Jeremy Railton Q & A Part 2

Christian Andersen


Enjoy part 2 of a conversation between Jeremy Railton, EDC’s Founder and Chairman, and Richard Wechsler, EDC’s Director of Projects:

RICHARD: In 2003, you introduced me to Burning Man, and I remember you saying that it was a ‘secret source’ of inspiration and artistic regeneration.  How did you first get to Burning Man?

JEREMY: I first went to Burning Man as part of the theme camp and performance arranged by my friend, Gerard Howland. Gerard managed to cart a giant Venetian lion from the San Francisco Opera production of Othello that he had designed.   Burning Man had been going for ten years before I went, so amongst my friends I was a late comer and I had a bit of an ‘attitude’: I had lived through Woodstock and had a kind of ‘seen-it-all’ complacency that was not going to be easily impressed by some clever-hands-at-home desert art.

But from the very first turn off to Black Rock City, my head started spinning. Standing in the middle of the dust, from lines and lines of cars heading to the ticket gate, was a naked guy directing the traffic with an explorers helmet and ‘Screw You’ written on his chest in lipstick. Along the side of the road were Burma Shave-style billboards with interesting quotes from the sages of the world.

What followed was the most incredible experience both at the human and artistic level. The social interaction was amazing.  With a few guiding principles, thousands of guests created their own theme park! Every few years I went back to get an inspirational hit! The climate is so harsh from the heat and occasional dust storm that part of the joy comes from a sense of accomplishment—of having survived, and that is one of the reasons that ‘Burners’ have such strong brand allegiance. When I first went there were 40-thousand people and everyone was predicting its downfall into commercialism. Sixteen years later, with ‘burns’ happening on every continent, it is still is a vibrant beacon of freedom and innovation in the entertainment industry.

A few years ago, I was serving on the Thea Awards Committee and happened to mention Burning Man as one of my favorite sources of inspiration. Some of the other committee members had heard of it but none had been there. Bob Gurr, one of the original Walt Disney team and famous for his engineering integration skills, lit up with interest.  He purchased a tickets and the following year and came back glowing from his experience and for a number of years returned and made some fun wonderful documentary type films. The point being that Burning man is not just for hippies and drug users– it becomes the third largest City in Nevada and the most creative city in the world for a week every year!

RICHARD: I’ve admired the way you have embraced social media — Facebook, etc. What have you learned?

JEREMY: That communicating is the most important think that we need to do in life. All forms of social media are uniting the world. I love FB because it inspires the publisher in me– it’s like having a personal magazine in which I am in charge of the content.

I definitely think that it has kept me current with all of the latest technologies out there. The thought that one can immediately communicate with thousands of people all around the world is a fantastic concept even if its just sharing what you had for breakfast!

RICHARD: I can’t help noticing your patience and willingness to mentor and pass on what you have learned in the old master/apprentice tradition.  Do you think this has changed with the advent of design schools—something which did not exist when you were learning your craft?

JEREMY:  My generation and the one before pioneered television design, modern theme park design and music tour design, so we relied totally on mentors to teach us skills and we all learned on the job! Thus, the idea of ‘Pay it forward’ has been part of the entertainment design ethic. In the last ten years, some of the most talented designers from my peer group have paid it forward by bringing their hard-earned practical experience rather than theoretical design concepts, to a new generation of students. That makes me so happy because graduates of the top design schools come to work fully aware of the pitfalls and practical methods of manifesting fantasy!

RICHARD: Over the years, you have given many successful designers their first job. Do you have a particular mentoring style, and what are the most important lessons that you try to impart?

JEREMY: When I was young and starting out, I was always frustrated if an older designer, director, or producer told me I couldn’t do something. My thoughts were, “well you didn’t do it the way I would.” Even though a lot of the time they were right, there were enough times that I succeeded and that gave me the confidence to carry on!

I am most effective when I create the jobs and then allow the designers to find their own way, just stepping in from time to time with a gentle ‘course correction’. I also find myself reminding the millennial designers that although we are a business, our clients are artists, dreamers and creators in their own right and our business still revolves around relationships—not just looking for the bottom line. Admittedly, it is a subtle and delicate balance and ultimately comes from lots of practical experience with all kinds of clients.

RICHARD: On many occasions, I have heard you insist that our work experience must be fun and inspiring. You treat everyone at EDC equally—like a family.  This is very different from the hierarchic structure that you find in much of the entertainment industry.

JEREMY: Because our business requires total dedication with long hours, I have always tried to create a family attitude within the company. In a fun and happy environment, creative people work at a higher level, stay longer and give more of themselves. I married my job as I think a lot of us have.  We are all equal souls on earth and each one of us has something new to add. I had a very good lesson from Steve Wynn when I first started working with him on renovating Fremont Street. He asked me who I thought he valued most in his company. I said, “Bankers?” “No” he replied, “the doormen!” If they do their job correctly, guests will feel welcomed and taken care of as they step in the door.” So banker or doorman, you have equal part responsibility for the team.

RICHARD: What do you see as your legacy in passing on the EDC ethos to a new generation of designers?

JEREMY: About 8 years ago I was feeling jaded and uninspired and I was contemplating winding down my company.

I had hired Alex Calle to be the art director on our Crane Dance attraction in Singapore and after a year of working with him, I realized his potential not only as a designer but as a leader. Eventually, I promoted him to CEO and it has given me enormous pleasure watching him ‘own’ all the challenges and responsibilities that come with that position.

After forty years in the business I realized that I had a lot of important relationships and a lot of pioneer experiences that could help the young designers and our team to cut through the long, slogging process of building new relationships.

I found that many of my peer group were doing the same with the ‘next Gen’, so it has been fun rolling Alex’s introduction out to my old friends and long standing business relationships.  All my years of work and sleepless nights actually mean something now and that is satisfying!

RICHARD: what do you see as the future for EDC?

JEREMY: Of course I see success, innovation and a happy life for all that work at EDC. I had a wonderful path of free choice and invention and so the hope I have is that EDC is a wonderful platform from which creativity innovation and entertainment for the next generation of talented designers can grow and thrive. I am very confident that EDC will continue to be one of the big players in entertaining the world.


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