Written by: Sasha Bailyn Monday, December 17th, 2012 .
For most people, becoming a theme park designer and Hollywood film set maker is a dream, not an accidental tangent. But for Adrian Gorton, that’s exactly what it was. After studying architectural history, painting, and sculpture at the University of Colorado, Adrian imagined himself becoming an architect or perhaps a University professor – that is, until a job with R. Duell Associates took him away from his architectural licensing exams and onto the construction site of the theme park Magic Mountain.
Soon after, he was pulled in the direction of designing film sets at Universal Studios, but Adrian had his doubts because he still envisioned a career path as an architect. With an open door back at Duell Associates, he gave it a shot and his first set was “Invisible Man,” one of the first shows to use blue screen technology (green screen today). Though he worked with Duell on many projects over the years, such as Ocean Park in Hong Kong, set design stuck with him. Soon, he was doing projects with other major movie studios such as Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros., becoming inducted into the “big studio family.” Adrian’s career progressed and he went on to work with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and two-time Academy Award winning production designers Henry Bumstead and Herman Blumenthal.
For Adrian, set design and theme park design are very similar; “If I’m asked to design an English Tudor House, it doesn’t matter if it’s for a movie or for an amusement park. I get a script and the design challenge is the same either way.” The main difference is that theme park sets have to satisfy earthquake and wind load requirements, along with a bevy of safety and accessibility codes. The other huge logistical differences are the size of the team and the execution pace – whereas creating a theme park set involves hundreds of people and could take years, a film set only requires at most 100 people and could get done in a matter of weeks or even days. As Adrian explains, “I’ve done every scale of project, from 1-100, but the creative process is almost always the same. It starts with a client or director, and you get a feel for what they envision.”
Some of Adrian’s notable theme park work includes Universal Studios’ Hollywood Boulevard in Florida and the Hollywood area at Disney’s MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), which involved creating a replica Plaza Hotel and other iconic American buildings from the 1930s Golden Era of film. Perhaps one of the more exotic theme parks Adrian worked on involved the notable design company Thinkwell, along with Warner Bros. and a wealthy royal family in Abu Dhabi. Adrian’s role was to create concept design for a dark, futuristic area of the park themed around “Batman” and “Blade Runner,” before becoming Overall Art Director for the project.
Adrian’s projects have taken him all over the globe, but his favorite project (which not only gave him the most creative freedom but also the most awards), is an American classic: the port of entry at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. The port of entry masterfully demonstrates the fundamentals of theme park design: as guests move through the “set,” there is a process of reveals as perspectives open up, establishing a universally relatable sense of adventure. Adrian explains, “I designed the port of entry so that anybody entering Islands of Adventure could see something from their country or culture and say, ‘Hey! That’s where I’m from!’ I incorporated Western, Chinese, Portuguese, South Pacific, and many other influences into my design.” This project was wonderfully freeing for Adrian because he started with a clean sheet of paper. Whereas every other section of Islands of Adventure started with a set visual vocabulary and theme (such as superheroes, “Jurassic Park,” and “Dr. Seuss”), the port of entry was the only area that had no initial concept whatsoever. Adrian wrote the script and supervised construction for the entire project.
What’s unique about Adrian is that he not only has stories of working with the nation’s best theme parks, he also has stories of working with some of Hollywood’s most famous filmmakers. We were curious what it was like working with Clint Eastwood, and Adrian had this story to tell:
“People think that Clint Eastwood’s onscreen persona is who he really is, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s actually a shy, quiet, soft-spoken, and wonderful guy to work with. One time, when I was working on the set of ‘Unforgiven,’ which took place in the gold country of Northern California, we were shooting a train sequence where several characters decide to have a shooting contest. They go up on top of the moving train and shoot at pheasants. It was very difficult to coordinate this, because as the train went by, we had to release live pheasants. The pheasants were tied to filament, and so it looked like they dropped dead because once they reached the end of the filament they would fall back down. Clint was so concerned about the birds’ stress level that in-between takes he would hold them on his lap and pet them to calm them down.”
As for working with Martin Scorsese, Adrian described his methods as most unique: “Scorsese never goes to the set with the actors. He has a ‘video village’ put in place, which is basically a lot of video cameras installed around the set. He watches the whole thing from several hundred feet away, speaking directly to the actors through a Bluetooth microphone, almost like a sports announcer. He doesn’t sit there and explain things like most directors, he gives the actors a lot of space to figure things out and guides them from a distance.”
Judging by his long list of theme park and Hollywood experience, it would appear that Adrian’s deviation from his original career path worked out pretty well. When we asked him why he enjoyed designing sets and environments, Adrian answered with an anecdote: “While on the set of a Western in Tucson, Arizona, I was sitting next to actor David Carradine who asked me, ‘Why the hell would you want to be a production designer?’ I replied, ‘While everyone is busy staring at your face, everything I do goes straight into their brain unfiltered!’”