Disney Imagineer to Virtual Reality Innovator: Vaughn Comes Home to Pierson

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Dreamscape Immersive's Alien Zoo virtual reality experience. Image courtesy of Dreamscape Immersive

At age 27, Bruce Vaughn found himself at a table in East Hampton, borderline gawking at the kind woman from The Walt Disney Company human resources department seated across from him.

The self-taught cameraman was reeling from what, she clearly thought, was great news.

“You are now an Imagineer!” she had just told him, barely able to contain her excitement.

He took a deep breath and considered his options. He went with the unbridled truth.

“I have no idea what that is,” he had replied. “I was an English major. ‘Imagineer,’ that’s not even a word.”

She was appalled — and he hadn’t even told her the worst part.

He had never visited a Disney park.

Two months into a whirlwind career he didn’t ask for, word had quickly spread — and he found himself on a flight to Orlando with a list of Disney attractions in hand that he was instructed to see.

“I was skeptical — and secretly really interested in making films,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “So my first experience at a Disney park was: I’m 27, I’m alone and I get a car at the airport and I start driving. And I have no idea what to expect.”

In a matter of moments, any lurking cynicism had abated as he stepped foot into the Magic Kingdom. All around him, children and adults alike shared genuine smiles. Despite himself, he did, too — even while waiting for the “Peter Pan” attraction to start, where the average rider couldn’t have been older than 10.

A small pirate boat appeared in the distance and, suddenly, they were flying through Wendy Darling’s bedroom, out the nursery window and over moonlit London, on their way to Neverland. The ride wasn’t as technically advanced as his other park favorite, “Star Tours,” and it wasn’t as long, but it triggered what is core to these experiences: the child inside.

He was enraptured and enthralled. But, most importantly, he was hooked.

“I literally called my parents that night and said, ‘You were almost the perfect parents. You did a great job but you blew one thing: You didn’t take me and my brother — when we were young — to Disney and put us on ‘Peter Pan.’ What that would have done, I don’t even know.

“But it all turned out great, because most Imagineers had that experience when they were a kid and dreamt of becoming an Imagineer,” he continued. “I ended up stumbling into it.”

What began as a fluke turned into a nearly 25-year career that took him all the way to the top of Walt Disney Imagineering, paving the way for his future at the forefront of virtual reality — which he will discuss during “Bruce Vaughn: The Future of the Cinematic Experience and Immersive Narrative” on Monday, October 8, at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, his alma mater.

“It’s been kind of an amazing journey,” he said.

Bruce Vaughn

Sag Harbor, Born and Bred

Bruce Vaughn had been accepted to law school in Chicago when he was offered a job with Associates & Ferren, a small production company operating out of a few hangars near the East Hampton airport.

They had secured the contract for “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and needed an extra hand. With a year off to burn — and no idea how to break into the entertainment industry — the burgeoning filmmaker accepted.

“I had just taken a tour and Jim Shelly, the manager at the time, asked a lot of nice questions about me,” Vaughn recalled. “Two weeks later, I get a phone call from him saying, ‘You’re hired,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ I had no idea that, apparently, that was an interview. That was the one and only job interview I did, and I didn’t know that it was an interview.”

The lifelong George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fan was the lowest man on set, driving a forklift on the East End and an old Mercedes diesel truck to their second location in Hoboken, New Jersey — while the principal acting was out in California.

“For me, what did I care? I was in my early 20s and I was around all these cameras,” he said. “At night, I would sit with the cameraman and learn everything about the cameras and the projection systems. As luck would have it, after only a few months, there was a huge sandstorm out in the desert and it was all hands on deck.”

With 24 hours to learn everything he didn’t know — a directive from company owner Bran Ferren — Vaughn was quickly promoted to assistant cameraman for special effects. It was trial by fire, and he fooled director of photography Frost Wilkinson through not one, but two stellar films.

“Being that I was in the special effects crew, if you’ve ever sat through the end credits of the movie, the special effects team is usually last,” Vaughn said. “So my poor family had to see the not-so-great movies, first of all, and then sit through what seemed like 30 minutes of titles, just to watch my name quickly scroll by. I did end up going to law school, but I was already bitten by the entertainment bug.”

After six weeks in Chicago, Vaughn called up Ferren.

“I think I’m gonna leave law school,” he said.

“You’re smarter than I thought,” Ferren replied. “I thought you’d last a year.”

They became a dynamic duo, drumming up work together — Ferren with his red hair and big matching beard, dressed to the nines in a safari suit, while Vaughn played the role of the “lawyer business guy next to this crazy genius” — and eventually caught the eye of The Walt Disney Company, who was struggling with a complicated projection.

It would go on to become The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and, not long after, led to Disney’s acquisition of the engineering and design firm in 1993 — and Vaughn unintentionally offending their human resources representative.

“Based on our work, they looked at the company and said, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen a company that looked so close to Imagineering,’ which is the group that designs and builds all the theme parks around the world,” Vaughn said. “The next thing I know, I’m on a plane to California, working for The Disney Company, which I really had no affiliation with other than watching ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on Sunday nights.

Disney: ‘I Believe in Being an Innovator’

Returning to the Imagineering headquarters after his Disney initiation, Vaughn had a new appreciation for the team around him — and his job at large.

“I became in love with this sense of immersive storytelling versus passive storytelling, where the people are in it,” he said. “To my surprise, I didn’t even know it existed to this level. That first trip down there, I understood, ‘Okay, these people aren’t fooling around. These are truly artisans and artists and designers and storytellers, and they get it.’”

His days revolved around robotics, audio-animatronics, ride systems and special effects for attractions around the world. He climbed the ladder from writer, to producer of attractions, to vice president of research and development.

“It was almost this uncanny thing where, every five years or so, I’d feel like, ‘I need to go figure out the next thing.’ I’m sort of restless that way,” he said. “When I feel like I’ve mastered something, I just want to move on. Somehow, without saying anything, the company always knew.”

In 2007, Vaughn became the chief creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering — a position he held until April 2016.

“To my surprise, I was there almost 25 years,” he said. “It ended up being an amazing career. I ended up having a huge respect for this really incredible group of, quite frankly, geniuses from every field of technology to creativity. And they tell stories through architecture and immersion and plants and attractions and live entertainment.”

At any given time, his team ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 employees. He oversaw Shanghai Disneyland from the ground up. He re-imagined California Adventure, built two cruise ships and countless hotels, entertainment shows and attractions across the globe.

Right around his 50th birthday, Pandora opened at Animal Kingdom, the Star Wars attractions were wrapping up, and Vaughn was feeling restless again.

“I literally had this moment where a little switch went off in my head and I was like, ‘I’m done,’” he said. “They said, ‘Take the weekend.’ I took the weekend, and was never so relaxed. I said, ‘I really feel like I’ve done everything I can do.’”

He decided to take two years off and see the world. Four months in, he was seated at another table, across from Kevin Wall and Walter Parkes — the co-founders of a new location-based VR company, Dreamscape Immersive — and his childhood hero, Steven Spielberg.

“Walter said the words to me: ‘I know you’re gonna take two years off, but don’t you think this is literally your next act?’”

A New Frontier

Vaughn didn’t hesitate.

Monday, October 1, marked his two-year anniversary as CEO of Dreamscape, which has since tripled in value and grown from four employees to 50. This past winter, they launched “Alien Zoo” at Westfield Century in Los Angeles — which sold out, in less than 24 hours, twice.

“We blast you on a space elevator up to a 19-mile-wide spaceship where the Intergalactic Wildlife Federation has gone around the galaxy and collected endangered species — and it’s completely convincing,” Vaughn said. “When you finally finish the experience and return to this world, these things live like real memories because, as far as your brain is concerned, that’s how they’re stored. It blows your mind.

“The time for this is now,” he continued. “Virtual reality has tried to stand up a few times, like a little baby giraffe, and it has fallen. But now it’s standing up for good.”

Looking forward, the un-tethered technology has probable applications in design and communications — “I think it’s a different experience if world leaders are talking across from tables instead of through a phone,” Vaughn said — as well as health and wellness. Medical students, for example, could walk through a human heart to learn its intricacies, and first responders could participate in training simulations that would be too dangerous to stage.

And the lessons would be retained, because the information is actually mapping into the brain, Vaughn explained.

“You do run the risk of, what about the real world?” he said. “One thing I’ve learned by building and overseeing the creation of artificial things my entire working life is: If you really want to understand the complexity and have a true appreciation of just how magnificent the world and life is — and nature is — try to fake it.”

While designing a 145-foot sculpture of a baobab tree for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, researchers kept running into complications, the most significant of which was the leaves kept blowing off. Outside of being artificial and expensive, Vaughn couldn’t have park visitors getting hit by them.

So they brought in an expert, who explained that trees hold intuition. They react to barometric pressure, weather and wind changes by curling and turning their leaves, making them more aerodynamic.

“Even though it doesn’t take any strength to rip off a leaf, it will survive a hurricane. How’s that?” Vaughn said. “And yet, here we were with welded steel and we couldn’t get them to stay on.”

Reinforcements proved to be the answer for The Tree of Life, which still stands as the centerpiece of the park — all of its leaves intact.

“It’s really fun to do, to create this stuff, whether it’s at Disney or through virtual realty,” Vaughn said. “The result, and I mean this in the best way, is that it’s almost like a drug-like experience. People get in there and it’s like, ‘Wow, I just need to do it again. I want to bring friends and share it.’

“For us, at Dreamscape, we intend to use this power for good. We’re really interested in awe and wonder and wish fulfillment,” he continued. “Everybody wants to fly — that’s why we fly in our dreams, where you’re free. And we can do that for you. And you can feel what that feels like.”

“Bruce Vaughn: The Future of the Cinematic Experience and Immersive Narrative” will be held on Monday, October 8, at 3 p.m. in the Pierson High School auditorium, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. Admission is free. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.

Vaughn will also be a guest participant in a Winick Talk panel on virtual reality on Sunday, October 7, at 10 a.m. at Rowdy Hall, located at 10 Main Street in East Hampton, as part of the 26thannual Hamptons International Film Festival. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

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