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Designing Theme Park Experiences with Dean Orion of Universal Studios

Feb 23, 2021

Dean Orion is the Creative Director of Universal Studios Beijing where he is leading the creative execution of Kung Fu Panda, Land of Awesomeness. He is an iconic writer/producer/creative director with many years of experience designing interactive media projects as well as writing for television. He has worked on everything from TV shows to PC games to theme park attractions, to DVD content to online and console games, to iPad apps. While working for Walt Disney Imagineering, Dean led the design, development, and installation of one of the biggest (if not the biggest) computer vision applications in the world, the Soarin’ Living Landscapes queue entertainment experience at Epcot Center.

You can check out the development of Kung Fu Panda Land here – Universal Beijing.

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00:43–> 02:06. That’s what makes fundamentals fundamental, right? They’ve been around. But what has changed quite a bit in the past few decades, really, over the past century are the popular mediums. theater has been around since the times of the Greeks on. Of course you got painting and sculpting for thousands of years, photographs became popular a couple 100 years ago and then cinema right at the turn of the century then all of a sudden you saw a lot of change in the way that stories were you know, in this radio, television theme parks, video games, desktop. So what’s interesting is that when you look at every one of those mediums from the caveman, right up until the development of the Oculus rift, the thing that is The difference is just in how the stories were delivered and experienced.

02:25 –> 10:00. Well, I began my career writing plays, and then I went to film school, so my you know, back back when I was going to film school, we studied the art of dramatic writing. Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey. So really based on those three acts of storytelling, you know the classic ways that stories have been developed by dramatists over the years. But having said that, there’s a very specific methodology that I’ve developed for myself over the years. That works really well for me. And developing their own process, one that you know uniquely works for them. I also have different approaches, depending on situation, the job, if there is one, the medium I’m working in, Whether or not I’m doing the work myself for working you know, there’s a lot of different factors that go into you know what the and and the medium, of course, determines how you how you work. So, for example, when I set out to write something for myself, an original idea, I’m very covetous and protective of the process. I don’t share a draft that I’m really happy with. I have a very top down approach. I like to think about the concept for a pretty long time, Sometimes when I let my subconscious work on them, as I’m as I’m starting to feel, you know, I start to think about an idea. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it for a while and all of a sudden it starts to gain energy, gain steam. So what I do is I sort of start from the big idea. And then I apply, characters and start to try to communicate that idea through the characters, and I outline a ton. I just started writing, and I try not to edit myself too much in the beginning. I just keep flushing it out, flushing it out, flushing it out until,, until I kind of can’t not write the script like I sort of hold back a lot until I just feel like, Okay, there’s no more I can’t write anymore notes. I can’t e can’t do anymore research. I just can’t do this anymore. I have to. I have to write this now. I think of it more like a child that you’ve, and when you start doing that, you know, like a child who gets, you know, teachers and other people and friends and everyone sort of contributes to as the writer allows other people to, to give you notes. And you know, you, of course, have to be a good shepherd for the process, whether you’re working for hire or working on something on, but it’s sort of like, Where do you allow the other people into the process? You know, if it’s something for myself, keeps it sort of sequestered for a really long time. Whereas if it’s a job for hire, you know, right from the beginning, and not be too attached to what happens to it. Because sometimes, you know, with all the note giving things can get, kind of unraveled and you can’t get emotionally attached to that. So The situation sort of dictates how you approach the work. And when you have an idea of a character, what kind of questions do you ask yourself to come up with their backstory there persona and how they fit into So that’s an interesting question because some writers like to start with the character. You know, they begin thinking about a person who’s got some combination of traits that excites them, and they start to think about the kind of world such, you know, the people they’d be associated with their motivations, their desires in life. And so on. Then the story begins to kind of flesh out, you know, that’s that’s a very,, interesting approach because it’s really just so character driven. You know, it’s just looking at this, you know, thinking about an interesting human tale? you know, I don’t typically work that way. You know, I generally, as I said before work, sort of top down. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel about certain issues or feelings or point of view on a certain topic, and I begin to search for a concept or a hook that excites me or justifies Andi, when I land on it. I I almost instantly begin to think about a character that, through both his or her essence and actions, will embody the concept. In other words, like that character the vehicle through which the concept or the big ideas communicated. For example,, years ago, I became very intrigued with Native American it’s actually a subject that I’ve been intrigued by for many, many, many years, and how it would intersect. You know that ancient healing modality So I wrote this TV pilot called Medicine Man, about a Western doctor who, after losing a patient, kind of wigs out and drives into the Arizona desert, gets in a car accident and is mysteriously healed by a Native American shaman. And when he returns, which is actually the opening of the story, he returns. He returns to his normal life, but he has no memory of what happened to him, and, how he got where he is, how he even got home,, and then and then as it progresses and he tries to go back to work, psychic healing powers. So the idea that the body and the spirit are sort of Western medicine can learn a few things from the medicine men of all kinds of indigenous people was a concept that I explored through that so I started with the idea. I started with the high concept. I didn’t start with a doctor who has that experience, you know, when I started how you could, how you could write a medical drama with a sort of Native American twist, that’s the character that emerged.

11:10 –> 11:22. Well, the process of developing characters, unlike the high concept, which is about the big ideas and the broad strokes. When you’re writing the actual script and the dialogue, what do they look like? that they have certain habits that define them? How did they talk? Where did All those things are touched on in the outline phase, like early in when you’re thinking about the whole story is the whole you kind of get, you know, like, hey, I think, you know, maybe he has a scar over his eye because he got in a fight when he was a kid and that, you know, shape, You know whatever those things like, certain attributes start to emerge, but that, as I’m as I’m thinking more about the big picture and putting the whole story together. And then when I get to that point where I’m actually starting to discover how I’m going to describe the character. What, what he or she sounds like when you start writing the dialogue. So it’s kind of like you leave that that’s almost the most delicious part of the whole After you’ve got a nice solid structure to work on those things just kind of come and fill themselves out. And you can and so again, you know, I start from the top. I start with the high concept. I applied to the character. I start to develop the story around them, form the outline, and then I start fleshing out the outline till I can’t write anymore. And then by the time I write, I start writing those One of the things kind of approaches, is my favorite. One of my favorite quotes from Alfred Hitchcock, which kind of defines this approach which he, you know, he was famous for being like, And he used to say that when the script has been written and the dialogue has been added, we’re ready to shoot the film. So he had such a low regard for dialogue that was such a visual storyteller that you know he didn’t even consider the dialogue as part of the script, so that’s kind of the way I approach it. 

14:47 –> 18:00. Well, it’s a great question. Most theme park rides, as you know, are based on existing intellectual property, but unlike our movie, what you’re dealing with in terms of a ride is capturing the essence of the IP and telling a satisfying story. On the plus side, the plus side of the ledger, you also have a lot of tools at your disposal. You have an architectural theme. You’ve got theatrical effects. You’ve got lighting and audio. You got animated figures in some cases, and projected media. Thinking about what audiences are anticipating, what they already know about the movie that they’ve seen. And then do it in a physical space, giving them the excitement of going on a ride and telling a story all at the same time. When it comes to the process, once again, the fundamentals of storytelling are the same. In theme parks, there’s a show writing department, which is a little bit like a writing staff. They’ll write a treatment for the whole park. They’ll write treatments for each land. Treatments for describing the feeling of what it’s gonna be like to be on that ride or in that land. One of the main characters and the supporting characters that you see has done this brilliantly is with the Harry Potter franchise. forbidden journey ride where you go on a broomstick ride with Harry. You know, you’re flying around with Harry Potter. That creates an immersive environment that gives you an experience that captures the movie. You spend 20 minutes, 40 minutes in the queue, and then six minutes on the ride. You come out there and you feel like you’ve been in that world. 

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