Moody Gardens, a not-for-profit educational tourist destination based in Galveston, Texas, begins 2016 on a high, scooping a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement for its SpongeBob SubPants Adventure attraction.
The SpongeBob ride is ground-breaking in a number of ways. A world-class attraction in a regional park, it combines cutting-edge technology and immersive theming with an interactive adventure where guests can influence the story in real-time.
Blooloop spoke with Mark Cornell of SimEx-Iwerks, and Brent Young and Dina Benadon of Super78 about the ride’s evolution from the initial concept to realisation.
Education and attendance
“Mine was the easy part, ” says Cornell. “I’ve been a good friend of Moody Gardens dating back to the Imax days.”
Moody Gardens features, among other attractions, three pyramids: the Aquarium Pyramid, the Rainforest Pyramid, which contains tropical plants, animals, birds, butterflies and reptiles; and the Discovery Pyramid. It was the Discovery Pyramid that needed updating.
CEO of Moody Gardens, John Zendt, asked Cornell to take a look at the exhibition space and create a new attraction – something exciting that would boost attendance and fit with their education ethos.
There had, he said, been a certain amount of trial and error in that space previously through conceptual proposals. “I’d seen a lot of things crash and burn.”
There wasn’t a lot of time to produce an idea.
“I stood in the space for 20 minutes and came up with an idea of developing a submarine experience using the intellectual property of SpongeBob and Bikini Bottom.”
Taking augmented reality to the next level
“Our company had taken an initiative and an interest in the augmented reality of interactive characters – things like Crush and Disney Turtle Talk, and Monsters Inc and we were very interested in taking that to the next level: 3-D glasses, 4-D special effects, maybe some interactivity.”
Cornell pitched the idea to Zendt – outlining a submarine experience where SpongeBob and Patrick take the visitor through Bikini Bottom to explore undersea life.
“That concept took shape and John passed that on to the Board as a conceptual idea, and it got great feedback: from there we were contracted to put together a full-blown proposal.”
“Brent Young and I brainstormed the idea that I had presented to John, and we started to outline how far technology, animation and the use of the IP could all potentially come together to form a world-class attraction.”
The pair also considered educational components and whether they could incorporate actual sea-life into pre-shows, to connect fantasy with reality.
Brent Young of Super78 takes up the story:
“We had a successful relationship with SimEx-Iwerks and had worked with them on several projects before.
“We did a pitch package for Moody Gardens, to do a live SpongeBob character which would be interactive with the audience, with 4-D effects. We put together some key art to sell that project.”
Nickelodeon had approved the first round of the conceptual documents, and now the Board at Moody Gardens gave the team the go-ahead to move the project forward into the design phase.
“We needed a couple of things to make it a little more interesting, so we talked about the interactivity, ” says Cornell.
“I told John Zendt, the submarine would be travelling along Rock Bottom with Patrick driving (because you can imitate Patrick: everyone has a little Patrick in them) – and SpongeBob is very difficult to mimic.
“I said, you can imagine Patrick sort of guiding the sub through the rocks, and suddenly the submarine springs a leak, and there’s a little bit of a mist coming from the ceiling. And, John said, ‘that’s fantastic: I love it.’”
At that time the space for the attraction had been identified, on the second floor of the Discovery Pyramid.
The next challenge for Cornell was to meet the educational expectations of Moody Gardens and the entertainment requirements of Nickelodeon.
Super78 moved forward with the design work, developing the technology for the back of house. They worked with SimEx-Iwerks and their seats, projection systems and AV systems to develop this unique attraction.
The Nassal Company
“We were doing artwork layouts, and working with a [Design Services and Project Management] company called WorkTM, Houston, and another company called the Gilbane Construction Company, located in Texas. It was at about that time that we brought in the Nassal team from Orlando.”
The Nassal Company specialises in themed attractions construction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter among their many projects. Nassal was already known to John Zendt via its work on the Rainforest Pyramid.
“For decades they’ve been doing great theming work, ” says Young. “So, we jumped into the development in a more detailed design way with Nassal on board.”
At the end of 2013, the project finally got the green light.
Creating a compelling guest experience
It was now down to the team to turn their ideas into a compelling guest experience.
Cornell: “You start to think through how the guest will react and how you can really bring out the side of things where you let the audience know that this character is interactive and immersive; that you can speak to him, and he can speak back to you.
“So, we began to brainstorm clever ideas that would make sense in the world of Bikini Bottom and SpongeBob, and a submarine experience, and making choices like being able to say – are we going towards Rock Bottom or are we going to be heading towards Bikini Bottom?
“It just became a creative frenzy quickly.”
The team’s key focus was to create the world’s first 3-D/4-D interactive attraction where the characters would literally come to life and where the audience could make choices that affect their experience.
“So there are several instances where the guest can choose which way to go as well as help defend the integrity of the show from the evil Plankton, ” explains Cornell. “By pressing some buttons, the kids help prevent Plankton from getting the secret Crabby Patty recipe. It’s just cute. Really.”
“It was a challenge, ” admits Young, “but it was great to be able to take that challenge and really make something great.
“You are given these guide rails and you don’t have a blank sheet of paper, you actually have this IP and you want this type of experience, and we need these educational things in there. So, that makes it a more interesting experience because you really try to make something that satisfies multiple different parties.”
Education meets entertainment
Having a world-class aquarium on hand was fortuitous given Super78’s ideas for adding an educational dimension to the experience. They wanted to feature tanks of live fish in the pre-show so children could be introduced to the real-life versions of the anthropomorphised characters they would meet on the ride.
“So, for instance, we would see the sponges; we would see a cephalopod, we would see starfish – sea-stars – and that would be Patrick, ” says Young, “So, you would really get a different understanding of the animals and how they actually are before we get into this fun, glass-bottomed boat-tour kind of kitschy thing, and go off to our submarine adventure.
“I thought that would be a really neat tie-in, and everybody seemed to like it on both the entertainment and educational side.”
To make the educational elements even more engaging, the team developed a French undersea explorer character,
“… who is kind of a Jacques Cousteau character that you hear as the voice of the narrator of quite a few of the SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, voiced by Tom Kenny. So, not only in the pre-show do we have a great video – very funny – with Tom Kenny doing the voice-over, but all the panels are written in his voice – humorous descriptions of the animals and so on.”
“We did fun things like we put a giant circular jelly tank in which there were hundreds of these moon jellies and Nassal did a great job making it look like a fuel tank of this submarine that we’re going to take on our exploration.”
The project was gaining momentum, with all the key elements – education, audience participation, the SpongeBob IP – starting to come together.
“You’re putting life-preservers on the backs of the seats, bringing the attraction to life with theming, working with Nickelodeon on a story that is in line with SpongeBob, that still crosses over into the world of education, ” says Cornell.
Cornell believes that the biggest part of the job was pulling all the separate companies together to make it work.
“It was an act of coordination, ” he says.
Super 78’s Mushroom™ technology
Nickelodeon gave the creative team a choice of various premises to work from and, from there, a series of storyboard pitches were made to both Nickelodeon and Moody Gardens to make sure that the story points were correct; that all the information had been incorporated, and that it was going to be a fun, humorous show.
“We then cut that into an animatic, ” explains Young. “In this case, we brought in a new technology that we’ve been using for the last couple of years called Mushroom™.”
Super 78’s Mushroom™ is a collaborative review and approval tool that allows users to preview immersive multimedia content via Oculus Rift VR headsets. They can then move through the space and experience every detail, including projected media, in real-time.
Young: “This was the first time that we would be able to get to virtually sit in the theatre and show all the stakeholders so they could see what they were going to get.”
The ribbed interior of the submarine is themed like the submarine in the classic 50s TV show, Sea Hunt. At the front, there is a massive viewing ‘window’ that is actually a rear-projected 3-D screen, and there are two large port-holes down the sides of the submarine.
“We put all of this together in a computer model: the idea is that we’re going to see all of this live, we’re going to have a live character (Patrick) at the front who’s going to be able to talk to the audience, but we’re going to be driving around the ocean in real-time – how are we going to be able to synchronise all this stuff, and have it all plausible?
“Part of what Mushroom™ does is that it is a media player; it also has show control elements, so what we were using it for was virtual show control.”
This made it possible to start the ride virtually, to turn on the lights virtually, to begin an audio or video clip virtually:
“… but what we did, which took a lot of technology and code-writing, is we took all the virtual tools that we had and we turned them into real tools that could then control the actual servers, the real lights, the real seat movements, so we had Mushroom which was a virtual attraction pre-vis tool and we turned it into Mushroom™, a real show control system.”
“We had to do that because we didn’t have any other way to do it. Necessity is the mother of invention.
“We put together a bunch of feature expectations and design expectations and we needed to know how to make that happen, so where the tool didn’t exist we just built our own.”
Geppetto™ – real-time digital puppet technology
As the ride progressed, further technical innovation became necessary.
The plan was to bring Mushroom™ together with Geppetto™, the real-time digital puppet technology previously developed by Super78. But, because Geppetto™ had been developed in 2008 and technology had moved on since then, the two were no longer compatible. So, the team was forced to re-write the code for the digital character software from scratch.
“It wasn’t something we really wanted to do: the clock was ticking, ” says Young.
In fact, the new platform made reprogramming new animations, UIL elements and ‘all that stuff for the performer’, much easier than it had been in the past.
It also gave them a platform for future attractions based on Geppetto™ – a much easier, much more robust platform for the next generation of digital puppet applications.
“The software for the actor, who is in another room, to control the character – in this case, it would be Patrick – this was all a cutting-edge, brand new interface developed by Super78, and it’s this phenomenal touch-screen control panel, ” says Cornell.
“We integrated familiar devices like Xbox 360 controllers so it became very friendly to interface with and to allow for easy training. There’s a button on the panel that deploys a beach-ball which launches into the audience for guests to interact with.
“There’s full control from bubbles to vibrating seats to springing a leak to controlling the water mist: it’s quite a powerful position to be sitting in that room following a creative script to entertain guests in the submarine.
“When the guests come into the theatre the seats are on a mild vibration to simulate the hum of an engine so that immediately they feel as if they’re stepping into a real submarine.”
A further undertaking had been to have the show in stereo, which added what Young calls “an additional wrinkle” because the show is running in real-time.
Putting the audience in control
“And then, ” says Young, “we did the ‘throwing the kitchen sink in’ thing by deciding we were going to do a choose-your-own-adventure style attraction.”
Members of the audience can choose where they want to go and will have a different experience depending on that choice. While this looks seamless to the people on the ride, the technological challenges of operating these choices in real time are huge.
“This isn’t a timed attraction, this is an interactive – scripted, but interactive – show. The shows are always a different length, so never would these things happen in the same way twice, ” says Young.
Where a typical show control would start off with a show counter where events happen on a timeline, the choose-your-own-adventure aspect introduced an element whereby events would happen not on that linear timeline, but would dynamically move around, based on the location.
“The tech team was off doing all kinds of software to make this work, and on the creative side, we were workshopping the show, ” says Young.
The team hired some very experienced staff from Orlando along with some local show directors from Los Angeles and sent them to Moody Gardens. They began workshopping with a very rudimentary SpongeBob, Patrick and the set. This was all going on at the same time that the set was being built and the tanks installed and the fish put in.
Young: “It was one of those things where at about this time in the story there’s always the dark moment of you saying, ‘this is never going to work, it’s never going to get done.’ It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Interactive animation and not dumbing down
Movies are pre-rendered. Sometimes the frames that make up a SpongeBob episode or a Pixar movie take many days to render out, pixel by pixel. Then they are composited together, layer by layer. Because of the interactive, unpredictable element in this ride, while some of the animation was done this way, much of it was being rendered out of the computers in real-time, and the two types had to match.
“The mandate from us was that we weren’t going to dumb down the quality of the pre-rendered material, ” says Young.
“We were going to make the live rendered characters meet that feature quality, so there’s no degradation in the quality of the whole experience based on not having enough real-time render-power.”
According to Young, the tech team were not convinced: “They all yelled ‘this can never be done. So then we started playing around with all the components that are currently available – the state-of-the-art graphics cards and optimising software – then figuring out ways to economise.
“Essentially, some of the things are very clever cheats on how you incorporate special lighting treatments that would be extraordinarily expensive or impossible to render in real-time – but there are ways to be very clever and work around that, and I think that’s where Super78’s long, long history and intelligence with the arena of special effects comes to bear.
“We’re able to pull off some magic that way. Had we been either just a design company or technology company we wouldn’t have been able to solve some of these problems.”
Having most of the elements of the show in hand, it was time to move everything to the site in Texas to begin a long install process, working with SimEx’s proprietary control system. Interfacing with that system brought challenges of its own.
“We were workshopping the show at the same time, and simultaneously installing all of the creative and media elements, ” remembers Young. “Some of it we were working with off-site and we were able to build some really cool tools inside of Geppetto™ and Mushroom™ that allowed us to control the show remotely.
“We could also troubleshoot issues from remote locations, so if the director and performers were working, they could give us a punch-list of things that needed to get fixed, and we could either fix them from a remote location or fix them overnight, give them new patches, or on regular visits there we would fix them directly. So, that’s how it started to come together.”
The team worked up until the day the attraction opened. They were there until the early hours of the morning, returning after a few hours of sleep to “…hold the whole thing together with chewing gum and baling wire and making modifications to the show as it ran, ” as Young puts it.
“At a certain point, we had realised that we were being overly ambitious in the amount of choose-your-own-adventure branches that we had.”
The team decided to open with two choices and then added a further two after the show had opened. “At least this time we were kind of prepared for all of the curve-balls, ” he says.
Initial reactions ‘overwhelmingly positive’
The show opened on Memorial Day (May 25th) to an overwhelmingly positive response.
“The kids absolutely love talking to Patrick, ” says Young. “It’s completely magical to them. The performers love the control system because it’s so easy to work with, so intuitive – we really designed it around them.
“They can control the in-theatre effects; they can control different lighting, different sound effects, they have all of that at their finger-tips, and in a really intuitive way with what looks like a 60-inch iPad that they drive, kind of like the Starship Enterprise.”
“What really made this attraction work is how all the different groups and disciplines come together; how they connect and intersect with each other, ” says Young’s colleague at Super 78, Dina Benadon. “What’s critically important is the whole integration process. And we were dealing with a lot of different technology, too, that had never been married together before in this kind of way.
“There were a lot of challenges that had to be overcome, and it took a lot of long days and nights for the team to make that work.”
A destination-level attraction in a regional park
Brent: “Another important aspect is that you’ve got a big IP, you’ve got a regional park, and what they wanted is a destination level attraction: something that you would find at Universal Studios or in Orlando, but for a regional audience, on a regional budget. Now, we’ve been given that challenge many times in the past, and it’s a very hard thing to do.
“The expectation levels of the IP are very high; the expectation level of the client is always very high, and the expectation level of the audience, for a regional audience, what’s really great is this beats the expectation level because you’re giving them something that they would only be able to get if they went to Orlando or Hollywood.”
“Clearly, we’re happy to have won Most Outstanding Attraction, ” says Cornell.
“But, watching the kids all summer has been utterly fantastic. The word-of-mouth for the attraction has been off the charts: one of the most popular attractions ever at Moody Gardens. So they’re thrilled. We were just recently down there installing Polar Express for another theatre, we do a 4-D special effects theatre – and there was so much pride among the operating team down there – the people that really run the attractions – that they won this Best Attraction. To them, it was right that it should win.
“I just felt there was this gratification that the best attraction in the world can be in a small town like Galveston.”
Images kind courtesy Super 78, SimEx-Iwerks, Nickelodeon and Moody Gardens apart from Moon Jellies kind courtesy Luc Viatour.