How Theme Parks make Movies Inhabitable

If you want to experience interactive cinema, don’t go the cinema. It’s in theme parks, where you can experience the thrill of living inside your favourite movies. This article explains, how it is done.

Probably, the idea is as old as art itself. It existed already when the ancient Greeks painted perspective backdrops for their plays: aesthetic immersion, the attempt to draw the audience into the fiction of the artwork; to provide it not only with an intellectual but with a physical experience.

Today, in media society, immersion – from Latin immersio, to submerge – seems almost complete. The cinema of blockbuster attractions does everything it can with rapid camera moves, booming sound systems, brilliant colours and the newest 3D-effects to offer the spectator just that: forgetting the world around you, almost touching the fantastic, diving into the world of artifice.

Cinema’s predecessor, as well as its companion, were panoramas and similar fairground attractions, whose appeal didn’t lie primarily in the phenomenon of moving pictures as such, but rather in the perfect surround experience, supported by sounds, smoke effects and mechanical movement. Even back then, the most popular source material was provided be spectacular events, real or imagined: enormous battles or adventurous journeys, as in Frederic Thompsons „Trip to the Moon“ , an illusionistic spectacle full of moving canvasses and haunted house elements. The attraction premiered in 1901 and drew huge crowds to Coney Island’s „Luna Park“ just outside New York City for several years from 1903 onward.

Technology and artistic vision come face to face in these attractions, just like they do in film. Their creators shy away from nothing to establish the perfect experience. When he started to work on designs that would transfer the vortex-like cinematic effect of his animated movies, achieved through an insistance on all-singing, all-dancing hyperrealism, onto the overarching concept of an amusement park in 1951, Walt Disney became one of them.

Disneyland opened in 1955. The employees of its development company called themselves Imagineers – a portmanteau of „imagination“ and „engineers“. In its four park areas, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland, every detail is „themed“ to match the respective area’s concept, from plant life and the costumes of the employees (called „cast members“) down to the garbage cans. Paths are constructed in such a way that you rarely spot the other lands if you are walking through one of them. so the impression is never jarred. The area is mined by tunnels, allowing the cast members to move about without disturbing the guests: work makes itself invisible. Only the centre of the park, the Sleeping Beauty Castle, now a brand in itself, is always visible.

Disneyland is „at the same time absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic“, wrote Umberto Eco in 1973. If the visitor brings the appropriate attitude, he can lose himself in Disneyland – not in a specific movie, but in the stuff that movies are made of. The escapist element of Hollywood’s dream factory: in theme parks it becomes a reality. The spectator becomes a user, a protagonist in his own film.

The parks owned by Universal Studios, in Hollywood, Florida and Japan, are – broadly speaking – not as playful as their Disney equivalents. Nevertheless, they allow the audience to intimately immerse itself in movies. Even in the silent era, Universal founder Carl Laemmle supplemented his studio’s income by letting visitors tour the backlot. In 1964, building on Lammle’s legacy, Universal opened its now-legendary Studio Tour in which guests are driven around parts of the property in a trolley car.

Nowadays, the Tour’s real behind-the-scenes part, which destroys rather than creates illusions, is kept to a minimum. Instead, the cars pass a collapsing bridge, the passengers witness an earthquake and a flash flood and may watch the Jaws shark gobble up a diver. In the eighties, when Universal felt capable of competing with Disney in the theme park market, the studio also began to build parks with attractions based on the films it had produced, first in Hollywood than elsewhere. Disney has, in turn, adapted the backlot concept and opened parks like „Walt Disney Studios“ in Paris.

„The most boring aspect of movies and TV. is the actual filming process“, says Barry Upson, one of the creators of the original tour, who became executive vice president of Universal’s recreational division in 1979 and remained there until 1999. The newer attractions were built on highlighting a film’s gripping aspects. They were also fully themed.

This can mean several things. In many cases, the main attraction is preceded by a pre-show that works like a title sequence, explaining connections to the ur-film and introducing characters and setting. The building housing the attraction is often designed after one of the sites in the film’s universe: Thus, the „Simpsons“-Ride is set in a fairground in Springfield, „Star Tours“ plays out in a space station in a galaxy far far away, „Shrek 4D“ drops the audience into Lord Farquaads dungeon.

Just as often, hovever, it seems enough to evoke a well-known film’s visual vocabulary while you are waiting in line. Signs use symbols and fonts employed in the film. Announcements like „Keep your hands inside the vehicle during the ride“ are acted out by the film’s characters on monitors or via audio broadcasts. Because the waiting can take an hour or longer, the observant visitor has had more than enough time to remember the scenes he loved when he finally takes a seat. By that time, he is in the centre of the universe he will subsequently be propelled through via rollercoaster, motion simulator or „4D-cinema“ – the 4th dimension usually consists of shaking seats and a few jets of water.

To optimise their immersive effects, Universal rides as well as newer attractions in parks by Disney and Warner Bros. Worldwide, usually start with the basic idea of the film and build the ride around it. This doesn’t mean that rides cannot later be „re-themed“. The „Simpsons“ ride at Universal Studios Hollywood used to be a trip Back to the Future in the DeLorean. And rides without specific cinematic source material can become movies in their own right, as Gore Verbinskis Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy has proven.

When a new attraction is created, the first step consists of thinking about whether the trouble is worth it. „’Serious’ films without action or dramatic stories with lots of dialog don’t work very well“, says Craig Hanna, chief creative officer of Thinkwell Design in Burbank, who have built rides for pretty much every major player in the industry. „Animated films, action films, big sci-fi films and films with great chase, stunt or fight sequences obviously work great“ It’s also important that the film was succesful and has established itself as a brand.

At the core of the design process should be the film or intellectual property’s essence: „We serve as an intermediary between the owner or operator and the IP holder“, says Hanna. „We have to create an experience that meets the business, financial, scheduling and operational goals, while ensuring the creative idea and production on the project remains true to the original IP“

Hanna and Upson agree that harmonic thematic design is essential for an exceptional amusement park. When the Theming is right, says Upson, „everything in the park contributes positively to its central story line.“ Hanna agrees: „When we develop theme parks we look at theming as part of the storytelling of the park, what we call Environmental Storytelling“. Just as an architect will develop a land-use plan, the company designing the attractions creates the masterplan for the content of the narrative architecture: „Every element, visual and audio cue the guest experiences, sees, hears, touches or even tastes, must reinforce the park’s story“

The process is expensive, the designer admits. With attractions based on Film-IPs, it would be ideal if the company could only employ original elements from the film. Often, however, the rights for theme park attractions are not part of the license agreements that studios sign with actors or producers. Because they would have to be negotiated anew in these cases, the Theme Parks sometimes find ways around them.

Hanna names the work on „Ice Age Adventure“ as an example, a ride built by Thinkwell at „Movie Park“, formerly „Warner Bros. Movie World“, in Bottrop, Germany. The attraction is a so-called „dark ride“: the passengers pass by illuminated dioramas populated with animatronic puppets telling a story. In this case, they are telling a „1.5 sequel“ as Hanna calls it, to the first Ice Age movie.

„The ride is not really a sequel, we leave that to the screenwriters“, says Hanna. „But it is based on what you know and love from the original movie“. The idea of the „semi-sequel“ is popular: a similar concept is at the heart of the „Shrek 4D“-film, also at Bottrop, or its more spectacular cousin: a combination of 3D-film and stage show in an expansion of Terminator 2’s universe at Universal Studios Hollywood.

For the „Ice Age Adventure“, the film’s original score and German voice talents were too expensive and had to be imitated for the ride. However, Hanna explains, Thinkwell was able to use the original wireframe models of US animation studio Blue Sky as a base for their puppets.

One of the few film-based rides where both intellectual property and ride design hail from Germany is the 4-D-Film „Lissi und die wilde Kaiserfahrt“ („Lissi and the wild Kaiser’s ride“) at Bavaria Filmstadt in Munich. Here, the partners could build on close cooperation. Nico Rössler, the Filmstadt’s director, Thomas Zauner, CEO of visual effects company Scanline and writer/director/actor Michael „Bully“ Herbig had worked together several times before.

Realized within the limits of theme park financing in Germany – the project cost a „six-digit amount“, says Rössler – the „Wilde Kaiserfahrt“ also is a sort of 1.5-sequel to Herbig’s animated feature Lissi und der wilde Kaiser („Lissi and the wild Kaiser“, a parody of the classic German film trilogy about princess Elisabeth „Sissi“ of Austria starring Romy Schneider). The ride draws about 400.000 to 500.000 visitors per year, since it opened in October 2007. It is based on a scene from the film in which the caricature of the classic „Sissi“-character is chased down a snowy slope in a life raft by two poachers. The 3D-film adds a few locations to the original scene and makes the spectator part of the chase. A vintage hydraulic gimble gives the seats a good shake and an IOSONO sound system courtesy of the Fraunhofer institute, which is able to place sound effects anywhere in the room with the help of several hundred speakers, allows for a unique sonic adventure.

The centre of attention here is definitely the general experience, not the immersion in an alien world. There is also not much Theming to speak of: While the antechamber to the cinema is decorated in a mock baroque style reminiscent of the film, the screening room itself is naked, not least because the sound system doesn’t allow otherwise, as Rössler explains. However, this does fit in with the concept of the whole park, says the Filmstadt’s director. It’s not primarily content that’s on display here, but well-known film personalities and brands combined with a look behind the scenes of filmmaking in Germany.

On the other end of the spectrum, the „Wizarding World of Harry Potter“, which just opened its gates in Orlando, Florida, clearly aims at pushing the envelope when it comes to engulfing its visitors in fantasy. The park allows guests to explore the world of the famous sorcerer’s apprentice close up. The hub of the compound is a reconstructed Hogwarts, flanked by the wizarding village Hogsmeade and several rides. The park’s website also features immersive techniques: by means of „augmented reality“, the user can project holographic images onto his own hand with his webcam.

A visit to Ollivanders wand shop, where a wand chooses the visitor and not vice versa, mirroring the books, promises to be one of the highlights of the „Wizarding World“. In Theme Parks, if everything works as it should, it is only when you exit through the obligatory gift shop that waits at the end of every attraction, that you notice it is time to leave the waters of the film world you were swimming in.

A German version of this article appeared in epd film 7/10

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a post on how this article came about, and interviews with <a href="Barry Upson (formerly Universal Studios) and Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).

Theme Park Package

In May 2009, I visited California for the first time. As is the custom, I also visited the Universal Studios park. I always liked theme parks, but what I experienced there really blew my mind. I loved the attention the rides paid to every detail and the way how the creators managed to make the films on which the rides were based come alive again: An Idea for an article was born.

I pitched the article to my editors at epd film and they agreed to let me work on it. I looked for interview partners in the states and I travelled to Munich’s Bavaria Filmpark to investigate how the Germans do it. Thomas Zauner and Nico Rössler from Scanline and Bavaria Filmstadt were very generous with their time, as were Barry Upson, formerly of Universal Studios Recreation Group, and Craig Hanna, CCO of Thinkwell.

The article came together while I visited Disneyland Paris for the first time in October. However, by that time, the season for theme parks in Europe had already passed and the editors decided to postpone the article until this summer. Now, it has finally appeared in print.

For my American interviewees, I translated the article into English. I will post this article, as well as the unabridged versions of the interviews I did with Craig and Barry, in this blog. Please enjoy.

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a feature article, and interviews with Barry Upson (formerly Universal Studios) and Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).