Posted Jul 1st 2009 by

Lead image

An interview with
DON CARSONwords by , July 2009

On TC we’ve been able to feature creatives from many different corners of the industry and Don Carson has a job most of us would love! As a concept designer, Don spent a number of years working as part of the Walt Disney Imagineering team, hatching ideas for theme parks and attractions, whilst being given creative freedom to let his ideas run wild. Don spared us some of his time away from his current job as a 3D environment designer to talk to us about life at WDI, his love of Fountain Pentels and the importance of cake!

Hello and welcome to Thunder Chunky, how are you doing today?

Hello, I couldn’t be better. It’s late spring in the Pacific Northwest and we just had the longest day of the year. It rains a lot here, so in June we soak up the sun and squirrel it away for the winter months.

To any readers out there who may not be familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself in 3 easy-to-follow steps?

  1. Always trying to take them where they could never go,
  2. Let them be what they could never be,
  3. Let them do what they could never do.

A lot of people will have already seen your work without perhaps realising it, as you worked as a lead designer for a number of Disney attractions, including the iconic Splash Mountain in Disney World. How did that opportunity come about?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and we often traveled down to Southern California to visit my grandparents, who just happened to live a few miles from Disneyland. I think I always wanted to be a theme park designer, even before I realized there was such a job. I trained as a commercial illustrator, mainly because that was the only art job I thought I could make money at. Illustration was a pretty good fit, but I had to admit that I really only liked doing the initial concepts for a piece, the finished work always felt like…. well, work. My college professors assured me that there were no jobs out there that would allow me to just do, what they considered, only the first half of the job. I am living proof they were wrong!

Splash Mountain well

One of the designs for in-and-around Splash Mountain

After a failed attempt in commercial illustration, I was hired as the Design Director for the California Renaissance Faires, allowing me to apply my illustrative talents to the creation of, basically, outdoor theatre on a large scale. A combination of my mixed portfolio, and luck, got me the job as a Show Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering in the late 1980’s, and my first job was Splash.

Hooks Tavern

One of Don’s concepts for Hook’s Tavern

It must be both thrilling and daunting working on something as high profile as Splash Mountain. How would the process work? Would you be given a brief and then a lot of creative freedom, or did a lot of people have a say in each project?

I have to admit I was pretty green going into WDI, but this was the “big leagues” and they handed me what was supposed to be a two week job making minor changes to Disneyland’s original Splash Mountain to be built in Florida. That two weeks turned into two years as we eventually redesigned the attraction from the ground up. Usually a designer would need to wrestle with other designers for such a cherry assignment, but because there had been two previous Splash Mountains (CA and Tokyo), and this was considered a “cookie cutter” assignment, there were no other Imagineers fighting for the lead spot on the project. This allowed me complete creative freedom to re-envision the entire attraction. I still marvel at the faith they had in me at the time.

Splash Mountain railroad

Design for a train station in-and-around Splash Mountain

In your time at Disney you worked on a whole host of different rides and attractions. Is there one particular project you’re proud of, and could you walk us through the process you went through whilst working on it?

There are many projects I am proud of, many of which have never see seen the light of day. One drawback to doing this sort of work is that frequently your best stuff can’t be shown to anyone outside the project team. I recently had the task of designing an entire park based on a favourite Japanese animation director, sadly that project may never happen, but it was such an honor to have been given the task of imagining what that might look like.

Disney concept

A concept intended for Toontown which never actually got made

At Imagineering I held the position of Senior Show Designer, in Disney-speak, the attraction’s Art Director. Projects typically start in “Blue Sky” where anything goes, and often the more off the wall the idea the more likely it will have a chance to make it into the parks. As a design evolves, it moves into “Design Development” where numbers and the realities of budget and physical space are applied to it. Here the team begins to grow, and over the course of 2 to 5 years it can swell to hundreds of people, all necessary to making these wild ideas a reality. One very unique aspect of how Imagineering works is that they don’t fight a good idea. Everyone on the team is dedicated to producing exactly what was depicted in those initial drawings. I can’t say I have encountered an organization before or since that can boast the same.

Muppets 4D entrance

A concept which did make it into the Muppets 4D attraction

What are the main challenges when converting a concept sketch into a real physical building or set?

Like any project, design frequently bumps its head on the low ceiling of money and time, or lack thereof. As your project moves from concept into feasibility, you are constantly adjusting your design to take into consideration the materials needed to create it, the wear it needs to take, and how it will entertain guests while keeping them safe. Over time keeping those factors in mind becomes second nature, and like any creative medium, you work within the limitations of your art. In the case of Disney, you may have a lot more money to work with, but you are still challenged every day to massage your concept while fighting to retain it’s original vision.

Roger Rabbit

Concept and final build for the Roger Rabbit attraction

What did one of your typical days as part of the Imagineering team entail?

For a Show Designer in the early stages of a project, you might find yourself bouncing between meetings and your drawing table, adding flesh to your concepts and reviewing your newest designs with your growing team. As the project develops you spend less time at your desk and more time pollinating architects, engineers, and fabricators as they begin to build upon your initial concept. At the end of a project you might end up wearing a hard hat and slogging through a construction site, reviewing the installation and finally debuting to the public those ideas you were dreaming up three years earlier. After opening an attraction you are then thrown back to your drawing board to start the process all over again.

Building site

A day as an Imagineer can include a trip to a building site!

After working at Disney, you moved into the virtual world and starting designing virtual worlds for sites like There.com and IMVU.com. Was it an intentional move into the 3d world or was it more just a natural progression for you?

When our son was born we decided we wanted to raise him somewhere other then LA, and so we moved to Oregon. One of the hazards of such a move is distancing yourself from the industry you love. To make ends meet I worked for a local computer game company which began my new education into all things digital. It didn’t take long before I recognized a missed opportunity for the computer gaming industry. As computers became more powerful, we found ourselves frequently asked to build virtual 3D environments, spaces that could benefit a lot from the lessons learned by the creators of themed physical spaces, like those found in theme parks. The first opportunity for me to prove this point came in the form of There.com, an early attempt to create a sustained virtual social online world. Later a group of the founders of There left to create IMVU.com, and I have been working with them ever since.

There.com concepts

Examples of the concepts done for There.com

Moving to a smaller town also allowed me to give back to my community in the form of theatrical set designs for our regional Opera and Ballet companies.

Theatre sets

Design for the production of the opera Hansel & Gretel

Do you find it a lot less restricting working with virtual worlds rather than real environments?

Ironically no. That was my initial thought, that virtual environments would be free of the limitations of things like gravity, concrete, plumbing, and safety. Sadly, they are only replaced with new barriers, in the form of CPU capability, slow frame rates, and the limits or your 3D engine. In the physical world you may find yourself arguing with a contractor about union hours, while in the virtual world you might be fighting a software engineer for control of the sun, or begging for a better Particle system.

We really love the retro-tinged style of the ice cream shop you designed. That must have been a lot of fun to do! And the fact you custom-designed and made vintage signs as well is brilliant. Do you think you’ll do more projects like this?

While working at There.com, a co-worker told me that her husband had always dreamed of owning his own ice cream shop. I innocently said, “Well, if he ever decides to open one I would be happy to design it.” One year later we opened the Manhattan Beach Creamery. It was a limited budget, no Disney dollars here, but we made do with what we had. The custom signs were a relatively inexpensive way to add a mythology to the place. We wanted to create a traditional ice cream parlor, but the kind you might find along California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

Ice Cream shop

The Manhattan Beach Creamery

We’re big advocates of the traditional sketchbook and pen here at TC. Do you have a sketchbook and pen/pencil of choice you like to use?

As am I. For the past 25 years, I have been sketching in Aquabee Super Deluxe sketchbooks. In the late 1980’s the Aquabee factory had a massive fire and I stockpiled sketchbooks just in case. Aquabee came right back, and I am still working through that original horde. My absolute favorite pen is the Fountain Pentel (with the white barrel), which I am horrified to say Pentel no longer makes. They can still be found in the UK (black barrel), but they are a lesser quality. I am down to my last box, and I am searching for something to replace it. I can only hope this forced removal of my favorite drawing implement will at the least be… character building?

Sketches

Don’s desk

Are there any drawing tips you’ve picked up over the years that could help any budding concept artists out there?

Draw anything and everything! As a conceptual artist, you never know what you will need to draw. One other thing that is unique to concept artists is that your work is only as valuable as its ability to speak to the various disciplines responsible for making it a reality. In the end, no matter your artistic prowess, your art is only as successful as it is informative. Know your medium, put in the hours with a pen in your hand, and there will be nothing you can’t pull out of your head and put down on paper.

In your time at Disney and the years since you must have worked with a broad range of creative and talented people. Who do you feel were the most inspiration to you?

Over the years I’ve had the honor of working with truly humbling talent. One can’t help but be inspired by the work of others more gifted then yourself, but what inspires me most is their enthusiasm for what they do. A recent job gave me the opportunity to visit Pixar Studios in Emeryville, CA. As I sat in the lobby waiting for my colleagues to arrive, I drank in the palatable creative electricity in the air. Looking at beautiful art can inspire, but get out there and introduce yourself to the people you admire and I promise you will float home with a new drive to create your own original work.

Attraction concept

One last example of an attraction concept from Don

What sort of things are you liking at the moment? (artists, links, random stuff)

I have to admit that I am easily lured by technology, especially anything that can help me communicate a concept to a client. I sometime worry that I am “over delivering” when, although I have been asked for just a sketch I will produce a drawing, a 3D model, and video ride through set to music. I am currently playing with a beat up tablet PC, software that allows you to walk through a SketchUp model real time, and waiting impatiently for Apple to come up with another gadget that will help me effortlessly present my projects to the people I work with.

Finally, what’s the one thing everyone should do today?

Be good to yourself. Remember, you wouldn’t have been given this desire (whatever it might be) without also having been given the power to make it a reality. Oh, yeah, and eat some cake… everything is better when there’s cake.

If you’d like to see more examples of Don’s work the you can find them over on his portfolio site, where he also has a blog which you can keep track of. And you can also catch his over on Twitter – @djcarson

POSTED BY Jon

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(7 Comments) - click to comment/read
  • Wow, blown away by Dons work – absolutely amazing, and a really inspiring interview, brilliant stuff!!

  • Such a unique and refreshing read. I am a huge Disney fan; I was pretty much obsessed by all of the characters as a child.
    .
    It was great reading about Don’s role in all things Disney.
    .
    Inspiring stuff! Nice one. Think I’ll go buy some cake now. :D
    .
    Steve

  • great work and awesome interview

  • sara madjd

    hi dear artist.i cant write english well because i am from iran & my language is persian.I’m sara & i am also an artist.so ,I/as an artist,proud of u.I studied graphic in univercity & now i’m workink on TV ,as a set designer.

  • thanks so much for your support of our site and the amazing artists :)
    we love to hear from readers all around the world , please continue to support us, and we will also do our best.

  • Linda Walker

    Wow, I’m Don’s second cousin and you ought to see the clever Christmas cards he creates! He has another whole career there and he doesn’t even know it!

  • Jon

    sounds great Linda, we’d love to see any pics of them! we’re big fans of Don’s work! :-D thanks for posting up!

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