By Chris McGowan, VFX Magazine

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, the first guests entered the Star Wars universe with the help of motion simulation and a first-person-perspective film created by George Lucas, Dennis Muren, VES and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Star Tours debuted in 1987 at Disneyland and was a groundbreaking ancestor of recent theme park attractions like Avatar: Flight of Passage, King Kong 360 3-D and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, rides that incorporate ultra-high frame-rate, ultra-high-resolution digital imagery, motion simulation and/or sensory stimuli. Such attractions place guests in the middle of the narrative, usually one based on a film franchise. It is an evolving form of entertainment – a generally short and intense storytelling mode – that offers media companies an additional way to leverage IP as well as create original content. This hybrid form is bringing VFX artists and theme park specialists together in ever-increasing numbers to provide visual effects and storytelling for attractions as well as the ride queues leading up to them.

Theme park designers have realized that “flat rides” need to adapt to today’s audiences, which generally have a short attention span and are interested in more immersive fare. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and Lightstorm Entertainment (co-founded by James Cameron) teamed with Weta Digital to create Avatar: Flight of Passage for Disney’s Animal Kingdom; Universal Creative worked with Weta on King Kong 360 3-D for Universal Studios Hollywood; WDI collaborated with ILM on Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure for Shanghai Disneyland Park; and Sally Corporation worked with Pure Imagination Studios on numerous Justice League: Battle for Metropolis rides for multiple Six Flags parks.

Framestore, Pixomondo and The Third Floor are among the other VFX/animation companies working with theme park ride designers. ILMxLAB has also joined forces with The Void on Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a location-based VR experience. The attraction is not, strictly speaking, situated in a theme park, and it clocks in at 25 minutes as opposed to the few minutes for most “dark rides,” but it hints at future possibilities both in and out of parks.

Dark rides with CGI are a crucial part of today’s theme parks, which are thriving. The top 10 theme park operators drew in 475.8 million visitors in 2017, an increase of 8.6% over the previous year, according to a report from TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) and engineering firm AECOM. Walt Disney Attractions was No. 1 on the list (with 150 million visitors, twice that of the No. 2 company, Merlin Entertainments based in England. Universal Parks and Resorts was next, followed by three Chinese companies – OCT Group, Fantawild and Chimelong Group – and then Six Flags Entertainment Corporation.

The top 25 worldwide destinations expanded attendance by 4.7%. Disney dominates the list, with the three most popular locations and eight of the top 10. The TEA/AECOM report forecasts that China will be the largest theme park market by 2020, driven by Shanghai Disneyland (which had its first full year in 2017), Universal Studios Beijing (set to open in 2020), the new all-VR theme park, Oriental Science Fiction Valley, and other new parks.

The entities that design CGI-charged rides – like WDI, Universal Creative, Sally Corporation (based in Jacksonville, Florida), Falcon’s Creative Group (Orlando, Florida), The Hettema Group (Pasadena, California), Thinkwell Group (Los Angeles), and ITEC Entertainment (Orlando, Florida) – team with VFX people and firms on projects that often require a lot of manpower and processing power. For example, Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure had more media data than one and a half feature films, according to WDI. And, “an estimated 300 people worked for Weta on Avatar: Flight of Passage over the course of the project,” according to Thrain Shadbolt, Weta Digital VFX Supervisor.

“We’re definitely seeing more crossover,” says Justin Yu, Lionsgate Entertainment Group’s Director of Global Live & Location Based Entertainment. “People come to theme parks to enter and engage with worlds that are not their own. Technology is a means to that end, so VFX and video need to be seamlessly integrated into the environment and the overall experience in order to be truly effective. When they’re incorporated correctly, they’re two of the most powerful tools we have to bring new worlds to life.”

“As the theme park owners began to realize the limitations of their hardware rides, their focus for potential attractions shifted to the unlimited possibilities of media-driven experiences, and, in turn, they began hiring VFX companies who could apply the talents of their feature film artists to the creation of more immersive experiences for individual attractions,” observes David Garber, Executive Producer of Themed Entertainment for Pixomondo, which has various ongoing projects in the Middle East, Asia and the U.S.

“If [theme parks] want repeat visitors, then they need to provide a variety of exciting experiences, creating state-of-the-art rides as well as the more conventional ones,” comments Tippett Studio President Jules Roman. “They are always very careful in their overall cost analysis, and visitor through-put is most definitely a factor. Although just looking at the three-to-four-hour wait for the state-of-the-art Flight of Passage ride shows you the appetite for exciting, unique, immersive experiences is insatiable.”

“There is an explosion of activity in the theme park world with demands for high-end digital imagery and, of course, that means more VFX,” adds Roman. “So yes, more companies are getting involved.” Tippett Studio created the “flying theater” attraction Dream of Anhui for the Wanda Hefei Movie Park in Anhui, China. It had 6K, 48fps, large-format imagery and sensory effects (scents and wind) and was nominated for a 2017 VES award. The firm was founded in 1984 by animation pioneer Phil Tippett, VES, who worked on the Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park and other notable films.

“There’s no question that media and VFX are being used more in rides and attractions, both as an augmentation of traditional attraction types, and more significantly a whole new generation of media-based experiences. Talented VFX creators are increasingly an important part of attraction teams,” comments industry veteran Phil Hettema. “However, it’s not just the decision to include VFX in experiential storytelling that’s game changing. The quality and execution of the VFX make a huge difference, and we need creative talent to make that possible.”

Hettema worked with Universal Creative on landmark rides such as Back to the Future: The Ride (Universal Studios Florida) and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (Universal’s Islands of Adventure) before creating his own company, The Hettema Group, in 2002. “I was so fortunate to serve as one of the producers of that seminal attraction,” he recalls about Back to the Future. “I think one of my biggest contributions was in the early mock-up and test phases, where we really tested to understand the possibilities and constraints of that kind of large-format simulation experience and the kinds of ‘movement’ which would be most powerfully immersive. Of course, getting to work with Douglas Trumbull, VES, and his brilliant filmmaking and VFX Solutions was a thrill.” [Trumball was Special Effects Supervisor for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and other classics.]

The Adventures of Spider-Man really set the bar for a new generation of attractions that use CGI to create an experience we had never seen before,” says Hettema. “Following that, the Harry Potter rides as well as Disney Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and Animal Kingdom’s Avatar: Flight of Passage have really continued to push the envelope, pulling us closer and closer into a fully immersive world.” He adds that the latter was a “breakthrough ride. The ride immerses you in the Pandora world as depicted in the sensational movie. The imagery in the ride is sophisticated, detailed and full of life. It’s an example of what can be created when enormous attention is paid to the visual imagery and a top-notch VFX company is hired to create the work.”

The addition of CGI to theme park rides can also help bring new life to an outdated ride. A notable example of this is Disney California Adventure’s clever conversion of the Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror (a drop-tower dark ride), to Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! (which opened in 2017). Original 4K, 120 fps video of the Guardians cast syncs with the elevator’s jolting movements, an amusing narrative and lively 1970s era pop to create a unique thrill ride. WDI worked with Framestore and others on Guardians, which won a 2018 THEA award for Outstanding Achievement – Attraction Reimagining.

Framestore’s Creative Director Ben West comments, “The ride utilizes a moving eyepoint technique that simulates depth in a non-stereoscopic way. This allows the audience to feel a part of the action, present in the same space as the Guardians. Unlike film, every detail is seen in focus with no lensing effect. This required a greater attention to detail using lighting and composition for a more theatrical approach to depth and staging.” He adds, “The chance to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and go on a ride with the Guardians is a dream come true for any fan. The ride is successful because it allows people to experience the thrills and spills of Guardians of the Galaxy in a seamless extension of the film world.”

The Star Wars franchise is currently represented by Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, a 2011 upgrade of the original ride that is now present in four Disney parks, as well as Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. The latter is a location-based entertainment experience that has VR, is highly interactive, and is vastly longer than a theme park attraction. Created by ILMxLAB (Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment and VR laboratory) and The Void (which focuses on mixed-reality experiences and is based in Lindon, Utah), Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was nominated in the 2018 VES Awards category of Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project.

Four participants at a time don Oculus HMDs and haptic vests and work together to retrieve intelligence, solve puzzles and, of course, blast stormtroopers. Ceiling-mounted motion-tracking cameras read the user’s movements. There are sensory stimuli (the rumble of a transport, the heat and smell of lava) and interactivity (the opportunity to hold and shoot a blaster). Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire (tickets currently cost $29.95-$36.95 per person) is situated beside theme parks (next to Disney Springs in the Walt Disney World Resort and Downtown Disney next to Disneyland), as well as in the Venetian (Las Vegas) and the Glendale Galleria (a mall in Glendale, California). Nine additional locations are in the works.

“Immersive location-based experiences represent new ways for visitors to actively engage with stories,” comments Vicki Dobbs Beck, Executive in Charge at ILMxLAB. “Fans have long wanted to step into the world of Star Wars – not just to observe, but to engage. Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire provided a way for people to experience the lava planet Mustafar – the heat, the danger and the mystery. We wanted to invite people on a shared mission in which they became a fundamental part of the story.”

She continues, “Immersive entertainment, VR in particular, makes it possible not just to see a location, but to be in that location interacting with characters. No longer are you viewing  a world on a screen. Now, the world of the story is all around you. You are at the center of your adventure and that can ultimately lead to deeper engagement and more lasting impact.”

Scale may well determine the use of VR and AR in parks. “Theme parks go to great lengths to create a fantasy in physical form – one generally unencumbered by devices like VR headsets. Theme parks may one day be a wonderful opportunity to use mixed-reality glasses to overlay digital elements such as flying spaceships that would otherwise have been impossible to create. In essence, the digital elements would ‘complete the magic.’ In the case of a hyper-reality experience like Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the experience is much more self-contained and can more easily be scaled outside theme parks,” comments Beck. ILMxLAB is also collaborating with Walt Disney Imagineering on a Millennium Falcon ride for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands in Disneyland and Disney World.

About the use of VR, Curtis Hickman, Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of The Void, comments, “Over time you will see this sort of technology being used more and more as it really does provide the solution to a market that demands more immersive experiences, both in LBE [location based entertainment] and theme park attractions.”

The longstanding synergy of theme parks and the movies, pioneered by Disneyland, has only continued to expand. The Disney and Universal parks are the leaders in this regard, of course. And Warner Bros. Movie World (Australia’s Gold Coast), Twentieth Century Fox World (set to open in Malaysia) and multiple park zones tied to Lionsgate Entertainment Group are other examples of studios moving into theme parks.

“We are fortunate to have multiple blockbuster franchises in our portfolio, including The Hunger Games, Twilight and Saw, that have incredibly strong and supportive fan bases,” says Jenefer Brown, Lionsgate SVP of Global Live and Location Based Entertainment. “By connecting these properties with theme parks, we can continue to engage and interact with fans, deepening their experiences beyond the screen and immersing them in the world of the films. Creating compelling and authentic attractions for a property expands the lore, builds upon our existing fan base, and generates additional revenue for the studio.”

She adds, “Our film franchises lend themselves well to theme parks because their stories establish worlds fans want an opportunity to explore in real life. While our films appeal to a diverse, four-quadrant audience, it is worth noting that pre-teens, teens and young adults – key demographics for theme parks – form especially strong connections with our franchises, which make them a natural fit for themed attractions.

“VFX are the key component to the successful design of immersive media-based attractions. CGI is one of the most powerful tools we have available to us to bring environments to life in theme park attractions in a cost-effective and authentic way,” comments Brown.

Lionsgate will leave its paw print in various lands and parks: The World of The Hunger Games (Lionsgate Zone, Motiongate Dubai, UAE) in 2018; Lionsgate Entertainment World (Novotown, Hengqin, China) in 2019; Lionsgate Entertainment City (multiple locations in the U.S. and Europe) in 2019; and Lionsgate Movie World (Jeju Shinwha World, South Korea) in 2020. “All of our deals to date have been licensing deals with no risk to the studio. In the future we will also explore the idea of  investing and increasing our upside if the opportunity makes sense,” comments Brown.

The Lionsgate lands are the latest theme park zones devoted to a particular movie (“blockbuster worlds”). This “single-franchise approach” owes much to a certain boy wizard. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure (with an exclusive license from Warner Bros. Entertainment) and was a tipping point. Guests entered, explored and inhabited an entire park area devoted to the J.K. Rowling books, and it proved enormously successful. While there, they could take the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts rides (the latter opened in 2014). Recently, other “themed areas” in Disney and Universal parks have opened up or are coming soon, tied to Cars, Toy Story, Frozen, Shrek, MadagascarAvatar and Star Wars, among other properties. These lands immerse guests to a certain degree, and then their CGI-infused attractions enhance participation with characters and stories.

Lionsgate’s deals are one example of the growth of CGI-charged rides in the Middle East and Asia. “Asia and the Arab Emirates seem to be the markets that are currently expanding rapidly,” says Pixomondo’s Garber, who has worked on many immersive dome experiences around the world. His company also developed two projects at Wanda Entertainment Center in Wuhan, China: Star Journey (a motion-based simulator ride) and Hubei in the Air (a domed-screen flying ride). As a basis for Hubei in the Air, drones captured 90,000 photographs of Hubei Province. “We created a program that translated the images into a 3D model of the  environment, and once built we could fly our camera anywhere within that world,” Garber explains. In the ride, the 3D assets are rendered at 6.5K and projected on a 65’ by 40’ curved dome.

About the future, Garber says, “Theme parks and entertainment centers are now vehicles for storied experiences that were inseminated into the culture via audio-visual experiences that were called movies, but in reality are now simply 90-minute-long trailers created solely to market their theme park manifestations. And the brushes used by the VFX/CGI artists are the tools that have taken us there.”

“I would say the sky’s the limit. I think the sound environments may have to catch up. But the more convincing and detailed the VFX the better the ride – or so it would appear. And like I mentioned, the global public is thrilled to participate,” says Roman.

“I wouldn’t say that animation/CGI is the only way to create immersion, but it’s certainly an incredibly valuable aspect of creating truly immersive environments,” Hettema remarks. “What I find the most exciting these days is the blending of physical and virtual worlds in which the seams become invisible. That usually involves both traditional and cutting-edge systems and technology.

“We’ve always said that if we can imagine it, we can build it,” Hettema adds. “CGI really makes that more true than ever. It really feels like there are very few limits on what we can imagine and create.”