In the JUSTICE LEAGUE: Battle for Metropolis attraction at Six Flags, Sally Corporation has created an immersive, story-based Dark Ride which transports guests into the world of the DC Comics superhero team.
Creating this highly complex ride required a superhero team all of its own. The state-of-the-art 3D attraction features interactivity, media-based scenes, immersive theming with ultra-realistic sets, scenery and animation supplementing the projection screens. Not to mention a whole range of 4D special effects including real fire, wind, and fog that put guests right into the action.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: Battle for Metropolis is synonymous with innovation. It is the first motion-based, interactive dark ride in North America. And it is also the first time a dark ride has performed a Vertical Loop, or a Corkscrew Inversion. It is the first time targets have been placed on a Fog Screen, where guests ride through targets, and it is the first dark ride ever to use the Unreal Engine 4 game engine.
Rich Hill of Sally Corporation spoke to Blooloop about the painstaking process of creating this ground breaking ride from inception to realisation, and why it took a top team of industry specialists to pull it off.
From Comics to a Dark Ride Attraction
The journey began when Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia came to Sally Corp., having tried to develop a concept by themselves for their Justice League Alien Invasion ride, and having failed to get it past the Warner Brothers and DC approval process. They wanted Sally to redevelop the storyline.
“I spent some time researching the Superheroes, Batman, Superman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern, The Flash, ” says Hill. “I surrounded myself with comics and resource materials and researched extensively. Because of my background developing dark rides, I was able to take those stories and gear them towards a dark ride attraction.”
When developing a dark ride story, there is very little time to get the story across.
“The guests are in line, waiting, so I had to distil all that I’d learned down into a very simple storyline.”
DC and Warner Bros were keen to use Starro the Conqueror, the first villain that the Justice League battled when they first became a team back in 1969.
A Simple Storyline
“So, we developed that project and that storyline, and got the green light to build the project, which took about a year from concept to opening as Justice League: Alien Invasion.”
This paved the way towards something that had been a goal for Sally Corp. for a number of years: to do a real anchor attraction for Six Flags.
“We’ve built dark rides for them in the past, but we really wanted to create a dark ride that could take the place of a roller coaster in their yearly rosta: a major investment, something iconic, that their marketing team could really wrap their arms around.
“Justice League was the perfect vehicle for that.”
When Alien Invasion opened, its rave reviews prompted Six Flags to talk to Sally Corp. about developing a ride unique to Six Flags. A ride that would be individual to their demographic; largely regional local guests with yearly passes looking for thrills and repeat rideability, and that would also appeal to familes.
Hill developed a ride concept based on Batman and the Joker, Battle for Gotham, featuring the Justice League. It was approved through Six Flags, and Warner Brothers, and was presented to the Head of DC Entertainment, Geoffrey Johns, who liked the idea, but wanted some major changes.
“It came back to me: they had approved the ride, but wanted us to re-write it and make it in Metropolis, ” says Hill.
(Above: Rich Hill surveys work in progress)
This marked a nerve-wracking point in negotiations. Sally Corp., having developed the whole concept thus far without a design fee, had already invested a lot. Switching from a story set in Gotham to one set in Metropolis meant changing the fundamental premise:
“The architectural styles are completely different; the storyline changes a lot; we had to introduce a new villain – we had Lex Luthor join up with Joker and cause chaos – but it was a big 180° from where we’d been before.”
At that point everybody was getting a little nervous, Six Flags was getting cold feet and it seemed possible the whole project might fall apart.
Hill worked on it over the weekend and on Monday, he and John Wood (Chairman and CEO of Sally Corp.) flew out to Burbank to meet with Warner Brothers and DC, with Six Flags’ design team, to pitch the idea:
“They gave it the green light, and we signed the contract with Six Flags immediately, and started building it.”
Assembling the Dream Team
Hill knew that creating the best possible ride would require a team of industry specialists at the top of their game. He chose Wyatt Design Group for concept rendering and scenic design.
“We were so pleased to work with Sally Corp on this new version of the Justice League interactive dark ride for Six Flags, ” says Larry Wyatt, Principal at the Wyatt Design Group. “We were able to elevate this attraction up several notches in technology and experience for Dallas and St. Louis, and the results are amazing. The new generation of Justice League: Battle for Metropolis was designed from the ground up for two different building envelopes, so it was necessary to design two completely different show set design packages…even though the storyline, animation, and 3D media were the same for both.
“Rich Hill and his team were fantastic to work with as usual, and it is always rewarding when your design is fabricated better than imagined. We could not be happier with the opportunity to contribute to what has unarguably set the new bar for interactive dark rides.”
Choosing the Right Technology
Choosing the right technology was crucial. Unlike a roller coaster, where the aim is to be the highest, fastest, biggest and best, the point of dark rides is to take guests through the story in an experience that is completely absorbing.
“When we’re developing a project, the technology has to be reliable, effective and affordable, because we aim at the regional theme park market, and they don’t have the budgets that big parks do. It’s a difficult thing, choosing your technology, ” admits Hill.
For Justice League:Battle for Metropolis, Sally Corporation chose RealD as their 3D provider.
“RealD’s 3D looks amazing – it’s got great stereoscopic qualities; it really pops out at the guests, feels very good, and, as it uses circular polarisation technique it doesn’t cause dizziness if guests tilt their heads. Nor does it have the ghosting qualities that cause sickness issues.”
It beats a dual projector system, says Hill, because that relies on one projector working on each eye. If one projector goes down “you feel as if you’re wearing a blinder on that eye. It’s disconcerting, and ruins the experience.”
RealD uses a much more expensive (and sophisticated) projection system: a single projector that projects in 3D, using an active polariser in front of it, a system developed by optical engineer Dave Coleman. If it does happen to go out of 3D because a lamp goes dim or blows, instead of ‘losing’ an eye, vision simply goes from 3D to 2D.
“It’s still a crystal-clear, beautiful image, and some guests don’t even realise that it’s gone out of 3D.”
A New Level of Interactivity
Alterface, a global manufacturer of interactive and media-based attractions, provided the video targeting system.
“We’re so proud to be part of the team of industry super heroes that created Justice League: Battle for Metropolis. I think we’ve found the perfect formula to deliver world class attractions: team playing, ” says Guillaume Gallant of Alterface. “These days, theme park rides are increasingly becoming a combination of very specific technologies. To make it outstanding, you can’t go wrong gathering a group of companies, each of them expert in his own, specialised field.
“Also, we’re incredibly proud of bringing to local audiences the type of ride that only the largest multi-day theme park destinations could afford until now. We hope that it will help smaller businesses realise that such advanced and spectacular attractions are within their reach more than ever before.”
Hill is enthusiastic about Alterface’s contribution:
“The interactivity in this ride is just amazing. We’ve worked with Alterface on a number of projects, and they handle three quarters of the interactivity. They have a unique camera detection system, set up in front of each screen, that blankets the screen with a virtual grid.
“They are able to identify where the targets are in both the virtual and the practical space. That’s a unique component of their system: it’s not just shooting at things on screens, it’s shooting at things on screens and then following them from the screen into the practical world.”
Having practical targets as well as virtual ones is important, and precludes people on the ride from identifying any individual part of it, which would take them out of the experience. Alterface was the only system which allowed this.
The team also worked with Pure Imagination, renowned for their incredible animation.
“They did the Spiderman upgrade to 4K at Universal; they did the Alien Invasion ride with us; we have a number of other projects going on with them right now, ” says Hill. “I just love those guys – they’re the best to work with; they’re so fun, and they really get the dark ride experience, and they get what we need to make it happen.”
Hill wanted the ride to feel like a video game, where anything is a target. Rather than the participant being led towards specific things to shoot, they are in the game, responding to anything they perceive as a threat.
“In order to achieve that, we went along a lot of different paths.”
The First Dark Ride to use Unreal Engine 4
Justice League:Battle for Metropolis is the first Dark Ride ever to use the Unreal Engine 4 game engine.
Unreal Engine 4’s predecessors, Unreal3 and 2, were the major game engines running games on consoles such as Sony Playstation. Sally Corporation were quick to grasp the opportunity to use this brand-new iteration of the Unreal Engine for their ride:
“They actually let us have the license for free, which was amazing, because they just wanted to be a part of this development.”
Pure Imagination helped lead the charge on using that new game engine.
“The one we used in Australia, they call a pre-vis animation (pre-visualised). In the new Justice League ride, it’s called Real Time gaming.”
In the Justice League ride, everything is a target, in that everything has a reaction. If a participant shoots concrete, there is a puff of dust. When a window is shot out, there is a blast of glass. If a street light is hit, it goes out. If a fire hydrant is shot, it sprays water.
“These are important evolutions of our dark rides, ” says Hill.
Another big evolution of the gaming system came with the trajectories, where the player can see a projectile emerging from the blaster out into the scene.
This had previously meant the cannon or shooter had to be mounted on the ride vehicle, to make it easy for the game engine to plot trajectories with accuracy.
“I’ve always tried to get past that, and we hadn’t been able to figure it out until Unreal 4 came in. In the Unreal 4 game engine, plus a lot of mathematical equations and software that had to be developed just for this attraction, we were able to have a hand-blaster, something that’s not mounted to the vehicle, and to be able to identify where that blaster is shooting in space on six degrees.
“That was an amazing advancement. Then we realised at this point you’ve got all these trajectories coming out, and I can’t tell which one’s mine. The solution was to colour-code all those trajectories, so they identify with a specific colour on the dashboard display of each ride vehicle.”
The team has come up with a system that is impressively accurate: the player is shooting in 3D, something very difficult to achieve in itself. They are also able to play the game as the perspective shifts inside the scene in relation to where you are where you enter and leave a screen – something Hill describes as having taken a lot of math to figure out.
Story versus Gameplay – Getting the Balance Right
One major challenge when designing an interactive dark ride is the relationship between the story and the game.
“Finding the right balance between those two – it’s always a fine line where you’re either trying to tell too big a story, and there’s not enough game, and people get bored – or there’s so much game that you forget about the story and all you’re doing is looking for targets. We had a lot of conversations while we were developing this ride about how to find that perfect balance.
“If there’s a character in the scene telling you something crucial to the storyline, that’s taking up valuable real-estate on the screen. And if you’re shooting at that character, maybe that character’s trying to help you. And if you’re pulling the trigger at that character, and that character’s supposed to be reacting to those shots, they’re not able to get their lines out.
“So we had to come up with ways to develop the story in a very clear way that also had this game happening at the same time. It’s a real art, and very difficult to figure out.
“I think that we’ve done it, that we’ve got a great combination of story and game.”
Smaller Ride Vehicles, Closer to the Action
The Oceaneering ride vehicles were another innovation.
“This is the first time we’ve had a chance to work with Oceaneering, ” says Hill. “When they approached us about breaking into the regional parks, and trying to expand their portfolio we told them, well, we have this perfect project that we’ve wanted to introduce a motion synch to video dark ride, something that uses multiple degrees of freedom on a motion base, so we really thought that it would be a good fit.”
Sally Corp brought them on board and started developing the new ride vehicle.
Hill wanted it to be different from anything guests had experienced before, even if they had been to Universal or Disney.
“In a lot of dark ride vehicles, I feel kind of like a horse with blinders on where these big side doors block you from seeing the vehicle next to yours or the scene before or after yours. When I’m in a dark ride I want to feel like I’m in that space, and can look all around me – there’s no show-side.
“So, I designed the ride vehicle to have no doors. You can literally look all the way down to the ground and see the street.”
This meant coming up with more money for theming to add manhole covers and grates and stripes on the street to maintain the illusion, but Hill felt it was worth it to enhance the immersive experience.”
Getting Closer to the Guest
Taking the doors off also keeps it maintenance friendly.
“In a lot of rides where the doors come down or swing in, if those doors don’t latch properly, that causes a fault, and the ride is shut down for a number of minutes until the issue is resolved.”
Knowing that an eight or twelve passenger ride vehicle would mean too many guests shooting at the screen simultaneously, the Sally team worked with Oceaneering to develop something new – a six passenger ride vehicle, which had the added advantage of keeping the guests close to the action.
“Those big, wide ride vehicles push the sets and scenery away from you, ” says Hill. “I’m trying to get things closer to the guest, not further away. So, we convinced Oceaneering to develop a new six-passenger ride vehicle that makes the guests feel like part of the experience. They did an amazing job. The ride vehicle is just beautiful – it works really well.”
At one point, Hill was considering a trackless system. However, it just didn’t prove practical.
“We’ve got a lot of on-board effects and one of the best on-board audio systems available. It has six sub-woofers per vehicle; surround sound; we’ve also got strobe lights inside the vehicle; we’ve got dashboard mounted console that give the score and updates. All of these systems take a lot of power.
A Well-Interpreted Story
“With a trackless system, you have an on-board battery system, that you have to charge up at certain points . We didn’t want to break the experience by having to stop at any certain point.”
(Above: Members of the team from Six Flags, Oceaneering and Sally Corp.)
He acknowledges that having the ride on a rail detracts to an extent from the immersive experience, but kept this to a minimum by adjusting the lighting, focusing the guests’ attention up by putting a hot spot off the track, and a dark spot on the rail.
“We didn’t really give anything up by putting the ride on a rail. It really has to make sense why you go to some of these systems. It sounds great in marketing to say it’s trackless and 4D and this and that, but it has to make sense and add to the experience.”
Hill says, “We’re spending real money out there. We have to stretch that dollar so much to give the guests the most for their money. I think we’ve achieved it pretty well with these Justice League attractions.”
Matt Kent at Oceaneering agrees. He says, “There are tremendously designed attractions out there that don’t have a Universal or a Disney-sized budget. The ones that have legs are the ones that best utilise the ingredients of a well-interpreted story. Six Flags’ Justice League: Battle for Metropolis continues to draw an audience and spark conversation in our industry. This is not only because it’s a fun and immersive experience, but because it represents a paradigm shift in how regional parks are investing in new attractions.”
Keeping it Real with Animatronics
One element that really adds to the ‘wow’ factor and that consistently impresses guests is the animatronics.
There are two animatronics in the ride. Furthermore, there are also eight animated practical set elements that fall towards the guests, or drive at them, or explode. Originally, Hill says, there were many more animatronics and practical show elements.
“But, as with all projects, it comes down to budget. We had to make some hard calls there. Eventually, it was decided to have two really amazing animatronics. They are the most technologically advanced animatronics we’d ever produced in our history. The Joker on the laughing gas cannon, and Cyborg in the queue line. Those characters are just amazing. They cost a lot of money to produce, but they add so much to the experience.”
There was a point at which the Sally Corporation team were coming under pressure to use virtual effects rather than animatronics.
“The feeling was, why go to the expense of using animatronics, when we could do it cheaper as a virtual instead of practical reality? John Wood and I talked long and hard about it. We really campaigned hard to keep that effect in the ride.”
Ultimately, their campaigning paid off and Six Flags decided in favour of the animatronics. The Joker has turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences in the ride.
“He comes down a ramp, and blasts you with laughing gas – the fog system that comes out of the cannon. The blast gets in your face, blowing your hair back, it’s a great effect. And then he shoots, you try and escape, he shoots at you a second time; he misses and he hits one of the drums of laughing gas; it explodes into real fire right next to you; you barely escape with your life out of S.T.A.R. Lab, and then you’re back on the streets of Metropolis.
“It’s a real experience. The Joker moves so realistically; when the cannon blasts you, you really feel the fog; you can feel the heat off the fire. It’s a great experience. And to try and do that virtually – we just didn’t feel it would have the pay-off.”
The second animatronic character is Cyborg, who greets guests queuing for the ride. Visually impressive, with his chrome body enhancements and command of technology, he is an ideal steward and host. He is a young character with whom teens can identify.
Aiming for a Young Demographic
“He’s maybe not as identifiable as Batman or Superman, but that was on purpose. We really wanted to not make this a Batman or a Superman ride. Having Cyborg out there allows us to push the story forward in a great way. It also lets guests really get to know this character. People of 18 and younger have seen him on Teen Titans and in the animated series. He’s a pretty major character in the DC universe for teens. And it’s a young demographic we’re aiming for. So we hope they appreciate that we brought him out into the front of the ride as the host character.”
The creativity, dedication and painstaking attention to detail that has gone into the Justice League ride is impressive, yet Hill says:
“We put this much enthusiasm into every one of our dark rides. Why not? We have the coolest jobs in the world. It’s great. I get to entertain people with my ideas, and to work with all these great artists.
“With these big dark rides we’ve been using more subcontractors than we typically would. We usually don’t like to extend ourselves like that – we take on a lot of risk when we do so. But, I think we’ve found just the right team. We all work together so well, and everybody contributes to the ideas; to the experience; to the artwork. Just working with these people is a real joy. I get to hang out and talk with the coolest people in the world.”
The JUSTICE LEAGUE Team
Video Targeting System
3D Video Animation
Wyatt Design Group
Concept Renderings & Scenic Design
David and Eric Wurst Music