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Juliana De Abreu Q & A

Francesca Nicolas, Director of Design at EDC speaks to Art Director Juliana De Abreu .

FRANCESCA: We are very proud of having an incredibly diverse team here at EDC. Can you tell us a bit of where you are from and what brought you to LA?

JULIANA: I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I went to college there for Architecture and Urbanism, and there I worked for a few years. The program is a lot broader than in the US. Once, I worked for an architect who was also a scenic designer for theater. He asked me to assist with him for a musical play and that was a turning point. I was hooked by the process, and how fast our ideas would end up as reality. Architecture can take years; Urban Planning even more.

At the time, I felt there were some gaps in my knowledge of a theater production. Also, I wanted to have the experience of living abroad for a while. Going to grad school in another country made sense, so I went full board on it.

On a flight from New York to São Paulo, a girl sitting next to me strongly suggested CalArts. She was graduating from another place but told me to check it out. So, I applied there among other places; had a great interview, really liked the program and the school environment.

My intention was to complete my student visa, go to Europe for one year, and then return to Brazil. But I met this incredible guy, with a very creative career as a guitar maker, he proposed just after I graduated CalArts and here we are, settled in LA! 

FRANCESCA: Did you always have a passion for the stage and screen and knew that was your end goal? Or was it inspired by your family’s involvement in the entertainment industry in Brazil?

JULIANA: That was always the opposite of my goal! It always bothered me how people treated me differently because of my dad, and not because of what I’ve done or who I was.

Although my dad always kept my mom and I far from his work outside of home, we participated on every aspect of his creative process at home, where he used to write. We would travel together, watch movies, and go see plays for his research; I read the synopsis and first episodes of all his telenovelas; discussed casting, watched screen tests, talked about costumes, locations, even soundtracks; heard many of his phone meetings; and had to watch every episode of his novelas, in the dark and in silence, and after it was over, we discussed the good and the bad points of it.

When I decided to study Scenic Design, it was clear to me I would go abroad. I wanted to make my own path. Only then I found out how much I’ve learned from my dad. I never saw that as a professional education – since I born, that was the way of interacting with him! It was fun, but at the same time, it was normal. He was not this incredibly talented writer, for me he was just my dad.

FRANCESCA: You’ve been part of the latest and greatest projects we have completed here at EDC in the past four years, including Art Director for Shrek’s Merry Fairy Tale Journey dark ride at MOTIONGATE Dubai, Great Wolf Lodge’s Marvelous Mural, among others. Do you want to talk a bit about your experience working on those?

JULIANA: I can’t believe it’s been four years! We’ve done so much, but at the same time, it feels like yesterday that Alex called me to join the EDC family.

I absolutely love the diversity background of the teams; I try to learn as much as I can from everyone: animators, designers, video designers, sound and so on. I feel so lucky for working with so many talented people!

I also love that these projects are rooted both in Scenic Design and Architecture, but with different variables. We work with worlds and characters that are not real and have to consider that real guests are going to be inside this new environment.

It’s great to have a discussion about the clearance of the space according to the local building code in the morning and talks in the afternoon of what would the character intentions and thoughts are.

The back and forth from both worlds that are about to coexist in the same place fascinates me.

FRANCESCA: Prior to all that, you worked on the set design for Rocky, the musical on Broadway, and just recently completed a series of interior design projects for a few apartments in NYC. Can you share a bit about those two very different projects and what they perhaps have in common?

JULIANA: It’s funny, to me Rocky the Musical, and Shrek ride are the jobs in a closer category. Both are about a misfit, and both design projects won prizes at the end – and if I remember correctly, on both there were a lot of hours invested in a short time!

On Rocky I was an assistant for Chris Barreca, who was my mentor and who I previously assisted for on a few regional theater shows.

The Manhattan interiors is like returning to a safe place. Its what I used to do before working on sets, and I always had a blast doing those. I guess the difference is that it’s more of a solitary work – I’m a 100% the designer, the researcher, the manager, and the construction site supervisor. I was lucky to have a freedom on the deadline, so I could work at EDC at the same time.

In my mind, a set for a play, an architectural interior, or even an exhibition design for a museum, a large commercial event design, or a theme park ride, are all designing of space. Those are places that have a need. Either a fictional character or a real person, someone will be in that space, and will have to be attended.

The architectural client has his/her needs; but so does the director, the characters, the actors of a play; and the guests of a museum or theme park. While a set should help tell a story, a living room should reflect the apartment owners’ preferences, way of life, and interests. In architectural design, there’s a beauty of real sunlight; in a set, there’s the magic of the lighting designer. Doesn’t it sound equivalent to you?

FRANCESCA: Based on your experience and creative process, do you consider having a foundation in Architecture crucial to your work as a Scenic Designer?

JULIANA: Although I don’t believe every Scenic Designer should have an Architecture background, to me it was very important. When looking at a plan, I’m able to feel the space as a whole – not just visually, but also understanding how one would circulate around it, for instance. Also, I’m comfortable at construction sites. Once I’m there, I can get how it’s going to look and feel after construction is finished. For large design projects, it has helped me to understand the engineering and architecture aspects of the jobs, with the artistic needs of it as well. Oh, and drafting is a pretty good way of communication with the TD!

FRANCESCA:  What would you recommend students currently enrolled in Themed Entertainment Design programs and those who want to make a move from another career into Themed Entertainment?

JULIANA: Entertainment Design is not just a career, it’s more like a way of life. I guess one has to really be committed to it, live for it, in order to move forward. What keeps me going is being constantly curious; and I know it’s never going to be enough.

I would tell a student: fill up your brain with information; listen to people; read; observe, take notes, draw; go to museums, art galleries, fairs; go to the movies, go to plays; travel; immerse yourself in new and different situations and take some time to think about what each one has added to you. Once you are in it, remember you’ll have to learn forever; otherwise you’ll get stuck in the past. Your next project should be better than your previous one.

Also, keep in mind your days are probably going to be 100% dedicated to work when you’re in a job. Finally, don’t think you’re going to get rich by designing.

FRANCESCA:  What type of projects (and in which city) do you want to see yourself more involved in in the near future?

JULIANA: This a tough one! I enjoy novelty and challenges, I enjoy having the opportunity to be creative and learning in new and challenging spaces, especially in cooperation with talented, creative people. I truly enjoy traveling and experiencing different cultures as well. I also have this dream of developing a project in Brazil some day. I guess I’ve been so busy in the US that I haven’t had the time for it yet.

In all honesty, there are times where I genuinely feel like I should start acting more like a grown up and look for a more secure job – 9 to 5, good benefits, a stable salary, no work outside of the office. But then I think about it again, and knowing me, I’ll be bored the first day!

 

 

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Levi Lack Q & A

Jeremy Railton speaks to Levi Lack.

JEREMY: When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist/designer? Did you have support from your parents?

LEVI: I think I realized it pretty young. I can’t remember I time that I wasn’t drawing, so it was always a part of the plan growing up! I knew I wanted to create things and spent most of my childhood building cardboard forts, drawing and painting. My parents have always been extremely supportive and encouraging about my creative endeavors.

JEREMY: Where were you born? Also when?

LEVI: I was born in Atlanta Georgia, June of 1995. Although I spent most of my time growing up in Reno Nevada.

JEREMY: Tell us about your family? Is there creativity in your genes or are you an anomaly in your family? Do you have siblings?

LEVI: My Dad is from Houston, Texas and my mom is from Kingston, Jamaica. Neither of them have art related work or careers, but they definitely have a bit of creativity in them. My great uncle Ary was a painter by craft, and I have some other family who are/were musicians. I have a younger brother named Jonah who is into photography and music, and 2 step siblings Lindsey and Logan.

JEREMY: What have you been doing in the design field before coming to EDC?

LEVI: Prior to EDC I was working as an Assistant Art Director at another design firm whose focus was more live events and broadcast. As well as that, I was doing a bit of theatre design and illustration on the side. Before I graduated from school I was able to be apart of some amazing design related work like the CalArts WDI Educational initiative, Intern at the Academy Awards, and have a theatre show travel to New York and back to California for some festivals!

JEREMY: What are your ultimate ambitions and your favorite medium to work in?

LEVI: I’d love to get the chance to one day do some production design for some large scale themed entertainment environments. That, and still be able to be do some concept illustration. Who knows! My favorite medium is still sketching with pencil to paper.

JEREMY: What interests or appeals to you about working for EDC?

LEVI: What was the most appealing was the range of projects you all work on and the role I would get to play in working on them. Everyone in the office and the environment seemed so welcoming and friendly, so that as well!

JEREMY: Do you do any fine art for yourself?

LEVI: I do a bit of sketching and world building in my free time- though I wish I had more time too!

JEREMY: What was your education and have you had any teacher or mentors that you would like to speak about?

LEVI: I got my BFA in Scenic Design from CalArts School of Theatre, but focused a lot of my time on Illustration and Scenic Painting as well. There are so many wonderful teachers I had in school, but if I could only name a few it would have to be Michael Smith and Mary Heilman. They really helped me grow as an artist and overall as a person.

JEREMY: What do you think is your most lovable quality?

LEVI:  People seem to appreciate my consistent calm and kind demeanor, and my commitment to pushing on until the project is complete.

 JEREMY: Tell us something about yourself that we have not asked.

LEVI: I’m first generation American on my moms side. My mom’s lineage consists of Jamaican, Portuguese, Haitian, Chinese, and on my Dads side my grandmother was born in Lithuania. So my brother and I have a pretty crazy gene pool. My mom joked she was playing genetic roulette with me while she was pregnant.

 

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Jessica Hill Q & A

 Jeremy Railton chats with production manager Jessica Hill.

JEREMY: Hi Jessica and welcome to EDC. You’ve only been here a few months as our Production Manager and we do these Q and A conversations so that we can get to know you on a more personal basis. We all spend so much time together that we become more like a family so sharing these chats with our readers and potential clients helps to build one of the most important things in our business: trust. To that end, would you tell us a little about where you were born and grew up?

JESSICA: I was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to Chile at three years old. At the time, many Koreans were hoping to find a way to move to America, and often the easiest path was through a different country. My family and I moved to America when I was five. We first lived in Upstate NY, then New Jersey, and settled in Brooklyn NY.

JEREMY: I know you are married with kids—you can brag—so I know not to ask if you have hobbies or what you do with your free time unless you have miraculous super powers.

JESSICA: I wish I had super powers; I could really use those right now. I’ll settle for sleep and alone time. My two beautiful children, Mark (7) and Jude (3) who are the light of my life, keep me on my toes. I’m happy to report they’ve reached the age where we can all enjoy the beach in our different ways and I couldn’t be any happier. We like to surf, boogie board, swim, build sand castles, and collect shells.

JEREMY: Could you tell us about your previous education and life experience?

JESSICA: I was a dental hygiene major in New York City. The more I worked the more I realized that dental hygiene was not meant for me. My husband and I are big gamers, and when I was ready to rejoin the work force after rearing children, an opportunity in the video games industry came about. I began working in marketing and project management. This experience led me to a video game creative agency as the head of Business Development and Project Manager. My experience lies in creating marketing campaigns based on performance metrics.

JEREMY: How did you find out about EDC?

JESSICA: I was very interested in the production side of the entertainment industry and was referred to EDC through a mutual friend of Alex’s.

JEREMY: Was there anything in particular that attracted you to us?

JESSICA: EDC’s accomplishments and values are very well respected in the themed entertainment industry. I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to learn about the creative side of the industry.

Once I met the team, I was ecstatic. EDC’s team members are imaginative and ideas and cutting-edge. Every member of our team is so unique in their own styles and personalities. This leads to interesting lunch discussion topics. There’s never a boring day here, and I’m so grateful to be here.

JEREMY: With your Korean ancestry you are a good fit for this company of diversity! I am originally Zimbabwean, although I have lived here longer than most Americans and we have Francesca, our production designer, who is from Dominican Republic; Danilo, our illustrator, is from Colombia, while Alex, Richard, Ellen, and Teena are, respectively, from Florida, New York, California and Wisconsin and our company accountant is from China. Can you see any benefits to this diversity?

JESSICA: I’ve learned a lot from growing up in different countries and I believe EDC’s cultural diversity brings a global perspective that inspires fresh ideas. It creates a well-rounded workforce, but most importantly, the diversity of our team brings wider industry knowledge to adapt, innovate, and progress as a company.

JEREMY: As our production manager you drill down into the details of project scheduling, budgeting, client interaction, but I know you have a creative soul—do you think you will be able to feel creatively gratified.

JESSICA: My position is unique in I can express my creativity in different ways. Finding solutions and visualizing ideas through management of various projects is stimulating and rewarding. I appreciate EDC’s spirit of welcoming creative ideas from everyone on our team, beyond their specific responsibilities.

JEREMY: So far it’s been calm around here, apart from some long hours, but it can get crazy and stressful. Have you learned or do you practice any ways to help you remain calm. I have always found that a difficult challenge to manage.

JESSICA: This sounds cheesy, but like to take a minute to breathe and close my eyes, think of my children and how beautiful life is. One thing that makes my world a better place is the people I associate with. Big thanks to our team here at EDC for making stressful times manageable!

JEREMY: Is there anything you would like to share with your new family and our readers?

JESSICA: Being part of this team is an inspiration. There’s so much creative energy I can’t help but feel I am in a truly unique and special environment.

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Designer's Notebook: Animal Safari

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jrEDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.

DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.

 

Animal Safari

My Adventures with Animals

Life in the Animal Zone

I grew up in the 50s, on my family’s farm in Zimbabwe Central Africa, forty miles from the Victoria Falls. As early as I can remember, I would entertain myself for hours on end by drawing everything around me: lions, wart hogs, baboons, kudu, duiker, impala, rabbits, tortoises and birds. My father, while he appreciated my drawing skills, would have preferred it if I had learned how to chop firewood.

Buda Farm, Nyamanbhlovu in Zimbabwe drawn from memory

1950

Animals and Humans Meet

Saturday was a big day on the farm. All the cattle from miles around were herded in and pushed through a plunge dip to rid them of ticks. Some of the cattle that belonged to the tribesmen were like wild animals so the whistling and shouting and jostling was really fun.

I remember a particular Saturday when I was about seven. A large Kudu bull had got himself caught up in the melee of horned cattle. Just before he reached the plunge, he launched into a leap that only a Kudu can do and finding himself trapped in the farm yard, jumped over fences, zoomed past the trading store and ran through the vegetable garden, trampling my mother’s roses, until he was finally confronted by the trading store tailor holding a little spear, which he valiantly threw at the animal. It bounced of the tough hide and bent in two!

The trading store tailor with a less fortunate Kudu. Kudu were plentiful and fed the farm with fresh meat for a week.

Later that day, I was having afternoon tea with my eighty year old grandmother, a rather stern “children should be seen and not heard” Victorian colonial. We did not have a close relationship, but that day, seeing me flushed and jabbering with excitement from the Kudu bull adventure, she said something that has stayed with me my whole life: “I have to apologize to you for my generation” she said, as she fanned herself with her Chinese fan. “We have ruined the earth. We have killed the great herds of Africa, wiped out the buffalo and made the Quagga and the passenger pigeon extinct.”

Her confession stunned me and changed my point of view in an instant. My familiar world consisted of our family farm and the tribal kids that I played with. Elephants, lions and leopards were a natural part of the environment so the idea of “running out” of animals had never dawned on me with my ‘bush kid’ mentality, and her words planted a seed that continued to grow into a life-long interest in wildlife, environmental conservation and my interest in telling animal stories, which I’m still doing to this day.

My Grandmother and one of the three specimens of the Passenger pigeon left in the world. I found this one at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum.
Quagga specimen at the East London Museum in the Western Cape of South Africa

 

A few years later, I had an experience that sparked my interest in ornithology. I was walking past an acacia bush with white thorns when I noticed a broken bird’s nest woven out of bright yellow grass. Inside were five eggs, one of which had been pierced by a thorn and all of the contents had leaked out. My artistic eye was immediately attracted to this sparkling white little egg of a Blue Waxbill.

I realized that I could intentionally pierce the remaining eggs, remove their contents, and keep them forever. I thought that I had invented egg blowing, but a few years later, my dreams of an empire based on blowing birds eggs crumbled when I went to a museum for the first time and saw their fantastic egg collections. I got over my disappointment by registering with the Ornithological Society and started turning in egg records and bird check lists, which by the way, I still have.

Blue Waxbill that inspired me to collect egg
This is my egg collection, which I still have with the original records.

 

When I got a little older, I thought that I had two choices in life: I could become a game warden or an artist. I was always drawing and painting birds and once I started winning children’s painting competitions my path pointed to art and commerce.

Although life on the farm was paradise, our economic survival was always tied to the vagaries of nature: a flock of a thousand Quelea finches that could wipe out a sorghum crop in a night; a herd of wild pigs in the vegetable garden that could wipe out a season’s tomato crop; a few nights of porcupines in the corn field taking one bite out of each cob, and all the while our eyes were turned to the sky for signs of rain.

From an early age, the challenge of earning a living was impressed on me by my hard working farmer Dad. If I was going to pursue my passion for art, I had to consider how I was going to support myself.

When I was 16, I entered a competition and won the honor of designing the cover of an Ornithology magazine and felt that I had a direction. When I was 18, after I graduated from High School and before going to University, I was given a job painting Dioramas in the Bulawayo Natural History Museum.

At the Museum, under the direction of Terry Donnelly, the head artist and Terence Coffin-Grey, the Taxidermist, I learned how to convey the visual narrative of a scene. They taught me that closely observed details—animal tracks, dung and accompanying insects, plants and geography—explain more about the life of the animals than just the animals themselves.

This early lesson helped me later, in my theatrical design career, especially in theme park design where my principal job is story telling.

Master painter, Terry Donnelly, who hired me to be her assistant and my first solo display case, the diorama for the vultures.

Khamera

In the early 70s, my parent sold our farm and bought a piece of land adjacent to the Khami Ruins, the former site of a fourteenth century civilization. Their plan was to make a Tourist Nature Park, which they named ‘Khamera’. The five-thousand acre site was easily accessible from the nearby city of Bulawayo and the land had many natural features, such as Bushmen rock art paintings, a magnificent Baobab tree and exquisite scenery.

To help my parents create a tourist experience, I did my first master plan, designing a tea room, a restaurant, a craft village, a site museum and overnight chalets. “Organic” and “Sustainable”, today’s buzzwords for eco-conscious tourism, was the only way that we could function in building the Nature Park, given the natural resources and my family’s limited budget.

Khamera Nature Park near Kami Ruins
Sketches of Khamera chalets and a craft village
Khamera site museum where my egg collection was housed. The rock paintings were copied from the rock art on the property.

From Zimbabwe to Hollywood

I have written elsewhere of my journey to Hollywood—by the early 90s, I had enjoyed a design career in many different media, from Theater, Dance, Film, and TV to Theme Park Attractions, Live Concerts and Shows. For the first time, I was able to catch my breath and dream about what kinds of project I would like to do. I started to think about how I might integrate the earlier part of my life—my love and connection to animals, especially birds, while living in the middle of Los Angeles.

As I was contemplating this conundrum, a falconer friend of mine, Tony Huston, introduced me to Steve Martin, one of the best-known animal trainers and bird behaviorists in the world. Steve has pioneered the art of training a variety of birds and animals through positive reinforcement. His use of non-traditional, free flight birds combined with an inspiring conservation message sets his shows apart from many other animal shows.

Steve invited me to work with him on designing a bird show theatre for the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

We visualized the show ‘in the round’ and I designed it using projection and places for the trainers to hide so as not to intrude.

Singapore Zoo

Shortly after that, Steve invited me me to come to Singapore and work with him and Angie Millwood, an animal behaviorist colleague, on designing new shows for the Singapore Zoo, one of the first ‘open encounter’ zoos in the world that was run at that time by Fanny Lai, a naturalist who was also an artist and cartoonist.

Steve Martin, Angi Millwood and myself on a consulting job with the trainers at the Singapore zoo.

Village of Lost Pets

One of our mandates was to come up with some narrative concepts for their outdoor theatre shows that ended with a positive theme of protecting animals. Because of my African background, I had been around animals in the wild and understood their rhythms and temperament. This resonated with Steve’s ‘natural encounters’ philosophy—teaching domestically-raised birds and animals to perform their own natural behaviors.

From our earlier work on the Aviary I knew that Steve and I shared an understanding that our primary mission was to entertain.

My favorite concept was for a show called Village of Lost Pets that I developed with Angi Millwood.

As the title suggests, all lost pets—dogs, cats, rabbits—come to a village where there are no humans. The audience watches the lost pets going about their daily chores when a group of hooligans show up. The animals go into hiding and when the hooligans drop lighted cigarettes and litter, with no respect for the environment, the pets sneak in and clean it up. The show ends with the pets trapping the invaders in a net until their dog frees them, thus the show conveyed an emotional message about conservation and brought empathy and understanding about the heavy footprint of man on the vulnerable animal population all over the world.

On the spot concept drawing for Village of Lost Pets with only an animal cast of characters—no trainers!
Outdoor Stage
Concept renderings for a show about a polluted logging camp in Brazil. During the course of the show the animals and cast members transform it back to a pristine forest.

 

SOAR at the San Diego Zoo

Shortly after Singapore, I collaborated with Steve and Natural Encounters on a nighttime show for the San Diego Zoo. The idea of this show was for the guests to have a beautiful emotional experience of watching birds free flying to music and to tell a story without the usual constant banter of the trainers on headsets that can often become the focus of attention, upstaging the birds.

SOAR began with a darkened stage. The sound of flapping wings broke the silence, and in silhouette, a giant bird flew above the heads of the audience to create a memorable opening encounter. One of the design challenges was designing theatrical lighting at nighttime that enhanced the beauty and emotional rhythm of the performance in a way that would not affect the birds’ sensitivity.

One of my favorite moments came a beat later when a cell phone started ringing in the pocket of an ‘audience member’. As the guy started to have a loud conversation, a crow flew out, took his phone and dropped it into the pond on stage. The show started with the audience laughing cheering and clapping instead of a shrill host’s voice shouting “Turn Off Your Phones”!

For the finale of SOAR, I was able to redesign a magical illusion that I had first used for a Diana Ross Tour—making her appear live on stage from a projected image. In this case the illusion involved a Marabou Stork. The effect depended on the Stork walking through a paneled screen composed of vertical strips of elastic. Steve’s genius was to teach the Stork to walk through the strips on a precise cue that made it seem that the onscreen image had suddenly come to life. The Stork then flew off to the cheers of the audience.

SOAR at the San Diego Zoo: A night time free flying show with music and limited visible trainers.

Outdoor Stage for SOAR

Show scenes with lighting: “Real Theater” comes to Bird shows

Dancing Cranes

In 2007, Lim Kok Tay, the Chairman of Resorts World Sentosa, asked me to create a dynamic work of public art that would embody the spirit of his new resort. He wanted something big and impressive and the first idea was to do a show using giant construction cranes, with their movement synchronized to music and lighting. The problem was that but I couldn’t figure out how to create any kind of emotional connection between the audience and a piece of construction equipment.

One night I was staring at my drafting lamp when it occurred to me that it had the basic joint articulation of the Crane, a well-known symbol of health and longevity in Asian culture. Musing on the double meaning of the word ‘crane,’ I started to pose the lamp in various positions. As a bird lover, I was familiar with the Cranes’ mating dance and as the design process evolved, I started to see two giant crane birds dancing with one another.

For inspiration, I attached a second drafting lamp to my table and sketched out a ten-minute show where the cranes meet each other, dance and fall in love. The original design included several digital displays that provided information about the work of the International Crane Foundation to create awareness about protecting this beloved species and their eco-systems. My Company, EDC, was honored with a THEA Award for Best Attraction for the Crane Dance show.

Mechanical Dancing Cranes

A Happy Bird Garden for China

The bird population of China has suffered many setbacks, not the least of which is the loss of habitat. Responding to the Government’s desire to pay close attention to ecology, I designed an attraction that would provide a safe haven for wild birds by planting indigenous trees, grasses and shrubs to attract them while protecting them from predation.

The Happy Bird Garden, as we called it, offered a multi-level nature experience that would educate and entertain guests of all ages and levels of health and conditioning, from small children to parents and grand-parents.

A gentle wooden walking path, supported on stilts, rose and curved through a variety of nature experiences as it wound over streams and ponds. The exercise path connected to a series of special function decks that provided a place for cool-down, yoga, and gentle calisthenics while viewing digital displays of endangered birds (including audio recordings of their unique songs). Here, the goal was conservation, rehabbing a natural environment and education about the bird species in the region while giving people a fun place to exercise.

A Happy Bird Garden for China

Conservation through Entertainment

Recently, some friends visited me from Africa and they told me that fifty years ago, a survey was conducted that counted twenty-five-hundred Rhino in the Mana Pools, a wildlife conservation area in northern Zimbabwe. Today there are only one-hundred and twenty. Reflecting on the shocking destruction of animal habitat and the loss of species in my lifetime reminded me of my Grandmother’s apology to me in the 50’s.

And here I find myself back in the same position as her, wanting to apologize for my generation. I want to do my part to inspire the care and conservation of animals and their habitat by designing authentic animal experiences that create an emotional arc that brings us closer to understanding our responsibility of stewardship of the animal realm.

Animals as Ambassadors of their Species

We are witnessing a sea change in the world’s perception of animals in captivity, which is wonderful, but I fear it has swung too far, making it difficult to interact with live animals, especially lower income families who can’t afford the middle class luxury of enjoying zoos and the circus, which was where I was able to spend time looking at animals from other places than Africa.

When I lived in Rome, I made friends with a Guinea fowl in the park zoo and that relationship got me through many difficult and lonely times. It was when I was close enough to look into a bird’s or animal’s eye and saw the conscious personality coming through that my heart was reached as a little kid.

Capturing animals in the wild is a huge problem and I do not for one moment support that idea. The Victorian-style zoo with bars, concrete floors, and no space to walk is cruel! But many zoos, nowadays, are amazing places of research and animal study with environments where animals get to behave in a way that their non-captive bred species do in the wild.

Blackfish, a documentary about alleged marine life abuse at SeaWorld, fired up a protest, already activated by PETA, and created a furor that compelled Ringling Brothers Circus, by popular demand, to eliminate the elephant act from their program. Fortunately, Ringling Brothers was able to find a home for their retired elephant herd!

It is already a huge problem to find places to release animals, even under human supervision. It takes years to help an animal learn how to live and feed itself in the wild. My personal dilemma is heightened when I see so many captive-bred animals euthanized because a bunch of city-raised people want to “feel good” about freeing animals. When I speak about this issue, I ask people to imagine that they have lived in a comfortable one roomed apartment in Manhattan or any large city all of their lives (an idea that is abhorrent to me personally.) Imagine that one day you take that person to a farm in California, let them out of the car and say you are free; live your life on the farm—after all, humans are hunter gathers. Stepping on bare earth and walking through long grass with no air conditioning would be a shock! The same is true for captive-bred animals.

If animals are loved, respected, and nurtured they are happy and healthy. I can never understand why it’s okay for horses, dogs, and cats to live in a house and yet a hand-raised Zebra or wild cat is not acceptable. If Rhinos are about to be extinct, do we just stand back, try to catch poachers and watch the Rhinos, one by one, driven to extinction?

There are some very good stories however; the California Condors Captive Breeding Program is a triumph and has brought the California Condor back from the brink .

Snow leopards are seeing a slight uptick, thanks to groups that are raising money to build leopard-proof cages for the local’s goats. The villagers in the snow leopard habitat are finding that the tourist business is better than the goat business and a plus for the curious middle class.There was one habitat, on a chicken farmers land, for a very rare Argentinean cat. The farmer kept killing the cats because to her they were plentiful and eating her chickens. An advocacy group pointed out to the farmer the uniqueness of the habitat; she built a secure hen house and now is running a very successful tourist business for cat watchers.

Educating the general public about the challenges of animal conservancy is vital. The most successful programs are using animals as ambassadors—even the word “ambassadors” helps by replacing the hated word “captive.“

The Cat Haven in California, for instance, take their cats around the state to schools and various groups so that children have the same eye to eye contact that brought me to a life of loving Animals.

Meeting an ambassador from the Sandiago Zoo, my Sea Lion doppelganger.

Designer's Notebook: Television, a Love Letter

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jrEDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.

DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.

 

Television: A Love Letter

As I have been writing about my experiences designing in multiple fields—Theatre, Film, Live Shows, Themed Attractions, Music Tours—I’ve slid into a comfort zone with an ‘origin narrative’ of how my artistic inspiration seemed to flow from my roots in Central Africa, and then my anecdotal narrative would flow from there. But the easy flow of my previous blog posts screeched to a halt when I started to reflect on my work in television, and found an old resume that listed over three-hundred and fifty TV shows I had designed, spanning the gamut of Variety and Award shows, like the Oscars and Emmys, to weekly series like Peewee’s Playhouse, MTV and everything in between. Somehow along the way I have been honored to receive four Emmys.

Peewee’s Playhouse (Left) & Emmy Awards (Right)

No wonder I was floundering to recount my TV experience in a way that would have any relevance. At the rate I was going, it would be a mega-sized post with “and then I designed” between every few lines.

I started designing for Television in the mid-70s and continued through the 90s when my attention turned to Theme Parks and attractions. As I contemplated the résumé, I realized that I had spent a great part of my life designing for the ‘small screen.’

The next thought that struck me was what wonderful people I had worked with and all the fantastic friends I had made—dreamers, pragmatists, visionaries and ambitious risk-takers—all working incredibly hard, with not enough money and hardly enough time to get the shows done.

So here are a few highlights that embody the TV work ethic of team spirit and a close-knit family of creatives working toward one goal.

INSTANT TURNAROUND

A few days after 9/11, I was on a road trip in central California when I got a call from Joel Gallen, the owner of Tenth Planet, a bright, new production company. He asked if I would volunteer to design Tribute to Heroes, the 9/11 benefit concert he was directing and producing. Joel is an amazing communicator and had rounded up a willing team of volunteers to put a network special together in only four days—the fastest turn around that I have ever been part of. No time for plans or lighting plots; the show was to be shot in New York and Los Angeles and in order to accommodate the challenging schedule everything was done over the phone!

Joel’s plan was to hire an art director on each coast and the design challenge would be to make it look like one show as there was not time or money to book stars at the last minute. He had contacted my friend and design hero, LeRoy Bennett, in New York who he patched into our conversation and right about when I was driving through Bakersfield we came up with the concept of candles. By Monday we were loading in the matching sets in LA and New York and by Wednesday the show was being taped with stars like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, George Clooney and Celine Dion. One of the most stressful jobs in the entertainment field is directing a live, multi-camera show, where instant decisions of which shots to take will determine the viewer experience of the entire performance going smoothly. Miraculously, it all worked out.

Tribute to Heroes

CREW LOVE

Years before the 9/11 tribute, I had earned my TV stripes by staying awake for three nights and two days, doing a set change for Bobby Vinton’s Rock and Rollers produced by Sid and Marty Krofft. I worked through three shifts of union stage hands and really got to know and be respected by a lot of them. That friendship and respect lasted throughout my TV career and those stage hands saved my butt on many shows by putting in that extra bit of care and attention to details.

The Rock and Rollers set started as a 50s roller skating rink which was set up in a day and a night and taped the following day. That night it was taken out and we loaded in an indoor carnival park, complete with working rides. I gave myself a pat on the back for endurance and went to bed for a day!

Recently, I spoke with Greg Brunton, the lighting designer, about this experience. Greg was the first lighting designer I worked with who was my age and I loved working with him because I felt like a co-creator instead of a rookie trying to please the old guard. When I asked Greg if he remembered this show, he remembered it well: from the lighting point of view, the carnival park was set up in the wrong direction so all of his lights were pointing the wrong way and this was before moving lights! (He said that from then on, he always goes to the set during the load in day.) But in spite of all of that, no one waited for the set or lighting department.

The ‘heat’ of the short schedule was felt by every department and the show was another great example of the kind of dedication and long hours TV crews endure without even a second thought.

A LIGHTING ‘FIRST’

Speaking of Greg Brunton, he and I shared a ‘technical first.’ In the early 90s, I found myself designing the main stage for the second season of In Living Color, a sketch comedy series, and Greg was the Lighting designer.

I had been working with a wonderful group of young guys who were doing lights for clubs. Lowell Fowler was one of the innovators of High End Systems, their Texas-based lighting company, and we became friendly. Lowell and his partners were inventive and very proactive and I fell in love with their little moving club lights, having come from the world of Scoops and Lekos that were TV’s common fare. Whenever I mentioned Lowell’s moving club lights, lighting designers would say that the throw was too short, so when I designed the Living Color home base set, with the Watts towers as inspiration, I eliminated long lighting throws and suggested that Greg take a look at Lowell’s lights. Greg never hesitated and installed them in the home base set, so we credit ourselves with being the first to introduce moving lights to TV’s lighting DNA and certainly for being at the forefront of the fabulous rise or High End Systems, which went on to pioneer many lighting innovations.

Home base set for Living Color

MY TV MENTORS

I started my TV career after a television set designer, James Trittipo, bought some of my paintings from an exhibit and hired me as his assistant for a Broadway production of On the Town. After that job was over he recommended me to Rene Lagler, a brilliant young designer, who was the art director for Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour, a music and comedy variety show that was being taped at CBS at the same time as the Sonny and Cher and the Carol Burnett show.

Jeremy, Rene & Bob Checchi (Left) & Gift from Rene: My fist drawing for Glen Campbell’s show (Right)

I was a theater designer and knew nothing about television—I didn’t even have a portfolio, just a folder full of Doc Martins water colors, but miraculously Rene saw something in my work and hired me. (He kept my first sketches and recently he gave the drawing to me that he had kept beautifully framed for thirty years.)

Popes and presidents have walked on Rene’s perfect stage geometry—clean, simple designs with Swiss precision and minute attention to detail. Renee taught me to draft and literally mentored me for a year, giving me the greatest gift of my career, the benefit of his knowledge and of his mentor, Jay Krause. I had some wonderful experiences as Rene’s Art Director for the 57th Academy Awards and the ’84 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and have always taken great pride in having been mentored by him. If ever there was  an ambassador of design it’s Rene Lagler!

DESIGNING FOR CAMERA

Speaking of stage geometry, I was taught a huge design lesson by a cameraman. It was my second award show and at that time the standard award stage had two podiums, one on stage right and the other on stage left. I was battling getting good shots of the presentation podiums once the center cameras turned on them. The wide shot looked beautiful but the follow spot was kicking light off the podiums and considering that the wide shot lasts a few second at the beginning of each segment and the bulk of the time on camera was spent at the podium, I was heading for a fall.

I wish I could remember the name of that wonderful cameramen who turned to me and said, “You’re a theater designer aren’t you?” I said that I was, rather surprised that he had picked up on my background. “This is Television,” he said. “Design for what the camera sees, not the audience. The design layout should be a bicycle wheel where the two center cameras have a center line on the stage no matter where they point.” The penny dropped loudly and the problem I had been having with podiums and award shows went away forever!

MTV

Having worked in MTV as it was evolving in the 80s and early 90s, it is easy to forget that back in the day we were not inundated with hundreds of cable choices; there was no such thing as a 24-hour music channel that quickly became a global phenomenon, creating icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Before MTV, I had been designing for network TV in the conventional way at the time: two cameras at a center podium, a jib on one side and sometimes a hand-held Steadicam for reverses on stage or on rare occasions a track would be laid at the back of the house. As a result, all the award shows looked alike, no matter who was on stage. My aspiration at the time was to ‘look different’, but I had given up trying to create a different look and concentrated on designing a set that told the story and represented the brand of the show.

Working with Joel Gallen in MTV was a breath of rule-breaking and anarchic fresh air. He was putting cameras in positions all over the house—backstage and in the rafters. The result was that the show looked entirely different.

This was a big breakthrough for me. I realized that scenery has a much smaller effect in changing the look of the show than finding new camera angles. Added to my list of must do’s for television design is working closely with the directors in terms of their camera shots and as I design, I’m always on the lookout for new camera positions and opportunities to tell a story in a fresh way.

MTV had an enormous impact on TV design. All the MTV producers were young and willing to take risks. I loved the freedom from the rules of network TV. Very often I would experiment with new materials and Ideas on MTV shows and then introduce them to the more conservative network conventions.

MTV Video Music Awards, ‘93 (Left) & Tower Detail from the main set (Right)

I designed the first arena MTV Awards Show set in The Pauley Pavilion at UCLA and figured out how to cope with the quantity of band performances by creating two stages.

I was also onto a new host idea for presenters. The conventional wisdom was that directors didn’t like seeing anything moving behind the presenter’s heads and I was bored! I fashioned a homemade kaleidoscope with a couple of TV monitors and mirrors that played any grabbed images on a VCR during the show. It wasn’t completely successful, but it inspired a trend of video backings behind the hosts.

My kaleidoscope invention came to a smashing end at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. During Kurt Cobain’s performance of Rape Me, his bassist threw his bass high into the air, but misjudged catching it and it landed on his head. He fell backwards, careening into the kaleidoscope.

For MTV’s Rock N’ Jock, a TV series featuring actors, musicians and professional athletes performing together, I collaborated with Andre Miripolsky, a Los Angeles pop artists and muralist. We designed a vinyl stick-on that went directly over the center basketball court in Pauley Pavilion, something that would never happen in network TV.

Rock N’ Jock vinyl stick-on

The use of TV monitors to display scenic effects on stage started with me and a few other MTV designers. Previously, I had only seen video technology used on large corporate displays, mainly to present products and information.

For the first MTV Movie Awards, produced by Joel Gallen, I deconstructed the corporate video wall structure and covered the stage with monitors.

MTV Movie Awards

As I remembered my fascination with monitors on screen I went back and looked at some of the early sets I did with the growing quantity of screens that evolved into giant screens onstage .

America’s Funniest Home Videos was the first set where I used monitors and it sparked my awareness.of using them as a useful scenic element.

America’s Funniest Home Videos!

 

More monitors…

 

Home Video Special

And more monitors…

   The World Movie Awards, Monte Carlo

 

MTV Movie Awards

I even started using multiple monitors for live bands.

What started with little monitors has now evolved in to full screen digital scenery!

LIGHTING RULES (AGAIN!)

During my entire career, I have always tried to collaborate with Lighting Designers, having learned early on that without good lighting, scenery is pointless. One of the first freelance jobs I did was Puttin’ on the Hits, a music/variety competition show featuring amateurs lip-synching to popular songs. The senior lighting designer was the legendary Bill Klages, the only lighting designer ever to be inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame. When a junior set designer meets a senior lighting designer, it is a sound tradition for the junior set designer to steps out of the way; however, I thought I was being pretty clever and designed a runway for the lip-synchers in the shape of a cross and at the end of each was a colorful postmodern archway—it was the early 80s. The set was installed and I was very pleased with the hot, trendy look until Bill walked onto the set and said “I will never get my lights passed those set pieces. Remove them.” His word was law. I removed them and designed risers for Puttin’ on the Hits!

Mood lighting for TV sets came late and these sets for The Essence Awards are the perfect example of how important lighting had become.

The Essence Awards

The set below shows how lighting, by the use of color and gobo patterns, can transform even the most basic scenic elements.

How’d They do That? (Home base set)

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

Whilst designing for TV, I’ve had a number of ‘aha’ moments. For a show called Shangri-La Plaza, a made for TV musical comedy, I designed the set over a newly built corner mini-mall. Purposely kitschy and colorful, the set glared out on the corner of Vineland and Burbank Boulevard, complete with rotating donuts for the donut shop.

Shangri-La Plaza

On the first morning we were going to shoot, we found two police cars waiting for the donut shop to open! People were drawn to the colorful store facades and while the show was being shot, the mini-mall was completely booked with new rentals. After we struck the set, I found a newspaper interview with the disgruntled tenants who wanted the theming back.

Photo of Shangri-La set from an article in Los Angeles Times

It rang a bell and made me appreciate the value of theming retail environments, and I began to think about how I could migrate theatrical design into real estate and retail. Soon after that, Terry Dougal designed the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and I got to design an animatronic fountain to anchor one end of the Forum.  After that, Jim Nelson hired me to design and theme The Panasonic Pavilion on Universal’s CityWalk, a new shopping and dining promenade in Hollywood, so I owe a lot to TV, including offering me a gateway into the ‘real world.’

Fountain at the Forum Shops, Caesars Palace

 

Panasonic Pavilion at City Walk

DESIGNING – FAST AND SLOW

Because of the tight schedules needed to make inflexible air dates, when I designed for TV, I learned to make quick, intuitive, do or die, decisions, but I could not help casting my eye to feature films with their lengthy schedules. The luxury of spending a day thinking about the choice of a color seemed like paradise: slower more deliberate choices versus fast and emotional decisions.

I thought I would have that opportunity when I signed on to be Production Designer on The Two Jakes, a sequel to China Town, staring Jack Nicholson.

Jake’s office set from The Two Jakes

I was wrong! The producer would yell at our team to “Stop designing all that scenery… all I need is two walls and smoke!” That didn’t work when Jack Nicholson, the actor/director, and Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer, walked onto the stage and set up the shots in completely the opposite direction from the two walls and making a good point about not limiting the angles available to the camera. I got my full set, including a ceiling!

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE… ETC.

Television has come a long way in the thirty years that I have been designing–multiple HD cameras, moving lights, big screens and digital scenery–but the pressure and speed are still the order of the day: instant set branding style, instant color choices, fast renderings, overnight drafting, and the challenge of designing a show that can be built and loaded in to the existing venue on schedule makes Television set design one of the most difficult design disciplines.

AND THEN I DESIGNED…

Here is a smattering of my TV designs over the years:

Don’t forget your Toothbrush, a British Import

 

The Billboard Awards

 

The Movie Awards

 

Performance of “Black and White” at 10th MTV Music Awards (My favorite photo on the right!)

 

Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th Birthday TV Special at The Pantages Theatre

 

Radio Music Awards

 

This is Your Life

 

D. C. Follies

 

The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour

 

Dame Edna’s Hollywood

 

Ms. America Pageant

 

Ms. Universe Pageant

In this particular moment there are so many incredibly talented television set designers that it is a joy to be able to stand back and see how this art form has evolved!


Ellen Boener Q & A

Jeremy Railton speaks to Ellen Boener.

JEREMY: Ellen I am so happy to have someone as highly qualified as you working at EDC to herd the cats and keep us all in line. As you are a director I hope you will not get bored managing the office. What were your motives for accepting the job?

ELLEN: I could never be bored while I’m learning about the industry I love. And as far as cats go, you’re the happiest ones I ever had the pleasure to herd. I cannot wait to learn about the inner workings of EDC. Understanding the business end of entertainment is crucial to being a successful artist. This company is working on a scale I never dreamed I would be. I mean the scale of production and spectacle as well as international scope. As someone who grew up around the world, global thinking is a part of who I am but I have struggled to make it a part of my life as a director. Theme Park and Concert Design are totally new territory for me. Working for EDC exposes me to whole new facets of live performance and design. I’m just excited to be apart of this company and contribute however I can.

JEREMY: Where were you born?

ELLEN: I was born in the U.S. Naval Hospital of Yokosuka, Japan. My father served in the military for over 20 years. My sister, mother, and I traveled around the world with him. I have yet to return to Japan and it is my dearest ambition to go back one day as an adult. The fun thing about being born across the dateline from the United States is that I get a year older the day before my legal birthday.

JEREMY: Did you get support from your parents when you said you wanted to go into the creative arts as a profession?

ELLEN: My parents have been incredibly supportive. And it’s lucky they are, not just for my sake; my older sister, Kathy, also works in the entertainment industry. She is a stage and production manager working in NYC. My parents raised two fiercely independent and resilient young women. Kathy and I like to joke that they regret it now since we have run off to the opposite ends of the United States. My mother always told me to do what I loved and the money would follow. Wishful thinking for the mother of an artist. The critical lesson she and my father also passed on was to work hard and work well, whatever the field. They have their concerns about the stability of an arts career but rather than discourage me, they taught me to work harder and roll with the punches. They gave me the tools to succeed how I wanted rather than forcing me to succeed in their way.

JEREMY: What was your education? How has it helped you and has it proved useful to move your career forward? The reason I asked because I studied Fine Art and became a scenic designer.

ELLEN: I graduated from Florida State University with majors in Theatre, Creative Writing, and International Affairs. The thing about arts education is that no amount of training outweighs practical experience. Putting together a production and creating something for yourself is how you hone your skills, even while in school. Florida State was a great environment for me because I was forced to balance academics with practice. There was a vibrant community of independent “bootstrap” theatre that trained me think outside the box even when the box was all I had to work with. I plan to return to graduate school for directing but that is a few years off.

JEREMY: I noticed many directing credits on your CV can you tell us how you got your first directing job?

ELLEN: As a young director, my age can be a huge barrier. Many theatre directors can’t make directing their primary career until their thirties, if ever. Knowing this, I chose to take matters into my own hands. Rather than waiting for someone to hire me, I hired myself. Along side another young director, Liam Collier, I pulled together what few resources we had (including my car, our belongings, and our personal savings) and wrote, produced, performed, marketed, and directed our first professional production. It was an immersive, interactive theatre piece written for three audience members. Car Play, as the name implies, took place entirely in and around my 2004 Chevy Impala. The audience was literally strapped in for the ride as we drove and performed on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland. We sold out our run and added additional performances. We even made a few extra bucks by the closing night. Here’s our blurb in the SF Chronicle!

JEREMY: In a moment of sheer ambition and limitless dreams what sort of a credit would make you so happy? Also describe the fantasy project?

ELLEN: I would love to write a story that brought the world together. I can’t be more specific because I have no clue what kind of story could do that. I would love to share a moment with the world and for that moment we see something new in each other, across language, across culture. Maybe a book? Maybe film? Maybe a sculpture? I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out.

JEREMY: Are you strategizing your career or are you letting the path unfold?

ELLEN: I like to say that my only five-year goal is to be financially stable enough to adopt a dog so I wouldn’t say I have a strict game plan. That’s not to say that I don’t have goals. I am driven to a fault. I am determined to become a working director and a pillar of the entertainment community. However, I also acknowledge that that the only factor of my life I have total control over is myself. My strategy is to apply myself as best I can to any opportunity that avails itself. Even if it is just one step towards my goal I am still moving in the right direction. There are many paths to success and I prefer to explore them practically.

JEREMY: Share with us any of your favorite jobs please. Tell us what made you like it so much. When I am often asked this question my answer is that they are all my favorites while I am giving my all, its only after I review the job after completion I always see ways that I could have done better!!

ELLEN: I am proud of all of my projects individually and for different reasons. My desire to create comes from authentic curiosity. I look at each project as an experiment where I can test new theories and learn something about the directing process. Car Play was an exercise in working within my means and jumping into professional directing. It was exciting to be in front of the audience again and in the wilderness of professional theatre. I love working in intimate settings where you can really feel the electricity between the actors and the audience, like on my productions of The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco or my original show, An Evening With, that I built in my one-bedroom apartment for 13 audience members. I was also extremely proud of an immersive production that I built alongside 11 actors and overtook an entire building, called THE911. That was the first piece of its scale to be performed at Florida State University and the response was tremendous. We had people breaking into the performance because we sold out so quickly. Regardless of how audiences react to my shows, it’s really the technicians and actors that make me feel good about a production. Hearing an actor or stage manager say they can’t wait to work with me again is the greatest compliment I have ever received.

JEREMY: Is there anything that you would like your new family at EDC to know about you?

ELLEN: At this moment I have only been in Los Angeles for 25 days. I got my first email from the EDC on my seventh day in the city. By the end of next week I was in the office. EDC became my home before I had a chance to feel homesick. I will never stop being grateful for this incredible opportunity. I want to learn as much as I can about design and production while I am here. Any chance to shadow design or creative work would be make my day.

JEREMY: Welcome to EDC you are pioneering a position that we have not offered before so we will need all of your writing, organization and directing skills to keep us all on time and in line!!

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Teena Sauvola Q & A

Jeremy Railton speaks to Teena Sauvola.

JEREMY: Hi Teena! You have been working here for a couple of weeks and apart from your incredible work, your positive energy is a huge asset in our offices, so thank you.

TEENA: No, thank you! It means the world to me that you’ve given me an opportunity.

JEREMY: When did you first hear about EDC?

TEENA: When I was finishing up my Disney Internship in Orlando and moving out to LA my bosses Mark Hervat and Guy Petty were recommended some companies that I could look in to. One of them mentioned EDC and I started doing some research.

JEREMY: What made you attracted to our company?

TEENA: Right from the start, I was drawn to the fact that you were a smaller team. I think it usually leads to better collaboration when you can become close with your creative teammates. EDC ‘s wide variety of projects was also a key factor in reaching out to this company. I come from a theatre background, but I’m yearning to investigate all types of storytelling, so that was a must for me.

JEREMY: I see you have two degrees in design would you tell us about that process?

TEENA: I started off at Viterbo University in LaCrosse WI as an actor, mostly because I had no idea design and technology had professions I could pursue! I quickly became hooked on the design and production side of theatre. After undergrad, I was a scenic charge painter for a while, mixed in with other smaller jobs. I waited roughly 5 years to go back to graduate school after that. I was dying to get back in the academic saddle again. After attending URTA’s, I had a great conversation with University of Texas at Austin and signed up to tackle the next three years of intense study with them. Graduate school is not for everyone, but I absolutely needed it. It was, truly, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

JEREMY: Did you have a favorite professor and why?

TEENA: This is by far the hardest question you’ve asked! Professors, teachers, and mentors are the reason I am here today. While at UT Austin, Richard Isackes changed my entire prospective on design theory. Bill Bloodgood was my tough love professor, who I could always count on to give me an honest opinion. Susan Mickey gave the best feedback. I TA’d under Karen Maness and watched her write (along with Richard) The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop while simultaneously teaching classes, painting all of UT’s shows, and dealing with a whole slew of personal surprises. It was inspiring to watch. Not to mention, many professors from my undergrad who helped me in the beginning. Shout out to my Viterbo Professors! Collectively they are the reason I am where I am.

JEREMY: You have been out freelancing on some impressive jobs can you talk a little about your expectations while you were at college and how you found the experience on the outside? Do you think that the colleges gave you adequate preparation for life on the outside?

TEENA: My expectations about the real world after school were not that different from what I experienced. Most people and companies just want you to show up on time, do your work, and be pleasant to work around. That seemed easy enough. Did college prepare me? It made me more confident, a better artist and collaborator and, ultimately, a better storyteller. So yes, in that since, I feel prepared. However, no school is going to give you every tool you need, especially with fast changing technology. I definitely took some online courses to round out the rest of those skills.

JEREMY: We have a lot of Next Gen readers who are still in school and just starting out. Since your struggles and experiences are still fresh do you have anything to say to them?

TEENA: I know it sounds cheesy, but if you can dream it, you can do it, but hard work is the other factor in that equation. There were many nights of blood, sweat, and tears. Yes, literally blood. Exacto knives tend to be extra sharp at 3am! Also- apply, apply, apply! I’ve known people who wanted to work for Disney and I discovered they never turned in an application. They often think they are not good enough. Newsflash—we’ve all thought we were not good enough at some point! How do you expect to get your dream job if you never even let them know you’re interested? One of my favorite sayings is by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Let someone else tell you you’re not ready and then get back to work.

JEREMY: What would be your dream credit if you looked into a limitless future?

TEENA: I would say a Production Designer on a feature film with lots of world building and visual development or a Creative Director for a new land in a theme park.

JEREMY: What was your early inspiration for deciding to go into the design arts. Was it a play, a movie, or…?

TEENA: I would design my own LEGO houses and set up entire village scenes for my toys. I once convinced all of the neighborhood kids to draw life size ground plans of our dream houses in sidewalk chalk on our street. I was also inspired by a behind-the-scenes featurette for Jurassic Park that showcased Stan Winston Studios making dinosaur animatronics and I was in awe the first time I rode Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World. All of these moments were clues, but it took me a long time to realize that’s what I wanted to do- tell stories through environments.

JEREMY: Is your family artistic and did you receive encouragement to launch into this strange career that we have chosen? I still cannot explain what I do to some family members. Have you found that to be true?

TEENA: My mother has this insane knack for crazy quilting and my grandmother does a lot of painting, but other than that, not really. I didn’t always have encouragement from everyone. There were some tears early on, but I knew its what I wanted to do. I’ve always sort of felt like I was the black sheep who ran away with the circus. It’s better now. I agree though, I can explain my career until I’m blue in the face, but I can see they still have no clue. Hahaha! They smile and nod and think of me when they go to Disney World and that’s all I can ask.

JEREMY: What would you like you new family at EDC to know about you?

TEENA: Brainstorming/ concept meetings are my favorite part of what we do. I’ve been complimented on my ability to lead conversations to discover the best ideas. I’m often not afraid to say the bad idea in order to get to the good idea. Whether that be for a new project or reorganizing a shelf in the office, I’m your girl.

JEREMY: Welcome to EDC!

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Designer's Notebook: Tale of Two Screens

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jrEDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.

DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Screens

THE FREMONT STREET EXPERIENCE AND THE SKY SCREEN IN BEJING

From architectural projection mapping to AR (augmented realty) and VR (virtual reality), my work has always depended on the ability to embrace innovative technologies and find creative ways to integrate them into my design DNA.

In 1993 I was right in the middle of doing a lot of designing for MTV which had revolutionized the music industry, creating stars like Madonna and Cindy Lauper. One of those jobs was to design the first MTV movie awards for producer Joel Gallen. The budgets were low and I was always searching for ways to bring life to the stage.

It was before the big LED screens—the digital age was just developing momentum—so I started using TV monitors and TV screens balanced around the stage, even though the content was video feedback and stills.

This was my design inspiration and creative landscape when I met and became friendly with the visionary architect, Jon Jerde, a leaders of the urban renewal movement and creator of the ‘placemaking’ concept. Jon was one of the first urban planners to successfully rehab failed down town areas that had been abandoned for suburban living in the late 70s.

Fremont Street, at one time the main drag of Las Vegas, had suffered this same fate, as the “Strip” moved to Las Vegas Blvd, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, representing a consortium of Fremont Street casinos and the City of Las Vegas, had engaged Jon to work his rehab magic.

Jerde’s vision was to turn the four city blocks into a 1400-foot pedestrian walkway covered by a barrel vault, 90-feet high and 125-feet wide. His intension was to create a floating Sky Parade to be suspended from the canopy and he hired me to come up with a cool innovative concept in what was at that time the brightest and flashiest street in the world.

I went through a series of ideas, all following along the typical parade concepts and none of which I liked. My dilemma was that I would have to turn off the lights of the most colorful street in the world in order to push a light parade which I suspected would never be as bright and colorful, especially in those days. None of my ideas made any sense. My last ditch attempt was to design a giant Mylar inflatable that would occupy the underside of the vault, reflecting all of the lights.

ABANDONED LIGHT PARADE CONCEPTS

After more than a few weeks of worrying about building something that had to remain interesting for all time in “Glitter Gulch” as it was known, I had the thought: “it should be a TV screen; then we can run shows.” The penny dropped that I should build a theater and not a show. It was a scary idea but I presented it to Jon and David Rogers, his principal architect. They looked interested but concerned. Jon floated the idea past Steve Wynn who was skeptical but I persisted, trying to persuade them to give the project a green light.

One day Jerde called and said Steve Wynn was coming to town and we could present our concept in a last ditch attempt to convince him. Coincidentally, my friend Mark Fisher, the brilliant English designer happened to be in town, conceiving the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge Tour. Knowing that Jerde and Wynn were huge Stones fans, I invited Mark to come and meet them at my presentation and if he liked my concept, help me convince them to approve the project.

Mark and I went to the meeting and I introduced him to Wynn and Jerde before I did my arm-waving, pleading presentation. When I finished, everyone turned to Mark, the greatest rock and roll designer of the era. Looking more like a very grand science professor, he blinked and in his typical dry British manner said, “You would be absolutely mad if you don’t do it!” Their response was immediate. “Yes… well… of course we are going to do it.” And that was it!

We met with Yesco, an electric sign company, who said they could do it with an RGB system composed of 2.1 million incandescent bulbs. I assembled a group of friends, hired a ‘garage band’ of animators and proceeded to develop the first shows. We divided the length of the overhead barrel vault into six basic screens that would link together, using computer software, so that it appeared to be one screen. Our ‘digital revolution’ studio had six 15-inch screens, each with its own computer that would output AFI files. When we got to Las Vegas, the files took twelve hours to down load.

All the interested parties—Steve Wynn, his friends and family, the Fremont Street casino owners and the Mayor of Las Vegas—were anxious to see our progress, which was nerve wracking because no one had ever done anything like it and quite often there were big surprises as we stitched the six screens together.

I have one painful memory from that time, more out of empathy for Steve than anything else. One of the six big screen images was a huge eagle flying along the length of Fremont Street on a bright blue sky background. The eagle made its path down the canopy without a glitch and everyone looked to Steve who turned to me and said “Goddam Jeremy you said the background was going to be blue and it’s black!” Steve had a degenerative eye disease and I realized that it had progressed to the point that he couldn’t distinguish colors, but I didn’t think it was my place to point it out. I looked at his friends and family for help but no one would catch my eye. I gulped and said, “I’m so sorry, Steve, it must be a computer glitch.” In spite of the humiliation at being shouted at in front of everyone, I just felt his frustration and the tragedy that here was a man who had a vision for the city and was fulfilling it, but was going blind in the process so that he could never really see the wonderful world that he had inspired.

Initial Fremont Street Storyboards

When the Fremont Street Experience opened, it was an overnight sensation, reversing the economic decline of Fremont Street and it has been a resounding success ever since with attendance numbers in the millions. (In 2004, the RGB system was removed and replaced with the 12.5 million LEDs that we have today.)

Assuming that my worries about the next job were over and clients would be rushing to give me big screen and media jobs, I waited for the phone to ring. Crickets..! Evidently the ticket price was too high, I told myself. When the Fremont Street Experience won the Themed Entertainment Association’s award for Best Attraction, I waited for the phone to ring… More crickets!

A SKY SCREEN FOR BEIJING

Ten years later, the phone finally rang! It was a Singapore agent referred to me by the Fremont Street organization. He represented a Chinese real estate developer looking for an upgrade of the Fremont Street screen that would be the biggest screen in Asia.

The Sky Screen, as it was called, was to be the main attraction of The Place, a new mixed-use retail center in Beijing’s central business district. It would be suspended six stories high (80-feet) above an 820-foot plaza between two new high end retail centers and two 23-story office towers. The schedule called for a grand opening in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The client had very little money, the agent said, and asked me to give him a good deal, which I did because I was thrilled to make something new and exciting. I designed an LED screen that curved down the street with different viewing opportunities and finally shot up the side of a building to become a Beijing icon in the air.

When I submitted the designs, the client seemed happy. I was paid and waited for the phone to ring, excited to begin the next phase. It never rang! I tried to contact the client by way of a registered letter and it was returned, so I gave up and moved on.

A year later the phone finally rang. It was the developer of The Place. “Jeremy please come to Beijing. We need help!” I was so excited that I jumped on the next plane, thrilled to see the progress of the giant screen that twisted and turned through the retail zone. I hurried to the site when I landed and was horrified to see the underside of the biggest dining room table in the world. The developer dismissed my horror with a shrug; “Budget cuts,” he explained.

As part of my original concept package, I had done story boards for five different shows and they now wanted me to direct and supervise production of the media.

At our first meeting, with twelve executives chain smoking, around their giant conference table, they asked me for all sorts of CGI’s and full illustrations. I explained that with the low fee they had paid me that would not be possible. Incredulous, the Chairman looked at me and said, “For three hundred thousand dollars you can’t do a few renderings?” “I think you mean forty thousand,” I replied. Very quickly we discovered that the agent had taken his fee and most of mine. Their response was “Ha-ha… you’re a bad business man!” and promptly fired the agent. When I left for the airport, they felt so sorry for ‘the bad business man’ that they stuffed my pockets with thirty thousand dollars in cash. (The cash cheered me up and I realized that doing business in Asia is like a game of Mahjong.

THE BLESSING

For the premier show, The Blessing, I developed a series of story boards and a script that began with the flight of red and yellow dragons, representing fortune and power, and progressed though images of Olympic hopefuls, Chinese hip hop, Kung Fu, fireworks, and the largest image ever created of The Great Wall. People on the street below also experience the four seasons, from gently falling peach blossoms of spring to lightning strikes and thunderstorms of winter.

Because of the huge scale of the Sky Screen, I realized that the action had to be treated like an arena or stadium show. The challenge was to drive the narrative with music and images moving at real-time speed in a show that was no more than ten minutes in length. It was exciting developing the media with five different Chinese companies, from small independents to CCTV, the giant broadcasting corporation.

 

The Red Dragon Flies Down The Sky Screen
Original Sky Screen Story Boards

Before I arrived, the problem with the media had been that the companies did not understand the visual ‘grammar’ for an overhead viewing experience and had approached the project as if they were designing for a proscenium movie screen. From creating the shows for Fremont Street, I had discovered that the conventions of film and TV editing don’t work when the spectator is looking up. A dissolve transition, for example, doesn’t make visual sense on the big overhead screen; all entrances and exits had to be on and off from the edges of the screen to emulate large scale live events.

The companies were slow to get it but eventually they understood and embraced the technique.

My two favorite original shows were an underwater scene with full scale whales (still) and a CCTV show where it appeared that the roof was made of glass and people on top were painting logos.

The best news was that the Sky Screen had all of the bells and whistles that I had originally designed: Like Fremont Street, the giant screen was composed of separate displays that could operate individually to broadcast live or televised events in the correct format.

I also built in the possibility of interactivity by including digital hook-ups on the columns so that guests had the ability to upload personal messages and photos of themselves or their friends, make engagement and wedding announcements and even compete in eSports (video game) competitions on the world’s largest video screen.

Digital Hook-Ups on Columns and Digital Technician in Control Room Post Guest Messages to Sky Screen

It is satisfying to see how far things have come since Steve Wynn first yelled at me, but It is disappointing to see that people are still building giant tables and have not pushed the screens into more fluid and imaginative shapes!


Designer's Notebook: Costumes

jrblogheader2

jrEDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.

DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.

 

 

 

COSTUMES

FROM ZIMBABWE TO HOLLYWOOD

On my parents’ farm in Rhodesia, before it was Zimbabwe, there was a trading store, the only one for a twenty mile radius, so we tried to supply all the needs of the local community. On the verandah of the store there were two tailors who made clothes on their pedal-powered Singer sewing machines.

This was Stallion Sibanda and his sewing machine. He was also the farm’s ‘gun man’ whose responsibility it was to shoot Kudu to provide meat for the workers. The other tailor was Godwil.

 

They were also the district news-gatherers and for a six-year-old, this was the place to find out about births, deaths, and animal sightings—the Facebook of the 50s. Just to divert for a moment to appreciate our isolation at the time, world news came from a radio (called a wireless) and the local tribespeople would come in and sit on the ground in front of the radio to listen to the BBC broadcast services, punctuated with all of the whistles and beeps that usually come from a ham radio.  Whenever the announcer signed on or off, the tribes people would clap their hands and murmur polite ‘hellos’ and ‘good byes’ in Ndebele, the local language.

 

This is an approximation of our store, including the Raleigh Bike metal poster that showed the advantage of owning a bike because you could outdistance a Lion!

If I was not running around in the bush with my Ndebele friends, I was hanging around the trading store. Knowledge comes from strange places! It is here that I learned about costumes. There was a Lozwe tribe living across the river that had a legacy of brushes with Arab slave traders in the 1800s. The women would file their teeth to points to be less desirable to the slave traders. When they were first contacted by missionaries who seemed to take their side, the Lozwe women adapted their costumes to echo the missionary style of the late 1800s.   Their dresses were made from pleated blue print cotton fabric, called German Print, and the skirts had a bustle in the back made of twenty-three yards of material.

I remember being fascinated by the way the fabric swayed as the women carried baskets or cans of grain on their heads. Looking back, it was that vision that triggered my inner costume designer—that and watching the tailors carefully pleat yards and yards of material with blue soap. We were cash-poor farmers so both my sister and my Mum made their own clothes. Quite often they would ask me to draw up their ideas for dresses. Here is a dress that they designed for my sisters sweet sixteen party. She would be allowed to wear lipstick and high heels. I was nine when I painted this. My sister was given some fabric paint and soon every collar, every skirt, and every napkin and handkerchief was magically transformed by a painted theme, usually animals or flowers, and when I went to boarding school, I continued to develop my craft by making costumes for the school plays.

My sister and mother described this dress to me and I drew it as it was described. It was my first real costume sketch, although I enjoyed copying illustrations. I did this at age 8—I guess the costume writing was already on the wall!

My first school play, “The signing of the Magna Carta. “ I painted the insignias on the Lords’ costumes. My costume design career had begun!

Later at University of Cape Town, my childhood sweetheart, Winnie Ayliffe, a farmer’s daughter who had a very similar childhood to mine, came from Zimbabwe and started a very successful modeling career. Through Winnie, I was exposed to modeling and because we had very little money, we resorted to fashioning our clothes. I took thrift store suits from the 40s and cut them down and adapted my Grandfather’s Boar War jacket. Winnie made her dresses that in the case of the white one I painted and we made the fan out of gathered bush Ostrich feathers!

Our adventures in fashion got us noticed and set me off on a cycle of fashion trends for the rest of my life.

1963 cut-down jeans and some less than successful modeling outfits!

Following fashion trends whilst always trying to be ahead of the curve gave me the confidence to say ‘yes’ whenever an opportunity to design costumes was offered. I even had my hair dyed in rainbow colors using flax dye, inspired by a painting I had done. My trendy haircutter, Denny, at Sweeney Todd’s on Beecham Place in London, got the dye from his father who was in the flax business. He dyed Zandra Rhodes hair purple as it still is to this day!

In 1969, when Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Center Theater Group at the Mark Taper Forum and the director, Lamont Johnson, brought me to Los Angeles to design sets and props for Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw novella, The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, somehow I talked them into letting me do the costumes.

It all went well because I had met and become friendly with Al Nickels and Lilly Fonda at Western Costume, the venerable Hollywood costume warehouse that had been in business since the days of silent movies. Al ran the women’s department and Lilly was the head cutter and fitter. In ’69, I was a long-haired London fashionista, and later I found out that they thought I was cool because when I signed a contract in front of them, I had to take off all of the rings on my fingers to be able to hold a pen.

Al and Lilly took me under their wings and became my ‘costume Mum and Dad.’  Al’s friend from school was Patty Ziegfeld, daughter of the great Broadway impresario, so I had a fast education about the Ziegfeld Follies, hanging on every word of Patty’s costume stories. Lilly guided me through fabric choices and showed me what it meant to cut on the bias and how to make costumes move (flash back to the Lozwe women.)

ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL IN HER SEARCH FOR GOD

I designed sets and costumes for two more plays at the Mark Taper. Aubrey Beardsley the Neophyte had a very small costume budget, so I came up with a solution by copying Beardsley’s illustrations onto cut-out cardboard costumes that the actors had to hold in front of them.

I was also asked to design the costumes for Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River, the story of how he and his life partner, the portrait artist, Don Bachardy, met. This assignment made me realize that costume design didn’t attract me unless I could be extravagant in some way.

Through Al and Lilly, I met the most successful costume designers of the day, including Dorothy Jeakins and Theadora Van Runkle who taught me the importance of sketching accurately, whether it was the mood of the costume or the structure. I also had several evening with Al, Lilly and their friend, Edith Head who had become the most prominent Hollywood costume designer of the 50s through brilliant sketches (famously done by sketch artists.)

Sketches by Dorothy Jeakins and Theodora Van Runkle

A BRUSH WITH GREATNESS: MAE WEST AND CECIL BEATON

Mae West had a starring role in Myra Breckinridge, based on Gore Vidal’s satirical novel. It was being filmed at Paramount, next door to Western Costumes and Al and Lilly invited me to meet her when she came for a fitting.  What followed was my first and most important lesson as to how vital a costume is to creating a character.

The Western lobby was emptied for Ms. West’s arrival and a small group of us stood in a greeting line. A white limo pulled up to the front and a large muscle man jumped out and held the door open for the legendary star.  A tiny little old lady, in a khaki rain coat and a short-brimmed fabric hat pulled over her eyes, waddled out. She passed us by with her head down, sort of gesturing. I was so disappointed!  Lilly went into the dressing room and ten minutes later brought us into the fitting room. There was Mae West in a huge hat, tall and elegant in a floor-length gown. She held her hand out to me and said “Oh, young man, where have you been all my life.” She had gone from a little old lady to movie icon in the flash of a costume change. Incidentally, her height came from standing on a box beneath her dress!

Civic Light Opera was putting on a production of My Fair Lady with costumes by Cecil Beaton, who had done the costumes for the original Broadway production and won an Academy Award for the film. Beaton didn’t want to come to LA, so it was suggested that I become his assistant and so I flew to London to meet him.

I felt like a farm boy in his incredible Kensington apartment as he looked me over, literally, and said, “I suppose you will do; they all seem to like you.” He handed me a bunch of sketches and said. “Use these.  I don’t like Lisa’s ball gown. Make another design, would you?” Gulp..! He followed with the best advice ever for costume design.  “Just because a design looks good on paper it does not mean it will look good on the body. Design to the body not to the paper!” The meeting took an hour and I was winging back to LA.  I was suddenly Cecil Beaton’s assistant.  It all went off well and I even designed Lisa’s Ball gown under the close supervision of Lilly Fonda!

ON THE JOB TRAINING

I was introduced to Miles White, a famous costume designer who had done the costume design for the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma and Carousel. He was doing the costumes for a Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of 1491, with music/lyrics by Meredith (The Music Man) Wilson, and he needed an assistant.   At the end of his career, his drinking was getting in the way so one of my jobs was to get as much information from him about his extremely loose costume sketches before “martini time” which began at 11 AM! Soon after, he became slightly incoherent but always sweet and so I had to quickly learn how to organize and administer costumes for a production. Supported by the most famous costume house in the world at that time, I pulled it off and was then given another amazing opportunity.

When I was brought to the US, I was given an indefinite work visa with open entry and was not aware how lucky I was as I wandered the world, living in Rome and London. I mixed with a fashionable set and brushed shoulders with designers like Zandra Rhodes, Tommy Nutter and Michael Fish who were my fashion influences at the time. Between jobs, I painted and even had a show at a gallery in Los Angeles where I wore a gift from Tommy Nutter, a suit he originally designed for John Lennon.

Back in Los Angeles, I worked for David Josephs and Warren Enter, the managers of Angel, a glam rock band that came on the heels of Kiss. It was an exciting time; I had the opportunity to design the full package: sets for the tour, the album cover and of course their costumes and it was here that I learned the great advantage of collaborating with musicians who inevitably have very strong opinions about their own look. By collaborating with them, we were able to explore amazingly esoteric looks that they felt they owned.

I even had a trip to Africa to visit my parents who had sold the farm and who now owned a private game park adjacent to the Khami Ruins, the former site of a fourteenth century civilization. I was helping my parents by designing my first master plan for an eco-tourist center when I received a call from my friend, Kenny Solms. He was producing Three Girls, an NBC musical series starring Mimi Kennedy, Ellen Foley, and Debbie Allen. Kenny invited me to design the sets and costumes but he needed me to start immediately! I stopped feeding the ostriches and making roads and in two days I found myself back in Los Angeles, on my knees with pins in my mouth, taking the measurements of the three gorgeous girls. Fortunately they thought I had been flown in from London and didn’t know that I had been wandering around in the African bush two days before!

As a sad side note, that was the last time I saw my parents. A year later they were ambushed and killed by terrorist. I’ve always felt blessed that I had been able to spend the last year of their lives with them.

Three Girls: Ellen Foley, Mimi Kennedy, and Debbie Allen– sets and costumes.

There is one piece of work as a costume designer that I am really proud of. I had been working with Sid and Marty Krofft doing sets, costumes, and puppets on a tiny budget (clever hands at home and a hot glue gun) for shows like Far Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer. I would have a budget of a hundred dollars a week for the aliens!

Far Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer were the lowest budget I ever had for costumes so each week was a triumph when I actually had clothes for the aliens to wear.

With my friend, Patti Malone, a cast member in all the Krofft’s shows.

I designed the sets and costumes for The Krofft Superstar Hour, a Saturday morning children’s show featuring the Bay City Rollers, a Scottish boy band clone of the Beatles. It was always a challenge to find a new look each week. One of my strategies was to go to Grosch, the oldest backdrop and scenic company in Hollywood and rummage in their attic. One week I discovered a Salvador Dali backdrop that he had done for a dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and used it for a Rollers background!

When Sid and Marty signed on to produce the Donny and Marie Variety Show pilot, I was the set and Costume Designer.

Donny and Marie needed a new look. Donny was 18 and Marie was 16 and their costumes were like Elvis’s Polyester jump suits with studs, which had been great in the day but in 1975 it was time for a change. I rolled up my sleeves, jumped in with them, and discovered the most talented, hardworking, sweetest teenagers I had ever met. We had fun coming up with crazy “young and hip clothes.”

Looking back, I have mixed feelings of pride, although it was the mid-seventies when fashion was at sea! The show was picked up and I did an entire season of costume design. Whenever I think back to this time, I remember a season with no sleep. We taped on Fridays and usually got the next week’s show script. I can still remember my costume list:

  • Donny and Marie, Ice skating costumes, opening song costumes
  • A ballad each
  • Sketch comedy outfits
  • The Osmonds in Concert
  • The finale red white and blue number
  • 6 guest stars from Bob Hope to Farah Fawcett for sketch costumes
  • Ice skaters finale

I would sketch all of Friday and over the weekend. On Monday morning I would deliver the designs to the shop on the lot that I was supervising. No wonder I was tired. The sheer volume and speed of design forced me to run through my entire repertoire of ideas. I even pulled out fabric painting from my childhood and noticed how birds and flowers were still featured.

I lasted a year and then a tiny incident made me realize I didn’t have the temperament to be a real costume designer: I was on my knees again, with pins in my mouth in the middle of a fitting with the gorgeous ice skaters when an extra came up and in the middle of everything pointed to a shirt button that was slightly askew and asked me to fix it. I froze and my brain buzzed. I was barely able to smile and say I would get to it, but it was at that moment that I decided to keep to sets. Sets don’t rely on body type and they never asked for things!

That was just about the end of my costume career. I did some set and costume design for the wonderful KC and the Sunshine Band and sets and costumes for Zoobilee Zoo, a children’s TV show that featured performers dressed as animals. As an African animal lover, my first take was that the animals should look ‘real.’ The producers were very conscientious about test marketing every decision with a typical kid audience, so I designed a spectrum of test costumes—from ‘realistic’ to what I thought was ‘gaudy, bright and ugly.’ The kids loved the ‘gaudy, bright, and ugly!’ I also came up with a prosthetic device for the actors faces and won my fist Emmy for Costume Design because they had never seen this look before. Now I see those exact same prosthetics in every Halloween costume shop.

The Latin Quarter, a show created and directed by Kenny Ortega was a production at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas and I designed the sets and costumes. Remembering the skirts of the Lozwe women and how they swayed, with this show I realized that Latin dance, more than ice skating and ballet, really relied on the clothes to enhance the mood, the sexiness, and life of the dance. Whether Salsa, Cha-cha, Tango, Samba, Rumba or Merengue, each dance requires its own costume to be cut in a certain way, a challenge I embraced and loved.

Although I had a relatively short career as a costume designer, I met some amazing people and my greatest pleasure was collaborating to make clothes that made performers happy! Costume awareness also helped me be a better production designer.

So this is the story of how an African farm boy got to design costumes in Hollywood: Always say ‘yes’!