Friday, May 24, 2024

In a virtual format, TEA Thea Awards Digital Case Studies showcase best of human experience

By Joe Kleiman

Each year, the Themed Entertainment Association recognizes those projects that showcase “excellence for the creation of compelling educational, historical and entertainment projects” with the annual TEA Thea Awards. Traditionally, each year, the Award is handed out during the sumptuous, black-tie Thea Awards Gala at the Disneyland Hotel, attended by awardees and their industry peers. Preceding the Thea Awards Gala is the two-day TEA Summit. Case Studies, presented during the Summit offer a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the Thea Award recipient projects, guided by those involved in their design and operation.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the TEA was unable to hold the Summit and Thea Awards Gala in person this year. To honor the recipients, the 26th annual TEA Thea Awards Case Studies were taken online and became the Thea Awards Digital Case Studies. Split into seven sessions, each block entailed a pre-recorded session followed by a live chat session where viewers could ask questions of the presenters. Thea Digital Case Studies began on August 6 with this year’s recipient of the Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished, Walt Disney Imagineering’s Nancy Seruto.

This was followed by sessions on museums, live shows, and connected immersion, all of which highlighted different aspects of the human experience, such as the origins of modern spirituality, how to preserve our planet for the future, the birth of a nation, and the exploration of the Polar regions. Innovative problem solving was showcased, such as how to integrate a dark ride into a tradeshow booth and what mechanism to use to transport a grandstand between enormous theatrical sets. Projects used traditional techniques and modern technology to recreate the artistic masters and to portray the reality of an alien attack in a past that never was.

Here are some of the highlights.


In December 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. The ship that took him to Antarctica was the Fram. Put to sea in 1892, she was already a tried and true vessel, having played a key role in the exploration of Greenland and both polar regions. In 1935, the restored ship was placed inside an A-frame building, becoming the centerpiece of the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway.

In the latest refurbishment to the museum, Sarner International was brought on board to add a vivid new dimension to the visitor experience, under the guidance of Fram Museum Director Geir Klover. Central to the vision would be projections on the interior of the A-frame, giving the illusion of being in the icy polar waters for those on the ship’s deck. According to Sarner’s Ed Cookson, LED panels were considered, but were avoided due to concerns about the panels adding extra weight to the ceiling. The solution involved 10 projectors mounted to the masts of the ship itself and hidden in the rigging, blended into a 270° 10K image.

In addition to the projections, three floors of interior sections of the ship were fitted up to help visitors get an authentic sense of life onboard underdecks, drawing on stories of the actual crew of the Fram. According to Cookson, the concept was to “pack the ship full of provisions and tools and personal belongings, but most importantly transform that ambience of being expedition-ready with atmospheric lighting, audio, and smells – really try to capture the excitement as if the ship had just launched and was off on one of its expeditions.”

Klover indicated that the upgrade has been a success in terms of enhancing the visitor experience as well as helping the museum achieve a more revenue-based model, and that a new phase of development is planned.


“Laguna was known as an arts colony going all the way back to the 1880s,” says Diane Challis Davy, Director/Producer of the Festival of the Masters in Laguna Beach, Calif. During the Great Depression, an art festival arose in the town, and in order to draw visitors, it expanded to include concerts and embark on the creation of living pictures – the recreation of classic paintings and sculptures using real people and theatrical sets. The Pageant of the Masters, as a professionally produced event, was introduced by director Roy Ropp in 1935 and is the 2020 recipient of the annual Thea Classic Award, honoring a project that has stood the test of time. In 1936, Ropp introduced The Last Supper as the finale to the Pageant. According to Challis Davy, “with the exception of a few years, we’ve been doing The Last Supper as our finale ever since.” Challis Davy also shared a secret to the live presentation’s success: “To give the illusion of a flat painting, we eliminate all natural shadows from the scene.”

“We simply could not do it without our volunteers,” says Sharbie Higuchi, the Pageant’s Director of Marketing, Public Relations, and Merchandise. In addition to appearing in the tableaus, volunteers take on a number of technical roles, including set fabrication, painting, and costuming. “It takes over five hundred of them in order to put a show on and they come from all over Southern California. We have had a lot of attention from other theatrical producers from within the entertainment industry who wanted to recreate or reproduce the Pageant of the Masters. However, they find out really quickly that it’s simply just not financially possible because you need that volunteer support to make it happen.”


In 2019, Google designed and built from the ground up a bespoke dark ride as part of its exhibit at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a novel achievement that differentiated Google’s presence from that of the other exhibitors. And they did it at warp speed: 12 weeks from design to build to opening, according to Anne Kelly, the lead producer on the project. “Everything that normally was a year was now a month, everything that was a month was now a day,” says Kelly. A key tool in succeeding with the accelerated timeline was previsualization.

According to the TEA’s Thea Awards Committee: “With only four days of physical operation at the  2019 Consumer Electronics Show, one of the largest trade shows in the world, The Google Assistant Ride carried more than 25,000 guests through a custom, 30,000-square-foot show building and delivered an exceptional, ride-based attraction experience with theme-park-quality animation, special effects and show lighting. The 15-minute experience included a three-minute puppeteer interactive preshow and a five-minute ride incorporating extensive use of animatronics, an original song, fog and scent machines as well as on-board video to demonstrate Google technologies.”

Marcelo Alba, Creative Strategist, Events and Experiences at Google, points out, “The story is built around a family.” The ride follows a father trying to purchase a birthday cake for the family’s grandmother. Throughout the day, he is guided in the right direction by Google’s new Google Assistant. The attraction maintained a unique design aesthetic. Although influenced by research trips to Disneyland, the ride had a distinct Google feel. According to Alba, “Everything from the character design to the song design had to be uniquely us.”


When designing The Hebrew Bible Experience for the Museum of the Bible, Matthew Solari, Creative Director of BRC Imagination Arts, found a problem – the design of the historic building itself involved evenly placed columns throughout the floor. Embracing this as a creative limitation, Solari and his team devised a “dark ride without a ride vehicle,” a chronological tale involving five mini-theaters and highly themed, snaking corridors between them.

In order to maintain a steady flow through the exhibit, certain Biblical stories were cut, particularly those that would distract from the main narrative, such as the Garden of Eden, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the sacrifice of Isaac. Because the Hebrew Bible is the root of a number of Western religions, many sections of the exhibit were designed with an artistic license. According to Solari, “Our intention was to provide an experience where people of all faiths, and no faith tradition, can engage with the narratives of the Bible on their own terms. We would do this by emphasizing universal values of faith, home, love, family, and forgiveness. But first we had to be willing to unlearn everything we thought we knew.”

The adventure begins in a small theater where a narrator lays the groundwork leading up to the Great Flood. A wall breaks away and a corridor opens. As guests traverse the exhibit, they encounter the slavery in Egypt, the burning bush, the Ten Commandments, the stories of Judges and of Ruth. In the finale, projection envelops the walls of the theater as the prophet Ezra, who played a pivotal role in the return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, unfurls a scroll and the guests learn that he has been their guide from the very beginning.


Puy du Fou has been awarded numerous Thea Awards over the years for its innovative approach to attractions telling the history of France. The newest attraction, Le Premier Royame (The First King), tells the story of Clovis, the Fifth Century first king of France. Nicolas de Villiers, Chairman of Puy du Fou, points out that the story of Clovis has a distinct fantasy element. “We always try to create some very realistic shows,” he says, “With scaled decors, with real horses, with real animals on stage, real people, real performers. Everything is real in Puy du Fou.”

With Clovis, Puy du Fou designed a surrealistic world, much of it based on the storied legends of Clovis and the fact that he was a polytheistic king. The dreamlike experience tells the story of Clovis’ journey to Christianity. In one scene, guests enter Valhalla, which de Villiers calls something “between Heaven and Hell for the Franks.” While traversing the set, guests notice that water is dripping up, an illusion created by the Puy du Fou team. “We have created total immersion,” de Villiers adds. “One room is upside down, you can see a big battle all around you. We also produce our own video content. We’re able to make the film exactly as we want with our own performers and our own costumes.”


According to Andrew McGuinness, CEO of Layered Reality, “We’re in the memory business. We want to create extraordinary experiences that stick in people’s minds and then become part of their memories.” One such experience is the layered reality attraction Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience, based on the 1978 musical album, itself based on the 1898 H.G. Wells novel.

In a five-minute synopsis of the two-hour long adventure, Layered Reality’s Chief Creative Technologist Carl Guyenette shared how various elements overlap to create a multi-textured sensorial story, including projection mapping, digital dome, live sets and actors, virtual reality (with live digital actors), motion simulators, and holographic characters. In true British fashion, the experience begins and ends in a pub. McGuinness pointed out that people want a drink or a bite to eat after going through the attraction. By offering a restaurant and bar on premises, he discovered that people will discuss their experience, thereby continuing their immersion.

“This novel and highly ambitious re-imagining of the classic story pushes past previous limits into the future of seamless multimedia storytelling,” reported the TEA Thea Awards Committee. “It is outstanding beyond its many technical achievements, in particular its sheer ambition and duration. It even manages to add to the War of the Worlds story, making it feel fresh, with forgotten twists and turns reinterpreted. The unconventional music soundtrack makes the experience unique and consistent. This attraction brings together many aspects of our industry (and touches on some others) on a scale that challenges us to think of other complex stories that could be told on a large scale. It is a trend to encourage.”


Last year, Huaxia Cultural Tourism Group’s project, The Legend of Camel Bells, was a Thea Award recipient [see “Legends, camels & ACE,” InPark Magazine issue 76]. This year came new honors for Legend of the Gods, with the Thea Awards Committee making special note of the site’s ecological transformation along with theatrical achievements “on a celestial scale.” The “Legends” series of shows, which also includes the indoor “Legend of Min Nan,” feature enormous sets, state-of-the-art projection, hundreds of actors, stunts, and even live animals to bring local history and legends to life at Huaxia Cultural Tourism properties throughout China.

The Legends sets are massive and elaborate and cannot be switched out, and so it was inherent to the physical production to have a mechanism for delivering the audience to them. Camel Bells, which takes place inside a massive domed structure, has a moving grandstand that transports the audience to various enormous stages, each showcasing a different act of the presentation. In Legend of the Gods, the audience is seated in an outdoor “auditorium” themed as a giant boat that travels a man-made lagoon to deliver them to the scenes. The TEA Thea Awards Selection Committee stated: “The fluid way the audience is positioned and moved is worthy of special attention. The boat travels along a track through the lagoon to carry guests into the story. They visit seven distinct scenes of beauty and amazement – some set on land and some on water.”

Giving the presentation on behalf of Huaxia Cultural Tourism, Bingo Tso says, “This is not the kind of show you can develop like theater.” Speaking of one set featuring massive waterfalls, Tso adds, “You cannot just move five thousand tons of water.”

Legend of the Gods is one of the cultural tourism attractions located in the Huaxia scenic spot, in the mountains above Weihai, Shandong province [see “Moving Mountains,” InPark Magazine issue 79.5]. Within an area ecologically devastated by mining, Huaxia Cultural Tourism implemented a massive environmental transformation that included the planting of more than eleven million trees.

The show was conceived, produced, written, and directed by Xia Chunting, Chair of Shandong Huaxia Cultural Tourism Group. Originally, artists were brought in from around China, but were eventually replaced by local artists, which helps promote the local economy.


Located within the historic Irish manor of the Powerscourt Estate & Gardens, the Cool Planet Experience is an interactive experience geared towards children with a cautionary lesson about climate change. According to Vicky Brown, CEO of the Cool Planet Experience, one important consideration was kept in mind during the development stage. “Whatever we were going to do had to be fun, inspiring, and not what you would expect.”

Peter Whitaker, Co-founder and Creative Director of DMW Creative points out that “The scale of the issue inevitably leads to helplessness. How can one person make a difference?” Much like the Hebrew Bible Experience and the Fram Museum, the existing architecture played a key role in the design of the exhibit and its layout. Key to the experience are RFID wristbands which track each guest’s journey and the choices they make along the way. In the end, guests are told how many trees they saved by their decisions.

Topics include energy, transportation, and waste, all of which are showcased on a model city 3D printed by DMW, food sources, natural disasters, and the overall carbon footprint. “We opened our doors in March 2018,” says Brown, “and for a small exhibition, we’ve had 35,000 visitors to date. But the most important outcome for us is that our visitors first enjoy the experience but that they go on to take action in their own lives and become ‘Agents of Change.’ On average, each visitor pledges to reduce their individual footprint by about 25% and that collective pledge is about 81,000 tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of just under four million trees.”


During the “Special Segments” session of the TEA Thea Awards Digital Case Studies, Christie discussed its revolutionary Eclipse 4K RGB Pure Laser Projector, recipient of a Thea Award for Technical Innovation. The Eclipse was introduced in 2019 at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium [see “Ultimate Contrast,” InPark Magazine Issue 82], where the planetarium designed a new show to take full advantage of the projector’s abilities.  

Larry Paul, Executive Director, Technology & Custom Solutions Enterprise & Entertainment at Christie, pointed out that the six chips within the projector work together to meet Rec. 2020 color gamut, currently the highest level color gamut available on the market. “Rec. 2020,” he said, “is closest to what we see as humans. The six chips working together provide the largest contrast in the industry. “No other projector on the market has this,” Paul added.

The Eclipse isn’t designed for every environment. For example, it would not work well outside as it requires a darkened environment to perform at its full potential of ultra high contrast, expansive color gamut and the darkest of darks. Paul remarked, that with the Eclipse, “You can create a dark ride where the darks are so dark that people don’t even realize there’s a projector present.”

According to Bryan Boehme, Executive Director of Americas Enterprise Sales & Global Business Development for Christie, “The Christie Eclipse allows us to walk into that 3D environment without having to wear 3D glasses. Before we talked about looking through a window. Now it’s like looking through a window with the glass taken out.”


Wendy Heimann-Nunes is a well-known attorney and a familiar face in the themed entertainment community. Her company, Nolan Heimann LLP, a corporate sponsor of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), describes itself as one of “attorneys and advisers who help you develop your ideas, protect your work, leverage your assets, structure the right deals and operate at your maximum potential.” The law firm of Nolan Heimann serves many small to midsize companies and individuals who have creative or technological assets as their core business. “It’s my passion to help these creators and innovators protect, monetize and leverage what they do,” says Heimann-Nunes.

For more on Wendy Heimann-Nunes, see “Three Industry Leaders Talk About the TEA Thea Awards” from InPark Magazine Issue 82.

TEA Thea Awards Digital Case Studies continue on October 22 with Wonderbox at Paradise City, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and Popcorn Revenge and on November 5 with Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Tickets include full access to all previous sessions.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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