Stephen Wilkes Discovers Disney's New World for Bloomberg
When James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ released in theaters in 2009 it was a phenomenon. The film set on the invented planet of Pandora required 15 years of development andin only 19 days became the fastest movie to hit $1 billion in ticket sales at the time. Since then, Cameron has scheduled no fewer than four sequels. Fans are thrilled at the prospect of getting to explore more of Pandora on screen, but this Sunday they’ll get even more. On May 27, Disney opens “Pandora — The World of Avatar” as a part of their Animal Kingdom Park in Orlando and ahead of the release, Bloomberg Businessweek invited Stephen Wilkes to help show off all the work Disney's done on the incredible, immersive experience. “It’s this extraordinary marvel that they’ve created in terms of the physical structure, recreating Cameron’s vision of Pandora,” says Stephen. “Floating mountains, bioluminescent plants… It’s kind of astounding during the daytime but really crazy at night with the bioluminescent lights beginning to come on and suddenly you really feel like you’re in another world.” Stephen even noticed birds nesting in the false plants that are mixed in with real ones. “When you fool nature you know you’ve done the right job,” he says.
Stephen’s ability to blend epic landscape with minute detail was the perfect combination of skills to show off this incredible piece of art. It’s not just that they got the big ideas right, figuring out how to get mountains to float above guests’ heads, but all the way down to vine textures and magnetic rock formations. Over the course of the 16+ hour shoot, Stephen got to spend time with Joe Rohde, lead Imagineer at Disney, to hear about the process so he could do it justice. “Everything is grounded in reality and by example, so when they recreate something they actually experience it first hand, they don’t just look at pictures on the Internet and try to render something,” says Stephen. “That’s one of the things I was trying to capture, they don’t ever really get to see photographs showcasing all the nuanced detail that go in to making this such a unique experience for everybody who comes to the park.” Not everyone will be able to get to the park immediately so Stephen did everything he could to show us what it’s really like.
There was one more element that made Stephen the right choice for this project: Rohde was familiar with Stephen’s Ellis Island project and actually used Stephen’s images for inspiration when they were designing elements of the park. Within the Pandora experience, there are ruins of a previous world and Disney wanted to make that realistic but also beautiful. So they looked to Stephen’s work before they even met him. When Stephen was at Disney he recognized it immediately. “You could see that language of ruin within the context of rebirth as it comes together in this very unique way,” says Stephen. “I think it’s going to be a very exciting place to go. It is completely different and unique from anything I’ve ever seen.”