Experiencing the world of Harry Potter can be a great way for film and TV crafts pros on hiatus to spend time. But it’s not a family excursion: During the often long lulls between projects, it’s a way for some designers to bridge the gap between paychecks. Many have discovered that work in themed entertainment — parks, rides, museums — fits the bill perfectly.

Cory Lorenzen, production designer on ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” moves fluidly between the two worlds. He points out that TV shows and theme parks have a lot in common. Both rely on narratives and skilled storytelling to engage an audience. “You’re still looking at ways to visually tell a story and create a sense of place, purpose, time and emotion,” Lorenzen says.

Draftsman Tom Wagman, who also works on “The Goldbergs,” first met Lorenzen while working on the Harry Potter exhibit for the Warner Bros. studio tour in London. Creating an experience when guests know the source material, as with Harry Potter, can “make things easier in a lot of ways,” says Wagman, “because they already have a strong emotional connection to the content.”

However, that connection can pose an additional challenge: Many moonlighting production designers wrestle with how to present story elements and visuals in a fresh manner.

With so many theme park projects derived from existing intellectual properties, it would stand to reason that the production designers on the original projects would be enlisted to re-create the world they designed, but many times that’s not the case.

“There’s still a disconnect” between the two realms, Lorenzen says. He’s working now on a confidential themed entertainment project based on a TV show and adds: “I wondered why they didn’t just hire the production designer of the show to design the space. But in their mind he’s a TV guy; he’s not a location-based guy like [me].”

Scott Ault, managing partner of Checkmate Development Group, which specializes in themed entertainment, hires ADG members for his projects when he can, particularly if they involve a film or television property. He prefers them to traditional architects, who, he says, work in a way that’s “a lot more rigid or straightforward, whereas someone who has worked with intellectual properties that are [animated or fantastical] is not as restricted by having to draw something” that doesn’t exist.

While it’s not easy to lure ADG members away from films and TV shows to work on long-term theme park jobs that may take years to complete, there’s often work available that will fit well into someone’s time between films for only a few weeks or months at a time.

Theme park work doesn’t pay as much, but the offset is that it’s typically only an eight-hour day.”
Scott Ault, Checkmate Development Group

“The other challenge,” Ault says, is that “theme park work doesn’t pay as much, but the offset is that it’s typically only an eight-hour day,” compared with the punishing schedule of film production. Another plus, he notes, is that the work is often in Los Angeles, where many production designers live.

Set designer Daniel R. Jennings (“Argo”) enjoys themed entertainment jobs when his schedule permits. He particularly likes the work’s “element of play.” Movies, he explains, “fall back on the almighty computer,” while theme park design requires creating a kind of personal, practical magic, such as when guests wave wands in the Harry Potter exhibits and witness the results of their spells.

One key design difference between film and TV content and themed entertainment: The former uses a camera to dictate where viewers look, whereas the latter is a fully immersive experience that offers an entire 360 degrees of engagement.

Another factor to keep in mind is the contribution of production design to profitability. A TV show is unlikely to earn more for a studio by adding to an episode’s design budget. But the same isn’t true for the parks and rides of themed complexes. During the brainstorming phase for planning such projects, Lorenzen says, “a lot of times we’ll do two different versions of the same concept: one showing the budget they have and one showing what things could be if they were to increase their budget.”

Clearly, in themed entertainment, return on investment is part of the equation — for both the project and the designer.