Expedition Everest is the newest mountain in the Disney Range. The attraction hurtles guests along a high-speed roller coaster with an encounter with the legendary Yeti. The amount of work that it took to make the ride is staggering and it all begins with making a believable story and its monster.
The massive Audio-Animatronics creature inside Expedition Everest, the new thrill attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, moves with a force equal to a jumbo jet. Yet, with just a swipe of his arm, the fearsome, hairy yeti convinces riders he is a living, breathing force.
How do you design a creature like that – a technological marvel with the thrust of a 747 and at the same time with features so believably lifelike that guests gasp, recoil, and scream?
In the case of the yeti, it took biologists, artists, engineers and programmers working together for four years to bring the creature of Himalayan legend to life.
Disney Imagineers invited their animation colleagues to sketch ideas of what the yeti might look like. More than a hundred unique designs were shared – from cartoons looming over cities to fanged monster-like apes to muscular gorilla-shaped animals.
At the same time, the team met with Dr. Stuart Sumida, professor of biology and consultant to animated films, to develop a realistic body form and movement structure. If the yeti is real, how would he walk? How would he stand? How big would his jaw jut out?
Sumida, who has worked with animators to develop realistic movements for films, talked about brain size of known large primates, musculoskeletal structures, proportions and movement. The team discussed legendary sources and current descriptions of the yeti they heard from local people in Nepal and the Himalayas.
Over the course of several months, the sketches, folklore, and science merged into a clearer concept. The Expedition Everest yeti would be similar in size to Gigantopithecus (a giant ape from prehistoric times), with a skull modified from the Asian langur monkey, facial features and fangs of the Golden Monkey, and brownish fur and hair that would blend into a forest environment. The final touch would be added by audio engineers – a whistling shriek and mighty roar.
The artists’ sketch of the Expedition Everest yeti would now face its biggest challenge: being brought to life in a dimensional, dynamic and very believable way. It would take a team of sculptors, computer modelers, technical designers, engineers and figure finishers – not to mention research on animal fur and hair, sounds and eye movement.
The job of developing what the yeti would look like fell to principal designer Doug Griffith. He began with a roughly finished sculpture to develop the face and head proportions and the character of the yeti. The sagittal crest of the skull, the look of the fur, the intensity of the eyes – all began to emerge from that initial lump of clay to reflect the size and look the creature would ultimately have.
At the same time, Griffith worked with engineers and programmers to develop a computer model of how the yeti would be positioned inside the attraction. The figure would have limited space and range of motion, and engineering would dictate the final skeletal framework so the yeti could swipe over the train and stop just short of the inner wall of the mountain.
For the final maquette (sculpture in miniature) of the yeti, sculptor Scott Goddard worked for several months with the same type of clay used by the Greeks, adjusting and refining in order to get the position, the personality and the details of the yeti just right. Goddard blended ancient and modern sculpting techniques to create the final version with a fierce expression, giant head and teeth, and in a pose that specifically met the technical constraints required by engineering. Coordinates were marked on the sculpting board where the yeti’s elbow, hands and feet had to match.
Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Executive Joe Rohde, Griffith and Goddard collaborated closely and often discussed specific features – are the fingernails too short? Is the eyebrow thick enough? Is it too scary? Is it scary enough? Finally, the sculpture was complete. Photos were taken to document the artistic model’s appearance. Then Goddard carefully scraped off all the sculpted “hair.” This left a smooth body figure that was tagged with laser markers and scanned into the computer.
The computer file was used to mill a life-size foam version of the figure which was refined by Goddard, the original sculptor. The head, feet and hands required the most attention, since they would be visible while the body would be covered in fur.
The foam sculpture was then coated with a sealer, a mold was created and a fiberglass cast of the creature began to emerge. Joints were created at carefully selected points. The artists worked hand in hand with robotics engineers to ensure the final figure would have the range of motion needed, plus access to install mechanics and pneumatics while not violating the dramatic intent. In addition, access panels were required for the operations maintenance team who would be responsible for the long-term care of the yeti.
Days of sanding, fiberglassing and assembly resulted in a giant figure that surrounded an armature of steel connecting the feet, legs and torso. The massive size of the figure surprised most members of the team. As the engineers tested motions and movements, the costume designers began to create what would be the skin and fur of the animal.
The team worked in a tall, windowless warehouse. Access was restricted to keep the yeti a secret for the months it took to bring all the elements together.
Long before fur was added, the figure had to be programmed. Specialists with backgrounds in animation, programming and technical fields created more than 100 computer animation tests over two years. They spent hours bringing the yeti to life with subtle turns of the head, tilts of the arm and blinks of the eye. This pre-programming phase took place as a virtual design within the computers and then in a full-size production facility with the animated figure. The final programming occurred in the field after the yeti was installed inside the mountain.
Once programmed, the yeti’s mechanics were tested and cycled. The yeti went through his paces continuously for hours and hours – preparing for long days of terrifying guests … with no days off.
Figure finishers spent months researching types of fur – from horse hair to silk to nylon. The final coat is a blend of yak, horse hair and synthetics. Designers created mats and dreadlocks, even mixing in Spanish moss for authenticity.
Teeth and nails were molded from acrylic, then stained to look aged, yellow, and dirty. Paints and mud were added where the yeti would have walked through forests and wet environments. And one lucky designer had the job of packing dirt between the yeti’s toes.
While only a few observant guests will notice all of this, the Imagineers are renowned for their passion for details that tell stories in ways like no other.
(Originally written and posted at WDW News. Press Release is © Copyright Disney ).
Wrapping it up
The masters of storytelling at Disney have always tirelessly researched their topics. From flying around the world to absorb the cultural traditions that help define a character to continuing an education throughout their life, Disney artists see the value that constant learning brings to their craft. The attention to the details is what separates a good story from a great one and a great on from legendary. Disney gets those details and insures all of them have a place in the stories they craft in the parks, at the movies and online. They may not be famous, but their work is and has been seen and enjoyed by millions of people every year.