Bringing a real feel to the world of exhibits

Marines in a diorama
Themeworks' diorama of Marines Landing on Tarawa Atoll appears in the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, VA

Scott Gill built Atlantis. He made WWI foxholes. He’s worked on dinosaur habitats, too. These are all part of his repertoire at Themeworks, where he and his crew create realistic settings and scenery for clients ranging from museums to theme parks.

If you’ve ridden roller coasters at Sea World or Universal Studios, or toured the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, or the National Museum of the Marine Corps, chances are you’ve also seen his work. It’s what he defines as “theming.”

“In its broadest sense, it’s making something that it ‘isn’t,’” he explains. “A great example is the Old West—false-front buildings. Those were really shacks, but they had huge façades to make it look like they were something substantial.

“Theming gives people that feeling that they are at a destination. It could be for entertainment. It could be for education. It could just be for relaxing.”

Gill’s love of changing environments started early. As a kid, he was a Navy brat. He grew up in San Francisco, Boston and Yellowstone National Park, where he worked in the kitchens at the park’s lodges. He also spent time in Alaska as a deckhand on a salmon boat before coming to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida.

He graduated in 1992 and, straight out of college, broke into the theming industry at Museum Services, a company that was located in Gainesville until it was bought out in 1997.

Gill spent three years at Museum Services then at the age of 26 set out on his own.  He founded a shop in High Springs and has steadily grown the business over the last 16 years.

Now, 42,  he has a team of 55 graphic designers, model makers, carpenters, interactive technicians and others working every day to keep up with the demand for just about anything the theme park industry can dream up.

Most of their productions begin as ideas, then shift to computer or hand sketches and, with a little creative design from his staff, become full-functioning features. Each project takes an average of eight months.

Recently, he sat down to talk about his business while taking a break from renovating his acre-and-a-half workspace. He’s building a taller roof for even bigger projects.

Builders putting the head of a statue onto the body
Some of the pieces Themeworks creates are immense. Here, workers build the head for a 40-foot-tall play structure for the EdVenture Children's Museum in Columbia, SC.

How did you break into the industry?

When I was in college, I started working for Museum Services as an artist part-time. When I got out, I worked there full-time. After a while, I had that youthful naiveté and a little bit of ignorance probably; I said “Hey, I can do this better on my own.” I told the owner I was going to start my own company. He laughed and said “Good luck.” And he said, “Here, we’re not bidding this project. If you want to, go ahead.” That project was for the entrance signs for the college football hall of fame. And we bid it and got the project.

 

Why did you set up your shop in High Springs?

Initially, it was for the building. We needed a very large facility with lots of open area. [Beyond that,] there is world-class talent in the surrounding communities that gives us a leg up on the competition. We have a lot of people from design backgrounds, from industrial backgrounds and some people from the [theming] business as well.

 

How much research goes into the projects before you start construction?

A huge amount. Especially in museum work.

 

Can you offer an example?

For the Marine Corps museum, we did a diorama of the Korean War. Apparently during the Korean War, the American G.I.s had an affinity for Tootsie Rolls. So, the museum designers wanted to include a tootsie roll wrapper in this diorama. We wanted to make sure it was a period-appropriate wrapper—the last thing you want to do is have a 70-year-old veteran who was in the war walk through that museum and see [a new] Tootsie Roll wrapper and have that ruin his experience. So, we contacted the Tootsie Roll company. And they agreed to make a special run of that-era wrapper for us. And we threw one in the diorama. So, it’s that kind of attention to detail and dedication to making sure it’s as authentic as possible.

 

I assume technology has changed dramatically since you started the business. How has that affected the way you operate?

On the building environment side of things, technology is helping us create things that are more unique and more wonderful every day.

Scott Gill next to a painting on a brick wall
Using a mix of modern and long-used art skills, Scott Gill and his crew at Themeworks create realisitc settings for museums and theme parks.

Can you offer an example?

Miniaturized electronic components—very small actuators for interactive displays. Those things help make something mind-blowingly cool to a guest. On the flip side of that, too, you have computer design which impacts everything we do. You have the ability to 3-D carve. So you have a sculptor that’s a robot now. We can scan an object with a laser scanner, blow it up to 40 feet and mill it out of foam.

 

How do you solicit customers for such a specialized business?

Until recently, we’d done almost zero marketing besides our website. All of our clients are word-of-mouth. We have a very good reputation in the industry, and that’s something we strive to keep.

 

How do you keep customers coming back?

It’s flexibility. All the clients don’t need the same thing. Some do not need authenticity. Some need a more creative way of thinking. The other thing is our team. We have very high-end talents who have the ability to deliver up to the maximum possible quality level.

 

Looking into the future, what are your plans?

We plan on continuing our growth. We’re expanding into different markets so we can bring some of the technology, some of the excitement, of the things that we create in theme parks and museums to more people.

 

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