Shenanigans notwithstanding, the Swansation program was successful enough that Lakeland decided to try again with another program. This time, the central figure was a butterfly. The Kaleidoscope projectwas called Butterflies in Flight and would raise funds for Common Ground, a proposed community park. There were two templates, one with an elaborate swallowtail design and one that was more plain in its outline. Again, I submitted several whimsical designs (my favorite being the Iron Butterfly, which one might see fluttering about Inagoddadavida).
Although none of these was chosen, I was given to understand that the Detroit Tigers were interested in a design to stand outside their Spring Training stadium. Unfortunately, the name Tiger Swallowtail had already been chosen, so I had to call mine Cat-r-pillar. But it was an easy paint job, just the stylized face of a tiger on both the upper and lower surfaces of the wings. Meanwhile, the Saddle Creek Corporation asked me to create a companion piece for Pinky, their beloved swan cum flamingo, and thus the ButterFlymingo was born.
The central feature of the set is a temple housing a huge sculpture of the Golden Mermaid’s face set in the rocks of the cliff, a focal point for the spiritual energies of these mystical beings. In the original concept renderings, the face is hidden behind a pair of sliding doors, each adorned with the relief sculpture of a mermaid or merman, which would part majestically during the show to reveal a natural waterfall splashing down the escarpment. Then out of this torrent, the mermaid’s head would come forward in all its colorful glory and make wise pronouncements for the other characters to consider.
So much for the mystical side of the story. The more action-oriented arc revolves around a powerful villain and his enigmatic henchmen, who arrive via jet skis and water-powered jetpacks to do battle with the more beneficent forces in the kind of eye-popping acrobatics that audiences love to watch, including high dives and meteoric traverses down the zip-lines, not to mention plenty of explosions and even a collapsing tower.
And there’s drama, too. At a particularly significant point, a gleaming throne in the style of a conch shell rises from the depths of the lagoon, bearing the Golden Mermaid in all her glittering splendor.
Since the idea was to present a fanciful place that we ordinary humans have never seen before, we proposed a variety of original plants of unearthly colors. Some had vines that coiled like the cord of a telephone, while others bore globes of radiant tendrils suggesting a cluster of golden suns. But in the end, the decision was made to use living plants that were available here in the real world and save the cost of either fabricating the alien flora or shipping it in from Shangri-La.
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A completed job that we're still proud of
Part II: The Genderation Gap
Does everything hqve to be about sex? Of course not, but once the subject comes up, it is hard to ignore. Gender inequality affects all aspects of modern life including the way we speak and write. For someone on the receiving end of the issue, there is no irritant more pervasive than the constant barrage of sexually biased personal pronouns. Women feel undervalued -- betrayed, even -- when, for example, their leaders say things like, "The employee who brings in the most sales will have his picture framed and hung on the wall of honor." Does that mean that only men will be allowed to win, or just that the boss doesn't think the so-called fairer sex is even worth mentioning?
A writer should always keep the audience in mind. If any portion of that target demographic is of the feminine persuasion, then blithely ignoring the issue is tantamount to shooting one's foot off.
Unless otherwise indicated, all content © Mike Conrad or Radical Concepts, Inc.
Our part was finished, then -- what?
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The trick, of course, was to emulate the performance of Chicago’s cash cows, but with something not of a bovine nature. Each city looked to its own local reputation or the immediate environment to find a creature or object that visitors might identify with that community. Tampa, for example, chose sea turtles; other towns picked horses, squirrels, even umbrellas.
Orlando sought the assistant of the themed attraction designers at ITEC Productions.
As a designer on staff at ITEC, I took part in the brainstorming sessions and produced some rough sketches of a few of the ideas. Two of these that I drew up were lizards and manatees. And in pursuance with the client’s direction, I came up with two or three versions of each – one vertical or standing, one crawling or swimming horizontally, and in the case of the lizards, one climbing on a wall. At the time, the lizards seemed to be out of favor, possibly because of some people’s natural aversion to creepy-crawly things. At any rate, ITEC’s involvement in the project played itself out, and we all went onto other things.
Some time later, after I went back to freelancing, the program resurfaced as LizArt, complete with the Mayor of Orlando’s backing, and I managed to wriggle my way back in. Brenda Robinson, the Chief Lizard Wrangler, asked me to elaborate on the sketches I had originally done, with a few minor changes, such as turning one hand up on the standing lizard so it could hold some object, such as a handbag. The sketches of the blank lizards were to go out to potential artists to use as templates for whatever creative designs they could come up with, in hopes of sparking the imaginations of potential sponsors. To give them an idea, I did a few samples, clothing the reptiles in tourist clothes, abstract art patterns, and even chameleonic camouflage (matching a gecko to the brick wall on which it would be mounted).
Roam Around Lizard installed at City Hall, with computer built in for visitors to seek out sites of interest around town. This one was completed overnight.
Photo by Scott Wheeler © The Ledger
Bird to the Bone, and the guy who saw it through to the end.
Photo by George Skene © The Orlando Sentinel
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Water You Lookin' At?
Mermaid Stunt Show Set in a Mystical Lagoon
An example of what we've been working on lately
When it comes to live attractions, it’s hard to ignore the siren call of the mermaid. Though bereft of legs, these mystical creatures straddle the worlds of land and sea, an unlikely hybrid of mammal and fish renowned the world wide for beauty so irresistible that it has lured many a hapless sailor down to the murky fathoms of his doom.
But not all mermaids are evil. The Golden Mermaid of Chinese legend is one of those more enlightened souls whose love for a human fisherman was able to overcome the objections of her more aggressive brethren. It is a tale worth telling, and more than that, a story worthy of sharing through live performance, daring stunts and thrilling special effects. And that’s where Mirage Entertainment comes in. Known throughout the Far East for their exciting action spectaculars, Mirage was contracted to bring “The Mermaid” to life in China’s Wanda Xishuangbanna International Resort. This was a natural for a lagoon show, even though the story is set in a supernatural lagoon, an ancient lost city somewhere on the mist-shrouded Lan-Tang River.
The basic visual concept for this venue is an underwater setting, with colorful coral reefs built into the architecture and a simulated surface of the water worked into the ceiling. The chosen space had a row of stout pillars marching across its center, which we decided to decorate as if they were the wooden piles supporting a dock or pier, where the various corals, barnacles and oysters had taken up residence.
The centerpiece of the room is a rather large, cubical aquarium, with plate glass set into the pillars. Inside, a beautiful live mermaid charms the guests with her provocative antics amid a flurry of rising bubbles. The other exhibits present statues and artifacts depicting undersea people from all worldly mythologies. Some of these are based on actual carvings (although in many cases, enlarged to human scale from much smaller trinkets) and some on artistic interpretations of written or oral legends.
There are interactive sections, where guests can investigate the mermaid phenomenon in more depth or stand before the magic mirror and see what they might look like as mer-people. There’s even a replica of P.T. Barnum’s infamous Fiji Mermaid, a hoax purportedly constructed by stitching the torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish. Sort of a low-brow hybrid, one might say.
“The Mermaid” is just one of the attractions at Wanda’s first outdoor theme park, but it has all the things audiences want. It will be nice to see these glamorous sea nymphs lure crowds of people to their fate -- and see everybody come away smiling.
Our first task was to develop the look of this hidden cove, where the unique architecture and colorful vegetation proclaim it to be a place just beyond the edges of the known world. It is the traditional homeland of the mer-people, a village built long ago over the brink of a magical estuary. Though the legless inhabitants no longer have need of these buildings, the sturdy structures have withstood the ravages of time, their soaring rooflines and elegant sculptures barely marred by the centuries of harsh, tropical sun and vicious cyclonic storms.
For inspiration, we looked to the swooping, peaked parabolas of Indonesian roofs, but replaced the traditional thatching with pearlescent shingles reminiscent of the scales of an iridescent fish. There was considerable back-and-forth with the client regarding the style of the carvings, especially those that were to adorn the corners of the roofs and the tops of the door arches. One proposal was to emphasize the supernatural atmosphere of the lost city by creating sculptures of hybrid creatures (which, of course, mirrored the dual nature of the mer-people themselves) such as manta-squids and flying frogs. But when it came to actually constructing the set, a simpler esthetic prevailed: the cascading vertical planes
of each building were cut back to a single façade and the carved embellishments depicted more recognizable fauna, such as octopi and butterflies.
Getting a Purchase on
It is a time-tested principle of attraction design to maximize revenues by having the guests pass through the gift shop on their way out. In this case, there is much more than a simple gift shop. We were asked to prepare a few concept sketches for a Mermaid Museum that would further entertain the guests while providing a bit of education on the various legends found throughout the world – and, of course, giving them the opportunity to purchase a replica or two of the items on display.
All images © Mirage Entertainment
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Creating Colorful Critters for Community Causes
Cows on Parade was a global phenomenon in 1998. Before long, it seemed that every city in the country was jumping on the bandwagon with a similar home-grown public arts program. And with good cause. Not only did each promise to raise a lot of money for its good cause, it would provide a visible “canvas” for local artists (and pay them a modest fee for their work) while adding a touch of whimsical beauty to the gray streets of participating towns. The canvas was actually a selection of 3-D fiberglass sculptures, full-size in the case of such large animals as cows, with smaller critters enlarged to more human dimensions.
The success of Orlando’s LizArt encouraged the city of Lakeland to try a similar program, drawing upon its lake-borne waterfowl as the inspiration. Swansation was designed to raise money for local charities, including a children’s museum. It offered two versions of the graceful birds – one swimming and one rising into the air on its wings. I submitted a whole flock of what I thought were clever ideas, including some that were clearly targeted at potential sponsors (such as an Italian restaurant or the military).
Three of my designs were chosen, two of them proving to be no more than an easy paint job. Constellation Cygnus (the Swan) was a depiction of outer space, complete with a tiny U.S.S. Enterprise voyaging among the stars. Bird to the Bone, sponsored by a medical radiological firm, had a normal white-feathered swan on its right side, but a black-and-white X-ray of its skeleton on the left. A dry brush techinque gave just the right illusion of transparency to the thinner parts of the skeleton, and the end product was even better than I had expected.
The third design presented a much greater challenge. I had submitted it primarily as a gag, but to my consternation, the joke was on me. The idea was to turn the swan into a flamingo – another familiar Florida water bird – which I entitled, Hey, That’s Not a Swan! The Saddle Creek Corporation picked it up, and suddenly I was confronted with the task of making the darn thing stand on one leg! I managed to mount it on a metal pipe, with a folded leg made out of PVC pipe and a plastic Diet Coke bottle. Saddle Creek liked it so much, they bought it at auction and proudly display it in their lobby, dressing “Pinky” up for the various holidays throughout the year.
I was asked to do a fourth swan which really was a bit of a rehab project. It seems the denim fabric encasing one of the sculptures had not stood up well in the Central Florida rains, and the original artist was not interested in repairing it. The sponsors wanted to take advantage of the situation and commission a new design that might emulate the work of a famous artist. I submitted a rough concept for an Escher-esque pattern of interweaving white swans with black helicopters, but the sponsor had a different artist in mind. So I ended up doing Swanday Afternoon, based on Seurat’s famous "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte," with swans in place of the people. Although it seems to be a rather straightforward painting, it proved to be a real pain to faithfully duplicate the composition and style of the original artist. Actually, it was two pains, because I had to duplicate the image yet again on the opposite side of the swan. Yeesh!
This was not quite the end of my career as a decorator of blank sculptures. I took a whack at Clermont’s horse program, but got no takers for my designs. Then the city of Sanford came up with ArtyGators, under the supervision of fellow artist Mindy Matthews, who had me revise the original design for the standing gator template into a more usable shape. Then, out of all the concepts I proposed, only one was selected by a sponsor.
The AviGator was a whimsical pilot, complete with a bomber jacket, old-fashioned leather helmet and goggles, rakish scarf, and a suitcase with stickers from the many countries he’d visited. Having learned some hard lessons regarding durability in the LizArt project, I was loathe to use any real clothing for this character. Instead, I employed a combination of plastic and fiberglass (filled in with spray foam and, in the case of the folds in the leather, sections I’d cut out of a garden hose). I even brought my young son Max in to help apply the paint so he could claim partial authorship.
I have to say, of all the sculptures I had worked on, this one was the most satisfying in terms of quality of execution upon meeting a difficult challenge. AviGator has welcomed visitors to the Sanford-Orlando Airport for years, but he draws the line at carrying their bags – especially the ones made of alligator hide.
Even the inside track has its drawbacks, as I was to learn soon enough. Where the artist's contract stated that we would have a month to complete each work, Brenda insisted that I finish my six lizards in time for the big press conference, which was only two weeks away.! My living room became a factory floor, with two statues going at a time, and two new blanks being dropped off at my door in exchange for the two I had just polished off. And that computer kiosk, which required lopping off one arm and reattaching it in a matching position to hold the keyboard platform, had to be thrown together in a single night.
The basic methodology I employed on Miss Lizzi applied to these as well – find some vintage clothes (or ask the sponsor for a used uniform and other equipment), attach all the accessories as securely as possible, and add generous layers of paint and lacquer. Although this proved adequate as protection from the natural elements, it was not enough to fend off the more unsavory elements of society. The policeman, for example, was vandalized several times, and I had to replace the missing hat, gun and badge. It could have been worse – some of the other artists saw their lizards broken apart or even stolen.
But this being the heart of citrus country, we know how to turn lemons into lemonade. Brenda saw an opportunity for further publicity, establishing a Lizard Hospital behind the expansive windows of an empty building in Church Street Station. In full view of the public, but sheltered from the weather, several artists devoted some time to repairing and touching up their creations to get them ready for the big auction. After all was said and done, the City netted over $200,000 for the Downtown Arts District.
The Long Tail of the Law and Miss Lizzi awaiting pick-up after completion at the improvised workshop.
Brenda had already engaged me to create the flagship statue, which she wanted to name Miss Lizzi. My concept was to clothe her in a hot pink flower-pattern dress and matching lipstick, a blond wig and big sunglasses. A white handbag would complete the ensemble, and the whole thing was to be weather-proofed with thick layers of lacquer (which would also serve to stiffen the fabric, some of which was filled in underneath with spray foam insulation). Miss Lizzi was to reside in the lobby at City Hall, but on occasion she would be trotted out to other locations on a far-ranging promotional tour.
I also submitted a couple dozen other ideas and attended the sponsors’ reception with my fellow artists, eager to see if anyone would take the bait. Some did, and Brenda brought a few prospects to me to see if I could create a custom design to meet their desires. Naturally, I said yes, and thus secured a contract with Orlando Utilities for two lizards and one each for the Fire Department and the Orlando Police. In the end, I wound up doing six lizards, including another one at City Hall that was built to house a computer as a sort of an interactive tourist guide.
Some of the other artists derided my concepts as being more like dressing up Barbie dolls than creating true art. I understand their point, but at the time, I had no real experience scultping in fiberglass or any other durable mediuym, so this was, in my mind, a method well suited to, well, suiting up the lizards. And it was quicker, which became extremely important right out of the gate.
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As the months wore on, the flamingo’s metal leg proved to be a bit of a problem. Although I had included a metal flange to bolt the pipe to its concrete base, I had strongly recommended that the city contractors cut a hole into the slab and sink the pipe several inches into it for better lateral support. This they did not do, so I had to drive over to Lakeland several times to tighten the bolts on the flange, lest this weak point give way and the flamingo do a swan dive beak-first into the ground.
The city did its best to keep the publicity going with the Swanny Awards contest for the public’s favorite. My flamingo was awarded runner-up in the categories of Cygnet'sC'hoice (Children's Favorite) and Most Entertaining, but it turns out a local radio station had shamelessly enlisted its listeners in a voting campaign that skewed the results in several categories. Oh well, it wasn’t the first time in Florida that the vote count was questionable!
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Cat-r-pillar at its home base outside theMarchant Stadium, Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers
The AviGator, an old-fashioned pilot who's got a whole new bag. Photo © ArtyGators.com
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A Dark Ride
that's on the
Matt Lenz must have caught me in a weak moment. As a rule, I don’t do projects on spec, having been burned too many times by the myriad obstacles in the way of ever getting paid, but I had worked with Matt before, and knew that not only is he a top-notch engineer with an inventive and creative mind, but he is an honest man and one of the nicest guys on the planet. Add to that the fact that work in the attractions industry was still struggling to crawl out of yet another of its abysmal downturns, and jobs at the time were few and far between. So I took a chance and agreed to help him draw up a proposal for a new dark ride.
The client was Safari World, an attraction in Bangkok, Thailand, where I had already done considerable work through the Dixon Group, so I was familiar with the venue and its owner, Mr. Phin. Matt had already pitched the basic idea, but needed a more detailed plan and some accompanying artwork to really sell it. That’s where Radical Concepts came into the picture.
The concept was for a track-based ride on a simulated hovercraft (or an anti-gravity cylinder, depending on whether the client preferred to hang the track from the ceiling or embed it in the floor) through various environments throughout the world. The different regions would be represented by simplistic, even cartoony, flat cut-outs arrayed in rows to give the effect of perspective. These would be augmented with video screens upon which a number of characters would perform musical numbers and comedic bits.
Leading us through the voyage was a whimsical character I designed called JoJo the GoGo Bird – an ironic twist on the dodo, who not only would be able to fly (with a jet pack), but also swim (with scuba equipment) and skate and otherwise get wherever he needed to go.
I drew up colored scenes to illustrate all of this and threw in a concept for the exterior of the building, complete with logo and supporting graphics.
It was a nice package, but the project never managed to get a green light, even after we had revised a few things to make it a better fit for the client’s aesthetic leanings and for the dimensions of the venue. Which is really sad, because now all those poor little kids in Thailand will have to depend on other sources to see what the rest of the world is like.
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The Arctic Scene features a happy narwhal and his friend the orca, along with a flock of puffins, which unlike penguins, do live up north.
Tour Guide: Concept drawings of JoJo, the energetic GoGo Bird.