Eric Baker: from Grady College to Walt Disney Imagineering

Eric Baker: from Grady College to Walt Disney Imagineering

January 30, 2019

It should come as no surprise that the son of a building
contractor and a junior high school art teacher, would spend time sewing and designing
his own Halloween costumes at 8-years-old and molding his own Yoda masks a few
years later; or, that he would grow up to work in the design playground of Walt
Disney World.

Eric Baker (ABJ ’90) is a creative director for Walt Disney
Imagineering, responsible for storytelling and playscaping the look and feel of
everything from Disney cruise ships to its newest land, “Star Wars: Galaxy’s
Edge,” scheduled to open in this year.

The Rossville, Georgia, native has always had a can-do attitude,
which has propelled him throughout his life.

“Never say ‘no.’ Say ‘yes, I can do it,’ then try to figure it
out,” Baker advises about a technique he learned from his mother.

Eric Baker addressing a group of students in Studio 100 in April 2018.

As a Grady College film production student and theater minor, he
knocked on the door of the local cable 13 offices asking if they had a job.
When they told him the only opening they had was doing make-up, he said “I can
do make-up,” even though he knew little about it.

“It didn’t pay much, but for me it was amazing because I had total
access to the equipment,” Baker said. He worked his way up to the role of
studio camera operator for the Larry Munson show and was able to use the
equipment during off hours, which gave him experience to add to his resume.

His first paid job in an art department came after graduation and
after completing the CareerStart Program sponsored by Disney. Following the
program, Baker knew he wanted to stay in Florida, which was bustling with film
production. He found out that some of the production crews at Nickelodeon went out
to enjoy a drink after work, so he would show up at the same bar to network
with the crew. He has never been afraid to talk with people, and the next thing
he knew, he was working at Nickelodeon.

“For 10 years, I probably did every television show that Nick
did,” Baker recalled of his days of creating the crazy buildings that Clarissa’s
father was always building on “Clarissa Explains All,”  and trying to think about how to gross people
out for “Double Dare.”

His resume also included Disney Channel shows like “The Mickey
Mouse Club” and numerous projects with the Muppets.

“One of the highlights of my career was working with The Muppets,”
Baker said. “They are incredibly talented people to work with. Jim Henson got
everyone thinking collaboratively.”

When Baker wasn’t working, he was tinkering.

“On my own time, I built stuff,” Baker admits. “I would sit at
home at night and build space ships and stuff like that.” Baker admits that he
is most creative at night, sometimes waking up at 3 a.m. with his best ideas.

His work with children’s television led to more mainstream
entertainment, including work on “From the Earth to the Moon,” a mini-series
that earned Emmy nominations for actor Tom Hanks and for the special effects
team that Baker was a part of.

The lure of children’s entertainment and theme parks were calling
again. This time it was Universal Studios and they were building a new theme
land based on the beloved Harry Potter book series.

Baker recalls his start at Universal Studios: “They called and
asked if I could build models. I said ‘yes, I can build models,’ so I built
them a castle. I didn’t know what it was, but it turned out to be Hogwarts

Baker spent the next two years building concept models for “The
Wizarding World of Harry Potter” before becoming the decorator for each of the
four parks that were building, including parks in the United States and Japan. As
a decorator, he focused on props and set dressing, like the 106,000 props used
in Diagon Alley.

“I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a great career. It’s show business and it’s never been like work to me.”

— Eric Baker (ABJ ’90)

The Harry Potter parks changed the landscape of theme parks
because of their totally immersive experience.

“It was a game changer for the whole theme park experience,” Baker
said. “It became the new bar that everyone was trying to reach.”

Baker and his team won industry accolades for their work,
including the Paragon Award, the first of its kind for excellence awarded by
the Themed Entertainment Association, and one that they said would not be given
out again until someone tops the Harry Potter park. The award citation included
praise for creating a “a completely seamless storytelling experience without
parallel that is unmistakably superior to anything.”

But, it is the emotion and joy that families experience that
brings the greatest reward to Baker. One of the most vivid experiences was the
time he went to Hogwarts Castle as a spectator to watch the families enjoy the Castle
just after it opened. He started focusing on two young fans who were dressed in
Harry Potter robes, soaking in the experience.

“I knew I had done a good job when they dropped to their knees and
cried,” Baker recalls. “I thought ‘we did it.’”

Eric Baker talks about his excitement when he sees families enjoying his work at the theme parks. He spoke with a group of EMST students in September 2018.

Just when it seemed that the pinnacle of his career had been
reached, Baker received a call from Disney, offering him a job to create a
similar experience for an unknown project. For the past three years working
with Disney, Baker has been creating the new Star Wars themed lands in Florida
and California, a project that even has him visiting movie sets including “Solo:
A Star Wars Story,” to do research.

“Taking from film and creating something people can see and touch
is so rewarding,” Baker explains of his work, which includes not only creating
the look and feel of what people take away from the film, but also building
sets and props for durability and longevity.

Baker is the first to admit that he has a pretty neat job. “This Star Wars project that I’m working on…it’s what I grew up with.” He describes visiting Skywalker Ranch, the production facility created by George Lucas, and getting to photograph all the props from the original films he grew up watching. “I was getting to see all the stuff up close from the films that pretty much changed my life. It was pretty emotional.”

He continues: “I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a great
career. It’s show business and it’s never been like work to me.”

When the Star Wars lands  open next
summer, Baker is confident it will be a multi-generational experience for
families. He also has aspirations to be the only person to win two Paragon
Awards. While he is on a good trajectory to do that, he doesn’t lose site of
the emotions of bringing families together. “That’s the most rewarding thing
about what we do…we make people happy.”