Ni Hao, China: How One Studio is Navigating Theme Parks’ Next Frontier

Posted by Sasha on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

When Walt Disney set out to create Disneyland, the goal was not to make an amusement park full of rides and cheap thrills; his vision was to create a place of true magic where people of all ages could escape into a fantasy world together. Disney wanted this place to transform the way people felt, taking them out of the everyday and into a state of imagination and possibility. To this day, Disney’s theme parks represent the “best in class” of theme park experiences, a veritable Palace of Versailles for international developers to imitate and replicate.

The demand for “Disney-like” theme parks has boomed in Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, but most noticeably in China. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks, China has 59 theme parks under development. There is a lot of activity, but so far only a couple of parks have gone far enough to break ground, one of them being Shanghai Disney Resort. Between fundraising and the politics of land ownership, working in China is not an easy task. One company has seemed to find a good groove in the growing Chinese theme park market: Favilli Studio. With roots in art, design and Imagineering, Favilli Studio has become a go-to team for theme park and resort development.

When you walk into Favilli Studio, what stands out most —aside from the golden retriever who immediately assures you that he’s your best friend —is that every surface of the studio is covered with hand-drawn illustrations. It is rare to see a company generating so much of their artwork by hand in this digital age, and the result is work that stands out as having a much more authentic, “Disney-esque” feel. Favilli Studio’s Chief Creative Officer, Andrea Favilli, believes that having this touch of magic is what makes all the difference: “good design is not just about how something looks, but how it makes people feel.” Most of Favilli’s work starts with a blank sheet of paper, which depending on the artist, can either be a dream come true or a nightmare. For Favilli, starting with a blank sheet of paper is an exciting adventure into the realm of fantasy, and results in something that is both economically and physically viable.

Favilli Studio

Favilli Studio’s backbone lies in the background of the Favillis themselves. As the son of a sculptor and set designer for Cinecittá Studios, Andrea Favilli grew up on the sets of filmmaking’s most iconic productions, including Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. For Andrea, Cinecittá’s backlot was a wonderland where entire worlds changed before his eyes. At the start of the week he would be playing amongst Egyptian pyramids and by the end of the week he would be on an extraterrestrial spaceport. Andrea understood from an early age how the design of an environment could affect the way a person felt, and he honed his art skills by looking to the master: his father, Aldo Favilli. “When I was small, I used to think my dad was a magician. Watching him was like watching living art, because he embodied beauty in everything he did,” Andrea recounts.

Aldo Favilli Cinecitta Studio

Aldo Favilli working on Ben Hur, 1957

Ben Hur Arena

The set of Ben Hur

Growing up in Rome also played a large role in Andrea’s artistic inspirations: “Rome is the original guest experience. Everywhere you walk feels like a theater. Every archway makes you curious about what lies beyond. Rome is almost like a beautifully designed theme park full of thousands of years of rich history.” With the backdrop of Rome’s artistic marvels and deep family roots in Italian art and filmmaking, Andrea was primed for a career in design.

As a young man, Andrea attended Art Center College of Design, where he further honed his skills and met his future wife, Camille Favilli. Camille also grew up painting and drawing. As the pragmatic daughter of a military family, she was a good balance to Andrea’s energy and flair from the start. After graduating, Camille worked in brand design with Maddocks & Co., becoming an Associate Creative Director. Meanwhile, Andrea went on to design characters and products for big names in the toy and advertising industry, including Mattel. He eventually found himself at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he was mentored by Herb Ryman and worked alongside Claude Coates and other Imagineering legends. In 1992 Andrea created Favilli Studio, with Camille joining as Director of Design a few years later. The couple has since led their talented team through projects for Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Sony Development, and numerous other worldwide clients.

Favilli at Imagineering

Andrea Favilli with Herb Ryman

Andrea and Camille Favilli

The Favillis: Andrea and Camille

In 2006 the Favilli Studio team worked on their first project in China with the hospitality and leisure consultancy firm WATG, designing a luxury resort in Hangzhou. Today, Favilli is a well-known name in China, working with clients such as Wanda, Poly, Zhonghong, and Changzhou Dinosaur Park.

Theme park design in China

Working in China can be difficult for Western companies, and Andrea is forthcoming about sharing his advice:

“When we work in China, we have two clients on any given project: the developer, which can be either a private company, or the government itself. It takes a certain level of finesse to satisfy both entities and keep their disparate interests aligned. One has the ambition and know-how to develop the project, and the other holds the land. The Chinese government wants developers to be successful but they must have proof that the project is not only good for the developer but also good for the broader community. In our interactions with the developer, we are usually asked to help prove the viability of the project to the government. We’re the ones with the passion and experience to do this.”

For Favilli, the emphasis is on quality. In China there is often a greater focus on price and schedule, and a popular underlying belief that faster and cheaper is better. Andrea hopes to change this perspective to focus more on quality and efficiency:

“There’s an old proverb that says that we have three choices in life: cheap, fast and good, but you can only ever choose two at a given time. In China, many developers want all three, despite the fact that this is impossible. Many of our Chinese colleagues are under pressure to get projects completed as quickly as possible, which compromises quality.

Another old saying goes, ‘You pay a higher price for quality only once.’ In China, some developers end up paying a lower price for speed several times, then try to work on quality later. I say skip those first steps and start with quality. You’ll spend less time and money overall and have a better project. And remember that good design can deliver quality through efficiency. Just because something looks good doesn’t mean that it was more expensive to do — it was just designed well.”

Working in China has also led Favilli Studio to some important realizations about cultural differences: “Chinese developers can be very literal and have a way of commenting on and critiquing creative work that can frustrate Western designers. The trick is not to take the feedback personally. Our job as designers is to help Chinese developers see and imagine something that doesn’t exist yet and provide them with that ‘spark.’ There are big dreamers in China at the moment. In China, a project can go from a blank sheet of paper to a successful, open project in 3-5 years. There is tremendous opportunity in China and we are very grateful to be a part of it.”

Working with Wanda

For the Favillis, it all comes back to the power of design to transform the world around us. Andrea and Camille could have taken their artistic skills in any direction, but they chose to combine forces and create places with the power to amaze and transport people to a different state of mind. Design affects so many aspects of life, from the chairs we sit on to the buildings we work in every day. Good design is not just beautiful and transformative, it is also good business. When something is designed well, it has a domino effect on how people feel and interact with one another, which in turn affects their loyalty to a brand and their buying decisions. When an entertainment destination is designed well, it will naturally become a place that people want to return, which satisfies the developers. The goal is to create a place that leaves people feeling better for having visited.

Roy Disney Legends

Andrea with Roy Disney

Favilli Studio realizes that good design comes from an atmosphere of positivity, where artists and creatives are nurtured and encouraged to try new approaches. As Andrea explains, “What makes us different is that we love what we do. If we don’t love what we’re doing, we recognize that it’s not going to be the best it could be.”

It seems that the Chinese market is just warming up in the theme park world. There are many stories of developers wanting something “just like Disneyland” until they realize what it takes to reach the Disney level of design and execution. While we may not see all of the developments we hear about come to fruition, we can expect that the Chinese public will come to have high expectations once Shanghai Disney opens. Companies like Favilli Studio that understand quality design and how to navigate the Chinese market will be the ones to thrive in this sector.


image source: Favilli Studio

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