You never know how much work art directors and prop masters put into when filming a tv show is like but believe me what they do is fascinating. Rich West is certainly one of those artists who worked during the early years of Nickelodeon Studios and saw firsthand the continued success of it. In our interview below find out how much his job influenced how much he loves becoming set designer at theme parks and why the Nick Studios was a groundbreaking move in history. All for the documentary!
1. How did you become involved with Nickelodeon?
In 1991 I was trying to break into the “Production” industry as a Designer. I was waiting tables at night, while interviewing during the day. I had somehow gathered up enough courage and “cold called” the Nick Art Dept. To my surprise, they set up a meeting for me. I put on a Suit and Tie (A quality not often associated with me) and brought in my portfolio of Art Work for review. The interview went well I thought, but ironically it was NOT my illustration and design work that got me the Job. At the last minute I had included a few photos of Model kits I had built thinking it might help show an additional talent (I recall including a model of the Spindrift from ‘Land of the Giants’ and an Eagle Transporter from ‘Space: 1999’). As it turned out, the Studio had recently shot a pilot episode for a new series called ‘Clairissa Explains it All’. In it, the character of the Father was supposed to be a somewhat eccentric Architect who would render his buildings in “Googie” style. It was also formatted that the character would build models of his crazy concepts at home. Although the models in my portfolio were store bought kits, this particular skill was immediately recognized as important for the production of the series which had just been green-lit for 6 new episodes. “Dad” would often be building a new model in episodes and I was given the job of chief Model maker. I also shared in the week to week general prop fabrication with another prop builder. After the first six episodes I went onto other Nick shows over the summer and was brought back for another 6 episodes of ‘Clairrisa’ before leaving for Disney’s ‘Adventures in Wonderland’.
2. What was your first impression of the Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?
BIG. I was also amazed at how extremely well set up the entire operation was. No detail, no equipment, no anything was left out. They had everything there you could possibly need to do your job. You would seldom have to leave the property to go get anything and If they didn’t have it, they would get it for you. The Art Department was stocked full with reference books, material samples, art supplies, everything necessary for your job. Each Sound stage had their own Tool Cabinet, but there was an even a larger ‘Tool Crib’ you could go to to sign out any additional tool or power equipment imaginable to do your job. The Studio had its own Mail Room for shipping, Kitchen for making slime, Sewing room. etc. etc. If a bomb were to ever go off, or the Zombie apocalypse happened, you could successfully live and survive at Nickelodeon Studios.
3. What was a typical day like being there?
It was a standard 10 1/2 hour day as I recall. The first part of the week we read the scripts and broke down the fabricated props required for the new episode. It was then identified who would be responsible and fabrication would start. The last part of the week we filmed the episode. The Prop and Carpentry Departments were also located on the same Sound Stage as filming, just off to the side, which made it difficult. When camera’s began rolling for a scene a loud bell would go off signaling silence on the stage and you had to remain absolutely still until they got the take. This went on all day. Not too easy when you’re fabricating and using power tools.
4. One of your earliest roles there was an illustrator for the game show Get the Picture. Is it an easy task at first to be on a game show where everything is fast-paced?
Actually quite easy. As an illustrator my work was produced weeks before they shot the episodes. Approved art work was then brought up stairs into Post Production on the second floor where they would edit it into the episodes. I was never on set.
5. Is there a bit of a difference between working on a game show and then a scripted series?
Absolutely. While both a Game Show and a Scripted Series have a standing set, the scripted series will usually require a “Limbo set” area. Scripts are usually written creatively with new scenes that take place off of the main standing set. This open area of a sound stage is used for additional set work, which means it has to be designed, constructed, dressed and lit in a very short turn around time. The scene is filmed and then struck for the next temporary set per the next script’s requirements. I recall ‘Clarissa’ having a lot of new sets every week as there were a lot of creative cutaways . One that comes to mind is a dream sequence of Ferguson (Clarissa’a brother) in a Russian Gulag peeling Potatoes. It required a lot of additional work for what was probable a 20 second clip.
6.Orlando back then was shaped up to be Hollywood East but never lived up to it. How great was it to have all the film production going on in the area and why it has since decreased?
I actually moved to Orlando because of “Hollywood East”. Then, after several years of working in TV production, I left and went into the Theme Park industry. I did this for two reasons. The first was my early perception that TV and Movie Production in Florida was drying up. Tax incentives for outside Productions to come to “Hollywood East” were being bungled by the State of Florida. The second and main reason is I found prop making and model building to be a rather bohemian lifestyle with sporadic freelance employment. I enjoyed making props for these shows and it was very second nature to me, but I preferred the challenge and more formal structure of being a Show Set Designer for the Theme parks. I made the switch in the late 90’s and am still in this industry.
7. Have you been slimed yourself?
8. Favorite ride at Universal Orlando? Past and present.
I absolutely love the wonderful whimsey of ‘Seuss Landing’ at Islands of Adventure and In particular, the ‘One Fish Two Fish’ Ride. It’s just so doggone happy and sweet. Universal is very good at thrill rides and dropping people from 80 feet in the air, but we don’t often do sweet, simple and happy. Certainly not in todays market. Seuss Landing is filled with sweetness. The ‘High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride’ is just too marvelous for words!
9. Do you still own any of the props there?
I have many photographs I took of my model work and props at Nickelodeon before turning them over to the Studio. I also keep copies of all hand drawn design work.
10. How great was all the staff who worked there? I always hear positive stories.
I think we cut our teeth at Nickelodeon. Many of the people I worked with originally are still in the industry.
11. For Clarissa Explains it All was the pet alligator considered to be a prop and did it ever cause any chaos ?
The Pet Alligator was rubber. Close-ups of a real Alligator were pre-shot (only once) and then edited in to the particular episodes as needed.
12. What do you recall the most about the green slime geyser that was outside the front of the studio?
It was part of a whole different world. I was usually isolated on the Sound Stages and seldom saw the light of day, except for coming into work in the morning.
13. What would you say was responsible for the studio’s downfall?
I had moved on by this time and was in the Theme Park Industry by then, so I don’t really know. I had heard on the street that the Studio wanted to do more cost effective animation (Sponge Bob) and that this type of work was better suited to New York and L.A.
Let me know if you find out why.
14. You may not be aware but how do you feel knowing that the studios and all the great 90s Nickelodeon shows made such a positive impact on fans and is still loved today?
Happily amused. I grew up on shows like ‘Lost In Space’, ‘The Munsters’ and ‘Space: 1999’ and thought they were just the most magical things ever in my kid life. It never occurred to me that my work at Nickelodeon Studios would contribute to a similar impact on kids of that generation. In fact, this is the first I’m hearing of this notion. Wow.
15. Do you mind explaining what you have been up to these days?
I work for Universal Studios as a Show Set Designer and Art Director. I have often been a designer for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Currently though, I’m an Art Director for the new Harry Potter/Diagon Alley experience that we’re opening up this summer. (Hint; It’s going to be HUGE!)
16. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
I was the Field Scenic Art Director for Universal’s ‘The Mummy’s Revenge’ and was given the task of designing the figural hieroglyphs throughout the Attraction’s Queue walls. The small drawings I did on 11 x 17 paper had to be transferred full size onto the walls and the process to do this was causing the Egyptian figures to look terribly wobbly, like they were drunk. I had to come back in with a red pencil and re-draw on top of the full scale figures so they would be correctly painted by the Scenic Artists. There I was, very early morning, in the dark, the walls illuminated only by the spot light on my hard hat. The queue was so well designed that It actually felt like you were in an egyptian tomb and it was creepy in there. The next day I happened to be flipping through an Egyptian art book when I noticed something in one of the photographs. Red Lines. Very similar red lines to the ones I was making on my figures. As it turns out, Egyptian Priest would often take a red pencil and do final refinement on the hieroglyphs before the slaves painted them. I had been doing the same exact thing… 3,500 years later. I should also mention, I placed an egyptian version of The Robot from ‘Lost in Space’ into the Hieroglyphs as a tribute to something that had inspired me to become artist. (I’ll never tell where)
17. Do you think your experience being there was a learning process in terms of the work you do now in a beneficial way?
Absolutely. It was all part of an evolutionary process. It’s interesting to note that the physical models I was building, I now do in a 3D program called SketchUp. The future is Fantastic!
18. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special?
I think it was one of the first venues in Florida that offered many artists a larger than life opportunity to express themselves and cultivate a career from it.
19. Would you like to see it be re-opened?
I love any opportunity that could potential inspire a new generation to know what they want to do in life.
Rich thanks so much for allowing me to interview you and being a part of this project. Be sure to let you when it is released and hope to keep in touch!
Thanks for the opportunity Bilaal!