You could be forgiven for thinking that Marvel Super Hero Island has come to us from another planet. Though not as mysterious as the goings-on at Hangar 13 in Roswell, some of the early creative work on the project took place in a “secret, abandoned” warehouse in Burbank, CA. The island was designed to suggest that it was a ship that had landed on a lagoon in the middle of Orlando. The Marvel universe, with heroes and villains ranging from Thor to Doctor Doom to the Incredible Hulk, is certainly more alien than the family-friendly crew assembled over at Disney–or any other theme park, for that matter. And the island’s centerpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, with its seamless blend of motion-based and 3D technology, is unlike any other attraction on the planet.
Fear not, earthlings. Marvel Super Hero Island was not magically brought to life by a race of large-brained superhumans from a distant galaxy, but rather the result of over half a dozen years of hard work by an array of veteran human artisans highly skilled in themed attraction concept and design. Producer Scott Trowbridge has been closely involved with USIOA since 1993, helping to develop the conceptual design for the front half of the park–Port of Entry, Seuss Landing, and Super Hero Island–before turning his attention fully to the Marvel universe
“The concept development for Super Hero Island was a tricky one to pull off,” Trowbridge notes, “because there really isn’t one look to Marvel. There’s a multitude of looks, and each artist has his or her own style. Gene Nollman, the art director of the island, spent a significant amount of time looking at things like color palette, scale, the interplay between things like the supergraphics, the larger characters, and the building signage, to try and represent three-dimensionally what had always been represented two-dimensionally in the background of pages in a comic book.”
To achieve this, Trowbridge, Nollman, and the rest of the crew decided to give the main strip of the island what at first appears to be a Main Street USA look. It’s a collection of storefronts (sporting such generic signage as “Bank,” “Store,” and “Five and Dime”), fire hydrants, mailboxes, crosswalks, even curbs (Trowbridge notes that most parks only suggest curbs, but his island has the real thing). But then throwing this idyllic scene off, just above eye level, are a collection of 2D heroes and villains, floating in space, in action poses similar to those in comic books. There’s Thor, checking out the snack bar, here’s Doctor Octopus, lording over the Frozen Ice stand, that’s Captain America, protecting the gift shop.
Though it’s called Super Hero Island, the bad guys get equal time. One of the three main attractions is Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, twin towers in which guests are hoisted 200′ up in the air and then suddenly dropped at an alarming rate of speed to the ground below. To get there, guests must pass through Yancy Street, known as Villain’s Alley, the “wrong side of the tracks” part of the island. While the rest of the island has vibrant color and tone, Villain’s Alley is more acidic and forbidding. John Martin, who designed the lighting for the exterior of the island, as well as for the Doctor Doom and Hulk rides, notes that Villain’s Alley has its own separate identity.
“In Villain’s Alley, Gene Nollman created buildings, and then buildings outside of those buildings, which were referred to as exoskeletal additions that the villains added themselves. We tried to create some tension with those issues. We threw up some lights all strung together very strangely, without any particular thought, as if the villains were in a hurry. The heroes all had time to think out their ideas, but the villains were always in a mad rush.”
Martin used a combination of fixtures from Lumiere, Special FX Lighting, Paulson, Vega, and the CSI fixtures from Phoenix for the exterior of the park; h e notes that the CSI units were used heavily throughout USIOA for their wattage and ability to change focal length by the addition of lenses. His biggest challenge, he notes, was dealing with the vast amount of detailing, a problem not only in Super Hero Island, but in the other islands as well. “Every 10′ of the facade, the condition changes,” he says. “So just getting one fixture in place involves an unbelievable amount of effort.”
Other participants in the overall design of Super Hero Island included Carl Hartzler, head of audio/video systems, Abe Chorbajian, facility architect, Paul Norconck, landscape architect, and Susan Clippinger, project coordinator.
One of the first things guests see as they enter Super Hero Island are the green, winding tracks of the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Unlike most coasters, which slowly lift riders up a steep incline before plunging them down an equally steep hill, the Hulkster shoots riders out of the starting gate in cars that go from 0-40mph in two seconds. The ride then spins into a weightless, zero-G roll, turning the riders upside down over 100′ from the ground.
As Trowbridge notes, the creative team knew they wanted the Incredible Hulk character to be a major part of the island from the earliest stages, not only because of the comics but also because of the TV series of the 70s. “The Hulk is a great icon of Marvel, and he’s a great character. So we thought, what is the Hulk all about? He’s about raw emotion, he’s about driving energy, he’s about these primeval feelings. We wanted to deliver on that idea, as opposed to more linear narrative storytelling, so we decided to do a roller coaster, because it fits with the park, it delivers on the Hulk myth, and there’s nothing intellectual about it.”
In keeping with that visceral theme, Trowbridge and his design team for the Hulk–production designer Rex Moon, art director Mark Adams, lighting designer John Martin, sound designer Carl Hartzler, and animator Rich Ferguson Hull of the design company Olive Jar–created a preshow that was low on back story but heavy on mood. Guests waiting in the queue learn, through a hard-driving animated montage featuring news footage, sections of a gamma-ray experiment, and a video diary–that Dr. Banner is trying to create the original experiment that generated his alter ego, the Hulk. His goal is to re-synthesize himself, put his two halves together, and rid himself of the beast once and for all.
Trowbridge notes that the biggest challenge on Hulk was not letting it overpower the rest of IOA. “The Hulk plays a role as an icon in the park,” he says, “but we never wanted it to dominate the park. We didn’t want it to become The Islands of Hulk Coaster.”
Actually, The Islands of Spider-Man 3D attraction should have been a bigger worry for the USIOA crew, what with the intense hype among the media and huge popularity among its guests. Simply put, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is like nothing that’s ever been done before. Housed in a 1.5-acre set, the attraction takes stereoscopic 3D-CGI and projects it onto 13 giant screens, then combines that with hard scenery and the latest in motion-based car technology. The back story goes something like this: Spider-Man’s enemies have used an anti-gravity gun to steal the Statue of Liberty; Peter Parker’s boss at The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, wants the story, but his intrepid photographer is nowhere in sight. Guests board a SCOOP news-gathering vehicle to try and track down the story, encountering not only Spidey himself but an array of villains comin’ at ya in true 3D style.
The team assembled for Spider-Man included Trowbridge, who served as producer/director on the project; production designer Thierry Coup; show set designers Phil Bloom and Eric Parr; media producer Mark Rhodes; show system designer Steve Johnson; sound designers Hartzler and Soundelux Showorks; lighting designer Anne Militello; Electrosonic, which provided the projection systems; Kleiser-Walczak,which created the computer imagery; motion choreographer Devin Boyle; and Peter Jelf and ITEC Productions (control systems).
According to Trowbridge, Universal had just completed T2-3D when he and his crew began working on Spider-Man; their goal was to take the 3D technology achieved for that attraction, expand upon it, and place it in a ride setting. “We did not want this to become something you watched or looked at; we wanted it to be something you did,” Trowbridge says. “We wanted it to at least feel participatory and not voyeuristic, as you would in a theatre seat watching a proscenium stage or film projector.”
One of the first versions of the attraction was, interestingly enough, a radio play, which was used as the skeleton for all further development. From there, storyboarding began, then animatics were made, and then Coup and Trowbridge began traveling to Massachusetts to work with Kleiser-Walczak on the film. [For a complete story on Kleiser-Walczak’s contribution to this project, see the July issue of Millimeter.]
“The film had to be started very early on so we’d know every frame and every piece of action, and could then develop the rest of the ride,” explains Coup, who shared directing duties with Trowbridge. “To be able to compensate for the constant shift of perspective in the 3D film–which we ended up calling ‘squinching’–you had to determine exactly where the camera would be, because that was going to be your point of view later on. To do that, all the camera paths had to be established in the computer and locked. It’s hard to plan that far ahead, but once it’s done, you have a really strong argument against any changes anyone else wants to make down the road.”
Meanwhile, in Burbank, models were being built. “We started with a small tabletop model, around 4″ x 8″, that allowed us to look at not only ideas of space and spatial dynamics, but also helped us figure out how we were going to put all this technology into a building,” says Trowbridge. Once that was completed, they built a model that was 1″ to the foot, approximately 20′ x 26′. This model was placed off the ground on stilts, with the ride track cut out of the bottom of the model. “You could sit on these little stools we had and stick your head in the model, with your eye at the proper height in scale with the environment,” Trowbridge explains. This model was later loaded onto a truck and moved to Orlando, where it served as a reference point for the rest of the project.
While construction commenced on the 200′ x 260′ building, development and construction of the sets, built in part by the Nassal Company, was proceeding apace. Coup worked closely with Phil Bloom on the basic set concepts, trying to blend the set design with the track layout. Once those concepts were finalized, Coup took the plans to Kleiser-Walczak, and had the CGI team put the plans into the computer, then built an entire, stylized version of New York City around it.
Re-creating entire set design in digital form came in handy down the road, once it was time to develop the actual look of the sets. Coup was concerned about the costs of painting roughly the equivalent of two to three New York City blocks. As a cost-saving measure, he and his staff created what were dubbed scan-a-murals, rendered images on computer printed out not on vinyl, as is usually done with large billboards or Rosco murals, but on canvas. “Canvas gave it just the right texture for this project,” Coup says. “We got that first sample back, which was a facade for Scene One, and in a dark ride environment, with the right lighting, it was perfect. Having a scenic painter paint all the bricks and finishes in the style we wanted would have cost a fortune. The sets were built in the computer, with the same lighting, so we had a perfect blend. It was basically wallpaper that matched the texture on screen.”
Matching the looks on screen with the live scenery was a big concern for Militello. Fortunately, she was able to make some of those trips to North Adams to work with the virtual lighting designers at Kleiser-Walczak. “I’d never worked with a virtual lighting designer before, but it was similar to working with a cinematographer, conceptually, though with a different set of tools,” she says. “I watched them use the graphic tools to change the angles of light in the film, and we talked early about color. The color palette changed as the film was made, but the angles stayed pretty much the same.” With that frame of reference, Militello and her assistant David Cuthbert were able to stick their heads in that large-scale model and figure out fixture placement. “I’d point with a laser about where I thought the catwalks could reach the screens, and how the lights should be placed, and David would notate it,” she says.
Militello used primarily ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs on the ride, as well as several Times Square Lighting Baby Broadways. Color came primarily from SFX Dichro-X and some Fade-Not on glass substrate. There are four Strand CD80SV dimmer racks in three different locations throughout the attraction. For a scene in a sewer tunnel, Militello used L&E Ministrips to uplight the spines of the tunnel. And she also used Wildfire UV Spotlight 250 Series fixtures for the blacklight areas. “I needed lekos and PARs because I needed control,” she explains. “I needed barrels that turned, so I didn’t have to keep taking patterns out and turning them around. I needed good optics and low wattage. And I had pretty big throws–30, 40, even 50′ in places. But these lights all dimmed to pretty much half, so I needed a lot of stuff on top of each other, with less heat so the templates wouldn’t fry up. That’s why I went with the Source Fours.” Dave Mertins was the head electrician for the project; Ben Fisher and George Doukas, also from Vanco, were the programmers. Programming was done on an ETC Expression 2X.
Linamen handled certain lighting aspects of the ride that weren’t part of Militello’s domain. Two High End Systems Cyberlights(R) are used for effects in the show; one creates the Spidey signal in the first scene, and the other creates a helicopter effect in the last scene. Linamen also used three Diversitronics ellipsoidal strobes with overlapping construction patterns from Rosco to create a quick spark effect coming off a moving elevated train.
Taking the finished film that Coup, Trowbridge, and Kleiser-Walczak created and placing it on the screen in a way that not only blended with the scenery and lighting but also maintained the 3D image fell to Steve Johnson and the staff of Electrosonic. There are a total of 25 projectors used on the attraction: 12 3D setups and one 2D setup with a single projector. Many of these systems were rear screen-projected, a first for 3D film. According to Ian Scott, project manager for Electrosonic, projector placement was taken into account in the earliest stages of the project. “We started from where they wanted the screens to be and what size they were; from that, we gave them positions for projectors, and they designed booths specifically for that projector,” he says.
Electrosonic worked with Hughes Eclan to create custom lenses on the projectors that allow a nearly 180-degree view with no “fisheye” distortion. “Because we were trying to maximize the amount of light that we get on the screen, we were really pushing the limit as to what size the entrance pupil of the lens could be,” explains Scott. “Seventy-millimeter is quite a large piece of film area anyway, but then we’ve got the added complication of significant vertical offsets between the centerline of the projector and center of the screen. So we had to offset the lenses in the projector. But doing that means you need quite a bit more glass area at the entrance pupil of the lens, so you end up with quite a substantial piece of glass [about 3″ in diameter]. It was quite a challenge to get that to fit into the projector.”
For sound designer Hartzler, dealing with the usual challenges of a dark ride–dubious acoustics, distances between each car–was compounded by the fact that most of the scenes feature extremely large screens, making it difficult to contain the audio in one small space. He needed a system that would provide sound from both onboard and off-board. It soon became apparent, however, that most of the audio would have to come from the cars; the solution was actual car stereo speakers, 18 Infinity Kappas from Harman International. “It’s a 4″ x 6″ speaker with a shallow depth that’s designed to go into the door of a car,” says Hartzler. He also used six Aura seat shakers in each car, with control coming from Panasonic amps.
Audio processing came via Richmond Sound Design and a modified version of its Audio Box, which was placed on each car. “It had the capability of storing everything we needed to store, plus it had an output matrix where we could drive all the different speaker areas, and there were places we needed to crossfade as well,” says Hartzler.
On the off-board side, all the playback equipment was provided by Anitech, which was fed to speakers, primarily Renkus-Heinz ones. Any speakers that needed to match up with the car were controlled directly from the show control computer via digital signals; all the others that didn’t need the critical timing were controlled via serial data.
“The challenge offboard was that we needed to hear some of the audio coming from the screens,” says Hartzler. “Normally, in a movie theatre, the system is behind the screen; the screen is perforated and audio floats through it. But the screens we were dealing with could not be perforated, so we didn’t have that opportunity. We put the Renkus-Heinz speakers in front of the screen, aimed them at the screen, and bounced the sound off that. We were very leery of that, but it was a vinyl surface, and it bounced off pretty well.”
Final mix of Spider-Man fell to Soundelux Showorks, which also produced all the custom sound design, original music composition, dialogue recording, and editorial. Sound designer, composer, and mixer Pete Lehman and project manager Scott Mosteller worked with Hartzler and the rest of the Marvel crew on the project. Final mixing was done in each vehicle via the new Digidesign ProControl console, which connected to the central computer via ethernet.
The final piece of this massive attraction was the show control system designed to coordinate a wildly diverse group of elements. Theme park veteran ITEC Productions designed, built, and programmed the Ride Show Supervisor (RSS). ITEC project manager Jerry Pierson and his staff worked with USIOA’s Peter Jelf on the development of the system. Pierson says an initial challenge was keeping these different elements in synch, which included not only the lights, sound, film, and the ride vehicles, but also special effects such as a collapsing bridge by Show Technologies, or flame effects by Birket Engineering. “One of the most important concerns early on was the timing of events that happen onscreen compared to what the motion profile was on the ride vehicles themselves,” he explains. “They wanted accuracy within a single frame, which is 1/30 of a second, consistently throughout the whole attraction. And there was a lot of concern for that because there are inherently some discrepancies between timing on a ride vehicle, which is out there on its own, and then how it interacts with the film, and how both of those are coordinated to each of the effects.”
The components that make up the Ride Show Supervisor are an industrial controller consisting of an Allen-Bradley mainframe and processor and an Anitech MP 4000 hardware system, which allows for animation control as well as lighting control. “The RSS is also the window to the show from the operation standpoint,” explains Pierson. Specifically, the RSS sends show starts out to the individual scenes, based on the ride vehicle positions. It sends out show starts to the film subsets and controllers, and it also interfaces to all the effects in each individual scenes that are linked to the film. Additionally, it sends out a trigger for both what we call the land-based audio system as well as the ride-based audio system.”
Finally, in March of this year, after four years of planning, design, and construction, The Amazing Adventures had a soft opening for park employees and their families. Toward the end of the process, during a team barbecue, the huge model everyone spent hours poking their heads into was given a final sendoff by driving a bulldozer through the middle of it. Despite the complexity and sheer size of the project, Trowbridge and company pulled it off.
“There’s a reason no one’s ever built this before,” concludes Trowbridge. “It’s a huge pain in the ass! But it’s completely rewarding. Whenever I go into the attraction, I put all my identifying marks away and go incognito just to hear what people are saying. I walked up to the front-door operator and asked how long the line was, and she said about an hour. I said, ‘Wow, an hour?’ And there was this couple in the front of the line, and the woman said, ‘It’s worth it! It’s worth three hours!’ And the guy said, ‘You know, it was designed by NASA!’ And I said, ‘Really? That’s fascinating. I did not know that.'”
From Entertainment Design, Nov 1, 1999