Ready when you are CB: A Primer on Editing Technique for Themed Entertainment

At first glance it may not seem like there is that much in common between film editing and theme park design – but it turns out there’s a lot in common.

Welcome aboard! My name is Kira, and I’ll be your guide here on this great movie diatribe. It’s the perfect job for me because I used to work in movies! But just between you and me this is no ordinary tour. Because here we’ll be taking a look a film editing techniques and seeing how they can be used to design theme parks and rides! Funky huh? Just please make sure to keep your hands, arms, and eyes in an ergonomic positions at all times.

Now that we’ve taken care of business. Let’s talk about me. Back before I started pursuing a career in themed entertainment design, I had another career ambition. For a very long time I wanted to be a film editor. (Yes ironic for a person who can’t cut anything out of a 7000 word article). I fell in love with the process of editing when I was a young teenager, went to film school, and had a fairly successful career working in all stages of the post production process – editing quite a number of short films, commercials, and a feature along the way. As such, I spent a lot of time studying editing theory and how, not to craft stories from scratch, but how to tell stories with existing pieces: spending a lot of time thinking about how to shape emotion through the use of pacing, perspective, music, etc. And as such I can’t help but approach the design of themed entertainment from within this framework. But it’s occurred to me that this might be a more novel perspective for many people interested in the discipline because while modern theme park design has its roots heavily planted in movie making – most current fans and people interested in designing it tend to have roots more in visual art, writing, technology, or general theme park fandom. 

And I know what you’re thinking. “Editing? How is there any editing happening in a theme park? It’s all just one continuous environment!” To which I’d reply, “Well, only sort of.” The rules and theories behind editing actually apply to any sort of art form that’s experienced over a period of time. Editing is the study of how to best tell a story. And when you look at themed attractions in particular, there’s actually a lot of tools being used in ways remarkably similar to cutting together film. So what do you say? Is everybody ready?

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Theme Park Musing #9 – The Carousel of Progress

When you think about it, there has to be something really sophisticated about the storytelling structure of The Carousel of Progress. Not many stories have a recurring cast of characters that essentially relive the same scene over and over again while experiencing no character growth, no real conflict, no real plot, and yet somehow lead to a satisfying conclusion. In fact the point of the “plot” of each scene – if you can even call it a plot – is that everything is perfect, there are no unsolvable problems, and life is pretty great. But, I think, that understanding how this attraction tells it story is actually key to understanding how many attractions, many of the best attractions – especially of the 60s, 70s, and 80s tell their stories. 

The carousel of progress is a great example of story that tells itself almost entirely with subtext and an awareness of the context that its audience lives in a different time period than the one depicted. The story depends on a permanent, though subtle, break in the fourth wall. Even though we don’t play much of a roll in the events depicted, we are none the less characters in the story that the other characters (well character – father) acknowledge. We actually play a fairly major roll – because even though it’s not made explicit with an elaborate justification or plot, and instead through a very presentational formalism, we are essentially playing time travelers visiting the same kind of family in 4 different eras and this is when you can start to break down how the story actually functions.

And it functions because the main characters of the story aren’t actually the humans we see, but actually ourselves and, more importantly – the setting. I’d argue that the setting is actually the protagonist of the show. Which is a kind of weird thing to consider but it is the thing which experiences change and growth over the course of the plot. 

Traditional stories happen by seeing a main character, the protagonist, go through some sort of change or growth over time. And some fancy stories, say beauty and the beast (someone else pointed this out to me but I don’t remember who) separate the main character and protagonist. Belle is the main character, but she is arguably not the protagonist. She’s pretty much perfect in the beginning and perfect in the end. The story is of Beast – he’s the one that grows and develops over the course of the story. He’s the one with the flaw who eventually overcomes that flaw. 

And then we get to theme parks, and the carousel of progress – where a new structure emerges. But it’s actually pretty similar to the beauty and the beast scenario above. 

Enter us. We are the main characters, it’s our POV that shapes the story we see. But alas we’re not the protagonists. For the purposes of the story – we’re perfect. We don’t really need to change. We’re here to observe the change, perhaps facilitate the change. The SETTING is the protagonist. It is flawed, it needs to change. 

And by setting I’m not referring to just the set. The setting is the entire world of the scene of the story. And a 2019 coffee shop is not just demarked as a 2019 coffee shop by the presence of a chalkboard menu and cold brew espresso machine. But also by the numerous laptop toting hipsters waxing Abraham Lincoln beards, the woman in the corner unjamming her manual typewriter, and the guy who just arrived on a unicycle. These characters are part of the setting, and their micro stories make it come alive. 

And so we get to the carousel of progress. The first scene we see is a white bread American family circa 1900. Remember the setting itself is the character. And over the course of five minutes it says to us (also characters) “hey isn’t this great! Everything is perfect.” And we say back (in our heads) – “yeah not really, haha you’re so quaint”. From our point of view, the setting is flawed. The technology is old and antiquainted and the people are happy with it. They haven’t seen the light! And so we move on and the setting moves on, and changes, tries to impress us, and the cycle repeats until we reach a point where the setting (at least when the attraction debuted) can say “wow look how great I am” and we can respond back “yeah actually you’re right! You’ve met and surpassed my expectations” Hell in this way, the audience is in fact the source of the conflict and I daresay a kind of antagonist – in the sense that an antagonist is the motivation for change. 

And this conflict, this relationship, between the setting (as a character) and us helps us too. Just as Belle might have learned some new things about life along the way of her journey so have we. When we initially saw the setting – we laughed and said “oh how quaint”. But as the setting grows and develops over time and we see patterns repeat – we start to notice those patterns in ourselves and our own lives. The theme of the continual march of progress, and how we don’t even know what wonders await us, manifests itself in us as the pattern in the character becomes obvious. 

This is how The Carousel of Progress works, and, I think, many other traditional attractions. How the original designers of that age were able to do something so sophisticated, tell a type of story that is so rare – but so full of potential, and do it basically intuitively – damn I don’t think I’ll ever know that. But, in terms of what’s actually happening, by god I think I actually GET it now. 

And shout-out to @pureimagineering because his theory of triple perspective storytelling very much helps inform this.

Theme Park Musing #8 – Disneyland’s Theme

People tend to analyze Disneyland as a thematic treatment of America and American mythology – which is definitely an accurate reading – and the optimistic point of view is often characterized more as like a tone or even a flaw. But sitting here this morning listening to Put on your Sunday clothes (a song that plays on Main Street and about relentless aspiration) it’s occurring to me that perhaps even more than American mythology optimism itself IS the theme of Disneyland. It runs through every land and every attraction and is reflected back at us through various lenses (namely American, white, upper middle class lenses). In fact I think the general critique so often heard might be exactly backward: that the theme of Disneyland isn’t about America with an overly optimistic lens it’s about optimism with an overly American lens. And that its flaws (if they are to be considered flaws) come from that.

Each land in the park reflects a distinct period of either history or culture where optimism and hope for a better tomorrow are at its zenith, at least from that lens. That IS the common thread. We enter Main Street USA right at the turn of the century – a period before the depression and before the World Wars where the marvels of technology are making life better on what seems a daily basis. Where steam trains carry us off onto exciting destinies, where everything is colorful and rosy, architecture is over the top, and people wear their Sunday best every day. People in this sleepy town coming into its own dream of the people they’ll be one day, the things they will achieve, the wondrous things that await them, and whadaya know at the far end of the street a shimmering castle beckons them forward towards their dreams – a symbol of things to come.

At the hub a series of adventures await us – each a microcosm of the same story. In Adventureland a “untamed” jungle is awaiting man to conquer it, unveil it’s riches and/or unveil itself as the tropical paradise it was always meant to be. A similar story awaits in Frontierland where the promise of manifest destiny is new, gold awaits, and the horizon is limitless. In New Orleans Square it’s a party all the time and a reflection of the promise of the west, both a realization and one of the last stepping off points before the frontier. In Walt Disney World this theme is even better reflected as Liberty Square and revolutionary America is swapped in – another era in which fears and darkness are cast off in favor of a new vision of what a better tomorrow could look like. On the other side of the hub, a literal vision of tomorrow, Tomorrowland reflects what Main Street might look like in hundreds of years: technology has fulfilled it’s promise, no one wants for anything, the world and universe are at peace, convenience and leisure are everywhere, and all sorts of transportation are waiting to whisk you off to literally anywhere you please. And finally Fantasyland, usually the hardest land to fit into the “americana” interpretation, fits perhaps most with the optimistic and hopeful theme and is fittingly at the heart of the park. Here we see a land inhabited by characters with often terrible pasts, overcome them and achieve their dreams. Snow White and Dumbo overcome abuse and trauma. Peter Pan teaches children to fly, an archetypal metaphor, and hold onto their childhood.  Mr. Toad has crazy fun with friends, Pinocchio and Geppetto get their wish and overcome heartache and fear and loneliness. Alice escapes the doldrums of victorian life, etc, etc. And off in the back corner of the park, which I’m sure if it had been designed from day one, would have laid straight back from the castle: the end of the yellow brick road as it were,  lies a monument towards optimism, cooperation, and a better tomorrow again in the form of “it’s a small world.” It’s telling us that to achieve the dreams of the future it will take all of us uniting together.

Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom therefore are really embodiments  of the Disney ethos of their time: a strong conviction that the world is an exciting amazing place and no matter how bad things might have been or look to you now, a great big beautiful tomorrow lies just a dream away. And notably, that it’s up to us as a whole to take us there. The lands not only celebrate optimism but human achievements in realizing that optimism  – whether it’s man conquering the jungle or frontier, the creation of a modern democracy, or characters escaping their haunting pasts. The park even tells us that death isn’t to be feared but enjoyed! (The haunted mansion). Perhaps it’s no surprise that these parks are more popular than ever before, given the world we find ourselves living in at the moment. 

The flaws in the park’s treatment then, aren’t the optimism itself, but rather the somewhat outdated, very white, very American, very classed stories it chooses to tell – particularly on the western side of the park (and perhaps with its historic coziness with monopolistic corporations as well) that were only optimistic and pleasant for the people who wrote the history. For the time they might have been appropriate given the audience they were designed for, but today some of the implications can make you a bit uneasy. I’d still hold that the bones are good, that those settings can still reflect themes of optimism while becoming more aware and inclusive, and indeed over time we’ve seen very slow changes to that effect. For example, Thunder Mountain – while initially perhaps a glorification of gold mining has over time with various story changes become more and more of a morality play about what happens to those who are reckless in their pursuit of profit – something a certain company might take a lesson from. I for one, as perhaps one of the more obvious examples,  would love to see what a Disneyland would look like with stories of the immigrant experience of the same time period paralleling those on Main Street. At any rate, like America, Disneyland is flawed, but it’s themes are solid. Optimism, hope for the future, and the responsibility to foster that future, are the themes that lie at the heart of the stories it tells and why people keep coming back.

P.S. This again reinforces the idea that I think Joe Rohde first articulated: that theme parks NEED themes in the literary sense to achieve their full potential and be effective: that that is what separates the good from the bad park executions, and Disneyland in particularly is a great example of what occurs when nearly every element of the experience serves to reinforce and drive home a particular message.

Only You Guys are Going on This Special Mission

It seems there was a time during the 90s and 00s when no ride could open without us, the guest, being thrust on some mission we didn’t know we were there for. On Dinosaur we were co-opted into rescuing some rosetta stone of a reptile, on Spider-Man thrust into reporting on a man with a levitation-fetish, unwilling science experiments on the Hulk, Alien Rescuers in ET, substituting for crash test dummies on Test Track. Or else we were tourists. Touring an old hotel, touring the galaxy, touring a movie studio, touring some institute, touring an ancient temple – no not of the Forbidden Eye, of Poseidon, touring touring touring. (For a list of exhaustive tropes, including these check out Passport to Dreams). The goal here is admirable. The landscape of themed entertainment was changing bringing with it a new breed of attraction where the audience isn’t just an audience anymore but an active participant in the story. 

However there’s a problem with this and it centers around the concept of cognitive dissonance: when your mind has to hold two contradicting ideas as both true. When an experience asks you to role play, it asks you to put aside your own internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and substitute them with what it provides. Generally this doesn’t work out very well in any medium, but it’s particularly difficult in themed entertainment because your own internal thoughts, feelings, and experience are so central to the entire endeavor. Designers often made the mistake of telling stories about us instead of about the worlds we were in. And stories about ourselves that did not and could not mesh with the experiences they were providing.

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