“This is a ride that gets you by the lapels and pulls you into the adventure, ” says Merlin Entertainments’ Eddie Saul of the Shrek experience, Shrek’s Adventure! London’.
An immersive, story-based experience incorporating state-of-the-art technology and live theatrical performances, it is the most technically and creatively ambitious attraction Merlin has ever opened.
It’s also the first time DreamWorks characters have been brought to life with cutting-edge projection, animation, lighting, sound and 4D effects.
All of which would be hard enough to pull off without the added complication of the attraction’s location, County Hall, a Grade II* Listed building and, therefore, subject to the most stringent planning restrictions.
Shrek and a Team of Wizards
To make the magic happen, Merlin needed to assemble a team of technical and creative wizards.
Blooloop spoke with Paul Moreton and Eddie Saul from Merlin, Evan Grant, founder of pioneering studio Seeper, Terry Monkton, Managing Director of Simworx, and John Wikstrom of Magic Memories.
Once Upon A Time
Paul Moreton, Merlin Entertainments’ Creative Director and Eddie Saul, then creative lead on DreamWorks Tours, were both involved from the start. Saul’s role was to take the overall concept developed with DreamWorks and deliver it, from the creative perspective, with the rest of the Merlin Magic Making team and contractors.
Merlin had been looking for its sixth Midway brand and was considering various options, one of which was a co-creation with IP partners.
“We had a very good relationship with the guys at DreamWorks, ” says Moreton. “We’d been doing the Madagascar shows at several of our resort theme parks, so we started a conversation with them about whether they would be interested in working with us to create a brand new Midway. And, they were.”
This was the precursor to a development process which would last around three years.
Architectural firm, Kay Elliott, was brought in to handle the issues around the listed status of the building itself. The company had completed the London Dungeon at County Hall in 2014 and knew how to dovetail an attraction with a major historic building.
Free-standing acoustically insulated rooms, constructed from pre-manufactured timber panels were erected from the inside out to provide the canvas for Shrek’s world. Some of the grander rooms were also integrated into the show spaces to provide a dramatic backdrop.
All Aboard for Donkey’s DreamWorks Tour
Meanwhile, Merlin turned their attention to creating something fully immersive, which would transport guests into the worlds created in the DreamWorks movies.
Merlin was no stranger to creating engagingly immersive experiences. Their popular ‘Dungeons’ brand successfully demonstrated how to envelop guests in another world, in this case the dark underworld of a city’s past and the characters that walked its streets.
By taking those principles and applying them to DreamWorks IPs, Merlin developed the idea of ‘DreamWorks Tours’.
“In effect, it’s a tour agency run by Donkey, ” explains Moreton.
“DreamWorks Tours can take you all round the world – it can take you to Far Far Away, for an adventure with Shrek; it can take you to 3, 000 year old China where you can go on an adventure with Kung Fu Panda; you can go to the Islands of Berk where you can go on an adventure with Toothless and Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, or you can go off to Madagascar with the crazy Madagascan characters.
“The first one of these tours we wanted to create, the one in London, led by Donkey, was going to be to take people to Far, Far Away.”
But how to seamlessly transport guests from real-life London’s South Bank to a land of fairy tales?
“We didn’t want them just to walk there: we wanted to take them on a journey, ” says Moreton.
“Where we got to with the DreamWorks scriptwriters – it was a really close collaboration with the DreamWorks guys, including Jeffrey Katzenberg himself (CEO of DreamWorks) – we came up with the idea of a flying bus.”
Donkey would drive this magical bus which, powered by the guests’ singing, would fly across the different DreamWorks worlds, before landing in Far, Far Away.
“Once we’d decided what we wanted to do, the task of ‘how?’ began, and that’s when we approached Simworx, as one of the potential suppliers.”
Simworx, based in the UK, is a world leader in the design, development & manufacture of 3D/4D dynamic simulation attractions.
“We knew that Simworx had an Immersive Tunnel on the market, and one thought was – could we take that Immersive Tunnel and could that become our flying Magic Bus ride?”
Simworx Powers the Magic Bus
“We were thrilled to be asked by Merlin to provide the Immersive 4D Magic Bus Ride for what is a fabulous new attraction, ” says Simworx Managing Director, Terry Monkton.
“The ride sets the scene perfectly for guests and is a really fun experience which links seamlessly with the rest of Shrek’s Adventure! London.
“It was a real pleasure to work with Merlin’s creative team in developing the ride, and it was a privilege to be involved in an attraction based on such popular and iconic DreamWorks characters.”
The adventure begins in the bus depot where guests are immediately plunged into the world of Shrek by providing the power to fuel the bus ie. singing ‘I’m a Believer’.
“Climbing aboard this magical bus which they themselves have empowered, and flying low and fast through the streets of London, having that never-seen-before view of the capital city – people are aware they’re going on something amazing, and it’s exceeding their expectations of what a regular visitor attraction in London can do, ” says Eddie Saul, now Head of Creative.
During the flight, guests see the different DreamWorks franchises, each at its own unique pace. One moment they are flying through the serenity of Kung Fu Panda’s Valley of Peace – albeit through a firework display – with a floaty feel to the ride; the next they could be flying low and fast through the sea-stacks of Berk.
“And, of course, we created the first 40 seconds of the ride with another one of our subcontractors, Sharp Cookies, ” says Saul.
The Transition from Reality to Fantasy
“You start off as if you’re in a bus depot underground, and in the bus, you go through tunnels and eventually come out just underneath the London Eye. The bus nearly hits Big Ben, and splashes into the river, finally going up into the clouds and entering the DreamWorks universe. That first 40 seconds looks real. It’s an animation, but it’s exactly as you would see London. And, then, once you’re in the sky, you’re into the DreamWorks animation.
“It makes it very magical, and that was the whole initial idea of why we wanted the bus ride in the first place – you’re in the South Bank; you’ve come to this travel agency, you’re going on your tour to Far, Far Away – and on the way there all these different things happen to you before – spoiler alert – you finally crash-land in Far, Far Away.
“That, in itself, was fantastic, but it also threw up another challenge of – how do we make sure that everybody on this ride is experiencing a great view? The tradition is that you always rush to the front seat on a ride to make sure you get the best experience. We had to make sure if you were looking left there was something happening; if you were looking right there was something happening. And straight ahead, of course.
“What we did was to create a ride that you can go on more than once, and you’ll have a different experience each time you go.”
The DreamWorks Dynamic
Once the script was ready, Moreton and Saul flew out to meet the DreamWorks team of animators, sound mixers and voice artists.
“They keep a lot of these worlds rigged and built so that if they bring out a new element in the cinema world, they have Berk, or Madagascar already built. We were able to say, ‘that would feel really right for this’, and they were able to quickly build digital versions so we were able to approve and input into how the whole thing was looking and feeling.”
Because filming in 360° was a new experience for DreamWorks, they mocked up a mini virtual reality theatre in California so all the sightlines could be tested.
The illusion that the bus is genuinely flying is created using a combination of the vehicle’s movement, the 4D effects – when the bus swoops close to the sea, for example, its passengers are splashed with water – and the cutting-edge 3D film playing on the screens.
DreamWorks even composed an original music score for the bus flight:
“They brought over their sound engineer and he was sitting on the middle of the bus mixing that for the best part of two days, just making sure that everything was hitting the right note at the right part of the space, ” explains Saul.
“I think that’s what’s so exciting about it, ” adds Moreton. “Not only have we created an amazing promenade theatre experience that is the whole attraction, we’ve also put in a ride that, on its own, is a must-ride experience.”
Saul agrees: “It probably is the best ride in London. That’s really fulfilling.”
London-based studio, Seeper, was the overall AV provider for the whole of the attraction, integrating the ride and pre and post-show elements into that flow.
From 2013, Seeper’s Evan Grant worked with Merlin’s Senior Creative Director, Paul Williams, on creative and technical concepts, after which the project was pitched to DreamWorks. They were given the go ahead in 2014.
3D Printing Brings Shrek to Life
Seeper worked with a range of technologies, opting to use a mixture of screens and 3D projection-mapping to bring the animation to life and create four key ‘wow’ moments:
“One of these focuses on using 3D printing (in the form of CNC) to bring Shrek to life as a talking figure, ” explains Grant.
“This involved working closely with DreamWorks and Merlin’s in-house theming team to create a new morphed virtual 3D model of Shrek, as the canvas for an entirely new Shrek animation unique to the attraction.
“As part of this same scene, Seeper designed a medieval-like stone wall that was also CNC’d. Onto this, they projection-mapped their own 3D animation of the same wall collapsing. This creates the illusion of Shrek breaking through the wall in the end scene of the experience.”
The second of the key projection areas brings Puss in Boots to life on a pub bar.
“This also involved directing Merlin’s mechanical supplier to create the illusion of the animated character spitting out a real fur ball, which is caught by an actor. Getting the position, speed and timing of the gags with animation was tricky.”
Caught in the Act
The presence of live actors within these scenes further adds to the illusion and promotes audience engagement. Actors have also been used to drive the narrative.
“You’ve already met Princess Fiona beforehand in the pre-show area – an actress, as Princess Fiona before she turns into an ogre, ” explains Saul. “Once you crash-land in Far, Far Away, she helps you out of the bus.
“Fiona leads you to various fairy tale characters throughout the experience; you’ll meet Cinderella, you’ll meet Doris in the Poison Apple pub, you’ll meet Felonious in the game show, Sleeping Beauty, the Muffin Man, various witches.
“All the way through this, interspersed with the actors, you’re meeting bespoke content made by DreamWorks which is animated in various guises: crystal balls that come to life, the Magic Mirror Maze where suddenly Donkey’s helping guide you through; you’ve got Pinocchio whose nose grows ever longer on a game show before he is tortured with various woodworking tools.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but there are jaw-dropping moments, ” says Saul. “When kids see things suddenly come to life, or a magic portal door where they’ve put an ingredient in, and suddenly an animated door opens up and leads them to another section of this amazing adventure, it really makes the whole thing so much more satisfying.”
“It’s as though you’ve stepped into a film, a fairy tale. And all the characters you’re meeting are familiar from fairy tales. Whether you know Shrek or not is irrelevant, because there’s Cinderella, the Gingerbread Man, all the characters we grew up with, no matter how old you are.
“All the way through there’s danger, like in every fairy tale: Rumpelstiltskin’s trying to chase you and you don’t want to be caught: you really have to work with the different characters you meet, either animated or the real actors, to find your way out and find your way back to London because things have gone horribly wrong on the tour to Far, Far Away.
“It’s very true to a DreamWorks film, but also very true to fairy tales, which makes the whole thing a really magical experience.”
The whole experience lasts for around an hour and fifteen minutes, 3.5 minutes of which is the Magic Bus ride.
In the penultimate scene, guests – who travel in groups of perhaps thirty or forty people – find themselves trapped in prison by Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s only by finding and channelling their inner ogre, with the help of an animated Shrek, that they are able to break down the walls and escape.
The ‘Cuddleability’ Element
“You then find yourself, with your group, back on the tube tracks, and have to make a hasty exit before a train runs you down, and you find yourself at a welcome home party with our DreamWorks Tours guides. They welcome you back and introduce you to the other characters from the other franchises that you flew through on the bus at the beginning.”
And there is, of course, the moment where you actually meet Shrek himself:
“…The ‘cuddleability element’ – people want to meet and greet Shrek. You’ve met him in a few different guises throughout, and then finally you can have your picture and cuddle with him.”
Complex Technology Puts Staff in Control
While the technology behind Shrek Adventure! is necessarily complex, it was important to ensure that staff could maintain, control and monitor it effectively.
“Right from the start, Evan recognized and pushed for an exceptionally detailed front end to the system, providing monitoring and control of the entire attraction for the maintenance staff, ” explains Show systems programmer and consultant Dave Lascaut.
“In fact, 3 of the 5 months it took to programme the attraction was spent on this monitoring system that the guests themselves will never see yet it proves to be just as important in providing the guests with a perfect experience as the show itself.
“Maintenance staff are able to monitor and trigger any of the 551 control points which include buttons, sensors, actuators and show action equipment triggers from anywhere inside the building using a tablet or laptop PC. This lets them diagnose and fix problems on the move, quickly.
“This system also prevents problems occurring in the first place by notifying maintenance teams of problems before they become apparent and visible. One example of this is the network backbone which has triple redundancy built-in, meaning if anything failed the show will go on.”
Lascaut says, “Seeper were keen to use Medialon right from the start as it offered the best solution for controlling both the local show elements with the Showmaster LE and facility wide control with the Medialon Manager software. The ability for the Showmaster LE’s to output lighting control data directly removed the need for dedicated lighting hardware to remain in the attraction reducing the cost of the installation substantially.
Given the invertible complexity of the project with thousands of lighting fixtures, control inputs/ outputs, audio playback channels and network infrastructure it runs on, the Medialon hardware and software has performed admirably every day without problem since the attraction opened”.
Don’t Forget to Turn the 1245 Lights Off!
“The attraction has 1245 show lighting fixtures most of which are LED allowing the attraction to be both environmentally friendly and with most of these being RGB if offers huge flexibility, ” says Lascaut. “Being Green was a key request from Merlin which is why every piece of hardware can be switched off building-wide with a single push of a button. Once everything is off and cooled down, power is removed, ensuring that the power draw overnight is nil.
“Visitor throughput was a key concern for the attractions operational staff in order to keep the queue times as short as possible. To assist with this, we implemented a traffic light and audio notification system that informs actors and staff members what is happening in the rooms directly before and after them, allowing groups of guests to be in adjacent rooms but they will never accidentally see each other.”
Attraction Photography by Magic Memories
Attraction photography specialist, Magic Memories, is involved both pre-ride and post-ride when guests can collect their photos.
“Our work started as soon as we knew we were part of the possible partners, which was more like 15 months out, ” says John Wikstrom, CEO of Magic Memories. “This included identifying the target demographic, detailing the guest journey and starting to build the photo proposition, products, people, and process.”
Two challenges were identified from the start:
“The first was working through a sign-off process for products and process with DreamWorks, who actually owned the IP, and had not dealt with Magic Memories in the past.
“The second was understanding that, as with any new site build, many components would remain fluid and subject to change throughout the next 12 months.”
Luckily, he says, DreamWorks turned out to be ‘fabulous’ to deal with.
“We were able to design very innovative products and processes that were designed directly to the target demographic: 4-14 year-olds who loved Shrek.
“The second challenge didn’t end up being a problem either. Merlin had an expert team on the project and we were informed of any changes early and we all worked together to create solutions that always seemed to end up as an improvement.
“Magic Memories ran a design session with two groups of children; one a classroom of 14-year-olds, and another with a group of 4 -14 year olds. We challenged these groups on several themes about what Shrek and the other main characters meant to them. Some common themes came through very strongly: the whole cast in Shrek was very important.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the girls who largely showed an excited response to the Princess Fiona products, and the boys who, for the most part though not exclusively, liked the more ‘ogre’ products and experiences. There was also a strong theme around scrapbooking a ‘journey’ with the Shrek characters.
“We were able to pull all these insights together and present a very innovative first draft of the product and experience. It was received very well, and together with Merlin and DreamWorks we co-created a premium experience and product set that we were all very proud of.”
According to Wikstrom, the photo product and experience element needed to be built as part of the experience as a whole, to work with the flow of guests and the theme of the attraction.
“Magic Memories co-created staged experiences, hired actors and clothed them in character costume. We worked with Merlin to build scripts that were relevant and fun for the guest – these have all helped ensure there is high authenticity in the finished product.”
Secondly, the photo product had to surpass any visitor expectations.
“We had to make each guest look better than they could themselves, and be able to make them part of the Shrek story, plus provide some exposure to other key DreamWorks characters (from How to Train your Dragon, for example.)
“It really was fun. Now the attraction is open, it’s an extremely fun place to work each day, and the feedback from the guests on the photo product and experience has been overwhelmingly positive which we are delighted about. Many of the guests are ‘fanatical’ followers of the Shrek brand so to be able to design them a product where they can almost be a character in their own Shrek Story has been so rewarding.”
Technology Trends – Galactica VR Coaster at Alton Towers
Merlin is now poised to launch the world’s first fully immersive Virtual Reality roller coaster, Galactica, at Alton Towers, working with Figment Productions for the VR content.
“Also, our Derren Brown Ghost Train is a whole merge of lots of different techniques – VR is part of that, ” says Moreton. “I think the key trend, really, which Merlin are at the forefront of, is immersive – it’s an over-used word – but I think that’s what we’re always trying to create; always trying to affect all your senses and really make you feel like you are in a different world.”
“On this attraction, we make you feel like you really are in Shrek’s world – the feel of the floor, the look of trees, the sound, the smells, even – the fact that somebody gets locked in Shrek’s toilet – all those kinds of things create a sense that you really are there, and that’s what we mean by immersion, and that’s what we try to do with all our attractions.
“Taking you to space, for instance, has always been quite difficult, but doing that in a 3-D way, as with Galactica at Alton, is different. What VR does is make you feel like you are really in space. From just the tests, it is an incredible experience.”
Using Technology to Tell Stories
“The technology is a facilitator to enable us to tell stories, ” says Moreton. “Ultimately, what we do here is tell stories, and we want the guest to feel like a part of the stories we create; to have a personal connection, either as Merlin Magic Making or in partnerships with people like DreamWorks. That’s our raison d’être.
“The more techniques we can use to do that, the better. Sometimes, that means modern, latest technology. Sometimes, it means Victorian techniques.
“It’s how you merge all of those together to create something really special that is the real skill, ” he says.