Themed Environment Design | CG Master Academy

Themed Environment Design

An 8-week course focused on theme park design and creating story-driven guest experiences

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Design your imagination into a unique reality

Build a portfolio displaying a deeper understanding of environment design by creating an immersive story-driven experience with responsibility to real-world spatial constraints. In this course, students will refine their use of design fundamentals and gain an understanding of master planning, guest experience, iconic attractors, architectural scale, and spatial responsibility. Students will tell their stories through the use of character, prop, vehicle, and architectural design. This class is a rare opportunity for designers who want to learn to translate their imagination to reality through this unique design process.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   8 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 8-10 hrs/wk viewing lectures, q&a, and time on assignments.
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Photoshop, SketchUp optional
Skills level:   Intermediate to Advanced
Prerequisites:   Strong draftsman skills in environment design, perspective, digital painting, and some 3D modeling knowledge

Themed Environment Design WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Course introduction: What is themed environment design? | Using a design process | Iconic attractors - Creating Weenies | Demonstration - Developing an Icon
A Brief History of Architecture | Genre/Archetypal Storytelling | Demonstration – How to add color to your value | Demonstration – 3D build and Render
The fundamentals of Elevation | Looking over examples of elevation | Ride system implementation | Design with Park Operations in Mind | Demonstration – designing in elevation
Custom Brushes | Creating an Architectural Kit | Forcing Happy Accidents | Demonstration – Designing with custom brushes
Queue Lines and their functionality | Park Operations – emergency egress and circulation paths | Think about the Guest Experience | Demonstration – Creating a Plan to your elevation
Building just enough | Create a compelling composition | Render Passes | Demonstration – 3D Massing Model in Modo
Understanding Visual Weight – balance and rhythm, tension and release | Design with 4 Values | Defining with Pools of Light | Leading the eye with paths | Demonstration – Painting with a 3D render
The proper use of scale | People are people | Area Development – The devil is in the details | Rendering with expression | Demonstration – Final Rendering

Real heroes don't wear capes, they teach

Luc has over ten years of experience designing and creating world-class destinations, attractions, shows, and products for a wide range of domestic and international clients. Among other distinguished projects, Luc was a designer on the recently-opened Shanghai Disneyland Castle, the largest and most intricate to date. With his passion for sharing design experience and understanding, Luc teaches Entertainment Design at ArtCenter College of Design. Luc is currently working as CEO and Principal Designer at Steadman Design Studio in Pasadena, CA. Clients: Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers Studio, Samsung, Paramount Studios, Dreamworks, National Geographic, MNC Land, Dubai Parks and Resorts, Warner Brothers, Resorts Worlds and many more .

Student interviews


April 21st!

Spring TERM Registration

Feb 8, 2021 - Apr 26, 2021




April 21st!

Pricing & Schedule

Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

These Finance Options allow you to focus on your goals instead of the barriers that keep you from reaching them.

Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

Payment Plan

Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

environment design Benefits


What makes this learning experience unique?

Personal Feedback

Receive personal individual feedback on all submitted assignments from the industries best artist.

1+ Year Access

Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

Certificate of Completion

Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

Flexible Learning

Learn anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace with our online courses.

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Sector 7 Theme Park POV Design and Illustration

Interview with Chris Chien

Chris Chien takes us through his process for creating a Final Fantasy inspired theme park space and some tips he learned from Luc Steadman in Themed Environment Design

Sector 7 Theme Park POV Design and Illustration


My name is Chris Chien. I’m a concept artist specializing in themed entertainment. I’ve been working in the industry for 10 years. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Industrial Design back in 2010. I've worked on projects such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld Sesame Street land, Ferrari World and Kennedy Space Center. 

Design_01 // Story, Research and Conceptual Sketching

Story is the fundamental building block of any good design. I created a little description, gathered some reference images, and proceeded to create thumbnail sketches of the main building of the theme park land. I explored two different directions - a Medieval Fantasy version and a Futuristic Cyberpunk version. I created many silhouettes and variations of each building, and decided to go with a Sci-Fi direction.



Design_02 // 3D Modeling

 Here I created tighter line drawings, a plan view, and a perspective sketch to figure out the 3D dimensional forms. Sure it looked cool in the silhouette form, but translating it into 3D is another story. Next, I modeled it using SketchUp as my modeling software, and Enscape as my rendering platform. This step is crucial to understanding what the building looks like at all angles.



Design_03 // Elevation Drawings

This next part was super interesting. How do you know how big to make the retail shops so that it looks believable for a theme park? This is a trick I learned from my instructor Luc Steadman, while I was taking his class at CGMA. While we cannot access blueprints to existing architecture from Universal or Disney, we can look on Google maps, get an estimate of our big the buildings are in relation to each other, and use that scale to make approximate concept drawings! Using this technique, I'm able to create immersive architecture at a believable scale.



Design_04 // Masterplanning Drawings & 3D modeling

Here I created a top down view of the theme park called a "masterplan." While it looks simple, this is often the most difficult and time consuming part of the process. In a professional project, the "masterplanning" phase would take months to create! Teams of people would be in meetings for hours on end, with probably hundreds of different iterations until they create one that satisfies many engineering, safety, theming and design requirements!



Design_05 // Exporting a POV from the 3D Model

 Using the 3D model I created from the previous step, I zoomed into the eye level of the guest and export a view that I think looks says "wow" - and would sell this space. Finally, we can start the illustration process.



Illustration_01 // Value and Color Studies

 Just like how story is fundamental to a great theme park experience, color and value is fundamental to a great illustration. Before going into any of the details, I created value and color studies to explore the different lighting and color scenarios, while thinking about how I want this piece to feel.



Illustration_02 \\ Photobashing

This is a rough color pass. I have used many photo elements to quickly establish lighting and texture of many of the scenic elements. Adding in photos of people really helped give the place a sense of life as well. An illustration at this level is useful for having a conservation with the design team and evaluate how it is looking, but this is clearly not the finished product.



Illustration_03 // Lineart

I liked what I did with the photobashing phase, but it just seemed really soft and I decided I needed to go in and precisely establish what the designs of the buildings really were. To go forward, sometimes you gotta take a couple of steps backwards. For the linework, I started with very primitive and geometric shapes. Only after the big shapes felt good did I start adding in secondary shapes. At the very end, I added in a lot of small details, window, pipes, weathering etc... It's important to not jump into the details right away. You need to establish the bigger picture first!

Although doing lineart is laborious, I enjoyed this process because I think doing lineart is where a lot of artists start their journey - with a simple pencil. This phase entailed looking at photo references, and even going outside to look at a lot of weathered Florida apartment buildings. I even got a lot of inspiration from going to Star War's Galaxy's Edge!



Illustration_04 // Greyscale

 Before you start going into color, it's important to first have a greyscale image of the illustration. The greyscale image conveys the mood and story of the piece. And if I could sum up the mood in one word, it would be "hope." I wanted to convey the story that in this desolate and dark city - with stormy clouds overhead - there is a ray of light and a possibility of a better future. I painted this all on 1-2 layers, relying on mainly my gut and painting in a very intuitive fashion.



Illustration_05 // People

 After the greyscale image, I needed to put in the people. I did not want to completely use stock images for everything. So I drew some of the main characters who had interesting outfits, and filled in the rest of the people from my collection of stock images to lessen the amount of work.


Illustration_06 // Base Colors

 Having done all the people on separate layers, I hid the people and just focused on the buildings. I used a regular round brush with some color jitter so I was able to get lots of color variation and a very impressionistic and gritty look.



Illustration_06 // Signage and Lights

 Now we are having some fun! Here you can see that I added some text and signage to give it some life. I've also re-introduced the people to see how everything fits together.



Illustration_07 // Details, Highlights and Atmosphere

This stage took a LONG time. I am finally starting to add detail. I zoomed into to every corner of the piece to render out forms, adding textures and highlights. At this stage, I was constantly referring and flipping back to the greyscale image I did in Step 4. It is a common mistake to add TOO MUCH detail and make the illustration look too busy. Your brushstrokes might be doing more harm than good. At this stage, I was trying to exercise restraint so it conveys my original design intent in a simple and clear way.



Illustration_08 \\ Adjustment layers, Color Dodge and Effects

 Here in the last step, I applied adjustment layers such as Color Balance, Brightness/ Contrast and Unsharpen Mask. While this step seems really important and does a lot to make the colors "pop" - this step would be be ineffective if it were not have a solid foundation of design and illustration that was built underneath.

Often in a production pipeline, concept artists are not afforded this much time to plan out and polish a piece. We must paint fast and iterate quickly to meet the demands of project deadlines! In contrast, it was really nice to do personal painting where I could really take the time to treat a painting as a "work of art." This is a useful practice because many of things that I practiced in my personal pieces can be applied to my professional work.




Thank you so much for checking out my concept art tutorial. I hope you were able to learn something from this - if not I hope you were just entertained or intrigued by the process. If you would like to stay in touch and learn more about my process, you can follow me on social media at the following links.

 Art Portfolio:

Designing for the physical world

Interview with Audrey Jung

Audrey Jung shows us a breakdown of her project for Themed Environment Design  and tells us about the big take aways for designing for physical spaces.

Designing for the physical world

Hi, my name is Audrey Jung, and I’m an artist from Southern California and currently live near Disneyland. I graduated from FIDM in 2009 (AA in Visual Communications) and LCAD in 2015 (BA in Entertainment Illustration). I’ve continued to take classes and workshops for plein air painting, compositional drawing, and figures since then from various instructors that I’ve admired as often as I can. I’ve been an entertainment illustrator, specifically in the mobile game (MobilityWare) and board game (Gap Closer Games) industries, for the past 6-7 years. The projects I’m most proud of are the board games because I  really enjoy the restrictions of working on projects that will eventually be a physical product.

I knew that designing art that can be walked through was what I really wanted to do rather than create art that remained on a screen, as fun as that can be. I would talk about getting into theme park / themed environment design constantly but just didn’t have the knowledge of how the industry works or even where to start. That’s how I found Luc Steadman’s CGMA course at Lightbox Expo last year and knew his class would be perfect for what I needed.


Conceptual Sketching
Before this class, I would go to Disneyland/Disney World and other national parks and plein air paint/draw as much as I could. I’m fascinated by Imagineers and by anyone who can build things for the physical experience. I took woodshop for many years in high school before I knew anything about the concept design world. It was my favorite class and my teacher had a great impact on me, so I was very familiar with working with dimensions. 

Luc has such a great wealth of knowledge from working in the industry for so long. I really wanted to know why theme park designers design the way they do. It really comes down to dimensions and budgets. Basically, how to make something look as awesome as you can for the budget you’re given. Sometimes you’re just not given a big budget and that’s the reality. You can’t make the same things physically as you can with CGI in movies. We’re working with real-world parameters. It’s funny how he can just look at some of my sketches and say that’s too expensive to build.

Luc had us start off with thumbnail sketches and silhouettes for our land icon. Having an interesting shape still applies to theme park design. For my theme, I wanted to do a fantasy theme with a witch who lives in a tree. He wanted us to have two different directions within the same idea, and then have variations on those ideas. We also had to have a lot of reference photos as well so that we know if/how it could be built. After that, we did a black and white value study for our more solidified idea.

Selling the Idea
For week 2, we painted our idea in color. Luc wanted me to add more detail on who lives in the tree. He emphasized on having kinetic movement, storytelling, and having multiple materials to build the environment.


Who Needs Perspective?
Next, we worked on elevations and floor plans of the land. This is what I love about theme park design - dimensions and parameters. Luc taught us this trick to know how large things are. What we would do is open up Google Maps and basically take screenshots of Disneyland with the distance marker since they are the leaders of the industry. We then measure out their show buildings in photoshop using the ruler tool. When I first drew out my land, I based it off of the size of Disneyland’s Fantasyland show buildings but didn’t realize that with the new technology these days, theme parks don’t build small dark rides anymore. You have to think about trackless ride systems and account for how big their show buildings are, and how to hide them. Basically, those show buildings for the new “Rise of the Resistance” ride are bigger than Fantasyland and that blew my mind. Taking things like that into consideration was very useful information.

We also had to concept the supporting buildings in the land. These eventually will be restaurants, kiosks, and retail locations. Originally, I drew my surrounding buildings at the same height as the icon of the land, but Luc had to remind me that they can’t be as tall or as important-looking as the main attraction. He also said it was cheapest to build things in rectangle buildings and use cement to mold the design around the building. So again, he taught me that there were limits to dimensions, what I could design, and how to keep it affordable for the client. 


Planning Spatial Design & Leveraging 3D Massing
As someone who mainly focuses on 2D painting in traditional and digital media, I don’t have much experience with 3D programs, but Luc taught us how to use photoshop’s 3D plugin to our advantage. For those who aren’t as familiar 3D programs like me, in Photoshop, we could cut our elevation into layers and use them as “cards” and place them perpendicular to our floor plan layout. Then we could move the camera around and take “pictures” of different composition references for our Point-of-View painting later. This was very useful because you need to know if the guest can see the icon with the pathways that were designed. If a tree is in the way, move it. It also helped to know what could be seen from certain viewpoints and know where to focus details. Even though Photoshop’s 3D system is very limited, it’s exactly the amount of 3D I need for my purposes since I am going to paint over it anyway. It was quick enough that I didn’t have to build out everything, though he did show us his personal preference of using Modo and SketchUp, which may be more useful for another student.

Feeling the Experience
Next, we did black-and-white value and different time-of-day color studies to see what would sell the idea best to the client. You definitely want to pick the best scenario possible for your idea. I picked the golden hour because it brings out the color the best so that the client would know what the materials are. Eventually, I would like to do a nighttime painting since it would be equally as magical, if not more. 



Final Visuals
Our last week was our final Point-of-View (POV) painting. Here is where we had to paint the background scenery and supporting elements. The painting doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to the elevation/floor plan dimensions - but at least 80%. Move things around for the best composition. Also, once you think you’re done, you’re not because you have to add people to the scene as well. It’s very important to have people look like they’re enjoying their experience and for them to have consistent lighting with the scene. Luc’s feedback was for me to add cast-members and character-meet-and-greets since you want to show as much of the potential experience as possible, so I added those as well. The goal is to sell the story and make the viewer want to be there as well.

It was pretty cool to have Luc help me understand the process of creating a themed environment, how to make my initial idea better, and how to design something like that potentially in real life. 

Final Thoughts
Luc is one of the best instructors/art directors I’ve had. I’ve stayed in contact with him since class ended and got to work on a small project with him. It was cool because what he taught me in class was pretty much what he does in his studio as well. He doesn’t hold back on any industry secrets and genuinely wants you to be ready for what’s needed in the themed environment design world (or at least what’s needed for his studio).

My key takeaway for themed environment design is taking a limited budget/dimension and design it to look as awesome as you can with the limitations you’re given. I really think that’s where the creativity and resourcefulness come into play for problem-solving. From talking to Luc, other things designers should think about are what market are they catering to, what experience do they want them to have, and how long they plan on the guests being there vs. the cost of ticket and cost of running a theme park. There are so many things that go into themed environment design, and I’m glad I got to see part of the iceberg.

Some advice for future students of Themed Environment Design is to do as much of the homework to the best of your ability. Luc will help with the material you give him. Ask as many questions as you can. I took the class when everything first shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. When things open back up again, pay attention to how big things are at the Disney and Universal parks to get a better grasp of what and how to design.

This was my first CGMA class. I enjoyed the recorded video format which allowed me to replay the lecture multiple times until I understood what he wanted for each assignment. I know that this may not be the experience that every online class has, but there were only 3 of us in the class when I took it, so I got a lot of personal time with the teacher. He spent like 45 minutes per student sometimes for review and customized it to each student’s level so they could understand. I really appreciated that.


You can see more of Audrey's work here: