Offering Amusement Wherever He Works
When he set up shop in his garage two decades ago, Bob Rogers made his living designing attractions and producing films for theme parks and fairs.
Today, the head of BRC Imagination Arts says that amusement work has declined and the real growth is in bringing theme park-style innovations to other venues, including corporate headquarters and museums.
“I believe that themed entertainment is the thing that is sort of animating and showing the way into many, many areas,” said Rogers, 50, whose garage start-up has grown into a $25-million company with about 55 employees.
“It’s become extremely important to some companies to accomplish an informational message,” Rogers said. “In essence, they are trying to find the corporate organizational mythology that defines the identity of an organization.”
Among its current projects, BRC is designing a visitor center for a new Volkswagen factory in Dresden, where the German auto maker plans to launch a new luxury car called the D Model. Rogers said the visitor center will include a photo-mosaic globe composed of thousands of rear-lit images from around the world in an attempt to portray global harmony.
Visitors will also be able to take a virtual test drive--sitting in a D Model hooked up to a motion-base system and looking out the windows at computer-generated driving scenes.
Other attractions at the factory are still under wraps, but have little to do with car manufacturing, said George Wiktor, managing director of BRC Europe. “But there is a brand message that is nonetheless compelling.”
Rogers likened the job to “taking all the tools that were normally reserved for advertising agencies and theme parks and applying [them] to corporate and educational enterprises. And why not?”
Why not indeed, agreed Susan Mogerman, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The agency chose BRC to design the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
“We have the largest collection of Lincoln memorabilia in the country, and we wanted to bring these objects to life and interpret them in a way that would be engaging to schoolchildren, the general public and to scholars as well,” she said. “Lincoln is a very familiar historical character, probably more so than any other in our history. Our greatest challenge is to find a way to make his legacy relevant today. We didn’t just want stuff in glass cases.”
The $115-million project--of which just over half has been raised--is scheduled to be built in a two-block area in Springfield’s downtown historic district.
Among the attractions BRC has planned is one that uses a technological innovation called Holavision, something Rogers said BRC pioneered that combines a 3-D system with live performance. BRC used it when creating the Mystery Lodge at Knott’s Berry Farm. Audiences there watch a Native American tell stories about his people while sitting at a campfire, with images from the tales emerging in the fire’s smoke.
“We will see the ghosts of Civil War soldiers as the curator opens drawers in the library,” Rogers explained. “It will be very much like a time machine. What we want to do is capture some of the magic and wonder and mystery that a true scholar feels as [he stands] before a great collection.
“Ultimately our idea is to cause people to become permanently more attracted than they were before to the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.”
Rogers and Mogerman conceded that the use of special effects has caused ire within more traditional museum circles.
“The greater danger,” Mogerman said, “is to create something people have already seen.”
Rogers got his start in the attraction business at Disneyland, working as a shop magician in both the Main Street magic shop and the shop inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle (now closed) during the summer of 1968.
“I had just graduated from high school and was on my way to Stanford [as a communications major],” Rogers recalls. “But when the end of summer came, during my exit review, I was told I would never work for Disney again.”
Rogers chalked it up to his being too curious about Disneyland’s inner workings. “I was poking around, asking lots of questions,” he said. “I wanted to know where all that water went at night in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I wanted to know if there really was a basketball court underneath the Matterhorn. To me, Disneyland was like a gigantic train set. It was totally fascinating and I wanted to know how it worked.”
After Stanford, Rogers attended CalArts in Valencia, where he helped write a textbook about cinematography. That credit brought him freelance work as a writer and producer of educational films and he was again hired by Disney for a brief period as a feature film writer. Yet the job that would help him the most in focusing on his future career was a three-year stint working in public relations and advertising at South Coast Plaza.
“I discovered that the way a shopping mall is laid out is not that different from themed entertainment, that both enterprises had the same way of moving people.”
In his spare time, Rogers continued to write and produce commercials and educational films.
In 1979 he went back to Disney, this time working as a producer in the Imagineering division, focused on films for Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida.
The start of his own company was somewhat serendipitous. General Motors was sponsoring some themed attractions at Epcot and Disney executives suggested Rogers take the job of designing them as a freelance consultant.
“It was a golden introduction,” Rogers admitted.
He began working out of his Sherman Oaks garage, then with $2,000, rented office space and printed stationary. “At the time I was less worried about starting a business and more worried about the client finding me in a garage,” he said with a laugh.
The original employee roster included Rogers, a secretary and a runner. Most of the work at that time was in theme parks, which now makes up only one-third of his business.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was a 10-year period when we had nine world fairs,” Rogers said. “That really was a golden period.”
During that time, BRC created such attractions as a Holavision show about a robot who turns a classical music lesson into a contemporary music recital in Osaka, Japan (1990); a film about different cultures around the world for the U.S. pavilion in Seville, Spain (1992); and a nine-screen, 35-millimeter, 360-degree film for the Korean Air pavilion in Taejon, Korea (1993), among many others.
Today BRC’s employee roster includes stage directors, architects, writers, artists, engineers, computer experts and managers. Rogers said he thinks of himself as a writer and filmmaker first.
“Having a background in filmmaking or media is most useful in this area,” he said. “When Walt Disney was creating Disneyland, he was getting frustrated with what architects were giving him. He ended up going to his film and animation people to design it. Filmmakers are the storytellers. They think in a dimension of time. And in this field of entertainment, that’s the most important dimension.”