The art of making the impossible believable

The art of making the impossible believable

26 June 2019 Off By Facto Edizioni

/ by Valerio Mazzoli /

A new column kicks off this month: we welcome our new contributor, Valerio Mazzoli.

Valerio Mazzoli, theme park & attraction designer

To theme: until just a few years ago, this verb was only known to a few experts, while today the term is widely used, and at times improperly.

So what does “to theme” mean? It’s very simple… in itself a theme is a way to indicate the subject of a work, an artistic or architectural creation etc. However in the case of theme parks, it means recreating atmospheres and special situations that amaze, entertain and teach. Starting with Disney, it is one of the key elements of an amusement park, and this will remain true today, despite new entertainment technologies that allow us to immerse ourselves fully in an attraction. 

Yet choosing a theme for a park is not easy. For some time now, many projects have been inspired by the Disney and Universal Studios parks. Today, the number of theme parks has grown exponentially, with large, medium and small projects all around the world, and widely varied offer: traditional theme parks, indoor parks, water parks, educational and action parks, many of which unfortunately of doubtful taste.

I Corsari, Gardaland

Choosing the theme is one of the most important steps to be evaluated in the design, as it creates the initial impact with the guests. However care is needed, as the theme must be supported by a clear concept, so as to come to life and reflect the philosophy of the park or attraction.

In some parks, the theme is confusing and fails to convey any emotion. The reason is simple: it was not built on solid foundations. In other words, upstream there needs to be an idea that is transformed into a concept and subsequently created in three dimensions; both the artistic and constructional quality must be high standard.

Once the theme to be developed has been identified, the preparatory work for construction is long and hard. Take for example a theme at random: a medieval fantasy village with small houses, the ruins of a castle with rocks and so on… all set in a forest. This could be the entrance to any attraction: a dark ride, an indoor roller coaster etc. Only once a detailed construction project has been prepared, detailing the choice of all the materials to be used for the theme (and a lot will depend on the budget, because we shouldn’t forget that in preparing a project, the fundamental aspect is indeed the available investment) can the actual work begin. 

Which leads us to another crucial step. Unfortunately, in many cases (especially when the budget is tight or the artist/craftsperson does not have adequate experience), quality is lost along the way, and therefore a great idea can become insignificant and visually disturbing.

In my long career I have been lucky enough to begin this profession at Walt Disney Imagineering in Los Angeles, and thanks to the considerable experience I’ve acquired (as a cartoonist, designer, sculptor, model builder and much more) I have learned the magical art of theming. Nothing is left to chance; before beginning the final construction work, tests are performed with various materials, colours and special effects, however the part that fascinates the visitor to a theme park is the quality of the final work, which the group of set designers, carpenters, sculptors and painters complete under the guidance of a good set designer.

The key phrase is “It looks real!!”, even if it’s a spaceship. Walt Disney, the Master par excellence who created this wonderful and fascinating profession, said that we must ensure that “the impossible seems plausible”. The task of we designers specialising in theme parks and attractions is to serve the public, who gratify us every day by visiting the parks and works that we have designed, developed and built.

I can say that theming can be considered an art form, being an outlet for the creativity of many different artists from different areas, all applied to a well-defined work. Today we have new materials available, specifically designed for these types of applications, and technologies that make construction faster. Yet I repeat, all of this must follow on from a well-defined idea, design and construction.

Taken from Games&Parks Industry June 2019, page 74

Valerio Mazzoli /  theme park & attraction designer /