Sunday, April 13, 2014

Theme Park 101 - Texturing Magic Kingdoms

I am often struck by the similarities between the production processes of theme parks compared to those of video games. Although the results are very different, there are aspects of the design process within both industries that compliment each other very nicely. One such example is the use of textures on the surface of buildings and landscapes. It is quite established that digital geometry creates the illusion of environment and surface through the application of textures applied to their 3D meshes. Almost any material can be theatrically faked by applying a series of images and bump maps to a surface, whether it is wood, metal, or even skin. As computers are getting more powerful, the illusion of surface textures is getting harder to distinguish from the real thing. Increasingly clever algorithms are being created to support this illusion, allowing for control of how shiny or dull a surface is, how light refracts from or within the material, and what the surface might look like when wet.
Textures from World of Warcraft

Before these textures can be applied to any surface, research is done to collect images that will be referenced when creating the final textures. Photographs are taken of real world surfaces and then the artists choose from these to create a palette of textures that will eventually work together to create the final environment, prop, or character. Theme park projects include the very same process, collecting real world examples of surfaces that will then be translated into real world materials. While in the virtual world these references will be used to create facsimiles of their real world counterparts, theme parks translate these examples into physical surfaces, through application of paint and in some cases “distressing” these materials to create the desired effect. Where the two worlds intersect is through the use of “Rockwork”. The goal of any themed environment is to transport their audience through the illusion of textured surfaces. In video games this is done through textures and lighting, and in theme parks this is done with theatrical stage techniques. The theater has a long history of making surfaces appear to be something they are not. Canvas can be painted to look like bricks, or stonework, and in theme parks concrete can be used to sculpt any number of materials, allowing for both flexibility and durability in outdoor environments.
Rockwork sample panel sculpted for Mickey's Toontown, Disneyland CA
At a Disney theme park you can’t trust your eyes to tell you what a material is made out of. All surfaces are in service to the story being told and this means that wood might not be wood, and brinks might not be bricks. To achieve this look, skilled Rockwork sculptors create samples of the surfaces they will ultimately be creating in the final attraction. These practice panels allow for the show designer and the Rockwork sculpture to come to an agreement as to how the final surface will ultimately appear. Like textures applied to a video game model, these panels act as a textural “swatch” that will eventually be applied to the entire surface of the building, landscape, or mountain. Starting as samples taken from real world sources, these textures will be applied to the final product, and as with video games, the audience will be transported to other worlds through the illusion of surface textures.

Top: Street scene from Epic Citadel using the Unreal Engine, Bottom: Fantsyland, Disneyland California

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Theme Park 101 - A Place to Rest Your Eyes

 No matter how experienced a designer you might be, you never stop learning lessons about the field you are in. Fastidious good intentions can’t protect you from that forehead slapping moment when you discover a flaw in your design you just didn’t see coming. This doesn’t keep it from being a good design, but it is a realization that there were choices that could have been made to insure that design was a little bit more successful.

When working on a large project it is helpful to create an overarching goal that is easy to articulate and most importantly acts as a filter through which to judge the ongoing production of the project. The more clear the goal the easier it is to see when you are going off track. Even small details like the color of a prop or the layout of a concrete planter can be judged through how well it does or doesn’t support your larger goal for the project.

In the case of designing Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland, the team had two goals from which to build the finished land.

  1. We wanted to create the cartoon world people “remember” from their childhood, and yet never really existed.
  2. When guests walked under the train trestle, we wanted to greet their eyes with an environment like they have never physically seen in their lives.
I think we could argue that we achieve both of these goals. We often heard guests say, “Wow, this is just like I imagined it would be like to walk into a cartoon world”. It is hard to believe that Toontown has been open for over 20 years now and that there are college aged people who have never known it to not exist. Still, when we first opened the land and it sat newly painted in the Southern California sun, I began to hear a few comments I hadn’t been prepared for. Namely,

“I love Toontown, but I can’t stay in it for very long without getting a headache. There is so much detail and bright colors everywhere that I don’t have a place for my eyes to rest, so I have to leave.”

Wow. No matter our good intentions we had left out an important design component. We had forgotten to design in less detail. Like a cacophonous brass band that never takes a breath, Toontown had no quiet visual transitions from one brightly colored detail to another. Although many would argue that Toontown is fine as it is, and shouldn’t be touched, future designs have the opportunity to learn from what we forgot. Music is as much about the quiet passages between the more active notes that take us on the larger journey. The same is true of environment design. Without a quiet place to rest the eyes we have the potential of driving our audience away by what could be argued is too much of a good thing.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Anything You Want to Know?

In the Harry Potter series of books Dumbledore uses something called a Pensieve as a place to store information and memories that were just taking up room in his mind. This Blog acts very much like a pensieve for me, a place to dump a lot of industry information that is just taking up room. If you are following this Blog and have any questions, or topics you would like for me to specifically talk about, please let me know. This can be on theme park or computer game design, I am sure I have some clutter still in my head that could potentially answer a few questions.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Theme Park 101 - Physical vs Virtual World Problems

When I started working with video game companies, it was all too easy for me to imagine that virtual worlds would offer many more possibilities, and many less of the limitations than I had encountered designing for the physical world. It turns out, I was so very wrong. Although each have their limitations they both still have their own unique challenges. While physical environments have to deal with things like gravity, safety, the cost of materials, virtual spaces are equally confined to things like frame rates, running on a variety of computer types, and the inevitable buggy realities associated with software development.

What I was least prepared for was that things like light, water, atmosphere, and gravity, are not necessarily standard when you are building a world from scratch. If you are licensing a game engine, these things are likely fairly standard, but when you are creating a proprietary game engine there is every likelihood that these niceties won’t necessarily exist and might need to be fought for. Lastly, just because you have them doesn’t mean they won’t brake at some point, involving another fight to just get them back to working like they were before.

Two Examples

Sometimes it can be hard to revisit your own work. Once completed and open to the public, and despite numerous accolades, your experience as a designer can be tainted by what DIDN’T make it into the final product. In the case of a new land we were poised to open to the public, elaborate cartoon hinges were designed and manufactured for all the doors of it’s highly themed buildings. Despite their being designed, paid for, manufactured, and sitting in a box in the construction trailer, we were too close to opening for them to be installed. As far as I know, they all ended up in a dumpster somewhere… and visiting the land, even 20 years later, it a reminder of what never got done, as I am faced with a land with no themed door hardware.

On the digital front, I worked for years on creating a virtual tropical island whose beaches stretched to meet a nonexistent ocean. Including water around the island was deemed “hard” and so the island sat on a globe surrounded by an endless expanse of blue carpet. Water eventually arrived, but not until after having been open to the public for several years.

The truth is, you never can tell what the challenges will be, no matter the project you are working on. It is true, the designer is seldom satisfied with every aspect of how their work ultimately came out. Still, we strive, and continue to fight for the little details even when there are forces out there that assure us they aren’t all that important.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bubble Diagrams

No matter whether you are brainstorming a new theme park attraction, exhibit, retail space, or video game environment, you are bound to generate a wide range of potential spaces you could include in your design. With so many choices it can be hard to narrow down what a final environment might ultimately contain. Another challenge is finding a way to communicate your concept to an audience representing a wide variety of disciplines, all who will approach your concept from their own unique perspective. You are going to need a way to rally support for your idea, and most important of all, allow your audience to “own” the Story your design is meant to convey. To do this, many organizations proceed by to creating a “Bubble Diagram” to quickly rough out how a new project might be experienced.

A Bubble Diagram is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It is most often a very rough collection of circles (bubbles), each with a description of what aspect of the experience will be encountered in that “bubble”. Each of the bubbles are interconnected, based on how they might relate to each other, or in which order each area might be experienced. Here is a quick example of what a bubble diagram of Disneyland CA might look like:

Rough Bubble Diagram superimposed over a vintage Disneyland map

In the case of Disneyland, lands are connected to encourage exploration through movement from one area to another. Because this layout is not linear, guests can find their own way from place to place, with a Hub that allows them to reorient themselves as they explore. Sometimes Bubble Diagrams can be used to illustrate how an audience might travel through a series of scenes, chapters, or story “beats” in an attraction, exhibit, or game. Each bubble in the below example suggests a unique Scene. You can see the course that the audience will take as each scene is presented along a liner path. Each bubble represents a “beat” in the story and a unique scene.

Layout of the Peter Pan's Flight attraction at Disneyland CA

Before you start mapping out how big something will be, it is often best to lay out how its many parts will interrelate. This effort will also help you reign in just how much your project can contain, both in size and budget. Your attraction or game level design might include 30 separate environments, but you might only have room for 12. A Bubble Diagram will help you figure out what elements are vital to include, and what could conceivably be trimmed out. I have seen Bubble Diagrams that despite how early they were produced in the life cycle of a production, hold pretty true to the final vision of that project.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Theme Park 101 - Birdseye Sketches: Old & New School

As a kid nothing prepared me more for a trip to Disneyland than pouring over the giant map of the park. Like the inside of a dollhouse, my imagination could wander freely inside the spaces and I could easily picture myself experiencing its many environments first hand. Birdseye sketches are commonly used to help illustrate how a theme park attraction might appear in its entirety. Although POV sketches are very effective when it comes to depicting segments of an attraction, Birdseye sketches have the unique ability to communicate an entire environment in just one image. No matter who your audience is, I have found that everyone can relate to a project when they see it from the air.

Sam McKim's iconic Disneyland Map

I am frequently asked to work on birdseye sketches, often at the very beginning of a project to help the team wrap their heads around how all the parts of a conceived land or park might work together. There are a couple of ways in which an artist can approach doing a birdseye sketch, whether they are basing it on a set plan drawing, or the roughest concept diagram. In the past, bird’s eye sketches were most often done by “extruding” the buildings up out of the plan drawings, now we have the flexibility of roughing entire areas in 3D, and use these concept models as the under drawings for our final sketches.

Old School

A Birdseye project might start with a simple plan drawing depicting a cluster of buildings, like this. An “old school” method for quickly creating a birdseye sketch from this drawing is to rotate the plan so that it is at an angle, in this case 45 degrees. An artist will then throw tracing paper over the tilted drawing and start drawing straight lines up from each of the plans corners, affectively “extruding” the plan upwards. Horizontal details can be added to the vertical lines, and elements like windows, doorways, and roofs can be added to create a rough under drawing. The final drawing is then built on top of this simple structure. Since there is no perspective in the drawing, it is known as an Orthographic image. Although seen from the air the base dimensions remain unchanged under the concept structures built above them.
Extruding lines up from a plan drawing creates an Orthographic view of your environment

New School

With the advent of applications like SketchUp, it is easy for the extrusion of buildings to be done fairly quickly in 3D. The advantage to this is that the rough model becomes the first test that helps insure that all of the dimensional parts will work together. Once the model is complete then the artist can arrange her camera to grab a screenshot that best suits the final birdseye image. The final image will be in Perspective, and depending on the focal length of the virtual lens used to capture the screenshot, there is a lot of theatrical potential for adding depth and drama to the final image. In this example the same set of structures are depicted, but in this case in perspective. A fringe benefit is that there is the by-product of a 3D model that can be shared with the project team and used to aid in any model making work that might be needed.
Building a sketch from a 3D concept model gives your drawing perspective.

I have made a quick video that shows my process for using a render of a rough 3D model and turning it into a concept sketch:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Theme Park 101 - A Tale of Two Concepts

 Concept illustrations are some of the visual tools used to create theme park attractions. Long before architectural plans are drawn or ride systems engineered, concepts are done to help communicate the visual goals and story that a proposed attraction desires to communicate. In the Blue Sky and Concept phases of a project, there are two very distinct types of illustrations that are produced. Above are examples pulled from the Snow White Mine Train Coaster currently being built for Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom (none of these were done by me). They illustrate the two very different needs illustrations like these fulfill. The first is what is often called a POV sketch, the others are more Concept Development illustrations.

Snow White Seven Dwarf's Mine Train Coaster Attraction  -  Images are property of the Walt Disney Company

POV Sketches

These are often the very first images to appear when a project is initially conceived. These are designed to communicate to the largest audience possible the potential fun of a new project as well as suggest the level of themeing and potential innovations suggested for the new attraction. These images are often rough, include a collection of gleeful guests, and suggest both action and interaction with the proposed environment. There are masterful artists that have very successful careers producing such images, and they can move from project to project pre-visualizing attractions or stay with a project and see it through concept development and production. These images are most often all the public will see of a coming attraction, and they are a necessary tool for marketing projects under development. Images like this also communicate to an audience that will ultimately fund the project, since they do the best possible job of suggesting how “fun” the new attraction will be. POV sketches aren’t always tasked with the need to communicate specific design requirements, although the above does a wonderful job of illustrating the innovative swing action that is unique to this project’s ride vehicles. It is a dirty secret that many more POV illustrations are created for projects that many never see the light of day. Often these are drawn and re-drawn, as the project evolves, and not matter how fun the attractions is they depict, if the project is cancelled, for any of a thousand reasons, these images will likely never see the light of day again.

Concept Development Sketches

Once a project is funded to continue into the “Concept Development” phase, the POV sketches are replaced with concept sketches that explore the themeing of the many elements that will make up the final attraction. The images on the right depict concepts that explore the various themeing details that could eventually be applied to the final coaster cars. These images do not include happy guests since their audience is most likely those people responsible for building these vehicles. You can see in the sketches that they have been applied over a 3D render of the ride vehicle’s mechanical parts. Unlike the POV sketches, these images need to take into consideration the physical and safety necessities associated with making the concept a reality. If guests are depicted in these images they are most often for scale rather than the need to communicate how “fun” the designed details might be. Sadly, these images are seldom seen by the public since they can include proprietary details about the attraction’s design, they also seldom offer the marketing “flash” that the POV images provide.

I am a big fan of “Art of” books that often come out after a movie has been released. Sadly there are few examples of these when it comes to theme park design. Most often what is published are the handful of POV images rather than the hundreds to thousands of images created to support turing these concepts into a reality. My work is best suited to this Concept Development aspect of a project. I love the challenge of wrapping reality with story, and working with the people that make these fantasies physical. Many more projects never live beyond the seeming endless cycle of POV presentation art that can often happen in this industry, and it is a shame. Projects can go through countless revisions during the blue sky phase to ultimately end up unfunded. For those rare few that do go on to become physical attractions, concept development images and models are the life’s blood of what communicate these early images to the very people responsible for making it real.

I love beautiful POV images, but my passion is for the Concept Development sketches, which are often the unsung heroes of our industry. I wish we could see more of them displayed for the public to see. Artists like Marc Davis and Claude Coats produced almost exclusively Development sketches, each rich with energy and detail, all fuel used to build iconic attractions. Luckily, these images are available for us to see, and for those of us that make a living in this industry, they are inspirations that we use to fire up our own imaginations as we design attractions into the future.