Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Ever since I was little I have had a fondness for those places that not only attempt to immerse me in their physical story, but actually allowed me to touch it as well. If I had to try and describe what a place like Fantasyland in Disneyland California meant for me as a child, it would be a fantasy I could touch. Not only could I see Cinderella’s castle, I could reach out and touch its brick walls, walk its halls, and if I was lucky, meet Cinderella herself. I think at a deeper level I was also responding to the fact that all of this tangible fantasy had been orchestrated for my own pleasure. These places, these people, were performing for me, each instilled with the goal of making my experience special, and my visit unique. As I grew older I began to notice that these niceties extended well beyond merely an employer’s desire to serve an audience of amusement park visitors. Attention had been paid to every single detail, from the color on the buildings and the choice of light fixtures, to how buildings were laid out, and how employee uniforms blended into their themed environments.
I think the first of many “Aha” moments came when I was 12 years old. My eight-year-old sister and I were visiting Disneyland early one summer morning. As we walked through Adventureland and made our way past New Orleans Square, I pointed out the perfect patina on the area light fixtures, and in some cases the subtle rust marks that trickled down the walls below them. These tiny details added a sense of depth and believability to the landscape. Shortly after having pointed this out we turned the corner into Frontierland and walked past a western adobe themed restaurant closed for refurbishment. A paint crew was adding final touches to the newly painted façade, and we were just in time to see a man on a ladder pour a coffee can filled with brown liquid down the surface of a wall directly underneath a themed light fixture. At that very moment I had a realization, this was like nothing I had experienced in the world outside. This was Theatre, and that western building was doing its job, just as a performer on a stage might, to help transport me into a story. That painter was part of the story as well. He was there for the purpose of adding those details that were going to make my experience all the more successful. At that point I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up… I wanted to tell stories too, and in just this way!
As if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, I began to see these minute attentions to detail throughout the theme park. Astonishing effort and expense had been paid to every part of the park. Nothing was by accident, and nothing was left to chance. My experience was being orchestrated, as was every Disney park visitor, and for the purpose of making our visit an enjoyable one. This was the beginning of a growing desire to be a part of this world, and would eventually include my working as a designer for the Walt Disney company, and ultimately move on to other venues of environmental self expression.
Monday, April 23, 2007
While working on the scale model for Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain attraction, I had the opportunity to work closely with Production Designer John Gauld. John had a passion for rocks, and was ultimately responsible for the design of the entire exterior of the attraction. Disney is famous for their creation of naturalistic environments, and with many of their man-made landmarks being “mountains” there is need for a full-time staff of artisans specifically dedicated to the recreation of the natural world in uniquely un-naturalistic mediums such as concrete and fiberglass.
While working on the 1/8” scale model, John pointed out a fundamental rule when it came to designing nature. He told me that a human beings ability to reproduce natural surfaces pale in comparison to nature itself. While carving the foam model he pointed out that our innate desire for order and symmetry limits our ability to capture the marvelously “fractal” quality of nature itself. Sure, we can interpret the beautiful curve of a tree, or the arch of a rock formation, but in the end we risk our creation looking too thought out, and ultimately artificial. He then took his carving knife, dug deep into the foam and quickly twisted his wrist to “pop” a portion of the foam away leaving a jagged break in the surface. He pointed out that the rugged surface created by that wrist twist did a better job of creating a naturalistic rock formation than hours of careful carving and observation.
John is an enthusiastic naturalist and has spent years exploring the deserts of California and the Southwest looking for inspiring geologic specimens. It is not unheard of for John to spend an entire day waiting for an applied coat of latex to dry over a specifically interesting rock so he can use it later to make an impression on a concrete wall on the exterior of a Disney attraction. Using a combination of pre-cast rocks, latex “stamp” impressions, and an artist’s skills; Disney rockwork designers do an amazing job of recreating the natural world. Still, John points out that serendipity created by the blasting of water at the surface of the wet concrete and throwing gravel at it, often achieves the best final results.
Working on 3D virtual environments I have found that these rules apply as well. Often limited by the amount of detail, or polygons that can be used to create a 3D model for a game, we ask a lot of the textures we use to simulate naturalistic materials. Purely painting a rock texture can often create noticeably artificial surfaces, while leaning too heavily on photo reference can create overly complex and obviously photographic surfaces. Like Disney rockwork, recreating natural surfaces in virtual environments needs to consist of a balance between real world reference and artistic interpretation. Photoshop does a marvelous job a offering tools and filters to help simulate natural textures, but in the end it will only be through the symbolic hurling of gravel and water that will give you a surface that reads as naturalistic.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
We have all experienced that moment when a storyteller tells her audience, “I’m going to tell you a story”. We can’t help ourselves, we collectively settle down, all anticipating that we are about to be taken on a journey. We don’t know where we are going to go; we really don’t care… just the promise of adventure is enough. This is true of all mediums. Whether it was a “Dark and stormy night” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” we crave escape in the entertainment we choose. We settle down into a comfortable chair, a movie, or theater seat and we ready ourselves for the ride ahead. Our definition of a story well told are those that most successfully pull us into them, and when done, give us something to take away with us. Something that will enhance our lives, and will help us see our world in a slightly different way.
The next evolution of that desire for escape has created a new form of entertainment. Stories are no longer relegated to the page, screen, or locked within a theatre proscenium. Themed environments, like those found in a Disney theme park, and increasingly more realistic video games, are working to pull us into the stories they are telling. These outlets for us to explore fantastic environments are growing every year, and are all are working to feed our inherent need for escape.
Take me somewhere I have never been,
Let me do things I could never do,
Let me be someone I could never be.
These words do a fairly good job of describing our human desire to escape from our daily lives and explore places, both external and within our imaginations that we have not visited before. Whether through the movies we watch, the books we read, or the games we play, we are looking for the same thing. We want to be able to escape for a time and adventure in a place that helps us better understand what it is to be alive.
Over the past 20 years I have been working as a designer of themed spaces, both physical and virtual, and my goal has been to continually play with this idea of how we relate to the places we visit and the stories that they tell within our everyday lives. Starting with a career in illustration, then theme park design for the Walt Disney Company, and finally working in the 3D game industry, I have found each of these have the same goal. Each is attempting to fulfill this need for escape, and with few exceptions they use the same basic design principles to reach that goal.
Within this forum I will work to map out the various design principles that are universal to these seemingly diverse disciplines. I will explore the unique challenges of each medium, and tell you some of the lessons I have learned along the way. Whether the medium is concrete or polygons, a budget of millions or no budget at all, the tools for storytelling remain the same, our opportunity as artists and designers is to use what we have to tell the best story we can.