Bradford Benn sat down in February for a discussion with his friend and former coworker Melody Austin. She is a Show Producer in the Themed Entertainment industry. We talked about representation and diversity in the AVindustry, and what she does as producer. Below is the video and audio as well as the transcript.
[00:00:18] Bradford: Melody, who are you? Can you introduce yourself to my audience, both of the listeners?
[00:00:25] Melody Austin: Sure, hey, Bradford. My name is Melody Austin. I am a Creative Producer, Project Manager, and we have formerly worked together on a very big project. I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to be here and spend some time with you.
[00:00:48] Bradford: I’m looking forward to it. Now comes the harder part. Everyone can describe themselves by their job. Who are you, not using your job?
[00:01:00] Melody: That is actually a really good question. Because I especially think in this industry, our jobs are so intertwined with our lives that, I will say, being at a break between projects has really gotten me back in touch to, not being so work centered. [laughs]It’s been really nice. I liked that question.
I would say that I am a very discerning and fun person, which, there’s where the lighting tends to kind of throw in there, but I do really find the fun in things. I like being a nerd. I’ve been very blessed to have some really fun jobs. It all comes from because I like being curious.
I just had this natural ability and it’s always been in my personality just to figure things out about people, and read the room and read the sign sorts of things. I would just say that, that just adds to my level of just finding fun and wonder in the everyday and then an escapism. An escapist, is probably the best word to say. I’m a true escapist. I love being a nerd.
[00:02:19] Bradford: Sweet. What’s your nerdom? What’s your jam? Are kids still saying that?
[00:02:29] Melody: [laughs]I’m sure some of them are. I’ve had to ask. I recently worked on a project over the holidays where I was around people, much younger than I, and I had to get a couple of things explained to me. I think they still say jam, Bradford. I think that’s still a thing, but, oh man. See, I’m on the collectic nerd too, which is horrible. I really love some anime. I cannot stop with the anime love. I can’t stop with the Pokemon love. The Pokemon love is pretty hardcore. I just really like fun interesting little things here and there.
[00:03:14] Bradford: I was going to ask what’s your job, but I have a hunch you’re probably in that lovely pause, now that our project has been paused. As Melody said, we worked together for 18 months on the same project that got an indefinite pause. We’ve both been doing other things. I know over the holidays, you did some work. What do you do, when you do?
[00:03:41] Melody: I am usually hired to be a producer on projects. I have tried to build my skillset more in the project management side, because, as you know, different projects call for different things. Producer and project manager fall together pretty closely, depending on what kind of project you have and what kind of company. I was really fortunate, I got to work with a smaller company here in town, BMR productions. Brian is a really interesting, creative because he’s a great businessman and I do not know anyone else who’s quite as busy in the theme entertainment industry as them. [laughs]
We knew each other from back in the SeaWorld days and I was his executive producer, of the holiday project, that he had over at the Gaylord Palms with the Snow Factory. It was great. It was [inaudible 00:04:42] operations, so we ran it. Which was really fun. [laughs]Which is a piece of my background from a while ago that kind of led me to think entertainment. It was fun to get back to just operating something with people, because one of the things I loved about the theme parks and events and stuff is just really getting to know these interesting people that make it up.
The guys that come they’re great, they’re awesome. I’m glad they’re having a good time, but it’s the people that run these things every day that are real heroes and have some really interesting stories behind them and where they’re going, where they’ve been. I cover different kinds of things. It’s been interesting to learn different people’s stories, again, and remember how we’re all in this boat together, in this industry. [laughs]As cliche as it sounds.
[00:05:36] Bradford: You said producer, executive producer. I know what you do, because we’ve been doing this. What do you do for the lay people? Saying, “Go get donuts,” is not an appropriate answer, although that is true on occasion.
[00:05:55] Melody: Yes, I have donuts. As a producer, the funny thing is, it’s the most objective job, I feel in anything on a creative project, but a big part of what you’re supposed to be is, a person that holds the vision and keeps it consistent. You yourself don’t always have to be the one to keep it together, but you have to make sure everybody else that you hired does. That’s probably the best way I can explain it. Have you seen that movie, The High Note with Tracee Ellis Ross?
[00:06:32] Bradford: Yes.
[00:06:35] Melody: I thought it was really interesting, because the whole movie is about the girl trying to become a music producer and all these people keep telling her what her job is and what it means. They all have very different answers to that. It’s the hard part about the whole producer title and what we do. Because it is pretty subjective sometimes, even though if you’re over budget or something’s not on time, it is 100% your fault. That’s about it.[laughter]
[00:07:00] Bradford: That is a loaded question, because, as Melody said, everyone does it differently and everyone defines their role differently. When we were working together, Melody’s team and other teams and, Susan’s team and people like that, each person had their own style and their own method. I think it was driven as much by the team as it is by the producer themselves, because we definitely had interesting people on our team. The immortal words of David Byrne and the talking heads, “Lord, how did I get here?” How did you get here besides, me going, “Hey, Melody, you want to be my first guest”?
[00:07:48] Melody: [laughs]Oh, gosh. How did I get here? I guess, when it comes to getting here, I’m originally from New Orleans. It’s funny, because my parents still don’t really even understand what I do. I keep trying to tell them, like, “Just tell your friends that I build roller coasters.” They still don’t know what to tell their friends. I don’t know what else to tell them. [laughs]I cannot hear out of that whole being curious, and just really enjoying how many fun. I have been told I’m pretty personable, in my personality. Just my personality and stuff like that outside of work.
I made my way to Florida after college, because it just seemed like a cool place to be. I really enjoyed the theme park industry, even though I studied journalism. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work into it, but three years I was a digital– online marketing was a big thing when I first got out of college. That’s how old I am. That whole content creation skillset, led me to being– I was a full-time freelancer for eight or seven years. I worked in marketing and I did a lot of freelance writing. I did a lot of blogs. I did a lot of social content.
It’s a lot of strategy, a lot of creative strategists, and running campaigns. In the meantime, while I was doing that, I also worked in production over at Universal and entertainment. I really liked the production world. I liked the marketing world. It seemed like the more I learned about themed entertainment and what that actually meant it’s a nice little marriage of using creative strategy and just being an organized person.
I swear I got my first job in design because I just came really organized. I knew who I was and I knew how to explain my skills to how they would help that person. Even though I had no idea what to do in design. They translate it well and I got hired on the spot. [chuckles]The rest was history that was over with SeaWorld back in the day.
That was right after they had built Mako. I was there from the Mako era to when Sesame Street Land opened. That’s when I was working over with their team. Then I ended up over at Universal again working full-time where I worked on the VelociCoaster. That’s about to open up, and I also got to work with you on our project.
[00:10:34] Bradford: That we’re not allowed to talk about still. I have no idea what you’re getting into but I knew what I was getting into.
[00:10:40] Melody: I don’t know. I’m just like, “Well, I can’t embarrass Bradford on this podcast.” That was my whole goal today. I’m like, “I’m just not going to embarrass Bradford on this podcast and try to look professional of some kind.”[laughter]
[00:10:56] Bradford: That’s the blooper. [crosstalk]
[00:11:01] Melody: Luckily, I remember how to put on with my normal makeup and not my goth-looking makeup because, like, “Where all of my not black colors?” I found them. Who knew I found that box? I found that box. [laughs]
[00:11:16] Bradford: I was like, “I should take my T-shirt off and put on my collared shirt look presentable. Oh, I forgot to shave.”
[00:11:23] Melody: Oh, it’s fine. If you’re guy it’s pretty easy. Even though it’s just like, “Woah, what can you actually wear?” With the whole the camera angles now with the TVs, it’s just like, “What? I don’t know what anybody’s going to be looking at.” I kept it to my thermal in Florida, because that made sense.
[00:11:45] Bradford: Yes, I think a lot of people come into this industry thinking, “I’m going to work at a theme park. It’s fun and games. All I have to do is dream up, help people get to have fun.” In reality, we spend a lot more time of dreaming up ways people can injure themselves and trying to stop them from injuring themselves.
[00:12:04] Melody: Yes, because they’re very persistent about this. It’s like it’s their mission when they come in the door.
[00:12:11] Bradford: Yes. I’m like, “Why would you want to stand up on a roller-coaster?” Florida, never mind, I get it now. [chuckles]
[00:12:20] Melody: Back to the question. [chuckles]
[00:12:22] Bradford: We’ll go back to the questions. Besides having these lovely online meetings that we had for nine months during the virus, during the pandemic, how do you interface or use AV, in your job, in your development? Because I can explain what I think you do but I figure it’s more fun for people to hear from you.
[00:12:53] Melody: Oh, gosh, it’s really funny because when I was a butler, my major was Electronic Journalism. You learn pretty much everything about a newsroom and how to run a board and stuff like that. I remember I took one audio class and I really liked that professor. He was one of the Beatles. I’m not really sure everything that happened in that class, because he definitely was rock and roll the whole time. It was pretty fun.
I had a very deep appreciation for people who understood what was going on, because I’m just like, “I understand the importance of this. It is quite complicated.” Sometimes trying to say it back, I’m not quite sure. It was fun trying to learn about it here and there, but video was always been a one thing that’s followed me growing up. Especially being someone who grew up with the Internet and social media.
Back in the ‘90s, they were like, “Video is the future,” and they were right. To the point where people have to ban it from their kids because it’s ruining the family system, I guess. [chuckles]Have you with kids watch too much YouTube. I guess, how we interface is you just see it every day because really just comes up with these meetings. It just sounds really stupid and basic, but lighting can make everything. It can make some really old ugly look and scenic from 10 years ago look like brand new and fresh and interesting.
[00:14:46] Bradford: Let me ask you, besides being an all-around great guy who sits in the meetings and makes you laugh at inopportune times, what can they lead people do to make your job easier and to help us succeed as we move forward in the world, hopefully back to themed entertainment, but just in what you do?
[00:15:20] Melody: As producer, there’s always a million people talking to you, and this person has an opinion, that person has an opinion, but the more someone can really be an expert about something, and explain it in the simplest of ways possible. Because I always believe if I can understand something, then it’s probably the right thing to do.
I just think it gets– so people’s idea of AV and when you really try to think about the intricacies and how it all works and how to make it work well, it can get overwhelming for people who aren’t really in it. I say, people who are skilled, the more that they can help others understand to take some of that mystery out or that overwhelmingness out really is the big key. Because one, it helps build trust, but two it also helps empower people to understand your industry better.
That’s the key that this industry that we use every day and we really require. Though people don’t know much about it unless you’ve really just been thrown into the snake pit of cords and things and you come on the other side with a pretty light. I think diversity too is a big thing about the AV world. I really wish there was more of a gateway into it. How did you get started in AV? You wanted to play with lights and video? You just wanted to? Something had to have sparked that.
[00:17:02] Bradford: My grandfather was an electrical engineer. He worked on various space things. I just got hooked. To me, it was, “This is the fun stuff.” I had a Fisher Price turntable that actually played real albums, not toy albums. I figured out, “You can do fun stuff with this,” then I got a tape deck. That lasted around a day before I broke it. It just kept going.
I actually probably one of the weird ones that “This is actually really close to what I want to do.” I actually was recruited to go to college for Technical Theatre. It’s what I wanted to do. I did it in high school. I just always like that. I can’t explain why. It’s like, “Why do some people like strawberry ice cream?” Besides the fact that they’re mutants, it’s just what they like.
[00:18:16] Melody: Strawberry ice cream is the best. You shut your mouth.
[00:18:20] Bradford: [chuckles]I’ve been in it, as long as I can remember. I remember learning, “Unplug the amplifier before you hook up a speaker because you will scare the pee out of yourself.” I was seven when I did that.
[00:18:35] Melody: [chuckles]That’s pretty cool. I wish more people knew it and were into it and thought of it. Because I’ve only heard of people wanting to be a music producer. Everybody wants to learn how to use a soundboard. Nowadays, I guess, kids have more technology in their hands so maybe they’re going to be more into it. I feel the market could really expand if more people had an interest in doing it.
It’s like how people started getting into STEM with women and African Americans that kind of thing. I wish just, in general, AV had a way of getting more out into young people and just helping them understand that this is something that could be really interesting. It’s more hands-on, it’s not like having to go to school and learn books and stuff like that. It’s more of a technical skill that’s really useful.
I just feel it is the thing, all the themed entertainment, us that are already into it don’t try to help encourage other people to look into this field or navigate people or encourage people that might have a knack or a skill or something like that and we don’t do it ourselves. Our industry is going to die out, because people aren’t going to really be into it or they’re not going to know what to do if they are interested.
I feel it’d be useful for the future of projects and things like that, and especially for producers is just being able to make sure that these experts are out there passing on their information or really helping to build up that kind of an industry. Because it’s really a pain when you can’t find somebody who knows what they’re talking about. It really is. It just makes the project so much worse and it makes our job a lot easier. If I can just go to someone and know that you know what you’re talking about, this will be fine.
[00:20:32] Bradford: The diversity in the industry and getting younger people involved is getting to be a problem. People are working on it. For instance, as you were talking about, you want someone who knows what they’re doing. The big challenge is a lot of the stuff we do hasn’t been done before, so you have to figure it out.
Like you said, everything is in their hand on a YouTube phone of “I can look at everything,” it starts to become the challenge. Like you said, it doesn’t take a degree. You and I both work with people with PhDs, and they didn’t understand the actual application and physically, all the connections. It’s good how do we get people involved.
[00:21:28] Melody: Yes, it’s true. Representation is everything.
[00:21:37] Bradford: I was to ask you, if you think VR and AR, virtual reality and an augmented reality, are going to be the next generation of the theme park industry, that’s probably an easier question for you.
[00:21:52] Melody: It is. It’s an interesting question though. I think it can be when the time is right. That’s a hard way of putting it, but I think now is the time where you have to explore it but the payoff for that it’s probably not going to be fairly quick and fairly soon. I worked on a VR project with Battle for Eire, which is at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg. It’s really successful. People come and see it. They really enjoy it. They have a great experience on it.
If we go lift on a simulator, which kind of really helps it with the VR and stuff too, we didn’t try to go and do anything too crazy. When you go and try and put something on a coaster or something like that, I don’t know if VR really belongs on rollercoasters, necessarily.
In the right setting, with the right people working on it, it really could be the future. The time has to be right in both the industry that’s making it and for the guests too. Anything that would try and come up fairly soon might be harder because COVID right now, where people are, “Don’t touch me.” Also, people don’t care about that as much it seems.
Maybe it’s not a problem for the people doing it, but I think it’s a lot of what is to come and who’s going to be making it is really what we’ll see. You have to start now to try and make it pay off for you in the next 10 years or something like that. Now is the time to explore it and really invest into it.
[00:23:37] Bradford: Go into VR, AR. How do you make it so that people don’t sit at home and just do it at home on their Sony PlayStation or their Xbox or their Oculus or pick your VR engine of choice, instead of doing that get people through the turnstile?
[00:23:59] Melody: It’s really the amount of immersion you can put around it. My headphones at home can only do so much even if you have a really nice one, but if you put them in a really immersive environment where they forget about– they’re not going to just go to something because it’s VR. They’re going to go to something because of a full-on immersive experience.
Disney showed that immersing people as much as they can from the very beginning as soon as they can to the end with a rise of resistance, which is not a VR or AR technology. You add that level of immersion plus you added some VR something on top of it, and even took the immersion a little bit further. People would still probably be lining up for it just the way that you still can’t get a ticket to rise or resistance, even in the midst of COVID.
It’s the theme and it’s the experience that people want and what it’s tied to people really care about. It has to be tied to the right thing. Again, BioFire is an original IP. It’s something we’ve completely made up, and it’s pretty successful. I would say if people were really invested into the experience that they’re having, it could pay off as long as it’s done right.
[00:25:18] Bradford: Do you think part of it is the communal experience of going to a park and experience this with 3,000 of your closest friends or even 30 of your closest friends on an attraction versus sitting at home in your living room with your dog barking at you going, “Why are you swinging lightsabers like you’re battling someone?”
[00:25:46] Melody: I’m not sure this is exactly what you’re asking, but this is how I take that question is that, the timing has to be right, and theme parks where we’re not trying to do everything for 1,000 people at one time. If it’s something that’s more intimate, that takes less people at a time to do it, it can pay off for parks, because people will still do all the other stuff while they’re waiting their turn and they’ll be willing to wait longer for something that’s more interesting and intimate.
Oh God, something with a ton of people is I think it’s just going to always be the challenge to try and pull it off. Maybe the future of the industry and the future of theme parks is to have things that you’re not trying to aim for every single person to come through the door. It’s something for people who really want this kind of immersive experience and who are willing to pay the money or just wait the time to do it.
People will wait for something that’s really cool. Like we’ve seen them wait at 3:00 AM in the morning for Hagrid’s to open, months after it’s been open. If it’s the right thing, then we stop trying to make everything for every single person that comes through the door, it can really work. It’s got to be more intimate for people to really probably want to buy into it.
It’s hard, because theme parks are built on the idea that “We can come here and do everything together.” I think some parks have an have an advantage that they’re for a specific type of thriller kind of person or it doesn’t have to be a family of four trying to do this experience sort of thing. People can leverage that, and they’re willing to change up the model a little bit, it could be pretty successful.
[00:27:42] Bradford: Kind of like Cedar Point up in Ohio, is you like roller coasters, you go there. That is what you’re going for. If you like Star Wars, you’re going to Disney. You like Harry Potter, you’re going to Universal. You’re thinking it’s going to be more of focused experiences like that?
[00:28:04] Melody: Yes. Because the more focused stuff lets you get to do things that are a little different you could come up with something that’s original. Halloween Horror Nights, for example, they have original houses, and then they have IP houses. Obviously, their big draws are those IP houses, but they have some classic originals that people are just used to experiencing and liking to see that evolution. The more big IP houses they had, the more they can make some new originals if they wanted to.
It’s that fine line with theme parks, where if you can find some that people really care about to draw them in, you open the door for some originality, and also, show up as well too, so people can have something unique as well.
[00:28:56] Bradford: Because I’m me, I have another rule. You can’t use an abbreviation without defining it. You used IP, which is intellectual property. That way, none of my listeners can go, “You didn’t define it.” [laughs]
Going back, so as you say, you have IP and you use that to drive other things and some things are evergreen, such as Terminator 2 ran for 22 years at Universal, which means a lot of the people hadn’t seen it. Hey, I’m still proud of that project. I am all [unintelligible 00:29:31].
[00:29:32] Melody: [unintelligible 00:29:32] rest in peace, Terminator. It was a fun little ride. I do like working with the Stuntacular, though. That was pretty awesome with the Bourne project.
[00:29:41] Bradford: Then you have stuff like Men in Black, which I wonder how many people know there was Men in Black in the ‘90s before the Men in Black: International came out with Chris Hemsworth a couple of years ago. How much do you think knowing the intellectual property or the IP of the attraction is needed or do you think a good attraction is a good attraction?
[00:30:12] Melody: That’s a really tough one, to be honest. I do think a good attraction let’s anybody enjoy it. My mom, who doesn’t understand anything about theme parks, I take her on rides all the time, and she’s like, “This is so nice.” She has no idea what she’s looking at. She has no idea what she is experiencing, but she likes certain rides, and she will not get on other ones like a rollercoaster. She ain’t going to enjoy that. Take her on something that moves really slow, she’ll be a happy camper.
A good ride is just a good ride that has something that doesn’t make people feel lost. You just don’t want to feel lost on a ride. [laughs]It’s hard to get around not using an example, but Fast & Furious. If you don’t much about Fast & Furious, it’s hard to enjoy that ride, because I rode it a couple times. I still didn’t know who Dom was. I love The Rock.
A good ride, anyone should be able to walk on. I think some of the Harry Potter rides do it pretty good where you don’t know who Harry Potter is, you can go on Forbidden Journey and really enjoy it.
[00:31:29] Bradford: I did.
[00:31:31] Melody: You can go on and really enjoy it. Don’t have that hot double for you on it, but you’ll be fine.[laughter]
[00:31:42] Melody: To go back to IP about what makes for an IP, I guess, I would have to say, “You don’t have to know an IP to enjoy a ride,” but your big IPs will help bring in your crowds and bring in people who love that thing, and it’ll also surprise people who did. Because when we walked by and my boyfriend saw the Fast & Furious ride, he was super excited and wanted to get on that. I was like, “Sure. Let’s do it.” He loves it. It’s still his favorite ride in the whole park. [laughs]Legit, is his favorite ride.
[00:32:20] Bradford: There are still people who think it’s funny that Men in Black is still my favorite ride after all these years, but it’s what it is. Now, when you get me to the other park, it might be a different ride that I like better, but it’s still the same thing. Because I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve worked on projects that I had no idea what the idea was, and I’ve had to sit down and read the books.
My favorite story is over 20 years ago now when Seuss Landing was opening at Universal Islands of Adventure. I had all of the Dr. Seuss books in my office for reference. I knew the IP, but knowing it is– you’ve read the books as a kid versus what color is the Lorax is two different things.
[00:33:20] Melody: That is really true. It’s a balance when it comes to the intellectual properties. Dr. Seuss, everyone can recognize what that is. Even if for some reason someone may not have read a book, they’re little stories on the way to help you understand the land and everything that’s happening. It’s when you throw something that’s a big deal and you’re not quite sure what’s going on. That’s just the feeling you just don’t want to have. Some of those more intimate things that I think could really be the future of a sector of theme park.
It’s not the whole theme park, everything shouldn’t be some intermittent experience. If you had a few things like that, those things people would enjoy either way if it’s done right.