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.

2 thoughts on “Further lessons from magical kingdoms

  1. First reactions: LARP + Scare Zones could be the sweet spot, where participants can choose their level of engagement as either passive entertainment consumers, active consumers, active pro-sumers and of course full employees. Each level could be given opportunities and incentives to increase their level of engagement, to the point that as they add enough value to the experience, they simply become employees and get some money back. This blurring of the lines between audience and performer is not only more fun for everyone… usually… (with some quality control in place)… but invests the audience more and creates a more memorable experience (transformative?), as well as gives them opportunities for more direct catharsis. Naturally in a horror scenario there are… concerns… to be addressed. But those themselves make for an interesting tension / possible storyline.

  2. HHN makes me think of the “ractives” in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” as a kind of end game scenario, at least from the point of view of the Studios; actors in mini mo-cap booths, with facial expression capture – audience wandering around with some full-view AR goggles on, possibly also some other haptic feedback/actually vibrating physical environment.

    I don’t have a link to hand, but i’ve seen CTF type game demo video of this _kind_ of thing within the past few months, but now I recall it being full VR rather than AR.

    The whole problem with audience sizes.. large numbers of people wandering through mazes and giving less time for experiencing the experience “properly”.. half of me thinks “ok this is just poor queue management or they’re trying to cash in quick by herding them through” and half thinks “if we accurately track and totally manage the visible view available to the audience member, and manage their flow through the maze/environment (so they don’t collide with other players)… etc”

    I’m only half awake and half-informed, but me, i’d wonder about stringing arrays of speakers around the environment and doing some projection of audio waveform at participants (since you’ll probably have an idea of where the warm bodies are in 3space).

    i’m sure there’s a business model in there somewhere 😀
    I’m sure I’m drooling nonsense again 😀

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