business partners (called construction managers) who watch the money side of everything and run the construction of projects. Portfolio leads report to Bruce Vaughan and everybody else reports to Craig Fleming, and those two actually run Imagineering and report to Bob Chapek, who is in President of Parks & Resorts (and just started, having come out of Consumer Products).  Bob presidens over the operation and creation of the parks & resorts, and reports to Disney's chairman, Bob Iger. 

NS: Do Imagineers actually construct the rides, or is that outsourced?

MM: Imagineers design the rides and the construction is outsourced, but closely overseen by Imagineering.

NS: In general, who makes the decision that a ride or attraction needs updating?

MM: That decision can be driven by the park operators (based on guest satisfaction ratings, for instance), management (like Bob Chapek or Bob Iger) or can "bubble up" from the Portfolio leads or somebody anywhere, really. But it has to be funded, that's the hard part. Sometimes it's in the contract with the pavilion's sponsor (like at Epcot) that there will be a renewal. There's a master plan that allocates $ to each park for upgrades each year, and it's usually either 3, 5, or 7 years out and can change each year. 

NS: What is your favorite Disney park and ride/attraction?

MM: I love Disneyland, having grown up here in LA. My favorite ride is a toss-up between Star Tours and Tom Sawyer's Island, and honorable mention to Pirates and Jungle Cruise. I also love Animal Kingdom's Africa and Everest.

NS: Do you have any more Disney books or projects planned?

MM: Nope! 

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