For decades, guests at Universal Studios Theme Parks have enjoyed an array of immersive ride films. From Back to the Future: The Ride to Terminator 2: 3-D Battle Across Time to Transformers: The Ride, each experience seems to up the ante on the use of motion simulators, large-scale imagery, stereo, high frame rates, stereoscopic projection, photorealistic animation and visual effects. Now, with Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, that level of immersion has been increased yet again.
Since 2010, Universal’s design division, Universal Creative, had been developing designs for a new ride based on the Gringotts section of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Director Thierry Coup wanted the ride – which opened last July in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley themed area at Universal Orlando resort – to take guests deep among Gringotts’ underground vaults via a roller coaster cart synchronized to enormous 3D projection screens. Here they would witness Harry, Ron and Hermione battling a fire-breathing dragon and escaping the wrath of Voldemort and Bellatrix.
In this article, fxguide explores the visual effects work required to help bring Escape from Gringotts to life with visual effects supervisor Chris Shaw. Shaw was hired by Universal Creative based on his previous experience on the VFX team of all eight Potter films. Universal also engaged Double Negative to create complicated stereo imagery that would need to appear on the giant screens and integrate this with the stunning practical effects and roller coaster aspects of the ride.
“First and foremost,” says Shaw, “Thierry wanted the guests to feel like they were actually in the world that they knew from the books and films. The word ‘immersive’ gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, it was absolutely key that we felt like active participants, not just an audience. It’s easy for the plot to get lost in the non-stop action of a ride, so for Gringotts, we wanted to slow the pace down a little, letting people understand the story structure and giving them time to engage with these beloved characters.”
“Having seen what Universal had done at Hogsmeade [a themed area at Universal Orlando],” adds Shaw, “and what they were planning for Diagon Alley, the attention to detail was just staggering. We knew we had to match that in the media if it was all going to feel like a single, seamless world. Bringing in Double Negative meant we had access to VFX supervisor John Moffatt, and the incredible team had worked on the bank escape in Deathly Hallows Part 2, plus all those pre-existing assets. Being seen for 40 seconds at a time, and at huge resolutions, meant those assets all had to be reworked at a greater level of detail, though.”
Planning the ride
To conceptualize and begin building the ride experience, Universal Creative hired Harry Potter production designer Stuart Craig, relying on his expertise and those in his art department – many of whom had also worked on the films. “They did extensive concept art and clay sculpts of both the physical sets and the digital environments which was really useful to see how they fit together,” explains Shaw. “We scanned a lot of the sculpts which were then used both by The Third Floor in LA to previs the ride, and Universal’s scenic vendor as guides for the full scale build. It meant we were all working off the same data, and could be confident that the blend between digital environments and physical set surrounds would be seamless.”
This planning stage was crucial, of course, for envisioning what the final ride would look like, and how it would work. The Universal team developed an insightful, yet low-tech approach, to that end, as Shaw describes: “The art department built a foamcore model of the ride building, three feet off the floor, with an open slot where the ride track would go. You could sit on a office chair with your head sticking up into the model and move yourself from scene to scene. We experimented with more sophisticated approaches, like VR headsets, but the card model gave people an immediate, intuitive understanding of how the ride was laid out.”
Escape from Gringotts is not only a roller coaster ride – it’s an immersive experience. Much of that comes from the motion simulation technology driving the cart carrying guests on tracks in the cavernous environments underneath Gringotts.
The choreography of the ride vehicle moving in and out of each scene was an early lock-in. “Universal had carefully designed it to ensure a smooth flow of guests through the attraction,” notes Shaw. “An additional second on one scene can reduce throughput dramatically, and that means longer queues, which nobody wants! This meant that there was no ‘fix it in the edit’ – each scene’s action had to fit exactly into the time window allowed for it. If you wanted to slow a character’s movement, you had to steal that time from somewhere else. It was a very delicate balance.”
Capturing the live action
Many of the well-known characters from Harry Potter are shown during the ride, including Voldemort, Bellatrix, Harry, Ron and Hermione. Actors were generally captured via motion control, owing to the rigidly constrained timings and camera path required. “Having been on many of the Harry Potter films together, my VFX producer Rich Yeomans and I had developed a very flexible moco pipeline,” explains Shaw. “The Universal team was able to bring back many of the shooting crew we’d worked with before. We even re-used the flexible dragon back from Deathly Hallows Part 2, which Warner Brothers had kept in storage.”
Double Negative took The Third Floor’s previs and refined it to use as a shooting guide. “We had to lock primary animation for the dragon pretty early on, since it would be used to drive the motion rig for the trio,” says Shaw. “All the data was exported to my own Rig Chase system, which broke it down into camera, motion rig and DVE solves. We could comp each take very quickly and Thierry could see it in context, which was great for him to check eyelines and interaction.”
This was all captured in mono, providing the ability to dimensionalize in post and make any necessary adjustments. “Double Negative roto-animated and reprojected all the characters so they felt completely locked into the 3D environment,” adds Shaw.
Interestingly, actors were required to deliver much of their dialogue directly into the lens to enhance the feeling that the characters were directly talking to ride guests. “That was tough for the cast at times, as it’s something they’re taught never to do,” outlines Shaw. “The actors had all spent years doing greenscreens with us on the Potter films and stepped back into their roles so easily. I always try to give actors more to play off than a tennis ball on a stick, so we had a selection of tools, including a lifesize cutout dragon face, and a large video monitor which could play back previously shot takes, precisely triggered to the scene’s timing.”
Double Negative had to solve several complex visual effects challenges for Escape from Gringotts, including CG characters, animation, matchmoving and compositing. The final stereo imagery would be projected onto giant screens with an almost 300 degree field of view running at 60 fps.
Stereo, in particular, presented an initial challenge. “The wraparound screens and high frame rate meant that you could push the stereo much further without worrying about breaking frame or strobing,” says Shaw. “We ended up with a huge interocular which gives a fantastic sense of depth and engagement. It would have been way too much in a feature film, but the ride is only four minutes long so guests don’t have time to get stereo fatigue.”
Accommodating the enormous field of view was also challenging in terms of the CG camera. “With some screens having a 300º field of view,” notes Shaw, “we couldn’t use a normal CG camera rig. Everything from clipping planes to interaxial offsets would have fallen apart. Oliver James, DNeg’s chief scientist, developed a custom camera rig in RenderMan which used the curved screens themselves as ray-sources. As you swept around the screen, every ray had a different origin which meant the stereo worked perfectly in all directions.”
Since Escape from Gringotts was physically located in Universal’s Orlando resort, while Double Negative was in London completing visual effects work, the VFX studio needed a way to test footage that would ultimately be projected on the large screens without constantly traveling to the U.S. For that, a special set-up was established to watch down-res’d clips in a Double Negative screening room, with crop-ins of specific areas.
Above: in this video from Universal Orlando Resort, find out more about Escape from Gringotts.
However, presentations to Coup were done in Orlando by members the Double Negative team, including CG supervisor Vanessa Gratton and compositing supervisor Milos Milosevic. “Universal Creative built full scale replicas of the screens in one of their sound stages to test everything while the ride was being built,” says Shaw. “While we didn’t have a moving ride vehicle, Thierry and me could drive the path in a scissor lift and evaluate how footage looked at full scale. The 3D was completely different when surrounded by a 40 foot high, 10K image to how it felt in a screening room.”
“Once the ride was nearly built,” adds Shaw, “Thierry could view our media from the actual vehicle and make final tweaks. In particular, we could make sure the digital environment at the edge of the screens blended seamlessly into the physical sets. We had a NUKE station networked into the playback servers so Milos could make grading adjustments and see the results immediately. Sitting on a catwalk 50 feet up in a hardhat, was slightly outside his usual working environment.”
“Nothing compares to the first time riding it with everything working though,” concludes Shaw. “Feeling the movements of the cart timed exactly to the on-screen action, with heat, water, fog and surround audio was an incredible experience.”
BONUS: All aboard the Hogwarts Express
Shaw and Double Negative also contributed to the Hogwarts Express – a transporter that takes guests between the two theme parks of Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida at the Universal Orlando Resort. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter spans both parks. Guests on the Hogwarts Express have views showing them leaving London and arriving at Hogsmeade – care of live action photography and visual effects from Double Negative – that is projected onto curved screens outside the train windows. Below, check out some bonus behind the scenes imagery from Hogwarts Express.