Below is a creator-focused article on Designing Immersive environments, aimed to educate creators about production design. It is based on Scout Expedition Co’s class of the same name at Midsummer Scream, but is refracted through the lens of the author, employing many examples from a fan and creator’s experience that is separate from Scout Expedition. Where appropriate, examples Scout discussed are mentioned. Thank you to Lacey Rae for reviving this article, helping draft it, and ensuring that it was released.
An environment can set the mood, often taking on a life of its own within an immersive experience. A well-thought-out aesthetic creates a sense of place and time, even before a narrative begins. Music can bring you to tears, lighting can frighten you, and sets and props can provide authenticity to a given world. Think of The Willows’ elegant and historic manor, the groovy and lived-in house of Safehouse ‘77, the minimalism and unknown in the black tarps of Blackout, or The Sideshow’s carnival tents and smells. Lighting, sound, props, sets, and costumes all came together to establish beautifully nuanced settings for some of the best immersive experiences in Los Angeles. Where a fleshed-out environment can transport audiences into other worlds, lazy and haphazard environments can either take audiences out of an experience, or hinder them getting into the world at all. Designing Immersive Environments Presentation.
Haunting attended a presentation by Scout Expedition Co., another highly impressive immersive theater company whose debut experience, The Nest, wowed audiences with a gorgeous and detailed set design. Creators Jarrett Lantz and Jeff Leinenveber have had long and prosperous professional careers in theme park and scenic design that have led them to create rich environments and tell fun stories all over the world. Their work with the talented teams of Walt Disney Imagineering, Third Rail Projects, Cirque du Soleil, and Delusion have provided them with the precise know-how to bring new worlds to life through engaging and unique experiences. Here, they share how to create successful environments – even minimalistic ones – that are not only memorable, but that serve the narrative and themes of the piece.
The Nest has gorgeous set design
There are numerous different ways to design an experience – it’s actually one of my favorite questions to ask in an interview. But Scout Expedition presents a wonderful process that is filled with helpful questions, distinct sections, and a series of interdependencies that only serve to strengthen any experience. These can be applied to a haunted house, an immersive experience, an escape room, or even a theme park. So if you’re just getting started or just strengthening something already designed, let’s dive in.
Scout’s design process is organized into a Design Triangle. This triangle consists of:
The story consists of the who and the why, the world is the what and where, and the constraints is the how. These all work together to facilitate the creation of a design, and can help any environment live up to its full transportive potential. Creators can work on all three categories in tandem, as there is no “right” or linear way to approach design; the three aspects push and pull the others at any given time.
Thus, the design must be contained within these three elements. As your narrative ambition grows, it must be checked against the space and budget (constraints) of your experience. But reduce the constraints of your world and your narrative now has more room to breathe. This is clearly reflected in so many experiences being produced out of the comfort of one’s home (ABC Project’s Apartment 8, Screenshot Production’s Fear is What We Learned Here, HVRTING’s How to Summon Santa, and The Speakeasy Society’s The Invitation). Conversely, reduce the constraint of actors, and more energy is devoted to letting sets blossom, much like Scout did with The Nest. The interplay between all aspects must be recognized and balanced so that the experience is achievable, effective, and successful.
HVRTING’s Rebirth of the Rabbit took place in a dream-like atmosphere of a normal home
Story revolves around the who and the why of a given experience. Creators may already have a story in their head, may have a prop or aesthetic they’ve fallen in love with, or may just have a character design. But whatever exists, the story can be built around it.
The Big Picture
Begin assembling pieces of the puzzle and see what fits together. Look through reference imagery to determine time, place, and mood. Determine who are the characters in your story and the major themes that are being portrayed. What dominates the time period, place, or environment of your story – and how does that affect your narrative?
- Put together images to create references for time, place, and mood
- Find a high-level reference for your characters and determine a map of their lives
- Make bullet points of the acts and scenes you want to include
- Determine what needs to be communicated to the audience for them to fully understand, and for them to leave with
- Map out the pacing, as well as your characters’ and audience’s emotional arcs throughout your piece
- Hold nothing precious; don’t be afraid to make cuts to any superfluous content
For Scout Expedition, they worked backward from a woman who recently passed away to determine that she grew up in the ’60s. The times and social dynamics of that era informed her strong independence and helped map out the main aspects of her life. From there, the major plot points that needed to be communicated in each scene, on each tape, could be determined – not poetically, but organically and naturally. Ultimately, the three arcs of her life became the three areas of The Nest.
The three main story arcs for Josie’s life in The Nest.
Once the overarching arc is mapped out, then it is time to dive deeper and draft the story, organically and naturally. Write it, read it, and test it on people unfamiliar to see if they understand all of your bullet points without them knowing what they are beforehand.
Some considerations to ask yourself when working on your story:
- Time period
- Major themes
- Character development
- Overall story arc
- Individual story beats
- Script writing
- Zoom out often to look at the big picture before zooming back in
- Play test – Do those who know nothing understand?
As mentioned above, all three design aspects are dependent on each other, so as the story develops, so will the world the narrative fits in. If you get stuck on the narrative, focus on developing the world further, and the characters may naturally find their next steps, a solution to their problem, or their subsequent adventure.
Sockhop on Saturn nails an otherworldly alien, ’50s aesthetic.
World revolves around the what and the where of your experience. What is the world that your experience lives in?
Haunted houses are wonderful at this. Each haunt you attend usually sticks to a single theme. Phobia Production’s Die Laughing was clearly clown-themed and lived within a demented circus from the moment you walked in; The 17th Door moved from a nightmarish university in their first two years to an even more hellish prison landscape for their next two; and Freakling Bros.’ Trilogy of Terror has three very clear worlds: Castle Vampyre‘s vampire castle, Coven of 13‘s witch’s coven, and Gates of Hell‘s descent into Hell and beyond. These are chosen because of base fears and the worlds inform the story along with everything else.
But for immersive experiences, these worlds are often more nuanced and layered – transitioning from the fantastical to the grounded. While this does add some constraints, it also provides numerous opportunities. You do not need to create an entire gothic castle for vampires, but rather, you can host an experience in a bar between two strangers; you don’t need to construct an insane asylum for inmates, but rather, you can have an intimate dinner party in your own home; you don’t need to have guests enter Area 51 to fight alien invaders, but rather, you can use a public park for a meeting location.
Traditional haunted houses are perfectly themed.
Pictured: Phobia Productions’ Die Laughing
Location, Location, Location
Your world will most likely be one of the biggest constraints for your experience. In Los Angeles, warehouses are nearly impossible to secure. They are too expensive and most often reserved for movie sets. Gigster and Peerspace charge by the hour, and even when you find a space that seems reasonable, they may up the price because you are doing a “performance” or an “event.” It’s insane. And even if you do get a warehouse, a huge portion of your budget will go to transforming that open space into whatever world your characters live in. So a recommendation: Use what you know, use what’s available, and use what’s cost-effective.
And do site-specific shows whenever possible – focus on something that might already fit your theme. Does it take place in a house? A public park? A banquet hall? The backseat of a limo? These require little to no set design and immerse audiences in a site-specific backdrop that elevates your experience.
You will never, ever get this space in Los Angeles.
Themes, Moods, and Aesthetics
Once you’ve secured a place for your production, embrace it and move forward. Your choice will cascade through all your design choices. Design an environment that will make your event interesting; think outside our everyday world of offices and restaurants.
Scout recommends adding abstractions to make your experience memorable and stand out from the real world. They could have had a boring storage unit for The Nest, but instead, they transformed it into a fantastical world of towering boxes that were much too high, photo-studios hidden away in cabinets, and sand-filled cribs. The Tension Experience is another great example. They took a corporate office and made the design choice to make it all white: everything from the mugs to the pencils to the type writers to the clothing was white. This color choice was a wonderful twist, making it art, making it weird, and making it their own. Finally, every experience by E3W Productions feels like a surreal dream of nostalgia and beauty. Walls covered in book pages, storage sheds flooded with water, and attics hiding mysterious dollhouses – they are experts at making real stories just a bit more fantastical through their incredible set design.
An attic in E3W’s In Another Room reveals a secret in a dollhouse.
It is often helpful to create a mood/reference board to define the character and aesthetics of each room. Find images that you enjoy and that match the aesthetic you want to create. You won’t ever find an exact picture of what you want (and if you do, you may not want to copy it exactly), but you can use a little piece of each to create something new, something that is yours.
Here are several online Reference & Concept Art sources:
- Concept Art
- CG Society
- Deviant Art
- Art Station
- Other Sources
- Movie screencaps
- Music videos
- Other immersive / theatrical productions
- Movies / TV / video games
If you’re feeling uninspired, experience art. Watch movies, read books, listen to music, and go to the theater. In a recent interview with Justin Brink of Miasma, he said that every single experience he’s produced has been influenced by music he’s listened to. Adrian Marcato of Heretic often cited his influence of classic literature. And Derrick Hinman, set designer of The Tension Experience, found his inspiration in moods and colors, designing rooms to evoke feelings of love, isolation, and of course, tension.
Take something mundane and simple (left) and transform it to make it unique and memorable (right).
Your Own Designs
With references in hand and an aesthetic in mind, its time to create your own designs. After you have references, start working on your own designs. Create concept art for both internal and external use.
- INTERNAL: Sketches used for you to think through your design and any problems that could arise – BEFORE you build.
- EXTERNAL: Artwork used for marketing your production. These should hint at the experience without giving too much away. They must evoke a given mood.
Social media is necessary to market yourself these days and with so many new immersive (and mysterious) Instagrams popping up, making yourself stand out is paramount. So developing strong external artwork evoking a consistent theme is a must. E3W’s first experience, In Another Room, is a perfect example of doing this right. With no name for themselves, they posted gorgeous, evocative art with a mystery on Instagram and quickly captivated the eyes of the immersive community. When tickets went on sale, they sold out quickly – impressive for a first-time creator.
Initial artwork posted to Instagram from E3W.
Designing the Details of your World
When coming up with your own artwork, Scout recommends trying Sketch Up for planning and downloading blocks and decorate your sets in 3D. Then move to Photoshop to finesse and fine-tune your sets, add elements and draw in some mood, like lighting and focal points. One technique they like is to squint at the design and see what stands out.
Initial Sketches from Scout Expedition Co when designing The Nest.
Next, take a look at the psychology of form and space. How do you want your environment to affect your audience? The layout of a room can create a specific mood. Symmetry can feel predictable, safe, and corporate. Asymmetry, conversely, feels unsafe, unpredictable, and can promote exploration. A large object at the end of a pathway can feel authoritative, governmental or even religious.
Think of Delusion’s family room in His Crimson Queen: the torn, distressed wallpaper, the ancient symbols on the walls, the rubble in the corner, and discarded furniture quickly elicits feelings of chaos, battle, and conflict between the families in the vampiric household. In The Sideshow by CoAct Productions, the hay-covered floors, scents of cotton candy, and clothes-covered backstage evoked feelings of nostalgia and reflected the intimacy of the characters. And the massive stage that audiences stepped onto in Alone’s Simulacrum elicited one of the most powerful of fears: stage-fright.
Several categories of space to consider are as follows:
Standing alone on a gigantic stage with an audience can definitely elicit the intended feeling in Alone’s Simulacrum.
Props must serve the narrative, theme, and aesthetic – and if they don’t, you don’t need them. Ask yourself the following questions when picking each prop for your experience:
- What is the item?
- Describe it.
- How is it placed?
- Who owns it?
- In what type of space?
- What does the space look like?
In our interview with Derrick Hinman, he spoke of Darren Lynn Bousman and him attending escape rooms and finding props that still had the price tag 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.” And this quote is exactly what each prop must bring to the experience.
Also, if a prop doesn’t fit the story, change it until it does serve the experience. In the extreme haunt world, normal items can often be repurposed for new and novel ideas. In Rebirth of the Rabbit, HVRTING used an inversion table as a make-shift device to dye participants like Easter eggs.
All-white rooms in The Tension Experience evoke a given theme and mood. Every prop was chosen with purpose.
One subclass of props is written artifacts, or props that contain messages from characters. These include written props like journals, post-its, and letters, but also can include audio logs, voice memos, and audio-cassettes.
The inclusion of these can link participants to the inner thoughts of a character or an intimate moment between two characters. These private moments lend a bit more authenticity to the world.
JFI Production’s The Willows is an excellent example. The first guest to use the restroom can often find intimate scrawlings on the toilet paper, hinting at something a bit darker to be uncovered within the home. In Heretic’s VANISH, receiving an address from the underwear of a character can make it feel not only disgusting, but secret and forbidden. Finally, seeing posters proclaiming hate against the faeries and creatures at the start of Amazon’s Carnival Row quickly inducted audiences into a world where humans look at creatures with disdain and distrust.
Consider the following when including written elements:
- Subject matter
Handwritten notes feel personal and intimate.
Take a step back from the details and analyze the space you’ve created. The better you can analyze the space and pull elements from it, the better you’ll be.
- What is the tension level?
- What is the emotion?
- Who owns the space?
- Who was last here?
- What happened?
- Is it public or private?
- Are there hiding places and secrets?
- What is the movement through the space?
- Is the space ordered or organic?
Scream Camp offers an open field to camp in–how does that elevate the fear of the dark?
Some considerations to ask yourself when working on your world:
- What space is available to work with?
- Compile reference photos and mood boards
- Concept art
- Form of each space
- Set design
- Written artifacts
Often constraints are seen as problems, and not as opportunities. While locations may be scarce and budgets may be tight, this only helps narrow down choices for you and ensures that you stay within the scope of your project. With unlimited resources and no constraints, you may get bogged down with indecision or face problems from an overambitious scope. Ultimately, the constraints in which you’re creating your space can affect the story and help push your narrative and themes.
Unless you have a million-dollar budget to work with, here is a list of some low-budget options in which to find design elements for your experience:
- General furniture and props
- Flea markets and auctions
- Specific furniture
- General props
- Goodwill and garage sales
- Specific props
- eBay and Amazon
- Green set and Jackson shrub
Be open-minded with your production design; it’s never going to be perfect. Let yourself be flexible with what’s available to you. Remember that the constraints can help push your story.
The Nest originally was to take place in a storage unit with no power – this constraint led to some wonderful design choices.
Scout tells us that The Nest was designed for a storage unit. However, storage units lacked electricity, which in turn, informed the decision to use a flash light. When they finally decided on the location, it did have electricity, but the earlier constraint ensured that the flashlight design choice was kept in the experience. Further, they received the lockers for cheap, which ended up becoming an integral moment in the story. The same happened for Tension and the theater chairs that filled out Ascension’s ceremony finale.
Several constraints to consider:
- Money – Work with what you can afford / find; be flexible
- Knowledge – Lean into what you know; learn the rest as you go
- Time – It can be an opportunity
- Inspirations – You can reverse-engineer a story based on a single prop
- Electricity – Use practical lighting when you can; LEDs are small and helpful
JFI Production’s The Willows utilizes a gorgeous mansion and perfect set design to elicit a creepy feeling.
Scout Expeditions emphasizes that their Design Triangle is not the only way of creating an environment for your immersive experience, but it can be a helpful guide in getting started. Whatever your budget or limitations, you can create a kick-ass and inspired immersive event.
Haunting would like to extend a special thank you to Scout Expedition Co. for their time and expertise. Find out more information on Scout Expedition Co. on their website, Twitter or Facebook page. You can help them remount their production of The Nest by contributing to their Kickstarter campaign. Follow our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.
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