The “Na’vi River Journey,” one of the two rides at Disney World’s new Pandora park, is a peaceful and meditative boat ride, but that serenity belies the technological work that went into bringing its most impressive and advanced element to life.
Enclosed and unlit by traditional sources, the ride immerses the rider in the exotic rainforest created for director James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar; bioluminescent flora and fauna lighting the way as the fictional animals invented for the world sneak about and fill the air with their calls. Near the end of the winding trail, riders begin to heed the chanting and singing of a Na’vi spiritual leader, and when they turn a corner, they are greeted by the massive figure of the Shaman of Songs. At nearly nine feet tall standing up (she sits cross-legged during this ride), the Shaman was one of the biggest challenges faced by the Imagineers who designed the park.
During a press preview day on Wednesday — Disney sponsored Inverse’s trip and stay in Orlando for the event — the team discussed what it calls the most technologically advanced audio animatronic ever made.
“It was a great challenge to do a Na’vi, which is humanlike but seven to ten feet tall, with long arms and a sinewy kind of body,” Lisa Girolami, the “Pandora” executive producer, told Inverse on Wednesday. “She’s so emotive and lifelike, so we were working night and day until we got it right.”
The design was based, of course, on the Na’vi people first introduced in James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster movie. Cameron and his company, Lightstorm, pioneered certain motion capture techniques to give the characters what was then a revolutionary realness. Girolami credits the company with laying the groundwork; Imagineers just had to “make it three dimensional.”
“We had a close relationship with Lightstorm, and they had a whole bag of tools that were completely different than ours,” Joe Cashman, the production designer on the ride, said. “We were able to combine them to great success for an effect at the end where you don’t really see the technology.”
The Imagineers played it coy as to the exact technical specs and processes used during the development, but animatronics are a celebrated part of the company’s heritage. Walt Disney himself pioneered the development of the audio animatronics field and filed the first patent for audio animatronics, and Imagineering regards their development as an ongoing project.
“The Shaman has come from Mr. Lincoln and the Pirates of the Caribbean pirates. We just keep advancing and advancing, and we are then lucky enough to have a project that comes along where we can use the technology,” Girolami said. “And if it doesn’t exist, we’re lucky enough to have the talented people who can create the technology.”
In this case, a big challenge was creating drumming and waving and singing that was fluid enough to look real and graceful on such a large scale.
“If you look at the movement of the Shaman, and how our bodies and brains say if I’m moving from here to here, I will accelerate but then slow down, knowing I’m going to stop here,” she said, moving her arms up and back and forth, close to her face. “That’s part of artistry and part of observing nature. That’s what we do with the Shaman, but that’s the same thing that Walt did when he sent out his animators and said, ‘Go look at bunnies and deer and draw.’ We’re doing the same thing today, with different tools, but we’re still replicating the same thing that Walt’s animators did when they were animating.”
“Pandora — The World of Avatar” opens on Saturday.