Moved to Man Cave site. http://tomellard.com/cave/
In which I demand the reinstatement of all Luna Parks in Theme Park Theory and Design.
I‘m very grateful again to my missus for digging up an essential research source, being the program for an exhibition Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium. Held at The Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1998, it catalogues responses to Luna Park St Kilda by mid 20th century painters Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester et al. alongside current visual artists. The art itself is not that appealing to me, but the included essays show how ignorant I am of the entire history – as are the people that claim to teach theme park design.
Jennifer Phipps, a curator at the NGV, takes up the history of the Melbourne artists and park and makes many points, a few of which I can summarise here. In the wartime 1940’s, St Kilda housed American soldiers, about which the general consensus was they were ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here’. The park, ‘browned out’ as a war precaution, was filled with soldiers attended by young girls looking for a thrill, perhaps getting more thrill than the one they expected. Like all of Coney Island in New York, Luna Park was at the time considered a seedy place – both in Melbourne and Sydney. (When I asked my old dad about Sydney Luna, he would just say it was filled with ‘yanks and whores’).
The painters had a mixture of admiration and horror for the park, which they saw in the context of the war. Nolan, generally in favour of the vitality of the park, conflated the lines of the roller coaster with the tracer lines of ack-ack guns and produced designs for the ballet Icarus where the boy falling from the sky equaled the coaster in descent. But Hester painted a darker image of woman prone on the ground, the victim of a leering Luna face.
In my own vocabulary, these painters were working with the light/dark modern/mannerist Orphic principle of the parks – the ‘mass delirium’ identified by the exhibition. There’s more context for why Disney, an artist, held such a revulsion to American parks as they were in the 1940’s and attempted Jekyll and Hyde surgery for his own land.
Ian McDougall, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT, provides a masterful history of theme park architecture which should be mandatory reading for any study of park design. He describes what is very likely the prototype of the theme park in the circa 1550 Gardens at Bomarzo. Here are dragons and monsters, and the inscription that it’s sol per sfogare il Core … a bit like Just For Fun. He describes the 1968 study Learning From Las Vegas by Brown & Venturi, a significant work in which the pop art of the Strip was documented and became valid and worthy of inclusion in academic built environment design.
I was most taken with his account of the 1978 book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas that sets out the history of Coney Island, the 1939 World’s Fair, and NYC itself as an ongoing battle between light and dark. At one point the struggle is written as directly waged between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier – both armed with Dali’s Paranoid Critical Technique. It’s not hard to find a naughty copy of the book online, and you have to read it before you can really understand the history and mentality of Luna Parks wherever they came to be.
For me the message is good – there is a body of theoretical work, unfortunately unknown or denied by the practice where ‘imagineering’ has been set up as the whole reason. There is no justification for editing history to start in 1955 – that simply marks a reaction to what was there before. The reaction requires explanation, and that can be found as far back as 1550.
It all needs to be given some long trousers, and perhaps it’s something that I can do.
In which Disney’s desire to expunge Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll’s fun fair is argued to be flimflam.
I’m grateful to my missus for David Younger’s Theme Park Design book, which turns out to be a long and deadly serious text. Seeing as you can have physics textbooks with colour pictures and multiple fonts, it feels as if theme parks are being presented here as no laughing matter.
From it I find that my ideas on narrative have been embarrassingly naïve. Just pretend I didn’t write any of it thank you. The discussion of theme park storytelling is long and embattled, with the Europeans somewhat skeptical and the Americans doubling down. It also depends on the era you’re talking about.
Younger has a nomenclature for design eras, very Disney-centric like everything in the book. But to my way of thinking, it starts too late in the history
‘Traditional’ is the design category for the original Disneyland, immersive and thematic. As Disney became more involved in edutainment the real world became more important, and a ‘presentational’ style downplayed theming in favour of clean and simple lines that kept out of the way. In this scheme Fantasyland is traditional, while EPCOT is presentational. When the luster of big science wore off in the 70’s, the ‘postmodern’ style began to tease and mock the earnestness of these formats – as in the early Disney California Adventure.
But I think both presentational Tomorrowland and traditional Fantasyland have lived side by side from the very beginning. The two styles also represent something much older – the ‘ying and yang’ of the world fairs which had a light (inspirational, educational) side matched with a dark (exotic, disturbing) side. It seems fair to say the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York fair are ‘presentational’, as is the Eiffel Tower. Disney would never had allowed Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus on site (although they did collaborate on a film) but the dark rides of Fantasyland are informed by those of the Amusement Zone.
How much was Disney inspired by Elektro the Moto-man to create an improved robot of President Lincoln for the 1965 fair? Did he take notes at Frank Buck’s Jungleland? To what extent did the 1939 model ‘city of tomorrow’ presume the model ‘community of tomorrow’ 30 years later? Did the idea for a main street leading to a central hub already exist?
But was Disney involved at the ’39 fair at all?
Yes, deeply at many levels. And when Disneyland was in financial trouble he first wrote to the companies who had been at the fair for the same kind of sponsorship. They turned him down, but responded when a financial man made serious deals – and Monsanto et al. were on-site, plugging their wares.
Disneyland is in many aspects a small copy of a world fair, mixed with copies of European pleasure parks. It did not spring solely from his imagination.
You can argue that Theme Parks have to start somewhere if you’re trying to keep a document under a page count, or that world fairs are not strictly theme parks. But I can’t base my understanding of the design without tracing the ancestry.
What was Disney’s point of difference?
The main change he brought about was his desire that the dark, unpleasant aspects of the traditional fun fair be expunged so that children could be safe at his park from dirt of all kinds. Pinocchio illustrates his feelings on the matter.
The fun fair was a place for adults, where children would be corrupted – turned into jackasses. They were indeed messy and corrupting places filled with more adults than children. That’s the point. Parks are an opportunity for Bacchanalia – the ecstatic, the liberating, drunken and drugged outburst of enthusiasm required by society to keep strong urges in a contained context.
But in 1958 The Saturday Evening Post still counted four adults to one child in Disneyland. The ‘Orphic’ view (as in, that traditionally ascribed the legendary poet Orpheus) is that civilization requires balance with madness, Apollo and Bacchus – and the world fairs had this not by intent, but by demand of their audience. Disney was one man trying to impose his tidyness on the nature of things.
Cutting the dark side of the fun park from the light side wasn’t ever really possible, and lead only to an undeserved historical distaste for the earlier Bacchanalian ‘Luna’ parks. If you can’t climb up, then push down. A ride such as Snow White’s Scary Adventures is just a ghost train with IP attached.
I argue all of this because I can’t see a logical reason my own city’s park to be cut out of design knowledge. More on that later.
2017 being such a frantic year with shows here and in North America, it was inevitable that 2018 would be anticlimactic. It was that – but at times the climate fell into bleakness.
In 2017 we happily sailed the mainstream, the safety zone – live shows of elderly music. Like setting up at a trade show, you’re showing off your existing wares while delaying the development of new ones. It’s instantly rewarding with lots of praise and feedback for what you do – or to be very honest what you once did.
But we can’t continue to work for an audience that’s gone from the most forward looking to the one most adverse to new experience. Right now, they have the money and will pay for the excitement they once felt – the nostalgic T Shirt, the cassette. But that’s not what we wanted – back then or now. We’re supposed to keep pushing.
Thus 2018 was set aside for experimentation – real experiments that could fail. And they did fail – slipping slowly, fingernails scraping, off a cliff.
Clearing the decks
First there were some releases of projects that had been underway since 2017 or before. In April we released Aversion 2, being an album constructed of small splinters of classic rock music. A limited edition of 200 small plastic cases, each with a wire lab rat and USB card. The concept was loosely based around lab rats and experimentation.
Then Publicist, my follow up album to 2015’s Rhine. In June 2018 came Barbara UFOr, which completed the Barbara Island series that began in 2006. These three albums fill up the time in which things other than music albums must be the focus.
An album of ambisonic music was delayed until the concept became clearer.
Seeing the Future
So, what do most people call an experience in 2018? I think it’s useful to put aside your limitations for a moment and ask, ‘if I had unlimited resources…’. Back at the end of 2017 it seemed that surround audio/vision was a focus, and I upgraded our capabilities. We organised travel to the USA to see some of the state of the art in the entertainment industry. There is a movement for game engines to become the stage for motion pictures and experiences in general. I dedicated myself to mastering the Unity engine, at least to the point where I hoped to direct a team.
Problems became apparent over the months.
VR is only part of a failed concept which I might label ‘constrained experience’. Quickest way to sum it up – once your brain gets used to augmented presentation – 3D, binaural, motorised seating etc. it disappears, as it no longer contributes to the story experience after a few minutes. Wearing a helmet doesn’t seem worth the effort. A standard 2D movie holds 99% of the story. A movie =/= a ride.
I’d rendered VR versions of two videos back in 2016, with little interest. I set about some new ones but found the whole VR realm to be dropping away, even for the largest players. When Google announced VR180, the game was up. Time wasted. I do see the worth in expanding the viewing space – with satellite (non-focussed) imagery on side screens. Projection mapping is also a successful area.
I believe that an engine such as Unity is the ‘studio’ for our future production. But even if you are given an entire film studio for free, you need sufficient staff to run it. I found it impossible to hold all the disparate elements in my head – humanoid animation, lighting, material design, coding … once I’d mastered one aspect, another would fall out of my head. I also fell into an endless loop between intentions and capabilities. I would intend something, it would come out differently, which suggested a different intention. This can be great in music, but in a complex world building exercise it’s a nightmare. Time wasted.
I was able to clock a ‘world’ with a sequencer. I have so far not been able to perform the ‘world’ with standard musical instruments, partly because live MIDI is alien to game design and partly because I haven’t yet made one worth the effort. That would have come before performing the ‘world’ over a network connection, a goal that was supposed to be finished by now.
At least I get job offers for Unity now. Yay team. Shrug.
Our trip to see theme parks in California was instructive – I saw that some of the failures I’ve realised were ones they’ve suffered as well. I saw that big teams are not just small ones grown up – I’ve been taught the difference between ‘fine art’ and the team work of experience design. Given that few music artists are serious about current forms, and that I identify as an artist, I have to pick those battles I can win unaided.
Picking up the fragments
Ambisonic sound is still worthwhile, as earphones and smart phones are already clothing. If a visual analogue appears, well and good. Wait for that. Making music in surround is itself not easy to do well.
Let’s just convert one or two video clips into game worlds. That keeps the intention/design steady and gives an idea if the conversion provides any real benefit. Once built it’s easier to make modifications to provide MIDI controls, networking etc. I can then demonstrate this to try get support.
Satellite screens for existing videos are achievable. I’m creating some multi-channel work and showing in Adelaide in March 2019.
Continue to study experience design, perhaps enrolling in coursework.
In general, smaller bites, less chewing.
2019 is already happening as we try book gigs. Europe is on but it’s being very difficult to set up. I think we were a novelty in 2016, maybe you have to die and be reborn each time. Like Jesus.
Have a nice Christmas break!
In which we draw some technical conclusions.
Before going deeper it’s worth a sanity check, in that the finances of our test subjects are beyond our reckoning. The rides described here cost around $100 million to create – and a whole land such as Universal’s Harry Potter is estimated at half a billion. What can we small makers learn from their construction?
Your short film is not going to be Star Wars – but the expensive failure of the latest Star Wars film Solo is lesson that resonates with any level of storytelling*. The successes and failures of giants still provide lessons for the rest of us.
3D video isn’t viable.
There’s a period from around 2010 to 2016 where Universal used 3D technology on rides such Transformers and the Simpsons – around the same time that cinema took on the format. The obvious Great Disappointment comes in 2016 when the Harry Potter ride was upgraded to remove 3D projection. Notably the more recent DreamWorks Theatre uses no 3D.
The reasons are familiar to any 3D cinema goer – I found the 3D glasses to be clumsy, dirty and to cut out light, making for a dark and distant experience. Instead Potter and DreamWorks use HD screens that wrap around your field of view, and frankly you don’t notice the missing depth.
Seeing as we’re working on a smaller scale this brings up the question, which I think has moved from “is VR failing?” to “in what way is VR failing?” The parks are finding that glasses are not as effective as real world set building, and VR helmets are even less appealing. Notably Google is moving into something called “VR180” on the basis that almost no one actually looks behind them. It can be experienced on a helmet but will probably end up being a domestic ‘very wide screen’ projection system. This would represent an enormous retreat from the all-seeing 360 eye of VR.
And so they mix video and physical sets.
The latest rides use flat or curved video framed in built sets. No one believes that the video is actually part of the set, but so long as the two are designed to collaborate on story, the effect is accepted. Projection mapping is definitely a key skill as is set design.
But motion beats just about anything.
When you are being thrown around by large forces you’re immersed. In fact, some of the rides – Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mummy, and to a certain extent Space Mountain, rely on absence of visual cues. Motion simulators and motorised theatre seating is a proven and effective way to grab people, and no wonder some cinemas, even in Australia, are installing 4DX technology for feature films.
This is terrible news for the small designer, who’s unlikely to have access to this kind of effect. No matter how effective a VR headset may be, it can’t compete with motors. I can imagine some technology that would talk directly to your vestibular system, but not this year or the next.
Cheer Up: That we enjoy so many films without physical effects just comes back to the fundamentals – make us care and we’ll watch.
Except sound. Sound everywhere.
Sound is never neglected by the big players. The usual rig involves multiple speakers positioned on a ride car to provide a surround image for the riders. The sound stage for King Kong 3d uses a 22-channel mix, delivered on 16-speaker ‘clusters’ spaced along the stage. Disney places multiple speakers, as much as one per sound, so that they remain invisible to the audience.
Speaker arrays are beyond the reach of most small practitioners, but ambisonics has reached mainstream DAWs in 2018, and every sound designer now has the ability to produce a 3rd order image that can be subsequently mapped to speaker arrays if and when a specific project becomes available.
Most of our vacation was spent being chased by scare actors in Halloween Horror Nights. Definitely something for a select audience, but something that could be expanded into a wider entertainment format.
HHN includes a set of physical mazes, each about the same size as a small house, ground floor only. A queue of people goes in the front, weaving their way around in near darkness. Some parts of the house open up into wider rooms with set pieces – for example some sequential scenes from the old Poltergeist movie. The corridors are filled with hidden openings out of which pop scare actors, people in costume that pretend to stab or grab you as you go by. The noise level is intense – the Stranger Things house sounded like a plane taking off.
But a couple of things stop these from being scary. Most of all you’re one of hundreds of people flowing through these mazes at fast pace. The constant flow of people means you’re never in a state of apprehension, as tension is rarely allowed to build. If there’s a girl that screams in front of you, every scare actor will go for them and hide again by the time you get there. Lack of room means that the actors can only make repeated motions, although some of the better mazes had enough space for variation (the Universal Monsters maze was best for this).
There are also scare zones in which the attacks are more free form and creative. They work better because the actors have creative freedom, but are harder to define and market. I think these are models for something new where a ‘swarm’ of characters gather you up into events, the way that massive online gaming works. And yes, I have no idea how you would do this. Yet.
* Don’t extend your population of characters so far that you need an encyclopedia. There’s only so much care to share.
In which I go looking in Halloween USA for the pumpkin spice of contemporary media art, and find that interaction design is better done with personalities than push-buttons.
I’m in Los Angeles. Touristing, but following the hunch that contemporary media art is best studied from leading commercial practitioners than any academic project. That is, if I want to observe the cutting edge, I’m better off at Disneyland than Carnegie Mellon.
A commercial entity has no excuses – it has to study, set and hit strongly defined goals. If an audience doesn’t respond to the work, it gets fixed or folded. There is constant war between companies to seize the state of the art. If one creates the leading experience, the others are in quick pursuit. But by itself technology is not the key to their success, and I am keen to understand the storytelling design that underlies the best work.
(There are of course ‘living museums’ – that understand the join between the two worlds. They are also inspiring sources).
I’ve no illusion that I can produce anything that compares, but I’d rather fall short of the target than the periphery. I’m keen to understand commercial ‘360 degree’ media design – experiences, movies, rides, and merchandise, so I’ve been studying the two most successful theme parks (by audience) operated by Disney and Universal.
The full essay would be much longer than you’d bother to read here, so let me just provide an executive summary and some points.
In the best case, the narrative rules for storytelling hold true for 360 experience – people care for, and identify with a hero or group of heroes, they prefer a narrative that conveys learning and morals. I believe that the centre of any interactive media is the character (rather than e.g. the mechanics of interaction). This is why e.g. it’s called Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – immersion involves identification with a person or persons, in a world that is formed to illustrate their personal journey.
The audience does not care for interaction without meaning – it must be in the context of the narrative and world. And this Interaction must involve the same cascading levels of jeopardy as set out in a linear narrative.
The Narrative Arc is across all outcomes
I always come back to the standard lead line: somebody, somewhere, wants something. They discover a gift, which then involves them in conflict. In overcoming an antagonist, win or lose, they gain insight and are uplifted beyond the power of the gift. This progression is obvious in movies – but it is found in roller coasters as well.
In all the cases I’ve seen in LA, the movie (incorporating book, play, TV series) is the first outcome but there are alternate cases such as the game Five Nights At Freddies. In creating the movie, the designers necessarily come up with the elements that serve all the other formats.
There is a someone who wants something. The hero. What do they look like? What’s their past? What do they want? What instead do they need? Harry Potter is 11 years old, an orphan, treated like a slave – copied from Cinderella (which addresses the same teen yearnings) he will be given a gift – with consequences. When the battle starts, hubris may bring him down. The character is crafted with a back story, desires and motives, a physicality, emotional weakness and so on.
The Character is the store of narrative ‘reality’, and includes at least
- motivations (goals, back story etc.)
- limitations (lack of insight, point where their risk-taking tips into failure)
- embodiment (colours, physical attributes, clothing, etc.)
- totemic items (things that illustrate the gift)
By defining the motives and limits of the hero and villain, the plot will mostly write itself. A movie follows a segment of the inevitable action up to the moral outcome set in a third act, after which a sequel will hopefully be required. The experiences are endless, a perpetual storytelling.
This action needs a somewhere, and I’d argue that it too is generated when the characters are properly defined. In film these are generally called worlds. The theme parks I’m visiting are divided into lands, each being a confined sub-area in which the features are strictly designed to appear part of a world. Examples include Disney’s Fantasyland, Pixar Pier, and Universal’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, and Springfield. Usually there is a gate to each land, or at least a bend in the road that obscures one land from others.
(It’s reminiscent of computer game design, with walled levels, NPC’s, collectable weapons etc., and tempting to think that RPG gaming inspired this physical immersion. But the theme parks are much older than gaming – Disney derived his park in the mid 1950’s from older European parks he saw on his own study tour. Instead parks and games have common requirements and have cross pollinated.)
(When Disney broke these rules in Disney California Adventure, they suffered badly. The changes made since that ill-fated opening illustrate the point being made here).
My hunch is that the tale of Nemo requires an ocean in which to be lost, and Toad requires a shiny automobile. Or, more accurately, the attributes of the character, such as Toad’s vanity and privilege, demand a situation in which they can be presented as a morality play. Design questions are answered by asking ‘what can, and would the character do in this situation, given their motives and failings?’
The Incredicoaster is the latest part of DCA to be reformed from the disastrous ‘mock California’ launch. It now has a story line based around the physical abilities of the Incredibles characters, expressed as movements of the coaster through chapters, defined by figures placed in tunnels on the track. The ride is narrated by speakers built into each seat, presenting a moral about the family working together. Notably the ride itself is not made longer or faster than before – it has instead been improved with an arc.
Jeopardy points in the story-line become the (apparent) jeopardy in the adult rides. For example, in Universal’s The Mummy a tussle between good and evil is enacted by throwing of the riders into a dark abyss filled with scarabs by the god Imhotep, from which they are retrieved (backwards!). Splash Mountain, Forbidden Journey, even The Simpsons Ride – all are narratives where a machine shakes emotion into the story. Some of the small children rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures are obviously also narrative, while the carousel doesn’t seem to suggest any at all.
I also couldn’t see the jeopardy expressed in most of the lands, where the audience is free to wander. Perhaps events like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are the start of something, which could be expanded outside of the horror genre.
The last point I can fit here, and one that still puzzles me, is about totems. The bears, mice, dogs and whatever-the-hell Goofy is supposed to be are all well within the long tradition of fables. Rabbits have been heroes all the way back to Africa, so that’s well documented. I wonder if the modern cartoon character – Minions for example – are the same psychological device and I think, yes, we have now adopted machines as we once did creatures.
The second question is about totemic objects or ‘merch’ – the hats, t-shirts, lanyards, plushies etc. that bulge throughout every land. Are these simply souvenirs, or do they bring identification with the hero, or some more complex process? And what is their role when used inside the land, such as the wands used in Harry Potter than are actually haptic controllers for various ‘magical’ events?
Still a lot more to think about.