The world's a stage for Hollywood artisans

Whether they’re conceptualizing five-star Persian Gulf Xanadus in between film jobs, or designing immersive retail landscapes on the side, film designers have proved themselves to be adept moonlighters. Some of them take sabbaticals from moviemaking to envision the entertainment environments of the future.

It started in the 1950s when Walt Disney handpicked his favorite staff artists to work on his theme parks. Film folks like John DeCuir, Henry Bumstead and Randall Duell became pioneers of themed attractions. Today, the two major theme-park design companies — Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative — continue to cherry-pick from Hollywood for their billion-dollar pleasure-domes.

Designer Adrian Gorton (“Changeling,” “The Last Samurai”) has gone back and forth between movies and themed-entertainment design for 30 years. “If there’s a story you want to tell through design, a place-making, transporting kind of experience you want to create — that’s where people like us can help,” he says.

Gorton’s nonfilm resume is formidable. He was lead designer on Malaysia’s Sama World theme park, was one of six art directors who worked on Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando and is supervising art director for entertainment-venue development firm Thinkwell Group, which is working on a major studio-backed theme park in Abu Dhabi.

Burgeoning development in the Middle East has kept Gorton and his peers very busy. NBC Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks have all announced licensing deals for new theme-park ventures in Dubai. While the recent economic downturn has slowed progress (Universal Studios Dubailand’s opening has been delayed from 2010 until the first quarter of 2012), the Persian Gulf remains a lucrative hub for Hollywood’s design A-list.

Thinkwell hires film designers to help create large-scale developments for its clients — including Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s famous indoor ski resort. Production designers are suited to such projects “because they know how a space can communicate a specific message” says Thinkwell creative veep Randy Ewing.

Veteran film designer Norm Newberry (“Beowulf,” “War of the Worlds”) is a member of that community of film designers, most of whom have some affiliation with Disney Imagineering and/or Universal Creative, who are regularly lured off-set to work on billion-dollar commercial projects. In 1987, Newberry replaced Bumstead as head of Universal Creative’s art department, overseeing projects like the “Jaws” special effects rides at Universal Studios in Orlando and Osaka, Japan; the “Back to the Future: The Ride” in Japan; and the 12-minute “T2 3-D” theatrical attraction in Japan, Orlando and Los Angeles — said to be the most expensive venture in movie history on a per-minute basis.

Lately Newberry has shifted his focus back to film. “Most designers always want to get back to film, eventually,” he says, “although the really nice thing about theme parks is that at the end of it, there’s something permanent there that you can be proud of. On film, your work’s on celluloid.”

Another prolific moonlighter, Jack Taylor (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River”) was one of Bumstead’s favorite art directors. Taylor is redesigning the 3.3-acre Universal Studios backlot that was extensively damaged by fire last May. “In this industry, the only security you have is your insecurity,” Taylor says. “You work for six weeks or six months, and then you could be off for a couple of months. So I always like to keep something on the back burner.” For Taylor, this can mean small interior design projects, too — he converted Robert Duvall’s cow barn in Virginia, updated Barbra Streisand’s home in Malibu and created interiors for Clint Eastwood’s private golf club near Monterey.

It goes both ways. Celebrity designer David Rockwell, for example, primarily known for his commercial work (the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in London), is also a successful theater and film designer (“Hairspray,” “Legally Blonde”).

Increasingly, film designers are conceptualizing commercial projects that take leisure time to a new level — like resorts where guests can assume a character and play a role, similar to a videogame adventure — except it’s real.

Hettema Group has created designs for these kinds of immersive concepts. Topper Phil Hettema, a former senior veep at Universal Studios Theme Parks, predicts interactivity, rather than the typical pre-programmed theme park experience, is where the future of themed entertainment lies.

“It used to be that the best way to experience cool new technology was to pay $50 to go to a theme park — now you can find that technology on your iPhone,” he says.

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