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.