24 July 2017

More relevant than ever: CalArts, site of TEA SATE 2017 Los Angeles

On October 5-6, 2017, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) opens its doors to the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) annual SATE Conference on Experience Design. Holding SATE on the CalArts campus highlights the important role it continues to play in today’s themed entertainment industry.

TEA SATE 2017 Los Angeles, Oct 5-6: Tickets/more information

The following story by Rick West looks at the history and founding of CalArts and spotlights a few of the many prominent industry figures who studied and/or teach there.

Wild Beast Theater at CalArts Photo: Scott Groller for CalArts

California Institute of the Arts has been a source of world-class talent and skill for more than 50 years. The school’s history is unique, and CalArts remains more relevant than ever, supplying the film, television, music, and themed entertainment industries with young professionals who will dream and create for global audiences for years to come. Many leaders and luminaries within the themed entertainment industry got their own start at CalArts. In turn, many of those leaders come full-circle, drawing talent from the prestigious college to fortify their own companies and projects.

Walt Disney shows an early model of CalArts
to Lulu May Von Hagen Photo: CalArts

CalArts is part of the remarkable vision and legacy that Walt Disney left across Southern California. In creating Disneyland, Walt formed a division of his company called WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering): a group of artists, engineers, writers, and tradesmen all tasked with bringing the magical kingdom to life through attractions, shows, and themed lands reflecting the Disney company brand.

Walt Disney saw the need for a go-to source of new talent on a regular basis. A perfect storm presented itself in the late 1950s, with the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music both falling on hard times.

TEA is honored to work with CalArts as the location
for SATE 2017 Los Angeles, Oct 5-6.
Click here to purchase tickets or for more information

By 1961, Walt Disney became involved in coordinating a merger between the two institutions. The well-planned, albeit complicated, process lasted well past Disney’s death in 1966. Though Walt didn’t live to see this portion of his legacy come to fruition, he saw what it would be and the purpose it would serve. There is no doubt that his hand in the process absolutely was a benefit to the entertainment industry in Southern California.

“I want people to graduate from there really able to do things,” said Disney. “I don’t want a lot of theorists… I want to have everyone in that school come out capable of going in and doing a job.”

CalArts isn’t a huge campus. By design, the school focuses on artistic quality as opposed to scholastic quantity. In 2016, the student body consisted of approximately 1,500 pupils. In sharp contrast, mainstream colleges such as Cal State Long Beach can see upwards of 40,000 students enrolled per semester. Needless to say, graduates of CalArts are a special, select breed.

Walt Disney said, “If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.” The vision for such an institution more than 50 years ago has been fulfilled. CalArts has fostered generations of artists, artisans, and professionals enriching our industry all over the world.

Alumni and faculty honor CalArts legacy

Since opening in the early 1970s, CalArts has grown to serve the themed entertainment industry tremendously, as Walt foresaw. Many look to CalArts for fresh, upcoming talent; many who hold high-profile positions within the industry were students there. Some even teach at CalArts.

Bob Rogers

Bob Rogers: Collaborating in real life

BRC Imagination Arts Founder and Chief Creative Officer Bob Rogers reflects on his CalArts student days with great fondness, and explained why the school is still relevant today. “I was there when it started,” said Rogers. “In CalArts’ first year, it felt revolutionary to gather filmmakers, animators, dancers, artists, musicians, writers, actors, theater people, and designers. Today at BRC Imagination Arts, I preside over an organization of artists, filmmakers, animators, designers, musicians, actors, theater people, writers, and even the occasional dancer. All of us collaborate in the creation of destination experiences around the world. We are one of many enterprises made possible by the same cross-disciplinary creative synergies nurtured by CalArts. Companies like ours confirm the original vision of bringing together all of the arts into one school. This is how the arts often collaborate in real life.”

Christopher Merritt: Supportive environment

Christopher Merritt

Alumnus Christopher Merritt is currently a Senior Show Designer at WDI. “CalArts was a big step forward for me,” he said. “I decided to pursue theme park design after working as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland and seeing an early exhibit at the Disney Gallery back in 1989. The stunning attraction designs by Marc Davis made a big impression on me.” He enrolled in 1990 in the Character Animation department. “I had amazing instructors like Bob Winquist and Mike Giaimo. However, by the end of my first year, I decided that I didn’t want to become an animator – but rather a theme park designer. I was fortunate to have met Marc and Alice Davis, and we had become friends.” Young Merritt was on the point of dropping out, as CalArts didn’t offer a program for theme park design, and told Alice Davis this. “Her comment was, ‘Like hell you will!’” Davis and Winquist arranged for him to work on ideas for an attraction on his own. "I can’t imagine a more supportive environment," said Merritt, who is currently at work on new attractions for Tokyo Disney Resort. "I consider my formative years at CalArts invaluable.”

Scott Ault

Scott Ault: Mr. Fix-It

President and CEO of Rethink Leisure & Entertainment Scott Ault carried much of what he learned at CalArts into the daily operation of his design firm. “I graduated Class of ‘88 from the School of Theater with a degree in set design,” said Ault. “What I loved most was the constant multi-disciplined, cross-collaboration with other students. Whatever I needed – lighting designers, photographers, actors, illustrators – was all easily accessible, which proved to be incredibly instrumental in my own journey. I have kept in touch with many former fellow students, and many are respected professional colleagues. At CalArts, some referred to me as ‘Mr. Fix-It’ because early on I was able to work with different types of artists, removing roadblocks and clearing the way for success. That is something I continue to do to this day with project teams and clients. CalArts teaches students to think above and beyond any one particular skill; to see things dimensionally from all different perspectives.”

Jonathan Casson

Jonathan Casson: Skills to succeed

Jonathan Casson has worked with such prominent companies as BRC Imagination Arts and 20th Century Fox (at the latter, as Director of Business Development). He also sits on the TEA Asia Pacific Division Board of Directors. This industry executive also teaches a course at CalArts. “I designed the Advance Studies in Location Based Entertainment class in 2014, around what I wish someone had taught me when I was 21 years old,” he explains. His students are graduating MFAs and BFAs in a range of disciplines. Each week, Casson's students venture out in the field to meet with and learn from working creative professionals. “By exposing students to this range of venues and disciplines, I hope to inspire them to consider ways they can apply their creativity they may not have considered before.” 

Article author Rick West is
editor of Theme Park Adventure,
creative director of 
Midsummer Scream, and
show writer for 
Rethink Leisure & Entertainment.

Casson also brings industry leaders in to talk to the students. In recent classes, Evan Sroka, Corporate Finance Executive at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) shared how product development and new business opportunities are evaluated and pursued to fulfill a strategic plan. Brian Morrow, Vice President of Theme Park Experience Design for SeaWorld, talked about fostering environmental, social and economic sustainability across park development and employee culture. Brian Hinckley, President of Electrosonic, shared how the integration of technology is inseparable from operations and the creative process. “I want students to emerge with a passion for the industry and be prepared to enter the professional world with an active ability to look at design challenges from the viewpoint of the companies and clients they will serve,” said Casson. “Positioning design intent and production development as complimentary parts of an overall strategic goal is a recurring theme throughout the course. Witnessing how big ideas are brought to life in practical and realistic ways – including the challenges and downfalls – allows students to see their creative and career possibilities.”

Story reprinted with permission from InPark Magazine.


Posted by Judith Rubin



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