Highlights of the Eye-Opening 2013 SATE Conference

Savannah, GA is a romantic city full of historic architecture and dramatic weeping trees (and, most likely, ghosts). But last week it was full of themed entertainment industry professionals for TEA’s annual SATE conference. With its rich history and innovative art, technology and design programs, Savannah was the perfect setting for this conference, which was truly a meeting of the minds centered around SATE’s core principles: Storytelling, Architecture, Technology and Experience.

The event was held at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Presentations and panel discussions spanned two days, focusing on each of the four categories separately within the overall theme of “What’s Next.” I think I speak for everyone when I say that by the end of the event, our minds were overflowing and our inspiration re-ignited. I won’t attempt to describe the event in its entirety; instead, I’d like to share some kernels of knowledge that I gained from each segment of the experience.

“A tale is a statement. Story is an argument” – Chris Huntley

In the first segment, Adam Bezark of the Bezark Company introduced us to Storytelling by reminding us that everyone has a story to tell and that creating a good story (or in his words, “a story that doesn’t suck”) is a masterful art. He shared three important points about creating compelling experiences:

  1. Immersion draws us in
  2. Animation makes us believe
  3. Story makes us remember

He also facetiously recommended that we “Never pass up an opportunity to scare the shit out of little kids,” because this often makes for the most memorable experiences. (Bezark wasn’t the only speaker to share childhood memories of being terrified by an attraction; many other industry veterans had similar stories citing scary experiences as the ones that stuck with them through adulthood and influenced their passion for themed entertainment.)
After Bezark’s opening remarks, Mark Caro, the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment reporter, told us of how theater is straying farther and farther from the traditional stage performance with live, interactive experiences that put the audience right in the action. Caro cited “Cascabel,” a production by Lookinglass with celebrity chef Rick Bayless that provides live entertainment alongside gourmet Mexican cuisine (served along with the performance’s plot).

With emerging technologies such as apps and augmented reality, plays and musicals need not be confined to the traditional stage – in Chicago, visitors can partake in walking plays that take place on the city streets, coordinated by GPS technology that allows actors to “perform” in specific locations.
Following Caro was speaker Chris Huntley, co-creator of the story analysis software Dramatica, one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Huntley explains why stories are important in our lives with the following slide:

In other words, individuals can understand their lives through the points of view of themselves, another person or a communal group, but not through the eyes of “they,” or others. (An individual cannot see him/herself from the p.o.v. of others). In contrast, an individual can only understand the point of view of another person by indirect observation. Stories, however, allow us to experience all points of view directly.
Huntley goes on to reveal the ingredients that make stories work, which are the following:

  1. Limitations
  2. Inequity (a source of conflict – there must be inequity for characters to have drive)
  3. A Goal or central objective
  4. Consequences (risk associated with failing to achieve the goal)
  5. Four throughlines, or perspectives on the inequity: (Big Picture, Main character, Influence character, Relationship – between main and influence character)
  6. Resolution (optional)

Here is an example of how this applies to themed entertainment, using Disney’s Haunted Mansion:

In the next presentation, Imagineering R&D Creative Director Asa Kalama outlines ways that Disney is searching for the next version of the theme park experience through narrative experiences. These experiences are long-form role-play, which in laymen’s terms means guests running around pretending to be pirates, following clues and live actors through the theme park and beyond. Narrative experiences truly make guests the protagonists of the story, allowing them to actually participate in the story as it is happening. Disney playtested this with “Legend of the Fortuna,” a narrative pirate experience that involves coordinated flash mobs, elaborate costuming, sword fighting, clue hunting and live characters.

Asa and his team are most surprised by how creative guests actually are, and how the experience turns those most skeptical into avid participants; (the woman who adamantly refused to dress up at the start of the experience ended up being the one who led the pirate raid, running through the park with sword in hand). Other conclusions that the Imagineers discovered include:

  1. Listen to the guests and plant fewer “breadcrumbs”
  2. Back story isn’t fun or interesting
  3. Every detail matters – it’s better to have an empty room with a few important objects than an entire decorated set
  4. Most people don’t think they have the capacity to play and be creative, but through narrative experiences they can feel newly empowered
  5. When guests create something on their own, it will always mean more than something you hand them

The next speaker was David Misch, a veteran comedy writer, who shared insights about what makes good comedy:

  1. Comedy is created by the interplay of tension, release and relief + TIMING
  2. Comedy requires something to go wrong

Fun fact: You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones faces the sword fighter in the market square? The one where the sword fighter swings his sword in a menacing and masterful way, and then Indiana just pulls out his gun and shoots him? It’s funny, despite being morbid. The scene actually wasn’t planned this way – the real reason Indiana just shot the guy is because Harrison Ford got food poisoning and couldn’t do the fully planned sword fight scene. In this example, we see how comedy often results from the unexpected or morbid.

SATE’s first keynote speaker was Don Marinelli, who co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University with Randy Pausch. Don spoke about the importance of embracing “whole brain” thinking: we can no longer see people as left brain or right brain thinkers, because today and tomorrow’s audience is made up of multi-disciplinary thinkers who engage with a diverse range of disciplines and technological platforms. Education must adapt accordingly because it cannot succeed with its current, outdated linear model.

“Design lies within a person; it is not inherent in an object” – [adapted] Cecil Magpuri

The three main Architecture speakers were Jonathan Douglas of VOA Associates, Cecil Magpuri of Falcon’s Treehouse, and Chuck Hoberman of Hoberman Associates. Douglas walked us through a case study of how VOA uses architecture to tell a story, highlighting architecture’s similarity to cinema in its ability to tell a story and create a setting. Along the same lines, Magpuri emphasized the importance of story to the architectural process.
In a more structural vein, Chuck Hoberman, creator of the Hoberman Sphere, spoke of a future of transformable structures (surfaces and façades that can change shape) – either in response to environmental changes, or for functional reasons.

One incredible example he showed is the retractable screen that he and his team designed for the U2 360 World Tour. Hoberman hopes to move toward structures that do not just expand, but that change shape by design.

“Digital tools must support story and location” – Mark Gilicinski

Paul Kent and Chris Conte of Electrosonic gave a very insightful talk about the death of halogen and the rise of coherent light. Sound boring? I thought so too, until I heard the whole presentation: the ban on inefficient incandescent light bulbs has led to an emphasis on LED light bulbs for their energy efficiency. LED (light emitting diode) was first discovered in 1907, but wasn’t deemed stable or bright enough for large-scale commercial use until the mid 90’s. With the “death” of halogen, a 130-year-old technology, LED lights are largely taking over. This change in lighting has huge design implications because not all light is created equal; different types of bulb technology produce varying levels of visible light, as shown in the below slide:

Some light technology has weaknesses in producing certain colors, making it difficult to reproduce natural sunlight. For example, without the right combination of LED lights, the skin of onstage performers can look sallow and green.

Chris Conte believes the future of light design lies in Laser technology. Laser light produces only one color at a time and benefits entertainment design in the following ways:

  1. It allows for better image quality across a screen (digital images have better contrast and detail), enabling larger projection surfaces (for rides, shows or events)
  2. Laser light is brighter than other light forms
  3. Laser light can be optimized for both 3D and 2D technology (presumably, rides will be able to switch back and forth between 3D and 2D)
  4. Laser light is overall more flexible (projectors are smaller and easier to hide in a dark ride), controllable and easily scalable

Later on, Mark Gilicinski, Founder of MobileXpeditions, explored how apps are a next generation way to engage audiences in leisure or cultural destinations. The MobileXpedition app provides mini experiences within environments and fosters interactivity and collaboration. In other words, it gets visitors more engaged with their peers and surroundings. Gilicinski sees the “Next” as:

  1. More digital recognition (such as an environment that recognizes guests’ personal preferences)
  2. Wearable computing
  3. Advanced hardware
  4. Sensors (to capture 3D depth and map out digital models from real spaces)

Joshua Jeffrey, Manager of Digital Engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum, also spoke to how app technology can foster audience engagement. Two current examples at the Warhol Museum include “DIY Pop,” which allows guests to take pictures and create their own pop art, and “Unboxed,” which encourages visitors to “collect” the museum’s art in a Worhol-like time capsule, which they can share on social media or share with the museum gift shop to receive a custom-made gift box based on their favorite pieces.

Asa Kalama made a repeat visit to the SATE stage to discuss the technological back-end of the narrative experiences that Imagineering is creating. The process is quite complicated: first, the Imagineers had to design a story engine, an automated storytelling system with an artificially intelligent author that could adapt to changes and give live performers instructions. This story engine had to be smart enough to connect the dots between what could be and what actually happened in real time, adapting as variations occurred. The most challenging piece of this technological process was accounting for the variation in guest creativity.

Initially, the Imagineers coded the story engine by framing the story process as a set of Scenes leading to a specific End. After playtesting, they had to adapt the story engine to a new story model structured by Goals, Tasks and Methods. (This makes more intuitive sense – on the stage of life, there are no scenes, only goals, tasks and methods.)

“Before going out on family trips, my grandma used to say, ‘Don’t forget, you’re making memories!’” – Phil Hettema

Dave Cobb, Senior Creative Director at Thinkwell gave my personal favorite presentation entitled “Cosplay Colonists: Rise of the Creative Audience.” In his talk, Cobb pointed out the fact that geek culture is the new iteration of the mainstream. Just look at today’s top box office movies – most of them are based on comic books or fantasy.

Delving more into cosplay (dressing up as a character), Cobb points out ways that theme park visitors are personalizing their theme park experiences. Since adults are not allowed to dress up too realistically at Disney parks, a movement called Disney Bounding has gained traction (in which “fashion geeks and Disney nerds collide”): instead of dressing up in full costume, park-goers use modern clothing to dress up as characters. In another example, local middle school students were found doing their homework in the Three Broomsticks at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Cosplay is not just an expression of geek culture, it’s a way for fans to make the theme park experience their own. Other examples of co-opting the theme park experience are unofficial Disney park days, such as Gay Day (wear red to support gay culture), Dapper Day (dress up in dapper clothing) or Bats Day (dress up in Goth wear).

Today’s audiences are used to making things themselves. These days, you can pretty much participate in DIY or indie culture in everything from crafts to gaming to filmmaking to music production. Theme parks, on the other hand, are a bit harder to make into a DIY experience, but there are plenty of online examples of fan-made, digital theme park attractions and recreations.

What does this all add up to? According to Cobb, today’s creative audience offers an opportunity for a two-way conversation that allows guests to tell stories of their own. As a venue owner, designer or operator, the most important things to remember about today’s audience are:

  1. Your audience has an audience
  2. Give them a sense of ownership that will match or rival your own
  3. They can’t make their own theme park, but they can make a theme park their own

Closing up the Experience segment are some great kernels from Jake Barton, Principal of Local Projects (the company creating the media design for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum):

  1. When designing an experience, keep in mind the rules of improvisation
    1. Start with “Yes”
    2. Make statements
    3. There are no mistakes, only opportunities
  2. Technology does not age well, but emotional connection does

In the final keynote, Liz Gazzano and Roger Gould of the Pixar Theme Parks Department took us through some of the most recent Pixar theme park attractions, including an extensive behind-the-scenes look at how Cars Land (in Disney’s California Adventure Park) was created. Liz and Roger emphasized that no matter the attraction, “Story is King.”

SATE consisted of two full days of intellectual stimulation, networking and plenty of evening leisure time (including a fun reception at an old Savannah jailhouse). Though the presentations were split into S, A, T, and E, each speaker referenced the underlying importance of story. As the guiding principle of themed entertainment and experience design, story is the most universal principle, making it more apt to say SATE.Over the two days, we explored many different versions of “What’s Next,” but the most present and relevant answer to this question was all around us in the form of the SCAD student attendees. Regardless of what really is next for S, A, T, E, one thing is clear: industry veterans need the talent and fresh input of students just as much as the students need mentoring and guidance from veterans. I think it’s safe to say that the biggest “Next” in themed entertainment is narrowing the age gap and making way for today’s whole brain thinkers and innovators.

As for me, I can’t wait for the “Next” of SATE 2014!

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