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Exclusive Interview with Eddie Sotto, Part One: Social Entertainment Aspirational Design

Eddie Sotto is a thinker, a visionary and a Disney Imagineer. One of the world's most respected creative consultants and theme park attraction designers, Eddie Sotto is CEO of Sotto Studios in Los Angeles. Join us now for part one of our latest interview with Eddie Sotto.

"Passion is the 'secret weapon' of design. It separates art from technique. It drives the details, takes us beyond ourselves, and is the fire that refines great ideas to their essence. The power within something executed from obsession is practically divine as the guest never sees the effort, only the final perfected result. Passion 'detonates' when the details come together seamlessly and the years of sweat become condensed into a stunning instant when the guest emotionally experiences the work. The fallout is addictive.  If we succeed, they'll tell their friends it's 'magic'."  - Eddie Sotto

Nate Naversen: It's been about 6 years since our last interview. What have you been up to?

Eddie Sotto: I have been building a tree-house for the kids today. I really respect the Swiss Family Robinson now. A lot has evolved since our last interview several years ago.

My dad once told me that "The best decisions he ever made were made for him". Translated, this means that sometimes what we plan or hope for does not happen. Instead, if you surf the waves as they come, it will inevitably lead you to better shores. Because of this, I try not to dictate the type of work we do. I try to broaden our spectrum of design and allow the market to tell us what it wants.

NN: What have you learned recently as the CEO of Sotto Studios?

Eddie Sotto: I have learned to stay small, nimble, open minded, and never stop having fun. It is scary at times, but ultimately rewarding to stretch beyond the traditional boundaries of what I am known for as a designer.

We recently had the opportunity to work for VH-1, Showtime and Current TV, which was a great experience and allowed us to learn while innovating in television. It was something I always wanted to do. You find that it helps you in other areas, as well.

Sometimes I get asked if I miss Walt Disney Imagineering. I do miss certain things, but just because I don't wear a white name tag anymore doesn't mean I can't be an "Imagineer". It is corny sounding, but Imagineering was more than a job, it's a cultural ethic.

"Imagineering" is seeing the impossible as a beautiful puzzle, and then bringing in the right combination of people to crack the code. And those people are really interesting in and of themselves because they feed on the idea of doing what others say can't be done. The other advantage of practicing our creative process in our studio outside of a corporate culture is that we have access to more varied talent. We are more productive and can design on smaller budgets too.

Speaking of that, like Pixar, we've gone virtually paperless and now use digital tablets for the development of our designs. It allows us to work directly with talent anywhere in the world!

NN: What it is like running a highly creative design company and interacting with some of your corporate clients?

Eddie Sotto: In the our world, the wrong corporate culture can kill the project with their own unwillingness to change. There have been clients that claimed that they hired us because they wanted our creative innovation and our "out of the box" solution. But in the end, they were not prepared to execute what they themselves asked for. Sometimes it is the CEO that demands change and hires you. But then the corporate culture, fearing risk, surrounds you like antibodies and the project suffocates all of our innovation from within.

NN: I heard you have some great residential clients. Will you tell us about them?

Eddie Sotto: Believe it or not, there are some clients that commission us to design their homes even more richly themed than Disney!

I have very exclusive clients and I am able to design in a different way than is typically done. I can put story and meaning into the design on a one-on-one level. I can take the best of what I know about designing "experiences" in these residences. I can go deeper into story than I have ever done before in commercial work. I find it incredibly rewarding. The clients are insanely intelligent. They educate me!

I always tell my clients in this kind of field that it is a journey, and that neither one of us knows where the project is going to end up. But we are going to really challenge each other with the design. Sometimes the project is themed. In fact, sometimes the project involves inventing themes that have never been done before.

At Sotto Studios, we have tried to avoid traditional theme park attraction work, but we hit on something extremely unique four years ago and are developing the attraction right now. I'm still intrigued by media as architecture and what can be done with sculpting LED billboards into buildings and attractions. So creating the next "Times Square" is on my radar screen for sure.

NN: What are some of your personal passions for design?

Eddie Sotto: A personal passion of mine is making technology more social. I used to watch kids in arcades hover over booth-like games with their backs to each other. I think about kids now on headsets or playing their PSP game while the family takes a driving trip in silence. The user interface should be more social. So I am into developing a new, more "liquid" user interface to help with this.

The Wii game system is inching us all toward something explosive, which is social technology that crosses age barriers. Walt Disney wanted "things" that "families can do together" and in the isolating world of iPods and personal messaging, we need that more than ever.

So in the area of the future of themed entertainment, we're using Walt Disney's quote as a mantra. We hope to create attractions that are more social in nature, to capitalize on a user interface that would be far more effective than the Wii.

At my studio, a priority is to fund and develop these interfaces among other things. As a designer, I think an understanding of digital media and its proper use is important as it will be one of the tools we integrate into the show.

NN: You mentioned making entertainment more social. What new technology products do this well? Further, what are the secret ingredients to this kind of entertainment?

Eddie Sotto: Technology has now figured it out that social entertainment is far more valuable than singular entertainment. I am very happy to see that the Wii system is something that does this well. It lowers the barriers of learning and it allows people to do things they already know, like bowling. It does this in an incredibly intuitive way. You play bowling on the Wii the same way you played it when you were twelve. Now anybody can play video games and the learning curve is almost zero!

Friends playing Wii together.

As a family we own the Wii and we all play games together. I can play Super Mario cart with my kids or we can do bowling or Wii Fit. Until there was a power surge that blew my Wii up a few weeks ago it was great! I would like to go further than this. I think it is still in its infancy stages. Themed entertainment can do more with that.

Allowing people to do something aspirational is another great rule! People aspire to be a star. That is an aspiration. Just like flying in the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. Super Mario Cart allowed kids who aren't old enough to drive cars. It is the old Disneyland Autopia aspiration. Grand theft auto allows you to become a criminal without being caught. Getting girlfriends together and playing Rock Band is aspirational because it allows them to be the Bangles, The Pussycat Dolls, the Go-Gos, or The Supremes!

There all sorts of aspirations and secret desires that video games fulfill.

Tomorrowland's Autopia Ride at Disneyland is a great example of Sotto's aspirational entertainment concept. Here kids can aspire to do something they otherwise could not do: Drive a car!

NN: That's very interesting, this concept of "Aspirational design." I love it! Theme park attractions are coming along in this area as well. Can you speak about this?

Pixar is such a powerful force within Disney, using their animation abilities with 3D glasses. They create attractions like the Toy Story Attraction where you’re essentially in a shooting gallery. But you are really playing a mobile video game. You’re being driven from one living room to another to shoot targets in 3-D. It’s pretty much like a Wii system or anything else but done in the format of a theme park ride. It’s Buzz Lightyear meets the Wii. It’s relatively social within a two-person situation!

NN: Thank you very much. I look forward to the second part of our interview as we talk more about Sotto Studios and experiential design.

Read Part 2: Eddie Sotto's thoughts on "Experiential Design" and his special relationship with famous Disney Legends and Imagineers Herb Ryman and John Hench!

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