One of the Walt Disney Studios' massive sound stages is beginning to look a little like a NASA control room. It's the same Stage #3 that was built for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the early 1950s, when the studio began to invest more and more time in live action production. But these days the great tank in the floor is not filled with water or a model of the Nautilus. The tank is empty and covered except for a section that allows the lower half of an enormous scenic backdrop to hang below floor level. The backdrop is painted with stars, star clusters and great gossamer fingers of glowing interstellar gas.
Facing this gigantic galactic curtain and mounted on the floor of the stage are shiny twin tubular steel tracks that extend 68 feet to the rear wall of the studio. There, in a glass-enclosed humidity-controlled environment, are the banks of the NOVA 3/12 computer system from Data General. Computer video terminals and display screens can be seen in abundance both within the glass cage and alongside the gleaming metal tracks where a complex series of servo motors and metal arms and platforms rest. A long crane arm extends from the center of the "car" that rides on the tracks. Cables, some two-and-a-half inches in diameter and containing up to 150 pairs of wires, form a long umbilical card back to the glass cage.
It could be equipment borrowed from Berkeley's atomic physics lab or a testing bench for a new NASA space probe. But it isn’t. It's for fun. It’s for making movies. It's ACES.
ACES, or Automatic Camera Effects System, was developed by the Disney imagineers for The Black Hole, the studio's first entry into high budget SF production.
Don Iwerks, son of Ub Iwerks, longtime Disney associate, was the project manager for the team that developed ACES. "It was a year ago last january when it became apparent from the script of The Black Hole that we were going to have to have some sort of camera system that was capable of precise programming and repeatability."