Asa Kalama gave us an insight into the creation of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. This is one of the key attractions at Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed land, at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.
On a visit to the highly-anticipated world, guests can drink with bounty hunters in Oga’s Cantina. They can browse a street market, tuck into Fried Endorian Tip-Yip and even create their own lightsaber and droid. They can also enjoy the epic Rise of the Resistance attraction.
But for many, a highlight is the chance to step into the cockpit of the iconic Millennium Falcon.
Asa Kalama is Executive Creative Director at Walt Disney Engineering. He spoke to blooloop about the realities of bringing Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run to life, transforming this ‘hunk of junk’ at the edge of the galaxy into an immersive and unforgettable experience.
Asa Kalama and Disney
Talking about what brought him to Disney, Asa Kalama says his early career was in theatre:
“I went to UCLA, where I studied sound design and production design. This really was a wonderful transition into the world of Walt Disney Imagineering. Because, when you think about the experiences that we create for our guests, they are truly immersive theatrical environments.
“So it was those skills that I brought with me to research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. I spent the first 10 years of my career working in that group. First, more specifically focused on interactive theatrical techniques for live performance, and then slowly over time getting more and more involved in interactive projects and autonomous living characters.”
“Then I transitioned into focusing on narrative-based experiences. Some people, traditionally, think of them as live-action roleplay, which comes with a whole bunch of interesting connotations. But for us, it was really all about – how do we take what’s so wonderful about that form of expression, that idea of embodying a character to bring a story to life and allow that to happen in the context of a Disney theme park?
“We create these amazing immersive environments that we literally call ‘on stage’. All of the amazing people that you interact with, they’re called cast members. So, it really felt like this logical progression. Trying to find a way to reframe what the experience of visiting a Disney park was, around this notion of not just coming to ride a ride or to consume experiences but to really become a part of the hype. Finding ways for you to feel like you are truly a part of the story we are creating.”
The evolution of the guest experience
“I spent about five years really focused on that type of experience, fielding a number of smaller-scale tests throughout our domestic parks,” says Kalama.
“And then, about five and a half years ago, I was lucky enough to get a tap on the shoulder saying ‘Hey, we’ve got a really fun project coming up. It’s based on Star Wars and we really love the way that you’ve been thinking about the role of the guest, relative to the theme park experience’.
“Also, Scott Trowbridge, the mastermind behind Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, was my boss at the time, at research and development. So together we left that group to build an amazing team of literally thousands of people to help us try to bring this vision to life. A vision of the most amazing Star Wars experience possible, and the most participatory and inclusive version of Star Wars we could possibly think of.”
Designing Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run – ‘the possibilities are limitless’
The project ahead of them was on a huge scale and included many things which had not been done before. Asa Kalama talks about what it was like to take on such an epic proposition.
“Whenever you start a project, there’s always a great deal of both excitement and anxiety. Because, before you’ve begun, before there’s an idea, not only are the possibilities limitless, but, oh man, they’re also limitless!”
Kalama says that to start with they had two big and fairly daunting ambitions:
“Firstly, trying to figure out how to do justice to a franchise that has meant so much, to so many people, for so long. And at the same time, trying to break the mould or think differently about what a theme park experience could be.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing our due diligence. So that we were delivering on that movie that’s been playing in people’s minds for so long.
“And so really the first year on the project was all about trying to figure out the scope of it. Where does it go? Because that’s obviously going to start to dictate the type of experience you can create. The actual site, which park does it actually live inside of? Once you have a site, the next really important thing to start to consider is, what’s the experience that I’m going to give to the guests? What is the world that we’re going to create?”
Deciding what stories to tell
“When we started working on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, there had been six movies created up until that point,” says Asa Kalama. “We knew that there were three more coming at least. If not potentially more. So there was a canon of stories already told. And a breadth of stories yet to be told that we didn’t know anything about.”
“We had to make this decision about what part of Star Wars do we want to tell? What characters, what experiences do we want to try to bring to life for guests? And so, we decided to focus on creating a place that had the flexibility to be home to some of the classic stories and classic characters.
“But, at the same time, a place where we could also lean forward and embrace some of the brand new stories and characters. We didn’t have any of that information when we began designing. So, we took the tack of – what are some of the iconic Star Wars archetypes that are everlasting?
“Whether it’s episode one or episode nine, we know [these archtypes] will always persist. We started to look at the key archetypes of smugglers and bounty hunters. We know we have rebellion and resistance. Those are the key flavours and textures of the world that we wanted to build.”
Creating the Star Wars magic
“We thought, what are those key archetypes that I want to embody as a person coming to live my own Star Wars adventure? And what is the place that we can design that is flexible enough that will allow us to be home to these different stories, these different timelines?
“So we arrived at this concept of the intergalactic trading post,” says Kalama. “Right on the edge of wild space. Because it felt very iconic and understandable. It is not only a Star Wars archetype but also something that is rooted in a reality that we can grab onto.”
“At the same time, because it is this trading port, it allows for there to be visitors from all across the galaxy. Its location at the edge of known space also means it’s a little bit dangerous. Which is one of the key flavours that makes Star Wars so much fun.
“So, we knew that it wanted to be a story that was set in a trading port. And then we set about starting to develop: ok, what are the flavours and experiences that we need to bring this world to life?
“We knew that we had to tell a story of the First Order and the Resistance. That was a flavour that was a core base expectation of what makes our stories. But at the same time, we also knew that the sort of smuggler-y, bounty hunter, ne’er-do-well quotients of Star Wars were also something equally important to the overall tapestry of the storytelling.”
The Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run story
“That really became our value host very early on, to try to develop two very divergent experiences and two different stories,” says Asa Kalama. “One that was about the epic struggle between good and evil where the stakes are literally the fate of the galaxy. Which ultimately became Rise of the Resistance.
“At the same time, we knew that we wanted to create an experience that was a nice compliment to that. Where it wasn’t about the stakes of the galaxy. The stakes were, by design, much lower.”
“Whereas Rise of the Resistance is epic in scale and very much about that conflict and struggle, we wanted to make sure that Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run was an experience that was much more lighthearted and really leaned into a sense of playfulness.
“In Rise of the Resistance, if you crash, maybe a planet disappears from existence. In Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run if you crash, oh well, sparks fly.”
A team effort
Once these plans and ideas started to develop, Kalama says that getting support and buy-in from the rest of the team was simple:
“We were unbelievably lucky. Not only to have the ability to work on this amazing property, but also with the amount of support that we got from all of Imagineering, all of parks and resorts, all the way up to Bob Iger.”
“This was something that was incredibly important for the company. We wanted to make sure we were dedicating the time, the energy, the resources and the talent to do this right. So we had access to the absolute best. I can’t possibly say enough nice things about the project team that helped put this all together.
“It became a singular team. Not individual silos working on different parts of the project. It was a beautifully integrated team with a common, clear vision of creating a place where you can live your own Star Wars story.”
Working together to make the themed land a reality
“The support was phenomenal, both from within the team and around the team. The hardest decision we had to make was about the timeline. At the very beginning of the project, we had some questions around which era were we really going to celebrate. As much as we’d like to be timeless, we also have to make choices,” says Asa Kalama.
For instance: “Do we see First Order stormtroopers, or do we see Imperial? There are certain aesthetic elements that drive us to plant a flag in the sand and say we do exist at a particular point in time.
“The radar dish of the Millennium Falcon is a perfect example of that. One that we always knew as round. And then as we were in the process of developing the full-scale experience, we all went and saw Episode Seven. And we went, ‘Oh no, the dish is now rectangular!’
Speaking about the timeline, Kalama says: “We arrived at a really happy medium. It allows there to be a representation of characters that speak to a generation that is just now discovering Star Wars, and at the same time being comfortable enough to tell the stories for folks who grew up on Star Wars, starting in the 1970s.”
Creating world firsts
The scale of this project is truly remarkable, and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run was several years in the making. Talking of the process of going from that clean sheet of paper to the finished result, Kalama says:
“What makes the things that we do with Disney Imagineering so exciting is that almost everything that we create is the world’s first. We look out at the marketplace to discover and stay abreast of the latest and greatest technical achievements.”
“It’s our job to figure out how to how to sort of misuse that technology in a creative way. You know, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to deliver against. It’s always this very careful balance of trying to prognosticate what the future will look like when your attention opens.
“It takes five years to develop something like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. So the technology that you will put into the attraction on opening day doesn’t exist at the time when you start designing.”
Asa Kalama gives an example of this:
“Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run gives you and your five closest friends the opportunity to control the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. You step into a cockpit or replica of the Millennium Falcon and through that iconic framework of the canopy, you see a large view out into space. This is, in fact, a 30-foot diameter projection.”
“But at the time, when we started creating the attraction, we didn’t have a video game engine that had the capability of producing the number of pixels, at the frame rate that was required, across the number of simultaneous projectors that we were going to use, that needed to somehow be magically blended together. None of that technology existed when we started this project.”
Delivering Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run – one bite at a time
Asa Kalama likens the process of completing such a complex project to the metaphor of eating an elephant one bite at a time:
“You have to take the possibility of the problem, the scope and scale of it, and try to break it into small, manageable pieces. Realistic milestones about what’s required in order to get to that next step. And if you’re meeting all those milestones along the way, against a five-year project, you feel great. Because you see that taking you directly to the opening day.”
“Of course, inevitably, you will discover something along the way that was unexpected. And all of a sudden that critical piece that you were you were counting on starting starts to slip. We always make sure that we have, first and foremost, a plan B. Just in case it doesn’t go as expected, there’s always an exit ramp.
“But we also have the support of the entire Walt Disney Company brought to bear. So, if there’s a really hard problem, we have access to the greatest talent. We can all converge on a particular problem.”
Creating an incredible experience
With such a huge project, it would perhaps be normal to have some doubts along the way about whether pulling it off would be possible. However, Kalama says:
“When we set these goals, these targets for ourselves, they are by design, ambitious. But we also know that they’re achievable. They might require us to push not only ourselves but oftentimes we have to reach out to the hardware manufacturers, or software manufacturers as well.”
“We know we can say ‘hey the driver that you created for this graphics card doesn’t quite do what we need it to do’ or, ‘this projector isn’t quite exactly what we need it to be. Is there any way that you’d be willing to help us get that final five or 10% out of it?’
“Just like any creative endeavour, the last 10% of it is always crunch time. But you always know that you’re going to make it. You’re going to make your date and you’re going to deliver that incredible experience that you know guests are expecting. Because you do have that incredible horsepower behind you.”
Long lead times
Returning to the example of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit and its projection system, Asa Kalama says:
“It speaks to the challenges of sequencing the whole project and the point at which we have to make decisions. In an ideal world, you would have designed your video game engine first. Then, developed your assets, then figured out what the projection system was going to be.”
However, due to the long lead times on a project like this, the team had to do a lot of this work in parallel:
“So you are, at the same time, developing your graphics engine and working to develop new software to allow it to actually work. At the same time, you’re starting to do visual development of what the world that you’re going to explore might look like.”
The fact that the movie franchise was only on Episode Seven when the project was underway added even more complications to the process. The team knew that more movies were on the way. Therefore, they didn’t want to make decisions too early about where they wanted to go.
“We wanted to wait for the filmmakers to develop the stories of the film. But at the same time, we already have to design the right system. And we have to start developing the cabin and cockpit layout.”
“So you’re in this really weird place where you’re making final decisions about where the buttons are going to go and the inside of the cockpit before you’ve designed the creative experience of what the guest is actually going to do.
“It’s going to take four years for somebody to engineer a button to withstand continuous use, basically for 18 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s a very interesting process and one that’s all about having faith in the folks around you. Everybody has their piece of the pie, they have their bit of scope. And if everybody delivers their pieces, it all comes together really beautifully.”
The ride system behind Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run
One of the initial challenges that Asa Kalama and his team faced early on was figuring out how to deliver an experience that could be enjoyed by many people, but which also preserved the integrity of the story – that there is only one Millennium Falcon.
The aim was to establish the feeling, as guests step into the iconic chess room, make their way down a hallway and into the famous cockpit, that this was the one and only. Kalama says they wanted this to be “all that our guests would ever see.”
“We spent a considerable amount of time working on potential configurations of how we could allow there to be simultaneous copies of that cockpit. But in a way that was totally invisible to our guests. Ultimately we decided on a turntable consideration for a number of engineering-related reasons.
“You’re always trying to design a simple solution to the problem. There’s already enough complexity in what you’re trying to accomplish. You try to figure out what is the thing that is the most robust the most hardened. And so we arrived on that vector table configuration with multiple copies of the cockpit located on top of it.”
“We spent a lot of time reaching out to potential vendors,” says Kalama. “Ultimately, we found a partner that was willing to create a bespoke system for us.”
“One that would deliver the performance, that creative experiential sort of quality. A system that would make people believe that they were flying in space, but also in a really compact package that would fit within our facility. And also with a bunch of engineering, reliability and performance targets that are above and beyond what a traditional motion base might ordinarily have.
“There’s no part of our attraction that was off the shelf. Even the things that felt like, ‘Oh, let’s just go get one of those that people have already designed and built’. Everything is custom refactored and re-engineered and repackaged for this use.”
Preserving the magic
The ride system itself is reputed to be an amazing piece of technology. However, Disney famously likes to keep the secrets of its magic close to its chest.
“It was very challenging for the first three years,” says Asa Kalama, on the fact that the project was initially a secret. “You’re so excited about what you’re working on and you want to let people know.”
“Then, when we finally deliver an attraction, so much of what we do is about creating that suspension of disbelief. So a lot of those amazing magic tricks, our guests will ultimately never see. Guests probably only ever see maybe 20% of what’s actually built when they experience going to Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. There’s so much more and it’s epic.
“For technical people, it’s absolutely fascinating. We’ll put out a documentary and you’ll get to see a couple of frames of a cockpit on a turntable. That’s always fun to be able to share. Because there are so many amazing technical and engineering talents that work on a project and work on things that people never get to see. So, whenever we get to share just a little bit of it, it’s always really rewarding.”
A chance to fly the Millennium Falcon
The guest experience on the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride is something truly unique, as fans get the chance to fly the iconic ship.
“This is, by far and away, the most participatory attraction that we’ve ever delivered,” says Kalama. “We knew creatively that that was an important objective from the beginning. This was all about allowing you that invitation to step into the world. To not just ride inside the Millennium Falcon but to be able to control it.”
“Over the course of five years, there were countless, countless, countless iterations of mock-ups, which we use for playtesting. We would bring in either folk internal to the project team or the families of members of the project team. And they would actually try different versions and different iterations of the experience.
“There are three distinct roles inside the cockpit. There are pilots, first gunners and flight engineers. Everybody has a slightly different experience and role to play in the overall adventure. That’s something that we’ve never really done with an attraction before. It’s also something from a game design perspective that is very challenging.”
Making Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run an authentic experience
Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is a co-op experience, says Kalama. “But rather than everybody having their own monitor, mouse, keyboard, game controller, everybody has parallel views in the same world. Everybody is sharing a singular monitor.
“As a pilot, you want to give guests a sense of freedom and control. They can point the cockpit wherever they want to go and the more they do it, the more interesting the ride becomes. Because it’s a visceral sensation, they’re more likely to crash into things and it’s really exciting.
“However, because they control the camera, that means framing up the action for everybody else. A great example of that is the TIE Fighters. You have to have TIE Fighters on the screen so the gunners can hit them. But you can also have your pilots pointing the camera away from the TIE Fighters.”
“So that’s an example of one of the many invisible systems we have running in the background. This looks at the position of the camera and tries to re-manipulate the flight pattern of the TIE Fighters to make sure they always stay within the field of view. So there’s always something for the gunners to shoot at. There are probably 100 different systems like that that are working invisibly in the background.
“When you start with a clean sheet of paper [these issues] don’t necessarily jump out at you as this is a problem to solve. But as you start to develop a prototype, you go, ‘oh, well, if they can put the camera there how are we going to make sure…'”
Kalama and his team needed to make sure that, creatively, the ride felt like the way that guests would expect the Millennium Falcon to behave.
Looking to the future
Asa Kalama and his team at Walt Disney Imagineering have raised the bar for theme park attractions with Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. But what does this mean for the future? Will we see more experiences with participatory gameplay and interactivity?
“As our guests become exposed to different types of entertainment, their expectations of experiences continue to grow and evolve. And so there is plenty of space for us to continue to explore and pursue interactive and participatory attractions.
“At the same time, the traditional experiences that we’ve created for decades and generations are so meaningful and powerful. It isn’t appropriate for every experience to be an interactive one. There are some stories that are better told in other ways. So really it’s just about finding the right sort of interaction mode for the experience that you’re creating.”
“The best part of the job that we all have at Walt Disney Imagineering is the breadth of talent. Both internal to the company and that we have the ability to engage with externally. We build mini-cities and it really does take well over 100 different disciplines.
“With Imagineering, the thing that’s most important is a hunger and a willingness to try new and exciting things and to learn. There is a desire to find new ways to push the boundaries. Because I think if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be willing to take these big risks on new, exciting, never been done before experiences.
“You need that sense of confidence in yourself and in your team. That somehow, someway, you’re going to find a way to make it work.”