Further lessons from magical kingdoms

In which we draw some technical conclusions.

Sanity Clause.

Before going deeper it’s worth a sanity check, in that the finances of our test subjects are beyond our reckoning. The rides described here cost around $100 million to create – and a whole land such as Universal’s Harry Potter is estimated at half a billion. What can we small makers learn from their construction?

Your short film is not going to be Star Wars – but the expensive failure of the latest Star Wars film Solo is lesson that resonates with any level of storytelling*. The successes and failures of giants still provide lessons for the rest of us.

3D video isn’t viable.

There’s a period from around 2010 to 2016 where Universal used 3D technology on rides such Transformers and the Simpsons – around the same time that cinema took on the format. The obvious Great Disappointment comes in 2016 when the Harry Potter ride was upgraded to remove 3D projection. Notably the more recent DreamWorks Theatre uses no 3D.

Meh

Meh… too dark

The reasons are familiar to any 3D cinema goer – I found the 3D glasses to be clumsy, dirty and to cut out light, making for a dark and distant experience. Instead Potter and DreamWorks use HD screens that wrap around your field of view, and frankly you don’t notice the missing depth.

http://www.leparcorama.com/2013/04/20/wizarding-world-of-harry-potter-and-the-forbidden-journey-universal-orlando-islands-of-adventure/harry-potter-and-the-forbidden-journey-fully-exposed-4/

Taken from http://www.leparcorama.com here is the Harry Potter ride, giant screens at the left and giant robot arm at right. Look at the curvature on that telly.

Seeing as we’re working on a smaller scale this brings up the question, which I think has moved from “is VR failing?” to “in what way is VR failing?” The parks are finding that glasses are not as effective as real world set building, and VR helmets are even less appealing. Notably Google is moving into something called “VR180” on the basis that almost no one actually looks behind them. It can be experienced on a helmet but will probably end up being a domestic ‘very wide screen’ projection system. This would represent an enormous retreat from the all-seeing 360 eye of VR.

And so they mix video and physical sets.

The latest rides use flat or curved video framed in built sets. No one believes that the video is actually part of the set, but so long as the two are designed to collaborate on story, the effect is accepted. Projection mapping is definitely a key skill as is set design.

Wall panels with video screens placed at the top. You can see at the top left a screen pretending to be one of the panels below.

But motion beats just about anything.

When you are being thrown around by large forces you’re immersed. In fact, some of the rides – Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mummy, and to a certain extent Space Mountain, rely on absence of visual cues. Motion simulators and motorised theatre seating is a proven and effective way to grab people, and no wonder some cinemas, even in Australia, are installing 4DX technology for feature films.

This is terrible news for the small designer, who’s unlikely to have access to this kind of effect. No matter how effective a VR headset may be, it can’t compete with motors. I can imagine some technology that would talk directly to your vestibular system, but not this year or the next.

Cheer Up: That we enjoy so many films without physical effects just comes back to the fundamentals – make us care and we’ll watch.

Except sound. Sound everywhere.

Sound is never neglected by the big players. The usual rig involves multiple speakers positioned on a ride car to provide a surround image for the riders. The sound stage for King Kong 3d uses a 22-channel mix, delivered on 16-speaker ‘clusters’ spaced along the stage. Disney places multiple speakers, as much as one per sound, so that they remain invisible to the audience.

Speaker arrays are beyond the reach of most small practitioners, but ambisonics has reached mainstream DAWs in 2018, and every sound designer now has the ability to produce a 3rd order image that can be subsequently mapped to speaker arrays if and when a specific project becomes available.

Haunted Houses.

Most of our vacation was spent being chased by scare actors in Halloween Horror Nights. Definitely something for a select audience, but something that could be expanded into a wider entertainment format.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can see the set building.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can better see the set building.

HHN includes a set of physical mazes, each about the same size as a small house, ground floor only. A queue of people goes in the front, weaving their way around in near darkness. Some parts of the house open up into wider rooms with set pieces – for example some sequential scenes from the old Poltergeist movie. The corridors are filled with hidden openings out of which pop scare actors, people in costume that pretend to stab or grab you as you go by. The noise level is intense – the Stranger Things house sounded like a plane taking off.

But a couple of things stop these from being scary. Most of all you’re one of hundreds of people flowing through these mazes at fast pace. The constant flow of people means you’re never in a state of apprehension, as tension is rarely allowed to build. If there’s a girl that screams in front of you, every scare actor will go for them and hide again by the time you get there. Lack of room means that the actors can only make repeated motions, although some of the better mazes had enough space for variation (the Universal Monsters maze was best for this).

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There are also scare zones in which the attacks are more free form and creative. They work better because the actors have creative freedom, but are harder to define and market. I think these are models for something new where a ‘swarm’ of characters gather you up into events, the way that massive online gaming works. And yes, I have no idea how you would do this. Yet.

* Don’t extend your population of characters so far that you need an encyclopedia. There’s only so much care to share.

Narrative, Media Art and Donald Duck

In which I go looking in Halloween USA for the pumpkin spice of contemporary media art, and find that interaction design is better done with personalities than push-buttons.

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I’m in Los Angeles. Touristing, but following the hunch that contemporary media art is best studied from leading commercial practitioners than any academic project. That is, if I want to observe the cutting edge, I’m better off at Disneyland than Carnegie Mellon.

A commercial entity has no excuses – it has to study, set and hit strongly defined goals. If an audience doesn’t respond to the work, it gets fixed or folded. There is constant war between companies to seize the state of the art. If one creates the leading experience, the others are in quick pursuit. But by itself technology is not the key to their success, and I am keen to understand the storytelling design that underlies the best work.

(There are of course ‘living museums’ – that understand the join between the two worlds. They are also inspiring sources).

I’ve no illusion that I can produce anything that compares, but I’d rather fall short of the target than the periphery. I’m keen to understand commercial ‘360 degree’ media design – experiences, movies, rides, and merchandise, so I’ve been studying the two most successful theme parks (by audience) operated by Disney and Universal.

The full essay would be much longer than you’d bother to read here, so let me just provide an executive summary and some points.

In the best case, the narrative rules for storytelling hold true for 360 experience – people care for, and identify with a hero or group of heroes, they prefer a narrative that conveys learning and morals. I believe that the centre of any interactive media is the character (rather than e.g. the mechanics of interaction). This is why e.g. it’s called Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – immersion involves identification with a person or persons, in a world that is formed to illustrate their personal journey.

The audience does not care for interaction without meaning – it must be in the context of the narrative and world. And this Interaction must involve the same cascading levels of jeopardy as set out in a linear narrative.

The Narrative Arc is across all outcomes

I always come back to the standard lead line: somebody, somewhere, wants something. They discover a gift, which then involves them in conflict. In overcoming an antagonist, win or lose, they gain insight and are uplifted beyond the power of the gift. This progression is obvious in movies – but it is found in roller coasters as well.

In all the cases I’ve seen in LA, the movie (incorporating book, play, TV series) is the first outcome but there are alternate cases such as the game Five Nights At Freddies. In creating the movie, the designers necessarily come up with the elements that serve all the other formats.

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Is this a hero? Or scenery?

There is a someone who wants something. The hero. What do they look like? What’s their past? What do they want? What instead do they need? Harry Potter is 11 years old, an orphan, treated like a slave – copied from Cinderella (which addresses the same teen yearnings) he will be given a gift – with consequences. When the battle starts, hubris may bring him down. The character is crafted with a back story, desires and motives, a physicality, emotional weakness and so on.

The Character is the store of narrative ‘reality’, and includes at least

  • motivations (goals, back story etc.)
  • limitations (lack of insight, point where their risk-taking tips into failure)
  • embodiment (colours, physical attributes, clothing, etc.)
  • totemic items (things that illustrate the gift)

By defining the motives and limits of the hero and villain, the plot will mostly write itself. A movie follows a segment of the inevitable action up to the moral outcome set in a third act, after which a sequel will hopefully be required. The experiences are endless, a perpetual storytelling.

Harry Potter land

Harry Potter land. Bring your haptic controller, pardon me, magic wand.

This action needs a somewhere, and I’d argue that it too is generated when the characters are properly defined. In film these are generally called worlds. The theme parks I’m visiting are divided into lands, each being a confined sub-area in which the features are strictly designed to appear part of a world. Examples include Disney’s Fantasyland, Pixar Pier, and Universal’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, and Springfield. Usually there is a gate to each land, or at least a bend in the road that obscures one land from others.

(It’s reminiscent of computer game design, with walled levels, NPC’s, collectable weapons etc., and tempting to think that RPG gaming inspired this physical immersion. But the theme parks are much older than gaming – Disney derived his park in the mid 1950’s from older European parks he saw on his own study tour. Instead parks and games have common requirements and have cross pollinated.)

(When Disney broke these rules in Disney California Adventure, they suffered badly. The changes made since that ill-fated opening illustrate the point being made here).

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My hunch is that the tale of Nemo requires an ocean in which to be lost, and Toad requires a shiny automobile. Or, more accurately, the attributes of the character, such as Toad’s vanity and privilege, demand a situation in which they can be presented as a morality play. Design questions are answered by asking ‘what can, and would the character do in this situation, given their motives and failings?’

Rides

The Incredicoaster is the latest part of DCA to be reformed from the disastrous ‘mock California’ launch. It now has a story line based around the physical abilities of the Incredibles characters, expressed as movements of the coaster through chapters, defined by figures placed in tunnels on the track. The ride is narrated by speakers built into each seat, presenting a moral about the family working together. Notably the ride itself is not made longer or faster than before – it has instead been improved with an arc.

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The scream tubes first enforced to reduce noise pollution were made even longer to add in the narrative elements.

Jeopardy points in the story-line become the (apparent) jeopardy in the adult rides. For example, in Universal’s The Mummy a tussle between good and evil is enacted by throwing of the riders into a dark abyss filled with scarabs by the god Imhotep, from which they are retrieved (backwards!). Splash Mountain, Forbidden Journey, even The Simpsons Ride – all are narratives where a machine shakes emotion into the story. Some of the small children rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures are obviously also narrative, while the carousel doesn’t seem to suggest any at all.

I also couldn’t see the jeopardy expressed in most of the lands, where the audience is free to wander. Perhaps events like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are the start of something, which could be expanded outside of the horror genre.

The last point I can fit here, and one that still puzzles me, is about totems. The bears, mice, dogs and whatever-the-hell Goofy is supposed to be are all well within the long tradition of fables. Rabbits have been heroes all the way back to Africa, so that’s well documented. I wonder if the modern cartoon character – Minions for example – are the same psychological device and I think, yes, we have now adopted machines as we once did creatures.

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The second question is about totemic objects or ‘merch’ – the hats, t-shirts, lanyards, plushies etc. that bulge throughout every land. Are these simply souvenirs, or do they bring identification with the hero, or some more complex process? And what is their role when used inside the land, such as the wands used in Harry Potter than are actually haptic controllers for various ‘magical’ events?

Still a lot more to think about.