Brent Young (below) is an award winning director, an Emmy nominated visual effects supervisor and entrepeneur. A member of the Visual Effects Society, Producers Guild of America, Academy of Interactive arts and Science, and the TEA , he has over 20 year's experience in the creation of special venue media and co-founded Super 78 Studios, a company specialising in animation, special visual effects and experiential new media.
Related: Rise of the MBAs (Media Based Attractions) :The next generation of entertainment experiences / From Concept to Installation:The Wild Ride of Special Venue Media Production / Electrosonic Soars with AV Solutions for “Flight of the Dragon” And “Flying America” Dark Rides at OCT Theme Parks in Shanghai and Shenzhen, China/ Sound Advice from Leading Lights: The Future for Audiovisual in the Attractions Business
Brent has directed and/or created world class media for theme parks, attractions and media companies across the world, including Universal Creative, ESPN, Electronic Arts, SeaWorld, Cartoon Network, Busch Gardens, Disney, American Greetings, Nickelodeon, and Discovery Networks. He is also co-owner/host of the attraction industry's most popular podcast, "The Season Pass". Blooloop's Chad Emerson (below left) caught up with Brent to discuss his love of theme parks, the future development of immersive attractions and how he once lost his two front teeth on a rather rudimentary coaster…
Chad Emerson: Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the more interesting projects that you’ve worked on.
Brent Young: Chad, before I get into the questions I want to let you know that my Kindle is reporting in I’m 100% complete with Project Future. Your wonderful historical account of the legal and financial dealings of the Walt Disney Company and how they secured the land for Walt Disney World. ( see: New Book Serves Up Spy-like, Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.) I’m frankly beside myself at the foresight that Walt Disney possessed. His vision went far beyond creative endeavors. Reading your book gives me a whole new dimension on his capabilities and also our loss and what Epcot at Walt Disney World could have been if Walt would’ve lived. I look forward to the next one, a great read.
I trace my love for theme parks and attractions back to very young age, Because trips to theme parks were few and far between when I was growing up in a small Midwest town outside Chicago, I always looked forward to summer breaks and traveling to see my grandparents who lived outside of St. Louis.
During these visits my grandfather would take us kids to Six Flags over Mid-America, where I experienced my first dark rides, river rides, flume rides, roller coasters, indoor shows, animal shows etc. It was an amazing park and always a lot of fun, with something new every summer. So I would collect the maps and dream about the next time I would be able to go to the park. In the off season my brother and I were experimenting with building our own attractions which included “The box down stairway Roller Coaster” – which didn’t work out so well, especially when I lost my two front teeth on the brick floor.
I guess I was hooked when I was seven and our family loaded up into our car and drove all the way from Chicago to Orlando to visit Walt Disney World. I don’t think I slept for a week in anticipation. When we arrived at the gates it was like I had entered Shangri-La. I loved it all! I dreamed of living at the Magic Kingdom as most kids probably do.
Cut to 20 years later. I’m living in the Hollywood hills playing in a band at clubs on the Sunset strip and throughout Hollywood self-releasing an album and having a blast.
I talked myself into a job at Rhythm and Hues as a production assistant to pay the bills. Basically, the Hollywood equivalent for a gopher. I quickly found myself in the editorial department doing video editing for commercials and film editing for their special venue projects. My first real experience in special venue media production and themed entertainment was a simulator film called The Guardian that appeared in the Kia motors Pavilion at the 1993 Korean Expo.
Rhythm and Hues was becoming known as a go to company for high-end CG simulator films. I was involved in many of these projects — Funtastic world of Hanna-Barbera, Safari, Star Trek the experience, and Race for Atlantis – as an editor which exposed me to the entire production process from storyboard to the installation. Rhythm and hues was looking for ways to develop content internally and I pitched a couple of ride concepts to them. One was a giant robot-mech concept , a kind of Avatar meets Transformers and another was a superhero concept based on the role-playing game Champions.
At that time I knew little about the industry and the development of attractions but I knew that I wanted to get into the creative concept and design end of that business. It was at this time that I met Dina Benadon who was working on the producing side of these films. She became my producing partner, then business partner and then wife. She really made Super 78 and the projects happen, a wonderful people person and great organizer. A perfect partner.
I think the project that I’m currently finishing Madagascar: The Crate Adventure for Universal Studios Singapore is the project where I have been exposed and involved with the widest range of disciplines. Being able to work with so many great artists, engineers, scenic fabricators, animators has made this project the most significant learning experience of my career.
The most unique experience I’ve had in the creation of an attraction has to be flying in a helicopter from Los Angeles to Niagara Falls and filming America’s greatest landmarks. Basically I was living out of a helicopter and airport hotels for four weeks and experiencing United States as few could have ever dreamed to. That is why creating attractions is always so interesting. The range of what we do is so wide and changing and the experiences we have are as remarkable as the attractions we all create.
Emerson: You’ve been very involved in developing immersive experiences for attractions. What are some of the attractions you have worked on that you think were the most innovative and why?
Young: Innovation manifests itself in many ways. A lot of the things you see or experience in the special venue may not seem revolutionary as far as the technology or devices for telling stories. But the processes that we use to get to that end product are always creative, highly innovative and ever evolving.
During the media pre-production of the US Pavilion (Aichi 2005) we developed a process called Big Canvas to efficiently handle extremely high resolution and digital multi screen shows. Our Super 78 in -Theater Install Process is second to none as far as flexibility. We were able to add full 4k CG elements into picture re-color correct and do remapping in theater for show like Flight of the Dragon. Necessity is the mother of all invention and in our case bringing high production values to budget-challenged and scheduled-challenged projects seems to be a theme that we are familiar with in the special venues industry. When there are substantial budgets for major attractions owner operators might choose to go with a media company that has worked with the IP or a brand name vfx studio like ILM or Pixar to bring cachet to the project. What we are asked to do more often is to create something that is as good as a destination park from these major studios for a regional park budget. We deliver that, and the only way to do that is to streamline the production costs, be very efficient with the dollars, and creatively work around problems. The way this is done is by doing the legwork to find the right people with the right pieces of technology and that are easily available and nonproprietary.
R&D is mainly done during production of individual projects. Some of the cool innovation in our technology that doesn’t get used because of costs could end up in future projects. We are looking to apply concepts like stereo versions of interactive characters, which have more artificial intelligences facial recognition etc., 360 degree 3D, Higher resolution image technology. Super 78 as a company generally invests in R&D in our process, meaning we are looking for ways to innovate the process so when projects come to us we can provide high-quality, world-class experience in a very short amount of time.
Emerson: Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. What are some of the newest technologies that you think will enhance amusement attractions in the next several years?
Young: Projection mapping is a game changer and we will see the use of this technology in many future theme park projects. And as projection systems get cheaper and more advanced we will see projection mapping being used in place of traditional scenic work. In a dark ride you will need only to build the base shape for the characters and geometric forms scenic, all of color the treatments and the animation could be brought to life with innovative use of projection mapping.
Object recognition, tracking, facial tracking and biometrics to me all fall into the same category. Technology, which allows guests to interact with the environment and the environment to interact with the guest. There’s a lot of cool technology that is being developed, the big issue is how to make this work at the individual level when you have conveyance systems or theaters that are pushing through hundreds if not thousands of people an hour. I’m waiting to see the economical, mass use of this technology. I have a feeling there are a lot of people working on this type of individual experience technology and spending a fair amount of R&D, it’s yet to be seen if it can work on large-scale.
Apps apps and more apps! There’s a big push toward apps. I have discussed my opinions on the Blooloop forums; I’m mixed about this. On the one hand I truly believe that mobile technology is the future of computing and that mobile technology can provide unique experiences and access to a wealth of information. What I don’t like about mobile technology in a theme park is that you’re actually competing with the entire web and you are taken out of the experience in a way that brings the outside world into the world you’re trying to create. For instance Disneyland’s Main Street takes us back to a Golden age, of turn-of-the-century America, which has been idealized to remove us from the real world and place us in a simpler time a safer time. Fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have seen a cell phone on Main Street – there may have been a pay phone and that would be your only access to the outside world. Ten years ago you may have seen cell phones but calling out or calling in would have been limited and those cell phones would have only been in the hands of adult guests. Over the last five years, smart phones have become more and more accessible to guests, even pre-adolescents. These devices are bringing the outside world inside, the problems at the office are now coming in via e-mail during your park experience, texting from friends and family, the distraction of constantly being in touch with your favorite social network site is also slicing the attention of the guest. The question is how do we get these devices and future technology to work with our experiences and not against, in ways that are organic to storytelling not just grafted on after-thoughts.
We’ve reached a mature place in theme park and attraction development, and unless someone takes a look at the theme park from the ground up and approaches the master plan in a completely new way, we will continue to see the same results because the challenges of traditional theme park are always going to be the same.
Until someone comes up with a workable West World where guests can be taken into worlds living around them that they can touch and they can interact with and interact with other guests we are going to be in a world where groups of people need to be “presented” an attraction.
I think there are revolutionary ways to look at the industry and in a way that involves bringing large groups of like-minded people together and creating bonds, real social bonds, not the online passive experience. A real experience that truly benefits society or humanity in a way that we haven’t look at and of course it has to be still be entertaining and fun.
The reality is that it is not going to happen until a single visionary with the resources and the vision like Walt Disney goes against the grain to create something that no one has seen before. The person that starts to develop the park where everybody in the industry says “it will never work it’s just wasting money has no idea what they’re doing. Someone like that comes around then we will start to see something new. Most likely it won’t be called the theme park and I hope, I’m around to see it and I’ll able to contribute to it.
Emerson: Beyond the technology, what is your approach for developing the actual storyline that is incorporated into the attraction?
Young: It usually starts with the needs of the client. Concepts fill a need for the type of attraction owners are looking to build. There is an audience that they’re trying to reach, In the case of Dora and Diego's Robot Butterfly, we knew that our ultimate audience would be young children attending zoos, aquariums and science centers. The storyline and the themes work in the context of the bigger venue. There are many licensed media products on the market that are based on specific needs so part of my approach is to understand the greater context of the attraction. To be honest we don’t do a lot of creative charrettes or long brainstorming blue-sky sessions. I generally sketch out a concept in an outline in some cases we will do several and see which one sticks. Where I come from is a place of practicality – something I know can get built where Blue Sky can take you places that your client can’t afford.
Emerson: Looking back, what do you think are the most important changes over the last decade or so that the industry has seen related to the integration of great stories and great technology?
Young: Digital media and digital attraction technology is easily the most important development in our lifetime. Computer-controlled ride systems, digital media, digital communications etc. Digital technology is simply the most important development in the last three decades.
Another important development has been the use of brands and intellectual property to drive new attractions (see also IP & Theme Parks – here to stay?). The mega-attractions that we see today are too risky for owners and operators to swallow without a brand name that will guarantee to draw an audience. Harry Potter has helped prove the notion that the value of brands. If you are going to spend $100+ million on a ride, you have to have a major brand attached. What does that do to storytelling and technology? For the creative team it provides a framework for the stories and characters we build our attractions around. It removes some of the guesswork on what a particular audience will respond to and it eases the mind of the owner that they will have success. All in all a good development.