A Conversation With Chick Russell ’75, ’78

Chick Russell

Chick Russell develops concepts and directs creative teams that build environments where people go to be entertained and learn in fun, new ways. For the past 10 years, as founder of Chick Russell Communications, he developed the U-505 U-boat exhibit for the Chicago Museum of Science and Engineering and Battle Stations 21, a destroyer simulator at Great Lakes Naval Station on which sailors are trained to respond to on-board disasters. Currently he is a show producer at Universal Studios Hollywood, where he recently finished the visual effects for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Orlando Resort. He is now producing Transformers: The Ride -3D for Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Hollywood. Russell was interviewed by Aaron Smith.

Your projects span a variety of venues and audiences. Describe what you do in the simplest terms.
I create experiences that are three-dimensional. I start most projects as a writer, and I try to express an idea. Then I put together creative teams to produce it. It’s very fulfilling to see something get built the way I imagined it.

How did you get this gig?
It was accidental. My goal was to go into television. I started at Walt Disney as a writer and moved up to producer. I had never thought much about how things get designed and built. It turns out you use the same skills you learn in film school — but with the addition of architecture and engineering when you start building real-world images and not just projected ones.

How do you manage and direct creative teams?
They require special handling. It’s not assembly-line work. Everything is a prototype, and you never know what is going to happen next. You have to be flexible enough to change directions when there is a dead end. It’s a journey, and what you end up with is often different than what you thought when you started.

You’ve designed museums and theme parks. How does the process differ?
I try to combine education and entertainment in every project. Theme parks have storytelling and entertainment technologies that can be used to make a museum experience more compelling. Museums are adding more advanced technologies to compete with the video games and theme parks. And theme parks, in turn, are integrating more media and education into the rides.

What’s it like working for an entertainment giant after being on your own?
It’s a tradeoff. On your own, you use your entire brain. You’re free to do what you want, but it takes a lot of extra time and effort to go out and find work and build relationships with clients. When you’re working inside a company, you have a certain portfolio and you can focus your energies.

What is one of your proudest achievements?
Working on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. I worked in London with the cast and crew for the media we shot.

Where do you like to take the family when it’s vacation time?
When my kids were younger we would go to Disney. My sons now are in their twenties, and the Universal Parks are ideal for teenagers and adults.

So do your kids critique your work?
I encourage it. It’s great to have feedback from the generations. My son advised me that he should be able to go on Facebook and learn more about the attractions.

Do you critique other parks and venues that you visit?
You can’t help drifting off into how something could be better or recognizing that it is well done. It could be a restaurant or an airport, and I’ll be struck by the fact that it’s falling short and think about how I could make it better. That comes with the territory. It’s like a chef saying, “I would have thrown a little more salt in.”