In which we draw some technical conclusions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.