Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Teamwork: Wärtsilä and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Wärtsilä and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts partner to train the next generation of themed entertainment professionals

By Joe Kleiman


ABOVE: Teamwork and collaboration are built into the curriculum at UNCSA’s School of Design & Production, which supports more than 60 productions per year. Photo courtesy David Hillegas

We live in a digital age, where advances in technology are constantly expanding and changing the themed entertainment design industry. At the School of Design & Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), an education in working in the digital age begins with a pencil.

Michael Kelley, Dean of the School of Design & Production, elaborates: “We still start every student on drafting by hand before we take them to software like CAD and SketchUp. Fundamentals have to be taught. Everything after that is tool.”

Kelley looks at the international nature of the industry and why such a fundamental education is important. “If you’re working internationally and, say, you’re in China and you want to communicate, the easiest, most direct way to convey an idea is with pencil and paper.”

Wärtsilä and the School of Design & Production -a longtime connection

One company that has latched onto this concept of fundamental education is Wärtsilä Corporation, a 185-years-young, international specialist in marine engineering and energy systems based out of Finland. Primarily due to its work on entertainment venues aboard cruise ships, the company has found a niche providing AV and show integration within the land-based theme park and attractions market as well. High-profile projects include Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Dubai Parks and Resorts, and a number of Disney and Universal attractions worldwide.

Sean Reish, Vice President of Sales for Wärtsilä Entertainment Systems, frequently recruits from UNCSA’s School of Design & Production. “Wärtsilä is a high-profile commercial environment. Our employees need to be very creative, but they also need to deliver on time. There’s no time for mistakes. The School of Design & Production program prepares students for this environment.”

Reish’s statement is based on experience, as he is a graduate (1995) of the school’s MFA program himself. So is Dean Kelley (BFA, 1987), whose career over the ensuing decades gained him an intimate knowledge of the themed entertainment industry. His credits include the Jurassic Park Institute Tour, projects at Dubailand and Everland, and as a Producer on Shanghai Disney Resort, honored last year with a TEA Thea Award. Other Thea-honored projects in Kelley’s portfolio include CSI-The Experience and Tokyo DisneySea’s entertainment program.

Kelley’s wide ranging portfolio also features work on Broadway and award-winning television such as “Sesame Street” and “Deadwood.” “I’ve developed a basic understanding of the industry’s needs from a theatrical and an international global entertainment point of view.” He brings that understanding to his work as an educator. “This has allowed UNCSA to develop a deeper, more robust curriculum.”

Fellow alumni of the School of Design & Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Michael Kelley, (left) who is now dean of the school, and Sean Reish (right) , VP of sales for Wärtsilä Entertainment Systems, have partnered to help students gain real-world experience in themed entertainment.

Juilliard of the South

The school has its roots in traditional performance arts. University of North Carolina School of the Arts opened in Winston-Salem in 1965 as the country’s first public arts conservatory (known as North Carolina School of the Arts prior to 2008). Famed composer Vittorio Giannini, a Juilliard alumnus and faculty member, became its first Chancellor, envisioning UNCSA as the “Juilliard of the South.” Upon his death in 1966, another Juilliard alumnus and faculty member, composer Robert Ward, replaced him as Chancellor. Ward removed technical arts from the School of Drama and installed them in the newly inaugurated School of Design & Production, which would now offer degrees in areas such as costuming, production design, and lighting. Under UNCSA’s third Chancellor, Robert Suderberg, an MFA in Theatre Design & Production was established in 1982.

The roots of themed entertainment design

Performing arts are intrinsic to themed entertainment design. The first Disney Imagineers were studio artists – animators such as Bill Contrell and John Hench, illustrators, show writers, machinists, and scenic carpenters. Facades and interiors on Disneyland were designed as if guests were walking through a three-dimensional film set. Among the opening attractions was the Golden Horseshoe Review, a fully staged theatrical presentation.

Theater and film/music technology have, of course, likewise extended beyond the traditional live theater environment. A lighting design background, for instance, can go a long way in themed entertainment. As just one example, lighting designers Norm Schwab and John Featherstone came out of college lighting concerts and plays, eventually forming Lightswitch, a leading lighting design firm specializing in, among other things, attractions and museum exhibits. The firm has received numerous accolades for its work, including seven Thea Award honored projects.

After graduating from Penn State University with a BFA in Stage Management in 2006, Kevin Cartier found his way to Wärtsilä Entertainment Systems, where he eventually served as the company’s Project Manager on Motiongate and Bollywood Parks Dubai theme parks and the connecting Riverland themed retail and dining complex. In this position, he oversaw installation and implementation of a number of systems, including attraction- specific audio, video, and control systems for 54 rides and attractions and park-wide audio and paging systems for all three areas. The scope and scale of this themed development was a first for the region, with the DreamWorks zone in Motiongate receiving a TEA Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2018.

UNCSA’s annual “Photona” production allows senior lighting designers to flex their creative muscles, working with state-of-the-art equipment on loan from industry partners. Photo courtesy Andy Tennille

Hands-on training on a university level

Wärtsilä’s Reish recalls his education at the School of Design & Production as being “very much like a vocational school. We did a lot of actual work rather than just learning about how to do the work. My course of study was automation and control, and it was a very intensive program. From 8:00 a.m. until noon, we were in class, then from 2:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m we were in shop, doing the craft and working the shows. It’s a very intense environment that prepares students for the real world. By the third year, you’ve found a way to excel and manage your time, and you have thick skin.”

Reish realized that the kind of student coming out of the School of Design & Production was ideal for Wärtsilä and began working with the School of Design & Production on implementing a recruitment process.

“We became a good steward to the school’s students in a way that we could positively influence their learning. We’ve a very AV-centric company. We work with audio, DSP, projection, visual displays and amplifiers. In the integration world, students only have access to live entertainment. That’s why we helped develop a training lab at the school, for which we donated equipment in kind. We also helped influence a class track for students where they spend a semester focusing on the tools used at Wärtsilä. Ben Steiner, a Wärtsilä engineer recently recruited from the school, joins me for a three-day DSP session on campus when requested by the instructors.”

The alumni network

The alumni network from UNCSA is a strong one. Reish recalls one of his first jobs after graduating, as Technical Manager at the Universal Orlando Resort. “There were 11 of us UNCSA alumni working together at the park that year.” Reish remains close to the alumni network, attending get-togethers during IAAPA and TEA events.

He also participates in an annual career fair held at the school. “The career fair is held just for students of the School of Design & Production,” says Dean Kelley. “During the last fair, we had 70 individuals representing 50 companies – both suppliers and users. I would say 50% of the participants are alumni, recruiting for their companies.”

He continues: “The alumni self-perpetuate the network that’s been developed. Sean knows our students will make great employees, because he was one and has continued to work with them throughout his career.”

Cruise ship projects, like the Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas outdoor amphitheater, showcase Wärtsilä’s skills in both the nautical world and in themed entertainment. Photo courtesy of Wärtsilä

Trait #1: Team player

Within the themed entertainment industry, teamwork is essential. This is an important factor not only internally within a company, but – as design, fabrication, and installation processes are all collaborative – teamwork with clients and vendors is essential to the successful completion of a project.

This is why, according to Reish, the most important element in that process is an employee who is a team player. “Wärtsilä is a culture of many, where we succeed by working in a close-knit team environment. We’re looking for people who can bridge the gap between creativity and science. Our technology supports the story, but ultimately technology is just one tool to tell a story.”

Kelley elaborates on the teambuilding experience at the school. “We have to build collaborative teams – since we’re looking at 60- plus productions per year. It’s necessary to have a tight team to get these done. We set up our teams on day one, and our students know that if they fail, the next guy’s going to have to run with it.”

Kelley points out that UNCSA is not about developing “perfect” artists. “While we strive for excellence and quality in our student work, that’s secondary to producing well-rounded citizen artists who will enrich our culture.”

Teaching themed entertainment

In contrast to schools that incorporate design and production within their drama programs, UNCSA’s School of Design & Production is unique in being an independent, standalone conservatory with a Dean trained and experienced in production design at its helm. Kelley determined it would be in the school’s best interests to “mimic the industry and what it’s looking for. The next generation is now stepping in and they’ll take things to the next level.”

Not long ago, degree programs directly addressing careers in the attraction industry simply did not exist, but a number of leading arts and engineering schools now offer tracts specializing in themed entertainment design. Here are some in the US and Canada:

Among the first was Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, whose Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) maintains a partnership with Walt Disney Imagineering. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) near Los Angeles, and Florida State University (FSU) have also developed themed entertainment curriculum. All four schools – Carnegie Mellon, SCAD, FSU (through its Ringling Museum of Art) and CalArts, have played host to the TEA SATE conference (Story + Architecture + Technology = Entertainment).

Beyond the alumni connections that bind companies with universities, another network has developed as professionals involved in the themed entertainment and attractions fields enter academia. MK Haley, who played an instrumental role in bridging themed entertainment with media technology and interactivity while a faculty member at the ETC, has been a creative visionary at Walt Disney Imagineering for a quarter century. At SCAD, Peter Weishar, Dean of Entertainment Arts, hired a number of experienced Imagineers, including George Head, to help develop the college’s Themed Entertainment Design program. Currently, Weishar is Director of the MFA in Themed Entertainment program at the University of Central Florida (UCF). And, of course, Dean Kelley is a prime example of the convergence of themed entertainment design and academia.

These relationships enrich the curriculum, help the schools stay current with the field, and provide an important direct conduit to future talent for businesses like Wärtsilä.

Competitions also create opportunities for students to seek out both mentors and internships while demonstrating their talents and are an established way for companies to scout potential employees. Ryerson University’s Professor Kathryn Woodcock, whose THRILL Lab studies the application of human factors engineering on amusement rides and attractions, is co-director of an intercollegiate thrill design competition, co-sponsored by Universal Creative. The competition takes place every year at the Universal Orlando resort during the week of the annual IAAPA Expo. A recent Cornell University competition featured mentors from Disney, Universal, and Dynamic Attractions, along with judges from such stalwart firms as Alcorn McBride, Raven Sun Creative, and WhiteWater.

Ra.One: Unleashed at Bollywood Park is one of many attractions inside Dubai Parks & Resorts where Wärtsilä’s AV integration abilities were needed for the large multi-park resort environment. Photo courtesy of Wärtsilä

Academia and the TEA

UNCSA’s School of Design & Production, along with Carnegie Mellon, SCAD, FSU, UCF, CalArts, and Ryerson University are inaugural members of the TEA’s new Academic Network. Many schools now also host a TEA@University club on campus – including schools that don’t have specific curriculum, but do have relevant programs in such areas as engineering and design. “This has given students another outlet for a career choice we haven’t had before and they were probably not aware of,” says Kelley. “We’re able to give them different viewpoints and introduce them to industry leaders. This past year, 16 students and eight faculty attended the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. The further we go, the deeper we’ll get.”

Kelley looks at students as embodying the vanguard of emerging trends. “Up to now, the industry has been based around devised entertainment,” he says. “The next breath in the industry is participatory storytelling, which attracts younger audience members. We need to position our students as storytellers in this arena immediately.”

Says Reish: “Wärtsilä is a very large international company and we do university outreach all over the world. The students that come out of UNCSA are very well rounded.” The University is within the top 10 in the country for producing talent.

For potential future students wanting to pursue a career in themed entertainment design, Kelley recommends, “Develop yourself as a person. Read books, watch movies, visit museums, go to the theater. We want the complete person that can think outside the box. While you’re in high school, have fun, study the craft, and most importantly, develop you.” • • •

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.

Related Articles

Latest Articles