Published online 12 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1034

News

Disney backs research centres

New facilities in Zurich and Pittsburgh hope to develop film technologies for the next animated blockbuster.

Movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo revolutionized animated cinema, but the Walt Disney Company now hopes that the appliance of science will help them to produce even greater cinematic spectaculars in the future.

disneyMinnie and Mickey are about to start a new life in the lab.AP Photo

The company has announced the foundation of two Disney Research labs to develop new film techniques: one at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and another at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

This is the first major collaboration between Disney and research scientists since Walt Disney himself made cartoon films with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun for NASA in 1955 and 1957.

“It is necessary to collaborate with world-class innovators to create the next generation of movie technologies,” says Joe Marks, vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development. “The choice of ETH and Carnegie Mellon was easy — both universities are of great technical strength in subjects we care about, like information technology and visual computing.”

ETH computational scientist Markus Gross, who is the designated director of Disney Research in Zurich, adds that there is currently no comparable collaboration in Europe. The Zurich centre will focus on three-dimensional computer simulation and special effects, and hopes to expand its research into artificial intelligence and robotics.

“We get access to people and their ideas, and the universities get access to real problems and real data. This collaboration contains enormous potential for all participants,” says Marks.

“Students and postdocs involved in projects at Disney Research will profit in terms of experience with patenting and project management in the context of a world-leading industry,” says Gross. “And three-dimensional computer graphics and animation are also becoming increasingly important in complex scientific simulations in areas such as astrophysics.”

Disney Research in Zurich will open its doors in October 2008 with a total staff of 20 people. Three senior researchers have already been recruited. “Disney is paying every single employee, while ETH Zurich provides the premises in return for a moderate rent,” explains Gross. The development initiative is set to run for five years, with ambitions to extend the project if it is successful. 

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