JRA’s Colin Cronin speaks to the power of crafting stories before designing experiences
interview by Martin Palicki
ABOVE: Conceptual artwork of Lionsgate Park. Courtesy JRA.
[quote]Storybuilding is not narrative. Storybuilding refers to the environment we want the guest to be in, and what role they are playing in that environment. The storybuilding concept ties into rides, shows or exhibits, but it’s also critical with food and beverage, retail, and general area development.” — Colin Cronin, Senior Designer, JRA[/quote]
In his role as senior designer at JRA, Colin Cronin has contributed to the successful launch of a number of theme parks, attractions and museums around the world. Through his work in master planning, conceptualization and idea generation, Colin has learned to wield the concept of storybuilding as a key tool in JRA’s design process. With InPark, Colin discussed how the process of storybuilding is affected by today’s emphasis on IP, technology and increasing demands for immersive experiences.
First, tell us how you got started in the industry.
Initially, I went to the University of Cincinnati and trained as an industrial designer. As is common for a lot of people in this field, I didn’t realize themed attraction design as a career was even possible. While I was in school, JRA (also located in Cincinnati) was working on a dinosaur theme park and they were offering an internship. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I applied – and got it. I started out doing illustration and concept design and over time found myself working on all kinds of different aspects of JRA’s projects. Now, almost 10 years later, I’m working on the master planning side of the business.
What is storybuilding?
The basic premise of storybuilding is that we approach a project from the perspective of the guest experience as a whole. We aim to figure out the story that we want to tell to the guest – which is different than a specific narrative. Storybuilding refers to the environment we want the guest to be in, and what role they are playing in that environment.
Figuring out how the guest fits into the overall experience informs the individual storylines in the attractions – and it applies equally to theme parks and museums. A science museum may have a storybuilding concept that “kids are the scientists” or “matching predator to prey.” It can be a much simpler story, but it’s still integral to the experience. Sometimes the story is right up front in the experience, and sometimes it is an unseen narrative. When JRA planned and designed LEGOLAND parks in California and Windsor, UK, we were told that the underlying story was “the child is the hero.” Every attraction within the park had to make the child the dashing knight, brave firefighter, or daring racecar driver. But you will never see the words “the child is the hero” anywhere in the park.
I think for every single type of attraction, folks think first about how the storybuilding concept ties into the more narrative based experiences (rides, shows or exhibits), but it’s also critical with food and beverage, retail, and general area development. This is what the lighting in that area would look like. Here are the plants one would find in this zone. This is what people who lived here would eat.
Storybuilding helps guide us and lets us know right away if we are on target and things fit together. I think it also adds a lot to the immersive experience.
A really effective example of this is when Disney’s California Adventure opened Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! The park added a pop-up food truck area near the ride. Each truck sold alien-like food based on the IP. I ordered something silly like nachos that came with weird-colored sauces, but it helped to make the experience more immersive for me.
How do you integrate IP into storybuilding?
There are certain things with IP that are easy, aesthetic stuff that you can get out of the way right away, like logos, color matches and fonts. Then, if we are applying the concept of storybuilding to an IP, we have to boil down the IP to its essence. We strain out superfluous information and figure out what makes this particular brand different from the others – why do people react to it in a certain way?
How we treat the storybuilding can depend on the IP. For example, a lot of film IP is driven by characters, and so we have to figure out who the guest is in relation to the characters. In a Batman world, for example, you don’t get to be Batman, but you might get to be Robin. Other IPs are centered around being part of a larger group. Maybe you are in a rebel group fighting evil, or you’re having fun with a group of pirates. Some are focused on an environment and allow the guest to experience a place. The Lord of the Rings IP, for instance, is all about being in Middle Earth and experiencing those locations.
Figuring out the guest’s role in relation to the IP and the action happening is critical in developing the rest of the attraction. For example, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3D and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man utilize similar ride systems at Universal parks. In Spider-Man, you are not directly a part of the action. You are playing the role of a photographer, observing and experiencing, but you’re not a superhero. In Transformers, the IP is based in part on humans helping the Autobots save the world, and you are helping protect the AllSpark throughout the attraction. Of course, on both attractions you are merely riding a vehicle, but I think a lot happens subconsciously.
In most cases, the studios and the IP owners already know the essence of their IP because that helps them grow the IP. But some of it comes from our own experience. It is rare that we don’t have someone in the office who isn’t a fan of whatever IP or brand we are working on. When JRA was working on World of Coca-Cola, we had an office full of people who could talk about how the brand fit into their lives. For our current project with Lionsgate, the fact that so many of us are fans of their various film properties has really benefited our planning and design work for Lionsgate Movie World.
Who is involved in storybuilding and IP decisions?
We call that group the content creators or owners, although whom that includes is different every time. With many IPs you just have the movie studio. Sometimes the original creator may come into the discussions. Studio marketing teams also have an interest.
The IP holder always has final sign off and approval. In most situations there is a brand czar – a group or an individual person – who has to approve everything. Sometimes it will be the original creator. Sometimes it is a legal team that is approving things. More and more, however, IP holders have dedicated people covering the LBE market.
Ok, so you’ve figured out the essence of a story, how do you align the IP with the experience?
A lot of times they coalesce at the same time. We are storybuilders but we are also designers. We look at the overall experience and meeting different guests’ needs.
Usually you can get three-quarters of the way there by letting the IPs tell you what kind of attraction they want to be. Then you have to go over the whole thing again with the mindset of creating a well-rounded experience. When you realize there is an element missing, you have to figure out where it fits in best and why.
Does the process end up becoming formulaic?
I don’t think so, because each IP is so different. We are moving past what I call our Mt. Rushmore of pop culture and moving into niche experiences. I would consider AVATAR to be a niche IP. It made a lot of money, but hasn’t had a commanding presence in the world for the last 20 years. Batman, by comparison, has been part of pop culture since 1939. Nevertheless, Disney was able to identify what people connected with in Avatar, and made a whole land focused on that essence, creating a jolt of that emotion for guests. The success of Pandora and its attractions proves that the interval did not hurt.
How do you work with and manage digital assets related to the IP?
We start out working with what they have. Typically, at a base level it will be some marketing materials, maybe some dailies from films, logos, posters and things of that nature. From there we start to ask them for items that we find we need. In a lot of cases it’s not reasonable to ask for everything, which amounts to terabytes of data. Once we start doing our homework we can ask for specific details. Then the studio may send us 3D models from a flyover shot, or photos from specific buildings. It makes our work easier but, even more importantly, helps us know we are on track.
How is technology changing the way you build stories?
Technology has changed what is possible, but it still has to fit the IP. For example, when we worked on the first Crayola Experience in Pennsylvania, Crayola wanted to include some technology based experiences, But because their IP is so intimately tied to physical interactions with paper, they didn’t want it to be full of screens.
An interactive touch wall of monitors would not be appropriate for Lord of the Rings. But you could do that
for something like Hunger Games and it would fit really well. I like to let the tech be driven by the needs of the messaging.
At their core, theme parks are an essential way to have a communal experience with pop culture. There is a lot of debate about personal tech (smartphones, VR, AR, etc.) and how it has a tendency to make communal experiences individual. Figuring out how to have both is the Holy Grail that has not been solved yet. The most effective so far is Pokémon Go. It’s an app based on personal technology, yet it is communal and people engage around it.
Looking ahead, we have had a lot of discussions about multiple rides in a zone that could talk to one another, allowing something you do in one ride to affect your experience in another. With the growth of projection mapping and 3D tech, we are in a place where a dark ride experience could easily be different for different people. For a storybuilder, that’s very exciting. • • •