The infinite diversity of Jeremy Railton & Entertainment Design Corporation
By Judith Rubin
All photos are courtesy of Entertainment Design Corp. Captions by Jeremy Railton
“I can do that”
Celebrated designer Jeremy Railton’s innate versatility has brought him success and accolades in a wide range of entertainment fields while making it difficult for him to easily explain what he does for a living. From the first, he’s resisted attempts at pigeonholing and advice to “specialize,” trusting an inner voice that has always said “I can do that,” no matter what – or where – “that” is.
Designing is designing, as far as Railton is concerned. “I’ve been able to do every single medium that there is, from theater to TV to corporate shows to theme parks, resorts and live events,” he says. “What I love is that now we’re getting asked for all of those things, and not only for clients in China. Our projects also include small theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, museums in the Midwest, retail in India, and attractions in Sri Lanka… That diversity is the thing that keeps me totally engaged, totally thrilled.”
As Railton’s reputation and workload grew over time, “I can do that” became “We can do that,” in the context of various partnerships and firms large and small. In recent years, with his Los Angeles-based company Entertainment Design Corp. (EDC), the Railton diversity has enabled adapting to and serving the explosive Asian sector with internationally acclaimed projects, the most celebrated being Crane Dance at Resorts World Sentosa (Singapore), which was honored with a Thea Award in 2011 as well as the 2011 Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY) “Excellence in Structural Design Awards (to McLaren Engineering Group). In EDC, Railton has built a diverse creative team that dives eagerly into whatever challenge is next.
A sampling of awarded projects testifies to diversity of project types and clients alike: Thea Awards for Crane Dance, Fremont Street Experience, Titanic: The Experience, GM Showroom Theater (Disney’s Epcot) and the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies, Emmy Awards for art direction on Salt Lake 2002, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and the 57th Annual Academy Awards and an Emmy for costume design on Zoobilee Zoo, plus the Lester Horton Dance Award 1999 for Set Design and “Best Storefront Design” 1995 from VMSD magazine for the Panasonic Pavilion at Universal CityWalk.
“I never get bored, and neither do the people I have working here,” says Railton. They include director of projects Richard Wechsler (best known as producer of the Academy Award-nominated movie Five Easy Pieces, and production executive for Norman Lear Productions, Wechsler also has lectured on screenplay writing at the American Film Institute and UC San Diego, and has a company with world renowned illusion designer Paul Harris, called Astonishment Technologies); creative director John Rust, who supervised media production for EDC attractions at Resorts World Sentosa and has been part of the film community and theme park industry for more than 25 years (“John’s quick wit, flexibility and total obsession with theater and film make him the perfect fit for EDC”); CFO Scott Wilson, formerly a tax accountant for MGM and David Kelly, who has been with Railton for 28 years as designer and company comptroller – a Carnegie Mellon graduate, he owns the San Clemente Dance and Performing Arts Center.
Then there are the EDC “young guns”: Chris Stage, a fully trained architect (“He was working as an architect before he joined us – now he does much more”); Alex Calle, a theater designer and filmmaker, and Francesca Nicolas, who just graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design and was referred to EDC by SCAD professor Mike Devine.
The “young guns” on Railton’s team demonstrate versatility and evidence of his strong desire to encourage young people to enter the field and reap its rewards. And – because designing is designing – not to worry too much about the specific portal, knowing that the fields are all closely connected. Finding one’s way in and creating relationships are the main things. “I started off my entire career by saying ‘I can do that,’ says Railton. “I can have anything thrown at me: I’m not fazed, and I have this strong team, this really tight company. I just make sure that a project – whatever lands on my doorstep – is something for all of us to be totally involved in, to feel the creativity this moment in time offers us, then go on to the next moment. The first time I said, ‘I can do that,’ I was right out of college, sitting at a table in a restaurant in the late 1960s, and an art director came in the door saying, ‘I need an assistant; I’m starting a movie tomorrow.’” After securing an appointment, “I ran to the library and read everything I could. I’d never been on a movie set in my life. I staggered in the door the next day…”
Working in Asia
What Railton and his team learned in Asia has brought about a shift in how they approach design for this market, and how they interact with clients. “Very early on, I was given good advice by Hee Teck Tan, CEO at Resorts World Sentosa. He said, ‘Jeremy, forget about all this arty, subtle stuff: Asians like bright and loud.’ It was excellent advice. I’m sort of a loud kind of guy – I always loved rock and roll concerts and variety television. I like the bright and loud and shiny. I do come from central Africa.”
The Chinese respect for maturity has stood Railton in good stead. “I feel I get a lot of respect because of my gray hair; it makes them feel comfortable. I feel like a strong, reassuring hand, the voice of experience. They are nice to Alex and Chris, but I get the attention. In the US it’s the other way! They smile and nod at me, and then talk to Alex and Chris.”
As an active member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), Railton has drawn on his experiences to help boost the association’s presence in the Asian community, especially China. “I want Asians – especially Chinese middle management – to become TEA members so they can get educated about this industry. There’s so much that can be shared from one side of the Pacific Rim to the other that will be good for their projects and for everyone’s professional experience.”
What, for instance? “The role of the designer, for one. Design doesn’t stop at the concept stage, but is rather a moving, continual process. This is especially true in the case of a one-off, unique project where you’re charting new territory and must expect the unexpected. The designer should be kept on the project through the building, production and programming stages. An experienced designer also has many well-established relationships and will tend to know the best choices for such roles as production, technical design, fabrication and project management – for instance, bringing in Bob Chambers and Ed Marks to do production and technical management of Crane Dance and Lake of Dreams at Resorts World Sentosa and our projects at Galaxy Macau. Ed Marks, with a lighting design background, is both practical and creative and technically savvy, while the masterful Bob Chambers could carefully negotiate the many minefields of technology and vendors. [Chambers and Marks went on to form their own company, The Producers Group, following these projects.] This puts us in a position to react to what comes up, solving problems as they arise in a way that is true to the vision we were hired to develop in the first place. The end result is the better for it.”
As an example, Railton related some details of the fabrication and programming stages in creating the Fortune Diamond for the Galaxy Hotel, Macau (client: Mr Francis Liu). The Fortune Diamond was one of two projects EDC designed for the Galaxy – the other was the Wishing Crystals. The original concept for the 22-foot high diamond was much more technically elaborate than the finished product, because in the process of turning the concept sketches into 3D visualizations and mockups, working with fabricator Lexington in Los Angeles, it was found that a simpler technical design would better achieve the desired result.
“The original concept was a complex piece of machinery,” says Railton, “bedecked with all kinds of LEDs, mirrors and backlit pieces. But when Lexington started to analyze it and draw it up, we realized the mirrors were the important element. So we set up this whole kind of reflective mirror box, and the diamond that had started out with all this other stuff ended up relying primarily on a set of fractal mirror boxes that reflected the white pit below. This was achieved through creative give-and-take between the designer and the fabricator in which the best approach was given a chance to emerge. Design doesn’t stop at the concept stage. I know that in the process of working with the construction people, an illustration will grow into something more than was initially visualized. That’s how the unique, breakthrough projects really happen, and a client who wants that needs to foster the creative, collaborative conditions where it can happen, and trust the designer through the process.”
At the same time, recognizing that the Chinese client shops for attractions differently than the Western client, EDC is in the process of devising a catalog-type approach to marketing the company’s services. “There are theme park ride companies with lovely printed catalogs that have Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and so forth,” he says. “That’s what the Chinese want from us. They want to look at a catalog and say ‘I want this for so much money.’ And I realized that it’s possible, with attractions – especially these unique public sculptures we are being asked to do now – to come up with a package that includes concept design and schematic for medium-sized attractions that the cities in China can buy, and that can be adapted and customized. So that’s something we’re now trying to shift toward providing. It’s a fascinating business model shift, and it requires us to make an upfront investment.”
EDC’s “young guns”
When Railton mentors someone, they stay mentored. “As I’ve gone along and trained or introduced designers and assistants, they’ve gone on to become masters – such as Richard Shreiber, my art director for many years, who began as a set designer. Eventually, he went into TV and stayed there. Every designer who has worked with me has gone on to become successful.” While many well-known themed entertainment professionals started out in theater or film, Railton advises that today’s aspiring creatives take a reverse approach. “It’s easier for a beginning designer or writer to get a start in themed entertainment rather than the narrower, more closed fields of theater or film – yet themed entertainment encompasses theatre and film. Themed entertainment embraces every single artistic discipline that there is, and it is a relatively open and welcoming field for young, creative people, without a lot of restrictions or pigeonholing.” Moreover, themed entertainment has gradually been recognized as its own creative field of discipline, with academic curricula established at the college level including SCAD, Carnegie Mellon and the Ringling College of Art & Design.
EDC young guns Alex Calle and Chris Stage have been with the company 3 years, and when you encounter Railton in a business setting, Calle and Stage are usually nearby. “We all feel this kind of incredible energy,” says Railton. “We’re all looking forward to getting to work each morning and seeing each other. When we travel to China, we make a very cohesive group, able to tackle pretty much anything.”
Alex Calle – EDC art director
‘Jeremy’s outlook on diversity has made EDC the company it is. He is often considered as one of the few on the bleeding edge – a description that we at EDC like and embrace. He’s always had a ‘hop on board’ mentality, doesn’t like to be held back creatively, and he never restricts others’ creative impulses. Here’s a simple example. We recently hired a junior designer with a background in architecture and a graduate from Otis, Emily Keifer. She thought she’d like to take a stab at a revamped logo for EDC. Under Jeremy, we were able to embrace her inspiration and funnel it. What ultimately came was a beautiful new face to the EDC branding. The best part is that it’s somehow architectural in nature, but truly graphic in presentation. That’s why EDC products are so unique, they pull from people the roles they might not typically be accustomed to. In EDC, it doesn’t matter if you’re a junior designer, technical director, architect, art director or janitor – it’s the amalgamation of these people, and subsequent ideas, that are important.
‘This general philosophy has helped me, coming from a TV, theater, and film background. There, my life has always been about stories and how to tell them – preferably well. So in every EDC attraction, art installation, concert tour… I’m able to be the voice pertaining to ‘story’ while simultaneously wearing many other hats. For instance, on Crane Dance, which is essentially a love story between two giant animatronic cranes, certain questions should be raised, ‘How does that part of the design convey love? What must a whimsical structure look like while maintaining stability? Why are we backlighting him here in the story arch instead of here? Does that help tell our story???” And finally, “How much are we charging for this again???’
‘In raising these, and many other, questions I’m channeling seven different roles (programmer, lighting designer, creative director, engineer, art director, writer, producer). We’re encouraged and prodded to think about all these aspects, ALL of the time. Each piece better informs the next, and then pokes its predecessor for elaboration, clarification, and intent. This is what keeps us challenged, our knives sharp so to speak. Compartmentalization doesn’t work at EDC, it doesn’t create the kind of projects we like to do, so we don’t do it.”
Chris Stage AIA – EDC design architect
‘EDC is a very dynamic place to work and one that calls for a wide variety of interests and skills.
I was originally hired to serve as the Facility Design Manager on EDC’s projects for Galaxy Macau; I was the one primarily in charge of overseeing construction at the site. As the project progressed I ended up advising on lighting and media content as well as other aspects of the design. At one point Jeremy approached me with the opportunity to develop some additional design concepts and present them to the client. Jeremy always recognizes and encourages contributions beyond what your job title may suggest. After we wrapped up in Macau, Jeremy asked me to join the company full-time in a more design-oriented role.
‘Coming from an architecture background, I have often worked within more delineated or confined roles in the past. However, since being brought on as design architect at EDC I’ve worked on everything from script ideas for live shows, to creating print ads for magazines, from designing characters and costumes for lagoon shows, to master planning an entertainment retail complex and theming a casino in Mississippi.
‘This sort of ever-changing role is typical for everyone in the company. It really all starts at the top: Jeremy sets the example. His combination of humility and curiosity lead him to be involved in every aspect of a job, no matter how tedious or trivial it may seem. This attitude is infectious and although we each have our own strengths this approach allows us to become better at what we do and, most importantly, leads to better projects.
‘Flexibility at EDC is not only evident in the roles we all play, but also in the wide variety of projects we take on. However, whether we are designing attractions, parades, live shows, show venues, restaurants, retail centers, casino resorts or museums, it always boils down to creating something dynamic and compelling and that is what links all of our projects and keeps us excited.’
The Entertainment Design Corporation, led by Jeremy Railton, creates and produces international award-winning attractions, environments, live shows and theatrical events. Website: www.entdesign.com.
As a child growing up in rural Zimbabwe crafting puppets out of clay and sketching the native birds and animals, Jeremy Railton couldn’t have imagined that one day he would be creating the world’s largest animatronic creatures in the form of a pair of 90-ft dancing cranes – the star performers in a themed attraction that took flight in the winter of 2010 at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.
Educated in fine art, Railton has brought his formidable design talents and limitless imagination to some of the most significant artists, events and productions over the last three decades. His career spans legitimate theater, dance, film, TV award shows, live concerts for pop icons, spectacles of Olympian proportions, themed attractions, and unforgettable retail entertainment and architectural projects. Railton began his career in British film production while still a student and was quickly “discovered” and brought to Los Angeles for a production at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum. Railton made history with this production, creating the first giant screen projection backdrop ever seen on the stage.
Following his early stage successes, he moved into film and television. He won acclaim as a production designer for recreating post-World War II Los Angeles in the motion picture The Two Jakes. Among his hundreds of TV credits are landmark specials including the concerts for 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Railton’s credits in live staging, television, concert specials and music videos include projects for Barbara Streisand, Cher, Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Julio Iglesias and the MTV Music Awards.
His unique blend of artistry and cutting-edge technology have graced major retail, amusement, resort and casino venues such as the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Panasonic Pavilion at Universal Studios, the GM Showroom Theatre at Epcot Center and Lake of Dreams at Resort World Sentosa. A pioneer in digital culture, Railton designed the two largest video screens in the world, the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas and the Sky Screen at The Place in Beijing.