Sunday, January 18, 2009

Elements of Theme Design

Hello All;

Well I am very proud to announce that Passport to Dreams Old & New has finally surpassed 100 posts - and although many other blogs have since passed that mark (especially ones which began publishing around the time I began publishing - late 2006), just about the average length of one of my posts is around a thousand words (I calculated 1500, in the interest of disclosure). Allowing for variance, this means that had I not been writing about Disney Parks I could have had something about the length of Treasure Island by now. Oh well.

At something of a loss to commemorate this event with, I decided instead to offer an overview of some of the things I've since offered on this blog in the form of a handy glossary of concepts which I believe are essential to identifying the components of possible designs as well as links back to previous posts where I discuss these concepts, for handy cross-reference. Consider this a snapshot of my work so far on this blog, a tactile record of what I've found so far in my studies.

But first, a few warnings:

STRIKE THESE WORDS FROM YOUR VOCABULARY!
What follows is a few words which impede understanding of the workings of themed design and it's core elements, and the sooner the Disney community at large ceases to be impressed by these terms, the sooner a larger understanding of the designs at work will become apparent:
Magic
Story
Back Story
Guest
Imagineered
Transport / Convince
Time / Place

"Magic", in particular, is a very destructive term. It has nearly been copyrighted by Disney to describe the effect of their themed design, but it is not actually a useful term for coming to understand the workings of themed space. "Magic" is a candy-coated term to refer to the effect of the elements I discuss below, but it does not hint at its' function. It may be better replaced with "Receptive State", to imply the willingness of an audience correctly exposed to elements of themed design to accept their reality, or "themed space", to refer to the elements themselves. Never ever ever ever use the word "magic" if you expect to take yourself seriously in discussing Disney design. Doing so necessarily limits the discussion to effects rather than causes, which is Disney's job, not yours.

"Story" is the second-biggest lie in the Disney lexicon. The experience of the spectator in a Disney themed environment is not guided by story but by emotion, which flows out of accumulation of the elements of design which comprise a themed space. Since the Eisner corporate/creative takeover of WED in the late 80's the concept of "story" has supplanted the sensible function of "aesthetic" and "experience" in the lexicon. Today, more often than not, Disney will force a "story" onto a themed environment because they are not confidant enough to make their own aesthetic choices; the "story" or "back story" thus functions in the place of artistic integrity. Example: Wilderness Lodge was designed by Peter Dominick, Jr., which WDI then "reclaimed" by inventing a complex back story to "motivate" the project's chief aesthetic choices. But it is the architecture, not the back story, which moves the spectator in this themed space.

"Guest" - a Disney hospitality term which was designed to supplant "customer". Design does not have "guests", it has an audience of spectators, who will view it to receive an aesthetic experience.

"Imagineered" is a poor replacement for "designed". It creates false prestige around the Disney name, implying that its' designers and artists are somehow performing superhuman feats requiring an invented description.

"Transport", "Convince", "Time", "Place" - symptomatic of a public culture which promotes effects over causes. The first two are better referred to an the "themed experience" or "receptive state", the second are best described as aesthetic choices whereas the lesser terms imply a concrete and correct single choice. Themed space is built up of hundreds of aesthetic choices which "stack up" or "stratify" into an aesthetic experience, and there is no right or wrong choice as defined by "story". There is only design, and how it effects the spectator.

MODES OF THEMED DESIGN
Stratificational - Traditional mode of themed design, e.g. one area or structure is designed to evoke a specific time, place, or idea which exists in the same "reality" as all others. Rarely literal, often seeks to be convincing through an accumulation of "accidental" detail. Preserves continuity of time and place. Examples: Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean. Reading: Taking Apart World Showcase, EPCOT's Modern Aesthetic

Presentational - Style which creates a non literal "montage" of places, times, and ideas. Architecture, interiors often convey abstract concepts rather than concrete places and times. Examples: The Land, Horizons, If You Had Wings, Tomorrowland 1967. Reading: An Aesthetic History of EPCOT 1, Futures With No Future, If You Had If You Had Wings

ELEMENTS OF THEME DESIGN
Correlation - Method of master planning where the relationship of one area to another is strategically and logically devised. Example: flow from Liberty Square through Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, view of Mt. Prometheus from the various areas of Tokyo Disney Sea.

Fractional Architecture - Buildings are represented only partially, or more often, many discrete styles of buildings are "pushed" together to form a cluster of facades which is not possible in reality but is aesthetically pleasing. Examples: New Orleans Square, Main Street USA

Forced Perspective - Film method of reducing scale in relation to vantage, often exploited to make themed space seem more charming and toylike, or sometimes larger than it really is. Only appropriate for use in situations where a vantage point can be controlled.

Stratification - Method of "stacking" elements of design so that they appear to recede endlessly into space. Used extensively in traditional modes of themed design in conjunction with Correlation and False Portals. Can employ architecture or decor. Reading: The Long, Lonely March, Visual Structure in New Orleans Square

Shape - Employed by master planners and architects to create meaningful space, usually exterior. Examples: Communicore Center.

Scope - Closely related to Forced Perspective, scope is often restricted in themed design for both budgetary and aesthetic reasons. Most common application: structures of foreshortened scope surround one of very large scope, which creates an even greater contrast. Example: Cinderella Castle, see also American Adventure.

Negative Space - Literally vacant space, often used in interior themed design to allow darkness to "fill in" areas of minimal importance. Related to the film practice of selective lighting. Example: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Space Mountain.

False Portals - Chief extension of "stacking" method of theme design whereby an already deep space enters into "deep extended" space through windows, door, caves, skylights, pits, or any other portal which does not in actuality lead anywhere. Some of these can be quite elaborate, with forced perspective scenes inside. Often used to disguise functional backstage areas as themed environments. Example: Main Street USA, Sunset Blvd. Reading: Taking Apart World Showcase

Implied Space - Differs from negative space in that while negative space is an area which is supposed to "fade away", implied space "comes forward" through the use of stratification, false portals and other methods. Implied space wants you to think it's present, while negative space wants you to ignore its' presence. Often used to mask stock rooms, offices and other such areas. Implied Space can be created with lights, curtains, props, and even diagetic music and sound effects.

Duration - Variable element which is often controlled in interiors through lighting, ride mechanisms, etc. Sometimes Shape has been used to create an experience which may effect Duration. Examples: Main Street USA looks longer entering than leaving due to Shape and Correlation; New Orleans Square demands a slower pace due to its' Stratification and Forced Perspective.

Music (Non-Diagetic) - Often used in themed design to create a more convincing mood or atmosphere. Usually telegraphs information. Reading: Some Notes on Diagesis

Decor - Accumulation of "stuffs" which are not strictly related to architecture, correlation or shape which create setting and atmosphere. Decor is the technique currently favored by WDI to create verisimilitude in Stratificational themed design, and the "theme" is often allowed to dictate to extreme degrees the vintage of decor which is installed. Recent efforts have begun to favor strength of decor over strength of design to achieve success. Examples: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Expedition Everest

All of this, of course, is my own terms for labeling such things, and as a result is my personal vocabulary rather than a universally functional one. But having the vocabulary in place is a huge step forward.

While writing this I was reminded of a certain quote by a film critic regarding film watching. His name is Pierre Rissient, and I know very little about him or his writing, but this statement has never left me: "It is not enough to like a film. One must like it for the right reasons." People are likely to get their back up about that as it sounds like snobbery, but one must understand that he does not impose "right reasons" within the statement; his reasons are not the same as your reasons or my reasons. I think it's a true statement about film watching and a lot of other things in life. So much of our culture encourages us to never think while we absorb our entertainment, and it's still true as ever that an unexamined life is not worth living. Although Disney may be hopelessly middlebrow, it doesn't mean that we, the people who are trying to take her seriously, must be. These, above, are my right reasons.

6 comments:

Cory Gross said...

Thank you for the glossary! I do a little bit of dissection of the term "magic" for my piece on theme park design in February. It's nice to see someone else glom onto the same ideas!

George Taylor said...

But it is the architecture, not the back story, which moves the spectator in this themed space.

Agreed. How many of us took the time to read the material in our room to learn about the backstory? What about Merriweather Pleasure and all of the little plaques scattered throughout the island?

In some cades, when story is thrown down our face, we still come up short, gasping for air.

Could it be that the Imagineers are that different from WED? Most of WED were filmmakers whereas most of Imagineering comes from a completely different and ,now, celebrated story!

Nonetheless, I am glad to see the glossary.

Cory Gross said...

What's weird is that you'd think filmmakers would be more invested in the idea of story than an institution specifically developed for theme park design.

What I find particularly weird about the era of story is that it is making rides without any. Presentational design seems to be dominating (Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio's Daring Journey) new things while the kind I think works best are Stratificational (Snow White's Scary Adventure, Peter Pan's Flight, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), where the "story" (if there even is one) is told by moving through a geography rather than a series of 3D vignettes from the film.

Major Pepperidge said...

Congratulations! You are definitely a scholar among the Disney bloggers, I am always amazed at your thorough and thoughtful analysis of so many elements of the parks.

And yes, Disney has taken the word "magic" and turned it into something crass and annoying.

JEFF B said...

Excellent post. I too for ages have thought that the word "story" is over-used and the idea that the "story is the most important" concept" just doesn't hold true.

Tristan Lindsay said...

The imagineers get into trouble with story when they try to make it too complex and/or linear. Haunted Mansion definitely has a story, but its not the one we hear all the time about Master Gracey and The Bride. That's something that was shoe-horned in later. Completely agree with you.

Magic, on the other hand, is just a marketing term.