Thesis: the client

As I have thought about my thesis for my Themed Entertainment Design degree, one thing I have continually stressed is the importance of bringing my projection show to life rather than simply designing something and letting it live in the studio at SCAD. A very difficult aspect of school for me is the “pretend” nature of things, the fact that individual projects don’t really matter. School, at a long shot, is more about the sum of my growth rather than the individual pieces, and there is always a little voice that reminds me that, at this point, we are all just playing house rather than making a home.

Starting from the standpoint of actually producing my show changes this from an intellectual exercise to work that must be done. This introduces a unique challenge.,,

My thesis project involves creating some form of show or entertainment that will be projected onto a building. Currently I do not own a building. Worse still, I do not foresee purchasing a building in the near future. Unfortunate as this is, it means I need to seek the cooperation of someone who does own a building.

So…gotta get me a client.

Key to getting any person or company excited about jointly producing a show such as this is finding common goals and showing how our interests align. To get a client to agree to use their building, and potentially their money, I have to design from a standpoint of understandng what their needs are and working from there.

The potential clients I have identified for my show are: The Westin hotel on the Savannah River, Broughton Street (shops and the location of my goofy Halloween show), and SCAD itself. All of these have very strong upsides and all present certain challenges, physical, financial and psychological.

Earlier I mentioned I am designing a “small, medium and large” show to broaden my options. To broaden them further, I will be proposing those three variations for each of three possible clients. This will leave me with nine concepts to present to my professors who will be able to guide me along to the next steps.

First we will look at SCAD, the art school that has added so much life and revitalization to the city of Savannah, Ga. It has worked very hard to align itself with the city’s rich architectural heritage and has proven itself a responsible partner that will operate with care and respect. SCAD continues to leave its mark on the city, and while signs of the acronym are almost inescapable during the day, the college could shine much more brightly at night. A light show using the many school facilities that dot the city might be exactly what SCAD needs to further adorn a city that it has made its own.

This may be the most likely of the three to have an interest in this projection show and to see it made reality. Savannah is notorious for being very protective of its historic downtown, however SCAD has been actively involved in Savannah and certainly has a good deal of leeway with the city when it comes to art installations. Being an art school, SCAD already has a mindset for accepting the new and audacious, and since I am a student, the show would serve as an excellent promotional tool for the college itself.

The difficulty lies in the scope of the show. A real eye popper would be to bring all of the college’s facilities to life all at once. SCAD has many many buildings across the city and to make use of even half of them would require a huge pile of hardware and a huge-er pile of cash. Also, since SCAD is a private art school, it is difficult to know what kind of budget the school allots to student projects. I would be shooting in the dark.

The second client is Broughton Street, or, more accurately, real estate developer Ben Carter. Broughton Street is one of Savannah’s main business thoroughfares and the subject of interest for the savvy businessman. Mr. Carter is investing $75 million in the area and, when he is through, Broughton Street will be a world class center of commerce filled with trendy shops and restaurants. It will be modern and fresh while still retaining that old world charm that makes Savannah so special. Perhaps a form of nighttime entertainment, not unlike the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, would be just the thing to ensure continued guest traffic late into the night.

As far as likelihood of getting a foothold with this client, I would call this a toss up. On the one hand, Mr. Carter is already making a significant investment and anything to add entertainment value to the location will add to the ROI. Someone who is as shrewd and savvy as this individual clearly would leap at the chance to turn a shopping district into a full fledged destination in its own right.

On the other hand, it could be so far outside of the business plan that it is one more step that he is not not prepared to take. To read interviews with Mr. Carter you realize very quickly that he is a no nonsense businessman who has a clear vision for what he is trying to accomplish and simply does not have the time for anything that slows him down. He might see Broughton Street in simpler terms (turnkey rather than destination), thus rendering a light show an unnecessary expense or worse, a distraction. For him, a distraction could easily lead to a derailment and that is unacceptable.

The final client I have considered is The Westin, a grand hotel that sits on the opposite side of the waterway from Savannah’s River Street district. Officially named The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, this hotel offers private luxury and free shuttle service back and forth across the river, but it is a little too removed from the city to which it has attached its fortunes. An epic spectacle of music and light could propel The Westin into becoming the must-stay resort in the southeast.

This one is a little tricky and, in my estimation, the least likely to go for what I have in mind. The benefits of producing a show in this area are enormous. Built in viewing locations, light and atmosphere control, a wide open skyline and a monolithic structure for a canvas. This is the perfect setting for something truly memorable. However, trying to understand what a massive hotel chain wants and how a single location fits into the overall plan of the company as a whole is a very difficult task. From a practical standpoint, how does one even approach the company to pitch an idea that it has not asked for?

That is the basic breakdown of the clients I am looking at and the potential locations for my project. They all offer unique possibilities and all have their own challenges. Now it’s time to design…

Thesis: a little light reading

a photo of books about Savannah, Georgia

Because anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Savannah: A History of Her People Since 1733 by Preston Russell and Barbara Hines
The Squares: An Introduction to Savannah by Chan Sieg
Savannah Renaissance by Lee and Emma Adler
Images of America: Savannah 1733 to 2000 by Susan E. Dick and Mandi D. Johnson
Images of America: The Savannah College of Art and Design by Connie Pinkerton, et al
Savannah: A Renaissance of the Heart by Betsy Fancher
Savannah by Whip Morrison Triplett
Savannah in the Old South by Walter J. Fraser Jr.
Charleston, Savannah & Coastal Islands by Cecily McMillan
Savannah Revisited: History & Architecture by Mills Lane
Sentimental Savannah: Reflections on a Southern City’s Past by Polly Powers Stramm
Savannah: Crown of the Colonial Coast by Martha Giddens Nesbit
Savannah: Architectural & Cultural Treasures by Roulhac Toledano
and of course…
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Thesis: small, medium and large

While I am really looking forward to the actual designing and executing of my thesis project, I’m not so much looking forward to the written portion. That whole “explain your project in oh about 35 pages for some reson” thing isn’t my favorite. I would much prefer making something, pointing at it and saying, “Welp, there she is,” and leaving it at that. Grad school, it seems, requires words.

There are some built in elements that might help fill out the paper: design proposals, pitch plans, perhaps even the sheet music from the final show. My experience with my conceptual test drive and the feedback I received would be useful information. I could also fill the paper with background on the buildings that I would like to use as well as the history of Savannah, Ga itself, but the danger is the fill being…well…filler. This is all important information and will make it into the final thesis in some form or another, but unlike my previous school experience, I want to do this “properly” and “not get an F” and “actually graduate in a reasonable amount of time.”

For these types of papers, a more legitimate form of content involves showing how the concept can scale and that I have thought beyond my primary design or development. For example, if I were developing a themepark, a themed land or even an attraction, I would need to consider including a plan for future expansion. Back in the 60s, the Disney property in Florida was planned out for the future to a surprising level of detail. This continues today with enough proposed (keyword proposed) future expansion planned that, if Disney fans got a peek, the Internet would explode with things like, “Guess what they are building in 2035!!!” (which is why the land development department at WDI Florida is locked away behind a set of Mickey-shaped doors).

I could plan my project anywhere from 5 years up to 25 or even 50 years, and it would show that I had at least thought past the “right now.” A projection show, however, is slightly different. I suppose it could get bigger over time, building upon itself gradually, but that seems a little silly since it is digital and not physical. If you want a bigger show, why not just make a new one?

Rather than ending with a plan for expansion at the end, the best way to show that I have thought beyond the single design that will eventually dominate my thesis may begin with a plan for options at the beginning. Instead of having a 5, 10 and 15 year plan, perhaps my project calls for small, medium and large options; ideas that go up or down depending on the circumstances.

But what does small, medium and large mean? Size and scale? Complexity? Or maybe small, medium and large refers to my old familiar foe, the evil Baron von Budget. Perhaps a more useful way of thinking about it might be the likelihood of my project becoming reality. How much manpower is involved in installing the show and keeping it running? Does someone have to be there or can it operate on a timer? What would SCAD be willing to support? How about a real estate developer? What about a massive hotel chain sitting on the Savannah River? Can their interests, as well as the interests of the city, align with mine?

This winter break then becomes all about seeing what my brain turns up, filling out the ticket and then narrowing it down to three primary options: small, medium and large. After the break is over and I go back to school with legitimate work to show, my professors will be able to advise me as to which option to pursue further.

You should know I am extremely uncomfortable designing in public. I would prefer to just show up with a finished project that looks effortless and not show all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that goes into it, but with the themed entertainment industry being so collaborative, I feel this is something I need to get over in a big hurry! How did I get over my fear of heights? I decided I enjoyed that feeling you get when you look down. My fear of public speaking? I decided I enjoyed that feeling of momentarily controlling an entire room. Now, if I want this to work, I have to decide to enjoy showing process, showing mistakes and showing plain old bad ideas.

Your feedback (GrumpyFan, Delilah, MackDaddy…I’m looking at you) will be invaluable! Help me Internet-Wan Kenobe…you’re my only hope!

Thesis: test drive


During this last Fall quarter of my themed entertainment design program at SCAD, I had the chance to test drive my thesis idea to see how it played. I wanted to see if anyone else thought at least the core of the idea was a good one.

One of our professors assigned a project that involved re-theming a building on Broughton Street, one of Savannah’s main thoroughfares. He wanted us to pick any of the structures, come up with something — play area, restaurant, club, whatever — and give it a crazy makeover without worrying about the historic preservation codes that limit construction in the city. I came in to class and halfheartedly pitched a few ideas, but really I only brought one — projection show. The professor said no one had ever approached the project in that way (he usually teaches in the architecture department, so that isn’t too surprising) and he was willing to let me give it a shot. He really wasn’t sure where I was going with it, and he wasn’t alone.


For my project I chose 1 W. Broughton Street, otherwise known as the Panera Bread building.

My first presentation of a rough pass at the project was a massive flop. I had begun to conceive of a celebration of the Savannah’s mystery, grace and beauty through the city’s secret spots, its soaring architecture and its graceful trees covered in Spanish moss. The comments that came back were rough — no real story, I really needed to decide what I was trying to say, felt like an advertisement for the board of tourism. I left feeling extremely dejected and brooded for a long time. Did I honestly want to do this as my thesis??? It wasn’t until later that I realized what else was happening in that room. With all of the negative comments came ideas. Lots of them. From everyone. While it was clear the specifics weren’t a hit, the concept itself was sparking a lot of creativity from both the professor and from students. And not just the usual students I can always count on for input, but from people who usually stay pretty quiet. Clearly this was still something to be explored.

After going out of my way to not work on the project, I finally snapped out of it and put together this retooled concept just in time for the final presentation (remember that procrastination thing I mentioned before?):

Music: Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene by Hozier. For educational purposes only.

I created a Halloween show that featured some of Savannah’s haunted history. The first minute or so of the video gave me room to explain the concept a bit more, including how other buildings down the street would get in on the act, directing viewers’ attention towards the “main stage.” Since I did pull this project together quite quickly, there is plenty of imagery grabbed straight off the internet and retooled for my purposes (such as the ghostly girl and the base design for skeletons). Goofy animation aside, the project did what I needed it to do. It told me that idea intrigued the other people in my program, to the point where everyone could see the possibilities. Good enough! Thesis ahoy!

Below is some of the imagery from the project, as well as the “backstory” for the show (meant to be read in a voice as over dramatically spooky as you can muster).

Jason mopped the floors. It’s Pumpkin Season the signs in the windows read. It was October, nearly Halloween, and his job at Panera Bread had turned out exactly how he had imagined. Dull and soulless with just a hint of paycheck, a goopy soup that was just enough to sustain him for the time being, but not something any person would call a well-rounded diet, not any thinking person anyway. He laughed to himself as he thought of his well-rounded boss, a man who had been living on this same diet for 10 years. Then, hearing his insides groan and noticing his own increasingly soft and bulbous belly, he realized what was supposed to be a seasonal job had slowly settled into a year-long meal of sadness and despair. “Too much bread,” he thought. “Too much bread.”

It was closing time. The boss had disappeared early, as usual, leaving Jason to clean the restaurant on his own. But with no whiny customers and no lazy boss, he could finally relax. He was alone with his music and his mop, and mop he must, for within cleanliness lies the lemony-fresh light that keeps the darkness at bay, so mop he did.

The murk and the muck and the bile and the filth that clung to the deep recesses of the mushy corners of the Panera kitchen were sickening. “How the hell can sandwiches make this much of a mess?” he wondered out loud. As he cleaned he began to notice that the water from his mop wasn’t slipping into the drain in the floor as it was supposed to. “Great,” Jason thought. “It’s clogged.” He turned quickly to look for something that might fix the problem, but accidentally kicked over his industrial sized bucket. Having filled it to the very top, it splashed a raging torrent of water down onto the floor, turning what were once puddles into a flood. “JUST GREAT.” Jason slogged off to find a plunger.

He worked on the drain for a few minutes, but with all of his cause having no effect, he was overcome with frustration and heaved the slick and slimy stick across the kitchen, letting out a yell. In the quiet that followed, Jason thought he heard something. A drip. A drip so soft that, had the batteries not worn dead on his phone, he might have missed it. The drip became a trickle and the trickle became a splash and Jason noticed that the water seemed to be receding, but not in the direction he had expected. It wasn’t going down the drain. No, the water seemed to be moving away from it and into the corner of the room towards the old, decrepit refrigerator that no one ever used. Following the path of the water, he moved closer towards the appliance that had long since shuffled off its mortal copper coil. As he listened he became certain the water had found some sort of opening beneath it. For the first time he saw writing on the side of the hulking, rusty box that he hadn’t noticed before—Refrigerator of Souls. Equally puzzling was an inscription that read Move ye not, lest ye awaken the damned and thus too damneth thine self.

Jason moved the fridge.

What followed was a terror so horrific, so ungodly that Jason became locked with fright. A noxious fume of green smoke spewed upwards from the oozing hole below and the decaying bodies of the soulless beasts that even the worst nightmares cannot contain burst forth, screaming and whaling, vowing vengeance on the living. This was no ordinary Panera Bread. This was the Panera Bread of HELL, and the demons that had for so long slept beneath 1 West Broughton Street, Savannah, GA were hungry for takeout.

Thesis: overview

So…let’s talk thesis.

In my last post I talked about the need to produce a project that would serve as my ticket out of grad school and into the real world of themed entertainment design (I’m curious — is it still called the “real world” if I will be spending my life creating worlds of fantasy?). This project would be my graduate thesis. For that thesis, I knew I wanted something big enough to have an impact, but simple enough that it could actually happen. My fellow grad students have some spectacular concepts for some spectacular places, but I’ve focused my attention on downtown Savannah, Ga, the home of SCAD, and the possibility of transforming the city into something even more beautiful than it already is.

Savannah is very protective of its history and its historical buildings, and rightly so. This, after all, is the city that was too beautiful for General Sherman to burn. You can’t change anything without making someone mad. The only way to transform the city, even temporarily, is not with hammers and nails but with pixels and light. The only way is through a digital transformation rather than a physical one.

I’m thinkin’ this:

It always seems to come back around to Disney for me, doesn’t it?

This is projection mapping. Build a 3D model of the building you want to work with on your computer, put a few well placed, high powered projectors on a rooftop and suddenly the world is your canvas. Or, in this case, the castle is your canvas. Or, in my case, Savannah will be my canvas. For my thesis, I plan to design and develop a projection show that will delight guests visiting this little jewel of the south and bring them back for more.

Projection mapping (also called pixel mapping) is not new. Professionals have been working with it for so long that we are now well onto hobbyists transforming their homes into amazing spectacle. We are seeing more and more sophisticated uses of the technology, even to the point where people are using it for…shudder shudder…art.

When I pitched the concept, my professors immediately began talking about ways that the project could become reality. Perhaps SCAD could sponsor me. Maybe businesses downtown would be interested as a unique form of promotion. And isn’t there a businessman buying up most of Savannah’s business district on Broughton Street? Could he be interested? They immediately grasped what I was after and I knew I was on to something.

I had the opportunity to speak with the person who designed the castle projection show at Walt Disney World. In addition to giving me lots practical data on the inner workings of the show itself, he gave me great advice on how to proceed that really bolstered my confidence in the project. Also, a professor very close to my department (and my graduate advisor no less) has just begun teaching a course in projection mapping and has agreed to be on my thesis panel, so I will not go wanting for guidance.

A project like this will give me the chance to use my entire skill set and really stretch my creativity. It is my sincere desire to add something to the form, to not create just another projection show but rather something unique and uniquely Savannah. The town is thick with stories that beg to be told and retold. This is one more way to make sure this beautiful, strange little city’s stories are never forgotten,



I am one quarter into the second and final year of my Themed Entertainment Design master’s program at SCAD, and one word has rumbled out of the darkness and hit me directly in the face — THESIS. In order to earn my degree, I have to produce a graduate level project that demonstrates a mastery of all the skills I’ve learned during my time in school (mastery, because it is a master’s program after all…thankfully I don’t have to demonstrate a doctory). In the past, other students have used this opportunity to design things like themepark transportation systems and full attractions. Their concepts were fully fleshed out and fantastic. The bar is set pretty high.

So what to do? For my thesis I knew I wanted something simple yet impactful, but most importantly, something that could potentially become reality. I think I’ve found it.

Before I dive headlong into the project, however, there is something else looming large. I was surprised to discover that, along with the project itself, I would have to write a 35-page paper to go with it. Yes it is a thesis for a graduate degree, but I attend an art school. Art school. I thought I had left big, crazy papers far behind, but “luckily” for me, I get one more shot at it. That’s where this blog comes in.

I have decided to document my progress online, each step of the way. Writing blog posts about it would not only help me develop my ideas in a written format (useful for sorting out the eventual thesis document itself) but would hopefully keep me steadily working rather than waiting until the night before the paper is due to write it. While extreme procrastination has served me well in the past, I think maybe it’s time to try another approach, if only for variety’s sake.

So congratulations! Get ready for potentially way more than you ever thought you wanted to know about Savannah, grad school and themed entertainment design. Enjoy!

Just an elephant dancing in the woods


dance practice

I know I haven’t posted much here lately. Sorry about that, but I promise I will have a story or two about what it is like to work at Walt Disney Imagineering. For now, here’s something quick. Just an elephant dancing in the woods.

On the inside looking out

Walt Disney Casting, from the inside

This shot was taken from the window of the Walt Disney World Casting Center, where I was officially cleared to work for Walt Disney Imagineering over the Summer. I have driven past this sign a million times, staring at the building from my car, and always wondered what it would be like to work in such an amazing place. I’ve always wondered what Disney magic looks like from the inside.

The wonder goes. The pixie dust fades. Seeing how it all works will just kill the magic. This has never been a concern of mine. Magic for me becomes that much more magical when I see how it works. I want to see the stage director desperately trying to line up all those dancers behind the correct floats for the afternoon parade. I want to go out with the guys who run around with paint buckets frantically touching up the bare spots before the park opens. I want to see every grease stain on the machinery that makes those little dolls dance and sing “it’s a small world afterall” over and over and over. All of those things, all of those very un-magical imperfections, come together to make memories that last forever. That is what real magic is all about.

I have seen Disney from the outside a million times. Today I got my first taste of Disney from the inside and I can say that the view was pure magic.

Fast Lane

This video is part of a group project for a class about designing and prototyping experiences. We were given two weeks to design some sort of experience that would make people happy. Simple as that.

After a little wrangling, we went for big, goofy, inflatable bowling and called ourselves The Fast Lane. Just like regular bowling, people would get two tries to knock down as many pins as possible. Unlike regular bowling, people would have their choice of prizes, from glow bracelets to candy, depending on how many pins they knocked down. Also unlike regular bowling, our game would be free.

At the end of the two weeks, we went live at Forsyth Park in downtown Savannah, GA, where people came out in droves to play our game (they estimated over 4,000 people were in the park that night). Oh, and the city happened to be showing Disney’s Frozen for free that night, but really we know everyone came out for the bowling.

In case you are curious, the music is Rafstraumur by Sigur Rós. You will not find me anywhere in this video since I jumped at the chance to work the camera and eventually worked the video editing software. When you are camera shy you learn to move fast. Oh and by the way…your team is going to have to make a video toI’LL DO IT!!!

Chicago Grandé Casino

Music: “Crazy In Love” Original song by Beyoncé, Cover by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Great Gatsby Soundtrack)
Video available in HD

The Chicago Grandé Casino is a project for my Themed Entertainment Design graduate studies program at SCAD. The challenge was to create a themed environment and I chose to create a casino located in Chicago themed to the Roaring 20s. It is a three story Art Deco structure with a speakeasy (called The Blind Tiger), a theater (called Années Folles) and a massive sculpture anchoring the entire environment.

We were asked to put together a power point presentation and present our projects in class, so I imagined mine as a design pitch to a client who was shopping their casino around to different design houses. Since I knew everyone in the class would likely take “power point presentation” quite literally and put together slides with lots of text that they would read, I thought a video teaser with a beat would have more impact. I made sure to present after 2/3 of the class had gone, once the “audience” had settled into the routine of one 20 minute presentation after another, making my project a surprising and welcome departure.

As far as the artwork goes, I decided to go with a very literal photobashing technique where I began with photos and textures and combined them with photo manipulation and digital paint to create the finished product. This is the opposite of my preferred working method where I paint an environment and then overlay photos and textures to enhance the image. This method was very new to me and I made the switch very late in the design process, but it helped get ideas out quickly and also helped to ground the project in reality.

Music: “Crazy In Love” Original song by Beyoncé, Cover by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Great Gatsby Soundtrack)
This project was produced for the Themed Entertainment Design graduate studies program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. THED 730, Winter 2014. All art by Jon Plsek