An American Idol Experience

Andy Walmsley has a résumé that reflects his youth amid a show business family in Blackpool, England. Destined to end up somewhere in the business, his aspirations included that of professional drummer, puppeteer for Jim Henson Productions, and even television cameraman, but nothing called to him quite like the craft of set designer.

And Walmsley has made quite the career of that craft. The Las Vegas-based production designer has been involved with various American Idol productions, including creating the original designs for Pop Idol in the UK and redesigning the most recent incarnation of the set in the US (“Idol Chatter,” May 2008). Now in his fifth year with the dance competition series, So You Think You Can Dance, he will also be designing a new set for that production this year.

Probably most important to Walmsley is his set for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which he originally designed in 1998 and is featured heavily in Best Picture Academy Award-winner Slumdog Millionaire.

We caught up with him to discuss the opening of the new American Idol Experience at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida.

Live Design: How did you come to join the American Idol team?

Andy Walmsley: I designed the set for the original production eight years ago when the show first started in the UK. It was called Pop Idol back then—a monster hit from the start. The two executive producers and I came across to Hollywood to do American Idol, and we all stayed.

LD: Did you design all the various versions of the show around the world?

AW: Indirectly, yes—they are all based on my original design, but each country has its own designer, who interprets my design. I’d been in a similar position with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which I’m proud to say is the most reproduced scenic design in history, with 108 countries using versions of my original design.

LD: How did you come to be involved with the American Idol Experience?

AW: Last year, I did a huge new set for the television show. I had heard that negotiations were going on with Disney for the attraction, and the deal became concrete just as my new set launched. They had originally been working on a version based on my older set but decided that, with the new set, it would be easier to get me to design directly for them. I have so long wanted to design something for one of the Disney parks. When the Idol opportunity came around, I jumped at it.

LD: What was your brief from Disney?

AW: Basically, the whole concept of the attraction is that you “experience” Idol live in the way that the TV studio audience in Hollywood does, and it was vital to Disney that the set look as much as possible just like the TV set.

LD: Describe how the audience experiences the attraction.

AW: Basically, there are multiple performances a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Guests can actually perform on the show and enter a special building adjacent to the theatre with a series of audition rooms. Handheld cameras shoot them in the line and in the rooms—basically the whole process is taped. There is an edit suite with staff just editing this stuff all day, and the finished tape package is shown during each of the eight live shows. If contestants pass the first round of judging, they then wait in a red room area similar to that in the TV show and then enter the final audition room and perform to a camera and a final talent judge. If they make the grade again, they are given a time to return later in the day when they can actually walk on stage in front of 1,000 guests.

The whole backstage and audition area is beautifully built, and although a fraction of the overall park guests will see this area, the usual Disney attention to detail is there. We wanted it to be a comfortable and nice environment to put the performing guests at ease. It’s certainly one of the nicest backstage areas I have ever seen. The show itself is a fantastic combination of pre-taped packages with some of the actual stars of American Idol. Ryan Seacrest makes an appearance or two also. Live actors perform warm-up, host, and judging duties, and of course, the park guest performers sing right there on the set with a state-of-the-art sound system, lights, smoke, and a multi-camera shoot relaying the action on to big screens both in the theatre and outside in the park.

LD: What happens if you actually win? I don’t suppose you get a record deal.

AW: Not quite—at the end of the day, the seven winners from the day’s shows return for a big grand finale show. The overall winner gets the “ultimate Disney FASTPASS” to the front of the line of the actual TV auditions. It is, of course, just a matter of time until the attraction generates a top-ten finalist and perhaps even future winner of the TV show itself.

LD:What are the major differences between the TV set and the attraction?

Well, from the park guests’ perspective, the first thing they spot is that the famous judges’ desk is not positioned in the audience. It is on stage, purely so that everyone can see. In the studio in Hollywood, the majority of the audience sees no more than the back of the judges’ heads.

The other major change is that, on the TV version, we have a 30-piece orchestra, but that wasn’t practical in the attraction, not only because of the cost factor of having a live orchestra sit there all day but also because the guests have over 100 songs to choose from. That would require too much rehearsal for any orchestra to be able to perform a song at five minutes’ notice.

Finally, the set in Orlando is quite a bit smaller than the TV set, purely because of the space available. While the 1,000-seat theatre is large, and the stage space is pretty big, the overall size is probably half that of the sound stage in Hollywood, and the height from stage to grid is three times lower, so art director Jim Nelson and I had to do a fair bit of squeezing and some scale tricks to keep everything looking proportional.

LD: Is it a different experience for you to build for Disney?

Well, basically this is a permanent install intended to last ten years, and most uniquely here, we have park guests actually performing on stage. It’s one thing if equity performers are on stage, as they are trained and understand how it all works. If you throw a hockey mom into a backstage environment, it had better be ultra-safe, and it is. It’s the safest backstage environment I have ever seen. Massive credit must go to [technical director] Larry Sonn, who project-managed the whole thing with a microscope.

Another unique element is that the crew working on the show interacts backstage with the park guests. Usually in a Disney park, there is backstage etiquette and onstage etiquette. Here, even when backstage in an area usually hidden from the public, our crew must be polite, courteous, and use Disney-appropriate language.

LD:Was this your first theme park project?"

AW: Yes, and the weird thing is that I have been coming to Orlando for 20 years as a tourist. Even before I lived in the States, I would come across to Disney World every 18 months or so and visit the parks awestruck. I was the weirdo walking around the park photographing the door handles and trash cans. The attention to detail is just amazing. Truly some of the best design I have ever seen is in these parks, and so I fantasized about being an Imagineer. I have done bigger projects, more prestigious projects, but I am immensely proud that, finally, after 20 years of admiration, my own work is a part of the heritage of Disney World.

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