Marianne McLean: VFX Producer
Many can only dream about stepping foot into the building where all the magic happens but I was fortunate enough to visit the offices of Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California and I wasn’t the only one celebrating! Marianne McLean, Visual Effects Producer for the long awaited Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, had not only wrapped a successful launch in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts, but it was also her birthday! (Happy Birthday, Marianne!)
McLean has had a great career with Walt Disney Imagineering for now twenty years. Prior to WDI, she moved to Los Angeles to work with George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic but instead got tangled up in a variety of other commercial gigs that prevented her from making the move to Northern California. Her experience in visual effects lead her to work as a freelancer for WDI, working on a variety of projects such as Star Tours, Captain EO, and Muppet Vision 3D – and when Imagineering decided to create a new division devoted to creating multimedia you see in the parks, Marianne became one of the first new hires. Right place, right time!
I stopped by on a sunny Friday afternoon to talk about how things came full circle for Marianne and also about the latest and greatest of all theme park attractions: Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
EndorExpress: Marianne, thanks for having us over! Tell us about your experience working on this attraction.
McLean: I had the absolute total honor of working directly with George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic for almost twenty-four months. We saw him every three to four weeks and did reviews with him so that was very exciting. I helped produce all of the 54 adventures inside the simulator with ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) and also some of the really fun commercials, arrival/departure boards and things in the pre-show. Part of the work on the commercials was done by Industrial Light and Magic. Part of it was done by the talented Imagineers here and we combined it all.
That’s quite a big task! Can you take us backwards in time a bit when the project first got its legs?
For me personally the project started around 2003 when Tom Fitzgerald flew to Australia to pitch George Lucas the idea of branching and that started it. But I started full time on the project in 2007, so that was about four and a half years of work.
Were there any major challenges for you and your team?
I think for the team, I had two really big challenges. The first one was the melding of a really exciting, jaw-dropping simulator ride while being fully aware that a lot of people do get motion sickness. So we put together this amazing team of people: ride engineers, structural engineers, ride programmers from Florida and California. We even had some motion sickness experts from California and Florida – then we put that whole team together with ILM and through the whole process, this group of people studied the animatics and studied the simulator ride motion. At the end of all that we came up with this exciting ride that has the perfect combination of motion and excitement. I personally am a person that does get motion-sick and with Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, I can ride it over and over and over again.
What’s really fascinating about that is I personally never felt ill on Star Tours, but have gotten nauseous on many other simulators. (Body Wars comes to mind)
And I think it’s because we put together these teams of people that really want the experience to be perfect. We don’t want people to have eye-strain or have headaches but rather to ride it and then run back in line to do it again.
And I think you’ve succeeded! What was the other challenge?
For me personally, the biggest challenge was the arrival/departure boards on the display screen. Tom Fitzgerald came to me one day and he says “I want you to pick where Star Tours is going to travel to but just make sure that wherever we go, a tourist would want to go there.” I went “No problem!” Until I started opening up all the literature and found out that there was like four thousand or four hundred planets in the Star Wars Universe and I went “oh boy”. [laughs] But after working on it for weeks, we came down to thirty-eight planets. Tom Fitzgerald loved them and we sent them up north and they approved every single one of them! But the big challenge was figuring that out. Where would Star Tours wanna go?
Speaking of destinations, do you have a favorite destinations? What would be your favorite Star Tours journey?
Personal favorite journey would be the Stormtrooper launch where we get scanned; I love Hoth – that happens to be my absolute favorite sequence, and the ending would have to be Naboo. And I love Princess Leia [laughs]. That would probably be my favorite show.
And since you brought up Naboo, that’s the one destination with a surprise 3D ending. What was the thought behind adding 3D to other destinations or not to?
You know originally back in 2007 we had some ideas where we might have broken the window in some other sequences and we had big discussions about it amongst ourselves and with George and decided that the 3D would mostly be immersive out the window. For Naboo the idea was to make that completely different than the other ones and surprise the guest with something completely unexpected.
When was the decision made to have Star Tours be in 3D instead of 2D?
At the very beginning! Even back in 1999 when we first went to George with just the Podrace idea, it was going to be in 3D. So that idea was always on the table. The branching story idea came after all six movies came out. We asked how can we give the audience all of this and have it be different everytime they ride?
And one of the noticeable changes with Star Tours is AC-38 “ACE”, our new “pilot” of the Starspeeder 1000. How was he created and brought to life?
AC-38 was done here at Walt Disney Imagineering by a very talented group of people. We brought in pictures of every droid that was ever in Star Wars and studied them and designed a character that would fit in that universe. We had this really fun contest for ACE the pilot submissions and all of that artwork honed down to what he is today. It was very collaborative.
You can probably make a great coffee table book of that all that art!
You absolutely could! Because we keep everything, it would be very fun to see something like that.
Any Easter Eggs in the queue? There’s gotta be more than ‘1138’ on the Destinations Board!
Yeah! I put that in there and wanted to see who noticed it first. [laughs]
And we found the Mighty Microscope…
Good for you! That was Tom Fitzgerald’s idea. He walked into my office and said “We need to put the Mighty Microscope somewhere in this movie.” So we had to find all the old architectural drawings and sent it up to ILM and build it digitally. Tom wanted to homage it again and it’s one of those things when you’re a big fan of something like Star Tours, it’s fun to see these things in it.
Did you have a hand in the music? We spoke with Richard Bellis before about scoring the original Star Tours. Was Michael Giacchino the only composer for this new attraction?
We actually had three people working on the music for this show. For the first time ever, we were excited that we were able to work with John Williams on the main show music. He took existing pieces from however many hours he has and cut it down to fit our show. The droid room we had Bill Ross who did some arrangements for that room. And all the pre-show and commercials was done by Michael Giacchino.
Back in the 80s, the pre-flight safety video featured cameos from some of the Imagineers along with some Star Wars characters. Was that the same for this updated safety video?
That shoot was done in Southern California, mostly extras and Imagineers. A discerning person would catch that we reprised the seat belt lady. We put her in a new costume and everything but it was the very same lady that was in the original — but with a beautiful new hairdo and robes.
Industrial Light Magic employees did take part in the finale of the Death Star sequence. I happen to play the character right in the middle wearing the ORIGINAL costume that Mon Mothma wore. They brought it out… it was very exciting. There were some other Imagineers in there, Frank Reifsnyder (WDI) is a B-Wing pilot… you have to really look at it and you’ll see both ILMers and WDI in there.
What’s so great about that is that you become a part of this rich history that is not only Disneyland but you also become part of Star Wars lore. It’s quite something!
I know! Yes, that was a very big moment for me.
Obviously, you’re a Star wars fan right?
Oh, big time! Right when the first one came out I think I saw it fifteen times and became one of the “followers”. You know I love George Lucas, love the Force, love the Jedi, I love the whole thing.
Tom Fitzgerald expressed to us that Empire Strikes Back was his favorite. Is that the same for you?
No, I think “A New Hope” will always be my favorite. It just caught me and I lived in the middle of the country at the time and that’s when I decided that I have to be in the movie business and move to California. It took me awhile after that but it was one of those moments.
In your rich history with Imagineering, do you have a favorite attraction that you’ve been a part of?
Star Tours! The new one. It’s so beautiful the footage. And the fact that every time you ride it it’s a little bit different. Tempered also with the experience I just had working with Industrial Light and Magic…
It meant a lot to you…
It meant so much. Not only the franchise but emotionally. It was a very satisfying four years working on this project.
Was there anything you love that didn’t make the cut?
You know, we had other locations that we examined and some of them I really loved, but now that I look at what we have, I can’t really say that there’s anything that’s not there for me. It just kept getting better all the time. Everybody was always plussing it, always coming up with ideas, always making it better. I really love that about this place. My favorite experience is that it was my idea to break the window at the end of Naboo and when I pitched it, everybody loved it so it ended up in the movie. That’s what this kind of place is. It encourages you to speak up, pitch ideas, and not worry about whether they’re good or not. You just bring them up.
Well now we know who to thank! What’s next for Marianne?
I have a couple of things but they’re not announced yet. I’ve already begun the process of rolling into them, meeting the new teams. It’s an interesting time because a little bit of my heart is still back there with Star Tours. I won’t be saying goodbye to all of my friends at ILM I’ve made, but I’ve got some really exciting things.
So maybe we can all hope for updates!
The entire staff at EndorExpress would like to thank Marianne McLean for sharing her afternoon with us. We all wish her the best on her future projects. And also many thanks to Frank Reifsnyder for helping out with this interview!
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