(Written by Phil Hettema) 

Hi Everybody, 

Thursday evening Ryman Arts held their annual benefit to support Art Education programs for Southern California high school students. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ryman Arts, it’s an organization named for legendary artist and original Disney Imagineer Herbert Ryman.  “Herbie” painted the original concept art for Disneyland with Walt Disney looking over his shoulders.  His spectacular paintings of early Disneyland concept development are still the gold standard of “eye candy”, and throughout his life, he made it a personal mission to mentor young talent and instill in them the importance of art, drawing and painting.

Ryman Arts was founded over 25 years ago as a tribute to Herb Ryman by Imagineering leader Marty Sklar and his wife Leah, along with Theme Park economics guru Buzz Price, Theme Park Development legend Frank Stanek and Herb Ryman’s sister Lucille Ryman Carroll.  Ryman provides a top quality, three semester drawing and painting class program to hundreds of talented high school students each year.  The classes, held on weekends at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and Cal State Fullerton in Orange county are completely free for students, who must submit a portfolio for entry into the program.  In addition to art training, Ryman provides comprehensive college preparation and entry counseling for participating students.  I’ve been fortunate to participate as a member of the Ryman Board of Directors for the past three years, and currently serve on the organization’s executive committee.

This year’s benefit event was called “Worlds of Possibilities”, and was held at Clifton’s Republic in DTLA.  Clifton’s is a renovation of one of the very first “themed” restaurants in the world, and was frequently visited in its heyday by Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury along with many well-known writers. Now owned and remodeled by developer Andrew Meieran, who also created “the Edison” in downtown L.A., Clifton’s is a true “Cabinet of Curiosities” with multiple themed environments spread over four (and soon to be five) levels.  From a redwood forest to a gothic bar, an art deco salon and a fabulous “tiki lounge”, Clifton’s is full of surprises, such as hidden cubbyholes, dioramas with taxidermy wildlife, waterfalls and secret stairways. If you haven’t visited, check it out… (and btw, there’s a cool new “Speak Easy” space coming to the Clifton’s basement sometime this year!)

The “World of Possibilities” program centered around James Cameron’s Avatar, highlighting the way Avatar and the world of Pandora have been brought to life in film, a traveling exhibition, and most notably, in the new land of “Pandora”, opening in two weeks at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando.  A panel discussion, moderated by Kai Ryssdal, the radio host of the public radio show “Marketplace”, featured four talented designers.  

Ben Procter and Dylan Cole, who were concept designers on the original Avatar feature and are co-production designers of the two upcoming sequels to Avatar (the first to be released in December 2020) talked about translating James Cameron’s vision of Pandora into a fully fleshed out visual world.  It was fascinating to hear how James Cameron developed an 1800+ page notebook with details of the world of Pandora, and personally had considered and conceived incredibly specific and almost microscopic detail of the world.  It became the responsibility of the production designers to translate that vision into paintings and dimensional plans.  These guys were impressive, and several of us “Hettemites” attending last night got a chance to talk to Ben and Dylan after the presentation.  In the presentation, they both talked about growing up as fanboys, and how that fascination propelled them beyond typical art school training.  In conversation with Dylan and Ben that passion for what they do was really evident and pretty inspiring.

Robin Stapley, Exhibition Designer from GES Exhibitions talked about the Avatar traveling exhibition he designed and which is currently traveling in Asia.  The 10,000+ sq. ft. exhibit and interactives recreate immersive environments from the film, and had to be designed to be collapsed and packed quickly for transport and reinstallation in serial locations.

Finally, Joe Rohde from Walt Disney Imagineering, who was the lead Creative Executive on the Pandora project at Animal Kingdom, described what was, in his own words, the fundamentally impossible task of bringing Pandora to vivid life in a theme park environment.  Many of us have heard Joe speak before, and he’s always a compelling and engaging speaker – and last night was no exception.  He talked with real eloquence about balancing the practical/technical realities of building environmental spaces with the emotional and resonant takeaway which they try to give to guests.  They started with recommendations from Cameron and Jon Landau, the producers of the feature film regarding the “must see” things guests would want to see…. (Riding on a banshee, the bioluminescent forest, and interacting with the Na’vi …The 12’ tall blue inhabitants of Pandora).  The results look like they’ll be pretty spectacular… in particular, a.)  the lush outdoor plantscape, which glows after dark and seamlessly combines real and artificial plant forms and b.) a really amazing 12’ compliant animatronic figure with beautifully fluid motion.  Joe talked about the sophistication of the figure programming, and how they attempted to program an “inner monologue” of performance into the figure, with the hope that the audience will perceive a character that acts one way, but may be thinking something else in the same moment.  I can’t wait to see the two attractions…  (a scenic boat ride through indoor and outdoor Pandora environments and a “Soaring” style banshee ride experience.)  Wonder how they’re going to get the capacity they’re going to need to get on the Banshee ride?

In addition to the great panel, there was a pretty nice gallery full of art on the upper level with paintings available for sale by alumni of the Ryman program who are now professional artists and designers.

A great evening, and an inspiring presentation…. And it all will make it possible for Ryman to keep up their important mission of developing the designers and artists of tomorrow! 

Thanks to all the THG’ers who attended and contributed to the success of the evening, and a special big shout out to Laura Garrett who jumped in and helped out the event organizers with signage, presentation graphics, power point formatting and all kind of last minute details.  As always, Laura proved how amazing she is!