Karl Rouse serves as Associate Dean of SCAD’s School of Entertainment Arts
Themed entertainment and design is a multi-billion dollar a year industry that extends well beyond themed parks. Whether it’s designing ride attractions, envisioning immersive entertainment and art installations, producing interactive storytelling, or creating themed hospitality experiences, jobs in the field are as diverse as the professionals who fill the roles.
The very first MFA of Themed Entertainment was developed nearly a decade ago at a university that our readers are well acquainted with. Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) prepares its students for careers in fast-evolving creative fields, so it comes as no surprise that it honed in on themed entertainment as an area of study early on. It welcomes a diversity of students from differing undergraduate backgrounds who are eager to push themed entertainment into the future through the use of new technology, tools, and storytelling opportunities. For our latest Q&A, we catch up with Assoc. Dean of the School of Entertainment Arts at SCAD, Karl Rouse. He tells us about the many uses of themed entertainment today, as well as how his graduate students are uniquely poised to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. Enjoy!
ACR: Karl, let’s start with the basics. Though theme parks are big players in the world of themed entertainment, they certainly aren’t the only ones. Tell us about the many applications and uses of themed entertainment that your MFA students explore.
Karl Rouse: At SCAD, I have seen student projects that explore escape rooms, dining experiences, dark rides, interactive exhibits, historical sites and social justice projects. There is a strong desire to tell stories through space, objects, artifacts and experience. Technology also allows us to reimagine and disrupt the storytelling experience and give more power to the audience. Today, we interact with products in a totally new way and organizations are interested in developing an experience around a product.
When I lived in the United Kingdom, I saw a whole Caribbean island created in a shopping mall; once inside, you navigated on a small boat and solved challenges – all to experience and ultimately buy rum! I come from a background of Immersive Performance and I see a lot of interest from students in this area. This includes developing large-scale game design, or an immersive narrative experience like we see in companies such as Secret Cinema where you don’t just watch the film but actually experience the world that the characters inhabit.
We can also see this through the work of Punchdrunk who have ventured into television, VR, and enormous and complex theatrical events in which entire worlds are created and experienced! There are developments of entire townships that are story-driven by developers like Caruso, and other mixed use complexes created with associative imagery to support their quest for new environmental experiences.
ACR: Does the MFA program at SCAD seek applicants with particular undergrad degrees or skill sets?
KR: Disney Imagineering includes over 200 different job descriptions, and so students may also come to us for many different reasons! I am always far more interested in where a student is going rather than where they have been. Our program looks at a range of candidate backgrounds and stories. A favorite moment of my job is meeting applicants and exploring their journey to a creative career. Students may come from architecture or performing arts and everything in between.
What we are interested in is how will the applicant use their experience at SCAD to define their contribution to the Themed Entertainment world through mentorship, projects and challenges. At SCAD, we encourage a cross-disciplinary approach with our curriculum and our students work with different degree programs on projects throughout their time here. We have students interested in design, and others interested in project management. Some arrive with excellent drafting skills or with a range of skills in computer design programs, while others are new to these skills but have experienced storytelling by other means. Every experience is valid and the degree is designed to develop past experiences, provide new, innovative knowledge and shape our students for success with their future careers.
We want students who are able to define personal goals and target their professional passion. SCAD supports students with writing, graphic design, interior design, facility design, brand development, drawing, commercial model making, retail, hospitality design, food service design, ride + show design, area development, landscape design, and more!
ACR: The diversity of your students mimics that of professionals working alongside each other in the field. How important is collaborating well with others- particularly those of different backgrounds and skill sets- in themed entertainment?
KR: I believe everything depends upon successful collaboration. Even now when so many of us are working from home, our ability to collaborate and communicate is essential. I am pleased to say students from SCAD are thriving in this virtual world. They are developing communication skills, in an international and cultural context, as well as from an emotionally intelligent standpoint. Students are in a constant dialogue with each other across disciplines, departments, and communities. This extends beyond the Themed Entertainment classroom and may include students and professionals from lighting, costume, motion media, graphics, sound design, interior design, and architecture.
One of our recent collaborative projects was the immersive experience Search for The Gryphon, which included contributions from over 100 students from all areas of the university. Our program also provides students with constant industry interactions, professional mentorships, and engagement with the general public; for themed entertainment that feedback is critical. I believe the ability to tell a story and share your idea in a way that is engaging, joyful and innovative is a skill that is so important and we include this in all of the work we create. Often, I will visit a class to hear the pitch and give feedback and this may lead to the development of an idea that I am then able to put in a public arena and support.
ACR: You mentioned the program’s industry partnerships. How do students leverage these networks to their educational and post-graduate advantage?
KR: SCAD fosters engaging and meaningful working relationships with many industry leaders. We have had many themed entertainment students participate in a SCADPro assignment, our university’s design and innovation studio. These dedicated classes work with industry partners; our students develop design solutions for their businesses over the 10-week quarter. Students from our MFA program have worked with companies including Disney Imagineering and The Kessler Group as well as local businesses here in Savannah on assignments. Students enrolled in these assignments meet with the industry clients throughout the quarter, develop innovative concepts, and present final results and prototypes that many times are directly integrated into real world projects. Often, students who work on these projects are offered internships and positions with these companies.
I am also able to bring in professionals as mentors to work with students throughout the year. Currently we have a senior creative leader from Disney in one-on-one Zoom meetings with the senior thesis students providing feedback and helping to develop their professional portfolios. Additionally, many of our SCAD faculty have dynamic professional backgrounds and bring this experience and creative network to our students which is really exciting to witness.
ACR: Being just a four-hour drive to the themed entertainment hub of Orlando, your students take advantage of opportunities there, as well...
KR: They do. I had the privilege of attending IAPPA in November with all of our students. It was remarkable to see them in action creating new partnerships and networks. All of the characteristics and professional development we had been working on really took action there, and I was so proud of all of them. They had ideas, projects, pitches, portfolios, and knew how to connect and communicate in an authentic and engaging way. During the expo, I saw students earn internships and jobs with the very best organizations from Universal to Disney- and all over the world. This is because we are here to teach excellence in our practice and our skills, and also foster the entrepreneurial spirit of dedication to the work, project management, and how to deliver a successful project.
SCAD also hosted an industry event at IAPPA in Orlando and it was a joy to witness our current students interact with so many SCAD graduates who were then able to offer them employment or internships. There is a tangible sense of energy about this program, the students, and the professors who inhabit it.
ACR: Your Themed Entertainment MFA students participate in competitions and have been awarded numerous accolades including top honors at the Walt Disney Imagineering Design Entertainment event. How do competitions help develop and prepare students for the field?
KR: SCAD has had the honor of creating winning entries for the last 3 consecutive years in the Disney Imaginations Competition. This includes two first place wins in a row. It is built into the DNA of our curriculum that students will participate in many industry competitions - Ryerson, Cornell, Imaginations, Adobe Creative Jams - which allow them to experience working in a team and interpreting a brief.
There is such an excitement surrounding these competitions and students work with relentless energy to develop projects that will innovate and develop their industry. I always believe the role of a student is to define their industry and to make it a better place to work in the future.
ACR: Which undergrad majors would you suggest aspiring themed entertainment designers explore and pursue? And might we see a BFA in Themed Entertainment at SCAD anytime soon?
KR: Well as the saying goes, if you build it they will come! At the moment, we have a symbiotic relationship with Production Design here at SCAD and this is a great place to develop the skills that will see a student achieve success in Themed Entertainment. But subjects such as Performance, Theatre, Production Design, Scenic Design, even Dramatic Writing are all appropriate leaping off points for Themed Entertainment. Potential students are always welcomed to engage and speak with faculty if they want further guidance in this particular industry. Essentially, I think a good storyteller could come from anywhere and I am most interested in their ability to want to create better experiences for audiences of the future. How are they going to do that? Excite me with the vision!
ACR: The degree’s Savannah campus offers students many opportunities and rich culture. You’ve resided around the world, Karl, but what do you value about doing your job in Savannah right now?
KR: I joined SCAD just last year and I am totally in awe of the city, the location, and most importantly what SCAD brings to Savannah. From the remarkable renovation of buildings, to the fantastic resources that are available to all students across the location. Savannah is large enough to give students space to breathe, while also being small enough to create a supportive and lively learning community that feels more personal than other universities I have worked at.
I know my students here at SCAD. I get to join in on their trivia nights, or hang out and hear their stories on SCAD Days! I know what they are doing and why they came here. The student body is diverse, international and very active. Savannah is so well connected to the burgeoning film industry in Georgia with so many features and series being filmed in the city (Council of Dads being a recent project that saw over 100 SCAD students work on it in some capacity). Savannah is also close to Atlanta, where we have another SCAD location and we often exchange ideas and possibilities between these two cities, including programming for signature events like aTVfest and SCAD Savannah Film Festival. And, as mentioned, our proximity to Orlando and the ease at which we glide in and out of the opportunities there.
ACR: Looking forward to watching the program continue to evolve and expand. Thanks for answering our questions today, Karl.
KR: Thank you!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.