RED’s Senior Partner, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.
DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
A Tale of Two Screens
THE FREMONT STREET EXPERIENCE AND THE SKY SCREEN IN BEJING
From architectural projection mapping to AR (augmented realty) and VR (virtual reality), my work has always depended on the ability to embrace innovative technologies and find creative ways to integrate them into my design DNA.
In 1993 I was right in the middle of doing a lot of designing for MTV which had revolutionized the music industry, creating stars like Madonna and Cindy Lauper. One of those jobs was to design the first MTV movie awards for producer Joel Gallen. The budgets were low and I was always searching for ways to bring life to the stage.
It was before the big LED screens—the digital age was just developing momentum—so I started using TV monitors and TV screens balanced around the stage, even though the content was video feedback and stills.
This was my design inspiration and creative landscape when I met and became friendly with the visionary architect, Jon Jerde, a leaders of the urban renewal movement and creator of the ‘placemaking’ concept. Jon was one of the first urban planners to successfully rehab failed down town areas that had been abandoned for suburban living in the late 70s.
Fremont Street, at one time the main drag of Las Vegas, had suffered this same fate, as the “Strip” moved to Las Vegas Blvd, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, representing a consortium of Fremont Street casinos and the City of Las Vegas, had engaged Jon to work his rehab magic.
Jerde’s vision was to turn the four city blocks into a 1400-foot pedestrian walkway covered by a barrel vault, 90-feet high and 125-feet wide. His intension was to create a floating Sky Parade to be suspended from the canopy and he hired me to come up with a cool innovative concept in what was at that time the brightest and flashiest street in the world.
I went through a series of ideas, all following along the typical parade concepts and none of which I liked. My dilemma was that I would have to turn off the lights of the most colorful street in the world in order to push a light parade which I suspected would never be as bright and colorful, especially in those days. None of my ideas made any sense. My last ditch attempt was to design a giant Mylar inflatable that would occupy the underside of the vault, reflecting all of the lights.
After more than a few weeks of worrying about building something that had to remain interesting for all time in “Glitter Gulch” as it was known, I had the thought: “it should be a TV screen; then we can run shows.” The penny dropped that I should build a theater and not a show. It was a scary idea but I presented it to Jon and David Rogers, his principal architect. They looked interested but concerned. Jon floated the idea past Steve Wynn who was skeptical but I persisted, trying to persuade them to give the project a green light.
One day Jerde called and said Steve Wynn was coming to town and we could present our concept in a last ditch attempt to convince him. Coincidentally, my friend Mark Fisher, the brilliant English designer happened to be in town, conceiving the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge Tour. Knowing that Jerde and Wynn were huge Stones fans, I invited Mark to come and meet them at my presentation and if he liked my concept, help me convince them to approve the project.
Mark and I went to the meeting and I introduced him to Wynn and Jerde before I did my arm-waving, pleading presentation. When I finished, everyone turned to Mark, the greatest rock and roll designer of the era. Looking more like a very grand science professor, he blinked and in his typical dry British manner said, “You would be absolutely mad if you don’t do it!” Their response was immediate. “Yes… well… of course we are going to do it.” And that was it!
We met with Yesco, an electric sign company, who said they could do it with an RGB system composed of 2.1 million incandescent bulbs. I assembled a group of friends, hired a ‘garage band’ of animators and proceeded to develop the first shows. We divided the length of the overhead barrel vault into six basic screens that would link together, using computer software, so that it appeared to be one screen. Our ‘digital revolution’ studio had six 15-inch screens, each with its own computer that would output AFI files. When we got to Las Vegas, the files took twelve hours to down load.
All the interested parties—Steve Wynn, his friends and family, the Fremont Street casino owners and the Mayor of Las Vegas—were anxious to see our progress, which was nerve wracking because no one had ever done anything like it and quite often there were big surprises as we stitched the six screens together.
I have one painful memory from that time, more out of empathy for Steve than anything else. One of the six big screen images was a huge eagle flying along the length of Fremont Street on a bright blue sky background. The eagle made its path down the canopy without a glitch and everyone looked to Steve who turned to me and said “Goddam Jeremy you said the background was going to be blue and it’s black!” Steve had a degenerative eye disease and I realized that it had progressed to the point that he couldn’t distinguish colors, but I didn’t think it was my place to point it out. I looked at his friends and family for help but no one would catch my eye. I gulped and said, “I’m so sorry, Steve, it must be a computer glitch.” In spite of the humiliation at being shouted at in front of everyone, I just felt his frustration and the tragedy that here was a man who had a vision for the city and was fulfilling it, but was going blind in the process so that he could never really see the wonderful world that he had inspired.
When the Fremont Street Experience opened, it was an overnight sensation, reversing the economic decline of Fremont Street and it has been a resounding success ever since with attendance numbers in the millions. (In 2004, the RGB system was removed and replaced with the 12.5 million LEDs that we have today.)
Assuming that my worries about the next job were over and clients would be rushing to give me big screen and media jobs, I waited for the phone to ring. Crickets..! Evidently the ticket price was too high, I told myself. When the Fremont Street Experience won the Themed Entertainment Association’s award for Best Attraction, I waited for the phone to ring… More crickets!
A SKY SCREEN FOR BEIJING
Ten years later, the phone finally rang! It was a Singapore agent referred to me by the Fremont Street organization. He represented a Chinese real estate developer looking for an upgrade of the Fremont Street screen that would be the biggest screen in Asia.
The Sky Screen, as it was called, was to be the main attraction of The Place, a new mixed-use retail center in Beijing’s central business district. It would be suspended six stories high (80-feet) above an 820-foot plaza between two new high end retail centers and two 23-story office towers. The schedule called for a grand opening in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
The client had very little money, the agent said, and asked me to give him a good deal, which I did because I was thrilled to make something new and exciting. I designed an LED screen that curved down the street with different viewing opportunities and finally shot up the side of a building to become a Beijing icon in the air.
When I submitted the designs, the client seemed happy. I was paid and waited for the phone to ring, excited to begin the next phase. It never rang! I tried to contact the client by way of a registered letter and it was returned, so I gave up and moved on.
A year later the phone finally rang. It was the developer of The Place. “Jeremy please come to Beijing. We need help!” I was so excited that I jumped on the next plane, thrilled to see the progress of the giant screen that twisted and turned through the retail zone. I hurried to the site when I landed and was horrified to see the underside of the biggest dining room table in the world. The developer dismissed my horror with a shrug; “Budget cuts,” he explained.
As part of my original concept package, I had done story boards for five different shows and they now wanted me to direct and supervise production of the media.
At our first meeting, with twelve executives chain smoking, around their giant conference table, they asked me for all sorts of CGI’s and full illustrations. I explained that with the low fee they had paid me that would not be possible. Incredulous, the Chairman looked at me and said, “For three hundred thousand dollars you can’t do a few renderings?” “I think you mean forty thousand,” I replied. Very quickly we discovered that the agent had taken his fee and most of mine. Their response was “Ha-ha… you’re a bad business man!” and promptly fired the agent. When I left for the airport, they felt so sorry for ‘the bad business man’ that they stuffed my pockets with thirty thousand dollars in cash. (The cash cheered me up and I realized that doing business in Asia is like a game of Mahjong.
For the premier show, The Blessing, I developed a series of story boards and a script that began with the flight of red and yellow dragons, representing fortune and power, and progressed though images of Olympic hopefuls, Chinese hip hop, Kung Fu, fireworks, and the largest image ever created of The Great Wall. People on the street below also experience the four seasons, from gently falling peach blossoms of spring to lightning strikes and thunderstorms of winter.
Because of the huge scale of the Sky Screen, I realized that the action had to be treated like an arena or stadium show. The challenge was to drive the narrative with music and images moving at real-time speed in a show that was no more than ten minutes in length. It was exciting developing the media with five different Chinese companies, from small independents to CCTV, the giant broadcasting corporation.
Before I arrived, the problem with the media had been that the companies did not understand the visual ‘grammar’ for an overhead viewing experience and had approached the project as if they were designing for a proscenium movie screen. From creating the shows for Fremont Street, I had discovered that the conventions of film and TV editing don’t work when the spectator is looking up. A dissolve transition, for example, doesn’t make visual sense on the big overhead screen; all entrances and exits had to be on and off from the edges of the screen to emulate large scale live events.
The companies were slow to get it but eventually they understood and embraced the technique.
My two favorite original shows were an underwater scene with full scale whales (still) and a CCTV show where it appeared that the roof was made of glass and people on top were painting logos.
The best news was that the Sky Screen had all of the bells and whistles that I had originally designed: Like Fremont Street, the giant screen was composed of separate displays that could operate individually to broadcast live or televised events in the correct format.
I also built in the possibility of interactivity by including digital hook-ups on the columns so that guests had the ability to upload personal messages and photos of themselves or their friends, make engagement and wedding announcements and even compete in eSports (video game) competitions on the world’s largest video screen.
It is satisfying to see how far things have come since Steve Wynn first yelled at me, but It is disappointing to see that people are still building giant tables and have not pushed the screens into more fluid and imaginative shapes!