Saturday, April 17, 2021

Jeremy Railton: A designer’s notebook

Jeremy Railton, in his own words

by Jeremy Railton with Richard Wechsler

Jeremy Railton, Chairman and Founder of Entertainment Design Corp., will receive the Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements on April 22 at the TEA Thea Awards. Jeremy’s multifaceted career has spanned theatre, dance, film, TV, theme park attractions, live concerts, touring shows, animal attractions and more. The work shown and described here is just a fraction of what Jeremy has achieved – see more in the gallery below and at entdesign.com.

Jeremy Railton… A multitalented, multi-genre artist, creative genius; a designer who puts the “Kapow” into creating WOW experiences for audiences across our planet! A man with a BIG heart and easy smile! I have known Jeremy for 30 years, as a friend and colleague, and cherish each moment I spend with him as he has a way of shining light on everyone and everything he touches! – Roberta Perry, Vice President Business Development, Edwards Technologies Inc.

Some people get by on charm rather than talent. Some have talent but lack charm. Jeremy is doubly blessed with both. He is that rare combination of deep humanity, sincerity, collaboration and creative vision. When he presents an idea, it is instantly irresistible and when he implements it, it works! His audiences find themselves swept along on a rewarding emotional journey full of charm, grace and magic. – Bob Rogers, Founder & CCO, BRC Imagination Arts

TOP TO BOTTOM: Jeremy’s Little Bo Peep drawing from age three; Jeremy’s first play (holding sword); Jeremy and his brother on Khamera.

Unlikely Beginnings

When I reflect on the many unexpected turns and incredible opportunities that have come my way over a life in art and design, I can trace so many of the themes, influences, and inspirations to my unlikely beginnings, growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, 40 miles from the Victoria Falls and the great Zambezi River.

Even as a child I was aware that I lived in Paradise. I loved the bush, the animals, and our mud-daubed pole house with a thatched roof, a hand-drawn well, no electricity, and a party line phone that we shared with five others. In the rainy season, some of the house wall poles would sprout and tree limbs would grow from the living room walls.

When I was nine months old, my parents bought me crayons. I drew all over the walls next to my cot and basically never stopped. By the time I was eight, I had figured out that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.

TOP TO BOTTOM: Jeremy’s first set design at the Mark Taper Forum; Magic To Do show for
Princess Cruises; Set design for a Michael Jackson special on MTV.

THEATRE DESIGN – FROM MARK TAPER TO PRINCESS CRUISES

I learned principles of set design and set painting at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. After graduation, I spent a year as a professional scenic painter at various theatres in Cape Town, earning enough money to go to London with my friends.

Off to Hollywood – On my very first art director job on a film in England, the American director, Lamont Johnson, discovered I was raised in the African bush. He was directing a play in Los Angeles – Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw novella, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God – would I like to read it and do some sketches? I did, and gave them to him.

A couple of weeks later, slumped on the floor of my apartment, depressed and without a plan, the mail slot started to jiggle. A huge envelope landed on the floor. It contained plane tickets, a salary advance, work visas, a scenic union membership and a contract to design the sets, masks and costumes for Isherwoood’s play at the legendary Mark Taper Forum. I arrived in Los Angeles a week later.

Cecil Beaton – The Civic Light Opera was putting on My Fair Lady with costumes by Cecil Beaton, who had done the costumes for the original Broadway production and won an Academy Award for the film. I flew to London to meet him. I felt like a farm boy in his incredible Kensington apartment. He looked me over and said, “I suppose you will do; they all seem to like you.”

He handed me a bunch of sketches and said. “Use these. I don’t like Liza’s ball gown. Make another design, would you?” Gulp! He followed with the best advice ever for costume design. “Just because a design looks good on paper it does not mean it will look good on the body. Design to the body not to the paper!” I was suddenly Cecil Beaton’s assistant. I even designed Liza’s ball gown under the close supervision of Lilly Fonda, the head
cutter and fitter at the venerable Western Costumes, who took me under her wing and taught me how to design costumes that moved.

Donny and Marie Osmond – When Sid and Marty Krofft signed on to produce the Donny and Marie Variety Show pilot, I was set and costume designer. Donny was 18, Marie was 16 and their costumes were like Elvis jumpsuits with studs, great in their day but this was 1975! I rolled up my sleeves, jumped in, and discovered the sweetest, most talented, hardworking teenagers ever. We had fun coming up with crazy, young-and-hip clothes.

I would sketch all Friday and over the weekend. Monday morning, I would deliver the designs to the shop on the lot that I was supervising. The sheer volume and speed forced me to run through my entire repertoire of ideas. I even pulled out fabric painting from my childhood and noticed birds and flowers were still featured.

Zoobilee Zoo – I did some set and costume design for Zoobilee Zoo, a children’s TV show featuring performers dressed as animals. As an African animal lover, my first take was that the animals should look ‘real.’ The producers were conscientious about test marketing every decision, so I designed a spectrum of test costumes – from ‘realistic’ to what I thought was ‘gaudy, bright and ugly.’ Surprise! The kids loved ‘gaudy, bright, and ugly!’ I came up with a prosthetic device for the actors’ faces and won my first Emmy for Costume Design because they had never seen this look before. Now those prosthetics are in every Halloween costume shop.

Diavolo – Jacques Heim, the brilliant director/ choreographer/ creator of Diavolo Dance Company, asked me to design some set pieces. I eagerly awaited his concept and couldn’t wait to hear the music – just what I like: being told what to draw. His answer stunned me. “I have no music and I don’t know what I want to do. Design me an interesting structure and I will use it as inspiration and create the dance around it.” I did three pieces for Catapult and was honored with a Lester Horton award for Dance Design. Maybe I didn’t have to be told what to draw anymore!

Princess Cruises – In the last 10 years, I’ve had the extreme pleasure to design many sets for Princess Cruises. There is very little room on board a cruise liner theater, especially when three different productions have to be pre-loaded. I loved the challenge of creating scenery that folded up into small pieces, drawing on my experience from touring shows.

TOP TO BOTTOM: Barbra Streisand’s 2016 touring set; An illustration of a set in Cher’s Vegas show from 2008-2011; Cher in her pearl bubble entrance. 

FINDING THE ARTIST’S BRAND – TOURING SHOWS, 1975-2017

Since designing Bamboozled, the first Cat Stevens music tour in 1975, I’ve participated in a four-decade transformation of the touring industry, designing every genre from rock and roll to Country and Western. I’ve watched touring shows evolve into multimedia spectacle.

The touring business is above all collaborative. Everything must work in concert. Every department jostles for the best position on the stage to make a comfortable, branded home for the artist. Most of all, the sound must be perfect.

Set design must fit the music and travel well. But one most important aspect is reflecting the artist’s unique creative identity.

Sometimes it would come to me in a flash, and other times it was more elusive and I would search for it.

Barbra! – In 2006, Mickie Weiss asked me to design Barbra Streisand’s new tour. Working with Streisand’s director, Richard J. Alexander, it became obvious that this show was about designing for sound: Barbra with a 52-piece orchestra of handpicked musicians.

We decided to go for visual simplicity, bringing Barbra up in the middle of the orchestra. Ultimately, the stage became a series of ramps surrounding a sunken orchestra. I put small Juliet stages on all sides, creating intimate visiting spots with a table, a vase of flowers and a pot of tea which allowed for each side of the audience to receive a visit from our beloved Diva!

In 2016, we were invited back to design the set for Barbra’s ninecity tour. Like Cher, Barbra is always intimately involved in the creative design of her sets. If she hadn’t been a singer she could have been a great interior designer. I loved collaborating with her.

Cher – Doriana Sanchez, my director/choreographer friend, introduced me to Cher and her management team after Dori and I had worked on the Dirty Dancing Tour. Dori was one of the lead dancers in the 1987 film. Cher asked Dori to give her dance lessons, which grew into a deep creative and personal friendship that spanned Cher’s Love Hurts-, Believe-, and Living Proof tours as well as 192 performances at Caesars Palace.

Cher bubbles with creativity, sweetness and fun. I have been so thrilled to design four tours and two of her Las Vegas shows, but the best thrill is sitting with Doriana and Cher as they ping pong creative ideas back and forth and where nothing is too outrageous! There are very few experiences like this where the designer gets to build on the ideas for a tour as if concepting a musical.

Elizabeth Taylor 60th Birthday television set

DESIGNING FOR TV

My TV career started when James Trittipo, a television set designer, bought some of my paintings and hired me as his assistant. After that job, he recommended me to Renee Lagler, a brilliant young designer. Rene mentored me for a year, giving me the greatest gift of my career, the benefit of his experience. TV has come a long way technologically in 30 years, but pressure and speed are still the order of the day.

9/11 Concert – A few days after 9/11, I got a call from Joel Gallin asking if I would volunteer to design the benefit concert that was to be shot in NY and LA in five days. Of course I said yes. The trick, Joel said, was to make it all look like one show, using an art director on each coast. He had contacted my friend and design hero Lee Roy Bennet in New York who he patched into our conversation. On the spot, we came up with the concept of candles. By Monday we were loading in the matching sets and on Wednesday the show was being taped with stars like Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. No time for plans or lighting plots, everything was done over the phone and it all worked.

Elizabeth Taylor – My Dad never believed I would ever be able to make a living in the entertainment art field and warned that if I didn’t stop fantasizing about Elizabeth Taylor and Hollywood, I would end up starving in a garret. So far, that hasn’t happened, but I did meet Ms. Taylor and design a TV set for her 60th birthday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. But my father’s dire warning still keeps me on my toes!

TOP: Fremont Street Experience. BOTTOM: Venue from 2002 Olympics.

VEGAS, BEIJING AND SALT LAKE CITY

Big Screen Boogie – In 1993, visionary architect Jon Jerde called me to help him work his rehab magic on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The street had gone into a decline, overshadowed by the Strip.

Jerde conceived of a barrel vault spanning the 1500-foot length of the street and asked me to come up with a cool, innovative light parade. After more than a few anxious weeks, trying one idea after another, I thought: “Why not a giant, overhead TV screen?” I took inspiration from the great, overhead Italian frescos – and married that approach to MTV pop culture and storytelling, with a library of original shows to run on the unique screen.

When the Fremont Street Experience opened in 1995, it was an overnight sensation and the catalyst of an economic upswing. TEA recognized it with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement. A direct successor in 2008 was The Sky Screen, a 700-foot-long, overhead viewing experience that I designed for The Place in Beijing, but using digital technology.

2002 Olympics – Leading a team of world-class designers, choreographers and special effect artists, I had the privilege to realize the concept of Director Kenny Ortega and Producer Don Mischer. Breaking tradition for the Olympic Winter Games, the venue was an arena rather than the mountain slopes. [For his production design, Jeremy received an Emmy and a Designer’s Guild Award.]

Design for SOAR

DESIGNING FOR ANIMALS

In the early 1990s I met well-known animal trainer and bird behaviorist Steve Martin. His use of non-traditional, free flight birds combined with an inspiring conservation message sets his shows apart from many other animal shows. I realized all my “Hollywood” design experience could fold into my love of animals and desire to make a difference.

SOAR (A Symphony in Flight) – Steve and I collaborated on a nighttime show for the San Diego Zoo. The idea was for guests to have a beautiful, emotional experience watching birds free flying to music, and to tell a story without the banter of trainers.

SOAR [2009] began with a darkened stage. The sound of flapping wings broke the silence, and in silhouette, a giant bird flew above the heads of the audience to create a memorable opening encounter. One of the design challenges was designing theatrical lighting at nighttime that enhanced the beauty and
emotional rhythm of the performance in a way that would not affect the birds’ sensitivity.

A Happy Bird Garden For China – The bird population of China has suffered many setbacks, including loss of habitat. Responding to the Government’s desire to pay close attention to ecology, I designed an attraction to provide a safe haven for wild birds, with indigenous trees, grasses and shrubs. The design offered a multi-level, nature experience that would educate and entertain guests of all ages and levels of health and conditioning, from small children to parents and grandparents.

The Crane Dance

ATTRACTIONS, AND DANCING CRANES

Attraction design is very much an art form that unites storytelling, technology, media, sound, and theatrical lighting into a powerful experience.

Attractions can create iconic and branding images that generate press, and social media, reaching an enormous demographic at relatively little cost; they are gateways that say ‘hello’ and ‘good bye’ to guests; they can increase the time that guests stay at a venue; finally, they can be artworks of great wonder and beauty.

I begin by listening and absorbing clients’ needs and expectations. Next, we develop an Attraction Master Plan that serves as a preliminary map to locate all the thematic entertainment elements – from architecture and landscaping – to show spectaculars and retail. The refined plan integrates the elements into a coherent guest experience of exploration, adventure and fun that ultimately translates into higher per capita revenue.

The Crane Dance – In 2007, Lim Kok Thay, Chairman of Resorts World Sentosa, asked me to create a dynamic work of public art that would embody the spirit of his new resort. He wanted something big and impressive. The first idea was to do a show using giant construction cranes moving to music and lighting. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to create an emotional connection between the audience and a construction crane.

One night, staring at my drafting lamp, it occurred to me that the lamp had the basic joint articulation of the Crane, a well-known symbol of health and longevity in Asian culture. I started to pose the lamp in various positions. A bird lover, I was familiar with the Cranes’ mating dance. I started to see two giant cranes/ Cranes dancing with one another. For inspiration, I attached a second lamp to my table and sketched out a 10-minute show where the cranes meet, dance and fall in love. The finished show remains a big, international hit and is probably my best-known work. [Crane Dance received a TEA Thea Award in 2012.]

The EDC Team: (Back Row L to R) Kurt Gefke, Richard Wechsler, Alison Picard, Chris Stage (Front Row L to R) Alex Calle, Jeremy Railton, Francesca Nicolas

Entertainment Design Corporation (EDC)

Jeremy Railton founded EDC in 1991 in Los Angeles and it has built a reputation as a leading design and production entertainment firm. The company’s work reflects Jeremy’s own versatility. Fundamentally artistic and intrinsically cultural, EDC continues to immerse itself in the pursuit of fresh, inspiring, and out-of-the-box ways to ultimately wow, amuse, and entertain. For clients looking to pass seamlessly between multiple entertainment categories, EDC serves as a one-stop shop. Visit www.entdesign.com. • • •

PHOTO GALLERY:

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