Posted in practice on January 2, 2018 10:36 am EST

Church Design-Tech Business Brings Stories to Life

Storyland Studios in Lake Elsinore, Calif., is a new multidisciplinary design, production and fabrication studio featuring artists, architects and craftsmen who tell stories in three dimensions through design and technology.

Mosaic Church, Orlando, Fla.; all images courtesy of Storyland Studios.











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TAGS: architecture, avl design, business, church, graphic design, themed spaces, third spaces, wayfinding,


By Keith Loria

Mel McGowan has had a decorated career founding and leading PlainJoe and Visioneering Studios and designing themed areas in amusement parks for Disney. His latest endeavor is as chief creative officer of Storyland Studios in Lake Elsinore, Calif., a multidisciplinary design, production and fabrication studio featuring artists, architects and craftsmen who tell stories in three dimensions.

“I was at Disney for about 10 years and this is really a continuation of what we did there at Imagineering,” McGowan says. “We’ve modeled Storyland after what we had over there, where it was a little more dedicated to design all the way through production—the art and the craft of spatial storytelling. In a way, it harkens back to what Imagineering (then known as WED) was when Walt Disney was still alive.”

New approach

Storyland Studios is a boutique firm of 80, only a little larger than the original team of former animators, architects, production designers, and scenic fabricators that Walt “borrowed” from his movie studio for the first WED/Imagineering team that created Disneyland in the 1950s.

“I don’t know of another group in the world that is quite like it,” McGowan says. “There are other themed fabricators out there, but none that have the level of the multidisciplinary design as well as the multidisciplinary fabrication production capabilities.”

McGowan has partnered his sister organizations, Storyland Studios and PlainJoe Studios, to work on projects, with the latter focusing on the church market.

“We don’t want to compete with other church architects so Storyland can work with local contractors, design-builders, and architects because we are really focused on our storytelling ‘special sauce’: the graphics and theming from concept to installation,” he says.

Current projects

For example. Storyland Studios recently worked on Mosaic Church in Orlando, Fla., bringing an abstract theme of the marriage of the garden and the city together, reflecting some of its eschatology and theology.

“It’s a converted big-box retail store and there’s this whole idea of redeeming the bones of decaying cities. For example, we have a proscenium arch over the children’s ministry stage, which looks like the Highline in New York, with its vegetation growing over it,” McGowan says. “There are different graphics on the wall made with organic and green materials in an abstract pattern. In many cases, it is less ‘themey’ and more interpretive or environmental art pieces.”

The company is currently in the midst of an installation at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla., one of the largest churches in the state at more than 2,000 seats. Storyland Studios is helping to bring in the story of their city, digging into Tulsa and the different zones in the area that help people from a wayfinding perspective and how each of its districts takes on a life of its own.

“We are using the district metaphor to talk about the city, and we play off that with what the church is doing and the impact they are making around the world,” McGowan says. “One of the hallways is this global village trail and another hallway explores the impact they are making on their own city, which ties in with the kid’s ministry hallway as well.”

Tech in design

When designers used to work with AVL, it meant working on the main worship center or auditorium room, but today, it starts at the minimum at the parking lot, but ideally even broadcasting beyond that.

When designers used to work with AVL, it meant working on the main worship center or auditorium room, but today, it starts at the minimum at the parking lot....

That requires some changeable media and visual technology that is visual for anyone driving by, such as environmental projection on the building, imagery projected through windows or changeable graphics.

“The idea that whatever public exposure we have, we treat that as a pretty key tool for visual communication,” McGowan says. “Letting people know that there’s some life here.”

So in the parking lot, it starts with developing a soundscape, having background music and carefully cultivating that, to stepping from the outside to the inside, thinking of the experience, considering the five senses from the parking lot all the way to the first impression.

“Almost treating it as a multi-sensory, multimedia experiential ‘museum,’ meaning more like a 3D storytelling attraction design,” he says. “We call it the show path—the preshow, Act 1, all the same terms we use when we do an attraction at Disney, scripting an emotional journey of the guest. AVL is all a key part of that.”

The church of 2018

The idea of church and campus is becoming an increasingly suburban topology; the idea that the church is the people in the community and there are more opportunities for 24/7 use by both those in the faith community and the real community at large.

“I can’t tell you how many campuses we are doing where we are transforming the campus into a multiuse community/gathering place destination, many times beyond the faith community that either owns or controls the property,” McGowan says. “Even with new churches. I’m working with a church now that is buying a vintage theater concert venue and doing it through a community arts group, though not in the name of the church, and the way they are planning on programming it is pretty different than being about having access to it on Sunday mornings.”

Tech expected to take the next step in churches include LED walls, which are coming down in price, as it gives churches a virtual backdrop; environmental digital projection, which McGowan notes is huge right now; and more augmented realty because of how easy it is to integrate with mobile apps and smartphones.

“In the next five years, it’s not going to be church as usual,” McGowan says.

Material-wise, more sustainable products are expected, with a continual emphasis on real, authentic materials coupled with environmentally friendly materials.

“If a space doesn’t have access to all-real reclaimed wood, for example, we will at least use that for certain highlight points,” McGowan says, while warning about its overuse. “The whole reclaimed wood pallet board is going to be the cultured stone of the next few years.”





Learn more about the companies in this story:

Storyland Studios


PlainJoe Studios



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