Haunted Mansion Expansion Project

From Film Student to Theme Park Concept Artist: Hyunjee Clara Ryu’s Artistic Journey

Hyunjee Clara Ryu, concept artist and illustrator

Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Hyunjee Clara Ryu traded movie screens for theme park dreams. A film school graduate with a self-taught painter’s eye, she now crafts immersive worlds as a concept artist for Universal Studios Hollywood. Her path, fueled by determination and a love for visual storytelling, began when she discovered the hidden design magic within Disneyland itself.

Clara believes that designers like her shape the very spaces where stories unfold. This philosophy drives her work, whether she’s painting plein-air landscapes, exploring the Criterion Channel, or bringing the thrills of themed attractions to life.

Theme Park Magazine recently interviewed Clara about her concept artist and illustrator work.

Clara’s Theme Park Origins: How Film School Sparked the Magic

TPM: Can you tell us about your journey and how you came to work within the theme park and themed entertainment industries?

Clara: When I went to USC for film school and to Disneyland for a gen ed class called Icons, I was fascinated to learn how Disneyland was designed. For instance, we learned how and why Disneyland utilized darkness despite the fact that it was supposedly a “kids’” theme park. It was a very interesting class that looked at Disneyland with a very analytical lens. I think that class was my biggest influence in getting interested in theme parks; before I came to college, I seldom went to one, and I just didn’t care.

It also helped that the theme park industry was structured similarly to the pre-production side of film, so the desire to do production design translated pretty well. Fast forward to as soon as I graduated, I was nominated as a finalist for a competition called Disney Imaginations that’s for some reason no longer happening. I made a lot of friends at Imagineering through it and continued to stay in touch, and a few years later, which is last year, a random email came from WDI that they wanted me to do an illustration job. That’s how I got started.

Advice for Aspiring Theme Park Artists: Background and Inspiration

TPM: In an article by Shout Out LA, you mention being mostly self-taught in painting, yet your work has reached incredible heights. What advice would you give to aspiring artists hoping to break into the theme park industry without a traditional art education?

Clara: I’m not sure in a position to give advice to people because I’ve only been in the industry in a year, and from my perspective I cannot even hold a candle to visual development artists in animation and games and all that. I still struggle a lot with pushing lighting to dramatic heights even though I don’t necessarily need to, because drama is a style that I want to gravitate towards and make it mine. Painting has always been a struggle and probably will always be for me and everyone else.

For me my film background helped a lot. I watched an obscene amount of films, so I had a general idea of what I want in my style. Identifying a style that you want to emulate really helps. Then you try to make painting a habit. I started seriously painting in 2020 and since then I tried painting every other day. You have to make it a habit to improve, even if you don’t want to do it everyday. Aside from technicality of practicing painting, I actually think it really helps to cold message and email people for feedback for your portfolio. Sure, a lot of them won’t respond, but when they do, they will tell you what they look for in a piece of usable art. It also doubles as networking too, and I believe that carried me a long way.

You have to make it a habit to improve, even if you don’t want to do it everyday. 

Hyunjee Clara Ryu

TPM: You mentioned watching ‘an obscene amount of films’ as inspiration. Were there any specific directors, cinematographers, or films that especially impacted your visual style, and why?

Clara: I really enjoy the Czech New Wave films, especially one such called Daisies. I also love Czech stop motion filmmaker Karl Zeman’s Invention for Destruction as well. Generally speaking, I am a form over function type of person, and I like looking at pretty things. With that said, I don’t really know if I refer back to a specific style of film as a source of inspiration. Usually films are sources of inspiration on how I tell a story. If I can emulate a style from a film, I wish to follow in the footsteps of the original 1977 Suspiria. I like how it pushes drama through extreme colours and light, and that’s something that I aim to capture in my work.

by Hyunjee Clara Ryu - republished with permission.
by Hyunjee Clara Ryu – republished with permission.

The Power of Negative Space

TPM: Your website’s “About” page talks about “negative space.” Could you explain this concept further and how it plays into your approach to design?

Clara: I actually took that idea of negative space from the Icons class I mentioned above. (I’m realizing as I’m writing this that that class played quite a bit of influence in forming my design philosophy) The darkness and the void allows the audience to fill in the story with their imagination, so it’s always crucial to design with some leeway so that the guests can fill in and participate in the storymaking and understanding of it. Filling the environment with details is of paramount importance, but I believe there is some beauty in leaving some question marks for guests and audience to ponder about. If they ponder about it, it means that the design has some impression on them. That’s a philosophy that I always try to execute in my personal paintings. That’s why that’s in my bio even though it’s a very abstract and cryptic concept.

TPM: The Production Design Initiative seems like a fantastic resource. How has participating in the program benefited your film and theme park design work? How has your hands-on experience working on film sets through the Initiative shaped your approach to creating concept art for themed environments?

Clara: I unfortunately haven’t gotten to do much of the PAing that the program allows you to do because of the catastrophic state of the film industry right now, but to compensate for that the Art Directors Guild hosts a lot of field trips. That really helped with my fear of talking to people and networking. I think I just learned how to approach people in my cold emails a little better.

It may not seem like it, but working on short films and the like really helps you appreciate all the details that go into creating a scene. As a designer you have to learn to be resourceful and fill up the space so it doesn’t look empty, because barrenness fails to ground a story. Similarly, in themed environments, these insignificant details that people just seemed to have tacked in truly matter, because those are ultimately why people are so obsessed with theme parks. I try to keep that in mind when I create my pieces and bear in mind the question “how do I add more detail to enhance the immersion?”

by Hyunjee Clara Ryu - republished with permission.
by Hyunjee Clara Ryu – republished with permission.

From Theatre to Themed Experiences: Overlapping Skillsets

TPM: You’ve worked in both theatre design and concept art. How do your experiences in theatrical production inform your work in theme parks, or do you see them as very separate disciplines?

Clara: Not at all, theatre and themed environments are very intricately related to one another. Theatre design allows you to learn how things are built and how to interact with a shop (construction). And that practical experience really translates well into builds for theme parks. But honestly it doesn’t really matter when you just want to create concept art.

Concept art is an ideation reference only. While they may look at concept art during the build, it’s not the ultimate guide. Physical production in general does help you in understanding scale and what’s not possible to build, and I appreciate that.

by Hyunjee Clara Ryu - republished with permission.
by Hyunjee Clara Ryu – republished with permission.

Consistency Pays Off: Breaking into the Industry

TPM: From what we’ve read about you, persistence was key to your success. What advice do you have for artists facing specific challenges — maybe a lack of inspiration, a difficult technique, or even balancing artistic ambitions with other responsibilities?

Clara: Thank you so much for seeing me that way, but I am really not a persistent person. I get distracted all the time. I think a better way to put it is consistency. I really suck at cramming everything in the last minute, so I try to implement doing something I want to be mine in my daily or weekly life. I’ve also tried balancing grad school, which was in production design, while I was working in the shop as a TA, recovering from a pretty serious injury, and practicing art in my what little spare time I had. You just have to make whatever it is that seems helpful consistent – whether it is drawing, consuming inspirational materials, practicing techniques, and all that.

Part of the expanded Haunted Mansion area at Disneyland - "Artist Concept Only" ©Disney
Part of the expanded Haunted Mansion area at Disneyland – “Artist Concept Only” ©Disney

The Haunted Mansion Expansion at Disneyland

TPM: You’ve worked on Universal Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering projects. Could you share a specific project that was particularly fulfilling and explain what made the experience so enjoyable? Was it the creative challenges, team collaboration, or something else?

Clara: I’m really only allowed to talk about the Haunted Mansion Expansion because that’s the only thing that has been publicly announced, but that will forever be the pivotal project that will make me happy whenever I look back on it. I just loved getting all the feedback on my artwork from different people. Other than getting routine feedback from my supervisor Kim Irvine, I also asked around the office to get advice on how to improve my work. All that came out of a desperate place because that was my first job and I needed it to be good, but it was such an enjoying experience because grad school was such a lonely journey where you’re the only one identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your own art, which sometimes is impossible to do. I’d say it’s a form of collaboration to enhance the final product. At any rate, I’ll be forever grateful for art director Mike for giving me all the notes despite his busy schedule, because I learned so much from him.

TPM: You’ve brought the Haunted Mansion Expansion project to life through your concept art. What were some of the unique challenges of translating such an iconic attraction into new and exciting visuals?

Clara: Kim gave me all the references for different elements and details in the painting. That said, the challenge was painting from a set of references that wasn’t collected by me. In grad school, there was a lot of emphasis on conceptualizing from the very beginning stages, so I was used to all the references coming from my own research. Painting for Kim was like piecing together a puzzle that I got out of the box brand new off a store counter. Painting from someone else’s ideas and references is routine in concept art; you’re painting for someone else, and they own the painting you do. But at the time I was fresh out of grad school and was not used to it.

TPM: Because you were given references rather than collecting your own for the Haunted Mansion project, what was it like building the visual atmosphere with someone else’s starting point? Were any specific details especially challenging to integrate?

Clara: It was actually really fun than difficult! I was struggling on painting the details, however. Up to that point, I never had to paint a painting with so much detail and information that needed to be communicated. It also didn’t help that I paint in literal broad strokes that rely on the sense of creating an impression rather than a specific picture. But then again, specific notes really did help.

TPM: Was there a project where you got to push your boundaries significantly regarding technique or style, either for Universal or Disney? What was that process like?

Clara: I was hired for the way I usually paint at Disney so that wasn’t too much of a challenge, but Universal artworks are a lot sleeker and textureless, and texture is something I prefer to embed in all my work. I have not yet pushed my boundaries, but I’m exploring new ways to paint a picture at Universal. I’m so sorry if I’m repeating myself but the process all comes down to asking for feedback. I pester my production designers for feedback, and I try my best to address them while looking at other theme park concept art for reference to see how other people do it too. So it’s going back and forth between gathering stylistic references that are very different from mine and asking for feedback.

by Hyunjee Clara Ryu - republished with permission.
by Hyunjee Clara Ryu – republished with permission.

Concept Art and “Artist Concept Only” Releases

TPM: Theme park design requires collaboration with engineers, designers, and other experts. How does your role as a concept artist fit into this multidisciplinary approach?

Clara: Well, there is a reason when Disney releases concept art they add the caption “artist concept only.” Concept art is merely a suggestion on what something would look like. But as a concept artist who studied production design, I try to keep in mind the idea of scale, mass, and buildability when I paint. I’m not entirely free from them, but I do try to capture them within a believable realm. Ultimately, though, I believe seeking out feedback is the ultimate form of collaboration for a concept artist. It’s always a privilege to represent the designers and executive’s ideas into what I do.

TPM: You have a very distinct visual style. Could you walk us through the development of a piece of concept art, from the initial idea to the final touches that bring your signature style to life?

Clara: I keep getting comments about how I have a style, but I’m not sure if I see it in mine quite yet. I think I still have years in front of me to develop one. But I first started painting in watercolour, and I think that medium is where my stylistic influences probably come from if I do have a style at all. It’s rather embarrassing, but I don’t really have a structured methodology of generating from ideation to adding final touches. I really just paint by trial and error. I present the trial to people, and see if what I did sticks. Rather simplistic and stupid to a degree, but if I have my work published and hanging at Disneyland, I guess it works?

TPM: Having worked for Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Studios, do you see a stylistic or philosophical difference in their approaches to concept art?

Clara: Oh not at all. At the end of the day, they are both merely companies that strive to deliver the best experience possible to the guests. Besides, I’ve heard that designers and artists always go back and forth between the two companies. The only difference that I personally see is that they have different IPs. I have heard that the way I paint is more suited for Disney, but most artists are quite adaptable. If Universal hired me, I don’t think both really care so long as all the details are executed.

TPM: How do you prepare for and adapt to the stylistic differences between working for Disney and Universal Studios?

Clara: I don’t really prepare anything too specific, but I do try to learn how to surrender my own preferences. I think in order to adapt I just have to let my tendencies go as much as possible, whatever that means, so I can start from a blank canvas and paint with a relatively free hand. That said, though, I do tend to insert colour notes here and there. Thankfully, both companies don’t seem to mind that too much in concept art.

by Hyunjee Clara Ryu - republished with permission.
by Hyunjee Clara Ryu – republished with permission.

Theme Park Trends and Dream Project

TPM: Are there certain trends within theme parks (use of technology, types of storytelling, etc.) that really excite you as a concept artist?

Clara: I still need to navigate the theme park industry a lot more because I am more familiar with the film industry, but I do think the two inform each other. I’m really interested in volumes / virtual production nowadays because it melds pre-production and post-production together. I’m not much adroit at learning technology at a fast pace, but I am excited to see how VR production will impact theme parks. It’s going to happen sometime soon when the technology is further developed. I’m the type of person that sees more value in physical stuff, but I think it will be interesting to consider how the physical and virtual will come together.

TPM: You mentioned VR as exciting. Could you envision a specific type of themed experience in which VR tech would enhance the guest experience in a truly unique way that traditional design couldn’t?

Clara: I still need to learn about themed experiences to envision something truly specific, but I firmly stand with the belief that VR can’t accomplish great heights just on its own. The virtual always needs to be grounded, and I believe groundedness can only be brought to life by implementing physical presences of what we know. With a mix of animatronics and physical set dressing I truly think VR can reach incredible heights. But I always imagine a fountain show integrated with VR or AR somehow. That would be really fun.

TPM: What is a “dream project” within the theme park world to which you’d love to contribute your concept art skills?

Clara: I would really, really love to do parade floats for a Halloween event. I didn’t grow up with Halloween being a celebrated holiday because I grew up in Korea, but I think it’s such a campy and fun holiday. I’m always attracted to some darkness and spooky aesthetics, and I’d love to do something that mixes the fun with it. That said, anything that had to do with the Haunted Mansion was always a dream. I remember screaming in the car after the meeting where I heard what I was supposed to do. Because I already sort of had my wish come true, I’m sort of okay if the Halloween float project does not happen.

TPM: Clara, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with our readers. We greatly appreciate it!

You can visit Clara’s Website at https://www.clararyu.com/

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