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Watch Out Disney! Spider-Man Is Coming to Orlando

Universal is making a multi-million dollar bid in Disney's town with Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. Joseph Szadkowski goes behind the scenes for a sneak peak at The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction.

Spider-Man appears to sit on the hood of the Scoop vehicle. Image courtesy of Universal Studios Escape.

Something very new in the world of animation is getting ready to unveil at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure (USIOA) this May. The massive theme park combines five areas of entertainment and pop culture myth into one extravagant adventure that brings things to animated and animatronic life in a way never done before. "If you look at the park as a whole, the concept of Islands of Adventure is solely about adventure in all of its different styles and forms," said Scott Trowbridge, show producer USIOA. "We wanted to find the best ways to express this idea, the best mediums to tell the stories, to bring adventure to life while combining it with the thrills and entertainment of a theme park."

Comic Book Paradise

Some of these thrills will be found at Marvel Super Hero Island, an entertainment property that has been created at USIOA. One of popular culture's most endearing modern myths are those of the super hero, and the Marvel Age of Comics (1960-1970) was considered one of the most fertile times for these extraordinary men and women. Thanks to the creative genius of men like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby sequential art fans were wowed by characters like The Fantastic Four (1961), The Incredible Hulk (1962), The Uncanny X-Men (1963), The Mighty Thor (1962) and an angst ridden, web slinging teenager, Spider-Man (1962). For the animation and pop culture fan a full day must be given to the Marvel Super Hero Island, a metropolis of mayhem, mutants and maniacs. "Very early on the concept of the battle between good and evil was evident in our planning," said Trowbridge. "Marvel Super Hero Island is, if nothing else, dynamic, with a sense of energy, fast, hard-hitting and in your face. It is something that you experience, that puts you in the middle of the mix, that brings the four-color pages of the comic book to real life." Walking down Stan Lee Blvd. visitors will be stunned by the much larger than life images of such heroes as Magneto, Captain America and, of course, Spider-Man, along with the villains Doctor Octopus, Hobgoblin and Hydro-Man. For readers of the comics, it all seems very familiar and just the way it should be. For the uninitiated, the adventures of the living super heroes is immediately awe-inspiring.

Spidey battles Electro and Hydro-man. © Universal Studios Escape; courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

The Coup d'Etat

For anyone who likes to have fun, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction will quickly be recognized as the next generation in moving vehicle rides and motion picture entertainment. "This story more than any other is a groundbreaking kind of attraction," Trowbridge said. "We have decided to not push the envelope, but invent a whole new sand box to play in by combining rear-projected 3-D effects in a way never done before and in a way we were told by the experts was impossible." It took the creative team more than three years to create an experience that encompasses 1.5 acres of space. Climbing into a specially designed proto-type vehicle, the Scoop, guests become a part of the story as they find themselves helping the webbed superhero retrieve The Statue of Liberty from a group of unsavory villains.

An epic battle between Spidey and the Sinister Syndicate, which includes Hobgoblin, Electro and Doc Ock, rages on every side of the vehicle. Throughout the battle between good and evil will be fire effects, 3-D film and a "sensory drop" when Doc Ock aims at the Scoop with his Doomsday anti-gravity gun. "Using visual images, sound and large fans the rider experiences the illusion that they are rising more than 400 feet into the air and we have the impression of activities going on all around us," Trowbridge said. "Then we are plummeting toward the ground and people are screaming, and this trampoline comes out and catches us. All along we have only moved a few feet into the air."

Scott Trowbridge. Photo by Jacquie Kubin

The New Trick

The, excuse the pun, marvel of this ride is that the projected 3-D film image is all around the vehicle. The use of three-dimensional film projection has always left the viewer with an image that seemed to come right at them. If they moved across the room, it would follow them. While this does provide a real-time, real feel to a film, it is obviously a projected image, a trick. In The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Trowbridge and his crew have come up with the technology necessary to allow: a very three-dimensional image of Spider-Man to sit on the hood of the Scoop vehicle; the pumpkins that Hobgoblin throws to fly past the car; and Doc Ock's tentacles to come not only toward passengers but also grab onto the car. The result is almost a Starship Enterprise Holodeck type of experience. The edges between reality and film quickly become blurred and the rider is in for a whole new entertainment experience. "In the film world they say the camera adds ten pounds so if you see someone on TV they look a little bit different than they do if you were to meet them in person. We are taking that idea and applying it to this attraction," Trowbridge said. "Here you are in the same space as Spider-Man. He is three-dimensional. He has substance. He projects a shadow when standing in front of a light, but he is a projected image because the actions that he, Doc Ock or the Hobgoblin do, such as web slinging, flying or moving mechanical tentacles, could not be done by an animatronic or person in costume. It would only work if we could do it with film."

Kleiser-Walczak Technical Supervisor Jeffery A. Williams and Lead Animator Derald Hunt use an action figure to analyze Spider-Man's movement. Image courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

Trowbridge and his team set off to find the film and animation experts who would help them to achieve their goal, only to be told it had not been done before and could not be done to give the illusion that they wanted. Not only did they not take no for an answer, they became even more determined to find the solution that would lead to a new era in animated storytelling. Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company was the well known digital effects house that took on the job, producing all of the animation with Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak directing. The Kleiser-Walczak team had to create new production methods on the fly to meet the needs of this never-before-done project. The end product is technically called "moving point of convergence," or, more casually, "squinching," and it incorporates the dynamics of a 3-D movie with the surround screen technology of a thrill ride like Back to the Future or Star Tours, where riders sit in a car that shakes to give the impression of movement. The kick here is that while the car is bucking like a bronco it is also moving through the 1.5 acres of space which is filled with sets and 3D projection screens. Finishing Touches The surround screen projection adds to the feeling of movement from flying to falling. The results of the new squinching effect is that guests will see 3-D images that appear to have singular space and mass standing, sitting, or flying in front of them. "What we wanted to do was create an environment that married the physical with the virtual," says Trowbridge. Most 3D films have an item at a time dangle in front of the audience. Here the Universal team wanted to create an entire 3D environment, meaning backgrounds needed to behave in a 3D way too...as the ride was moving past! Due to the very nature of 3D images, this had been considered near impossible. "As you move through the ride, the backgrounds can't rotate, because buildings don't move, so the problem was that we had to develop a way to fix that and to give the illusion of 3-D images in this stationary environment. Using computers we figured out that we could calculate the distortion that the eye would see ... and basically pre-distort the images so that when they are viewed from the right place, moving at the right speed and in the right direction, it all looks normal."

Sound also plays an important role and each Scoop vehicle contains 32 speakers and has 10 discreet audio channels. As the vehicle moves through the attraction, small speakers behind the guests project sound toward a bowl-shaped movie screen in front of them. The sound is then reflected back into the car to provide a surround sound experience.

Spider-Man rounds up the villains at the end of the ride. © Universal Studios Escape; courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

The moving ride is the climax to the comic book story sprung to life. Prior to clambering into the vehicle, riders will have been totally immersed in the story of Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Walking through the Daily Bugle building, the audience will be introduced to the evil characters of the Sinister Syndicate and learn, even if they have never heard of the web-slinger before, Spider-Man's origins. As visitors move through the front lobby and offices of the Daily Bugle, they can read front pages of the newspaper highlighting Spidey's heroic deeds and introducing some of the villains they will meet. Looking into Peter's office, which is actually a broom closet, they will see him on a Parisian honeymoon with his wife Mary Jane. Walking into the dark room, visitors see photos of villains hanging from the ceiling, a picture is developing in the solution and another tray has been knocked over and glowing green stuff has spilled all over the floor. The room is black-lit and on the walls and ceiling you can see Spider-Man/Peter's foot prints as he has knocked over the tray, stepping into the fluid and then ran up the wall, over the ceiling and out the window. "Right away, visitors know that something important is up," Trowbridge said.

It is almost assured that the line to ride The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man will be queued up on even the quietest day in the park, but the tour through the Bugle office and presentations by J. Jonah Jameson will keep even the most impatient from becoming bored. And once it's time to board the Scoop, this will be one almost 5 minute adventure that will be well worth the wait. Joseph Szadkowski writes on various aspects of popular culture and is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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