A renowned ride-film maker describes how immersion enhances entertainment
Jeff, what attracted you to creating computer graphics ride films?
The fun thing about rides, especially CG rides, is that you have this open door to create worlds where you can make just about anything happen. There are no rules about how to set up CG effects and physical effects, such as spraying the audience with water, blowing air on them with wind machines, or heating them with heating elements. And with a ride you add the extra dimension of the audience actually being able to be moved physically in some sort of conjunction with the dramatic intent of the story. You can do some amazing things that you couldn't do in a movie theater or other normal distribution mechanisms.
How did Corkscrew Hill come about?
After the success of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the ride film we created for Universal Studios, we were given the opportunity to design an attraction for Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, completely on our own. The only direction we were given was that it had to have something to do with Ireland, because it would be shown in the Irish section of the theme park. So Diana and I decided we didn't want any stereotypical stuff, like leprechauns, pots of gold, shamrocks, and rainbows. We did research on Irish folklore and became familiar with some other creatures that inhabit those stories. We also decided to use the motion base not to be just a roller coaster, but as a vehicle that has many different modes of transportation. And we wanted it to be more than just cute and sweet; it had to have excitement and danger.
Why is danger important in a film ride?
People like to be scared and then suddenly rescued. One of the things that worked out well on Spider-Man was the last scene, where Dr. Octopus turns off the antigravity gun, and you fall between the buildings toward the pavement. I had been working on the ride for six months and had seen it on my computer hundreds of times, but when I saw it on the ride, and the motion base kicked forward, and the fans came on, I was really scared. This was something we wanted to build on in Corkscrew Hill. So we have this dragon-like griffin take you way up in the air and drop you. And it's not just a 40-story fall. You're about 5000 feet high, and you're freefalling toward the water and rocks below. And as you drop through the clouds, you feel like you're accelerating, and fans are blowing in your face, and just before you crash, you are caught by a horse and splashed with water. We figured that using big-screen stereo 3D with motion, wind, and water would help the ride build to a climax and be an exciting way to end the show.
What else are you trying to achieve with film rides beyond scaring people?
You can use ride films to tell stories more dramatically. It's hard to do because the films are typically only about four minutes long. But in a longer-form project, a motion base could be used in very subtle ways. Say you're out on the ocean or in a vehicle, a very slight undulation of the motion base could help viewers feel like they're really there in the scene. Certainly in a simulator ride like Corkscrew Hill or Spider-Man, we're trying to give the audience the feeling that they've traveled somewhere out of our world and are immersed inside a completely new place.
How did you use CG to enhance the notion of being in a new place?
In Spider-Man we were trying to create a comic-book world. This meant balancing comic book aesthetics, hard key lighting, and saturated colors with enough textural detail to make it feel like a real space. In Corkscrew Hill, we wanted to capture the feeling of going inside a painted storybook version of Ireland, where these creatures flit about, trolls jump out of trees, and witches make newt stew up on the hill.
Is your bigger push to bring some of this technology into mainstream theaters or to push the envelope in theme parks?
The mainstream feature film market isn't screaming out for stereo 3D, let alone motion bases and all the rest. But there will be a growing number of IMAX theaters that will present feature films that are optionally viewable in 3D, especially animated projects. And theme parks will continue to try to compete with other forms of entertainment by creating more and more elaborate and exciting places to take their audiences.
Do you see longer ride film-like projects coming to IMAX theaters?
Yes. IMAX film producers will be using tools to help the audience buy into the illusions that they're trying to create. IMAX stereo is already amazing because of its vertical format. Normally, you have a 2-to-1 horizontal aspect ratio to work with for movie theaters, so you have to choreograph all your 3D imagery in front of the screen in this narrow slit. But IMAX has this incredibly tall screen, from top to bottom, which allows for better stereo effects. And height is important to get audiences to feel that they are in another space. Motion bases might also be used. They are fun to ride, if they're well done.
Some are pretty nauseating, don't you think?
There are plenty of instances where they're not well done. And yes, I've felt nauseated coming off certain rides. We try not to overdo it with the motion base because a little bit goes a long way. Just giving your audience a bit of presence adds a tremendous amount to the story line, to your ability to tell a story. You don't need to jostle them and tip them over. The tendency is to say, we have this ability to move people, so let's really move them. Let's have more stuff flying into their faces than any other ride. But that gets old pretty quick, and it doesn't really achieve what they're after.
What's next for you?
We're in the early stages of a large theme-park project for a group in Japan who wants it to be the greatest attraction ever designed. We've got five or six years to put it together, which makes it a particularly daunting task, since the technology is developing so rapidly. We've also been pitching ideas for rides with some of our previous clients, and we've been developing feature film ideas. I think it would be great to do a film in stereo IMAX format as well as in a mono version for theaters. As long as you're working in 3D space you can slap another camera on there and render another eye. But it's difficult to make a 3D version of a film like Shrek because the camera angles were not optimized for 3D and a lot of the imagery was painted in 2D, so if you just render it, it will look like flat panels. There are a lot of cheats that go on when you're working in mono that don't fly in stereo. It's better to design it for 3D right from the start. ..
Jeff Kleiser is co-director of Kleiser-Walczak Studios with Diana Walczak. Their most recent project is the ride film Corkscrew Hill (see "An Enchanted Village," pg. 26).