Creative Secrets of the SEALs

Bob Rogers's team of SEALs are "ready for anything."

When BRC Imagination Arts needs to get creative -- fast -- it calls in the SEALs. "The SEALs are ready for anything," says the company's founder and chairman, Bob Rogers. "Each one is not only a specialist but also a jack-of-all-trades."

The 16-person creative-development group works closely with clients to shape the overall concepts for museums, theme parks, and corporate brandlands. "If we come up with a solid concept, then it makes everyone else's job easier," says Scott Ault, BRC's vice president of creative development and chief SEAL.

The SEALs work on a project's conceptualization for anywhere from two weeks to eight months before handing it off to another group that creates more detailed specs -- and figuring out how to actually build the projects. Here are some of the operating secrets of the seals.

1. Crayons in the conference room. BRC's projects start with two-day creative charettes, where the client and BRC's creative team talk about the project's goals and how they might be achieved in a themed environment. "We ask, What are audience members like when they come in, and what do you want them to be like when they leave?" says Ault, who began his career with an internship at Walt Disney Imagineering. "What should they have learned or experienced in the facility?" The group tries to come up with a statement of its objectives.

The walls of the charette room are all tack-ready surfaces, and the conference table is covered with white butcher paper. All of the attendees have crayons and index cards. "The ground rules are that there are no ground rules," says Ault. "There's no hierarchy within the room, and there are no bad ideas." Participants throw out ideas, and a BRC sketch artist gives life to some of them. Story elements can be written on index cards and pinned to the walls to create a rudimentary storyboard. And someone is always there snapping photographs to document the process.

The charette usually continues at dinner, where, after a few beers or glasses of wine, some of the more interesting ideas begin to surface. "When we were working with the Los Angeles Police Department, it wasn't until dinner that some officers started telling stories about stupid crimes, such as the one about the bank robber who wrote a hold-up note on the back of his business card," says Ault. "Those stories became an important part of the project, because they lightened it up."

By the second day, the charette participants start to evaluate the ideas that they've generated to determine whether those ideas support the project's objectives. They create an A list, a B list, and a C list of the ideas that survive. Those ideas go into a "bubble diagram," which uses an array of adjacent bubbles to show how various pieces of the project -- films, exhibit spaces, live shows, rides -- relate to one another.

2. Love your ideas -- then lose them. Thick skin is an important quality for a BRC SEAL. As the SEALs refine the ideas from the charette, the group isn't shy about eliminating the ones that don't seem to be serving the overall theme and objectives. "When people first come in, a lot of them have this feeling that 'it's my idea, and I need to protect it at all costs,' " Ault says. "As they mature, they figure out that this is a group effort. If we want to produce something good, people have to get used to hearing a lot of 'nope, that's not it' and 'that doesn't speak to me.' "

3. Difference is power. The best ideas come from a very heterogeneous mix of people, Ault says. One of the SEALs has a master's degree in visual anthropology and has worked as a documentary filmmaker; another SEAL has illustrated comic books; one member, Christian Lachel, actually served in the Navy's elite SEALs unit; and Ault produced television commercials before joining BRC. All members of the group are comfortable juggling several projects simultaneously, though some of them cycle out of the creative-development group to see a project to completion. "Having to constantly come up with ideas can burn you out," Ault says. "It's almost a vacation to be able to work on a project long term, instead of having to hold four or five or six projects in your head at one time."

SEALs don't have titles; everyone is simply a "designer." On one project, a SEAL might be producing sketches for a colleague who is serving as art director, but on another project, those roles might be reversed.

4. Free master's degrees. Learning is one thing that keeps the SEALs motivated. "I get a new master's degree with every project, whether I'm learning about Greek mythology, or the history of cowgirls in Texas," Ault says. "You have to know the subject cold to be able to effectively communicate the client's story, so we do a lot of reading and research."

A full-time researcher spends at least a week collecting a dossier of information from the Internet, local libraries, and Lexis/Nexis about every SEALs project. The dossier for the proposed Mythos theme park in Greece, for example, included information about the country's tourism, contemporary culture, religion, and economic situation, as well as extensive background information on ancient mythology. For the LAPD project, members of Ault's creative-development team did their own primary research: They went on "ride-alongs" with cops, tagged along with K-9 units, and visited city jails and police stations.

5. Communicate constantly. "One of our mottos is, 'Never surprise the client,' " Ault says. "The worst thing that could happen is that we get to a review point, or to opening day, and the client says, 'That's not what I thought it would be.' " To prevent that from happening, BRC tries to keep clients involved and informed throughout the design and construction processes. A member of the account-management group talks to clients several times a week to informally keep them in the loop, and BRC schedules regular progress reviews and presentations. "We also have an open-door policy," Ault says. "If a client is local, or if a client is in town but not necessarily to meet with us, that client can come in at any time and look over our shoulder."

6. Credit where credit is due. Once a project is finished, Ault and Rogers take pains to make sure that everyone who works on it gets credit. They request that their clients install small "credit plaques" on each attraction acknowledging the BRC employees who developed it. And BRC creates a project poster of its own -- a full-color, movie-style broadside that includes some of the project's signature images and a list of everyone who worked on it, from concept to completion. The client gets several copies of the poster, as do all team members.

7. They've got a secret. To keep his SEALs sharp, Ault plans occasional "secret missions." The goal is to enhance intuitive knowledge about the themed-entertainment industry, both from the customer's perspective and from the employee's. One recent mission sent trios of SEALs to Disneyland. In the parking lot, they opened an envelope that held their instructions, which read, "You've just broken your leg. Rent a wheelchair, and experience Disneyland as a disabled person." Says Ault: "That one has affected the way that SEALs design, up to today." A future mission will require SEALs to go to Knott's Berry Farm and work for a half-day operating one of the rides there. "We want them to understand design from the operational standpoint too," says Ault.

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