Disney Executives Discuss How Emerging Technology Enhances Storytelling at SXSW

Walt Disney famously said, “We keep moving forward—opening up new doors and doing new things—because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We’re always exploring and experimenting.” That spirit of exploration and experimentation continues today at Disney, where world-class storytelling and innovation have always gone hand in hand.

This past weekend, several executives from across The Walt Disney Company participated in a panel at the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals (SXSW), the event held annually in Austin, Texas, that celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film and music industries. Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Studio Executive Jon Snoddy, Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media (DCPI) Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Mike White and DCPI Vice President of Engineering Kathy de Paolo took part in the March 11 panel, which provided a glimpse into how a new generation of Disney storytellers is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning to enhance storytelling and extend experiences for guests.

“We are constantly evaluating emerging technologies, and we use the ones that make our products and experiences better,” White explained during the presentation. Those in attendance saw glimpses of the innovation the company is working on including a clip that featured Jake, an autonomous droid who surprised and delighted guests last summer inside Star Wars Launch Bay at Disneyland park, and a palm-sized Audio-Animatronics® version of Pascal, the chameleon from Tangled. Both illustrate how Disney is thinking about the use of technology to bring characters to life in new and amazing ways. The panelists also shared that Machine Learning is now considered as a layer in almost every new product, impacting Disney’s products and retail experiences for consumers.

As with all forms of new and emerging technology of the past—from the Multiplane Camera to Audio-Animatronics® characters and beyond—at Disney, innovation needs to improve the storytelling, White stressed. “Disney is committed to technology that enhances our stories. It’s not merely a science project,” he said, and all agreed that the most successful introductions of new technology are the least disruptive. “If we do our jobs right, you shouldn’t see it at all,” de Paolo pointed out.

At Disney, technologists work alongside artists, allowing the top creative minds to collaborate throughout the entire creative process. “You almost always have artists and engineers at the table as equals,” de Paolo noted of this testament to the Company’s enduring legacy of innovation.

“Every new technology that has come along for the past 60 years has been adopted into a storytelling medium. It won’t be different now,” Snoddy stated. “[Guests] really come to be moved emotionally, and that will not change.”