“We’re the intermediary” – An Interview with Craig Hanna from Thinkwell Design

For my article about movie tie-in theme park attractions, I interviewed Craig Hanna in June 2009. Craig Hanna is Chief Creative Officer of Thinkwell Design, one of the leading design companies in the amusement park world, who have designed and built attractions all over the globe – also in Germany. The interview was done via e-mail and has been slightly edited.

Real Virtuality: How does Thinkwell go about designing a new movie tie-in attraction?

Craig Hanna: We start by meeting with the owner of the intellectual property to understand what the essence of their IP is. What’s the heart and soul of that movie or animation or product. Often, the owner of the intellectual property isn’t the developer of the project. The developer often licenses the intellectual property from a studio. We then serve as an intermediary between the owner/operator and the IP holder. We have to create an experience that meets the business, financial, schedule and operational goals while ensuring the creative and production on the project remains true to the original IP.

How do you decide what kind of ride to design or is there often a wish from the client?

Sometimes the client knows what kind of attraction they want, but typically we start with the IP and decide what will be most appropriate to go with the IP and if the project is going into an existing park, we’ll look at the overall mix of attractions to ensure what we’re creating is complimentary to the other offerings. Obviously, making sure the attraction type fits perfectly with the IP is key. To understand our process, the best way to learn it is to to go to our website.

What makes a good (movie) attraction (whether it is a coaster, ride, show, etc.)?

When considering an IP for an attraction there must always be an inherent attraction or ride already residing within the IP. “Serious” films without action or dramatic stories with lots of dialogue don’t work very well for attractions. Animated films, action films, big sci-fi films and films with great chase, stunt or fight sequences obviously work great. Of course, the IP needs to be popular and known with the general public, otherwise, why bother?

Is Disney’s Imagineering still the big role model?

Disney is always going to be the role model, but Universal is as well. Universal have done more movie-based attractions in the last two decades than Disney has, bringing blockbuster films to life. When the Harry Potter land and attractions open at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, it will be the culmination of all the work in creating IP attractions that has come before it.

How important is good Theming to a working theme park, especially when you get to build a whole park from scratch as in Korea? How do you achieve it?

Theming is expensive. So, you start with looking at the overall financial considerations for the park. How much can the client spend to build the park? That gives you a general rule of thumb in terms of overall quality. Most parks add theming for theming’s sake. There’s little correlation between this land and that, other than to provide some character and give visitors a chance to escape from the normal world. When we develop theme parks we look at theming as part of the storytelling of the park, what we call Environmental Storytelling. It is all part of a unique process we developed called Content Masterplanning. Just as an architect will develop a land-use plan and an overall park masterplan, we masterplan the content of the park. Every aspect of the park – every land, building, attraction, store and restaurant-must support and work synergistically with that story. Every element, visual and audio cue the guest experiences, sees, hears, touches or even tastes, must reinforce thet story. Anything else is extraneous and often contradictory to the message and must be discarded in design phases.

How important is it that an attraction ties in seamlessly with the existing intellectual property (i.e. shooting footage of the original actors, music etc.)?

Ideally, an IP-based attraction would incorporate all elements from the original film, but that’s often not the case. Typically, an IP is licensed long after the film is produced, because most clients don’t want to take a chance licensing something before it’s popularity is proven. Given that, being able to work with the original actors is a lot harder. A new deal must be made, oftentimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more!). Most studios don’t include attraction rights and waivers in their contracts with producers and actors, so each IP must be vetted by legal and the appropriate deals made.

How does a ride keep up its appeal? When does it get obsolete?

A good attraction is timeless, often outliving the appeal of the original intellectual property. Take “Waterworld” at Universal Studios Hollywood and Japan, for example. That film was considered a “bomb” by Hollywood standards, yet the stunt show is considered one of the top-rated attractions at both parks. The Men in Black movies have been out of theatres for nearly a decade, yet the ride at Universal Studios Florida is still one of the most popular.

Could you explain, how the proceedings were when you were contracted to do the “Ice Age Adventure” in Germany? How did you develop the property, the ride, how did you expand the movie into the ride?

We were contacted by Star Parks because of our expertise in creating IP-based attractions. They had to remove the Warner Bros. intellectual properties because their purchase of the park didn’t include the WB IP. Star Parks had to remove the Looney Tunes attraction. We brokered the relationship between 20th Century Fox and Star Parks to bring Ice Age to the park. Star Parks was worried about the cost of licensing a blockbuster IP, but we convinced them it wouldn’t cost as much as they feared. The project was less than nine months from start to finish, which is about a third of the amount of time it would typically take to complete such an attraction. Fortunately, we kept the existing ride system and reworked much of the existing scenery from the old ride to work with the new IP.

We never want to simply recreate the original IP. That becomes too much of what you’ve already seen and offers no new surprises. We create what we like to call a “1.5 sequel”. Not really a sequel (we leave that to the Hollywood movie writers!), but something based on what you know and love from the original blockbuster movie, but then goes beyond it. That’s what we did with „Ice Age Adventure“. Fortunately, unbeknownst to us, our storyline was very similar to what Blue Sky Studios was developing for the sequel, Ice Age 2. We worked closely with Fox and Blue Sky to develop the story, got their approvals quickly and went to work completing the design and fabrication to make opening day for the new season as Movie Park Germany.

Blue Sky was very helpful. They provided their 3D computer models of the characters to us to allow us to do CNC carvings for the figures rather than traditional hand sculpting, which saved weeks, if not months, in production. I flew to New York and met with the producers and director of the films, got to meet the animators and understand the essence of the IP. Later, our designers worked with their animators to pose the characters from the film for our ride. It was a great process. In the beginning, to save time, we sent a team to Movie Park, where we worked on-site in temporary offices they provided for us. We quickly developed the initial concept and full presentation to executive management, complete with layout, storyboards, scene descriptions and script in one week. We nearly killed ourselves on that project! The night before opening, the last shipment of animatronics arrived from the United States and we all were in waders walking through the filled trough carrying animated figures through the ride to get them loaded in, installed and wired in time for the park’s opening the next day!

Was working in Germany different from working anywhere else?

Working in Germany was excellent. The people at the park in operations and maintenance were very helpful. The weather was extremely cold, which isn’t very familiar to a group of people from Los Angeles, but we work all over the world and are used to all kinds of cultures and climates.

Any other challenges you ran into during that period?

The cost to license the soundtrack from Ice Age was prohibitive, so we hired a composer from Cirque du Soleil and created our own that was reminiscent of the movie’s theme, but was actually a wholly-new piece.

We also had to hire German voice actors to do the voices of the characters for the ride. The ones that did the voiceovers for the movie in German were too expensive, so we hired other sound-alike voices. It ended up those actors were famous German comedians that were more popular than the people who did the voices from the movie originally (NB: The comedian who voices Sid the Sloth in the German version, Otto Waalkes, is something of a national institution in Germany, probably in the way the Pythons are in Britain, the other voices aren’t, A.G.)!

When the ride first opened we had a preshow scene where the cave paintings from the movie came to life and told the backstory of each character of the ride, just in case you weren’t familiar with the Ice Age movies. Not long after opening, Movie Park executives decided to change that scene to something with a live narrative. I miss those original “magical petroglyphs” because it was a special moment that wordlessly explained the entire backstory of the film. We spent a lot of time on original animation to do it and the folks at Blue Sky Studios really liked what we had done to expand the story.

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a feature article, a post on how the article came about, and an interview with Barry Upson (formerly Universal Studios).

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