Imagine taking Disney movies and characters from the screen and bringing them to life in the real world. That’s the job of everyone at Walt Disney Imagineering. This division of the Walt Disney Company brings together all kinds of different disciplines in the arts and sciences to make movie and TV magic a reality at Disney’s theme parks.
These teams help make complex attractions like the Amazing Spider-Man stunt show at Disney’s California Adventure park. The show brings Marvel’s Spider-Man to life in front of you, including swings through the air that make it easy to get lost in the story. But it took years to get this show ready — partly because the Spider-Man that flies through the air is actually a stunt robot.
But what does it take to land this dream job building Spider-Man? We spoke with Disney Imagineer Morgan Pope to get an idea of what his experience was like toward eventually working at Disney and get some behind-the-scenes information on how the robotic Marvel hero was created.
Meet Disney Imagineer Morgan Pope
Pope is a research scientist at Walt Disney Imagineering. He helped create and develop the Spider-Man stunt robot over several years.
“What makes the job at Disney different from a normal robotics job is that what we’re producing is ultimately a magic trick,” Pope said about his work, noting that every day could be completely different from the last.
Depending on where he is on a project, he may be physically building something, writing up a bit of firmware or putting together a small mechanical thing for testing purposes. He says his favorite part is the people he works with.
“Being in a team of people who are good at what they do and excited about what they’re trying to create, it’s such a special thing,” Pope said.
Pope’s specialty is in robots and physics. For the Spider-Man project, he worked closely with Tony Dohi, who has a technical background with degrees in mechanical engineering and design. In addition to Dohi, Pope said that the project ultimately had over 100 people collaborate to build the webslinging hero.
Getting to Disney
Backing up a bit, we asked Pope how he got his start in robotics, which he notes began while attending Harvard and pursuing a major in physics. Pope met with a grad student, whose work on robotics sparked some inspiration.
Pope says he thought, “Oh, my gosh, that’s the coolest thing ever. And wouldn’t it be awesome if I could do that?” That encounter stuck with him. After a few months, Pope decided to make the pivot. He earned a Ph. D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford, and during that pursuit, wound up in a graduate program where he worked on little robots that climbed and glided — oddly fitting before his eventual move up to working on the much larger Spider-Man.
Then much like many other jobs, finding his way from Stanford to Spider-Man involved a connection: One of his professors knew an employee at Disney research who served as a starting point toward his current position.
“It was never a linear path to his particular job,” Pope says. That makes a lot of sense, considering that Walt Disney Imagineering employs a wide variety of professions including architects, designers and engineers. Remember, the real goal is making magic. It’s not about just building a robot or designing a costume — it’s all about the entirety of the illusion. Meeting these goals requires all kinds of talent, and as of this writing, Disney’s Imagineering division is hiring a civil engineer, software engineers, a show director and design interns for whatever the division is cooking up next.
More on the Spider-Man robot
The origins of the stunt robot for Spider-Man begin much like the little robots Pope used to work with: Initial concepts included a little box that had some movable weights inside. Those weights would let the little box change how fast it spun. A box isn’t exactly Spider-Man, so they kept at it. Continued iterations led to a stick man, then a pneumatic figure and an electric version. At least 10 different prototypes were developed on the way to what’s now at Disneyland.
During development, actor Tom Holland from the most recent Spider-Man trilogy happened to be visiting the building where Pope and his team were doing tests. In addition to getting an early look at the robotic counterpart of his Peter Parker character, the team asked Holland to autograph the robot, which he did graciously. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige also signed the robot during his own visit, and both signatures are now embossed into all the other 3D-printed chest plates for robots used in the show.
Disney Imagineering is in constant development, with the Spider-Man stunt robot being just the latest to make its debut. Projects from Disney Imagineering will likely find their way into the many other Disney parks expansions currently in development, from the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel that is close to opening at Walt Disney World, to a Moana-themed area currently under construction at Epcot.
“I think there’s so many opportunities to make dramatic dynamic robots, and there are so many challenges,” Pope says.
Maybe we’ll see robots that can run and jump on their own. If you’re interested in your own Disney Imagineering pursuits, check out Walt Disney Imagineering.