Thesis: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

My thesis continues to evolve.

I have been hard at work on my nighttime projection show for the Westin in downtown Savannah, but I am having a difficult time getting my head around what my professors are looking for. Every time I think I understand how I want to tell my story, I run into a curve in the road. For my professors, they continue to steer me in the direction of the project being less and less of a singular show, and in fact less of a design itself. When I talk about doing animation, my professors say I don’t really need to worry about that. How about storyboards? I can have some, I guess, but there is no need to map out every detail. How about a business proposal, or an analysis of the viewing area, or maybe of the site itself? Nope.

So what in the world do I need to do?! For them, my thesis is all about the proposal.

In a recent article in Fast Company, called “The Messy Business Of Reinventing Happiness: Inside Disney’s radical plan to modernize its cherished theme parks,” the author talks about the exhaustive steps the NextGen team (called NGE) took to try and sell the idea of MyMagic+ and the Magic Band technology.
[full article]

At this point, the project took on a new layer of complexity, as the NGE team felt the need to consistently dazzle the Disney brass. A key part of this was regularly showing off a complex prototype of the MyMagic+ experience. The team had outgrown its original home at Epcot and had moved to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, inside a 12,000-square-foot soundstage. That’s where the NGE team built out its advanced R&D lab, or what Franklin calls a “living blueprint” that would “sell the vision.”

With typical Disney flair, the soundstage became a storyboard brought to life, with a full-scale living room, including an iMac, which is where the archetypal family would book their Disney vacation via what’s now known as My Disney Experience, the website and mobile app for MyMagic+. The family’s set of MagicBands would then arrive by mail, in beautiful packaging designed by Frog. Next came the flight-arrival stage of the set, which simulated the experience at Orlando International, with actual seats that the NGE team had purchased from the airport. There, family members would first touch their MagicBands to a digital access point, before proceeding to a replica Magical Express bus. Then came the hotel set, with actual front-desk counters and bedroom furniture from Disney’s Contemporary Resort, to reflect the new MyMagic+ check-in process. There were also mock-ups of the in-park experience, including a main entrance; a mini version of the Haunted Mansion ride to demonstrate how attractions could be personalized with consumer data; a small version of the Be Our Guest restaurant concept; merchandising and retail shops; and even a stage exhibiting how MyMagic+ could influence Disney’s cruise line. “At Disney, you can’t just create a PowerPoint presentation and say, ‘Hey, give me $10 million to build this,’ ” jokes Andy Schwalb.

“It goes back to Walt himself,” explains a former top NGE manager. “The story carries the day.” Often, sources say, the “theater” of selling an idea is more important than the idea itself.

The themed entertainment industry is all about about creating experiences, diving deep into a person to connect with them on a core level. It is this emotional connection that takes a theme park experience from simply “a thing that is there” to “memories for generations to come.” But my professors know that before you can ever put a guest in that magical place, you have to find a way to get the executives to hand over that magical money.

You might wonder, “Isn’t this your thesis? If you want to produce a full animation with a musical score, why not do it? Why does it matter what your professors want?” First off, they are the ones who decide if I graduate. So there’s that. But secondly, they tend to know what they are talking about. Understanding how to deliver a proposal is among the most important aspects of bringing a concept to life. Seeing as how I will be working in the concept phase of the industry — that is, the very early stages where the dream is just finding its way out of your head — it is perhaps most important that I learn to craft my proposals in unique and convincing ways.

I am not creating a design proposal, I am creating theater. One very famous example of this involves Imagineer Joe Rohde and his clever way of getting the Disney executives to go along with his idea for having live animals in Animal Kingdom. Fearing that live animals wouldn’t be dramatic enough, Michael Eisner thought the park should be filled with audio animatronic animals. To counter this, Rohde lead Eisner and the rest of the executives into a small, cramped boardroom, where he proceeded to have a live Bengal tiger brought into the room. As the 400-lbs animal made its way around the captive audience, Joe Rohde emphasized the emotional impact real, live animals could have. When the tiger was finally lead out, there was no more conversation. The animals were in.

To get a concept off the ground, I need to transport my audience to a place, maybe not physically like Disney was able to do with their “living blueprint” in the Fast Company article, but emotionally. They need to feel what it would be like to be on River Street, either standing along the water, taking a seat in one of the elevated restaurants, or just wandering out of one of the shops, looking across the river and being fully engrossed in a show that couldn’t possibly exist anywhere else.

Certainly I still need to create a product. I need to have something of substance to show, but all the art in the world can’t substitute for the emotional impact created by understanding what it feels like to be there. If a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe a feeling is worth a thousand pictures.

Then again…I could always just present nothing.

Hmm. I think I could stretch that. Maybe 15 minutes and 35 pages of nothing? That might actually be more difficult than having 15 minutes and 35 pages of well reasoned, thoroughly thought out something. You never know though. It might make my thesis WAY more interesting.

Thesis: $

Thesis = $?

One thing a friend of mine (Mack, if you must know) has been advising is that I should turn my thesis into a money making opportunity, or at the very least, I should take steps to keep it from becoming a money losing opportunity. In particular, my friend has insisted I copyright my concept, if only to keep someone else from nabbing it. After a little digging, it turns out your thesis immediately falls under copyright protection. Here is what I found at LegalZoom:

Copyright protection of your thesis exists once you’ve written it — you don’t necessarily need to do anything more. The copyright for your thesis will last for the length of your life plus 70 years.

This is great news. In essence this is saying that I don’t have to do anything, which is always ideal. SCAD is the degree-granting institution, so it will have the right to publish my thesis under non-exclusive use as well as for archival purposes, but full ownership will belong to me.

So that covers money losing, but what about money making? Mack feels I should package my concept in such a way that I could turn around, sell it, and resell it. I rarely think in terms of money. I want to make great things, and I operate under the mentality that if you make great things, you will naturally make great money. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, which is probably why my freelance businesses never seem to last.

This is that old service vs. product idea. If you provide a service, you will work for the rest of your life, but if you make a product, you can live out the rest of your days on your private island.

Interestingly, I had never considered the possibility of making any money on my projection show, even when I was determined to see it produced. Any monetary considerations always centered on covering cost, not profit. Money is a means to an end, and my end is making things, not making more money. Obviously this logic has lots of problems, since money enables you to continue making things, but that is how my brain works. Perhaps if I had gotten far enough down the road and it looked like a real production might happen, someone with a better mind for business would have talked to me about the possibility of getting paid.

You can actually go farther with the copyright and register your thesis if you chose to. Again, from legal zoom:

Although your thesis will have copyright protection once it exists in a fixed, tangible form, registering your copyright will provide additional benefits. Registering the copyright within three months of your thesis’s publication — or before any infringing act occurs — makes it much easier to stop an infringing act and to recover money from an infringer. Copyright registration creates a legal presumption that your copyright is valid. It also allows you to recover up to $150,000 in damages without having to prove any actual monetary harm.

Registering the copyright would protect me against infringement even more so. The trouble here, however, is that my final thesis will be a concept, not a finished product. No one will be able to lift my art or my script or my music, since those would be concrete and covered under copyright. But a person could, if they chose to do so, create a show for the same location that covers the same basic material and there wouldn’t be much I could do.

The only way to protect myself 100% would be to not share anything about my project with anyone outside of school. But what would be the point of that? I come from the mindset that you should share what you create, but then again, that may be one reason why I don’t have any money. For me, my thesis is a way to demonstrate mastery, because, again, master’s degree.

I do wonder how many people manage to turn their thesis around into a business venture. Is this an actual thing that people do? Does a thesis have to be more solidified like a book or can it be a bit more of a concept like mine? In the end, my thesis will essentially be an idea, and, like it or not, you can’t copyright an idea. The thing about creative people, though, is that we know there is always another idea.

Thesis: story?

Now that I have decided on the location of my show as well as my general format, I need to work out what this show will be about. I want the show to be unique to and uniquely Savannah. I am imagining a music driven show, one with a tangible story arc, if not narratively than at least emotionally. I want to tell Savannah’s story, in whatever form that may be, but the last thing anyone wants to watch is a history lesson. It must be a grand spectacle, but still feel like it belongs to this strange little city.

There are so many angles to take when telling the story of Savannah — the history of its colonial founding, the squares, the architecture, cobblestone streets and Spanish moss lined boulevards, pirates, war, voodoo, churches, ghosts, SCAD — the list just goes on and on. It is a city that exists in the nooks and crannies, in the cracks and the quiet places. Frequently in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the episodic story of Savannah in the 1980s, a character would slip away on some southern soliloquy, telling the story of this place or that, but the juicy bit, the real heart of the matter, would reveal itself in the little asides muttered almost under the person’s breath. This is where the real Savannah lives, behind the locked gates and in the places just out of sight. But how do I tell this story and is this a reasonable story to tell?

In my post about the Westin, I quickly sketched out a few visuals with pirates and fire and the statue from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, along with fountains, fog, fireworks, and some ways to play with the architecture, but I need to find cohesion. Perhaps I could have a narrator to guide the audience, some common thread to take us through the story. Perhaps James Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah? Maybe Tomochichi, the head of the Yamacraw who gave the land to Oglethorpe? Maybe I could go with one of the characters from Midnight…specifically a woman named Minerva, a voodoo priestess?

A friend and fellow student Olivia suggested that, rather than going with a single narrator, I go with a more layered approach and have multiple narrators telling the story of their personal Savannah. The narrators could be separated by time, by religion or by class. Their stories would seem disconnected on the surface, but in the end they would all come together to form the mosaic that makes up the city. Perhaps a Southern aristocrat could show us Savannah’s surface, metaphorically taking us through the front rooms of the grand old mansions, while a gossipy social climber lets us see the substance, taking us around back to show us what is really going on. Perhaps we could see Savannah from the perspective of one of the many tour guides who drive horse drawn carriages around town, and then alternatively hear from the point of view of the horse. Maybe our hosts could be a colonialist, a resident during the Civil War, and an art student trying to leave a mark. This is a very interesting direction, especially since Savannah itself has so many layers that make it the unique place that it is. This would require a delicate touch, but would provide a much fuller experience.

On the other hand, my professor George Head suggested that I go with a seasonal rotation, much like my “large” proposal for Broughton Street. He thought I should avoid one big show, instead going with many mini-shows based on things like St. Patrick’s Day (the second largest celebration in the country), something for the city’s film or music festivals, the return of SCAD students to the city, or a Christmas show to compliment the location’s existing festivities. In his thinking, making it a bigger production than any one show gives the project a much better chance of receiving actual funding. Each show could run for a few weeks at a time and then get swapped out for the next show, giving tourists the incentive to come back to Savannah and see the new things going on down on River Street. While I cannot count on having this show produced by the end of this quarter, if I am to put together a true design proposal, it must be presented from the point of view of legitimately selling the concept.

I’m almost certain that George is right, as he tends to be. However, my greatest worry with doing it this way is spreading the project too thin. There is the chance that, if I try to develop all of these things, it will feel as though I have developed none of them, and that will leave me with a very underwhelming thesis.

So what do I tell and how do I begin to sort all of this out? My instinct is to try and combine these approaches, building one solid story, complete with music and animation, while suggesting the possibilities of seasonal shows through storyboards and key art. I feel like this would make my thesis stronger, giving the proposal meat, as well as providing a nice dessert tray to finish off the meal. The danger here is pursuing the wrong story, one that would never get the green light from the board of tourism. Savannah, Georgia is a city that wants tourists to visit, but doesn’t necessarily want them to stay. It wants to be what it is, a little time capsule, and then wants to be left alone. The last thing it wants is for some out-bound art student to try and tell it what it is. In order for such a show to be viable, it cannot be Savannah as I see it, but rather Savannah as it wants to be seen. The show can have a little mystery and could be presented with a bit of a smirk and a wink, but it still needs to reflect the glory of this Jewel of the South, the city too beautiful to burn.

Thesis: a change in our heading

Every good sailor worth his salt knows when it is time to let go of one treasure and head off for another. That time has come.

Originally I had wanted my thesis, a nighttime projection show, to be a real production for the city of Savannah. Releasing the show into the wild was the thing that would legitimize this project and make it thesis-worthy. However, I think the winds may have changed. I have come to the realization that I will not have nearly enough time to design a concept, pitch it to a client, settle on a contract, get all of the equipment logistics sorted out, and finally, actually design and build my show, at least not within the 10 weeks I have until I graduate. That is just no longer feasible. Perhaps I can keep pushing to get this thing produced after I have left SCAD, but one thing I have learned about school is that, when turning in projects, everyone always says, “I plan to go back and work on this,” but that no one ever actually does.

I talked about this problem with the head of my department, who is also the head of my thesis committee, and, appropriately enough, has the last name Head. As he explained, I should focus on this project as a design proposal, not as the final show itself. He makes a good point. I am a concept designer and will likely never be working on the actual production side of a project. I’ve realized (or, rather, rationalized) that to produce the show in its entirety would not make the best use of my skillset and would be a little overkill. So with that in mind, my thesis now becomes not so much a show for its own sake but rather the culmination of everything I have learned…ever.

Since coming to grad school at SCAD to earn my M.F.A. in Themed Entertainment Design, I have taken courses involving creating themed environments, large scale shows, queue design, 3D modeling, human psychology with regards to the built environment, media arts, architectural design, a course in drafting design proposals, lighting design, digital illustration, prototyping experiences, and a smattering of operational practicalities. Before coming to school, I amassed a weird array of skills, from marketing and branding, to history, music and mass communications. With these skills and experiences in my back pocket, my thesis will demonstrate a mastery (because master’s degree) of everything I have picked up along the way.

With this in mind, I need to pick a project from the ones I have laid out on this blog that will make use of as much as I have learned as possible. The most reasonable course of action then becomes developing the most unreasonable design proposal of the bunch.

It has to be The Westin.

That location and the “large” variation project is the only one that makes use of everything I bring. I can design the show, both the spectacle itself as well as the guest experience, and touch on some of the other aspects such as marketing and possible logistics behind putting a show like this together.

I also plan to follow a suggestion my friend Delilah made way back when by incorporating the “small” and “medium” variations into the project as well. Having the building change colors with the setting sun in the lead up to the show will set the mood, while having interactive games will give guests something to do while they wait for the main attraction to begin.

So, now that we have that settled…what in the world should this show be about???

Thesis: The Westin

For those of you keeping score at home, I have looked more in depth at two of my three possible clients for my nighttime projection show thesis project. That leaves just one client to go.

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The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa is a massive hotel that sits across the river from Savannah’s historic downtown. The building, highly visible from almost anywhere along River Street, gleams during the day and shines brightly at night, making it feel like a Savannah patriarch keeping a watchful eye over the city. The Westin already hosts a holiday show called The Festival of Lights, a drive thru Christmas light display and carnival, so the hotel is no stranger to spectacle. Its position and orientation make it a near perfect canvas for painting spectacular stories with light and sound.

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It sits in a very prominent spot, but is a little removed from Savannah itself. Plus, the island where it sits was initially pitched as a special escape from Savannah but has yet to materialize into anything worth crossing the bridge for. In order to connect with the city, the Westin needs a way to tap into Savannah’s past, present and future.

This client is, by far, the least likely to produce a show. For one, it is a major hotel chain and getting in front of someone who has the authority to pull the trigger would take a lot of influence, or at least more than I have. Larger than this, however, is the challenge of making the concept line up with the hotel’s business interests. The biggest problem with using this location for a projection show is that the only legitimate viewing areas are across the river. The grounds of the Westin do not extend far enough to allow viewing from the hotel side, meaning not only does the show not directly bring guests to the Westin, but it actively encourages them to leave. While the hope is that this kind of show would make the Westin seem like the place to stay when visiting Savannah, in reality this is much more of a show to entertain visitors on River Street. At best it would need to be a joint venture between Savannah and the hotel, and at worst, covered by Savannah entirely.

My friend Delilah, ever the social media interactrix, had this to say:

We stay at that Westin every time we’re in Savannah, and it really needs your help. They have utterly nothing for children, tons of wasted space, and their restaurants are totally bland. In short, they could use an injection of magic. I wish there was a way to project something on the huge ships as they float by, because they’re pretty spectacular but very utilitarian.

This idea, projecting onto the massive ships that ease down the river, is interesting. If it were only visible from the Westin side of the river, it would provide an incentive for guests to stay there. My hesitation is the motion of the ships since typically you want something you are projecting onto to be stationary, but it is worth thinking about. For now, though, I am focusing on the building itself.

As before, I will look at three possible variations for a show in this location: small, medium and large.

Small
The initial small concept is an atmospheric one that uses the hotel’s skyline dominance to its advantage. As the sun sets, the Westin would gradually change color, providing both a beautiful compliment to the evolving sky, as well as standing out on its own.

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This concept borrows from something I experienced at the SATE Conference in Sarasota, Florida called The Skyspace. Located at The Ringling, the Skyspace appears to be nothing more than a white room with a hole in the roof. When the sun sets, the room begins to change color through a series of LED lights, and as you look up through the hole in the roof, the sky begins to change colors with it. Once the hour-long show was over, nearly everyone was left very moved, feeling a sense of floating out of the room and wishing they could experience it again.

The “small” show at the Westin wouldn’t be nearly as immersive as the Skyspace, but it could still have a very calm, gentle impact on the River Street experience. For those taking a casual glance, the Westin’s colors would make the hotel really stand out. For those willing to sit and watch the entire sunset-long process, it could serve as a gentle meditation on light and color and provide a wonderful place for a guest’s mind to travel away from the buzz of River Street.

Medium
For the medium concept, I thought perhaps I could do something more interactive. While the locations doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of immersion as Broughton Street, it does beg for some way for guests to interact, and I feel that people enjoy being part of something larger than themselves.

The building could function as a massive game board; something encouraging people to join in the fun and play along. Through a specifically designed web app, guests could join in on whatever game was active at that moment. Perhaps the building could become a giant Connect Four board, with guests randomly assigned to team black or team red, and each person could vote on the best spot to drop the next piece. This idea could also work for a game like tic tac toe or bingo, perhaps even a trivia game, with a leaderboard displaying the top scores for all to see.

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The possibilities are endless.

Large
Finally we come to the last of all nine proposed concepts, and this one is the biggie. With the Westin being such a grand and imposing figure, it only makes sense that the location demands a grand and imposing show.

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This “large” variation for the Westin would be as large as possible. The show would follow a narrative arc, going through all the moods of Savannah. There would be plenty of pirates and voodoo and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but also southern charm and elegance. It would also make use of every physical asset the area has to offer — the broad river could support fountains and show barges, the wide open skyline is perfect for fireworks and lighted smoke effects, and the ideal viewing areas across the river seem tailor made for this show.

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Clearly I had a little bit of fun with this one.

This project, I feel, is the most unreasonable of the bunch. It requires the biggest commitment from the most unlikely client, requiring the largest sum of money for the riskiest return. This, however, is how it must be. This location, this atmosphere and this client calls for a grand spectacle of immense proportions. Of all the projects I have considered, this is the only one that could possibly sustain a Disney-quality show that would leave guests awestruck. In this scenario, the Westin would have to risk the most, yet it would stand to gain the most.

Now that I’ve laid out my options, it’s time to begin moving forward…

Thesis: Broughton Street

Continuing with my plan to write out my thesis paper for my nighttime projection show in a series of blog posts, as well as my plan to approach the project from the point of view of working with different clients, this post will take a deeper look at Broughton Street and real estate developer Ben Carter.

Broughton Street is a wide Savannah boulevard (wide by Savannah’s standards anyway) with lots of businesses and restaurants. On the whole the area looks pretty good, but there are clearly parts of it that haven’t aged so well, being a mix of new development and old school “hey how did that place not go out of business in the 50s” shops.

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Enter Ben Carter, an Atlanta real estate developer fresh off the recent economic downturn looking to make a personal and financial turnaround. Mr Carter and his investment partner, Acadia Real Estate Trust, are trying to kick some life into the street, having already plowed over $70 million into the 37 properties they own, and are projected to spend over $100 million by the time they are through. However, they have run into trouble in the form of Savannah’s conservationists.

From the Wall Street Journal [full article]:

[Ben Carter] has promised to restore the architectural grandeur of many of the buildings, and help continue Broughton Street’s transformation into a major center of shopping, dining and tourism.
But Mr. Carter is bumping heads with preservationists who haven’t been pleased with his plans. The tension illustrates the kinds of controversies that can crop up when people have different views of what preservation means.

Now Mr. Carter is running into friction with his plan for $6.5 million in upgrades to Broughton Street’s lighting, sidewalks and amenities. Some preservationists have expressed concern that upgrades would make too much of the street look the same.
“Parts of Broughton Street hail from very different times in our history and it’s important to preserve the architectural history of the different eras,” says Joe Steffen, a Savannah lawyer who once served as the chairman of the city’s Historic District Board of Review. “There’s a Disney way of preserving that makes everything look exactly the same.”

Yikes. Good news and bad news. First the bad news. That one quote, the one at the very end, could potentially undo any hope of my involvement with the revitalized district, or with any part of Savannah for that matter. Not only does it speak to the difficulty in working with the city, but it also shows the general disdain towards Disney among preservationists. When Disney does history, it is rarely historically accurate. Historians tend to see Disney as sugary sweet sameness, and any association could be potentially disastrous.

But there is good news in there as well. The conservationists are not at all happy with the physical changes being made to their buildings, however both Savannah and Mr. Carter need this street to be a mega hit and a destination in its own right. If physical changes are too much, perhaps digital is the way to go.

Why change anything at all though? What is the motivation to move forward with something extra on top of the updated retail area? For Mr. Carter, his motivation to see this business venture succeed is obvious. He has shelled out a pile of money and he would like to get a larger one back. For Savannah, the motivation is a little more complicated.

Currently the city is attempting to become a port of call for cruise ships, a huge move for a town that thrives on tourism, and even though it is a coastal city, ships would still need to make their way up river. Should Savannah open its port to cruisers, most of these visitors will stay where they disembark on River Street, where there is a little history and a lot of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Very few guests will venture out into the city itself on their own. In order to spread those tourist dollars around, Savannah needs a hook, something to make people say, “Oh yeah, I heard about that! I have got to go see that!” Broughton Street could very well be that hook, but it is hard to do that when the whole thing is an aging, jumbled mess in the name of historically accurate, or worse, another abandoned business venture. A nightly projection show could transform the street digitally without losing the history physically, or, better yet, the possibility of luring tourists might help pave the way for the city to loosen some of the restrictions it has placed on Mr. Carter.

So this is the jumping off point for my concept. How do we get people in from the cruise ships, the trolley tours and the ghost walks and give them something unique that they can’t find anywhere else in downtown Savannah?

Considering the historic nature of the area, I could develop a show similar to my “medium” concept for SCAD, where the historic buildings change to reflect the way they looked throughout the ages. But knowing Mr. Carter’s particular form of investment in the area, he is looking forward into the district’s future, not backwards into its past. Broughton Street needs to be a vibrant part of this sleepy city. It needs to be a place where new things are happening all the time, and for that to be the case, you need foot traffic. Lots of it.

If you remember, I had put together a goofy Halloween show for Broughton Street as part of a class project (which is what got me thinking about using the area for my thesis in the first place). After seeing that post, GrumpyFan, a longtime reader of this blog, had this to say:

First, think about your audience. Who are you aiming for? Will your idea appeal to them? Does it appeal to you? Would you go to see it more than once? I get that this is horror and meant to be scary, but could it turn people away? Might it have a negative impact?
Thinking of your time at Disney, would this or something similar work there? One of the things they do so well is building attractions that have mass appeal, for kids, adults and even seniors. Can you apply these principles in your design?
Disney does a campy/fun kind of Halloween and it has broad appeal, but then Universal goes for a more scary, in-your face Halloween that is strictly adult-oriented. Based on the video, it almost looks like you’re going for the Disney-style, but based on the text/backstory, it sounds more like the style Universal might do.

In the comments section of that post, I assured GrumpyFan that I didn’t intend to use that show specifically, but that his points were well taken. Had I considered my audience? Sorta…kinda…maybe? Savannah is a funky town, and even funkier on Halloween, so a funky one night show didn’t seem like too big of a stretch. But for a year-round experience, any kind of show would need to have both repeatability and a much more broad appeal.

This location, and the specific goals for its future, requires a bit more care, potentially calling for a more immersive experience. So again, I will apply the “small, medium and large” parameters to my concept.

Small
The first possibility I have considered for Broughton Street, one that is in essence “small” but really pushing into a bit more of a complex range, would be finding a way to have the buildings light up in connection with street-wide music, or essentially having the buildings dance all night. This could be as simple as a pulsating general light, or it could be something quite involved. Depending on the atmosphere and time of year, it could feel festive, serene or even trippy.

For a different class project, my teammates and I needed to develop three Las Vegas casino concepts. One idea we had was a place called “Adrenaline,” an over the top, X-games times 1000 experience that was fast, loud and completely seizure-inducing. One of the features of the structure’s exterior (shown in the concept art below) were lights that pulsed up and down to the throbbing beat of the music.

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While that concept involved a steady thump thump thumping house music, the atmosphere on Broughton Street would not have to be that for the idea to work. In fact, the target audience is quite different, so it may even be better if it wasn’t attempting to have a club vibe, especially with all the actual nightclubs just one or two streets over. This would be more of a continuous lightshow that would last all night, creating a continual atmosphere that wraps guests up in the experience, perhaps similar to Freemont Street in Las Vegas. It isn’t so much a story as it is an immersive mood that encourages guests to stay in the area and keeps them coming back each time they visit.

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This concept is “small” because, like my small SCAD concept, it doesn’t involve any story work. What it does involve, however, is software that will allow the lights to react to the music. This kind of software exists, just think of iTunes visualizer or every club ever, but I know absolutely nothing about it. Oh, and music! Music is a huge component. I’m thinking less original music and more popular music that plays throughout the night. However, this concept would involve blanketing the street in speakers to ensure the music can be heard from one end to the other. This would also necessitate gettinging someone actively creating playlists, as well as getting past any legal issues associated with using music publicly. The net effect, however, would make the street feel as though it is dancing to the music, making the whole experience more immersive.

Medium
More immersive still is my medium concept, one that integrates social media into the street, making visitors a part of the surrounding architecture itself.

Borrowing yet again from another class, as part of a group project, we were asked to develop an experience for people who had come to watch an outdoor showing of the movie Frozen in Savannah’s Forsyth Park. We ended up doing a blow up bowling game we called “Fast Lane,” but one of the ideas that I had pitched that came pretty close to happening was something that would let people see their pictures on the screen before the movie began. One simple idea had people at the event posting pictures of themselves on Instagram and tagging it with something like #FrozenForsyth. We would watch for these photos to go by and show them on the screen. This idea evolved into a visual scavenger hunt that could take place all night right up until the showing of the film. Since we had a large screen at our disposal, we could flash a clue about what the guests would have to find, and once they figured out the clue, they would take a photo of it, post it, and the winner would see his or her photo show up on the screen or possibly win some sort of prize.

This same idea could work on Broughton Street. Guests walking up and down the street would be encouraged to jump on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine or whatever social network we could most easily work with, and post something about their adventures that night. Pictures from a great meal, tweets about a new top, or a quickie video of the night out with friends could flash across the buildings, making it feel like the whole street exists just for you. Of course, the scavenger hunt idea could be implemented here as well, particularly if it encouraged people to keep moving up and down the street, bringing them to shops and restaurants they may not have otherwise seen.

insta

Like the “small” concept, this one requires a heavy amount of R&D. I would need some sort of software that processes all of the information coming in and that dynamically displays it all for guests to see (also software that knows how to censor, because Internet). Either that or have a dude…that sits…night after night. Nope. This is a “medium” because it does require some sort of organization to the messages, images and videos being displayed. It would have to be a novel way to interact with the information that we see on our phones all the time. The novelty of simply seeing your tweet showing up on the side of a building wears off pretty fast, eventually getting to the point where the only people participating are pre-teen boys trying to figure out how to get some variation of the word “boobs” past the censors. It’s getting past that novelty factor and doing something truly unique that is the key to taking an experience like this from gimmick to unforgettable.

Large
The last concept, one that I consider large, is more in keeping with what people typically think of when thinking about a projection show — a true show at a set time in a set location with story and music.

Rather than offering a single show, this area needs constant change and constant updating to encourage repeatability. Knowing this, my large concept would involve a rotating series of shows that would change over the course of the year, depending on the season. Much like my Halloween Show, at a set time at night, the street would begin to encourage guests to move to a central location on Broughton Street for a story-driven experience. Some variations would be based on narrative while others would flow with a more flexible story structure, but there would be a traditional structure. Again, the time of year would dictate the show. You could have shows for the holidays, like Christmas or St. Patrick’s day (but not Halloween, because that’s just crazy), as well as general Spring and Summer shows with familiar themes such as the feeling of life that flows through Savannah.

summer

christmas

This one is “large” simply because it involves the most design work from me. I would need to do full storyboards, color scripts, key art, music and animation, and not just for one show but for many. This is the part of this project that interests me the most, not the actual production of the show but building out the concept, but in this case I would need to do that several times over. It would certainly be a challenge, but the end result could be a year-round must-see attraction that would easily pull tourists in night after night.

As I said in an earlier post, the likelihood of working with Mr. Carter would be a real toss up. Adding an element of entertainment to encourage repeat visits would mean a healthy profit. However, going into something like this would be a huge leap in a direction that the client likely never considered. Since Mr. Carter has been having so much trouble with the city of Savannah, this may reek of one more fight that he would rather not wage.

Leaving the insides of Savannah where I have been talking about shows that take place across multiple buildings, we will go right out to the edge and look at a single location — the Westin at River Street.

Thesis: SCAD

So…a confession…

This has been an intensely difficult time in my life and everything has suffered as a result. Work has suffered, school has suffered and life has suffered. I say that as a way of explanation, because one thing that has totally disappeared from my life entirely has been my thesis.

Let’s get back on track here…

It has been my plan all along to write my thesis paper, the supporting document for my projection show project, in a series of blog posts. I knew my friends reading my blog would pester me to keep going and so far you have not disappointed (especially my friend Mack, who has been more help than he realizes). I even got that simple question today in the tweet at the top!

In an earlier post I talked about working from the standpoint of getting a client as a motivator. Unfortunately the delay in my thesis has meant it is becoming less and less likely that I can actually have the show produced, but having that as a goal is still worth striving for. I recently had to submit my thesis concept as well as my deliverables and estimated timeline, which, on top of the designed show itself, included both blog posts as well as business proposals for each of my possible clients, so the client perspective will continue to be a motivating factor.

I have also talked about the need to develop three varying levels of projection mapping shows — small, medium and large. Unfortunately I have yet to fully resolve what I actually mean by small, medium and large.

My friend Delilah had this to say:

I guess the first thing I think is that a projection is only on the outside, and so much of Savannah is like that– locked doors, gates. How can you get people inside? Small is the first show, medium is the show and something inside the building, big is expanding to the roof? Maybe the projection moves from building to building? But then the crowd might hurt themselves following it. Question: Have you seen Sleep No More in New York? That’s what Savannah needs. That’s being invited past the gates.
Your thesis is hella tough, is all I’m saying.

That is one way of looking at it. Delilah is so right. The city does have its locked doors and closed gates, and I have always felt that the beauty of Savannah lives in its nooks and crannies. It was this idea that I had wanted to explore with my first projection show before changing it to a Halloween show. However, I always wanted to explore this on the outside of the buildings, inviting people in visually rather than physically. I am reflexively avoiding having anything to do with the insides of buildings simply because another student, my friend Jeff DeBoer, is doing exactly that for his thesis. He is creating a smaller, interactive, indoor experience while I am creating a larger, passive, outdoor show.

I hadn’t considered small, medium and large as three parts of the same whole, however, as Delilah suggests. At this stage, the three were meant to provide some parameters to help me come up with more ideas, but the suggestion is solid and may be useful at a later stage. As I have thought about my prospective clients, it seems I have been leaning towards a small, medium and large scale based on complexity. This could mean complexity of design or complexity of management, but that is the basic idea.

The first client I’d like to look at in depth is SCAD, the one I consider the most likely to support my project. SCAD doesn’t have a campus so much as it has a full city overlay (school buildings shown in red).

scad map

The school has slowly bought up large buildings all over Savannah and turned them into classrooms and studio space. In doing so, it has walked that fine line between “historic preservation” and “changing entirely.”

From the book Savannah: Architectural & Cultural Treasures:

The college opened with one historic building.

By the fall of 1996, it had a collection of about forty buildings throughout Savannah, providing neighborhood anchors and uses for the large vacant institutional buildings across the historic city.

SCAD developed a new approach to the concept of “City College.” It is both European and original. It not only has an urban campus; their campus is, in effect, historic Savannah, both the downtown historic district and the Victorian district to the south. Marlborough Packard, chair of historic preservation for SCAD, puts it this way: “We don’t want to tear down anything. And we don’t want to build any new buildings.” The city takes care of the streets and other infrastructure that normally would be left to the college to maintain, freeing the school to devote its time and money to the purchase and renovation of abandoned landmarks.

It is a great system: the city pays for the things it has to and SCAD can save its money to pay for the things it wants to. Not too bad. Helping a student bring his or her vision to life, particularly in a very visible and SCAD-centric way, is a perfect showcase for what the school is all about and what prospective students can achieve.

I have thought of three potential projects that could meet SCAD’s needs.

Small
The first concept, one that I consider “small,” involves lighting some of the school’s historic buildings in a SCAD-forward way. SCAD has gone through many moods, but part of the school’s branding when I enrolled included a specific shade of green:

Poetter Hall interior

SCAD is very much intertwined with Savannah. One way to show school’s mark on the city would be to light various SCAD buildings in this green color seen on the above bannisters, or whatever color matches their current branding. As an example, we can look at SCAD’s Poetter Hall seen below. I would devise a show that outlines unique architectural features, Tron-style, for as many buildings across the city as is reasonably possible. The historic time capsule of a city would become a strange, undulating, digital grid by night slowly drawing and redrawing itself.

poetter_01

poetter_02

I consider this a “small” project simply because of the low level of complexity for me as the designer. Very little research would need to be done, and no story development. I could potentially write some music, but moody chords or sound effects that coincide with the movement of the lines across the buildings would work just as well, and might even be more appropriate. I envision the project making use of as many SCAD buildings as possible — the show could be quite dramatic if it happened all across the city — but it would still work just as well on a single building as it would on 40+. I would need to map out the sites to understand best viewing angles and best placement for the projectors, as well as get a very solid working knowledge of the contours of the buildings, but that is a necessity of every potential project for my thesis and not unique to this one variation.

Medium
A slightly more involved design for a downtown projection show focused on the SCAD buildings would be something of a trip through time. SCAD takes old, historic buildings and updates them for modern use. This version of the show would digitally transform the buildings to look like they did in the past, gradually changing them over the course of the night to reflect the passage of time. For each specific SCAD building, the show would involve the structure being built, having its original signage put in place, its original tenants coming in and out of the doors or moving behind the windows, its conversion during times of war, its period of neglect during the post-war era, and finally a rebirth into the building we see today. Since Savannah is such a historic city, many records exist of its changes and iterations. It is possible to find old plans and photographs of the historic buildings to see what they looked like through the years. The show would culminate with a guess as to what these buildings might look like in the future.

poetter_dwg1893nw

SolomonsDrugsBuilding

poetter_01_576

jetsons

This plan involves some degree of research and would call for a more complex design with the potential for live video elements and more complicated animation. Again, it would be dramatic to have all of the SCAD buildings across the city aging at once, but it could be just as magical to see a single prominent building going through its lifecycle.

Large
Finally the large project. This is the one that would promote SCAD and everything it is all about most thoroughly, however it would be the one that is the most complicated to pull off. The project would consist of two key components — short term and long term. First, the short term. To showcase the school and its art, I would help bring other students’ artwork to life in one or two key locations in a way that combines their talent and creativity with projection mapping technology. Secondly, the long term. I would establish a system to keep the show going long after I have left the school with other students at the helm so that it would become a permanent yet constantly evolving fixture of the Savannah experience.

For instance, a piece like this…

painting_1000

…currently hanging on the wall in my department’s main building, would be displayed on the side of a SCAD building and would come to life, interacting with the building as well as mingling with other student artwork in limitless ways.

poetter_03

The show itself would be a real collaboration between the technology and the art, but also a collaboration between the artists themselves. The show would need to represent each artist’s individualism (because without that, the meaning of their work is lost) so that they can shine through. While I would corral the school’s many exceptional artists and convince them to participate in a public gallery showcasing their work, it would be necessary to train them on the possibilities and intricacies of the technology, but also I would have to convince them to all work together for the common good of the show.

To keep the show rolling for years to come, I would need to set up a system where other students or faculty take ownership of the project, helping the show constantly evolve over the years and grow organically. Perhaps it could even be a class. This would mean developing a curriculum for a multi-disciplined collection of students, where the ultimate aim is close collaboration combined with intense individualism.

I consider this project “large” simply because of the complexity of management and degree of difficulty for me and my specific skill set. This concept involves coordinating lots of artists and training them to digitally manipulate their artwork. As you may or may not know, artists are impossible to work with. Also, I don’t have much experience being a manager and my leadership skills are limited to mainly drumming up enthusiasm in others and not necessarily driving others towards my specific goals.

Also tipping over into “class” has its own challenges. For one, it is very difficult to get a new class going at SCAD. Perhaps the project could be folded into a pre-existing class, but currently the only course offered on projection mapping is for undergrads and I envision this as being necessarily a graduate course. A second problem is that two other students are doing their own education-based thesis and, like my friend Jeff who is working on the inside of a building, I would rather not step on their toes. Obviously just because someone else is already doing something similar is no reason not to do something if it begins to present itself as a good idea. It is just something to consider

I still consider SCAD the most likely candidate to actually help produce the show. It has the mental infrastructure in place to understand what to do with a concept like this, and being an art school it would see the value more easily than my other two possibilities. The problem, for me anyway, is that these variations are a bit “arty” and I’m not really an “arty” guy. Since I want to work from the standpoint of the client’s needs, that’s simply where my mind went. However, I am also operating under assumption that art school means weird and moody. I could design my show to be more playful, but that would depend on the image that SCAD likes to put forward of itself.

Now, on to Broughton Street…

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