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From Concept to Installation:The Wild Ride of Special Venue Media Production

Dina Benadon of Super 78 Studios wrote this article to acquaint her colleagues at the Producers Guild of America with the world of special venue cinema production and New Media.

In June 2008, some 120 talented people attended a joint mixer of the PGA and TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) hosted by Universal Studios Hollywood. They were there to preview the newest attraction, The Simpsons Ride™, and to mingle and explore the common ground between the two industries. Attendees had the special treat of being escorted by Chip Largman (VP of Universal Creative) down the red carpet, into the theme park, and over to the ride for a special VIP experience and a wild journey through Krustyland and the rest of Springfield.

The Simpsons Ride (right) isn’t just a ride. It’s what we call a “special venue attraction” or “special venue theater experience.” Those terms may not sound familiar, but the medium is something we all know — the blending of cinematic storytelling with cutting-edge technology, props, the simpsons ride universal orlando resort themed entertainmentand theatrical effects to create unique visitor experiences. These “special” out-of-home entertainment venues at theme parks, museums, zoos, world’s fairs, casinos, resorts, aquariums, and science centers represent a growing revenue stream for films and IP as the industry expands throughout the world: China, Korea, Singapore, Dubai, India — all are seeing an increase in venues looking to fill theaters with content.

There are roughly 40 amusement parks currently being built worldwide. Tatweer, the Dubai real estate and leisure developer, is overseeing the building of seven theme parks in Dubai, including DreamWorks Animation Park, Six Flags, HIT Entertainment Universal Studios Dubailand, and Global Village. Stateside we have seen an increase of investments in established venues as they explore family experiences: examples are Sesame Street’s Lights, Camera, Imagination! at Busch Gardens Europe, Dick Clark’s American Music Awards: Rewind show at Six Flags parks, and SeaWorld’s Shamu Believe! show that stimulated a huge bump in attendance after the 2006 revamp.  Meanwhile, museums are utilizing in-depth video and special effects productions such as at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, or the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. 

Special venue manifests in 4D theaters (It’s Tough to Be a Bug! And Shrek 4D), classic IMAX presentations, motion simulator experiences, planetarium star shows and the rebirth of 3D. Special venue pioneers such as Don Iwerks, Douglas Trumbull and James Cameron revolutionized the way audiences experience their favorite movies with classic attractions like Back to the Future: The Ride and Terminator 2: 3D Battle Across Time.

Getting Close to the End User

Special venue media creation doesn’t end in the studio. Installation is a very unique and specialized — and exciting — part of the process. It involves encoding media, followed by onsite video and audio mixing, during which images on screen are tweaked to work within a custom theater. And often, the theater’s unique projection system requires  precise choreography and marriage of the movie with in-theater special effects: moving seats, ride vehicles and/or live theater 4D effects like wind, water spray, smoke or smells. That’s a close involvement with the end user that doesn’t often occur in traditional  production. As special venue media producers, our professional circle includes building architects, general contractors, exhibit designers and scenic fabricators, electricians, acousticians, special effects designers, lighting designers, 3D goggle suppliers, pyrotechnicians, systems integrators, choreographers, snow machine manufacturers, and makers of seats that spray water, buzz and tickle visitors’ legs. Often we lose track of where the software ends and the hardware begins. We develop a new, holistic viewpoint. We undergo a metamorphosis: from media producer to experience producer.

This powerful storytelling medium involves multiple physical senses stimulating strong emotional reactions in the audience. Done right, it engages the audience like nothing else: the terror of Alien Encounter (reopened as Stitch’s Great Escape! at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World), the fresh-air rush of Soarin’ Over California at both Disney’s California Adventure and Epcot, the G-force 360º loop of Krustyland’s coaster in The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios Florida and California. And there are, of course, many possibilities for audience interaction and participation as in Turtle Talk With Crush at Disney’s California Adventure and Epcot, Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor at Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, and CSI: The Experience, currently touring a variety of national museums (And you thought it was just a TV show!).

This cinematic genre offers many creative opportunities and broad distribution across a wide range of platforms. It utilizes novel presentation formats that are competitive with in-home entertainment and opens up the possibilities for extending the life of an IP. For a filmmaker, there are tremendous opportunities for taking an existing movie or television property to the special venue market. The Simpsons, of course, began as a TV property and has branched out into multiple platforms over the years, with the ride at Universal being a grand finale of sorts (or maybe just the beginning?).
 dina benadon specila venue media themed entertainment
The impressive box-office ride of Journey to the Center of the Earth (nearing $100 million domestic at this writing) is a great current example of a successful, reverse cross-platform application(bottom right). With a background in special venue media development and production, producer Charlotte Huggins developed the feature knowing that a special venue attraction could be extrapolated — she lined up special venue distribution during post production of the film, with the intent of rolling out the ride component soon after the movie premiere.

Which raises another point. Huggins has a specialized new media background and contacts in the themed entertainment industry as well as in mainstream film. In order to identify all the opportunities and to successfully juggle and coordinate the various interests involved in creating a special venue product, it’s critical to have such a new media producer on board. There are ways of conceiving, designing and producing a project, understanding the market and the venues, and knowing how to make the most of resources from day one.

Pushing the Boundaries

This promising field offers opportunities at multiple levels. Although it is still a relatively new medium, it has matured to the point where we know, to a great extent, what works and what doesn’t. Though we continue to push the boundaries and use this industry as a testing ground for experimental concepts, we have reliable technologies and enough proven examples in the field that lets us explore new directions (real-time audience interactivity, using the Internet to link theaters to each other and to remote users, and multiple endings) while building on past successes. And digital processes have opened up the possibilities of repurposing footage in affordable ways. This process has already been used in special venues like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — Play It at California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios as well as the new Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

This specialized cinematic niche is well developed enough that it has a significant  presence with fascinating creative/business communities and subcommunities in each of the various markets it serves. One very promising format that began in planetariums and is now expanding to other markets is FullDome — an immersive, digital presentation system for dome theaters. The FullDome community celebrates new creative works at the annual DomeFest, and recently the trade group IMERSA (Immersive Media Entertainment, Research, Science, & Arts) was formed to further boost the genre and establish technical standards. Every October, the Association of Science-Technology Centers caps its annual conference with a FullDome planetarium presentation and a Big Screen Day (for giant-screen cinema such as IMAX).

Every March, the Themed Entertainment Association holds its internationally-acclaimed Thea Awards, a black-tie affair in which “the international makers of compelling places and experiences” are recognized for outstanding projects. Recent Thea recipients include Discover the Real George Washington (a museum exhibit with a 4D theater as its  centerpiece), CSI: The Experience (a cinematic, experiential museum exhibit) and The Great Glass Elevator motion simulation experience at the heart of Charlie and the  Chocolate Factory: The Ride at Alton Towers Theme Park in the UK. The Media & Technology Committee of the American Association of Museums recently gave a MUSE Award to the multimedia Blue Planet Theatre at the Gwinnett Heritage Foundation. Elements of all the above, and more — the operator and supplier communities around museums, theme parks, casinos, water parks — come together each November at the IAdina benadon specila venue media themed entertainmentAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) Expo, a blowout of a show for the international attractions industry.

Cool, Cutting Edge and Lucrative

Special venue is increasingly lucrative, increasingly in demand and increasingly “legit.” There are even special venue filmmakers who are voting members of the Academy — Bayley Silleck (Blue Mountain Film Associates) and Bob Rogers (BRC Imagination Arts), to name two. Both Silleck and Rogers have produced cinematic work for world’s fair pavilions and for giant-screen theatrical presentation. BRC’s 1990 Flower Planet, created in 70mm 8-perf (for Osaka Expo 90), was one of the first giant-screen animated features, and Rogers’ 1986 Rainbow War (for Vancouver Expo 86) received an Academy Award nomination. Silleck’s portfolio includes the 1996 giant-screen educational documentary Cosmic Voyage, which implemented then-breakthrough forms of digital astrovisualization.

In other words, special venue is not only cool, it is cutting edge and very lucrative. Imagine producing a show for the whole world to see at the next international expo or creating an immersive FullDome journey through the universe, touching the minds of thousands of school kids. Imagine being the producer of a superbly-orchestrated 3D/4D multimedia show that enchants millions of visitors at a heritage attraction, or being a part of the team that develops the next theme park ride legend like Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man 4D dark-ride attraction.

One aspect that producers should find especially appealing about the prospect of working in special venue and themed entertainment is the in-depth creative involvement that’s possible. Super 78, the Hollywood-based studio I co-founded in 1997, is currently in development and production on half a dozen attraction films. Sometimes the client has a treatment, but in the majority of current projects, they came to us knowing simply the kind of attraction they wanted — allowing our talent and creatives to write the story and conceive the experience. And because of the specialized background, Super 78 is in a position to recognize and suggest additional opportunities and new directions for a client’s IP — how a 3D special venue experience could be spun off from a popular television series, for instance. In most cases, production studios work very closely to the original content and creators, dina benadon specila venue media themed entertainmentwhich is extremely satisfying.

Also satisfying is the long shelf life. A special venue production can live on its installation site for 10 years or longer — sometimes much longer. Special venue content packaged for distribution — like ridefilms, planetarium shows and giant-screen films — can stay in popular circulation just as long and rack up some very impressive international box office (check out the numbers on Everest).

For me personally, the summer of 2008 marked 16 years of professional experience in special venue content creation and production. With a primary focus on development and production of this specialized type of media, Super 78 is celebrating 12 years in business in January 2009 and is enjoying the busiest time this industry has ever seen. What I love most about it is the creative freedom combined with being on the cutting edge of technology. Knowing that my work has the potential to stay in theaters for a decade or so feels pretty good, too.

Special venue brought 120 of us together at Universal Studios that fine June evening, and The Simpsons Ride helped us discover where our common ground lies between the business of content creation and themed entertainment. Special venue production is the proving ground for the next generation of moviemaking. Combining that technical component with the challenge of creating compelling stories that seamlessly integrate… now, that’s an experience!

Dina Benadon

Dina is principal of Super 78 Studios and sits on the Board of the Producers Guild of America. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Produced by magazine, and is reprinted here with the consent of the Producers Guild of America.

Images: (from top)  CSI: The Experience , courtesy of Forth Worth Museum of Science & History, The Simpsons, an image from the fulldome production Sonic Vision, Rainbow War, courtesy of BRC Imagination Arts,   Journey to the Center of the Earth

See also
FullDome 101, Part I by Ed Lantz. Just what is FullDome anyway? This excellent click-through presentation explains a complicated digital medium quickly and simply, via pictures and a little text. 
Theming George Washington
Themed Entertainment Association Announces 15th Annual Thea Awards Recipients
 Alton Towers simulated experience wins themed entertainment award
4D Theater: “Journey to the center of the Earth ” to be developed as 4D Theme park Ride
4D Theater: 100% satisfaction for the new interactive CinemAction title from Alterface!

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