Interview by Joe Kleiman
Media is a vital component of the new SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi park, open since June 2023. In this exclusive interview, InPark explored the role and achievements of Executive Producer Thinkwell Group, how Thinkwell’s global team interacted with developer/operator Miral Group and with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, how they collaborated with other creatives on the project, and Thinkwell’s estimable track record in the Middle East. Interviewees:
- Amin Rashmani – Managing Director, MENA, TAIT & Thinkwell
- Cory Asrilant – Project Director, Thinkwell
- Cynthia Sharpe – Senior Principal & Executive Creative Director, Thinkwell
- Cory Watson – Executive Producer, Thinkwell Media
- Cindy Tsujimura – Producer, Thinkwell Media
- Tina Blakeney – Principal, Thinkwell, Montreal
How did Thinkwell become involved in the project?
Rashmani: Over the years, Thinkwell has built a solid relationship with Miral by delivering multiple projects on and beyond Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. We were contacted by Miral to review the excellent work created by PGAV and compliment it by assuming the role of the Executive Producer for the live shows, media, and soundscape around the park. This was particularly important for One Ocean [the central hub featuring a cinematic spectacle on a 360-degree LED screen of unprecedented size], as our role involved guiding the visioning and development of the One Ocean show and integrating that work into the other creative content and development throughout the park happening with other partners.
What was the scope of Thinkwell’s role at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi?
Asrilant: Thinkwell was responsible for the design and implementation of all park entertainment, media, and soundscape – from early “blue sky” development, through procurement and fabrication, all the way to creative integration, rehearsals, and pre-opening operation. Our internal teams across all global Thinkwell locations contributed to the project, across media, creative, technical, and more. The biggest areas of the park within our focus were One Ocean, the Armillary [the gateway to the two polar realms, featuring a projected fulldome presentation], and Hypersphere 360 [a simulator ride through the World Ocean in a 360-degree LED sphere, located in the Arctic Realm] plus Pearl Dive and the live entertainment (street shows, performers, magicians, and more).
Tell us about some of the external team members.
Asrilant: Thinkwell contracted with a variety of consultants, contributors, and vendors. Costumes were designed by The Costume Connection and fabricated by Limelight out of Hong Kong as well as Custom Characters in Los Angeles. Some of our larger props and set pieces were built by Def Lab and Adirondack Studios, Animax built the puppets and animatronics. Some of our media vendors included MacGillivray Freeman Films, Filmworks out of Dubai, and Mousetrappe. Much of the media was also produced by our own Thinkwell Media team.
Tell us more about creating One Ocean, Hypersphere, and Armillary.
Tsujimura: It took many conversations with SeaWorld to find the heart of the One Ocean story. The hardest part was determining what to exclude, with so much information about the importance of the ocean. In the end, SeaWorld decided on the key elements to showcase.
Then it was our job to make sure it was told in the most engaging and immersive way possible on the massive One Ocean screen: 360-degrees around, 4.5 stories tall (60% of the size and scale of the Statue of Liberty!) and over 22K resolution – the world’s first screen of that size and scale. Filming in 360 can be immersive and magical, but also can turn simple tasks like a lens change into a big challenge. You really have to consider the benefits and challenges – such as cost, safety, equipment, potential natural elements – especially when filming in the ocean and in some of the most tech-unfriendly parts of the world. We had to invent our own camera rig and system in order to accomplish the underwater filming for this format, which was its own feat. Led by Thinkwell Media, all live action footage in the field was captured by MacGillivray Freeman Films through custom-built drones and underwater rigs.
For the Hypersphere 360, the intent was to create an original, visually stylized animated film that would work in conjunction with a unique ride system to fully engage and immerse the guests. We kept the show fast, fun and full of wondrous facts about our planet’s One Ocean. The experience is hosted and driven by courageous Captain Jules and her loveable sidekick V·E·R·N·E. V·E·R·N·E is actually realized as both an original animated character in the film, and also as an animatronic in the park guests can interact with.
Blakeney: The Armillary is a fully immersive, 360 dome walk-through multimedia experience celebrating the natural contrast and diversity of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The physical environment is thematically and visually designed to represent an ancient Armillary – an instrument designed to demonstrate the movement of the celestial sphere about a stationary Earth at its center. The animated Armillary rings appear as extensions of the physical armillary structure, and are used as a critical storytelling and transitional device between scenes, modules and themes.
The dynamic content spans an hour in total, with ambient pieces and four story modules: The Constellations, Global Currents, 24 Hours Of Light And Dark and Life At The Poles. The Ambient modules showcase the beauty and unique phenomena of the Arctic and Antarctic Landscape as well as the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.
How does the media complement the animal experiences?
Watson: The wildlife filming on this project adds crucial color, context and texture to the animal experience as well as bringing audiences closer to the far ends of the oceans. We aim for the media to help tell a more emotional and personal story to make guests feel even more connected to the ocean that connects all of us around the globe.
How did Thinkwell enforce authenticity for this mission-driven park?
Sharpe: It starts with identifying every area where we may need Subject Matter Expert (SME) guidance or input, and lining up those resources. It’s important to get the science right, and SeaWorld was a great partner in that. We also reached out to experts from AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, and worked with top talent in marine photography and videography. On the history and culture side, we worked with an array of SMEs, from textile design and puppetry to music and history. This work began in the earliest creative phases, to ensure we were accurate and respectful about every detail. We consistently revisited our SME talent pool to see if we needed to add more expertise.
Why was this a great match for Thinkwell’s capabilities?
Rashmani: Four main reasons: 1) a multi-disciplinary team, 2) our technological solutions, 3) the project delivery and 4) our strong regional presence. Our large, multi-disciplinary executive producing team oversaw the creative development and was responsible for alignment with SeaWorld’s requirements. We effectively managed diverse and globally dispersed teams and vendors in the challenging first years of the pandemic to ensure successful delivery of the project. Our strong presence on the ground between our teams in Abu Dhabi and our network and talent pool in the region, which helped us across the entire project lifecycle.
You’ve had other successes in the region including the US Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. How does this complement Thinkwell’s existing Middle East portfolio?
Rashmani: We’re very proud of our success in the region, and even more so with the diverse types of projects we’ve been involved in over the last decade. Our work on SeaWorld, coupled with our involvement on Warner Bros. World and Ferrari World, highlights not only our expertise in themed entertainment, but also our strategic partnership with Miral in creating a world-class, multi-day entertainment destination on Yas Island. Over the last decade we have also delivered multiple snow parks, museums, expos, and urban attractions in the region. We are committed to delivering extraordinary experiences and maintaining a strong presence in the region, and dedicated to pushing the boundaries of guest experience in this vibrant MENA market.
What are some aspects of the project you’re most proud of?
Asrilant: The breathtaking scale of the media elements in the park. Guests walk in and their jaws drop when they see the size and scale of everything, beginning with One Ocean. Our teams engineered and invented new ways to capture and deliver the epic media required for this epic park.
Tsujimura: The authenticity and heart throughout the live entertainment, all of the media, and the One Ocean spectacular. At every scale, it helps people form real connections to the ocean and its incredible creatures. Everything was thought through so minutely, from the finest details on the puppeteer’s costume to the biggest of gestures in One Ocean.
Watson: The entire team at Thinkwell Media and the many technology specialists, underwater filmmaking experts, and filmmakers who helped us successfully deliver this monumental creative and technological achievement. We built a world-class team. We are also extremely proud of the wonderful collaboration with our clients at Miral and SeaWorld, and all our media vendors.