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From Twister to Potter: Thinkwell’s Craig Hanna

Thinkwell made the news this month with the announcement that it is to design and produce a behind the scenes look at the Harry Potter movie series as part of Warner Bros.’ redevelopment of the Warner Bros. Leavesden film studios.  Founded in 2001, the company is a full-service experiential design and development firm that collaborates with its clients to envision, strategize and create immersive, one-of-a-kind guest experiences. 

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Thinkwell develops and produces attractions, master plans, brand experiences, exhibits, live shows, environments, multimedia and digital integration.  It has a diverse cliecraig hanna ceo thinkwell design and production theme park and museum nt portfolio, including Fortune 500 companies, museums, theme parks and destination resorts. The company has four divisions: Thinkwell Design and Production, Thinkwell Development, Thinkwell Project Management and Studio Thinkwell. 

As writer, filmmaker and storyteller, Craig Hanna (left) , Thinkwell‘s Chief Creative Officer and co founder is Thinkwell’s  creative conscience and directs project development from inception through to opening day.  Prior to founding Thinkwell, Craig served as a creative executive at Universal Studios for more than six years and was PortAventura’s creative Director for three.  He holds three attraction patents and is an honored member of the Wired magazine Brain Trust.
Blooloop’s Chad Emerson caught up with him.

Chad Emerson:     Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the different roles you've held.

Craig Hanna:  I started in marketing, working at Ride & Show Engineering and then Iwerks Entertainment.  I was on the product development team for Turbo Tour Theatre, Iwerks' theatre simulator product and a first of its kind.  In 1991 I moved to a company called KBD Innovative Arts, a corporate production company that wanted more work in the theme park business (they had produced media for Universal Studios attractions).  I led the division and we built attractions around the world for a few years.  Eventually I ended up at Universal where I did dozens of projects over a number of years, including Universal's prototype for an international theme park product and various projects with Steven Spielberg.  I also developed the concepts for Twister and Men in Black and was the Creative Director for Universal Studios' Port Aventura theme park in Europe when they co-owned that park.  There, we created a number of exciting attractions including the FiestAventura nighttime spectacular that was awarded a Thea and Templo del Fuego, another winner.  In 2001 I co-founded Thinkwell.

Emerson:  Since you started in the industry, what would you consider to be two of the most significant creative or technical innovations industrywide?

Hanna:    Certainly Templo del Fuego.  Creatively, it was extraordinarily rewarding.  Since then, the interactive fountain Thinkwell created in Atlantic City that literally plays games with the audience thanks to advanced motion tracking and image recognition software.  Universal 360, Universal Studios Florida's nighttime spectacular, was also a very rewarding project.  Thinkwell conceived and produced it in conjunction with Universal's Entertainment Department.  We did some creatively daring things in that show, and technically took architecturally registered projections to new levels.

Emerson:  What are some of the recent Thinkwell projects that you've found most rewarding from a creative perspective?

Hanna:  We conceived and helped produce the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Universal.  This included more registered projections, this time on Hogwarts, certainly one of the most cinematically recognized pieces of architecture ever.  We made Dementors fly in and out of the windows!  We're currently producing an immersive interactive learning environment for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, which will be incredible!  It's going to be a real game-changer in terms of interactive learning environments.  On a whole other perspective, we're doing a game application (app) for the iPhone and iPad and that's been a heck of a lot of fun!

Emerson:  Along those lines, share with us an example of a uniquely challenging project you worked on and how Thinkwell overcame those challenges.

Hanna:  The new Special Effects Stages show at Universal Studios Hollywood was filled with a lot of challenges–tight budget, existing facility, short production schedule (mere months!) and we gave ourselves the goal of exceeding guest expectations in terms of presenting a behind-the-scenes moviemaking special effects experience.  Pushing creatively every day, the team came up with a fantastically entertaining show that truly delivers on all counts and is one of the top rated experiences in the theme park today.

Emerson:  Creatively, what's the next big thing or two in the amusement park industry that you see coming along in the next 5 years?

Hanna:  If I knew, do you think I'd spill those beans?  Seriously, what happens is we see an incredible new technology come out from the likes of Disney or Universal and then there are scaled-back versions that are affordable to second-tier theme parks.  I believe the likes of a robotic arm dark ride technology as seen in the Harry Potter ride will find itself into the commercial market very soon.  Augmented Reality on people's mobile computing devices will allow an entirely new level of interaction with physical environments, and we're working on some ideas to make commercially viable applications that enhance a brick and mortar entertainment with an entirely new layer of experience.

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