Prior to the opening of Vancouver Expo 86, designer Bob Rogers whispered persuasively into the ear of a reporter. The journalist had been flown in to see the Canadian Pacific Pavilion, for which Rogers directed the film Rainbow War. Luring the writer away from his set itinerary, Rogers took him to see another show he had produced, Spirit Lodge, in the General Motors pavilion. "I was young and naive, and got my wrist slapped," Rogers says. "I was just trying to help these guys see all the best stuff. Canadian Pacific was trying to keep them from seeing the competing pavilions." Rogers' company also produced the film Our British Columbia for the BC pavilion at Expo 86.
The Vancouver World's Fair proved a major turning point for Rogers, bringing him international recognition. Rainbow War was nominated for an Academy Award, but Spirit Lodge was the hit of the fair and more influential in the long term. It presented a Native American storyteller conjuring 3D images from the smoke of a campfire, through a combination of live performance and special effects. A permanent version, Mystery Lodge, operates today at Knott's Berry Farm.
BRC Imagination Arts, with Rogers as chair, continues to design and produce projects for world's fairs as well as amusement parks, museums, and science centers. The Burbank-based company has a European headquarters in Amsterdam.
As a member of the awards committee of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), Rogers has helped shape the association's awards program from its inception in 1994. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Short Films and Animation Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA).
Recent projects include NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Sami Visitor Center in northern Norway, the Los Angeles Police Department Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and two shows now in production for Universal Studios Japan. Judith Rubin spoke with Rogers recently.
Judith Rubin: We understand NASA has hired you to consult on the exploration of Mars - not the show, but the real thing.
Bob Rogers: I'm the public engagement jester for MEPAG, the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. It's a committee of 40 people, 39 of whom paid attention in school. They all have degrees in things like interplanetary nuclear science and discuss things like whether to go with the aluminum or the titanium landing struts.
Seriously, NASA's new internal catchphrase is `public engagement.' They're trying to engineer into their programs elements that will interest the public. For decades, NASA selected against that - engineers and scientists set the objectives. But the political process is not embracing them as it used to. It's no longer a case of `We're NASA, just slip the money under the door and go away.'
NASA is at the beginning of a period of transition in public expectation and the ability to take the public along. There have been a number of successes in that regard: Sojourner, John Glenn's return to space. But still, you walk out onto any shopping mall in the world and stop people and ask them to name a current astronaut. Or whether a shuttle is running now, or when the next shuttle is scheduled. The vast majority won't be able to answer even one of these questions. Because NASA allowed the engineers to take over, and that took the magic and the sense of wonder out of what is actually the most magical and wondrous adventure of all time.
My job is to say disquieting things while the super-brains work, such as `Are you sure you want to bring back a Mars rock as soon as possible? If it were me, I'd stay there a long time so I could make sure I brought back something sensational.' Otherwise, you get what I call Apollo XII syndrome, or Who Flew the Atlantic Second? Not perceiving anything spectacular from the first trip, people would ask, `Why do it again?' In fact, Apollo XII brought back better rocks, but who among the public knows that? I'm making sure they try to look at the architecture of the Mars exploration project with the public in mind.
JR: A few years ago, you caused a stir in the theme park industry by openly criticizing the queue-line system. In one article, you wrote, `A line is a master planner's method of rationing rides. That's a dirty trick that our industry plays on its customers...the average guest on a normal peak season day is wasting 25% of his or her investment just waiting in line.' You then set out several proposals for shortening lines, including VIP admissions, time tickets, and a return to coupon systems. Has anything changed since you got on the queue-line soapbox?
Rogers: Yes, they have improved a lot. When I first raised the issue, people told me nothing could be done; some said my proposal was idiotic, then turned around and did something about it. Hats off to Disney, especially, for creating the Fast Pass. Universal is doing more with VIP admissions in Florida, and what a difference! For a little more money, you can buy a guided tour: one guy, just for your family, who takes you to the front of every line. It really takes the pressure off the dads, who are typically the ones who have to strategize the day for everyone else, and get blamed if it doesn't pace out well.
JR: You're well known for espousing `story first, then technology.' But doesn't our knowledge of what technology is available and what it can do affect the story itself?
Rogers: Yes, but in the end, the medium is not the message, the message is the message. The question to ask is, what are you trying to get people to do as a result of visiting your attraction? Even educators are sometimes scared by that question, because it positions the event as something measurable, with a report card looming. That's why museum objectives are worded like the statements of large corporations, with catchall phrases like `Encourage appreciation of the wonders of the natural universe.' That result is hard to measure.
But before you can choose a technology, you've got to understand what you're trying to do. You need to pick the task before the tool. But if you're avoiding measurability, it's simpler to do the reverse. As they say, the person who owns a hammer sees every problem as a nail. If you own a huge woodshop, naturally you think the attraction needs lots of wooden display cases.
JR: Your company is known for its work on educational projects as well as entertainment attractions. Isn't it a challenge to achieve credibility with both kinds of clients?
Rogers: Yes. Our theme park clients look at us with grave suspicion because we've been doing these museum things, and our museum clients worry about our theme park background. `How will this look in the press?' they ask themselves. But in terms of actually doing the projects, the two things aren't so far apart. The two worlds are moving together, and we're standing at the point where they intersect.
Educational attractions, especially, need what companies like ours can bring to them. Because you cannot survive out there with traditional 19th-century museum technologies. In the next few years, we'll see that even the Smithsonian has got a problem, because it is assuming a certain level of prior knowledge on the part of visitors. If you don't walk in already knowing the story of the Spirit of St. Louis, if you don't know who Charles Lindbergh was or what he did, what do you get out of seeing the airplane on display? Without the context, these things are nothing. A museum's incredible, priceless artifacts have no emotional touch if you don't tell the story.
Today's museum audience speaks a new, graphic, experiential language. They don't know the language of cases with glass boxes, or pictures on the wall with oceans of text. Traditional curators are very text-oriented, but today's public doesn't accept, digest, or retain information in that form. The museum clients that come to us because of our theme park work aren't asking to borrow the empty-headed nonsense of parks, but they do want to borrow the parks' entertainment pizzazz in order to motivate and inspire museum guests, and achieve their educational missions.
It travels the other way, too. We've done a fair amount of business in Europe, and find that the European citizen seeks out experiences that are enriching, even in theme parks. That trend is coming more and more to the US as well. Mystery Lodge is very content-driven, and still one of the biggest draws at Knott's.
JR: Some companies report that currently, there's a shortage of work in the attractions business. Do you perceive this?
Rogers: What's happened is that the industry is growing and very strong, but it has grown faster than demand. If you go back just 20 years and look for an independent company to do theme park work, you'd find just a handful. But largely because Disney's Epcot, which opened in 1982, chose to job out a lot of work, a number of companies got their start, including ours. Still, even in the late 1980s, the list was pretty small. But now, there are hundreds of companies, consultants, and individuals, and thousands of people among them formerly `did something' at Disney.
The amount of work is steadily expanding, but the marketplace is cluttered and confused. With the emergence of new markets, you have to remember that most business is built on relationships. I have to laugh when someone decides to `just hop over to Europe.' We were going to Europe steadily for years before we were ready to establish a permanent office there. Asia is starting to come back, and the smart people who kept building relationships while it was economically depressed are the ones who will have work there now. The new goldrush in our industry will be in Asia, followed by Central and South America. India is on the horizon.
JR: It's said that you're related to pro baseball player Bill Rogers.
Rogers: That is true, although I didn't know it myself until the denouement of a strange series of events that included winning, then subsequently losing, a competition to produce a pavilion for the Australian government, for World Expo 88 in Brisbane. In Australia, where sports is big news, people were constantly, eagerly asking me if I was related to Bill Rogers, the famous, expatriate American baseball player who was then playing in Australia, and I was constantly telling them that I wasn't, while feeling that if only I were, it might get me sufficient points to win this proposal game once and for all. And then, a year after my return from Australia, I attended a family reunion during which I had a chat with my cousin William. `What have you been doing, William?' I asked. `Oh,' he answered, `I've been down in Australia playing baseball. Down there, they nicknamed me Bill, because it sounds more American.'