For many years modern ride films and theme park attractions have continually built on developments in filmmaking and visual effects. Often combining motion simulators with large-scale imagery, high-frame rates, stereoscopic projection and photorealistic animation and CG, these experiences of course seek to immerse their audiences much more than can be done inside a traditional movie theater.
In this article, we present just a sampling of some recent ride films and experiences and how they use visual effects techniques in particular in their creation. These include the new Star Tours, Transformers: The Ride, the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction, King Kong 360, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and The Simpsons Ride. Sit back, hold on, and enjoy the art of the ride film.
Douglas Trumbull - a pioneer in ride films
Before we look at the ride film case studies, we really need to firstly take a look at the career of Douglas Trumbull.
You’ll of course see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner amongst his film credits. But Trumbull has also been a major proponent of ‘immersive’ technology, not only for the movies but also exhibitions and ride films. He developed Showscan, for example, where 65mm film would be photographed at 60 fps and projected with 70mm prints at that higher frame rate - a technique that reduced blur and produced high quality imagery. Trumbull has many filmmaking patents and continues to invest in high frame rate HD, stereo and virtual set filmmaking tools.
Perhaps the most well known and successful attraction Trumbull worked on was the Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. The ride utilized a giant IMAX hemispherical screen and motion base, together with miniature, stop motion and optical compositing photography. Trumbull has said the ride was a high point in his career since audiences were treated as ‘participants’ rather than passive observers.
fxguide has had the opportunity to speak to Trumbull on several occasions, and here he talks to Mike Seymour about immersive cinema and ride films.Mike Seymour talks to Douglas Trumbull.
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue
The original Star Tours motion simulator ride is perhaps one of the most fondly remembered and familiar ride films for many people. It debuted at Disneyland in 1987 and relied on motion bases equipped with 70mm film projectors. Working with Walt Disney Imagineering, Industrial Light & Magic produced much of the imagery for the ride with miniatures, motion control cameras and with optical compositing techniques as they had done for the Star Wars saga.
Jump ahead to 2011 when Star Tours: The Adventures Continue opened to replace its popular but aging predecessor. This time around, ILM devised imagery mostly with CGI and digital compositing techniques instead of miniatures and opticals - and created shots in stereo - for multiple locations that the audience visit. While the same motion bases were employed, the limits of their use were expanded so that audiences could experience the ride in an even more interactive fashion.
Above: this behind the scenes video shows the pre-ride and ride experience for Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
“Once something becomes a classic, you have to be really careful when you go back in because people do love the original,” says Tom Fitzgerald, Executive VP & Senior Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering. “So you have to be better than the original. That’s why we put everything we did into this new ride - to have multiple branching cues, 3D for believability, to go back into the entire pre-show to refresh it with a new look and colors and music - while still maintaining the core DNA of what everybody loved about it.”
In The Adventures Continue, riders can experience different starts, detours, transmissions and endings - a total of 54 possible combinations - as they travel in a Starspeeder 3000 to places such as Hoth, Tatoonie, Kashyyyk, the Death Star, Coruscant and Naboo.
An initial effort in developing the new ride was launched at Walt Disney Imagineering and included some early previs that would later be handed to ILM. “One of the nice things about their previs was that it was based on what the simulator could do,” recalls ILM visual effects supervisor Bill George. “You can’t have three turns to the right in a row, you have to level out or turn to the left at some point.”
ILM brought Disney’s animatics into its system and would develop scenes in consultation with Imagineering and with suggestions from George Lucas. Although much of the action would be CG-generated, a number of live action shoots still took place. “The Wookie that hits the windshield was shot at Kerner,” says George. “We had a huge piece of LEXAN and a 3D camera and we threw a poor guy in there and he hit the windshield and slid down. Then we shot a few other elements like flames hitting the window for explosions, leaves for Kashyyyk, sand and snow for Tatoonie and Hoth.”
“We also did a shoot,” continues George, “where I put a black sock on my hand and got a huge tube of KY jelly and put it against glass for where the sea creature's tongue is on the glass. And we shot some water elements for water drips on the window being pushed back by air rushing by. They kind of shake and move a bit that’s just so distinctive and so easy to get with real water and a fan. Doing that in the computer would be really difficult.”
For the ride’s digital assets, ILM also referenced the Lucasfilm archives. “We’d pull out the original models of the TIE Interceptors, Boba Fett’s Slave 1 and the AT-ATs and photograph them from every angle,” says ILM animation supervisor Glen McIntosh. “We also did this for the costumes as well and we looked at the original David Prowse Darth Vader costume. The archivist was so wonderful and would unfurl this paper and there would be David Prowse’s gauntlet and I would photograph it from different angles.”
The Hoth section of the ride made use of glacier background imagery captured by Bill George via helicopter in Alaska. That became a starting point in re-creating an iconic scene from the original trilogy. In fact, ILM’s approach was to touch on these key moments but often with an extra spin on them. “For example,” states McIntosh, “when the AT-AT walker collapses we wanted a cool moment when the speeder swoops under it so we had it collapse on its knees first to get that near-miss experience. Actually, Disney Imagineering encouraged us to put Easter eggs in every little facet. If you’re going on the ride for a fourth or fifth time, you’ll see in different areas the X-Wings, a Tauntaun herd, Jabba’s sail barge parked in a corner and a whole lot of things.”
McIntosh was even able to consult with legendary ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren on how the Hoth sequence, in particular, had been created for The Empire Strikes Back. “He watched what we had done,” recalls McIntosh, “and then said, ‘You guys did it! I wish we had the technology when we did it. Can I see it again!’ And he watched it and then said, ‘Can I see it again!’ And I think he ended up watching it seven times. And he came over and gave me a big hug. That was a big day - it had meant so much to me when I was a kid and really fired my imagination to work out what I wanted to do for a living.”
Digital vehicle and character models involved significant ‘kit bashing’ and also occasional re-purposing from film models just for the ride. “For example,” explains McIntosh, “those Hover droids that replace the window that Obi-Wan crashes through in Attack of the Clones - they had suction cups on them and we were like, what if they were re-purposed to do different functions. That droid ended up becoming signal droids that lead the Star Tours speeders around in traffic. We re-worked the paint and design, so they had light cones as their hands.”
Among the other digital characters ILM created included a CG C-3PO, voiced in the ride by Anthony Daniels. ILM was able to discuss the character with the actor while he recorded audio, in what proved to be an incredibly helpful insight into animating C-3PO’s distinctive robotic movements. “He had a great story for many of the moments from the films,” says McIntosh. “There was the scene in the very first Star Wars where he is getting on board the escape pod and leaving the blockade runner and he is the most bent over in any Star Wars film here. And because of how bent over he was to be to get into that little escape hatch, he couldn’t breathe. He had to hold his breath for each take because the costume was pushing into his stomach. And that actually is there in the final shots.”
Daniels also helped with demonstrating the limitation of the movement in his arms and legs. “He showed us how small the steps were that he could take,” says McIntosh, “how much he could bend his knees, and I used this in animating the character. If we were doing motion capture, I would put limitations on how much the actor could move - which was me! - I was in the gray pyjama suit and I couldn’t move my arms and legs too much. Anthony would show us that the only way to turn the head is to turn the whole body, and you end up getting into a style of movement which feels like C-3PO.”
In conjunction with the imagery, of course, was accompanying movement in the motion base. Fitzgerald notes that the first Star Tours “only took advantage of a small percentage of what the motion base was capable of doing. So we really worked hard on this one to find different types of ride experiences that could take advantage of the sensations that motion bases could give you. For example, we have an underwater sequence in Naboo and we have a bobsled ride on Hoth.”
A major ‘moment’ in the ride includes a dive down into Coruscant. “It’s one of my favorite moments in the whole show,” says Fitzgerald. “You feel that pressure on your stomach from the seat belt and you really do believe that you’re falling - we really kept that up as long as we felt it was believable. Because that’s part of the fun. At a certain point your brain is saying wait I really am falling - wait this is real! And it gets people to scream and laugh, and that’s the fun. We’re trying to put you in the movie, in the story, that you already know and love.”
While ILM would consult regularly with Imagineering to ensure their imagery matched what the motion base could do, the studio also set up a unique preview environment in one of its theaters in San Francisco. “Because the cab is a very controlled and small environment,” recounts George, “we went into one of our screening rooms here at ILM and we measured out where the seats are in relation to the seats in the cab. And we put little bits of tape on the back of the seats that if you’re sitting in the theater you’d be in the cab. And then we had an automatic system that would take our movies and re-size them and position them on the screen closer to where it would be in the ride.”
ILM artists would also attend at Disney’s Glendale facility to ride a mockup of the simulator and see the work in progress animation and motion base programming. “We would see the ride from the inside,” says McIntosh, “and they would have representative cardboard heads of people in the crowd. You would sit in different sections and see the different sensations and experiences that gave you. We also got to see the same ride programmed from the outside. I was astounded by how much the simulator does actually move. It pitches forward at what felt like a good 30 degrees. It translated up and down and rotated a lot more than I anticipated.”
For the new ride, too, Walt Disney Imagineering implemented a Dolby 3D system, with the twin projectors custom-rigged to suit the movement of the simulator. “We worked with Dolby to have custom glasses made for us,” explains Fitzgerald, “and made sure we didn’t have ghosting. Once you add motion and people moving from side to side - we worked hard to make it not an issue.”
Above: Tom Fitzgerald revisits the original Star Tours.
In terms of the stereo and its depth budget, Walt Disney Imagineering was keen to not have too many 3D gags, but rather use the 3D to help with spatial perception. “It actually made things easier and more believable to look at,” says Fitzgerald. “There are some gags, though, like the windshield break at the end of the Naboo section and we also had a red beam that actually shines into the audience both in stereo and inside the cabin.”
“We had to find a sweet spot for convergence,” adds Bill George, “about a third in from the back right in the center but we did try experiments for optimum viewing. We didn’t change the interocular too much, one exception was when we went into the asteroid field and we cheated it. It was just reading really flat and we wanted to make it as dynamic as possible.”
Another challenge of presenting the action in stereo became showing ships and vehicles around the cab. “In the previs they had a lot of things like X-wings and things zipping by you,” says George. “Well that doesn’t work that well in 3D because they’re so blurry. So we would put them in front of us and we were paralleling them because you get this great sense when something’s in front of you and it’s easier to perceive.”
Transformers: The Ride
Translating Michael Bay’s Transformers movie experience into a ride film involved not only close involvement from the director, but also the principal VFX house on the films: Industrial Light & Magic. Now installed at three locations - Universal Studios Singapore, Hollywood and Florida - Transformers: The Ride features vehicle-mounted motion platforms and 60 feet high screens with stereo imagery.
Such is the intensity of the final imagery and its successful interaction with the ride vehicles that the ILM team behind the visual effects for the ride were awarded a VES Award in 2012 for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project (awarded to Lori Arnold, Yanick Dusseault, Delio Tramontozzi and Jeff White).Watch footage from the ride experience.
In the ride, the Autobots try to save the AllSpark from the Decepticons. The ride vehicles are placed on a ‘track-roaming’ platform on 2,000 feet of track as the action plays out on different screens that the vehicles turn to face.
ILM began its association with Transformers: The Ride while still completing shots for Transformers: Dark of the Moon. “Michael would see something in the ride that he liked,” says ILM visual effects producer Lori Arnold, “and he would say, ‘Hey let’s throw it in the movie or vice versa,’ and we were able to share things back and forth and make sure things were represented.”
Since ILM would be creating shots without the benefit of a motion base at their San Francisco studio, artists would previs scenes and occasionally travel to Orlando where a sound stage had been set up as a ride trial. “Even though the ride wasn’t going,” notes Arnold, “we knew we had to do the work on those size screens, so we made a good 6 or 8 trips to Orlando to look at our work there. Universal also had to build these giant life-size sets and then we had to blend our material on screen with the practical set until we worked it out.”
“We also worked really closely with the motion programmer at Universal Studios,” adds Arnold, “so that if we put in an action beat, they would put in a motion beat, so when say Megatron reaches out and grabs the car, they put a beat there so you could feel it.”
Artists re-purposed assets from the film visual effects and made new ones, pushing the robots to feel as if they are in the simulator with the participants - many shots appear on large torus screens that wrap over the audience and so required a 180 degree field of view render. “We made preliminary ride profiles to make sure it was getting the impact it needed so we could dial in the animation for ‘right at you’ feel or adjusting the convergence of the camera and making that 3D pop,” explains ILM animation supervisor Delio Tramontozzi.
In one particular sequence inspired by the film, ILM has Bumblebee flip over in slow motion. “That’s on one of the giant torus screen,” says Arnold, “and there’s a moment where we’re driving down the street and Jeff White our VFX supe thought this could be a more exciting beat, and he was working on the movie as well, so we incorporated that slow motion beat and Michael loved it right away.”
Space Shuttle Atlantis
When NASA retired its space shuttle fleet, the agency sought interesting final homes for its orbiter vehicles. One of those became the Kennedy Space Center, which had envisaged a Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction in which participants would become immersed in the shuttle ‘story’ before viewing the spaceship in its in-orbit configuration.
Perhaps not strictly a ‘ride’, the Atlantis attraction was still this year recognized with a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project (awarded to Daren Ulmer, John Gross, Cedar Connor and Christian Bloch).
Designed by PGAV, it involve three ‘Acts’:
Act 1 - First, participants enter a room and watch a six minute historical re-enactment of the shuttle program.
Act 2 - Then, doors opens to reveal the main theater, an area made up of spanning arches onto which an immersive shuttle film is projected.
Act 3 - Finally, Atlantis is revealed behind a ‘scrim’ for viewing at a 45 degree tilt and with her cargo bay doors open.
Act 2’s arches film projections involved the most significant work in terms of visual effects. For that, PGAV brought on movie producer Mousetrappe. “Our job was to create a linear emotional experience that leads up to the actual reveal of the orbiter,” says Daren Ulmer, Mousetrappe’s President and Chief Creative. “We had to get you emotionally ready and excited to come face to face, nose to nose as it were, with Atlantis.”
To do that, the company produced a film that would project onto four different architectural surfaces that span over the audience from front to back, plus a main 9 meters by 8 meters screen which is later revealed to be the entrance to the orbiter viewing area.
Mousetrappe relied on its previous experience in projection mapping onto complicated surfaces, including at several Disney theme parks, to tackle the Atlantis project. Sixteen projectors on the arches and four on the main screen were used for the Act 2 film. With so many pieces of moving imagery and with unusually shaped projection surfaces, Mousetrappe had to orchestrate a way to allow for the best viewing experience possible for the audience. That came in the shape of re-projection software that the team uses for architectural mapping.
“All of this is facilitated by 3D stereoscopic re-projection software,” explains Ulmer, “the same techniques you would use to do a stereoscopic conversion or stereo compositing and re-projection. It’s really just imagining that model inside out and resolving all the effects and rendering from the point of view of the audience, but then re-projecting those from the projectors in the room.”
In order to ensure their imagery would match the physical projection surfaces, Mousetrappe derived 3D models from the original 3D CAD data of the arches (on other projects the studio has also carried out LIDAR scanning and photogrammetry surveys). Artists use After and Effects and NUKE for assembling the imagery, which was actually rendered in passes and brought together at the venue for final tweaking. Mousetrappe also enlisted the use of a proprietary VR rig that allowed them to visualize the experience before it was deployed. “We put the imagery into our VR rig,” says Ulmer, “and we stand in the middle of it and look around and get a sense of how it was moving. Is it too fast, too slow, does it make you uneasy?”
Armed with a methodology for projection the imagery, Mousetrappe then sought to produce a film, aided with CG imagery created by Eden FX, that contained “new things or things in such a unique perspective that they’re fresh and you can only see them there,” says Ulmer.
The opening sequence begins in a swampland area near the launch pads. “We push through the swamp and trees and reveal that the space shuttle Columbia from its original launch is there ready to launch,” describes Ulmer. “We skim across the water and push up to the shuttle and you see the shuttle launch.”
That launch and footage was from an IMAX documentary re-scanned at 4K. However, the shot was locked off. "We used VFX to do a digital set extension in three dimensions that filled out the rest of the arches and allowed you to see that shot in a way that you never have before,” says Ulmer. “By pushing through the environment and having the smoke and everything wrap around you.”
“We also identified a handful of places the audience would never get to go themselves or things that had not actually been shot,” adds Ulmer, “mostly for the reason that they were impossible to film in space, but that were completely authentic to the space program. One of the never been seen before moments was the re-entry sequence, where the space shuttle does a vertical pirouette where it fires its booster rockets to slow its orbit so it begins to fall. And then it flips over its nose to reverse around so the bottom of it and its heat shields. We talked to NASA engineers and brought in a shuttle veteran astronaut and spent a whole day with him, just talking to us and telling us about his experiences. We re-created in VFX that whole sequence as authentic and realistic as possible.”
Another place the audience is taken is inside the flight deck of the orbiter. “We realized that the shape of this theater was much like the shape of the flight deck itself,” recalls Ulmer. “There had been lots of great high resolution 360 degree photo documentation done, so we thought if we could re-model that flight deck and re-project that into the room, we could give people a real feeling of what it’s like to be inside that flight deck, and we could do a camera move on it. The theater is so visually immersive around your peripheral that it could almost give you a sense of vertigo. We wanted to give the audience a sense of weightlessness deliberately by doing a camera move and flip the world up or down to make you realize there’s no up or down in space.”
Above: watch footage of the Atlantis attraction.
Once into the orbiter viewing room, the audience also sees a 110 feet wide LED panel behind the shuttle. Here, Moustrappe devised a seven minute loop that represents an accelerated orbit around the Earth. “We didn’t want the orbiter to feel like she was a static artifact,” comments Ulmer, “so by lighting the orbiter as if she had a single light source and a moving earth orbit behind her from the audience’s point of view, it really makes her feel alive. We built a high res model of the Earth with proper lighting and even had weather patterns on multiple planes so you get the right parallax.”
For Ulmer, the Atlantis experience proved to be another example of where “museums and visitors centers like this are starting to use the same tools Hollywood and theme parks use. I think it’s an evolution of the complexity that current digital projection systems give us, compared to straight up planetarium domes or just putting a bunch of screens around the people.”
King Kong 360 3-D
This attraction was yet another winner of a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project (awarded to Matt Aitken, Kevin Sherwood, Eric Reynolds and R. Christopher White in 2010). The ride forms part of the Studio Tour of Universal Studios Hollywood, where participants on the tour tram watch Kong take on some nasty dinosaurs in stereo on two 200-foot wide screens surrounding them.
To discuss more about the ride, Mike Seymour caught up with Weta Digital CG Supervisor R. Christopher White to discuss the studio's approach. And for more on King Kong 360 you can listen to Mike Seymour's fxpodcast with Weta Digital's Matt Aitken.Weta Digital CG Supervisor R. Christopher White.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Drawing upon the enormous success of the Harry Potter books and films is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a themed area currently at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. A similar themed area is due to open at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016. For a section of the area called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, participants experience the surrounds of Hogwarts Castle, including a Quidditch match, on a moving motion base as they move past parts of the set and other props from the films. It then parks into a dome screen to show the film-related parts of the ride.
Overseeing the visual effects for this broomstick-laden flight, as well as other Castle and chase sequences, was Adam Howard who worked on the project for two years with a team led by Richard Man, Matt Hendershot and James Straus at CafeFX. These sequences were projected onto a 20 foot hemispherical dome as audiences are taking around the Castle, through a Quidditch match and then into underground caverns.
Above: watch a behind the scenes video on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
“We had a dome sent out to California and set it up in a local warehouse so that we could test the projections,” explains Howard. “This also became out theater for dailies on the dome sequences.” One of the most challenging aspects of the ride film, says Howard, was working out how to render images with the correct distortion in order to still have a flat horizon and correct perspective within a 180 degree curved surface.
To help film the broomstick flight, CafeFX created previs, with the tech data used at Leavesden Studios to drive a motion base. “The rig at Leavesden was pretty massive and really was a masterpiece of mechanical engineering,” states Howard. “All the moves were rehearsed with just the broomstick on the motion base then when we knew it was OK for human consumption Dan Radcliffe’s stunt double David Holmes went up and rode the moves as an additional safety pass before Dan got on the rig for our actual photography. We had to break the flight sections into multiple parts to be able to fit it on the stage as the moves in the ride for Dan and Rupert were pretty huge sweeping moves. In the final comp we did multiple transitions from live action to digital doubles to hook up these various pieces.”
Other live action elements included Hagrid standing in a window yelling down to the riders as the fly by, but all of the backgrounds environments and Hogwarts Castle were realized as 100 per cent CG images. “This process was aided greatly by the help and guidance of production designer Stuart Craig and Art Director Alan Gilmore,” says Howard. “They provided us with up to the minute blue prints for the ever evolving Hogwarts Castle and for the layout of the surrounding grounds.”
The visual effects team had to tackle animation with the point of view of the audience from the center of the motion base in mind. “One of the biggest things we had to re-learn was how we moved the camera,” recalls Howard. “If we had moved it in the way a camera would naturally move for film or TV it would have been a very bad experience for the audience. The camera move ends up being simplified greatly as the smaller vibration moves are handled by the ride base and are not part of the camera move. So the camera moves on a simplified smoother line of motion and the motion base adds the high frequency moves. We did not apply any motion blur as it actually ended up detracting from the realism of the effect once we started reviewing shots in the dome.”
The Simpsons Ride
Featured at the Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood theme parks is The Simpsons Ride, based on the popular TV series. Blur Studio and Reel FX contributed CG animation to the ride, where participants step aboard a Krusty themed ride car vehicle and view 80-foot IMAX screens projecting imagery at 60 fps.
First, watch a reel from the ride. Then hear from Blur Studio co-founder and creative director Tim Miller about his studio's approach to The Simpsons Ride and theme-park films in general.Mike Seymour talks to Blur's Tim Miller.
Certainly, the above ride films only represent a small portion of rides and attractions out there. The major theme parks led by Disney and Universal Studios are constantly striving to make more and more immersive experiences, often combining filmed sections, motion simulators and animatronics. One of the most anticipated theme park attractions currently being built is Avatar Land at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, where already one of the rides has been revealed to be a flying simulator attraction where guests will learn to fly with a mountain Banshee. Also presumably on the cards are likely Star Wars and Marvel additions now that Disney owns those franchises. And Paramount is capitalizing on its Star Trek and other film properties in a new theme park in Spain. It certainly looks to be a new burgeoning era in theme park attractions and rides.
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