How To Become An Imagineer, According To The Director Of Disney+'s 'The Imagineering Story'

A screenshot from documentary series The Imagineering Story. (Courtesy Disney)

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Disney+ — the company's new streaming service which recently launched to some technical trouble — has gotten a lot of attention for being home to new Star Wars TV show The Mandalorian, future Marvel shows, and the giant Disney vault including all your favorite classic animated films.

But tucked into all of that is documentary series The Imagineering Story, which tracks the history of the Disney theme parks and the Imagineers who create it all.

The Imagineering Story was originally planned as a 90-minute documentary, but director Leslie Iwerks has expanded those original plans into six hourlong episodes full of Disney magic.

(You can also read about and see photos from our tour of the Imagineering offices here.)

Iwerks, who comes from a line of Disney royalty, is uniquely qualified for such an undertaking.

Her grandfather was Ub Iwerks, who worked with Walt Disney to design Mickey Mouse, among other legendary feats. And her father was Don Iwerks, the animator and Imagineer who worked in the Disney machine shop creating 360-degree film techniques.

We spoke with her about what Imagineering is, and how to join their ranks. Here's how you do it.

STEP 1: LOVE DISNEY

Wait, what's going on here? It's Imagineering in action, creating animatronics on the way to Abraham Lincoln standing up and talking to audiences. (Courtesy Disney)

It was screening another Disney documentary she directed — The Pixar Story — that opened the door to this one.

After she screened The Pixar Story for the Imagineers, "[Walt Disney Imagineering's] Marty Sklar liked it and said, 'When are you going to do the Imagineering story?' And I said, 'Well, you tell me,'" Iwerks said.

She was hired for five years to document the behind-the-scenes at Disney's parks — Disney magic.

Loving Disney was bred into Iwerks — it's also one of the common links she found in the Imagineers she followed.

STEP 2: BE PASSIONATE ABOUT INNOVATION

Discovery Mountain, designed for Disneyland Paris. (Courtesy Disney)

So wait, what exactly is an Imagineer? They officially work for a company underneath the Disney umbrella, with a staff responsible for designing and building everything at the Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships — as well as overseeing the creative in Disney games, merchandise, and publishing.

But a creative spirit and a passion for innovation are at the heart of what links Imagineers together, according to Iwerks.

"Everyone who works there has a very strong sense of how to collaborate with other teams, and other people, to bring an idea for life," Iwerks said.

Another central part of the job: collaboration.

"And just the hard work ethic, and standing on the shoulders of Walt Disney, and always knowing the DNA of Disney. There's a certain passion and commitment to Walt's original vision, and keeping to that Disney philosophy," Iwerks said.

STEP 3: CHOOSE YOUR PATH & LEARN A TRADE

An Imagineer showing off concept art for Star Tours. (Courtesy Disney)

While Iwerks was working on the series, there were more than 100 individual disciplines represented within Imagineering.

"Whoever is hired by Imagineering to work on these projects, and to innovate, and to tell stories, and to design — I mean, there's just countless disciplines," Iwerks said.

For her own trade of becoming a filmmaker, Iwerks said that her biggest piece of advice was that old Nike catchphrase — just do it.

In her case, she encouraged aspiring filmmakers to learn to write, edit, shoot, light — do it all. In the same way, if you can bring all the wide variety of skills needed for a particular Imagineering role into what you do, you might just have a shot.

STEP 4: LEARN FROM HOW OTHERS HAVE DONE IT

Sometimes Imagineering means creating robot dogs. (Courtesy Disney)

Imagineering includes both design and the brass-tacks business of physically creating experiences for the public. Finding a mentor can help you find your own way in.

Iwerks was lucky enough to get her own backstage view. She didn't become an Imagineer, but she said that she was inspired by watching the Imagineering work that her dad did.

"I was around my dad, who was the head of the machine shop, and he was so busy always — coming home and getting on his computer and creating a lens, or a projection system, and working something out," Iwerks said. "And I'd always look over his shoulder and learn from him as to what he was doing."

STEP 5: SEPARATE THE MAGIC FROM THE HARD WORK

How dreams become reality. (Courtesy Disney)

Being an Imagineer seems pretty magical, but it also means being a top-notch engineer, set painter, machinist, or whatever field is needed. So there are times you need to take a pause from fanning out over Disney, and get to work.

Growing up, Iwerks got to experience the parks behind the scenes, entering from the backstage area instead of the main gates. It helped to demystify the process for her.

"It was a perspective that not every kid got, seeing what happened backstage and people working on animatronics, and characters in their costumes walking around, and just real people in costumes. You're like, wow, the magic is off — but it was actually more magic in a way," Iwerks said.

STEP 6: FIND A NICHE & APPLY

Bringing Snow White's Seven Dwarves to life. (Courtesy Disney)

Iwerks said she expects a lot of people to want to work in Imagineering after seeing her new series.

"I mean, why wouldn't you?" Iwerks said. "If you're an artist, if you're a writer, if you're an innovator, if you're a technologist, if you're a scientist — you name it. They are constantly looking for new young people who can jump in and do great things there."

And unlike some dream jobs, you can actually go to their website and directly apply. They list a wide variety of Imagineering jobs — take a look.

"Whatever your passion is, find a niche for it, see if Imagineering has a job for that specific passion, and just apply," Iwerks said.

Beyond the Imagineering series, Iwerks also recently directed League of Legends Origins for Netflix, exploring the beginnings of the massively popular online game. She also shot documentary short Selling Lies, looking at how Macedonian teens helped fuel fake news during the 2016 election.

Whether it's Imagineering or fake news, Iwerks said the thing that links her own work together is, much like the Imagineers, telling stories.

"I titled [my TEDx Talk] 'Stories Meant To Be Told, because I feel like that's probably the main thing that runs through my projects — I feel like that's a story that needs to be told, and it hasn't been told yet, at least in the way that I could tell it," Iwerks said.

You can help tell those stories by becoming an Imagineer — and see how Imagineers created what's there in The imagineering Story. Part 1 is available now on Disney+, with part 2 of the six-part series coming this Friday.

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