People, Perspective, Projects

Designing Disney Wonder and Magic with Light

An interview with

Jason Scott Read
Principal Show Lighting Designer and Lighting Team Lead
for Walt Disney Imagineering

You probably remember your first magical Disney Park experience. Find out what goes into creating that sense of wonder and unforgettable memories for millions of guests from around the world. The LightFair blog team interviewed Disney Imagineer Jason Scott Read about his work, the role of lighting design in creating these experiences, favorite projects and more.

Tell us a little about your background and how you are influenced by light as a medium.

My first memory of “noticing” light was as a kid during a day of skiing and watching over the course of that day how light would dance differently off the snow as the sky changes and at the end of the day how it would graze almost magically through the trees.

Light has the power to amplify. It makes the good, great and the great, extraordinary. In architectural spaces light guides us. It tells us where to go and what the visual hierarchy of the space is. Most important of all, light tells a story.

It connects the disconnected and elevates the themes of a space. Nothing is visible until light hits it, and therefore as lighting designers, we are the editors of the physical environment.  It is a powerful and humbling medium to specialize in, and I am fascinated by that every day of my life.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

The Show Lighting team at Walt Disney Imagineering is responsible for everything a guest sees during a visit to any one of the Disney Parks worldwide. This leads to the opportunity to design for amazingly different spaces – highly theatrical environments like attractions and shows and also highly architectural spaces like restaurants, shops, and area development. That variety is incredibly fulfilling as a professional designer, but the best part is that I get to see the smiles on guests when our projects open and know that you’ve helped create memories for families of every shape and size.

What is the role of lighting design in “making magic” at Disney?

At Walt Disney Imagineering, light and lighting are considered from the very earliest stages of a design to help set the mood and tell the story. We use light to add emotion to our projects, even in more “architectural” spaces. In fact, we sometimes say that we are Theatrical lighting designers working in an Architectural context.

Light and lighting really is that final polish that creates a sense of wonder. We spend many hours in the field making sure color, focus, and programming of every fixture are just so to create the magical environments the Disney parks are known for.

Could you share a few examples of projects where you used lighting design to shape the guest experience?

At Walt Disney Imagineering we lead with the story—that defines everything from what type of experience we create down to the individual light fixtures and light sources we specify. We use lighting tools from many different genres of entertainment to achieve those goals — from concerts to theater, to architecture, and even light art.

Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park

For example, when I worked on Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we wanted to create a sense of awe and wonder (with even a few moments of trepidation) as our guests explore a landscape of another world. So all our light sources are hidden and mysterious, implying the glow of unseen bioluminescent plants. That light responds to the sounds of animals moving around nearby—all the light is coming from the unique plants.

That’s completely different from my current work leading the lighting design team at EPCOT. At EPCOT we celebrate people and what they can do together. Instead of transporting you to another world, we’re showing you the best that this world can be, and what we could do together in the future. We just finished relighting Spaceship Earth, EPCOT’s icon with almost 2,000 individually controllable, color-changing points of light. Because our story is about human communication and connection, our points of light not only shine out, but they can also shine across and connect with each other.

What advice would you give to an aspiring Imagineer or a lighting designer interested in working in this space of entertainment/theme parks?

I always love talking to students as there’s such great energy in people excited about the future and looking forward to their careers. I certainly would not be where I am today without the guiding hand of mentors who helped me along the way and shaped helped propel my career. I would encourage those students to find mentors to help guide them through the early parts of their careers. Not only will this help you understand what skills you might continue to develop, but also give you the support—even the most talented designers have setbacks, and that social network is a great way to learn and grow from those moments. 

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