Surrounded By Hollywood


Giant insects crawl along the face of a building, creeping into the shadows before reappearing on an adjacent structure. A few moments later, lasers blast open the side of another edifice, revealing smoldering rubble and sparking cables. Okay, maybe the giant insects probably aren't real, but perhaps that laser did get set a little higher than stun, and that big building really does have a gaping hole in it.

When the lights come up, guests at Universal Studios Florida find the façade of the facility's Men in Black building perfectly intact and ready for tomorrow night's show. For this is Hollywood, even if it's in Orlando.

The audience has just experienced the theme park's new nighttime show, Universal 360 — A Cinesphere Spectacular. The multimedia attraction uses high definition video projection, pyrotechnics, and lasers to place park guests smack in the middle of the action, surrounded by images and sounds of the historic studio's catalog.

To bring the concept to life, Universal hired Burbank-based Thinkwell Design & Production, brought onboard with only about a 120-day window to complete the job for the opening. “It was a very intense quick burn for everybody, especially our onsite team of production manager Cynthia Blackstone, TD Joe Messer, and project coordinator Rob Blasko,” says Thinkwell's executive producer, Joe Zenas. “And that included a rework of the show delivery infrastructure for the park, as well as our design.”

Universal was searching for a way to close the day's activities for guests with a new nighttime spectacular, which would immerse them in “a unique and on-brand message, beyond the standard fireworks show,” Zenas says. The show, to be centered on and around the park's existing lagoon, would include the best moments from the studio's past movies. “They knew they wanted it to be media-driven, in order to incorporate their blockbuster motion pictures into it,” notes Thinkwell chief creative officer Craig Hanna.

Park officials had become enamored of a projection system produced by UK-based Laser Magic (now LM Productions) called Stratosphere, which they knew they wanted to include in the new attraction, placed on floating barges in the lagoon, alongside more traditional nighttime spectacular features such as pyro and lasers. The system is comprised of a fabric sphere, with a pair of projectors inside, displaying video footage on the entire surface of the globe. “That was really the starting point to the whole thing,” says Hanna. “We took it from there.”

Thinkwell's approach was to completely surround the audience, with projections not only on the floating spheres, but on building surfaces as well, with sound, pyro, and lasers, all working in tandem. “We wanted to have stuff in front of the audience, stuff above them, and stuff behind them,” Hanna explains. “We brought in the concept of doing the façade projections to truly immerse the audience,” adds Zenas. “Everybody at Universal was fully supportive.”

The first step was to develop a 20-minute story arc for assembling the content from Universal's massive library, a monumental task for most but made a little easier by the background of Thinkwell's staff. “Having worked at Universal ourselves, before we started Thinkwell, we knew the library pretty intimately,” Hanna says. The company brought in film editor Michael Carone from nearby Planet C Studios. “Michael has done a lot of media for Universal theme parks in the past and was in-house at Universal when we were there. He knows a lot of that material, frame for frame.”

The show arc breaks the program into chapters, starting with a big opening, an action/adventure segment, drama, a horror segment, classic sci-fi, and epic films. “By focusing on each of these specific genres, we were able to create really nice emotional highs and lows throughout the show,” Zenas explains.

“Typically, you don't get serious with a nighttime spectacular,” adds Hanna. “Our fear was that during a quiet moment, you'd hear people shuffling their feet or see them looking at their watches or saying, ‘Oh, let's go get a churro.’ But during the Apollo 13 segment, you can hear a pin drop out there. It sends chills up my back just thinking about how the audience responds.”

Once a rough plan was decided upon, it was reviewed by the team to make sure the arc made sense from a storytelling standpoint. Soundtrack music was then laid in for a rough scratch track. “Music had to come first, before our edit, because with nighttime spectaculars, music drives all of the action, be it fireworks, lasers, or video,” Hanna explains.

Though Universal's initial suggestion was to use original soundtrack scores, it was decided to instead bring in composer Brad Kelly to rerecord the music, as close to original as possible. “We really needed to have these disparate musical themes woven together carefully, because they're in different keys, different tempos,” says Hanna. Adds Zenas, “Without having taken that extra effort to record, it wouldn't have nearly the impact as the end result that we got.”

The sound design was supervised by Cirque du Soleil veteran François Bergeron and Vikram Kirby, who worked closely with Universal to install an impressive renovation of the lagoon's sound infrastructure, including over 300 carefully-placed speakers.

It Takes Spheres

The film clips are projected onto four 30' diameter spheres floating along the center of the lagoon atop 40' square barges. The spheres were provided by Laser Magic and integrated with the barges, which were manufactured by Oceaneering International in Orlando. Power is provided from shore by means of submerged umbilicals, with control signals routed to land through Cat6 cables. The spheres themselves are actually inflatable domes, with low-speed, high-volume fans providing the air required to maintain their shape. Each has a zippered hatch through the side of the rip-stop nylon-type material, allowing access to the projection equipment inside.

Four Sanyo 12,000 lumen PLC XF47 projectors are located around the base of each sphere, aimed upwards onto the interior of the inflated domes. Each pair of projectors is edge-blended to create a single projection field covering 180° of the sphere and completely filling the domes with imagery. Each sphere is rotated slightly from its neighbor, allowing guests to see all of the content, no matter where they may be standing.

Laser Magic had created and engineered the projection systems to work within an NTSC widescreen format, using Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers to correct the projected images for the curved surfaces. With a carefully engineered projection field already established, it was important for Thinkwell to test various placements of the video clips within the field in order to achieve the most effective final result.

“We had a 3m (9.84') dome here in the office, which we tested with a little office projector with a front projection setup,” explains Thinkwell's director of technical design, Michael Finney. “There's a certain amount of distortion within the field and a real sweet spot for the image, so we had to determine what images we could use and what images we could not. Our show director, Tom Vannucci, did an absolutely amazing job of making the entire final film work with the sphere projection systems. But we always expect something amazing from Tom!”

One of the biggest challenges to operating the projection equipment within the spheres, says Finney, are temperature and condensation. The projectors are actually cooled by onboard four-ton air conditioning units. “They take more air conditioning than a small house!” laughs Finney. “Universal really stepped up to design and install an AC system that worked, because there are some long term temperature concerns. You have to be careful with the balance on the AC, or you actually start getting condensation on the cooled surfaces, including the lenses.”

Big Screens

While the spheres carried the main on-brand message, Universal 360 utilizes façades of four existing buildings — Men in Black, Back to the Future, the Eagle Warehouse, and New York Street — to project additional material from high definition video projectors. The largest, on the 400' wide Men in Black building, is comprised of five projector fields edge-blended together to provide a 5,100×768 pixel canvas, the largest such high definition projection ever created, according projection/media director Jeff Klein.

Klein and his team from Klein Productions in Westlake Village, CA, created, essentially, three types of content, under creative direction from Thinkwell. The first involves, say, characters on a star field, vignetted and composed, to function as a background for the content appearing on the spheres. “It's sort of like using it as a giant drive-in movie screen,” says Craig Hanna.

The second involves creation of “visual support,” or wallpaper — custom-created backgrounds, for example, to show, from ET, Elliot and his friends on animated bicycles flying from one side of the building to the other against a lush sunset. “It looks similar to what you see in the movie, but it's custom-composed and designed specifically for that aspect ratio and that building and the technology,” Hanna explains.

By far, the most complicated building projection technique used, however, involves projection specifically registered to the building's architecture. The surfaces of the buildings are far from being flat slabs, sometimes involving elements which are raised on the surface.

Klein initially took measurements and digital still photos of each building, the latter captured at likely projector locations. This information was then combined with original CAD construction drawings of the buildings, using Autodesk 3D Studio MAX software, to create 3D models of each building, down to the brick. The data also helped Klein produce accurate masking for each projection, to avoid spillover of light beyond the edges of the buildings' outlines.

The completed models, along with other projection elements, were then imported into Coolux's Pandoras Box MediaVision, where the various elements could then be mapped onto the building model, using a system Klein has been developing over the last year. The method provided an amazing canvas to Klein and his team. “The Men in Black building, for instance, has a really cool stamped pattern design, that's broken down into many, many triangles,” he says. “We can project onto each individual triangle, if we wish, putting an individual image on an individual triangle. So it looks like there are actually hundreds of projectors in the sequences.”

The effects produced astonish guests, to say the least. In the opening sequence, for instance, which utilizes imagery from Universal's The Mummy series, the façades are first projected with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then, a swarm of 3D scarabs scatter across each of the four buildings, starting with the Men in Black façade, making their way over to New York Street, apparently ducking into shadows and along the contours of the buildings — all a part of the projection, based on the contours built in the models in 3D Studio MAX.

Such scenes also take advantage of virtual architectural lighting built into the projection files. “We created this lighting, based on the digital photos of the buildings, to give the appearance of real architectural lighting being thrown up onto the buildings, which the guests see as they're coming into the lagoon area at show time,” Hanna explains. “As far as they're concerned, they're just looking at standard lightscaping on the buildings, when, in fact, they're viewing Jeff's projections to appear like standard lightscaping.”

The rug can easily be pulled out from under the guest. In the Terminator 2 sequence, real lasers are fired over their heads at the various buildings. “We're projecting the image of the building onto the building, perfectly registered at that moment, so that when the laser beam hits the building, on our media, we blast a hole into the building, allowing you to see I-beams and crumbling rubble and sparking conduit. It really looks as if the laser has blown a 40' hole in the side of the building.”

Besides handling edge-blending for images, Pandoras Box MediaVision also accurately corrects for keystoning and other distortion to the images due to the obtuse angles created by projector placement. “That was one of the most challenging parts of the project — finding locations to place the projectors so that they would be invisible to the guests and still fill up the entire raster to create the illusion,” Klein says.

Thinkwell selected Sanyo's 10,000 lumen PLC-XF45 XGA projectors for the building work. “They're great pieces of equipment,” says Klein. “We've used them many times, and they're very reliable and produce a very strong image.” Adds Finney, “We did a head-to-head with some other projectors, and we actually like these better than some of the more expensive ones. They're a little brighter, a little bluer, which really worked in our favor.”

The projectors are not double-stacked, as one might expect. “They have four or five lamps in them, so we have redundancy built into the projector,” Klein explains. Projector mounts are pre-calibrated, making quick swaps, should an entire unit fail, a simple matter. The footage is played back using Media Sonic HD servers. The projector systems are each housed in air-conditioned environmental enclosures, made by Display Devices.

The aforementioned lasers include both single-color and diode-pumped four-color white light lasers, which afforded the designers a great amount of leeway in their use. “Everyone's seen lasers, and pretty much everyone's tired of lasers,” says Hanna. “We wanted to reinvent how they are used and put them in a different context.” The full-color lasers enabled Thinkwell to pick and choose colors based on that context. “We could pick the colors we wanted to fit the designs, as opposed to basing your artistic color palette on the color of the lasers.”

For a classic sequence from Jaws, for instance, the air was filled with smoke, and a wavy azure blue beam spanned the air just above the audience's heads. “You almost feel like you're there with this water line rising, and you're sinking,” Hanna says. “The whole lagoon feels like it's sinking.”

The Universal pyrotechnics team handled operation of the pyro for the show. “They've been shooting off pyro for years and years, and they know their systems better than we would,” Hanna explains. Thinkwell worked closely with Universal's entertainment department to come up with new and unusual ways to make use of pyrotechnics. “They really pushed themselves to come up with some really crazy locations that you just don't expect to see. There are big shells launching up over your shoulder off the roof of a building or balls of fire coming off a theatre next to you. They just kept saying, ‘Hey, we've always wanted to do this; we haven't had a chance to. Let's try this out.’ So they were really instrumental in making the show fit in their park.”

Indeed, the park's collaboration with Thinkwell's staff facilitated the quick installation and design, something which would have otherwise been impossible in the limited time frame. “It really was a great collaboration, because they understand what they've got on the ground. Having them there to guide us through the nuts and bolts of their facility was a shorthand we absolutely couldn't have done without,” Hanna says.

The proof is in the pudding, however, be it wide-eyed guests as they watch a hole seemingly get blasted into a 400' building or just an on-the-mark content choice for a film clip. “In the dramatic sequence, there's a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird,” Hanna recalls. “I noticed a guy lean over to his wife and tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Look, they put it in. They put my favorite film in.’ It just made me think, ‘Look — we got that guy!’ I love that.”

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