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Special Venue Media: Mario Kamberg and the Dragon Kings

Related: Effects of the Recession on International Theaters in the Giant-Screen Cinema Industry – Part II / Immersive Film Festival Names Fulldome Winners

Interview conducted by Mark Plattner

“Technology is still a powerful tool, but it’s no longer constraining the creative. It's the concept and the story that drive the product and realize the client’s vision or mission.”

mario kamberg theme park show designerMario Kamberg (left is a media director and designer with a 30-year career in special venue attractions. He was creative director/media director of the new digital dome experience “Dragon’s Treasure at City of Dreams” (2009, Macau). Dragon’s Treasure is a 10-minute, mythological adventure that tells (sans dialog) the story of the Dragon Pearl and its mysterious powers as experienced by each of the four Dragon Kings who travel with the audience to their respective aquatic kingdoms. The multi-sensory show, developed and executive produced by Falcon’s Treehouse for Melco Crown Entertainment, includes a musical score composed by Academy Award winner Klaus Badelt and lavish theatrical, lighting, and show action effects in the 500-person, standup theater. The Dragon’s Treasure show represents a breakthrough entertainment application of digital dome projection, sometimes called “fulldome.” Digital dome theater systems originated in the planetarium community in the late 1990s. In March 2010, Dragon’s Treasure received a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) – Kamberg’s fourth project to receive a Thea.

In the area of attraction design and entertainment architecture, Kamberg’s work includes what he describes as a “very wild” interior for the corporate offices of “Beijing NeWest” in Beijing, which has been cited as one of the first installations of curved, electronically stimulated security glass that becomes opaque at the switch of a button.

Blooloop: You’re associated with numerous breakthrough and award winning special venue productions, in addition to Dragon’s Treasure at City of Dreams. You were director of the motion simulator attraction “Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera” [Universal Studios Florida, 1990, replaced by “Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast” 13 years later. The Jetsons sequence received an animation award from the Chicago Film Festival.] the dark ride “Curse of DarKastle” [Busch Gardens Williamsburg, 2005], and “Star Trek the Experience” for Star Trek The Experience [Las Vegas Hilton, 1998, produced by Rhythm & Hues]. You’ve also got a production opening at the Shanghai world expo in a few days. A lot of directors consider special venue media as a jumping off point for moving into feature films, but you have remained committed to this niche. Why?

Mario Kamberg: I like creating full immersion guest experiences. I enjoy getting people out of the box of the theater and into a real physical space. With attraction design, people are looking, touching and feeling, they're a part of the story, 360 degrees of story.

Blooloop: You’ve done a lot of work with Falcon's Treehouse. What is your role there?

Kamberg: For the last four years I have been Creative Director, media director and attraction designer at Falcon’s Treehouse. Through the years, Falcon’s president Cecil Magpuri and I developed many attractions in the middle East and US – including Sahara Kingdome, Emerites planetarium, Formula 1 Sports bar – all for the Dubai marketplace as well as a variety of projects from large cityscapes to regional designs for SeaWorld and San Diego Wild animal park, and the recent Dragons Treasure attraction in Macau. On Dragon’s Treasure, Falcon’s Treehouse developed the show concept so that it would work in this huge, dramatic dome the architect had positioned as a pass-through in the middle of a retail/casino complex. Falcon's Treehouse conceived the whole logic of outfitting this dome as a theater, with a screen and projectors and a mechanical pre-show.

Blooloop: Tell us about the production that’s about to open at Shanghai Expo 2010.

Kamberg: It’s called “The Inspiration of Flight” and is part of the guest experience at the China Aviation pavilion. It's a stereoscopic 3D dark ride, sponsored by The China Aviation Industry Corporation and China Eastern Airlines. The journey starts in a futuristic living room where we fly into a Chinese watercolor painting that transforms from a flat painting into a dimensional stereoscopic flight over the Chinese landscape, eventually taking us to Shanghai 1, 000 years into the future. This is a Falcon’s Treehouse production. I was show designer, director and production designer. Robert Waddell was media producer and IE Effects in Culver City was the media production company.

Blooloop: In Dragon's Treasure, you’re telling a story without words, in gesture only. Of course that is appropriate for a show at a big international destination where guests speak a variety of languages, but it requires a real flair for visual narrative – where did you hone those skills?

Kamberg: School of hard knocks. My real education came from directing and producing commercial visual effects for 15 years. Starting at Bob Abels & Assoc, that period of my life taught me force of discipline: A) You've 30 seconds to tell a story. B) You've got 6 weeks to produce a product. C) You've got a client who has air dates and delivery dates, and if you miss it, you're out of business. So the whole commercial visual effects production part of my career really set tone and the discipline for dealing with clients – being on time, being on budget. You knew that as short as the narrative was, you still had to tell a story, you had to sell a product. From there, the segue to attractions at Universal and Paramount… now you have the luxury of five to 10 minutes to weave a story and engage the audience.

Storytelling is more essential than ever now because the market is saturated with visual effects. The general public today is very sophisticated. To make an impression, you need more than incredible visual effects – you need story and content.

When the technologies were newer, it used to matter who had the best or most proprietary software, who had the biggest render farms or the best hardware. But we've come full circle. Now, it has less to do with hardware or software because everything is off the shelf or even open source. It’s more about integrating technology into the attraction. Technology is still a powerful tool, but it’s no longer constraining the creative – it’s enhancing varieties of design directions and installation options. It's the concept and the story that drive the product and realize the client’s vision or mission.

Dragon’s Treasure had no dialogue or narration, it was all visual, sound and music and integrates a number of story ideas. One was weaving the mythology of the the four dragon kings, and the journey of the lonely carp. The journey of the carp, which at the end transforms into the supreme Jade Dragon, conveys an underlying message about identity, humility and behavior. It also speaks to the audience that this casino is a good place for them to play and be lucky.

Blooloop: Can the unique Dragon’s Treasure theater be used for other shows or events? How difficult will it be to change out in future?

Kamberg: The beautiful thing about digital theater is its versatility. It can be seasonal, it can be upgraded, it can be altered. This is something that will evolve with the casino and the property and is something that can be updated every year. We just did something for the Year of the Tiger which was a 1:30 sequence done for the Chinese New Year. That was done at the spur of the moment at IE Effects in Culver City because the client wanted something to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Bam! It was up in the dome in four weeks.

Blooloop: How do the story meetings come about? How do the brainstorming sessions work?

Kamberg: The first hurdle is gaining the client. In the case of Falcon's Treehouse and Dragon’s Treasure, I sat down with Cecil Magpuri who developed the basic concept and then I took off into my fantasy world to refine the intricacies of the story and interrelationships of the characters (designed by Nick Koenig) while developing all the unique environments they interact in.

Sometimes the client has very specific ideas and it's my job to extract those ideas, extrapolate them and let them ferment inside my imagination, find that edge – that place to go to interpret that visual experience and story in a powerful way that addresses the parameters of the project and creates a unique experience. Other times I get more free reign in the content as I did directing the Seafari attraction for Universal Studios [1994, winner of three awards including a 1995 Imagina visual effects award] where I worked closely with Dale Mason [now VP and senior creative at Universal Studios Orlando].

I would say one of my personal touches is the art of transition: morphing integral story elements and creating a seamless experienece. Much like a fine artist pushes the oils on a painting I merge, morph and blend media into scenic vignettes and unique experiences for a complete immersive attraction. CG has this amazing ability to be pliable – totally controllable, something that more directors in this medium could take advantage of. It's a style thing and I guess a lot of this stems from my fine arts background in abstract art.

Blooloop: Can you explain more about how you enact the role of director for a dome production such as Dragon’s Treasure?

Kamberg: The most important component here is to know how to direct the eye and the mind of the guest. All the reactions, moves and interactions the audience sees on the screen are the result of a choreographed set of directorial decisions made within the 360 degree surround of the dome. Rather than think of a series of edited cut scenes, I approach it as a seamless journey. I work to visualize the emotional curve of the complete journey as well as great moments within that journey. I see these images behind me as well as in front. I visualize in 360 degrees and understand the motivation of all actions that surround the viewer. It’s important to understand that the experience must have equal impact in all directions, and understand how to design moments of visual “crescendo” that lower into a “diminuendo” of calm and peaceful engagement for the entire audience in multiple directions. This is the essence of directing for the dome. The focal element of impact, those moments that punctuate key story points in the experience must move around the dome for all to engage in.

Blooloop: How did you visualize the animatics?

Kamberg: Through simulation. The people at Amalgamated Pixels, the media production company on Dragons Treasure, devised a virtual viewer to previsualize the action. We put on the VR glasses allowing us to turn in any direction, as if actually inside the dome. We could view dailies in this virtual dome as well as on the big screen. We also visualized looking down on the dome from the outside, flattened into one long panorama as well as the actual circular dome render we provided to Kraftwerk Living Technologies in Austria, which provided the audio and video systems. They actually chopped this into 15 sections which were edge blended to merge all 15 projectors for a seamless dome image. This helped me to think “bubble movie, ” and how it was going to work. We did all the blocking, choreography and built all the basic shapes and forms first. Once those were nailed down, it was time to go deeper into the details of design and finesse the animation and effects.

Blooloop: Do you feel as if you've reached the place where you are doing the work you want to do?

Kamberg: There's always up. I don't want to limit myself. There are concepts not yet developed, technologies not yet integrated, configurations in theater design as well as  integrated retail and future technology parks not yet built, a lot of ideas not yet explored… It's just endless. Virtual theater, the virtual park. How can we integrate flexibility into attractions and attraction experiences? Because of the rapid pace of technological developments and the sophistication of audiences, productions run the risk of becoming outdated more quickly than they used to. We need experiences that can live and change, and that integrate leisure with themed entertainment, retail and restaurants. There's a lot still that needs to happen. I’m doing what I want to do, but I’m still moving. There are a lot of ideas still in my brain that haven't even been attached to a project yet, a lot of paint yet to push around that canvas of the imagination.

Images depicting Dragon's Treasure at City of Dreams in Macau: from top
Dragon Bubble Show
City of Dreams
Dragon Bubble Show
Dragon Bubble Show

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