Designing from Across the Globe
Late one night in December 2020, Kate Batt, Colin Cronin, and Matthew Wheeler of attraction design company JRA hopped on an urgent Zoom call with their client. China Leisure was in the midst of installing lighting inside a new family entertainment center (FEC) named Nickelodeon Playtime in Shenzhen, China.
With the launch date nearing, unwanted shadows were creeping into the picture. JRA’s lighting team would typically be on-site toward the end of a project like this to handle focus issues, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, travel was out of the question. Instead, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based team had to provide instructions remotely.
“Our client literally walked around the site with a laptop, pointing the camera at problematic areas,” recounts Batt, JRA project manager. “They also described what it looked and felt like because sometimes the camera doesn’t translate colors correctly, and you can’t really see the issue due to glaring.”
“They would move the ladder 4 feet one way, climb up, and focus the fixture, while we watched remotely. If it worked, we’d move on; if not, they’d move the ladder and try again, and by the way, it was 11 p.m. our time,” adds Wheeler, senior project director at JRA.
“I was taking photos on my iPhone, then putting it in front of the laptop camera because the iPhone filter was better than the Zoom filter,” recounts China Leisure President Linda Dong. “They were actually viewing the whole thing through a camera lens, which ultimately was a plus for the marketing photography.”
Adjusting the lights from halfway across the globe was just one of the unusual challenges JRA faced during the design and install of Nickelodeon Playtime.
Closing the Distance
Located in shopping and leisure destination OCT Harbour, the $4.6 million project is Nickelodeon’s first branded FEC in Asia. It features four Nickelodeon brands: SpongeBob SquarePants, PAW Patrol, Dora the Explorer, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Spread across two floors, the attraction’s scale and complexity accentuated the challenge of completing it virtually.
China Leisure had engaged JRA pre-pandemic, following an initial discussion at IAAPA Expo 2019. By the time the paperwork was signed, though, travel was no longer an option.
The attractions developer tasked JRA to produce master plans, design fully immersive galleries featuring unique play styles for each intellectual property (IP), and see the project through to completion. An undertaking of this scope would normally require at least half a dozen face-to-face meetings, possibly more, including one at each major milestone plus the project kickoff and completion.
Instead, the design house leveraged no less than 10 different video conferencing and collaboration platforms, from BlueJeans to Webex, to conduct virtual meetings with China Leisure in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, as well as Nickelodeon’s team in Orlando, New York, Los Angeles, and Beijing.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the job, JRA would complete the project in less than one year, on time and on budget, without a single in-person project meeting or site visit.
“Ironically, we ended up with more communication because we got into a new mindset. Instead of waiting for a meeting, everybody immediately reached out,” adds Cronin, senior project director at JRA.
How to Win Back Time
The time difference between China and the U.S. meant that design work could take place around the clock. China Leisure’s team members provided feedback to the plans during their workday. JRA would then deliver refinements in time for the Chinese team to start work again in the morning.
Cronin credits the virtual process with helping JRA meet an ambitious timeline set by their client. Initially, though, he found the “‘Brady Bunch’-style grid” of video meetings to be intimidating. Pre-pandemic, there might be three people in the room—the designer, the client, and the IP representative—but with Zoom, the attendance list could easily stretch to more than 25 people.
As he and his teammates adjusted to the new format, Cronin realized it works well for junior team members, who can attend a meeting to learn and stay up to date on a project, even if they aren’t required to be on the call. Sharing documents becomes increasingly seamless as well. If the latest drawings were on a colleague’s computer, for example, Cronin previously would have needed to contact the designer to ask for the files over email, then forward to the client. With video calls, his teammates could pull up a required document and directly share their screen.
“The virtual design process is actually quite painless,” reflects Dong, “because everything is still on paper. When construction begins, that’s when it gets trickier. There are always discrepancies between drawings and real conditions. We had to make a lot of adjustments on-site.”
Conveying a full picture of the FEC to Nickelodeon—which played an integral role through the design process—for final approval presented another opportunity for collaborating long distance. It is one thing to share photographs of an individual piece, Dong notes, but quite another to provide a comprehensive view of a 3D environment with 2D images.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking at times,” she recalls. Before the project was completed, though, a Beijing-based representative from Nickelodeon visited Shenzhen and went through the necessary two-week quarantine in order to visit the attraction.
The Future of Collaborative Design
Once travel constraints are lifted, design and production processes are unlikely to return entirely to the way they were before the pandemic, but neither will they be 100% virtual. Like many other facets of the workplace, the most likely outcome is a hybrid.
Sharing photos and installing virtual 3D cameras on-site, for example, are a great aid to design teams.
“Even when everything goes back to normal, people should still do all this stuff,” says Cronin.
“Now that everybody has figured out the process, there probably will be more projects like this one,” adds Batt.
Keeping travel costs in mind as part of design and construction budgets, some facets of a project may still be best handled in person.
“Once it is safe and responsible to do so, my preference would be to return to a hybrid model of virtual and in-person development work. Nothing can fully replace the true collaborative spirit of a multiday, in-person, creative charette,” says Ron Hines, senior vice president of creative development and global experience design at Nickelodeon. “Do not underestimate the time required for proper development. Not everything can be compressed into a nice, tidy one-hour video conference.”
“Once travel restrictions ease, I wouldn’t want to do something completely virtual again,” agrees Dong. “There are a lot of advantages to being able to work through problems with the various project stakeholders on-site. It would definitely make my job easier.”
Still, China Leisure’s next project, an FEC in Beijing, is slated to open in the fourth quarter of this year, and it is working with another international IP holder, as well as JRA. So, Dong and her team find themselves once again amid an all-virtual process.
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.