Thinkwell’s Dave Cobb – Theme Park Nerdity and Jurassic Dreams

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Thinkwell, one of the world’s leading experience design and themed entertainment firms, specialises in creating narrative-driven attractions, branded experiences, live shows and themed environments for attractions operators, resorts and brands. Clients include Universal Studios, Shedd Aquarium, Dreamworks SSKG and Nike.

Charles Read caught up with Senior Creative Director Dave Cobb, to find out about Thinkwell’s projects in China, themed entertainment design and why working with dinosaurs, aliens and a monkey makes for a truly great job.

How did you get into the industry?

I started as a studio guide at Universal, right out of high school in 1987. Originally, I wanted to get into the movie industry, and the tour was a fun way to get immersed in that world – but ultimately, I ended up finding this other strange little industry that fascinated me, when I stumbled into an entry-level position at Universal Planning & Development (now known as Universal Creative) as an Assistant Project Coordinator on the production of “Back to the Future: The Ride” at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1992.

You’ve worked both on the client and vendor sides of the themed entertainment business. What are the key differences in terms of the creative process?
All good design is about problem solving, and many people perceive that there’s this huge rift between the “creatives” and the “client”, like they each have different problems to solve, like it’s supposed to be antagonistic by design. I don’t accept that for a minute – across the board, I’ve had great experiences both as a client and as a vendor, when you make it all about partnering together on a common goal. It’s all about creating a partnership. My best professional relationships, regardless of what “side” they’re on as client or vendor, have always been about agreeing on a common creative goal and figuring out the steps to get there together.
Naturally, figuring out that goal is the hard part; but immediately falling into “us vs. them” is lazy and unproductive. Sometimes it’s about careful education of a client, teaching them the creative process and why, in the end, it will benefit them to stick to that process; just as importantly, creative folks need to be able to think like their client, like the “money people,” like venue operators, because even the most awesome creative ideas are worth nothing if they don’t work in the real world, or come in on-budget, or are profitable for your clients.
Related to that, I like to debunk the myth of the “totally blank page” – the idea that good ideas only come from free, unfettered, totally blue-sky thinking – because it’s simply not true. Ask any artist, the most frightening thing in the world is to stare at a blank canvas, so having boundaries to that canvas – in themed-entertainment terms, things like scope, scale, demographic, location, and yes, budget – helps immensely in defining the creative process and keeping it efficient.
Which was the most difficult attraction to create and why?
I’d love to say something clever like “the latest project is always the most difficult because everything we do is unique and blah blah blah…” because it’s true, we’re an industry who tries to avoid creating the same thing over and over like a cookie cutter. As a business, we’re not designing one widget and manufacturing it by the millions for distribution all over the world, we’re just the opposite – making one thing that we hope people flock to by the millions. So it’s somewhat true – the next project is always the hardest, because we always try to create something new and fresh that will rise above the rest of a very small, very crowded industry. But, that could be said about any form of entertainment, really.
So I’ll say that Men in Black: Alien Attack at Universal Orlando was one of the more exhausting projects I’ve been lucky to be involved with, for a myriad of reasons. It was the largest dark-ride that Universal had ever built at the time, and while there’s nothing particularly prototypical about its components or hardware, no one had ever put them all together quite like that before, at that scale, or on such an accelerated schedule. Dual synchronized tracks, massive sets, dozens of custom animated alien characters, laser-tag-style game play with multiple endings. It was a lot of big ideas that had to come together seamlessly – and most astonishingly, in a mere 28 months from blue-sky concept to opening day. It was a very fast-track schedule, so everyone involved had to be on point, and we had to make creative decisions very quickly. It was an exhilarating challenge, with an incredible team of exceedingly talented people.
Thinkwell is designing the Monkey Kingdom theme park, expected to open in 2014 outside Beijing. What is your role?
I’m the Senior Creative Director for the park. My job has been to work with our writers, art directors, and show designers to make sure we’re adapting these stories in the most exciting and authentic ways possible.
Were you familiar with the Monkey story and what efforts have you made to understand the place that the story has in Chinese culture?
These are stories that are quite literally embedded in the DNA of a billion people, so it was quite intimidating for us as westerners, because we knew we had to do them justice. I read Monkey (the best-known English translation by Arthur Waley) in junior high, and have had a few previous projects over the years involving the stories from Journey to the West, so I was lucky to already have a little bit of exposure to them before we began our early concepts in 2010. Since then, the entire team has spent a lot of time reading and experiencing the original stories – from multiple sources and translations, TV shows, movies, and comic books – absorbing them and learning to love them for the same reasons that the Chinese have loved them for centuries: they’re exciting, they’re funny, and they’re full of memorable characters. We have also had the careful guidance and input from our client, cultural consultants, and even some of Thinkwell’s in-house Chinese design staff, who grew up with these stories.
Are you working closely with Chinese creatives in bringing the story to life?
Our client has a very strong vision for this to be a world-class theme park experience, and has been very supportive in our creative development. We have involved numerous Chinese cultural consultants and specialists – writers, directors, filmmakers, and academics – all of whom have vetted our work so far with flying colours. It’s thrilling, terrifying and exciting to watch their reactions when we pitch a show or attraction based on a story they’ve been familiar with all their lives – and especially gratifying to know when we’ve gotten it right, when we’ve combined both the soul and spirit of the original stories and Chinese culture with our own sensibilities for theme-park spectacle.
This isn’t the only Monkey Kingdom park planned or even in existence, the theme is very popular in China. How will you make yours the best?
We’ve come up with an aesthetic and a design philosophy that both honours and expands upon the original stories, creating an all-new way for Chinese families to experiences the stories they know and love. Of course we’re integrating the latest technologies and techniques – but at heart, we’re putting guests right in the middle of these stories, immersing them in a completely believable fantasy world that combines the rich oral history of Chinese folk tales with the spectacle and “wow” factor of a world-class theme park.
What other major projects are you and Thinkwell working on?
We are currently breaking ground on Jurassic Dream, a unique and cutting-edge indoor theme park in Northern China, which immerses guests in the world of dinosaurs in new and exciting ways. That one is very exciting because of the unique location — which is known for its massive fossil finds. It definitely makes my inner-dino-loving-eight-year-old very, very, very excited. Rawr!
The attractions industry is resilient compared to some in times of economic hardship. What developments do you think will be important to the theme park business in the coming decade?
For Thinkwell, it’s been about diversification. When I describe what I do to people, most assume that we “design rides,” but it’s far more diverse than that. Most of my work is actually in museums, touring shows, live events, unique branded experiences, and other forms of location-based design.
Do you think parks and rides that are not themed and have no IP attractions still have value?
There’s certainly room for old-school iron-ride parks, pleasure piers, and the like. But theming and IP, done well, can enhance even the simplest of carnival rides. Part of the brilliance of the original Disneyland, after the groundbreaking dark rides and large-scale story-based attractions, was how it took simpler mechanics of amusement and gave them emotional context. Twirling carnival spinners became flights with Dumbo. Roller coasters became bobsled rides through the Matterhorn. The crass hodgepodge of the midway became the orderly, aspirational, reassuring theatre of the Magic Kingdom.
Most importantly, it’s about context, not sheer cost. Saying that “theming costs too much money” is lazy. Even low-budget, no-IP parks can be designed to be comfortable, beautiful, and emotionally resonant to their guests. It just takes thoughtfulness and care, and an understanding of the guest experience. It’s not all about scenery and special effects – theme is also about comfort, landscaping, soundscape, amenity, cast member training, and tons of other little things that go into placemaking that people respond to emotionally.
Have you ever worked on a project where the IP, the character or the movie upon which the attraction was based didn’t particularly appeal to you?
My job is to understand why audiences respond to certain characters and IP – even if I’m not a fan, per se, it’s up to me to dissect the love and affinity and passion that people have for characters and stories, and what makes them tick. It’s why I love going to Comic-Con every year – I may not be “into” every single character or cosplay, but man, do I love seeing everyone flying their freak flag. That kind of passion is infectious, so getting inside the head of that kind of love and affection for a brand is part of the job: being open and inquisitive to the mechanics of spectacle, story, and emotion, and understanding how to apply that to the widest possible audience.
How does the scrutiny of the theme park fan base inform or influence a theme park designer?
As I’ve said to many a theme-park fan: “I’m one of you.” I didn’t have internet message boards when I was growing up, so my theme-park nerdity was mostly fostered alone; the fact that we have a thriving fan culture who obsesses about every little detail is amazing to me. By and large, the fans I meet in person are a cool bunch of folks who love this stuff, which is very inspiring to us as designers. Of course, every party has its pooper and there will always be a segment of fandom that’s about complaining and negativity – but by and large, that’s just the inevitable anonymity of the internet. The fans who I’ve had face time are a passionate and mostly positive bunch, fuelled by the philosophy of what we do and eager to be part of that discourse. When they ask me about “how to get into the industry,” my first answer is always “work in a theme park,” because understanding the business of the industry from the ground up is essential. Armchair quarterbacks are a dime a dozen – but someone who can merge their passion with practical application can go very far in this industry.
Are there any particular brands/characters you feel would lend themselves to a theme park attraction?
More than anything, I want to visit the Grid of TRON — riding a Lightcycle or boarding the Solar Sailer would be a dream come true. Also, I want to explore the landscapes and interact with the characters of Middle Earth. Either of those would make me very, very happy.
With visitors demanding more interactivity as at home entertainment evolves, how do you see theme parks competing and are there any innovations out there now that excite you?
That’s an article unto itself, and a much bigger discussion. Suffice it to say, the kind of exploration that Disney is doing with attractions like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and their new Fast Pass Plus – embedding content and gamification into physical places, personalization and customization of physical experiences, extending the park experience past the physical boundaries of the park and into online & mobile experiences – are all worth watching.
Live Park in Korea was a really interesting bunch of ideas; a fascinating collection of technology and some really unique environmental uses of video projection.
Innovation that is technology-based is interesting – but innovation that is behaviour-based is more revolutionary. Tapping into the behaviours of our audience – which are fundamentally changing due to factors like video games and social networking – is what will lead to truly revolutionary new forms of location-based entertainment. It won’t be about a single new technology or widget or piece of software.
What impact do you think Gamification will have in the themed entertainment industry?
For our industry, gamification is just a fancy new word for interactivity, really. (See: What Can Gamification Offer Theme Parks And Attractions?) It’s using the tenets and psychology of games in things that aren’t necessarily games. I saw products at the Gamification Summit that were enterprise project-management systems that used gamified techniques in business – leaderboards, badges, etc. – crazy and exciting stuff.
The mantra seems to be that in ten years we won’t call it “gamification,” we’ll just call it “good design” – because it’s evolving user interfaces of all kinds to be more fun, more emotionally engaging, and more rewarding. At the same token, turning everything into a game could also render the idea of “games” less special.
Just as “the internet” begat “blogging” begat “social networking” begat “user created content” – it’s all still evolving. It’s easy to forget that most of the technologies we’re talking about are only a decade or two old. Think about the silicon snake oil we were sold in the early 1990s when “virtual reality” would swallow us up into digital worlds – but it sort of evolved into the inverse of that. We all have digital lives now, but we don’t want to spend all of our time there, because they’re still somewhat clunky and noisy. The real world is our escape from the digital world now.
The bottom line is, we now have three generations (mine included) who have grown up on video games as a major part of their social and entertainment diet. Just as radio evolved the vaudeville audience, and TV & movies shaped the boomers – audiences are different now, and their expectations are going to keep evolving. It’s nothing new for theme parks, though – attractions have evolved from carny spectacle to passive operettas to first-person narrative adventures to interactive games. If anything, theme parks are a smaller, more controlled “walled gardens” to experiment with wilder and more granular forms of gamification, interactivity, and personalization. Just as we’ve evolved previous industrial tech into public forms of entertainment – flight simulation, special-venue cinema, robotics – we’ll be at the forefront for new forms of large-scale group interactivity.
Outside of this business, what are your other passions?
Horror movies, film scores, pop music with ear-worm harmonies, and great street food all rate pretty high with me. I try to read a lot — I tend to gravitate towards speculative fiction, thrillers, horror, mystery and themes of magical realism — so I always have a Kindle full of books and comics to catch up on. Also, I’m a terrible videogame player, but I love them anyway and play them constantly.
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