Excellence in Action
Daniel Baker ’09
Interviewed by Monique Beals • July 26, 2018
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I started at UCLA as a Theater major. My high school had a great theater program, and that is where I got interested in stage management and set/sound/lighting design. It was really fun having a technical focus, because as a Theater freshman, you start with all the same classes as the actors. While my friends in other majors were solving math problems and writing lengthy essays, I was taking “movement” classes and doing Tai Chi in the sculpture garden twice a week.
The theater program was a great experience, but about halfway through my time at UCLA, I realized that traditional theater like you see on Broadway wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I happened to find Cognitive Science in the course catalogue: a combination of psychology, computer science, and neuroscience. I was particularly interested in how the brain perceives design and for a while I considered becoming a neuroscientist. Cog Sci was a good counterpoint to the arts, I liked having both an analytical side and a creative side, and so I became a student of both North and South campus.
I also got involved with the UCLA Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance (REMAP). It is a collaboration between the School of Theater, Film, and Television, and the School of Engineering. We worked on projects that combined arts and technology – everything from an interactive light sculpture for a UCLA Family Wellness Center, to a collaboration with the Theater school’s spring musical where we dynamically projected all the stage sets using a video game engine. I started there as a student intern and after I graduated I worked at REMAP as an Associate Producer.
After that, I joined Walt Disney Imagineering and have been here most of my professional career. Imagineering is the creative division of The Walt Disney Company that designs and builds all of the Disney theme parks, hotels cruise ships across the world. We even have Imagineers who design books, games and merchandise.
I started as the Associate Producer for the Creative Technology Studio at Imagineering. It was a group of technologists and 3D artists. We worked on digital tools to help Imagineers design more effectively, including pre-visualizations for new rides and attractions that would allow Imagineers to virtually ride those experiences in the computer before they were actually built. About 2 years ago I was asked to join the Marvel Global Portfolio at Imagineering, leading the creative team developing a new Marvel-themed land.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
As a kid, I grew up creating haunted houses in my parents’ garage for Halloween. Each year it got more and more complex, the designs and the story got more advanced. We referenced Disneyland a lot and studied the techniques Imagineers used to create the Haunted Mansion.
When I got to UCLA, I discovered there is actually an Entertainment Design class in the Theater department, taught by Imagineers. It was probably one of the best classes I took at UCLA. It was cross-disciplinary, and we had students from North and South campus. We learned about the philosophies and best practices of entertainment design. Guest lecturers from Imagineering came to speak, and the final was a group project that we had to pitch to a panel of Imagineering judges. That is when I made the realization that traditional theater is maybe not my thing, but this new thing I really love – and I made it my goal to design worlds that let people immerse themselves in different stories.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
UCLA is huge reason I am where I am today. Between the REMAP research lab and the Imagineering class, those were my two favorite UCLA experiences and the experiences that trained me best for my career. Working on projects outside of the classroom is a great way to learn to work with others, solve complex design problems, and really get a taste of real-world experience. The working world isn’t necessarily multiple choice scantron tests, but it is about delivering real-world products.
Is there a specific UCLA alumnus who helped or inspired you along the way throughout your career?
There was a UCLA alumnus, Marty Sklar, who was previously the leader of Imagineering for many years. He was one of the last people at Disney who actually worked with Walt Disney directly. He went to UCLA as a Political Science major and was the Editor of The Daily Bruin. He came to Disney shortly after graduating and spent his whole career there, ultimately becoming a Disney Legend. I got to meet and work with him as part of the Imagineering class on campus. He passed away recently, but he still is a source of inspiration to me and many Imagineers.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
A couple of years ago, I was asked to join the Marvel Portfolio at Imagineering and work in my dream role, leading a team creating new attractions for theme parks. Previously I had only been working with smaller teams, and my new role brought me into a big group with lots of new people. For a while, I struggled with the transition to a leadership position – inspiring lots of people to do great work is tough! I ended up reaching out to a lot of my mentors, including prior bosses at UCLA and others I had worked with in the past. I asked them how they lead others and what techniques they use leading their own teams. I found it super helpful just to ask for help. I feel like I have grown so much in the past few years as a leader here at Disney and it’s all thanks to my mentorship team.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
One of the things that helped me the most was to pursue learning as many different subjects as I possibly could. Especially in undergrad, it’s a great opportunity to get a strong foundation across multiple areas. It will make you a better candidate in any field. At Imagineering, we have over 150 different disciplines – everything from writers, architects, lighting designers, you name it – who all come together as a team to create and build our projects. By studying lots of different subjects in undergrad, it gave me broad knowledge across lots of fields. I can go up to anyone on my team no matter what their specialty and comfortably talk about what they are working on. Being a Producer is like a translator between disciplines, connecting big-picture what each person is working on, so that wide background is really helpful.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
I’ve been a UCLA Alumni Mentor for the past two years and have a couple really awesome undergraduate mentees. It has been great to help them with everything from choosing classes to working on resumes for summer internships.
I have also been talking to my old boss at UCLA about potentially coming back as a guest lecturer. I’d love to help inspire the next generation of talent and think that teaching is really exciting, so I am looking forward to getting more involved with UCLA from that perspective.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I think UCLA is clearly a world-renowned institution. The cultural cache that comes with saying you went to UCLA is a really powerful thing to have when you introduce yourself to other people. UCLA is a powerhouse of innovation and research in everything from arts and culture to science and technology. It comes with a great sense of pride that we all share in this great academic institution.
And finally, what’s next?
I’ve recently been asked to become the Producer of the Play Disney Parks mobile app, which lets guests turn wait time into play time using their mobile device. You’re going to start looking forward to waiting in queue lines for attractions! You can go on digital missions across our lands, where the physical environment reacts to you. The Play app connects the physical world of our parks with a new digital experience and let’s guests dive into to our amazing worlds in entirely new ways. The possibilities are endless. I’m really excited as it is the perfect blend of my background in both digital and physical experience design. Look for it at our parks next time you visit!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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