Your early years could sometimes provide rare glimpses into your future career. You just need to discover it and act on it to unleash your full potential !
Sai Phani Utkarsh Kethana, our next pathbreaker, Show Director at Gamitronics, creates fun, immersive & extravagant experiences for all ages to play, feel & interact within magical worlds through virtual platforms like video games & beyond.
Utkarsh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being captivated by the storytelling, imagination & world building aspect behind Disney’s Imagineering (Imagination + Engineering) and deciding to a part of the creative process.
For students, there can be many excuses for not pursuing your dream career. But there is just one reason to do so, and that is; when you are passionate about something, you go above & beyond to achieve it despite the innumerable challenges in your way !
Utkarsh, Your background?
I was born in Delhi & did my early schooling till 3rd class there. My father was a Mechanical Engineer and worked at NTPC Ltd. in various designations & departments. My mom managed the house, took care of me & my elder sister while my father was away for work. Later we shifted to our native place Gudivada, a small town in Andhra Pradesh. I studied from 4th to 8th class here. Our family then shifted to Hyderabad, Telangana where I completed my rest of the schooling & graduated in Electrical & Electronics Engineering (EEE) from VNR VJIET in 2018.
I have had great interest in creative arts since childhood. From nursery till my engineering I was an active stage performer doing drama, stage plays, street plays during school competitions, festival events & college fests. Also, I developed interest in the concept of Halloween & Horror Houses / Bhoot Bungalows between 8th to 10th class while watching “Goosebumps” live-action series on Jetix TV.
While I was in 10th class, during Halloween, I converted my bedroom into a horror house using household items for scary decorations and became a scary ghost myself to scare people. The theme of the room, my makeup & scary acting were so terrifying that it made my sister literally cry (she was an engineering graduate by then. So you know how scary it was). Later I removed my makeup, consoled her & showed her our spooky bedroom.
At this point I had no clue that I would develop a passion & take up a career in Themed Entertainment / Experiences / Theme Park Attraction Design. But these early interests, activities & my imagination were the early seeds for my career. Looking back now, I feel that creating Themed Experiences was in me since childhood & I was destined for this career path.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
After my Intermediate education, I was inclined towards 3 career pathways – Engineering, Architecture & Doctor. My father, being a mechanical engineer himself, encouraged me to take up core engineering which is always an ‘evergreen’ career. At this point I was still unaware about “Theme Parks” as a profession. I chose to pursue a 4 year Bachelors of Technology degree in Electrical & Electronics Engineering & was really fortunate to get a seat in one of the top institutions in Telangana, VNR VJIET.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
During the end of my 1st year or early 2nd year of Engineering, I coincidentally stumbled upon a youtube video. It was an old behind-the-scenes TV documentary on the making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park attraction – Expedition Everest (Himalayan Yeti themed rollercoaster attraction) & themed world / land around it.
The TV series featured the legendary Disney Imagineer Mr. Joe Rohde, the man behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He explained the creative process in detail & the approach behind creating an immersive experience / imaginary world in a real physical space through this Theme Park. The creative engine behind this process is called Disney Imagineering (Imagine + Engineering). I became an instant fan. Joe Rohde became my idol.
That youtube video was the discovery of my lifetime. My interest in Theme Parks & the entire process behind creating them snowballed video after video. I started discovering more information & videos about this whole industry, the craft behind it & the transformational impact it has on people. It totally captivated me. This is what I wanted to do forever. I was very, very clear about it. It was love at first sight! Not an exaggeration, but I truly felt that god spoke to me that this is my ultimate life goal.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I really feel lucky to have had such clarity in identifying my passion in the early years of Engineering. I used my engineering years to simultaneously learn & gain experience in my dream career, that is, creating Themed Immersive Experiences.
The storytelling, imagination & world building aspect behind Disney’s Imagineering really captivated me. From my Engineering 2nd year, I started consuming tonnes of information resources online – from industry websites, fan websites, YouTube channels, online courses, LinkedIn, anything & everything related to my dream career – skills, craft & people behind it.
At that time there were no formal degree programs around Themed Entertainment (Now institutions like California Institution of the Arts are offering some). I could find an online course on Udemy by former Disney Imagineer, Steve Alcorn. It definitely helped me understand the craft from an insider perspective.
I also reached out to many mentors, gurus, industry legends in my intended field on LinkedIn. They were really kind to share their personal material, resources, experiences & insights to help me learn more. To this day, I still learn the craft this way. Lifelong learning is a value that great teachers from my engineering days at VNR VJIET instilled in me.
Given my extreme passion towards Themed Entertainment, at one point, I felt like dropping out of engineering, as I felt it was irrelevant for my dream career, at that time. I could have never been so wrong. I was fortunate that my father guided me correctly and insisted that i complete my engineering. Looking back now, I really feel the 4 year journey of engineering has been so valuable in my dream career path. It helps me to this day to think from a technology perspective while conceiving Themed Experiences.
Also during engineering, I parallely enrolled for a special 2 year initiative by the prestigious world class institution, Indian School of Business (ISB, Hyderabad) & Telangana govt. called Technology Entrepreneurship Program (TEP). It taught me the core concepts of Design Thinking, ideation, empathizing & creating viable solutions for addressing people’s pain points. I use this approach to come up with innovative ideas in my field.
My aim was to get a job in my dream field by the end of engineering, by learning all the necessary skills, practicing them, and gaining enough work experience by implementing the skills in whatever freelancing work I could get. I had only 3 more years of Engineering left to achieve it.
I reached out to the management of many amusement parks & theme parks across India & abroad (both already built & upcoming projects) through emails, phone calls, messages & LinkedIn tactics. I started offering my ideas & services to create unique Theme Park Attractions (New add-ons & revamping existing ones) specific to their projects, for FREE.
From LinkedIn, I could reach out to Mr. Rajeev Jalnapurkar (CEO, Ramoji Film City (RFC) – Theme Park in Hyderabad). I shared my passion for Theme Parks & pitched ideas for their existing & upcoming projects. I got invited to RFC, to meet Rajeev ji & craft 5 original Theme Park shows & attractions in the form of Early Concept Documents (Story, rough concept drawings, guest flow narrative, attraction elements, technologies etc.) The concepts ranged from movie making to mythology. This was an incredibly rich experience that I got very early in my career. It gave me great confidence in my skills.
After great difficulty, many phone calls & getting contacts by convincing different people about my passion towards Theme Parks, I could connect with Mr. Ramakrishna (Director, Ocean Park – Water Park in Hyderabad). I got invited to Ocean Park, met Ramakrishna ji & proposed concepts to revamp their defunct boat ride area into a newly improvised attraction for families.
Similarly, after many calls, messages & persuasion, I could get a chance to meet Dr. GBK Subba Rao ji (Chairman, Pragati Resorts – Hyderabad) and pitched my ideas for their upcoming Biodiversity Theme Park. I got to engage with their Architect & create a concept for their show themed on Mother Earth.
From my numerous emails to many many amusement parks (probably 40-50), I got one single reply from Mr. Ajikrishnan (Vice President of Wonderla Holidays – Amusement Parks & Water Parks in South India). I got invited to Wonderla – Hyderabad, met Ajikrishnan ji & proposed concepts for any future expansions for the park. He heard my entire pitch, story & saw my drawings. But he finally replied that they had no more area for further expansion & no scope for revamping as it was a brand new park. But after seeing my enthusiasm & passion, he suggested that I approach Theme Park design firms like Sanderson, Forrec etc. (This advice from him was truly priceless! As I didn’t think in that direction nor did I have access to that kind of an insider information)
I couldn’t get a full time job by the end of my engineering from the above 4 endeavors. But I could gain field experience & build my portfolio. I could also understand where to look for, in order to build my career.
While doing all these freelance adventures in my engineering years, I also did a paid internship where I wrote content for a Talent Management website. I researched & wrote quality articles on different entertainment options the company provides for events, through international performers in unusual & creative art forms. The fun fact is, I never got paid for it. I got tricked. But no regrets at all. It became yet another place where I honed my writing skills. I also interned under my college seniors (Aravind & Arun) to write Travel content for their website fugoes.com (now closed). I’ve learnt to develop a great deal of patience while writing quality content here.
How did you get your first break?
This is where all my efforts during my early hustle were rewarded with a bit of luck. At the end of my engineering, I got connected on LinkedIn with Mr. Smit Shah ji (Director, AATAPI Wonderland – Theme Park in Vadodara) through a casual mutual connection of a Chinese Ride manufacturer. Remember, connections are very important on LinkedIn. You never know whom you get to connect with & what opportunity may arise from the places we least expect.
AATAPI Wonderland was building its own Theme Park in Vadodara, Gujarat & was planning to open their theme park construction consultancy too. Smit sir liked my past work profile & passion for Themed Entertainment. He offered me my 1st paid job. They were creating an entire Chhota Bheem Themed Land with many attractions & shows. They also planned for a horror themed dark ride. I got to create the story, early concept, guest flow narrative, list out attraction elements, technologies etc. for many attractions including the Chhota Bheem Land & others. I was also a Sales Engineer (One who represents the company while meeting clients & explains about our turnkey services in Theme Park design & build).
Through my work here, I could learn the invaluable practical lessons of crafting themed experiences around a famous intellectual property (IP), Chhota Bheem. Also, the 1st phase of the park (amusement rides & laser show) was open to guests (public) while the 2nd phase attractions were under construction parallely. I could also gain a treasured first hand experience of knowing how the on-the-ground guests react to our creation, their frustrations, what they like, what they don’t etc.
Also, I gained insights into the aspects of running a Park by closely working with the team heads of Park Operations (Mr. Prasad & Mr. Yogesh), Ride Maintenance (Mr. Abhishek & Mr. Akshat), Scenic (Mr. Aswad), Guest Relations (Mr. Aditya), Plumbing (Mr. Deepak) & the top management (Mr. Smit hsah, Mr. Pankaj Bhatt & Mr. Kavan). I feel really fortunate to have worked, learnt from & shared memories with all these team heads. All of them, except the top management have previously worked on a world class Theme Park, Adlabs Imagica – Mumbai Pune highway.
Shoutouts to Mr. Yogesh for exposing me to the Leadership concept of the Legendary Lee Cockerell (Retd. Exec. VP of Walt Disney World) during my time here. Mr. Kallol Polley who was Mr. Yogesh’s previous boss at Imagica, introduced them to highest of Disney standards. Learning true leadership from Lee Cockerell through his podcasts was another life changing turning point in my career professionally. It made me a better leader.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
No challenges as such. When you are passionate about something, you go above & beyond to achieve it.
Staying away from family for the 1st time, living on my own, adjusting to a slightly different culture, language & food were a few minor hurdles, which didn’t take much time to overcome. My fellow colleagues & room friends greatly helped me here.
From a work point of view, there was one more aspect. I will NEVER call it a challenge & I only saw it as an opportunity for my growth. I had to, at times, wear additional hats as per my employer’s requirements which were sometimes different from my actual role.
In addition to being the full time Chhota Bheem Park designer I also had to wear additional hats (for very short periods) to help park management deal with resource crunches. No kidding, but I was also a Guest Relations staff, Operations team staff, Park Sign board deployment supervisor, Website Content writer, Misting system deployment coordinator, Art Department helper, Group ticket sales person, Public Announcement voice artist, Musical Instruments designer etc.
I never saw these roles / jobs as something lower than what my full time role was. I cherished all these temporary short term roles with love & respect. I learnt something new everywhere.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
I currently work for Gamitronics as a Show Director. We create fun, immersive & extravagant experiences for all ages to play, feel & interact with magical worlds, awesome characters through virtual platforms like video games & beyond.
Creating out-of-the-world immersive experiences, be it physical (Theme Parks) or Virtual (Games etc.) have a fundamental core that’s common for both, Storytelling. At the end of the day we have to make people happy, engage their imagination, immerse them in our worlds, surprise, inspire, entertain them in a meaningful, extravagant, emotional & impactful way with our narratives. This is what I love to do.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Creating engaging narratives, storytelling, immersive world creation, theatrical entertainment, show concepts, ideation, creativity, innovation, intellectual property, character arcs, effective written & verbal communication, putting your ideas into pictures, drawings & words, understanding technical constraints, coming up with alternative narrative ideas within constraints, understanding video game mechanics, professionally engaging with clients / management / team members of different departments, managing people with empathy & respect, giving & receiving feedback, listening are some of the many skills required in my job. I acquired them from my work experience in the Themed Entertainment industry. Now with the power of game engines, I can create immersive worlds & experiences in a much more extravagant way.
What is a typical day like?
It is a work play work culture in the office. We have a review meeting at 10 AM everyday. All employees meet daily in Gamitronics’ own immersive multiverse 3D virtual platform. People join as different avatar characters, hangout, speak, chat, discuss, dance, play games & interact in the 3D explorable environment. We test the platform & assign tasks as per the next plan of action. I create pitches with different concepts, story narratives, entertainment elements for our platform & then discuss with the team to bring it to life. Fun fact: In addition to playing our own games, we also play gully cricket with smiley soft balls during the office lunch hour. The game gets pretty competitive at times. But it is a great stress buster & keeps our spirit high.
How does your work benefit society?
We have a transformational impact on humans. We bring happiness, joy, hope, optimism & fun into people’s lives. At Least for some time, we make people forget all their real world worries, tensions, anxiety & frustrations. People can unwind, rejuvenate, and spend fun time with friends & family in the immersive world we create.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I undertake all my work with utmost passion. It is difficult to pin point one. The attractions & immersive experiences I crafted various mythological themes are very close to me. Also the immersive experiences I crafted around Chhota Bheem IP.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Discover your passion early on. Have clarity. Research about its career prospects, aim for it if promising, & learn the skills needed. If you are reading this interview & not on LinkedIn, please create an account ASAP. If you have it but don’t use it often, get active. My passion field of creating Themed Experiences for people is in a very early, nascent stage, as an industry in India. Awareness about it is very less. Jobs are rare. Still, I could enter and make my own way in this field only because of my passion & efforts in this field, motivation from parents, leveraging LinkedIn and a little bit of luck.
Also, shoutouts to Internshala website for introducing me to LinkedIn as a career growth tool, even before I joined Engineering. I’m ever indebted for the benefits I’ve received from that early exposure to the website.
Both my jobs are a result of me building my profile, access to valuable people (Industry legends, mentors, employers, friends & connections), rich learning & work opportunities. These were all possible only because of LinkedIn. It could have never been possible anywhere else. This is a career gold mine friends! Trust me, start early, build your profile and use this platform to the fullest.
Also, gain as much hands-on experience early on, before you complete your formal education. Even if it means doing freelancing. While doing this early hustle, don’t expect any immediate monetary returns / paying job opportunities (If you get one, awesome! If not, then no worries, You’ve got some really rich work experience). Take some time out of your studies & work on your actual career, skills & work experience. These practical experiences, learning & knowledge will help you build your career. You will cherish them forever.
All the best.
I want to impact millions of people through our immersive experiences by creating much more fun, more extravagant, more creative, more innovative, more emotional, more magical, more inspiring, more transforming experiences by pushing the boundaries of storytelling through our medium.