The fifth annual Entertainment Designer Forum was held this past Friday at the Orlando Repertory Theatre, bringing together top talent from the worlds of theme parks, movies, and television for an evening of behind-the-scenes chats.
Organized in memory of Universal Orlando designer Stephanie Gerard, all money raised from ticket sales and unique auction items is being donated to the American Cancer Society and this year the event raised more than ever, earning upwards of $13,000 while treating an audience of fans and hopefuls to lots of laughs mixed with interesting stories and advice for breaking into the industry.
Two panel discussions included theme park designers from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa, along with some Hollywood talent. Together the group has worked on a wide array of projects ranging from the old Nickelodeon Studios to today’s biggest attractions such as Antarctica and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to popular events like Halloween Horror Nights and Star Wars Weekends. Most of the projects these designers are currently working on are secret, but do include Falcon’s Fury and Pantopia at Busch Gardens as well as Disneyland’s upcoming 60th anniversary celebration.
A continuing theme throughout the evening focused on how these creative individuals were inspired to do what they do, then turning around and helping to inspire the attending audience.
Among this year’s new panelists was winner of Syfy’s “Face Off” Laura Tyler (below, middle). Her journey over the last few years mirrors what many of the event’s attendees are striving to achieve. She has worked in Universal Orlando’s makeup department for many years, but since appearing on the show has joined a makeup union and is now also working on major motion pictures. But she said she’s still being inspired and impressed by others’ works that she regularly sees coming across her Facebook feed.
Another newcomer was Gene Columbus (above, left), the Orlando Repertory Theatre’s executive director. But beyond helping to organize the event at this new venue (below – much larger and more comfortable), Columbus just lats year retired from working at Disney for 38 years. Disney hasn’t left him yet, beginning the evening by telling the audience, “Welcome to this happy place.” He was also the most forward with offering opportunities for talented attendees, noting that the Rep is actively looking for new designers.
Universal Orlando creative leaders Mike Aiello and Kim Grommoll (below) led the two panel discussions, which also featured designers Eric Baker, Nick Collins, Cindy White, Brian Morrow, Robbi Lepre, Charles Gray, Michael Roddy, Mark Hervat, Michael Burnett, and Bryn Court.
They all similarly got their start in various odd jobs, some related to the industry, others not quite. Tech services, a fry cook, multiple Jaws ride skippers, and even one of the original “friends” of Sweetums at Walt Disney World. Their own interests growing up were just as varied, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Muppets, Predator, horror, and a particularly influential drama teacher.
So while they’re all included under the title of “designers,” not one can say they arrived where they are from the same path. Likewise, the ability to create theme park attractions or sculptures for movies comes from a lifetime of experiences, practice at their crafts, and sometimes even a bit of luck.
It’s possible, they say, that there are no more original ideas left in the world, only ones that haven’t been put together before. Pop culture is a big inspiration for all of the designers, whether a necessity for attractions based on existing intellectual property or simply useful for reaching an audience of consumers. So, as Cindy White (below, middle) put it, “The Simpsons” is just as important to a designer as the artistic works of Raphael.
The experts agreed that the journey to becoming a designer, whether for a theme park, movie, TV show, or stage production, starts immediately. Would-be designers should find their passion, stick with it, and refine it. Failing is not something to be afraid of and every day that work is done is a success, according to Disney show director Michael Roddy (below, middle), even if only as a personal project. Disney art and design manager Mark Hervat (below, left) added that the notion of “getting your foot in the door” by taking an unrelated job in a big company isn’t always the best way to move forward, as that can hinder progress in honing a craft. Practice, building a vocabulary, and getting a better handle on the general artistry of the world are all great ways to move toward success.
Even after landing that “dream job” doing makeup for Halloween Horror Nights or coming up with new ride concepts, there are still plenty of hurdles for even the top designers. Projects get cut after weeks, months, or even years of development. Sometimes a major attraction becomes nothing more than a popcorn stand. But the expert designers say they will make that the best darn popcorn stand imaginable.
In corporations like Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, it’s common for these designers to have to pitch their ideas to those who control the finances. Without money, nothing gets built – and the money holders don’t always understand “designer speak.” Being able to articulate a vision to those who don’t have the same creative abilities is vital for success in this business. SeaWorld creative director Brian Morrow (below) joking referred to his financial woes as “giant buzz kills” but admits that these obstacles can present new chances for exciting creative challenges.
Theme park designers often pitch ideas that are bigger than they know can be approved so that when items are cut, they aren’t missed. Laura Tyler recommends delivering three options to clients, including one outlandish option that acts as a red herring – cautioning that occasionally the client will choose the worst of the bunch. But it’s a risk that can help a designer get a project made the way they envision.
When good ideas are cut, they shouldn’t be discarded. Walt Disney Imagineers never forget an idea that doesn’t move beyond the initial “blue sky” phase or pitch. Unused Halloween Horror Nights concepts often resurface years later, sometimes putting together pieces that wouldn’t work independently. And sometimes projects need to start small with a tease for the future, easing into a major development a little bit at a time.
Original vs. Outside
One of the biggest debates in the world of theme park design is in the increasingly large presence of intellectual property-based experiences. Harry Potter, Transformers, The Walking Dead, and Avatar are among today’s biggest franchises that have inspired new or upcoming theme park attractions. But many vocal fans at the Entertainment Designer Forum made their displeasure with this trend known, appreciating original ideas more.
And the designers agree.
Halloween Horror Nights designer Kim Grommoll admits he’d rather work on an original haunted house idea than one based on a movie or TV show. Brian Morrow boasts that SeaWorld works almost exclusively with original ideas. But all admit that known properties draw visitors more easily than unfamiliar characters and worlds, which is why marketing departments latch onto the outside ideas.
For Horror Nights designers, translating a movie, TV show, or video game into a haunted attraction still involves plenty of creative work, transforming a flat screen into a fully surrounding environment. When designers are given an intellectual property, they give it their all to make it appealing to their guests. It’s a trend for theme parks that they believe isn’t going away any time soon.
Morrow admits SeaWorld’s Antarctica was absolutely a response to the success of Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “We have eyeballs,” he said, saying it was impossible for them to ignore. But SeaWorld took their own direction venturing out into their own original ideas instead of basing it on an existing property. But they are the exception in the world of themed entertainment right now.
Mike Aiello says that fan favorite, original Halloween Horror Nights icons of the past (such as Jack the Clown and The Caretaker) aren’t gone forever, but notes that the event is its own icon right now. He calls it a Pandora’s Box in which all kinds of evils are simply let loose, but that could change any year.
Looking further ahead, the designers feel possibilities for the future of themed entertainment include even more immersion than highly detailed, surrounding lands or realms. It’s conceivable guests could have the option to actually live or stay inside a theme park, taking Disney’s Cinderella Castle Suite and on-property Golden Oak community to a new level.
The future of digital integration into theme parks is unclear as well. Morrow emphasized that there is something worthwhile in combining mobile digital devices with the real world, but he says no park has gotten it right yet. But that future is definitely something more interesting than “apps,” a word he says he’s ready to fire people over if he hears it uttered one more time, adding that staring down at a phone is no way to experience a theme park.
Likewise, some of these designers don’t feel over planning is the way theme parks should be experienced, a direct crack at Disney’s new MyMagic+ program. Guests don’t need to know what they want for dinner 8 months from now. “It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.”
But Disney is looking well beyond today. The Forum revealed that Disney has hired a “futurist” to try to determine consumer trends 20 years from now. Among the most interesting new technology mentioned at the event is projection mapping, which both Disney and Universal have used heavily already in shows like Celebrate the Magic, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, and one of Halloween Horror Nights’ recent scare zones. It’s also being used to help design work in 3D spaces rather than on 2D displays. Technology will certainly drive the entertainment of the future, but the exact implementation is unknown.
Designers As Fans
Even with all the hands-on and behind-the-scenes work, these designers still love the results. Though it’s often hard for them to step back from their own projects and simply enjoy the experience they created without being critical, they are all friendly and are happy to see each others’ projects and accomplishments.
The entire panel agrees that they would love to be stuck for an extended amount of time on Disney’s Haunted Mansion, still revered as one of the greatest theme park experiences ever created.
All of the designers have their own moments of personal joy after seeing a project they were passionate about finally completed and enjoyed by guests. Michael Roddy was particularly proud of his work on the Grinchmas musical at Universal. Eric Baker still walks the Wizarding World to see guests’ excited reactions. And Brian Morrow can’t wait to see the screaming faces on riders when they take on the massive Falcon’s Fury drop tower when it opens in a few weeks – though he says he’s too scared to personally ride it.
In addition to receiving all the information and advice given above, Entertainment Designer Forum attendees had an opportunity to bid on and win a wide variety of rare and unique theme park items and other artwork as part of a silent auction (seen in the slideshow below).
The whole event lasted around five hours, highly enjoyable for panelists and fans alike, particularly wonderful for having raised thousands of dollars for a deserving charity.
The organizing team was thrilled with the turnout and hopes for even more fans and design hopefuls to show up when the event happens again next year. And I encourage you to make an effort to make it too. It’s the best annual opportunity to meet with some of the top theme park talent around and shouldn’t be missed.
More photos from the 2014 Entertainment Designer Forum: