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03 June 2011

Annals of technical design: Tom Tait, themed entertainment techie, talks to IPM editor Judith Rubin

Technical specialist and Project Manager Tom Tait has been a part of the themed entertainment industry for about two decades, starting out as the first employee at Douglas Trumbull’s former company Berkshire Motion Picture, where he helped to build the studio itself and learned a few tricks along the way about motion picture effects from a master. His past projects include Back to the Future: The Ride for Universal Studios where he did technical redesign and management for the Hollywood iteration of the now-gone classic motion ride. He left Universal to help form Catalyst Entertainment, developing and building rides and attractions on four continents, and later numerous museum, theme park and visitor attractions as Show Systems Manager with BRC imagination Arts. Tom is now independent and looking for his next challenge. Find him at TomTTait [at ] gmail. com or at his LinkedIn.com profile.

During your 13 years with BRC you contributed to many projects. Do you have a favorite?
If I had to choose just one favorite it would be the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I was able to create the technical design for virtually the entire museum, and I feel that we accomplished all our goals for the client and the audience in that we created a great guest experience that is still great – the content and presentation are still fresh and effective, and the exhibits themselves have held up extremely well.

Through a mixture of being pragmatic and doing our research in regard to the equipment and methodologies, we were able to set up an environment that was very well received on opening day. Everyone knew they were seeing something at a new level in terms of storytelling and the visitor experience in a museum. And now, years later, it still looks fantastic. That’s extremely rewarding.

Sophisticated system – simple controls. Is that a rule of thumb for high-tech museum exhibits?
If it isn’t, it ought to be. A system can be extremely sophisticated yet made easy to operate, trouble shoot and repair - and hard to break. It’s not all that hard to put on a show that’s compelling and interesting on opening day. But real success comes in the long-term, in exhibits that are maintainable and really hold up over time. If the day comes a year or three years later when you walk in and the exhibit isn’t performing as it was meant to: screens aren’t aligned, image blends don’t look good, “change lamp” signs are flashing – you’ve failed.

Case in point: The Lincoln Museum looks exactly the same as it did on opening day, and that indicates two things: 1) the facility has done a good job of maintenance and 2) we crafted and delivered them something that was within their power to maintain –and it’s a very high-tech package.

What are some keys to creating a system that’s hard to break?
It has a lot to do with using proven and standardized technologies. When selecting a product, you have to look down the road. You may be tempted by a niche product that’s nifty and gee whiz, but if there are no similar products manufactured by multiple sources, you could get stuck one day without a replacement.  Using proven technology also means you’ll be able to find integrators and programmers who are familiar with it and what it really can do in terms of reliability and reasonable workarounds. There’s fabulous stuff out there as long as you’re willing to look for it and understand what it can and can’t do. Even home automation products are finding their way into these environments.

Along with that, you need to really understand who’s going to be operating the facility - and maybe even keep in mind what it would be like to operate on a smaller staff with leaner funding. When dealing with state agencies and local museums, know that budgets can get slashed and that this could affect maintenance funds. You must take care of these clients with spares, planning, training… approaching the job from the viewpoint of maintainability.

If the maintenance people are not at the table in the design phase, it is up to the designers and fabricators to do their homework and learn the realities – what the current procedures are at the venue, what equipment and automation the staff have been successful with - and produce something compatible with those realities.

In the case of a new project, where the end user may not be hired until 3-4 months before opening, you look to get a sense of what the capabilities are within the agency in order to set realistic expectations.

You worked on the Information & Communication Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010. That was an extremely sophisticated project using custom handheld devices that interacted with content projected on big screens. Can you talk about how that project evolved technically?
This was a classic example of the symbiosis between storytelling and tech design that is at the heart of the project process today. For the ICP Pavilion, there were a lot of interesting ideas thrown around in the vision phase. The major difficulty was finding the balance to create a maintainable quality guest experience within the time allotted, with the budget available. It was going to be impossible to produce everything in the vision within either the schedule or the budget. But by the time we were ready to move into production, we had a very clear understanding of what we were into and how to do it, and that had grown out of creatively confronting and working with those limitations.

Christian Lachel was the Creative Director, and working with him was a terrific experience and inspiring, because he just saw all these obstacles as a really good chance to roll up his sleeves and say, “what are we going to do, how are we going to do it, what can you give me to work with?” It was like sparring with a great boxing partner. And it led to a much better final project than what it would have been if we had simply found the budget and the time we thought we originally needed. To put the designer in a situation when you have to go back and say “no” is a make or break moment. Christian’s stance of “Yes, I do want to live in the reality of these limitations and conquer them,” was really heroic, and he conquered the challenges in a way that a lot of designers don’t.

Can you talk more about the symbiosis between tech design and storytelling?
At a theoretical level we like to tell ourselves that it’s all about the story and once you decide on that, the technology will reveal itself. That’s a very romanticized view of what I see actually happening on a day-to-day basis in a project. Light has a way of traveling in a straight line, and that’s a problem if you want to have projection on 4 walls and the ceiling and the floor, but no projectors in the room. The rubber meets the road very early, and you’re forced to deal with the realities of physics, budget, and schedule. Often an initial concept does need to be changed dramatically to something that can be produced. The beauty of it is that a first impression isn’t necessarily a da Vinci moment. As you work with the designer and show them possibilities and paths, more often than not an even better path and vision will finally show itself. The designer uses the process to take things to an even better place.

Does this happen on every project?
If you are able to make a design at the beginning of design development and produce it all the way through without reexamining it, in my opinion you probably got lazy. The reality is that along with your financial budget and schedule for the development process, you need to have an emotional budget as well.  

Some tech designers will take a hard stance and say, “These are the compromises you must make.” That forces storytellers into a defensive position. It’s a much more successful process if everyone can come to table to explore and make the most of things together, without politics. It should be the tech designer’s goal to come to each and every meeting and say “Yes, if,” while clearly explaining at each step what the realities are going to be in terms of schedule, manpower or aesthetic.  That may be quickly followed by a “No, because...” by the project producer if those conditions can’t be sustained within the rest of the project, but at the very least the opportunities and the obstacles are all out on the table.

What are some trends you’re observing in themed entertainment projects today?
I made an intensive tour of Shanghai Expo 2010 close to the end of its six-month run, and one of the things that most impressed me was the Saudi Arabia pavilion. It was my last day on the site, it was pouring rain and the day before I had blown out my Nikes - the sole of one shoe fell off – so I was in sandals and a rain slicker. And even with that degree of physical discomfort, I was really struck by the experience in this beautiful pavilion. We put a lot of emphasis on “story” in this industry, but the Saudi Pavilion had no story per se, no narrative. It was all mood and the tone was beautifully set from the outset right down to the choices of music. The images were stunning and through the very clever use of reflections and mirrors didn’t require as much projection as it initially seemed. Once you got up to the top it was absolutely spectacular – it was night by the time I got through and the views from the rooftop walk, with both sides of the river visible, were a great way to cap off my Expo experience. I took about 50 photos up there. I caught a cold, but that was irrelevant.

I’m interested by things I see happening more toward the fringe of what themed entertainment offers in the newer markets in Asia and the Middle East, and by projects in market sectors off the beaten track. The cinema industry is going through a very interesting transition, expanding in new directions, the most obvious of which is 3D - which by some reports may already be faltering in the marketplace -  but we are also seeing the advent of a lot of premium services: gold class theaters starting up, vendors starting to bring motion seats into traditional theaters, adding buttkickers to traditional theaters’ seats. They’re experimenting again with the definition of what a cinema is - and that’s the kind of sea change we haven’t seen in cinematic presentation since the 1960s. Cinema is moving toward a more robust, mature guest experience.  Along the way we will see a lot of non-starters and some bonehead ideas, but in the end a few things will stick that will add to the overall guest experience.

What are some of the best things that the West can offer the East in terms of themed entertainment development?
For a start, good project management and quality control. In these developing markets, there are technical groups that understand the components but not the larger infrastructure, how to select, make it viable long term, dial in quality by making different choices and better choices. Once a design is laid out, the implementation is much easier for the Chinese to grasp - especially after an event like the Shanghai expo, where they can see the fruits of such labor from soup to nuts. Determining what would have worked better still takes some time to work out. Getting everybody doing the right thing all at the right time is the trick.

What do you wish everyone in the themed entertainment industry understood about technical design?
That there are 1,000 ways to skin a cat. There is no one right answer, right down to the equipment selection and the interface with end users. As soon as someone asserts that there is only one right answer, then you know you’re talking to someone with a product to sell. There are so many decisions along the way, you have to be prepared to reverse course and update as the information comes in. There are any number of hardware providers out there who will tell you they have the solution, and I can imagine a near-perfect scenario for virtually any product, but there’s no “one size fits all.” You have to do the hard, creative work of finding the new right answer for each new question.