On the creative frontier with John Miceli and DE-ZYN studios
by Judith Rubin
Immersive, media-based attractions plunge guests into digital worlds of storytelling, adventure, art, music, exhibitions and branded experiences. They may be linear or non-linear in sequence. Using sophisticated technological platforms, they combine visual display with other components such as real-time tracking, lighting, special effects, interactivity, motion simulation and ride systems, synchronized live performance and more. These attractions are quickly moving past the early adopter stage to enter the mainstream. They may be found in today’s world as standalone properties, in museums and science centers, art galleries and entertainment complexes, zoos and aquariums and other settings both permanent and temporary.
DE-ZYN studios is on this creative frontier where art, technology, and billions of pixels come together to attract and inspire and tell compelling stories. Company founder John Miceli is a well-known innovator of experience design with 32 years in the attractions industry. He says, “DE-ZYN combines the arts of digital media and innovative technologies with an experienced team and out-of-the-box thinking. We create multimedia worlds and infrastructures that are essential to transcendent, immersive guest experiences – evoking emotions and creating memories, even in the simplest of locations. Daring to dream the impossible, we feel there are truly no limits to what can be achieved.”
“DE-ZYN studios’ culture is one of teamwork, respect, fluid ideation, sense of family, life balance, never settling or giving up, with a constant desire to reach beyond the boundaries of the imagination,” says Joni McElwee, DE-ZYN studios’ Chief Financial Officer. The extended team consists of multimedia directors, architects, environment designers, graphic/motion designers, developers, composers, producers, illustrators, lighting designers, programmers and engineers.
As a leader and successful entrepreneur, storyteller, technologist, media producer, sound designer and creative director who loves a creative challenge, over the course of three decades Miceli has built a prestigious, global client and project list. Now, with DE- ZYN, he and his core team – Nathaniel Ruhlman, Cesar Jovine, Jay Pecotte, Joni McElwee and Jin Fan – are aiming even higher.
“John Miceli is in this industry because he loves it, and you understand that from the moment you meet him. He’s very passionate about the business, about what can be achieved – inspiring someone, educating them, providing an escape – and that has gone a long way toward his success. It has been great to see John’s career grow and flourish, to see him push the limits of what’s possible with multimedia, technology and above all, imagination,” noted Eddie Newquist, longtime friend, attraction creator and Partner/Creative Executive at MinaLima.
Nathaniel Ruhlman, Director of Media Innovation, DE-ZYN, is a 20-year veteran in the field of immersive art. A graduate of Tufts University, he discovered multimedia installations in the underground art scene in New York City in 2000. Taken by the impact and beauty of art at scale and the power of combining visuals with music, he founded Dorian Orange and quickly established himself as a pioneer in the emerging medium. Ruhlman was soon working with some of the biggest names in the early electronic music scene: Moby, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox and Timo Maas, to name only a few. These initial collaborations led to more commercially based work with Ford and Intel as Dorian Orange began diversifying and expanding their capabilities, transitioning into the world of media and advertising: traditional broadcast spots, multi-planed LED installations, art-inspired projection mapping projects, choreographed live events, and large-scale music festival initiatives. He joined forces with John Miceli in 2019 and DE-ZYN studios was born. “We have created a brain trust of the best of the best. What this team has achieved over the last three decades in media creation and innovative technology designs is unbelievable,” says Ruhlman.
DE-ZYN attractions group is the newest team in the studio, organized to create and license a line of turnkey, immersive attractions with an eye on entertainment and hospitality markets. Jay Pecotte, Head of Design and Product Development, says, “Guests are seeking a more activated media immersion in their leisure pursuits. Operators understand that unique entertainment will differentiate their product and generate a higher ROI. We’re able to leverage our multimedia creation talents to serve those needs from start to finish, in both small and large footprints.”
Pecotte is an accomplished architect and innovative designer/ brand executive who has worked for such brands as Hard Rock International and Universal Studios and has been creating, developing and building authentic, imaginative and immersive guest environments for over 28 years in hotels and theme parks, sometimes blending the two. He says, “Guests no longer want to just sit by the pool all vacation long – they want to be entertained. You need to come up with unique options and escapism for them, something new around the corner to draw them in.”
Cesar Jovine, longtime colleague of Miceli and Director of Operations for DE-ZYN noted, “unlike Soundelux and Technomedia, DE-ZYN studios is not an AV integrator per se: Instead, we handle all the design and creation work, oversee our projects and provide programming and delivery but will collaborate with AV systems integrators, physical fabricators and ride system specialists to deliver our turn-key projects. Since our projects are all over the world, it’s natural to work with capable vendors throughout the world.”
Jovine brings his 15 years of experience successfully directing high-profile, multimedia experience projects around the world. Miceli says, “Cesar does everything with a calm expertise that builds confidence among project teams and clients. Managing the relationships of our partnerships and our resources, his love for working with people has been a strong quality from which all projects benefit. His current role is building teams and resources for the upcoming 21/22 project rollout underway. His white glove project management service model drives communication and collaboration on all levels.”
“The world is much smaller now, and we are developing projects all over the globe,” noted Jin Fan, Creative Technologist and Director of International Business Development. “I enjoy working with this team and with our global clients to bring ideas together to seek the most rewarding approach for our projects and the IP that arises as a result.” She specializes in cultivating meaningful relationships between business and people through carefully crafted moments. As an experience designer and creative strategist with a lifelong passion for art and technology, Jin’s expertise spans the intersection of storytelling, interactive design, LED technologies, and computer graphics. Born in China, she has over 15 years’ experience building projects across the globe in theme parks, retail, public art and more.
Prior to founding DE-ZYN, Miceli was President of Technomedia, a company he founded in 2001 and helmed until his departure in 2019. He says, “We have set our sights on higher goals of blowing past the limits of what immersive, interactive guest experiences can be, to meet the needs of evolving leisure, hospitality and retail industries. We continue to expand the company’s scope and range of capabilities with this in mind.”
A number of this team’s projects have earned industry honors over the years, including IAAPA Brass Ring Awards, TEA Thea Awards, Telly Awards, International Monitor Awards and others. In the brief time since DE-ZYN launched, its work is already attracting accolades. The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) named a recent DE-ZYN project to receive a prestigious 2021 Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement: The Entrance Experience of the new St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station.
Bringing immersive experiences to everyone
Supporting a wider range of options within an immersive experience is one of DE-ZYN’s unique value adds. Miceli explains: “At the most passive level, the visitor is primarily an observer, moving through at their own pace much as in a traditional museum, zoo or aquarium setting. At the most immersive level, guests are elevated to an avatar status, interacting in AI [artificial intelligence] mode. DE-ZYN makes it possible for the guest to actually embody their own character and create their own narrative and adventure story.”
The unique, interactive aspects of such experiences – guest agency, responsive elements, things that can be “unlocked” – are highly touted. But – as Ruhlman points out – well-designed, passive options are important as well. “Everyone who visits the attraction should have engagement options that suit their comfort level,” he says. “Levels of engagement and interaction, from passive to immersive, support a wider range of venues – including retail spaces – and a wider demographic. From a practical, operations standpoint in today’s pandemic environment, affording comfortable options for a wide demographic is particularly relevant as it allows families and visitor groups to remain together.”
Miceli adds, “Today, we have the creativity, technology, vision and demand to embrace all audience members in this way and keep an experience fresh for years to come.” As to venue and location, “The possibilities are endless.” He currently finds shopping centers a very promising market. “Immersive experiences can be a great choice for retail and mall spaces that need new content. They are great design-wise, with plenty of square footage, well- designed traffic flow and individual spaces already configured to receive guests – and plenty of parking. We’re hearing from a lot of interested developers in the US, China, Dubai and Saudi Arabia and are already in negotiation with several to create original, IP- based entertainment destinations.”
A natural progression and a big new vision
“The DE-ZYN family of companies will create and evolve IP for clients as we continue to provide support for projects by supplying design, engineering, project management, programming and team building,” says Miceli. “We will partner with integrators, quality ride suppliers, and other specialists as needed from within our extensive network. It feels like a very natural progression.”
This natural progression can be traced through the course of Miceli and team’s career and achievements. “John Miceli backs into technology from the standpoint of emotion and guest experience,” says Eddie Newquist. “You never lead with technology, but rather with the goal for the guest, what is going to create that emotional connection with the guest and exceed their expectations.”
“Embracing all technologies is key to establishing the creative canvas, but great experience starts with the creative vision,” says Miceli. “The creative intent drives the technology.”
Miceli emphasizes that immersive experience projects can do a great deal within a modest budget as with a limited space – not only because the technology has become more affordable and available, but that by their nature, such attractions lend themselves to design that is modular and scalable. “A seemingly endless experience can be designed to be delivered within a relatively small footprint. We can pack in a lot of adventure and entertainment value, create any kind of story, and deliver on that story.” And in this blossoming, new genre of attraction, Miceli emphasizes that he and his team have the background, experience and professional network to be both efficient and innovative. “We know how to create and meet budgets, yet not allow the experience to be hampered or diminished by limitations. We have deep relationships with architects and the design community, and with owners and developers. We’ve been very successful working with them through the years to find ways to achieve the kinds of things they are dreaming of.”
Miceli was part of the creative team for numerous projects overseen by Chip Largman, Universal Creative executive team member from 1987-2017 (now retired). Largman recalled, “John was a leader in the sense of how he led his company and led trends and firsts within the industry. He was very attentive and would always probe until potential solutions were identified. A big part of his success, I think, was a degree of loyalty to people and process. He was never hesitant to jump in, take on another task, solve a problem, support the other creative people in complementing their work. Over the years, John has been part of virtually every single type of themed entertainment attraction you can imagine. He was fearless, willing to extend himself and take creative risks.” • • •
Winning big in St. Louis
The new St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station officially opened to the public on December 25, 2019, and recently welcomed its one-millionth visitor. The aquarium forms the centerpiece of an entertainment- retail-hospitality redevelopment by Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM) that has preserved the structure of the historic train station while establishing a new, downtown leisure destination.
The 120,000-sq-ft., two- story aquarium houses some 13,000 aquatic animals n 1.3 million gallons of water and is operated by ZoOceanarium Group. Its unique Entrance Experience, being honored in 2021 with a Thea Award, is John Miceli’s second project for LHM’s Union Station remake, the first being the Grand Hall Experience (which also received a Thea Award, in 2015).
Under contract to LHM, Miceli and DE-ZYN led the team supplying creative development and project management, music and sound design, visual art and media production as well as engineering, programming and integration for the aquarium’s Entrance Experience. The two components are the Grand Lobby and the Union Station Express, reflecting the thematic connection of Union Station history with river culture (the Mississippi, Missouri and Meramec rivers all flow through the region). “Marrying the concepts of train travel and the world’s waterways was one of the most unique, thematic challenges we faced,” noted Emily Howard, Vice President of PGAV, design firm on the project.
The TEA Thea Awards Judging Committee wrote, “The Entrance Experience at St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station represents a new generation of Aquarium Design….The utilization of immersive LED imagery, original music [in the Grand Lobby] and a simulated train ride that transports guests from past to present [the Union Station Express] makes this incredible new aquarium entrance experience cross the threshold into entertainment design in new and unexpected ways.”
The Grand Lobby is a high-ceilinged atrium featuring a state-of-the-art, media surround that cycles through 10 vignettes, utilizing a custom LED product developed by Miceli’s group. LHM President and COO Steve O’Loughlin discussed the project. “Our first exhibit in the Grand Lobby is the Grand Clock with freshwater habitat. Guests would queue, then do photos and then proceed into the Grand Lobby, prior to taking their virtual train ride on the Train Experience. We needed an immersive environment around the Grand Clock, so we explored visual content on the ceiling with a robust musical track. We opted for the LED screens for more impact, this being the first impression. John’s creative content helps make it pop. Guests are immediately immersed into this creative fantasy world and they take out their phones to video and take pictures.”
The Union Station Express simulated train ride uses two full-size, replica passenger rail cars to take guests on a symbolic journey and transition. O’Loughlin says, “We have John Goodman narrating the historical facts of Union Station, and John Miceli and his team helped curate a whimsical story of a train that can actually take off from its tracks to fly over St. Louis, then dive into the Mississippi River and down the delta to the ocean. We meet all kinds of river and sea creatures including a humpback whale before returning to the station to begin our journey into the aquarium. It’s a perfect blend of documenting historical facts while entertaining you at the same time in a virtual experience.”
The train’s 10 “windows” are synchronized 4K screens, each displaying media at 60 frames per second in 10-bit color, with 12-channel surround sound and bass shakers. “It needed to feel, sound and look real,” says Miceli. “It’s not a motion base experience, but fully capturing guests’ senses heightens their experience and exhilaration.”
“We are currently working on some new ideas with John for some enhancements to make the technology even more robust and immersive,” says O’Loughlin.
“The fact that it was all done on a limited budget simply qualifies it as a crowning achievement,” noted the Thea Awards Judging Committee.
The Entrance Experience for the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station will be showcased in Episode 6 of the Thea Awards Digital Case Studies on October 7, 2021. The presenters will be Steve O’Loughlin and John Miceli. The full credits list for the project is published in the 27th Annual Thea Awards Program. •