An Interview with Derrick Hinman
For many, The Tension Experience was the immersive event of 2016, and a pivotal part of its success was due to Derrick Hinman and his transformative set design. He turned a cold industrial space into something more; an enveloping and self-contained world at the end of the rabbit hole. It was his artistic insight that added to the feeling of unease, keeping you truly immersed throughout the experience. Haunting sits down with Hinman to discuss his inspirations for the design of various rooms, the unique difficulties in transitioning from film to immersive experience work, and a The Tension Experience that could have been.
The Start of The Tension Experience
Together with director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer Clint Sears, Hinman worked to define The Tension Experience. But it wasn’t always the immersive behemoth it became—it started small. “We just had an idea. We had a script for a feature film, and wanted to make it into an immersive experience as well. And the immersive experience ended up being completely different than what the feature film was supposed to be.” He explains that they developed a new storyline and implemented it to a growing community. Each day, they would watch the reactions unfold and adjust the script to propel the story even further.
For Hinman, receiving feedback from his audience in real time was a new experience – one so different to anything he had encountered in his work previously. “I loved being able to read in real time what people were saying about us on the forums. So many moments, I would think to myself: ‘This is fucking amazing. We are changing how this system works.’” But it wasn’t just Hinman who was excited; he recollects stories of Bousman calling him up exclaiming, “You have to hear this!” Bousman would send Hinman links to threads, thrilled by what the community had discovered or theorized. This constant back and forth helped create more ideas, and from there it kept spiralling deeper.
It was a true labor of love for the team, Hinman tells me: “We were doing all of this for the community, rather than for money. I printed material and designed graphics; we rented spaces, ubers, and hotel rooms. [Bousman] hired actors and even a private investigator. We did all this work for events and didn’t expect anyone to pay us a dime. Yeah, it was a lot of work, but it was really fun. We were creating something special, something meaningful.”
The Design Process
In his past life, Hinman worked on multiple studio projects, such as Heaven’s Fall, and assisted Bousman with Devil’s Carnival I & II— this was his first foray into immersive theater. But Hinman turned this lack of experience in the medium into a positive: “In a way, I think that helped make this different. I don’t have experience in immersive theater, so I came at this like a designer on a feature film.”
“We started conceptually designing Tension before we had a script, and before we had a location—which made it incredibly difficult. I knew an idea of what was in Darren’s head, and we talked constantly about it to refine that idea.” Hinman helped find locations and worked on the set design for many of the events prior to Ascension, the final multi-month immersive finale for The Tension Experience. And by the time Ascension occurred, he was ready. “I knew every room needed a different look; every room needed a different feeling; and every room had a different concept in my head.” He compares it to a three-act play, much like other feature films.
Having so little money to play with, the team were forced to think outside the box. Considering one of the largest rooms in the warehouse, Hinman contemplated what to fill it with. But then an idea dawned on him: “Let’s just paint the whole thing fucking white.” But it needed to be more. “We are eliminating color; almost eliminating the sense of sight, diminishing it to its essence, line, shape—greyscale. And taking that deprivation to the utmost extreme. The pencils are white. The wardrobe is white. The glasses are white. The VCR is white. The television is white. The plants are white. The tables are white. The vases are white. The lights are white. The floor is white. The ceiling is white. Everything is white. I wanted to take it that far. It becomes surreal. I wanted to push those limits.”
Immersing the Audience
An immersive experience offers unique challenges that are simply not present in film. In-person experiences allow participants to interact with and inspect the props and set pieces in each room. Bousman, Hinman, and friends attended a few escape rooms to prepare for Tension. And Hinman noted that the some of the items in these rooms had price tags still on them. “That immediately broke the immersion for me. I knew we were going to have to be really, really careful of what we included. Every single object could be picked up, inspected, and was a potential clue to feed the story. It had to be seamless.” Hinman shows me a few of the items he worked with, including push-pins, photographs with the eyes scratched out, and OOA stationary. “Everything was dissected through our minds to figure out ways to make this better.”
For Hinman, “the hardest thing for the project was determining how the flow of traffic was going to happen and adjust it for different storylines.” He admits that the space that was to become the OOA compound, despite being large, soon became small when sectioned off for rooms. He wanted all the rooms to make sense architecturally. He never wanted the immersion to be broken by having participants build up in an area. Luckily, that was Bousman’s strength. Hinman praises his friend’s ability to move people through an experience. “Darren was a complete master at that; he instinctively knew when to move people. He was really good at figuring out at where to take people and where to take them next to help their storyline–giving them the best experience possible.”
Hinman’s strength, on the other hand, was more than just creating a set; it was creating a realistic world for Bousman and Sears’ narrative. And in doing so, he immersed his audience in every way possible. “I wanted to encapsulate people in not just the visual look… but the smells too. Luckily, [the space] has intrinsic smells and a character of its own. You can feel the age in that space; the history of it. And all of that was a part of the immersion.” When the team started looking at potential locations, they found many empty, yet clean units. Often, they were all white and felt sterile. “This is going to be so much work to achieve a sinister feeling,” Hinman admits. But luckily, eventually they found the perfect place that already had the fundamental character they desired.
The History of the Warehouse
Instead of renting an office building, they obtained an old warehouse. “When we moved into the space, it was full of old cars, file boxes stacked to the ceiling, and a ton of trash. There was even a battle cage, a pool table, a kid’s jungle-gym, and tons of old machinery with oil spilled everywhere. No one had occupied it for six or seven years.” Hinman explains that it started as a factory, where horns for semi-trucks were produced. He makes the sound of a horn and I laugh. “The woman who owns the building still owns that company—but they moved their facilities.” A man who repaired classic cars took it over next. But when The Tension Experience moved in, some of the machinery was just too large to remove. “We were forced to cage off the machines so guests wouldn’t get hurt.”
When they first scouted the location, they even uncovered a bedroom within the compound. “There was a mattress, blankets, pillows, clothes, a little fridge, and a small television. Someone was living there before we moved in.” And one of their cast members took over that space—and still lives there today.
Hinman tells me more about the warehouse’s past. “In the room where you sit in a circle—I called it the auto-shop room. That was the room I did the least to. Most people were hooded in this room, but if you got a chance to see it, it was like someone chopped a piece out of time and just placed it there. It was already perfectly art-directed. There were beautiful old cars, piles of repair manuals, and various flags draped across that said ‘Coors Light’ on them. I wanted to keep an old 56’ Chevy pick-up truck, but the problem is how do we make that apart of Tension; and it just didn’t fit.”
The overall structure of the warehouse was perfect for what he needed, but still required a lot of work inside. “About a fourth of the walls were there. The lobby area and Myles’ photography room were there. The green recreation room was there as well. But pretty much everything else we created: the doctor’s office, the red room, the classroom, the sensory deprivation rooms, and all the hallways. Two of the walls in the white room were already there, but the rest we constructed. Even the finale room was constructed for the event.” Thus, a combination of a real, lived-in warehouse and a carefully constructed set masterfully interweaved to immerse participants.
The Use of Color
Each room within Ascension had to have a distinct and evocative feeling to it. And color was paramount to achieving this. “When you enter the Red Room, the hard ground gives way to sand, this was meant to be destabilizing. The color red was another deliberate choice: it’s love, it’s sex, it’s pain, it’s blood, it’s rage.” Hinman then shifts his focus to the actors in the room, and how interacting with naked actors is unnerving. “You’re clothed. They are naked. And even though our world is supersaturated with sexualized images, being in the room clothed with someone who isn’t can be unnerving and creates Tension.” That room was as much about creating tension through what you could see as it was with what you couldn’t see. The smoke was a deliberate choice to obscure your surroundings. Every design choice fit a given theme.
Hinman originally had the idea to do a blue room, a yellow room, and a red room—the three primary colors. At the start of Tension, their very first event took place in a different warehouse, which had a room that was painted all red. “As soon as we walked into that space to scout it, I knew we had to use this room. You’re standing in the warehouse and this tiny little room at the other end just glowed red. I had this painting I bought from Universal Studios at one of their sales. It was a deep red painting of horses running, flanked by lamp posts; it was perfect for the room. And that became a storyline: people needed to know what was in the red room. A thread of intrigue kept them going.” And while the blue and yellow rooms were never used, the red continued into Ascension, sitting alongside the extremes of black and white.
“All of the rooms we created were designed to make people feel tension: visually, emotionally, psychologically, physically. I wanted to take each room to its extreme; especially with the red room and the white room. I’ve always believed that there are no boundaries. ‘Go further, go further, go further.’ Just keep pushing it. And that’s what Tension had: that core conceptualization that pushed people’s limits.”
But Hinman’s favorite aesthetic of the experience wasn’t something that relied solely on color—it was the use of neon in the Ceremony Room. “I have such a seductive relationship with neon. So, when we first started this, I was texting Darren, ‘We need to make the logo in neon!’ It reminded me of old cinema neon: seedy, underbelly, sadistic; that girls-girls-girls feeling. It’s used to advertise, but it’s always a creepy way.”
The Art of Using What You Have
The ceremony room was another space that proved to be hard to fill on their tight budget. They scoured locations trying to find the appropriate aesthetic. “Luckily, we found those theater seats; we pulled them out of an old theater that was going out of business. We begged, borrowed, and stole to put Tension together. A lot of the stuff came from my storage unit. We were also on craigslist constantly looking for interesting items.” He tells me it was there that he found the boar’s head and most of the furniture.
The one item they needed a lot more of was the televisions. “Originally that room was going to be bigger, but we couldn’t find enough televisions. They had to be old, but they didn’t have to work. We didn’t care if they produced a picture—as long as they had a blue screen or static. Jennifer Bickman and I drove around in trucks, picking stuff up off the side of the road.”
Hinman also relied on the support of close family for Tension. To fill the classroom, he had his daughter draw the pictures which adorned the walls. To create an air of mystery, he had Jennifer call participants early on in the experience. And to fix any problems or reset props, both Hinman and Jennifer did this themselves. “We would just put on jumpsuits. If participants entered the room, we would turn and face a wall. You can hide in plain sight anywhere; you just put on a white jumpsuit and you become invisible because you are just another participant.”
The Tension Experience Carnival
Hinman played with multiple incarnations of The Tension Experience before it became what it is today. Early concepts involved some carnival-esque aesthetics. “I designed a hallway that was shrinking smaller, smaller, and smaller. At the end, you had a squeeze through a tiny door. I also designed an elevator that would drop down. You’d have to climb out through the top to escape. But these felt like carnival trickery, and weren’t as psychological as I wanted them to be.”
A final idea Hinman shares involves the plant—an actor that would be present in your group from the beginning. “We wanted a scene where the plant would get hurt. The experience would stop, we would kick on the house lights, and throw everyone back in the van. Everyone would be driven out one end and arrive right back at the other end to start the experience all over again. But when they went through again, it was going to be behind the scenes—where everything was actually a set. Participants could see us watching the security cameras, a wardrobe area, a craft-services table, and even come across actresses wondering what’s going on. It would all be a part of the act. We wanted people to think it’s done and then have to go back through again for a whole new storyline.” Elements of this concept did make it into the final shows. The van element was transformed into the people’s journey to and from the show, and the behind the scenes tour was incorporated into returning participants’ second time through.
The Core of Tension
To Hinman, The Tension Experience sets were evocative of one key thing: tension. “It was always about derailing it, breaking it, starting over, derailing it, and breaking it again. Right when you think you understand what is going on, we break it, and throw something else at you. We just keep pounding at participants. We wanted them to always be re-evaluating what’s real and what’s not. And that’s the tension part of it. Tension morphed in a lot of ways, but this core of it was always the same.”
But at the very heart of the experience itself was a personal journey. “That was one thing was important to us from the very beginning. And moving forward [into The Lust Experience] it’s going to be difficult to keep that personalization, but I think that’s one of our biggest strengths. We want you to feel like you matter, that you’re connected to something.”
Thanks to Derrick Hinman for photographing and providing all images in this article.