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July 09


Summer 2017



DISH, the Digital Immersive Showroom from Walt Disney Imagineering, is a 360-degree “VR cave” for previsualization of Disney properties. Viewers are stationary and wear 3D glasses. Moving images are projected on all four walls in the 20-foot by 20-foot rounded-corner room

Anyone remember when the best ride at the amusement park was the roller coaster with the steepest drop? Times have changed. Although coasters with multiple loops do thrill, there’s nothing like the ever-evolving, tech-heavy dark rides: enclosed experiences that immerse the rider in 3D, 4D or even 5D experiences, all while telling a story and manipulating emotions far beyond the stomach-flopping scare of a sudden turn in the track.

Even traditional parks have ventured into the realm previously ruled by film and entertainment company theme parks. Take Six Flags. In the past few years they’ve added a Justice League dark ride to many of their parks, known until recently for such exhilarations as “Batman: The Ride” –a 50-mph inverted coaster. This spring, however, they took on the big guys by installing the “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” 3D ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain, just a nanosecond from Southern California juggernauts Universal and Disneyland.

TOP to BOTTOM: Sally Corp.’s new Magic Mountain dark ride, “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis.” In “Street Battle,” The Joker and his henchman run wild in the streets of Metropolis. In “S.T.A.R. Labs Battle” The Joker blasts riders with “laughing gas.” (Photo credit: Copyright © 2012 Kevin Brown)

Designed and built by Sally Corporation, a dark-ride and animatronic company, the Justice League ride zooms guests past interactive animatronic characters while in six-person motion-platform vehicles, and features real-time gaming. Riders wear 3D goggles that blast nefarious characters with laser guns in order to free the good guys, defeat Lex Luther and the Joker, and save the universe. To create an immersive experience, a 360-degree screen is fashioned by offsetting two 280-degree toroidal screens. Rich Hill, Sally Corp.’s Creative Director and lead designer on the ride, is excited by the ride options this degree of immersion allows. “It’s almost a virtual reality experience. We can break the plane of the screen and even do virtual loops.”

It’s de rigeur for dark rides to tell astory, usually based on existing characters for which there’s already a fan base, and a successful ride needs to take the disparate elements of story and effects and make magic. Previsualization allows creators and clients alike to preview the ride in 3D and adjust the timing, visuals and script before the attraction is built. It can focus on the screen content alone, the arc of the entire ride, or even preview a whole park.

At its most basic, a previsualization company such as The Third Floor will “take what the creatives envision and put it in a place that they can look at it,” explains Brian Pace, The Third Floor’s Head of the Virtual Art Department. “The purpose of these visualizations is that we can illustrate and refine the story that the riders will experience, from the point of view of that rider, while also taking technical parameters, such as speed of the ride on the track, dimensions of the screen and stereoscopic rendering, into account. Often this is the first time clients are able to see their creations in context and from there they can focus on refining their creation.”

Walt Disney Imagineering, with James Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment, are readying Walt Disney World’s new attraction, “Pandora – the World of Avatar,” opening this year in Orlando. Concept art shows riders navigating the interactive bioluminescent rainforest through which the Na’Vi River Journey travels. (Photo copyright © 2016 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.)

When Universal Creative approached The Third Floor to previs the ride video for “Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 3D,” they used concept art from the film’s producers, Illumination, considered the ride’s multiple seating locations, and had to conform their work to Universal’s custom screen in order to show what the ride experience would be like.

“The ‘Justice League: Battle for Metropolis 3D’ ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California is almost a virtual reality experience. We can break the plane of the screen and even do virtual loops.”

— Rich  Hill, Creative  Director, Sally Corporation

Pace works with 3D program Maya to visualize how screen content is seen from different perspectives; how well the illusion of being within a new world is maintained. “With a 3D feature film, you can cut around a lot, such as when we worked on the movie Avatar. With a ride, what you’re seeing in a scene, you’re supposed to be a part of it. Shots are longer, more continuous than for feature films.” If a client has an existing ride that is similar, The Third Floor will modify their previs to play back in their existing environment to see if the execution works or needs adjustment. Often for overseas clients they’ll download it for viewing with VR headsets abroad.

TOP and BOTTOM: In development for ITEC Entertainment are the High Tech 3D Theater Presentation, “High Speed Indoor Coaster Dark Ride” and “Dragon Laser Effects Dark Ride.”

Bei Yang, WDI Technology Studio Executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, is one of the architects of DISH, the Digital Immersive Showroom, an innovative 360-degree “VR cave” for previsualization of Disney properties. Bei describes the 20-foot by 20-foot rounded-corner room as having “projectors and fancy tracking. Designers can inhabit their designs. You wear 3D stereo glasses, like those at a 3D movie. You can still see your colleagues. Images are projected on all four walls for a 360- degree experience.”

Sitting on a normal office chair, while wearing a bowler “tracking” hat, DISH allows you to experience everything. “You don’t move,” Bei continues, “but we give you the experience of moving through the ride.”

LEFT and RIGHT: Live action and concept art from the “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure” 3D ride at the Shanghai Disney Resort in Shanghai, China.

(Photos copyright © 2016 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.)

Some things still need mock-ups, though. The complex environment of Walt Disney World’s new attraction, “Pandora – the World of Avatar,” needed mock-ups in addition to DISH media, including the fantastical interactive bioluminescent forest through which the Na’Vi River Journey travels. There, handmade plants and floating jellyfish mingle with Floridian flora and fauna and surround the Shaman of Songs, a convincingly articulated animatronic songstress.

“The ‘Justice League: Battle for Metropolis 3D’ ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California is almost a virtual reality experience. We can break the plane of the screen and even do virtual loops.”

— Rich  Hill, Creative  Director, Sally Corporation

Whatever the story, previs, planning and the right technology are key. At the Harry Potter attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, robotic arms hold the vehicle’s seats, enabling the motion to imitate and interact with the visuals as riders visit the sites from the beloved books and movies.

One interesting detail can be found in Florida’s Hogwarts™ Express train connecting Hogmeade™ Station in Universal’s Islands of Adventure with King’s Cross Station in Universal Studios Florida: The train extends the Harry Potter experience, but no technology existed to believably convey movement of Harry Potter elements past the windows as the train rolled from one park to the next.

“Clients come to us with what we consider science projects,” explains Bill Coan, ITEC Entertainment President. “We work with them to create a tech solution that doesn’t exist.” For the Harry Potter train windows, a bicycle rider outside should be seen from a different perspective from each window, for example. “It needed to be believable, but the tech didn’t exist. It took two-three years to develop that, without pixilation. We worked with the Swiss train company that was providing the actual trains.” During the time ITEC worked on the solution, screen technology itself advanced and became high definition. “We engineered it and then had to re-engineer it. It was a moving target!”

Previewing the ride is one thing, having it run is another technological process.

TOP and BOTTOM: Two ITEC-designed attractions opened in Wuhan, China, in late 2014 – “Ultimate Energy” and “Power of Nature.” “Power of Nature” is a virtual simulation ride where guests become storm chasers and are transported into powerful natural disasters. The experience comes to life in the Extreme Weather Institute, using the largest 3D screen in the world. Pictured is the lobby area of “Power of Nature.” The vehicle image is concept art.

As ITEC’s Coan notes, “The Disneys and Universals don’t execute it by themselves. They create, then hire us to help. We’ve done some 60 attractions for Universal studios – that’s disparate pieces and parts and systems. The sound, the lighting, the effects, all highly timed. For example, we had a very specific role on the ‘Skull Island: Reign of Kong’ ride. We made the automated technology system which controls and automates the brain and the safety systems.”

Even though each designer strives to make a ride experience that is loaded with bells and whistles and a heavy dose of wow, it’s equally important to recognize the target audience and the goal of the ride. At an average length of four minutes, deemed the perfect wait-time-to-thrill-time ratio, an attraction has limited time to accomplish its aims while also considering age limitations and how many people should move through the ride at a time.

As Coan points out, “VR is coming on very heavily, but hasn’t yet been perfected. It was created as a personal experience, not for moving 2,000 people an hour. We still need to solve those operational problems. How do we implement VR and make it viable and sustainable?” As for fast rides, Coan continues, “We know that 60-mph roller coasters eliminate 80% of people (from riding them).”

TOP and BOTTOM: “Ultimate Energy” is a 5D theater that integrates 3D projection, live actors, props, stunts and special effects into one ride. Riders are transported into the future when people are at war with machines. Guests visit the Mech Warriors and War Museum, which commemorates the history of a fictional global conflict. Both experiences are part of Wanda Movie Park, an indoor movie theme park in Wuhan, China, offering a variety of film entertainment such as 4D and 5D cinema, a flight theater, immersive theater, interactive theater and space theater.

The Third Floor’s Pace adds, “Sometimes it depends on how old the audience is. We won’t put 3D glasses on kids, for example. As for ride intensity, we are occasionally tasked with having the ride lurch. The amount of the lurch is based on average height and tolerance, which is localized for the country. In China, we have to tone down the rocking because they have a lower tolerance for it.”

Asia is the fastest-growing market for theme parks, so understanding that population is critical. Sally Corp. has created animated musical shows in China, including animatronic penguins for the Penguin Hotel in Chengdu. They are acutely aware of the limitations in what they can sell there.

“With a 3D feature film, you can cut around a lot, such as when we worked on the movie Avatar. With a ride, what you’re seeing in a scene, you’re supposed to be a part of it. Shots are longer, more continuous than for feature films.”

— Brian Pace, Head of the Virtual Art Department, The Third Floor

“Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 3D” is a simulator ride attraction at Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan. The Third Floor was tapped to work with Universal in visualizing content and interaction for this 3D ride.

Disney recently opened their park in Shanghai, and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride is a blockbuster attraction. Bei Yang says, “The one in Anaheim has vignettes of stories, but in Shanghai, we built to the world of the Pirates movies. The overall scale is bigger, the boats are precisely timed to allow amazing special effects. Gigantic multi-screens combine with actual sets. Perspective rendering can extend the scenes.”

His concern with building in other countries is making certain it still feels like a Disney Park, but “because it’s regional, things in there have to align with cultural norms. In China, the family unit is slightly different, not like the nuclear family of North America. Usually grandparents come along. How do you make sure they have a fun ride, too? Or if they don’t go on the ride, how do they share in the experience?” One way is to include parts of the ride that are visible to grandparents waiting outside.

“VR is coming on very heavily, but hasn’t yet been perfected. It was created as a personal experience, not for moving 2,000 people an hour. We still need to solve those operational problems. How do we implement VR and make it viable and  sustainable?”

— Bill  Coan, President, ITEC  Entertainment

TEC Entertainment President Bill Coan addresses dignitaries at the Kim Quy Amusement Park groundbreaking ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam (2016).

ITEC is designing and building six projects in Vietnam, including Kim Quy (translated as “Golden Turtle)” Amusement Park, designed for Sun Group, which will partially open late 2018. Coan describes the 250-acre park as being “story driven. One part city walk, one part theme park. The core attraction is ‘The Matrix’. It’s super high-tech –cyber and digital, VR, AR, 5D, 6D theaters, low capacity, high end.”

ITEC also has projects in China, including two for the Wanda Group: “The Power of Nature,” a virtual simulation ride where guests chase powerful natural disasters; and “Ultimate Energy,” a ride into the future when people are at war with machines.

A high concept design of Kim Quy Amusement Park in Vietnam. Designed by ITEC for Sun Group, the project, being built in Hanoi, partially opens in 2018. It will feature an open space for outdoor activities with cutting-edge technology, including a Sun Wheel and hot air balloons. Interactive attractions will include the latest immersive, virtual and augmented reality experiences.

Coan assesses the ride landscape in China. “Disney just arrived in Shanghai, so the bar has been raised. Universal is coming in 2019. We’re working with them there. China wants the same storytelling, the same thrills, but they don’t have the support. I have to arm wrestle with the clients because we need to create something they can sustain and maintain without sophisticated talent. We’re also localizing more. Generally, people in the East are smaller than in the West, but the West builds more of the equipment, so there’s not so much customization now.”

Another growing market is the Middle East, where gender roles come into play. “Sally Corp. did work for a company there and when they came to see us they requested that all the women leave the shop,” said Hill. “We refused. If you’re visiting us, we expect you to respect our rules.

Entrance to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at the Shanghai Disney Resort.

When we go there, we’ll respect theirs. Justice League rides would take convincing to build there because of Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn and Supergirl. DC Comics and Warner Bros. would have to push for it. We built some animatronics in Dubai and had to cross some of those gender issues.”

Wherever in the world rides are built, the increasingly sophisticated screens and media combined with animatronics and scenics enhance the feeling of being part of a real place. Toroidal curved screens, which encompass our peripheral vision, continue to expand and allow massive amounts of digital data (The Third Floor provided 60-fps stereo-media content for a tram-based ride that was over 25,000 pixels wide by 2,160 tall). This is how magic is created.

Imagineering’s Yang sums it up. “Even though I know how it’s done, it blows my mind when the illusion absolutely works. The border between what is shot versus CG now, it’s the same pattern in rides. The technology is amazing. It’s always a joy to see, but it’s not technology for technology’s sake. All of this is aiming to create experiences. It’s a privilege to be in the field of special effects in the service of one of the most human things we can do: tell a story.”

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