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BRC Imagination Arts

BRC Imagination Arts, one of the oldest and largest producers of animated and live-action ridefilms is profiled by Rita Street.

The artists and engineers of BRC Imagination Arts have been in the business of creating special venue attractions for the past decade. In fact, if your summer vacation plans took you to the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Florida, NASA/Johnson Space Center's Visitor Center in Texas or Knott's Berry Farm in California, then you probably experienced a little of their collective genius at work.

George Wiktor, Vice President, Production, BRC Imagination Arts. © BRC Imagination Arts

Says executive producer, vice president George Wiktor, "In essence everything we create is for people on holiday. Therefore everything we do has to be entertaining. That doesn't mean it can't be informative, but it does mean our work has to transport vacationers outside of themselves." Wiktor adds that even though his company creates events and attractions using a multitude of formats and creative techniques--including animation--the process of production never overshadows the end result. Since content is the one thing that keeps people coming back to attractions year after year, the quality of content, rather than the technology used to create it, must remain the focus. And, if there's one thing Wiktor has learned about content over the years--it's gotta be fun. Says Wiktor, "We always imbue our projects with a sense of humor, wonder and emotion--all those elements that people love to share in a group. In fact, that's one of our basic rules. It's not technological at all but its important--that special venues are group experiences; shared events between family, friends and strangers. It's definitely more fun to ride a roller coaster after watching hundreds of strangers get on a ride, scream and yell and then get off, than it would be to not have seen them. It sounds cliché, but when we are designing and producing a project we always say to ourselves, 'Remember. It's a party.' "

Magic of Disney, Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams. © Walt Disney Company

And a party it's certainly been for this company that opened back in 1981. Hidden behind an unassuming brick facade in an industrial area of Burbank, California, BRC is a think tank of 25 visual artists that, along with an army of freelancers, have won over 200 international awards and two Oscar nominations for their films and attractions at World Fairs, aquariums, museums and visitors centers.

"We're also known as the funny format filmmakers," jokes producer Marci Carlin, who says that her company has produced films for every format imaginable, for viewing in every kind of theater--even venues that entirely surround the audience. Excusing herself for what sounds like corporate propaganda, she adds, "Basically we sell solutions"--a catchy phrase that definitely describes BRC's core business.

For example, in 1988, Walt Disney Imagineers approached BRC to assist them in creating a tour through a working animation studio built at the Disney/MGM Studios theme park. Making the production experience accessible to viewers without disturbing the artists was the challenge.

"The first step in a project like this," says Carlin, "is to figure out just how long your experience wants to be. Then you figure out your capacity--how many people can and need to be moving through the experience based on the number of people in the park on a given day. Then you design an experience that can comfortably accommodate that many people."

For "The Magic of Disney Animation," BRC and the Disney Imagineers decided to move approximately 1000 guest through the exhibit per hour. The experience begins in a movie theater (each theater holds approximately 250 audience members), then moves through all the departments of an animation studio--storyboard, layout, character animation, etc.--in elevated tiered passageways that allow both the visitors to view the animators and the animators, if they desire, to view the visitors. "We wanted the audience to have sort of an over-the-shoulder experience," says Carlin. "So we put several risers in front of the windows that look down on the animators. This made for better viewing but also allowed us to increase the number of people moving through." After a demonstration in the camera department audience members queue up for their third and final film experience (the second is enjoyed while standing in line for the last theater) then move into a museum-like display of famous Disney animation projects.

Knott's Berry Farms Mystery Lodge, with special effects makes the tales of an Old Storyteller come alive. © BRC Imagination Arts.

Working closely with Imagineers, BRC artists developed, scripted and produced all the short films exhibited throughout the experience. To introduce newcomers to the animation process in a compelling fashion, BRC producers cast veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite as a host or straight-man to the energetic Robin Williams. In the film Back To Neverland, Cronkite turns Williams into an animated character--one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan--and together they lead the audience through a very "animated" tour of the production process. The film, directed by Jerry Rees, (Brave Little Toaster) was created in-house at BRC by a crew of Los Angeles-based freelancers.

The other two media experiences BRC produced for "The Magic of Disney Animation" attraction did not require BRC's temporary animation studio, but did involve scripting and direction. One called "Animators on Animation" is an interview/documentary with famous Disney animators delving into the reasons why these artists chose animation as their life long careers. The other is a montage of classic Disney animation.

BRC delved into the realm of computer animation for its experience called "Space Center Houston." One element of this inspirational attraction, dedicated to "re-generating" interest in the Space Program, is a Space Shuttle Training Simulator ride called Land the Shuttle. Using IBM hardware and software, BRC artists and engineers mixed live action with real-time animation to create a ride that visitors could control. "We shot an astronaut character on a green screen stage so that his scenes could be composited with our animation," explains Carlin. "This character, named Chet, gives the player feedback on how he or she is doing; if the nose is down too far or the speed is too high. The shots of Chet were recorded on laserdisc and it became the computer software's job to sync up the frames of Chet with the real-time action of the animation. For instance if you crashed, then the computer would find the appropriate frame on the laserdisc and display a disheveled version of the astronaut."

Carlin is working on a top secret project now for client General Motors that will also include a simulation ride. This time, however, the team at BRC will be using Silicon Graphics Hardware and several off-the-shelf animation products that are linked by proprietary software systems. Carlin admits that what they are currently doing is so cutting edge that it's a little hard to deal with. "We always say technology is not the solution--its the experience, but in this case, we're asking our software, and our hardware, to do things that they weren't originally intended to do in order to create the story we want. But that sort of thing happens to us a lot. We end up developing a new system or a new technique at the same time we are creating a solution and a story for a client."

Knott's Berry Farms Mystery Lodge, with special effects makes the tales of an Old Storyteller come alive. © BRC Imagination Arts.

BRC artists definitely have a few unusual techniques, even patents, up their collective sleeves. One very interesting--and very proprietary--example has to do with the animation of smoke. For a stage show at Knott's Berry Farm called Mystery Lodge, animated smoke that curls into images of salmon swimming upstream, or whales leaping from the water was used to visually aid an elderly Indian narrator as he tells the story of his life to the audience. Carlin, who describes the look of the effect as "images floating in a virtual plane," won't give away just how it is accomplished. However, she will say that the technical application of this patented process called "Holovision" is actually based on a 100-year-old magician's illusion called "Pepper's Ghost."

Future projects for BRC include a "totally new kind of theme park" for Warner Bros. Once again, artists and executives are committed to keeping this one a secret until it premieres, but rumor has it that it may include animation. As for the future of special venues? George Wiktor believes that the world has only seen the tip of the iceberg. "Granted, home entertainment is going to become fascinating over the next several years, but I don't see it taking away from the popularity of special venues. Just look at the corollary between film and television. Film is more popular than it ever was. Also, special venues are now breaking out of amusement park ghettos--moving into malls and other venues that are more accessible--and thus becoming more a part of our daily lives." Rita Street, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, is the founder of Women in Animation and former editor and publisher of Animation Magazine.