Ben Schwegler on science behind Disney magic


Ben Schwegler: It takes a lot of science to make a little bit of magic.

Ben Schwegler is chief scientist of Imagineering Research and Development for Walt Disney. Dr. Schwegler said that there are thousands of scientists, engineers – and writers and artists – considered to be Disney imagineers. They help design and develop Disney theme parks and resorts.

An imagineer is someone who is very, very good at what they do as their principal occupation, but that also has a great diversity of interests and diversity of additional skills. And most of all, an imagineer appreciates the product that we make in the sense that it entertains people and moves people, and hopefully inspires people.

Schwegler spoke of the science behind Disney.

There’s optics and audio, and in addition to the sustainable kinds of things that we work on, energy efficiency, across the board, for virtually every part of what we would call the ‘built environment.’

He spoke of the concept of sustainability applied to construction of buildings.

I think that sustainability has become one of the big ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries. The overall idea of sustainability is one of efficiency and using just exactly what you need and no more to get the job done. One of the things that we’re working on now is the notion of building function. We don’t look just at the simple measures of efficiency, for example, kilowatt hours per square meter. We want to understand how the total building works, whether that’s a restaurant, a hotel, or an attraction in a theme park. We look at how we can configure the building in such a way that we don’t just chase one particular part of a design or another. So we don’t just chase kilowatt hours per square meter. But we want to know kilowatt hours per square meter per guest laugh, or something like that. That’s a little bit of a far-fetched example, but it’s not completely unreasonable. Those ideas, that seem more complex, help us understand how the built environment actually performs so that you know that you’ve built the correct size and the correct functioning of buildings.

Dr. Schwegler gave some advice for young scientists or scientists-to-be.

The first thing I always tell them is, you should really enjoy what you’re doing. And I think that’s another characteristic of imagineering. People love what it is they’re doing, whether it’s botany or chemical engineering, or whether it’s song-writing, you have to really like it. And I think that’s always my consistent advice for all the students that I see, to do it because you like it, and to try and find the fun in things, even if it is a little difficult.

Dr. Schwegler spoke about the science behind Disney’s robots, called audio animatronics.

A lot of the science behind the robotics initiativeit has to do with what constitutes the illusion of life. We collect data on how people actually move, and at what speeds, what rates of motion, and the limits of those kinds of behaviors. Because we want to make people believe that the audio animatronic that they’re looking at is actually alive. We spend a lot of time looking at what makes people and motions believable, and then trying to understand how we can reproduce that in a mechanical device. It’s a complicated combination of me/chanical engineering and software control to make them come alive.

Written by Adam Gorwyn

About the author

EarthSky – a clear voice for science for broadcast and the Internet – advocates science as a vital tool for the 21st century. Our award-winning science content – in audio and video formats, in English and Spanish – is seen or heard 15 million times every day on multiple platforms via both traditional and new media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, independent commercial broadcast outlets in the U.S.