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Something's Wrong With Our Ship: Animated Motion-Simulator Films in Theme Parks

Judith Rubin surveys what's going on in animated ridefilms at theme parks and other venues around the world and who's making them.

NewWave Entertainment

Astro Canyon Coaster; Cosmic Pinball; Devil's Mine Ride; Glacier Run; Hi-Chip Tour; Journey Through the Center of the Earth; Kid Coaster; RGB Adventure; Secrets of the Lost Temple; Volcano Mine Ride.

Where to see them: Iwerks Turbo Ride Theaters in locations worldwide, including: Empire State Building, New York; Reino Aventura, Mexico City; Seacon Square, Bangkok; Tokyo Dome, Tokyo; Star City Metro, Manila; and Hoyt's inemotion, Melbourne. Showscan simulator theaters in locations worldwide including: Cinemania in Universal CityWalk, Universal City, California; CN Tower, Toronto; Cartuja Park, Seville; Lotte World, Seoul, Gardaland, Verona; Mitsubishi Ocean Dome, Kyushu, Japan; and Nordsjoellands Sommerpark, Copenhagen.

Funhouse Express. © Midland Productions.

Animation in theme parks most frequently appears in the form of the four-minute, motion-simulator film or ridefilm. Simulator films generally are producedin special formats, and they are the visual component of a brief virtual adventure through some fantastic terrain or other. The motion component is provided by the theater seats, which are programmed to move in concert with the film. Generally the experience simulates a ride in a vehicle, frequently down a track or through a tunnel.

Ridefilms are a bit formulaic in their storytelling. Producer Charlotte Huggins and designer Ray Spencer of NewWave Entertainment, a Belgium-based company that is probably the foremost producer of animated ridefilms, humorously sort the ridefilm genre into six plot categories: 1) Rollercoaster/Track, 2) Flying, 3) Underwater, 4) Racetrack/One Plane, 5) Object/Person point-of-view and 6) Dark Ride. Within those plots, the following devices are most common: A) Sister Ship, B) Molecular Shrink, C) Time Machine, D) Crisis Landing, E) Something's Wrong With Our Ship, F) Save the Planet, G) Oops! Wrong direction, H) Time Clock, I) Encounter an Evil Creature, J) Camera point-and-shoot and K) On-camera "host." Under this system, Back to the Future--the Ride, which plays at the Universal Studios' parks in Hollywood and Orlando, is a #2ACDEFGHIK.

"You have four minutes to tell your story," says Ray Spencer from New Wave's Sherman Oaks, California office. "It unfolds in a linear way. We see them as minidramas of two to four acts each. A backstory is essential."

"It's easy to have CG animation look like CG animation," says Spencer from New Wave's Sherman Oaks, California office. "But that holds the customer at a distance. We work to create enough interest and enthusiasm by using material to which people can relate; something that connects them to their real-world experience. Animation is not an end in itself."

Rival notes face off in Jazzland in Adventures in Audiana. © The Works.

Spencer praises computer animation for its versatility. With virtual sets and environments, he says, you can do what would be too costly to do with miniatures. "We can create anything in our workstations," he says. "There's no limit on subject or on setting. But you have to understand how the eye sees things. The software can't do it right without human intervention."

The lifespan of a successful simulator film is fairly long, Spencer notes, because there are always new audiences and repeat ridership. New Wave's first production, the 1993 Devil's Mine Ride, is still showing around the world. In it, a crusty, diabolical old miner decides to send us on an alternative tour to the one we're supposed to be expecting, and in our simulated vehicle we go crashing and swooping through tunnels and along tracks in a disused and dangerous sector of the ancient mine. The challenge, says Spencer, was to create an organic look of rotting timbers, twisted rails, flickering torches and falling rocks. "It was an ambitious project at the time," he laughs. "None of us was sure we could pull it off."

Not all New Wave's ridefilms have the organic look. Silicon Adventure, a trip through a chip, is appropriately slick and geometric. Still, Spencer emphasizes the need to have elements that make the journey real, credible. Inside the chip are stamped-on numbers, a company logo, dust, "things that we all recognize in a particular scale," says Spencer. The different areas of the Silicon Adventure chip were depicted metaphorically. The RAM area is filled with cyclones and sparks to represent energy. The ROM area is very linear and organized-looking. In a visual pun of the animation process, the graphics area resembles a fabrication shop. The sound area is crammed with sound effects and crazy occurrences. Recent productions include Red Rock Run and Secrets of the Lost Temple. Budgets run from $700 K to $5 million, averaging at about $2 million, says Charlotte Huggins.

Rhythm & Hues

Seafari

Where to see it: Porto Europa in Wakayama, JapanEllen's Energy Crisis

Where to see it: Epcot Center, OrlandoStar Trek: The Experience

Where to see it: Las Vegas Hilton

Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues is a leader in computer animation, having done many sequences for commercials and feature films as well as amusement parks. Their work can be seen in the film Babe and the Pepsi polar bears spots. And according to Executive Producer Ellen Coss, the company's production Seafari is considered by many in the business to be one of the best CGI pieces in any genre. It opened at Porto Europa in 1994. "Even now," says Coss, "it pushes the envelope in terms of lighting and animation." The company relies almost entirely on its own proprietary software for animation productions.

All images of this 3 1/2-minute simulator film were computer modeled and lit in great detail, right down to the dust particles, bubbles and texture maps. The animation team included Larry Weinberg, Loren Lanning and Steve Ziolkowski. Weinberg went on to write his own commercially available animation software, called Poser.

Seafari by Rhythm & Hues Inc. © Recreation Services.

The story: Our sister ship is lost and we are launched into the ocean on a search mission. Sammy the Dolphin turns up to guide our minisubmarine and protect us from dangers. And of course, we need his protection. We soon encounter a toothy sea monster and have to run for our lives. We dart inside an old tanker ship, pursued by the monster; we escape but the monster bites the tail end of our submarine, hitting the fuel tank. The captain hits the ejector button; the explosion blows us out of the water and we splash down back at the mother ship with our mission completed.

The preshow features a two-ton water tank with Sammy swimming around inside. He's an animated rear projection and seems to be a real, solid creature, except that he talks to us, has a cartoonishly expressive face and wears a backpack.

Rhythm & Hues also produced the 50-second, animated opening sequence for Ellen's Energy Crisis, which opened in summer 1996 at the Exxon Pavilion in Epcot Center. The show is hosted by TV personalities Bill Nye and Ellen Degeneres. The animation is a CGI conception of the big bang and the formation of earth.

Star Trek: The Experience is a new simulator ride slated to open at the Las Vegas Hilton in March 1997. The entire hotel is being retrofitted with a Star Trek theme. R&H is producing the 70mm simulator film and its preshow, using animation plus some live action. It's a Federation vs. Klingon battle in space that includes a sequence in which the ship touches down on the Las Vegas Strip. The company is also in production on an elaborate, animated film for an Imax 3D simulator ride. It opens sometime next year at Caesar's Emporium in Las Vegas. From their hydraulic, moving seats, audience members will don headsets that include electronic, liquid-crystal shuttered glasses and special sound systems and be enveloped by 3D images on a 70mm dome screen.

Midland Productions

Funhouse Express

Where to see it: Sega City@Playdium,Toronto; Sega Joypolis, Niigata, Japan; Neo Geo World, Tsukuba, Japan; The Magical World of Fantasy Island, Lincolnshire, England; Gaumont Theaterplex, Valenciennes, France.

Since Berkeley-based Midland Productions entered the simulation field in 1989, they have made nine simulation films. Some feature live action, some miniatures, some CGI, or combinations thereof. The company is now focusing principally on CGI production. Funhouse Express, produced by Midland in 1995 for Imax Ridefilm, features stop-motion animation all the way through.

The protagonist of Funhouse, Jimmy, is a downtrodden, disgruntled clown who operates an old broken-down funhouse for a tyrannical boss. But he has secretly built his own fantastical ride in the bowels of the funhouse, and this secret ride is the one on which he takes us. It's been built out of old bits and pieces of carnival equipment. Our adventure includes riding along the tongue of an enormous head, going down a dark tunnel to encounter a huge pair of snapping dentures at the end, bouncing off the nose of another huge clown head that is the ride's centerpiece, and cruising through a dimly-lit clown's graveyard. The film is extremely detailed and has the air of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Midland's Yas Takata directed; animator was Anthony Scott. The four-minute film was made in VistaVision.

The Mars Ride. © SimEx Digital Studios.

SimEx

In a collaboration with New York-based Ogden Entertainment, SimEx of Toronto is producing a motion-simulator feature that will open in zoos around the world in spring 1997. Allen Yamashita, creative director for the project, points out that the work will break new ground in content, style and venue.

It's a story about a little boy who dreams of covering the earth with buildings of his design. He is visited in his dreams by an animal spirit. The spirit reminds him that development plans need to include room for other living creatures, and takes him on a journey to acquaint him with other creatures, turning the boy into various animals and communicating a message of greater respect for other living things and for peaceful coexistence and sharing of the environment.

The animation is being done in a style reminiscent of children's book illustration. It will combine CGI and 2D cel animation to evoke great visual depth. "We're not trying to replicate reality," says Yamashita. "This will be more like painting than photography." SimEx will take this film on the road in the spring along with two other new animated Yamashita films, Mars and Jove's Hammer. The films will run at participating zoos, museums and entertainment centers in SimEx's transportable, 40-seat simulator theater.

The Works

Adventures in Audiana

Where to see it: Futuroscope Park, Poitiers, France; Matsushita/Panasonic showrooms in Japan.

The original version of this 6 1/2-minute, animated short story (not a simulator film) debuted in Japan in 1994 at regional expositions in the cities of Wakayama and Mie, and in Panasonic showrooms to promote their HDTV system. It was later redubbed in French for display at Futuroscope. According to Fred Hope, of Audiana producer The Works, based in Long Beach, a new cut is forthcoming to demo the Panasonic digital video disk system (DVD) that will shortly make all our CD-ROM drives obsolete.

"The cost of computer animation can be amortized, if you produce something versatile," says Hope. "We can take the whole design database of characters and objects and settings and reuse them. It's easy to recut, to stretch the concept, to dub it in a different language, even to retime it for different music." he says, pointing out that the digital disk version of Audiana will include dubs in four languages and subtitles in at least four more. The budget of the original was $1 million. "We could now do the exact same film for half the money and in half the time," says Hope.

RubinPark5.gif Tad and Mike (or MC) in Adventures in Audiana. © The Works.

Audiana screens at Futuroscope on a high-definition video projection screen with five-track surround sound. Each of the main characters is some kind of animated musical notation. The lead role is played by an animated treble clef called MC Treble. He expresses himself in rap music mode. Another character is a young, single note called Tad.

Tad is one of the Sound Rangers, a team of endearing young hero types. Audiana is a solar system of musical planet-cities named Orchestria, Rock City and Jazzland. In his role of caretaker, treble-clef MC zips around Audiana in his little ship, taking shortcuts through sound tunnels. He's working to resolve the plague of sound quakes that is causing a rash of sour notes throughout Audiana, and enlists the Sound Rangers in his mission. Together, they restore the musical harmony of their world. Keith Melton of Infinity Filmworks, Los Angeles was creative director; Magic Box Productions of Beverly Hills did the rendering and the soundtrack was written by The Works' Chip Smith. Panasonic was executive producer.

Judith Rubin is an Oakland-based freelance writer in the themed entertainment industry, with a particular interest in special-format film and entertainment applications of technology. In addition to contributing a regular column to At-the-Park magazine, she writes for Fujitsu Cultural Technologies' WorldsAway product family of animated, online virtual communities.

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