Rethink’s Rick West Brings Themed Entertainment Design Mentality to Major Convention Experience

By day, Rick West is Rethink’s Show Writer, working on a myriad of projects ranging from theme park concept narratives to marketing material and new business collateral. By night, his attention turns toward much darker, sinister things; things that prowl in the gloom underneath your bed, or howl at the full moon during autumn when the air is crisp and cool. For roughly 8 months out of the year, Rick is heavily involved in Midsummer Scream Halloween/horror convention as its Creative Director. The convention just made its second appearance at the Long Beach Convention Center, welcoming more than 15,000 guests the weekend of July 29-30.

Midsummer Scream is best described as “the Comic-Con of Halloween”, which it easily lives up to. For two days, the show features more than 225 artisan vendors selling everything from gothic jewelry and hand-painted Ouija boards, to film-quality silicone masks and props; world-class panel presentations featuring the likes of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, and Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest; live entertainment that includes burlesque performances, horror-inspired immersive theatrical productions, and twisted magic shows; a “Screaming Room” where guests can watch amateur short horror films or videos from last year’s Halloween events across Southern California; and a robust education schedule that includes seminars, live makeup demonstrations, prop-making courses, and much more. One of the cornerstone elements of Midsummer Scream is its massive Hall of Shadows – a dark zone on the sprawling show floor that is roughly the size of a football field, featuring over a dozen haunted attractions, hundreds of free-roaming monsters, billowing fog, and high-energy exhibitions by the Decayed Brigade “slider” team several times a day on a 112-foot-long runway.

In many ways, Midsummer Scream feels more like a horror theme park than a convention; that’s by design, not a mistake or coincidence.

“Conventions of all types exist around the world,” explains Rick. “Here in Southern California, Midsummer shares a very high-stakes window of just weeks with Comic-Con in San Diego, and D23 in Anaheim. Cons of all shapes and sizes reflect everything from pop culture to industry-specific needs such as fishing, fashion, or even the latest and greatest copying machines and office supplies. If there’s a widget, there’s a convention for it.

“What sets Midsummer apart from most other shows, is that we approach everything – from content to execution – like you’d do a theme park concept design. You first figure out what your story/theme is – in our case, it’s Halloween, mixed with horror in general – and you build outward from that foundation. Everything we have at Midsummer can easily be bridged thematically to brand – horror, the macabre, or Halloween – from vendors and entertainment, to our education program and panel presentations. With each idea we spitball in planning, we ask how it connects – where the Halloween/horror thread is; if we can make that connection, we proceed. This ensures our show feels right to our guests. Even something that may on the surface, seem like it’s a stretch – like our Tower of Terror panel discussion, or kitten adoption lounge – makes sense for our brand. Midsummer by default, attracts a lot of theme park fans who are there to see Universal, Knott’s and Six Flags unveil their plans for Halloween. It makes sense then, to expand on that, tapping into that group so that we can justify something like a Tower of Terror or Haunted Mansion-type of presentation. We named our kitten rescue component the ‘Black Cat Lounge’ and promoted the fact that black and orange cats would be up for adoption throughout the weekend in a setting where they’d be free-roaming and playing with guests in a really fun environment; it made sense, and the Lounge had a healthy line of visitors waiting to get in from the beginning to the end of our show, generating a slew of anticipated adoptions.

“Our design goes way beyond content creation, as well. We recognize that our volunteer staff – more than 150 this year – are our front-line people; our version of Disney Cast Members. It’s extremely important to us that our entire team feels like a family, and treats our guests as just that – guests, as opposed to convention attendees/numbers. Midsummer spends a great deal of time on volunteer orientation, and we empower our entire staff to be proactive problem-solvers. Never does one of our people tell a guest, ‘I don’t know’, or shrug them off; they’re trained extensively to stay with their guest until a question has been answered, even if it means leaving their post to find out together. At the end of the day, it’s common sense – you treat your guests the same way you’d want to be treated. In our opinion, it takes more work to be rude or dismissive than it does to be friendly and helpful. Each and every one of our volunteer applicants is vetted to make sure they are a right fit for our us. Without a strong, well-trained team, an excellent convention can easily be seriously tarnished by poor customer service or a non-existent staff. It happens all the time at major shows all over the country, and that’s a shame.”

Rick has an extensive theme park/customer service background that includes experience as a Disneyland Cast Member, Knott’s Berry Farm Operations Associate, and Visitor Services Manager for Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco. One of his mentors in the art of customer service was Van France, the architect of Disneyland’s orientation program, and creator of good show/bad show, on-stage/off-stage mentality for theme parks; he even coined the title “Cast Members” for Disneyland’s employees under the direction of Walt Disney in early 1955.

Having worked for numerous themed entertainment design companies including Thinkwell, BRC Imagination Arts, The Hettema Group, and now Rethink, Rick’s understanding of and approach to the guest experience, as well as his extensive list of industry acquaintances and peers is a valuable asset to Midsummer Scream’s executive team.

“The basis for everything is story,” says Rick. “Even for a convention. Story converted to marketing or business speak is ‘branding’. If you keep that in focus at all times, and understand how important your front-line people are, you have a recipe for success, or at least, a big leg up on your competition.”

Rethink Team Spotlight: Tracey Lucas

Senior Graphic Designer

Tracey joined the Rethink team in 2016, bringing with her a wealth of experience and expertise in graphic design. With a career spanning more than 35 years, at least 25 have been dedicated specifically to projects within the themed entertainment industry.

Working for companies such as Universal Creative, Thinkwell, Riva Creative, and Walt Disney Imagineering, Tracey has helped create some of the world’s most acclaimed attractions including: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Springfield Expansion at Universal Studios Florida, Bollywood and Motiongate at Dubai Parks Resorts, and Paradise Pier at Disney’s California Adventure.

“Serendipity lead me from agency advertising to environmental graphics,” says Tracey when reflecting on getting into themed entertainment. “That, and a lot of networking.”

Tracey designs graphics that communicate the story in an easily-readable form. Be it an attraction marquee, set graphics, restaurant menu, or wayfinding, environmental graphics add to the guests’ experience and offer information. Like every other creative at Rethink, she is a storyteller in her own right, essential to our process.

Working with each in-house discipline, Tracey brings each graphic idea to its final form, developing the concept into a dimensional, buildable design that is integrated into a themed environment. It’s a complex and extremely involved process, but one that she enjoys, and is wonderfully adept at.

“I love doing what I do,” adds Tracey. “When things get irksome, I remember the faces of people who are having fun in the places we design. Not so many jobs are focused around bringing about joy.”

When she’s not at Rethink, Tracey is heavily involved with the Boy Scouts. Not only does she help youth develop into outstanding adults, it gets her outside on adventures – unplugged from her computer for a short time, with people who can carry her out of the backcountry when she’s exhausted!

Rethink Team Spotlight: Kevin Kalbfeld

Show Designer

Kevin joined Rethink in 2013 as a Show Designer. Here, he works closely with the creative team to ensure that the final vision of our design holds true to the conceptual intent through detailed modeling and drafting, which is carried out from “blue sky” development, to final installation.

 

Before coming to Rethink, Kevin worked for groups including NBCUniversal, Leslie Iwerks Productions, and 20th Century Fox Studios Dubai. His skillset includes show design with an emphasis on 3-D modeling. He graduated summa cum laude from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and is an active member of the Themed Entertainment Association’s NextGen committee, participating in industry events and planning.

“To be honest, when I was young I was terrified of roller coasters, audio animatronics, and costumed characters. That fear became obsession, and through my macabre fascination, I began to love the level of tangibility inherent to the worlds created in theme parks; something that cannot be achieved in any other entertainment medium. This unique group of artist and creators are, as Joe Rhode (Walt Disney Imagineering) once told me, the ‘rock stars’ of their respective fields. There’s definitely something to be said that no other brick-and-mortar creative industry has raving fans as much as theme parks do. It truly is an amazing and exciting artistic community, and with programs like the TEA NextGen, we are constantly creating new ways of connecting with youthful talent. I’ve had some amazing mentors to learn from, and I feel that if I can impart some of my knowledge, I will be paying it forward and doing the same as those who most influenced me. And it doesn’t hurt to talk to the NextGen. You never know which one will be hiring you in ten years!”

While at Leslie Iwerks Productions, Kevin was a Production Assistant on the highly-anticipated documentary The Imagineering Story, a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative arm of the Disney Company responsible for the production of its theme parks and resorts worldwide.

“While at community college, gaining credits to apply to the Savannah College of Art and Design, I found the unique opportunity to work with the wonderful Leslie Iwerks on her project, The Imagineering Story. Through interviews and meetings, I listened closely to Imagineers who were creating some of the greatest themed entertainment designs in the industry. These folks, both past and present Disney employees, talked like I did; with the same passion and vigor for great design that I had fostered. I knew then that I had to become a part of this incredible industry.”

 

Here at Rethink, Kevin is a vital part of the operation, interfacing daily with our teams on projects in various stages of production. Recently, Lotte Undersea Kingdom opened in South Korea to rave reviews; a project that Rethink had major creative input on, which included Kevin’s touch as a talented Show Designer.

When not designing theme parks and attractions, Kevin enjoys playing and writing music; he’s proficient with the piano, drums, guitar, banjo, ukulele, and he even sings! An avid runner, Kevin often participates in marathons here in Southern California.

Rethink Team Spotlight: Diane Buchwalder

Show Set Designer

Diane joined the team at Rethink in 2015 as one of our Show Set Designers, shortly after graduating from SCAD’s Themed Entertainment Design MFA Program in Georgia. She holds a Bachelors of Civil Engineering degree from the University of Dayton in Ohio, where she also studied art history, and architecture. Currently, Diane is part of the Themed Entertainment Association’s NextGen Initiative, which assists students and recent graduates working their way into the attractions industry.

Prior to coming to Rethink, Diane worked at Herschend Family Entertainment, where she had a hand in creating multiple attractions, including Firechaser Express for Dollywood, and Fireman’s Landing for Silver Dollar City.

“Part of my interest in seeking out this industry is its innate and unique mix of technology and creativity, and their interdependency,” explains Diane. “Between engineering and fine arts, I have had the opportunity to develop two very different tool sets that present a lot of compelling challenges together. Show set documentation and digital modeling have been my focus so far, but being involved in such large projects is a constant education in all the places the two intersect.”

A Show Set Designer’s skills allow them to take artists’ renderings, and create detailed, spatially-accurate digital models using industry standard programs such as SketchUp, and AutoCAD. These 3-D models are then used for presentations, advanced concept renderings, client presentations, and video fly-through simulations. In addition to 3-D modeling, Diane also creates – and is a firm believer in the use of –  “white models”, which are practical 3-D models made of varying materials that are used for better understanding layout and general massing at any given scale.

“Both digital and physical modeling offer opportunities to the creative process in ways that the other can’t,” says Diane. “Digital design offers almost countless options for previewing and reworking with little waste, while physical models allow us to experience the presence and dimension of a space and engage more of our senses, producing a richer outcome. My own pursuit of themed entertainment started with a very personal environmental experience, which still influences my aspirations and design goals to this day.”

A resident of Pasadena, Diane designs costumes and props for Halloween in her spare time, and enjoys traveling. She’s also an avid Indiana Jones fan, with Raiders of the Lost Ark being her favorite film of all time!

A Healthy Mix of Gray and Green

 

Most folks don’t usually think about it, but the themed entertainment industry here in America has existed longer than any of us have been alive. Our first “amusement parks” evolved from picnic groves in the mid-1800s, followed shortly by major entertainment endeavors across the country. Coney Island rose on the shores of New York City in the late 1800s. More boardwalks and fun parks sprung up throughout the United States in the years to follow.

In 1953, Walt Disney unwittingly re-invigorated and forever altered the course of the industry when he formed Walt Disney Inc. (which then went on to be WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering) to design and build Disneyland. In retrospect, the creation of WDI served as the modern “Big Bang” of modern themed entertainment. Not everyone remained a life-long Imagineer; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any major creative organization – especially here in Los Angeles – that doesn’t have traceable roots to WED/WDI.

Today, many seasoned veterans work throughout the industry alongside college grads who’ve been hired fresh out of school. It’s not uncommon at all for younger staff to be completely unaware that one of their peers was on the creative team for Epcot, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea or other projects that are considered industry cornerstones. For new designers entering the workforce, finding out that the older guy or gal they’re working with helped create their favorite childhood theme park or attraction is certainly surreal and good nerdy fun – however, it goes much deeper than that. At Rethink, we believe it’s extremely important that our team feature a healthy mix of “gray and green”.

You Can’t Learn That from Text Books

These days, up-and-coming talent interested in a career in our line of work have really great opportunities at their fingertips. Colleges now feature industry-specific courses, and entities such as the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) have set up programs like the NextGen Initiative to offer an unprecedented helping hand to students and recent grads seeking positions in what historically, is a very tricky business to get into. Most of the veterans in our industry today simply fell into it due to their given trades or schooling; theater majors, drafting, architecture, art, and finance – everything that is critical to our business, but was never specifically incorporated into a “themed entertainment” curriculum, as can be found today in universities and educational institutions around the world.

Even with the current tools and organizations available to students these days, there is still an incredible amount of information and hands-on know-how that simply can’t be taught in class or conveyed properly without placing experienced professionals and brand-new grads “in the trenches” together. When old-school meets new on any project, the result is a fantastic bond of learning, mentoring and collaboration that often extends well beyond the walls of the workplace; friendships are formed and the gap between “yesterday” and “tomorrow” gets smaller and smaller.

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Creative design, no matter what your specific discipline may be, is an exciting, always-evolving art form that cannot be summed up in a book or online tutorial; it cannot be defined by a Google search or captured in a YouTube video. Like any learning process, there are things that simply must be done to be understood; often over and over again. A veteran that has participated in more creative charrettes than can be remembered, or taken an attraction from concept through installation numerous times throughout his or her career, is invaluable to any team. It’s one thing to sit at a desk and dream up the “latest and greatest” attraction in the world – and another completely to know what it’s like to take a team through the process from early concept development to opening day. This is where younger professionals and folks new to our business look to the vets for guidance and learning. If that fount of knowledge ever dried up, our industry would be in a world of hurt, because hands-on experience is the one thing we can’t order from a vendor.

The industry learning curve is a two-way street. While incoming professionals learn a great deal from seasoned veterans, they also have a lot to offer their seniors in the industry. Millennials are children of the Digital Age; they have grown up hard-wired to interface with cutting-edge design tools and computer technology that may be completely foreign or off-putting to long-time industry vets who have become comfortable and for lack of better term, set in their ways regarding various aspects of the design process. The knowledge and techniques that both groups share with one another is invaluable. When new and veteran members of our team learn from one another, not only do they expand their skill sets individually – our company grows collectively, strengthening Rethink’s capabilities while becoming more efficient and better equipped to handle anything our clients come to us with.

 

Creative Fusion

At Rethink, we carefully select our teams so that each project gels cohesively and is brought to fruition by the best people for the job. Every group is thoughtfully balanced with “gray and green” so there is leadership and steadiness in place as the creative process evolves, taking on a life of its own, often in uncharted territory. This “creative fusion” is incredibly important to us and ultimately, to the overall success of any effort we undertake. As cliché as it sounds, the wisdom of our leaders and the boundless enthusiasm of our industry’s newest professionals work in concert to bridge the gap between tried and true and limitless possibility. The outcome is exciting and remarkable.

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Walt Disney was a master of team assemblage. While certainly visionary in his own right, one of Disney’s greatest skills was sniffing out talent and bringing the right people together to develop unique and special experiences. The results of these carefully-selected teams are many of the greatest attractions ever created, some more than 50 years old. We take that approach at Rethink; it’s a proven path to success, one that we believe in wholeheartedly.

 

Evolution of Creativity and Fun

Since its earliest years, the themed entertainment design process has evolved considerably, although creative intent and imagination remain at the core of everything we do. In the age of 3-D modeling, virtual reality tools, elaborate Keynote presentations, Google Chat, smartphones, and video conference calls with clients on the other side of the world, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like back in the day when creatives had little more than paper and pencil to work with. One constant common thread that hasn’t changed over time is that of having fun. Whether 1916 or 2016, creating attractions is a fun process that is incredibly rewarding professionally and personally. Granted, as is the case with any job, themed entertainment design work is fraught with unexpected challenges and sometimes demanding production schedules; in the end however, the work we do is greatly rewarding professionally and personally.

A healthy mix of green and gray helps bring both traditional and cutting-edge methodology to our workplace in new and exciting ways. As a company, we absolutely believe that creating exceptional attractions and experiences comes from a true understanding of where we’ve been as an industry and where we’re heading tomorrow. That begins with people; our diverse staff, who bring to the table an awesome willingness to learn from one another, exceptional drive for success, and the desire to have fun together in all that we do each and every day.

Fan2Sea Comic Con Cruise

Rethink Leisure & Entertainment just completed work on the first ever Fan2Sea Comic Con Cruise! Under the creative direction of Stefan Lawrence, Rethink was responsible from day 1 for programming the cruise, including scheduling, guest selection, show content creation, and identity design. In addition, Rethink provided a team of producers on board who worked with the wonderful teams at Flying Dutchmen Travel and Cruise Production, Inc. to make sure the events ran smoothly. 

Stranger Things Panel

Stranger Things Panel

Creative Director Stefan Lawrence presenting Frank Miller with his custom Sin City slot machine.

Creative Director Stefan Lawrence presenting Frank Miller with his custom Sin City slot machine.

According to our special guests as well as the fans on board, Fan2Sea was a smashing success, delivering on our promise to deliver a fun, intimate Comic Con experience with none of the stress of a big convention. 

Cosplay Ball, featuring the Flux Capacitors

Cosplay Ball, featuring the Flux Capacitors

You can check out some of the great reviews here:

Ain't It Cool

Newsarama

Comic Mix (Part 1)

Comic Mix (Part 2)

 

West Coast Wizarding World

This weekend a group of Rethink-ers journeyed down the street to check out the technical rehearsals for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.  Those of us that went had already been to the Wizarding Worlds in Universal Studios Orlando, but it is pretty great to not have to fly 3,000 miles to walk into this world.

When walking in we realized it really looks a lot like Hogsmeade in UIOA with some subtle differences.  For one, as you can see behind us in the photograph, Olivanders wand shop is on the opposite side of the street in this iteration of the land.  This actually works out in the park’s favor as now the attraction has two show rooms, and each one is larger than its Orlando predecessor.

When walking in we realized it really looks a lot like Hogsmeade in UIOA with some subtle differences.  For one, as you can see behind us in the photograph, Olivanders wand shop is on the opposite side of the street in this iteration of the land.  This actually works out in the park’s favor as now the attraction has two show rooms, and each one is larger than its Orlando predecessor.

What we all really wanted.

What we all really wanted.

I’ve waited a long time to have Butterbeer underneath the California sun.

I’ve waited a long time to have Butterbeer underneath the California sun.

As in Orlando, the star attraction of Hogsmeade, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, has a very convincing facade with some of the best forced perspective I've ever seen.  Also the new 4K 3D projection made for a very realistic experience in the projection dome sections of the ride.  A few differences in figure design and updated media animation really tightened up the flow of the attraction.  This is one of my favorite attractions and this version has quickly become, in my opinion, the best.

As in Orlando, the star attraction of Hogsmeade, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, has a very convincing facade with some of the best forced perspective I've ever seen.  Also the new 4K 3D projection made for a very realistic experience in the projection dome sections of the ride.  A few differences in figure design and updated media animation really tightened up the flow of the attraction.  This is one of my favorite attractions and this version has quickly become, in my opinion, the best.

With the green California mountains in the background, from this perspective you might feel as if you truly are in the hills of Scotland.  This is a feature that cannot be seen in Orlando.

At night this place starts to take on a new life.

At night this place starts to take on a new life.

Night time view of Hogwarts castle from the Three Broomsticks dining patio.

Night time view of Hogwarts castle from the Three Broomsticks dining patio.