This past weekend the beautiful and historic city of Savannah, Georgia played host to the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) annual SATE Conference. Hosted this year by the Savannah College of Art & Design, SATE is an annual meeting of the minds for industry greats in the field of themed entertainment.
SATE, which stands for Storytelling, Architecture, Technology and Experience gives industry professionals the opportunity to mingle and discuss future advancement in the field. This year SATE was held at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), the first time SATE has been held at an academic institution. The theme for this years SATE Conference was “What is Next” falls right in line with TEA’s new NextGen membership initiative aimed at ushering new talent into the industry.
Spearheaded by former Dean of the School of Entertainment Arts, Peter Weishar and currently under the direction of former Imagineers George Head and Mike Devine, the newly founded Themed Entertainment Design program at SCAD is the first in the world to offer a degree specifically in themed entertainment. It currently exists as an MFA program.
The conference, held on the 3rd & 4th of October, gave industry professionals the opportunity to network with students in the fledgling Themed Entertainment program and made use SCAD’s wonderful facilities.
SATE’13 Co-Chairs, Aram Ebben, Principal Director of Lighting Design, EXP & Stefan Lawrence, Creative Director at Rethink Attractions kicked off the conference with a warm introduction to the Storytelling segment. Ebben and Lawrence would become central figures throughout the conference for their humorous anecdotes and eagerness to speak with students.
Storytelling segment chair, former Imagineer and current Creative Director of The Bezark Company, Adam Bezark started off discussion by posing the question; “What makes stories not suck?” He continued to bring up three valuable points to storytelling: 1. Immersion draws us in 2. Animation makes us believe 3. Story makes us remember.
Following Bezark was Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune who presented The Story in Everything – a look at storytelling in the world of journalism. Caro offered us a retrospective look at the once-popular idea that people have lost their taste for long-form narrative, going on to cite Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch and Pitchfork.com as excellent examples of long-form narrative which has been enhanced through the integration of multimedia. Caro struck a cord with the audience by reflecting on the success of Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos and Madmen as wildly successful television series’ which rely on long-form narrative. It was great to hear a journalist speaking about the creation of interactive experiences in journalism by pushing storytelling beyond the written word. This is a perfect example of how the themed entertainment industry has influenced different forms of media, like journalism.
VP & Owner of Write Brothers Inc. and co-creator of the Dramatica story writing software, Chris Huntley gave a crash course in the fine points of storytelling. Demonstrating the different uses of story in a themed environment, Huntley went on to cover opportunities to utilize story in marketing, pre-shows, post-shows, sequels, shows and exhibits. Huntley closed out his presentation with an overview of the necessary ingredients of a successful story: 1. Limitations 2. Inequity (a source of conflict) 3. A goal or objective 4. Consequences or risk. 5. Four major throughlines (the big picture, main character, influence character and a relationship between the two characters) 6. Resolution (optional)
Perhaps one of the most charismatic presenters at SATE has one of the most interesting job titles – Asa Kalama is the Senior R&D Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering, R&D. Kalama went on to contribute to nearly every panel at SATE, offering the audience a unique look at the entertainment industry from an Imagineering perspective. His presentation, Narrative Experience, covered Disney’s use of emergent technologies in interactive storytelling and role-play in their parks.
Kalama started off with a brief overview of Disney’s story telling history and jumped into research that Imagineering has done with a new form of theme park entertainment – narrative experiences. Essentially, Disney wants to put guests in charge of their own immersive story-telling experience. Kalama covered a few of Disney’s mothballed projects; The Legend of Fortuna and Operation Bob.
In the Legend of Fortuna guests get to be pirates on a day-long or multi-day treasure hunt around Walt Disney World, experiencing interactive additions throughout the parks and encountering cast members who play integral roles in their storyline. He took us thorough R&D’s process of creating the experience, posing the question; “can we provide narrative reasons for guests to be in certain places at certain times?” Eventually concluding that guests are “spectacularly creative” and have the ability to create their own story, they went on to play test another narrative experience; Operation Bob.
Imagine, an alien crash-lands in the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at California Adventure and you, as a Hollywood tabloid reporter, have to cover the event. Throw in spies, laser guns and a movie studio and you get Operation Bob. Eventually, Disney came to the conclusion that too much back-story can kill the magic of an ever-evolving narrative. When guests have the ability play and be creative through a narrative experience, they feel empowered. Every detail matters and when guests create something on their own it will always mean more than if they are handed something.
We’ve already seen Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure successfully played out in the parks. It’s exciting to think about what new narrative experiences Disney might be developing.
The panel concluded with a roundhouse discussion of storytelling’s impact on the industry of themed entertainment. Comedy writer, David Misch, Kermit Weeks of Flights of Fantasy, Wizardly World of Harry Potter writer, Gary L. Blumenstein Jr, legendary event producer/director, Kile Ozier, Adam Bezark, Mark Caro, Chris Huntley and Stefan Lawrence took the stage to pose questions to each other about the world of storytelling and answer questions from the audience.
Keynote Speaker and co-founder of the The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Don Marinelli delivered the most powerful speech of event – “The Reading ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic of the 21st Century.” He challenged us as an industry to go beyond our antiquated methods of thinking and engage in what he calls “whole brain” thinking. Stressing that we have the potential to use “technologies as portals,” he proposed utilizing available technology to evolve the process of creative thinking. Marinelli went on to address the current American educational system, pointing out the obsolete environment in which most children in the United States are learning in today. “How come once a year our kids get to leave school and take a field trip to the museum, why aren’t they actually going to school in a museum!?” Covering ideas like the downfall of traditional education systems, the potential to create themed learning environments and brick and mortar schools verses online education – Marinelli poignantly reminded us that in order for our youth to be creative thinkers, they should grow up in a creative environment. Amen.
The Architecture segment with Al Cross, of PGAV Destinations touched on the role of architects in the entertainment industry. Jonathan Douglas of VOA Associates, Cecil Magpuri of Falcon’s Treehouse, and Chuck Hoberman of Hoberman Associates introduced the audience to absolute breathtaking work. Cecil Magpuri gave an overview of work that Falcon’s Treehouse has done for Marvel City and
Chuck Hoberman, is more than just the guy who invented the Hoberman sphere. The work that Hoberman has done in transformable design and “shape invariant expanding structures” is enough to blow anyone’s mind. Probably one of Hoberman’s most impressive structures was the retractable screen he and his team designed for the U2 360 World Tour.
The evening concluded with a cocktail hour inside the courtyard of SCAD’s historic Habersham Hall, a converted prison. SATE presenters as well as industries used this opportunity to mingle, have a drink and lounge in the converted jail cells.
Friday’s festivities started off in SCAD’s impressive Trustees Theater lobby, giving students and professionals another opportunity to mingle. After a warm introduction by Aram Ebben and Stefan Lawrence, MK Haley took the stage as chair of the Technology segment. Haley, Research Producer with Disney Imagineering Research, brought to light emerging technologies which are allowing the themed entertainment industry to create richer guest experiences. One of the most impressive areas that Haley chose to cover was student work. She chose to showcase student work and home videos throughout both days of SATE. For many of the SCAD students in attendance, it was a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of what their peers are creating. For the industry professionals in the audience, it opened their eyes to the incredible things the younger generation is capable of.
The Death of Halogen and the Rise of Coherent Light with Paul Kent and Chris Conte of Electrosonic was the perfect segway into the realm of new lighting technologies. Paul Kent gave an extensive history of theatrical lighting and the impact it has made on the industry of themed entertainment. From shadow puppets to peppers ghost to LEDs and laser light – light has gone through an impressive number of changes and uses, especially in recent years. Chris Conte took over the segment with a powerful presentation on laser light and projection technologies. Claiming that “laser illumination will change my lifestyle,” Conte, concludes that the lighting and projection capabilities will revolutionize the industry within the next few years.
The lighting portion of the Technology segment was rounded off by the very insightful, David Gray of Oasis Enterprises. Touching on the importance of designer/client communications, Gray covered many of his past and current projects from the Middle East including; the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge in Abu Dhabi. Grays presentation was particularly useful to the students attending the event; he chose to focus on some highly problematic projects he’d worked on, giving everyone in the audience a heavy dose of reality.
The panel then shifted focus toward interactive technologies. Jason Hintz Llopis of Disney Research and Mark Gilicinski of Mobil Expeditions covered the importance of mobile technology and the role it is currently playing in the entertainment industry. Gilicinski’s work may be of particular interest to theme park fans – many of his projects have been implemented in Disney and Universal parks.
Joshua Jeffrey, Manager of Digital Engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum was a wonderful addition to the SATE lineup. Using interactive technologies in apps and photo booths, Jeffrey has discovered new ways to entertain in an educational atmosphere. One of the Warhol Museum’s apps, Unboxed, allows guests to interact with exhibits by creating a Warholian time capsule filled with objects they’ve seen in the museum. Guests can later purchase their time capsule in the gift shop. Another app, DIY Pop, gives guests the opportunity to create their own pop art on their mobile device.
Asa Kalame capped off the Technology segment with a repeat appearance to discuss the technological developments at Disney R&D and how they can be used in narrative experiences. He introduced us to Nexus, a complex story engine Disney had developed to assist guests in an interactive storytelling adventure. Essentially, they created an artificially intelligent writer that could adapt to changes and give instructions to park guests and live performers. The artificial author had to react in real time, calculate responses to actions and adapt to the creativity of the human mind. This concept proved to be too complex and was shelved. However, it is an interesting concept and is something to possibly look for in the future from Disney.
The session concluded with a roundtable discussion of all of the presenters. The question; “can you do this with a human?” was a constant point of interest throughout the discussion. With questions from industry powerhouse, former TEA President and Imagineer, Rick Rothschild and Kile Ozier, the discussion was an extraordinarily informative point in the conference. Each speaker pointed out that no matter where the technology goes, the most important part of the experience is the people. Probably the most powerful statement from the roundtable came from David Gray: “We need to be driven by design and let technology solve our problems.”
The final session of Friday focused on Experience – the culmination of storytelling, architecture and technology. The session was lead by the astounding Phil Hettema. Hettema, a legend in the industry, and president of the Hettema Group. His team is responsible for attractions such as Jurassic Park the Ride, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. However, instead of listing his achievements, Hettema chose to speak about his humble beginnings in the industry – the pivotal moment in his life when he got a job at Disneyland…in costuming. This was a particularly touching moment, not because a powerful figure in the industry was reminiscing about his humble beginnings, because everyone else in the audience was too.
Heading up the first discussion; Cosplay Colonists: Rise of the Creative Audience, was Thinkwell’s resident creative guru, Dave Cobb. Touching on points that many others tend to dismiss, Cobb examined the relationship between fans, the things they love and how they express their infatuation with these things. Cosplay, for instance, has become a huge movement in the world of entertainment. Guests routinely wear elaborate, self-constructed costumes to ComicCons – Cobb points out that their desires to live out their fantasies in the real world is bringing them to theme parks. These super fans are not only able to dress as their favorite characters; they can also exist in the realm of that character. As Cobb puts it; “It’s not about looking like your character, it’s about being your character.” Additionally, he looks at the relation between super fandom and social media; the idea that these fans can interact with one another online and show off their fan art and costumes, resulting in a cultural movement.
Another key point in Cobb’s presentation was the notion of geekdom and it’s infiltration of pop culture. Comic books are ruling Hollywood and video games are making higher opening day figures than most box office films. He illustrates that the nerd counter culture is, in many ways, becoming more accepted by the general populous and that cosplay, and super fandom is not far behind. Shinning light on the popularity of unofficial Disney gatherings like Gay Day, Dapper Day, and Bats Day, Cobb explains that guests will always have the ability to use a mutual love of something to create a social movement. In the same way cosplayers dress up as comic book characters, indie game designers are creating their own theme park worlds at home based on their favorite attractions, recreated in excruciating detail. Fundamentally, Cobb explains that the fans go to great lengths to show their admiration of the parks – the industry needs to do the same for the fans.
The Experience segment switched gears a bit once Jake Barton of Local Project took the stage. Barton may not be as well known in theme park circles but his accomplishments should not be discredited. His company, Local Project is responsible for the 9/11 Museum as well as a number of other projects, it was invigorating to see such powerful work in the field of interaction design. Barton laid out three important points to start with when coming up with a design: 1. Start with “yes” 2. Make statements and 3. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
Barton touched on the process of learning, echoing Don Marinelli’s keynote speech. Barton sees effective museum exhibits and educational technology as replacements for standard textbooks and the future of learning. Making connections with guests is imperative – as he put it; “human connections and emotional residences stand the test of time.” His work with the 9/11 museum was particularly moving – the museums connection to the guests perfectly illustrated his point.
The second keynote of SATE”13 was given by Liz Gazzano, Executive Producer of Theme parks and Roger Gould, Creative Director of Theme Parks for PIXAR Animation Studios.
After a montage film of PIXAR’s nearly 30 year history, Gazzano and Gould went on to share their experiences starting in the industry. Gazzano reminisced about her days working on the George Lucas’ Ewok special but quickly moved on to talking about the development of the Cars film. They both stressed that relatable characters have flaws and that is what makes a successful film. Additionally, a core idea must be held on to throughout a film – everything must support that core idea.
Jumping quickly into PIXAR’s role in theme parks, Gould and Gazzano briefly mention PIXAR properties in Disney theme parks around the world but focus primarily on Cars Land. Gazzano details the creative process of bringing Radiator Springs to life, sharing early concept work for “Carland” which would eventually become Cars Land. After exploring historic Rout 66 for themselves, the creative team for Cars Land was able to better understand the level of detail needed to create a believable reality. For instance, the tile work on the exterior of Ramone’s in Cars Land is the same tile that adorns the actual building which inspired its counterpart in Anaheim. Just as Rout 66 inspired the animation team for Cars, so did it inspire the creative team on Cars Land. Coincidentally, the designs for Cars Land then influenced Cars 2 – operational changes made to Flo’s for Cars Land then informed an updated design for Flo’s in the second Cars film.
After finishing with the presentation, Gazzano and Gould opened the floor for discussion and invited questions from the audience. When a question was posed about the longevity of Cars Land with regards to its ability to resonate with fans, Gould was quick to reply; “Cars Land sells emotion and is intrinsically connected to California,” referring to California car culture.
As with the previous segments, Experience ended with a roundtable discussion featuring Adam Bezark, Asa Kalama, Dave Cobb, Jake Barton, Phil Hettema and Delfin Gomez who was representing the SCAD students in attendance. The group pinpointed a few key ideas about the industry: the Holodeck is our main aspiration; we keep getting closer and closer to complete immersion. We are making memories and making lives whole by creating environments that can’t be experienced at home. Kalama pointed out that “happy people make the world a better place.” In the entertainment industry our goal is to make people happy, we need to do that by listening to the guests and creating unique experiences that will keep them happy. Jake Barton closed out SATE 2013 with a poignant statement regarding media; “the most influential media is imagination.”
The Saturday following SATE, several predominant TEA members volunteered their time to speak one-on-one with students in a much more casual atmosphere. Gathered in the SCAD Museum Theater, they encouraged questions from students and allotted time to exchange information and speak candidly about what it takes to be in the themed entertainment industry. Kile Ozier acted as Master of Ceremonies for the day and invited the TEA members to impart advice onto the students in the audience. The overwhelming piece of advice from everyone in the industry: “there is more to this industry than Disney and Universal, if you have it in your head that you only want to become an Imagineer, you won’t succeed in this business.”
After hobnobbing for a few hours, students and TEA professionals went out for a nice lunch at The Distillery in downtown Savannah. Tasty burgers, I recommend it.
MiceChat would like to thank the Themed Entertainment Association for partnering with us, SCAD for hosting the event and George Head for bringing SATE to Savannah! Thank you!