This Animatronic Life: Inspiring a New Generation of Dreamers and Doers Howdy everyone and welcome to a (I hope) better-late-than-never new edition of This Animatronic Life. As many of you may know, the past year has been a pivotal and exceedingly challenging and productive one in the life of my company, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP). We were inundated by new projects, the challenges of packing and moving to a new building (more on this later), and starting an all-new education division (much more on that later!).
First, we were contracted by numerous major international entertainment clients for several of the largest attraction projects in our company’s history, which include more than a hundred highly sophisticated animatronic figures and other elements for a series of major “E”-ticket attractions. Soon after, we began work on a number of other smaller but still significant projects that made me seriously question GHP’s ability to continuing operating in our existing studio space—especially with lots more work looming on the horizon.
In the spring of 2018, I toured a property in Redlands (the next town over from San Bernardino, where our studio was then located) and thought it would be perfect for our growing workload and plans for the future. We signed a deal and began moving into the building about a year ago. I’ll get into lots more detail on the fun and challenges of moving the world’s largest animatronics builder (with all my crazy collection of equipment and relics) to a new facility in a future column.
In the midst of the moving concept and the buildup to our busiest design and production period ever, GHP launched a new division. Garner Holt Education through Imagination, LLC is the product of may years of research and development into the creation of a set of educational curricula and products that would use the special business and creative culture of GHP as a backdrop for serious STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) learning targeted at elementary through high school students, preparing them for further education or entry into the workforce. Education and drawing early interest in the manual and creative arts have always been a key aspect of GHP’s outreach—I think that owes something to my having founded the company when I was still a high school student myself. We’ve also been giving tours to students and others of all ages for decades, which, I think, has helped to inspire many who have visited GHP through the years.
For years, I’d thought of how GHP might amplify the things we do every day—things that touch on each of the STEAM tenets and often in unexpected and magical ways— and turn that into something that could be packaged for deployment to people (especially kids) interested in learning how to do what we do (and to maybe even inspire them to come be part of our team). I’d thought of all sorts of avenues, from websites to marketing on television, kits to be sold on commercials or in stores. We even began work internally on a few things under the name “Project Blackboard”—we theme park nerds love semi-obvious code names! Ultimately, the financial numbers and the challenges of making an appealing and truly educational product put these dreams on the backburner for the moment as we focused on real projects for our global clients.
In 2016, GHP was approached by Bing Wong Elementary School, a school in our neighborhood. The school’s principal, Ryan Rainbolt, was experimenting with some unique and progressive ideas for engaging his students with hands-on learning in what he termed the “i-STEAM Lab,” a space with digital and practical design and production elements and tools mirroring cutting-edge production facilities like GHP (in fact, the lab resembled in many ways a miniature version of my shop!). Ryan asked GHP to collaborate on an animatronic character for the school, which he hoped would bring together all the different processes the lab was teaching to illustrate to the school’s 800 students the sort of fun and unusual products possible when using their imaginations.
“The goal was to provide a real-world example of the type of work and techniques students were exposed to at the school’s lab, and that the lab had itself been modeled after.”
The result was Berdoo Bear, an animated bear cub GHP originally created for the California Welcome Center in San Bernardino, but which had come home to us when the location closed (budget cutbacks don’t just happen at theme parks!). With the animatronic figure, Bing Wong instituted a new curriculum for the lab that included some real theme park themes: show writing, costume design, audio recording, show programming, and mechanical upkeep. The figure was an immediate hit and students responded very positively to the new angle in STEAM learning.
Not long after, GHP “adopted” Bing Wong Elementary, entering into a special relationship for collaboration and cooperation that included on-site demonstrations, field trips, and other support. The goal was to provide a real-world example of the type of work and techniques students were exposed to at the school’s lab, and that the lab had itself been modeled after. The cooperation also facilitated a conversation about the larger educational goals I’d been imagining for GHP for years. The ongoing conversation was exceptionally helpful in crafting what a new foray into education would look like for GHP. About a year later, Ryan left his career in public education to join GHP and help launch our new educational division (in a funny twist of fate, Ryan had toured one of my first shop locations as a twelve-year-old and had been so inspired, he remained a fan of our work and theme park magic all those years later—it helps to plant the seeds of imagination young!).
Ryan was instrumental in shaping a business unit (Garner Holt Education through Imagination is its own LLC under the GHP umbrella) tailored to elementary to college education with a strong focus on STEAM and the manual arts. The unique appeal of theme park magic is a natural attraction for students and lends itself well to the spectrum of learning opportunities within STEAM—the design and engineering of animatronic mechanisms; the science of silicone skins; the art of show writing, costuming, and sculpture; the math of electronic controls design and fine technical work; and the technology of bringing characters to life through mechanical means—and our new business entity would help make those lessons available to students in a big way.
To do that, we imagined engaging students in a variety of ways. The most obvious was field trips to GHP to see in action the kinds of unique and compelling careers that might actually await students as they furthered their education. Along with field trips and tours, we would create a number of custom learning kits to teach various aspects of the GHP creative process, including sculpting characters and simple mechanisms. The education team calls these field trips “make and take,” where students get hands-on engagement in the inspirational surroundings of GHP’s production shop. Broad curricula were developed to focus on various aspects of GHP’s design and production process, from initial creative “spark” to engineering, CNC milling, 3D printing, sculpture by hand, painting, costuming, mechanical fabrication, controls and programming, and more, to the finished product, the “spectacular,” all in the service of inspiring students to consider future careers in our line of business.
Perhaps most important, we developed what I believe to be a revolutionary new concept that took the i-STEAM Lab of Bing Wong Elementary and mixed it with a makerspace by adding in some GHP flair and quite a bit of our creative workflow. We call it the “AniMakerspace,” a combination of cutting-edge manufacturing machinery like laser engravers and cutters, vacu-form machines, rapid prototype 3D printers, and even custom animatronic figures. We worked with educators from a variety of backgrounds to develop not merely the immersive space but also the lessons students would learn inside.
“We call it the “AniMakerspace,” a combination of cutting-edge manufacturing machinery like laser engravers and cutters, vacu-form machines, rapid prototype 3D printers, and even custom animatronic figures.”
We designed the AniMakerspaces as a product, a sort of location-based experience for schools that literally lives on campus and becomes a part of students’ daily lives. The dissected processes of what we do at GHP became the basis for lesson plans as part of a broad curriculum to program the space, along with custom decorative elements, lighting, and branded tools and machines. And where makerspaces as a concept are becoming increasingly popular at schools across the country, none has a direct, real-world work focus as a model and goal in the way our special take on the genre does.
The first opened at Franklin Elementary School in Redlands and has since been joined by half a dozen other locations in California. I’m very proud of the work these locations are able to do, and the way they simulate the collaborative creative process we enjoy every day at GHP. Students learn not merely the tools and techniques for the industry of fun, but the teamwork necessary to make it happen. Makerspaces are increasingly popular at public schools where shop classes have been phased out over the years. But our GHP AniMakerspace focuses the concept on the kind of wonderful work we are privileged to make at my shop for our global clients—I believe that’s a strong factor in its appeal to young people (my shop classes in school were instrumental to my early work on haunted houses and animatronics).
GHP’s educational initiatives have taken on a life of their own. With Ryan’s educational expertise, we’ve expanded the division to include some two dozen employees and its own 30,000 square-foot building right across the street from our main shop. Now, we offer the Animatronics Academy, a five-day immersive experience designed for students age 8 to 18 where learners work in groups to create engaging animatronic shows built around storytelling. Students develop a character around a particular person or theme, then design, write, sculpt, costume, paint, and program a show (including sound, lighting, and motion) centered on that character with each student adopting a role within the creative collaboration. It’s very similar to the sort of collaboration we have at GHP—the best part is it can inspire students to focus on careers in the arts, entertainment, and manufacturing. This year, we had participants come from across the country to be part of this unique experience.
The most exciting aspect of what Garner Holt Education through Imagination has in the works is our new “Garner’s Garage.” Opening later this year at our new education facility, Garner’s Garage (the name is a reference to my company’s own humble beginnings and the site of many people’s creative spaces) will be a community-based collaborative makerspace, classroom, and event center where schools, groups, and individuals can explore the world of creative production and cutting-edge manufacturing with a focus on the art and technology of animatronics. The new experience will be part of a larger 501(c)(3) organization—the Garner Holt Foundation—focused on creative production and education for students of all ages. Through the foundation, we will be able to offer programs and a place to dream and work and build unencumbered by financial burdens for students. In my opinion, it’s the most important work I’ve ever done, and the most meaningful thing GHP has been part of, anywhere.
From years of wondering how to turn GHP’s creative process into an educational product, Garner Holt Education through Imagination has certainly affirmed that students are eager to learn about what goes into the magic of theme park design and production. This year alone, close to 20,000 students have toured GHP, partaken in our events and experiences, or been taught in our various AniMakerspaces. We’re just getting started—our new educational facility, Garner’s Garage, the Garner Holt Foundation, and many other amazing concepts we have on the horizon will help make our unique brand of what Walt Disney would term “…the blending of creative imagination and technical know-how” available to more students around our region, the state, and across the nation. I know when I see the faces of young students at my shop, their surprise, and wonder, I’m witnessing the seeds of something that may inspire and change their lives. What we can provide may steer the trajectory of their careers—if we’re lucky, maybe some of them will be part of the GHP team someday!
I want to make what I’ve learned from leading GHP for over forty years into something every student can understand, and, I hope, be inspired by if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.
Written by Garner Holt for Mice Chat