A Reflection of Disneyland's Together Forever
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
6 Design Principles Learned from the Disneyland Nighttime Spectacular
and My Implementation of them at The Playmill Theatre
I was incredibly fortunate to have a conversation with Susana Tubert, a wonderful Creative Director with Disney Parks Live Entertainment in Disneyland. We mainly focused on the creative process of developing their nighttime spectacular Together Forever. It was such an educational and inspiring discussion, that I couldn’t help but reflect on her words. The following is a case study focusing on the six main design principles I’ve learned from Susana and the fantastic show she wrote, and created, with her team, and how I’ve worked to implement them in my designs at The Playmill Theatre as the Lead Technical Designer.
Principle 1: Utilize Your Space, and What Makes It Unique.
The castle is a small projections surface that was beautifully supplemented by the projections on Main Street USA. The Sleeping Beauty Castle wasn’t designed to have projections seen from the end of the street, it doesn’t tower in the sky like other Disney castles, and it doesn’t have a lot of available architecture to feature with projections. Other nighttime spectaculars, specifically Happily Ever After in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, has quite a bit more possibilities, given its size, to project specific content onto the castle’s physical features. Rather than seeing the size of Sleeping Beauty Castle as a disadvantage, the DPLE team used it as an opportunity to utilize the castle as a screen, and reserved the opportunity to play on its architecture for very special moments in the show, like creating the Up house projected onto the castle. Knowing when to wait is an incredible skill to have.
The Main Street projections were top notch. I stood between the castle and Main Street USA, and wish I had been back further. I know many people were probably initially disappointed when they realized they weren't going to get a front row seat, but the show was so brilliantly extended to reach the entire audience. I don't doubt they left satisfied.
The Playmill Theatre:
The Playmill Theatre was never supposed to be a theatre. It was originally a post office, drug store, and bingo parlor in the 50’s. After an earthquake, the owners packed up and left. 55 years later and The Playmill Theatre is still delighting more than 40,000 patrons a summer. Renovation after renovation, the theatre holds a special charm.
When producing Singin' In The Rain, we chose to do each silent movie scene live and in person. I suggested the implementation of placards to display the each film's title cards. In the same production, I applied projection mapping techniques to create an interactive rain element. For one of our variety show openers, I produced a one-take video of Another Day of Sun from La La Land that would take our audience behind the scenes of the theatre. These types of ideas work because of our space, and how we've chosen to implement, and utilize, what others may view as its weaknesses.
Principle 2: Keep Music Central to the Process.
Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real says "Music conveys emotion both subtly and overtly and can often get points across in a visceral way." (Page 112)
Susana told me she started writing Together Forever by charting out the different musical beats of the show's story. This made perfect sense to me. Sound and music has always been the sense that has helped me grasp a story the best, and what an incredible palette of pieces to pick from. The Pixar music catalogue features some of the most emotionally rich scores I've ever heard. If you don't get teary-eyed when hearing Married Life from Up, I'm convinced you're a war criminal.
Pixar's suite of music features a different challenge from other Disney music. For a lot of the iconic songs, there aren't words. I'm sure she was very thankful for Randy Newman's famous hits, but this meant the show's sound needed to be very different than Happily Ever After. Together Forever seemed to feature famous dialogue to supplement for the lack of lyrics. I thoroughly enjoyed this score.
The Playmill Theatre:
When designing a show, I listen extensively to the orchestrations. They truly help me realize the emotional focus of a production's moment. Studying the orchestration helps me realize the musical phrases, and their instruments, that I want to highlight during a number. I often find that I can memorize a score's instrumentation much easier than its lyrics.
I wanted to create an environment of sound that felt welcoming like a Disney park. I received 101 responses from Disney fans about what their favorite sound of a Disney park was. The two most popular answers were "The music on Main Street USA", and "Bill Rogers". This led to a "what if" moment.
I reached out to Bill Roger's asking for a quote for a few lines of dialogue to be recorded for our theatre. I had long known that we needed an "official voice" of The Playmill Theatre. In a wonderful, and incredibly surprising, turn of events, Bill Rogers recorded dialogue for our productions.
Principle 3: Early Collaboration and Clear Communication Are Key to a Project’s Success.
I asked Susana if the show's development required anything beyond the traditional approach of creating a Disney Parks Nighttime Spectacular. She told me that it was common for other team members, such as a lighting designer, to be brought in later in the process. Susana wanted to change that, and brought in each designer, and their team, right out of the gate. This show was created with a lot of collaboration.
More recent nighttime spectaculars have placed their emphasis on fireworks and projections.The show's Senior Lighting Designer, K.C. Wilkerson, views lighting as "the bridge between the two." One thing I learned throughout our conversation was that it was not just the meticulous design of each element that made the production work, but the seamless integration between them. I strongly believe that this thanks to Susana's collaborative approach to the project.
The Playmill Theatre:
I spearheaded a passion project this summer titled The Playmill Playlist sessions. A series of eight music videos featuring original arrangements of existing songs that would be published to our various social media channels. With such talented people around me, I couldn't help but want to constantly create with them.
I had been working on it on my own for a few months before our season began. I was prepared to introduce the other musicians and performers when the numbers were completely written. After my conversation with Susana, my mindset changed. I trusted these musicians, and wanted to see where a clearer sense of collaboration would take the project.
Arrangements I had been struggling with suddenly took form, orchestrations were changed and simplified, and a tap solo even appeared! All because I trusted my fellow artists with a vision we were all passionate about.
Since this moment, I have constantly craved collaboration.
Principle 4: Every Decision Should Support and Move the Story. Fluff Is Unacceptable.
Like I mentioned before, I really enjoyed the presentation on Main Street USA. Susana told me that she was very adamant about her concept for the projections; they needed to tell a story just as well as any other element. With a small castle, and a limited amount of standing room, a large majority of the guests would be standing on Main Street. These guests are rather far away from the Sleeping Beauty Castle, but that will not lessen their experience.
I believe the team behind the Main Street projections designed with a clear intent; to create an extension of the castle. Whether this meant featuring small elements of the far-away-castle on the nearby buildings, or creating full scenes related to the castle's content, the projections always featured a very clear intent.
The Playmill Theatre:
While working on the number "Once and For All" in our production of Newsies, I knew the scene needed a projection that could evolve throughout the scene. I kept this principle in mind as I worked to reinforce the fact that The Newsboy Strike of 1899 was real. There were kids starving and slaving away to feed their families, and they were much younger than our actors on stage. I wanted to remind the audience that this was a much bigger thing than we could ever portray on our stage.
While working on the implementation, I kept in mind something I read from Marty Sklar’s book, One Little Spark!. It said, “You can educate people- but don’t tell them you’re doing it!” I needed to be sure this moment didn’t turn into a history lesson for the audience, but that it added to the emotional impact of the story. This required intentional decisions. Fluff was unacceptable here, as there was an important story to be told.
The emotional impact of this moment was clear the moment it was implemented. Even now, while typing this entry, I’m getting emotional. I love the fact that we can use forms of theatre (whether in a traditional space or a theme park) to communicate historical truths in meaningful ways.
For a demonstration of the effect, please view my Newsies Projections write up.
Principle 5: A Show Should Work from Different Vantage Points.
Together Forever wasn't designed to be seen only from the hub and Main Street USA. The nighttime spectacular also needed to be formatted and altered to be presented on it's a small world and The Rivers of America. This helps accommodate the largest number of guests, and gives everyone a chance to see the production. Every paying guest should have "the best seat in the house". Every vantage point, even with varying content, needs to provide a fantastic experience.
The Playmill Theatre:
With our new LED video wall, our backdrops are pushed back farther than they ever have before. This makes presenting content to every seat more difficult, as our side sections feature seats right up against the wall. I had to design content to accommodate for those patrons.
I toyed around with the Blue Sky concept of custom LED lighting in the lobby to fill the entire experience, though it was ultimately cut due to time limitations. More of my Arduino implementations can be found here.
I created The Playmill Playlist Sessions (mentioned earlier) to fill a gap in our vantage points. Due to licensing restrictions, we aren't able to film trailers for our productions to release online. I wanted an avenue to present our talented cast to the world, and so our Sessions were born. We'd have patrons enter the building, point at the wall of headshots, and say to their companions, "That's the man from the video I showed you." Though an actual number of tickets sold due to the project is unknown, I believe the series was invaluable to our company.
Principle 6: Honor Traditions in New Ways.
Old traditions die hard, but why do they have to in the first place? Traditions become such a thing for a reason. They are something that should be capitalized one. That doesn't necessarily mean they can't be adjusted.
In the very beginning moments of Together Forever, Buzz Lightyear is seen flying across the sky. This took the place of the iconic soaring Tinkerbell. This was a perfect example of thematically capitalizing on a beautiful tradition.
The Playmill Theatre:
The Playmill Theatre often features a variety show before the title production begins. This contains an opener, small skits, and various musical and dance numbers. Audience members love these shows, and often remember them just as well as our large productions.
As soon as we installed our video wall, I had the idea of creating a skit of a tap dancer playing Just Dance, then getting into a dance battle with the instructor. I put this into my Blue Sky Google Document (where I keep all ideas, no matter how big or small), and waited until an available performer was up to the task.
Enter Alexis Ziga. Alexis was perfect for the project. We found, and cut, the music while designing the entire skit together. It was a wonderful collaboration, and the audience ate it up! I loved our modern implementation of entertainment into our rather traditional variety shows.
A preliminary recording of Alexis Ziga performing the variety show number with an early concept of the animation. More elements were later added onto the screen, and a microphone added to Alexis's foot to better capture his tapping. Unfortunately a video of the final performance doesn't exist.
I'm so grateful that I was able to see Together Forever during its short run in Disneyland, and I'm even more thankful to have been fortunate enough to have had a wonderful conversation with the leading creative mind behind the project. Susana was so excited to talk about the show. It was clear she was proud about, and loves, what she does.
It's inspiring to me when I see professionals so giddy about their work. George Bernard Shaw said, "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." And what a playground the Disney Parks Live Entertainment team has! I will take that same enthusiasm and love into every project I encounter.
Thank you, Susana, and the entire DPLE team, for such a wonderful learning experience.