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Don Carson

Disney Imagineering
Don Carson
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Don Carson was originally trained as a commercial illustrator, his work has since branched out to focus on the design of physical and virtual spaces. Working as a Senior Show Designer, and freelance contributor to Walt Disney Imagineering, Don’s job is to communicate design through conceptual sketches and 3D models. This work has expanded to include everything from designing entire lands for the Disney parks to guiding teams of designers as they build 3D environments in virtual worlds and 3D games. Don currently works as a Sr Art Director at The Hettema Group, from his studio in Eugene Oregon.
Juggling Between ‘Dimensions’ Effortlessly

How long have you been working as an artist? What has your journey been like so far?

Don Carson: I graduated from art school as an Illustration major in 1983 and started my career from that point. It has been 37 years so far.

A series of victorian head sketches

What was your experience at Walt Disney Imagineering as a Senior Designer like?

Don Carson: Walt Disney Imagineering was definitely the Mt. Everest of my career. More like an extension of university training, my years there formed every aspect of the work I have done since. WDI instills a level of collaboration and depth of storytelling that is rare in the world, especially when it comes to designing physical environments for the enjoyment and entertainment of groups of people.

A potion master's chest

Tell us about your role as the Senior Art Director at The Hettema Group.

Don Carson: The Hettema Group has been the best work environment I have experienced during the course of my career. It was at THG that I realized just how important it is to work with people you really love working with, which is even more important than what you get to work on. I owe a lot to Phil Hettema and his team for including me in their projects, and to some of my very favorite people who work there.

A cottage with chicken legs

What is your process of conceptualizing and creating 3D renderings for theme parks?

Don Carson: 3D renderings are just another vehicle for communicating a concept. Although for most projects I still reach for the pen and paper for initially mapping out a concept, 3D has become an equally powerful tool for exploring ideas even in the earliest days of blue sky. Best of all, 3D allows designers to “ride” through their attractions while they are in the process of designing them, which is something we just haven’t been able to do before beyond constructing physical models.

“Walt Disney Imagineering was definitely the Mt. Everest of my career. More like an extension of university training, my years there formed every aspect of the work I have done since. “

Why did you decide to use Enscape for visual reality and how does it benefit your work?

Don Carson: Enscape is a real-time rendering engine that works with a variety of 3D software. Enscape allows me to dive into my designs at the earliest stage to make sure everything is working spatially. Virtual Reality is quickly becoming an integral part of my design process and it is especially powerful as a presentation tool.

A victorian Elephant smoking a pipe

What is real-time rendering and how does Enscape help?

Don Carson: Real-time rendering works like a video game engine. Rather than waiting hours for your images or videos to render using conventional software, real-time engines do this work instantly. It wasn’t long ago that to render a 2-minute video might have taken weeks of prep and then days of rendering, often necessitating using outside render farms to do the heavy lifting. With a real-time renderer, a 2-minute video can only take 2 minutes to render. A revolution for our industry!

An illustration of a common house brownie

What made you switch from commercial illustrations to visual design and 3D renderings?

Don Carson: I became an Illustration student because I thought it was my only option for making a living as an artist. During my first years out of school, I quickly realized that I did not like commercial work but craved working with other artists to generate the conceptual work used to support larger projects. Since then I have spent my entire career doing just that, generating conceptual art for the purpose of supporting larger projects, whether it is for theme parks, computer games, or theatrical productions.

Sketches of travel destinations

How does your artwork communicate designs for people to fabricate and build?

Don Carson: My art does whatever it can to take the pictures that appear in my head and get them down on paper or on the screen to help others to get these ideas into the world. Because of this, I will reach for whatever tool will do the best job of supporting that communication process. Initially, that was done with traditional mediums but today I am just as apt to reach for a mouse or VR headset to start building out the concept to support this process. I haven’t given up traditional artist tools but I have built up what I use over the years, all in service to get my ideas into the world.

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