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Return of the King
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On a warm, sunny September afternoon last fall, more than 100 PGA member and guests met at Universal Studios Hollywood and embarked on an exciting journey to the mysterious and primeval Skull Island. We plunged into a lush jungle and encountered T-rex, raptors, giant spiders, and the Eighth Wonder of the World, King Kong himself.

Of course, what we experienced is the newest addition to the Universal Tram Tour, Peter Jackson's King Kong 360 3-D, which is the world's largest and most intense 3-D projection installation ever produced with physical effects. The attraction, based on Jackson's 2005 blockbuster film, broke new ground in immersive-themed entertainment and storytelling technology.

After slowly approaching what seems like a formidable fortress of rock, ancient skulls and talismans, our tram made a sharp right turn up the side of the hill where we saw a crushed and smoking shell of another Universal tram that had met with doom along the same path. Meanwhile, on the video monitors within our tram, Peter Jackson calmly narrated his story of King Kong, expressing that this creature is a marvel of size and heart and that Skull Island is truly a magical environment.

Magic is the best word to describe King Kong 360 3-D. After you enter the dark tunnel and Jackson instructs you to put on your large 3-D glasses, immense gates open and the tram enters another dimension of time and space. Moments before the blackness around the tram gives way to the first rays of sunlight, a wave of jungle scent washes over the tram and you can sense the dense vegetation all around you. In moments, giant insects fly by and out from the ferns, raptors, drooling T-rex, and giant spiders make eye contact with you and you realize your place in this primeval food chain: lunch. As your tram attempts to outrun these predators, the roar of Kong shakes the tram and he bursts forth to take on these giants, wrestling all around and over your car, as a T-rex drags you over the edge of a massive chasm, and Kong comes to your rescue.

Unlike Universal's Jurassic Park ride, which is an expansive boat excursion through physical set pieces featuring dozens of animatronic dinosaurs, King Kong 360 3-D delivers a brilliant digital manipulation of light, sound, water and air emitters, movement and scents using ditital projectors and two massive curved screens within a 200-foot-long building.

We were genuinely blown away with our very first King Kong 360 3-D experience and to our delight, after the first trip through the attraction, our guide parked the tram outside and we changed seats in different cars to experience it from different viewpoints a couple more times.

Many of us commented that we had never experienced 3-D on such a huge scale, and we were excited about how immersive the story felt to us. It was especially interesting to seee how the seating arrangement in the four-car trams really affected the storytelling depending on the guests' point of view. This multi-POV storytelling dsign ensures that the ride can easily sustain multiple viewings and deliver fresh experiences each time.

The story of King Kong 360 3-D starts back in June of 2008 when a devastating fire ravaged Universal Studios' back lot. Once the smoke cleared, gone were the famous New York Street and sadly, the giant animatronic King Kong attraction (with his famous banana breath) millions of visitors from around the world had come to know and love.

Less than two years after the blaze, a spectacular new King Kong has risen from the ashes with immediate critical and popular success. It's estimated that this epic new attraction has helped Universal Studios Hollywood increase park attendance by approximately 30%. Following a very successful 2010 summer season, King Kong 360 3-D was immediately included as part of Universal's popular Horror Nights schedule throughout the Halloween season and continues to draw large crowds.

PGA members Valerie Johnson-Redrow, Dina Benadon, James Fino, Joe Russo II,
Alison Savitch and Jeanette DePatie at the Guild's special King Kong 360 event.

Behind this innovative special venue is PGA member and producing veteran, Valerie Johnson-Redrow, who has a long list of theme park shows and attractions under her belt, as well as work in film and television. Thanks to Valerie, NMC Board member Dina Benadon and NMC Chair Alison Savitch, Universal Studios Hollywood opened their doors and allowed the PGA to get a special behind-the-scenes peek at King Kong 360 3-D.

When asked about the immediate response from the park guests, Johnson-Redrow cheerfully responds, "Well, what I've heard is that the experience is a surprise! Guests are surprised to find themselves in the middle of an environment created digitally and they're not sure if it's real or not."

While the overwhelming response to this ride might generate speculation that King Kong 360 3-D experiences will be built for Universal's other parks, Johnson-Redrow doesn't believe so, pointing out the simple fact, "Well, there is no other tram tour. This was designed to be viewed from a 120-foot-long tram, so it's very unique in that sense."

Given that most of us have experienced special venue attractions or themed attractions at amusement parks, museums, aquariums, etc., it's fascinating to learn the responsibilities of a show producer like Valerie, and how they correspond to the showrunner's role regarding the development and execution of an immersieve story-telling project.

Johnson-Redrow explains, "I was brought in because Jen Sauer, the creative director from Florida, needed a show producer on the West Coast. So we worked very closely together. My job was to manage the creative process and give creative buy offs along with Jen to make sure that what all vendors were doing worked with the show.

"A show producer's job," she continues, "is to make sure that the creative intent of the show, just like a film, gets on the screen and in front of the guests. We work with a creative director to make sure that the vision happens. It's a lot like producing a movie but with additional aspects like the practical effects, the overall timing of the show, as well as the theming of the exterior of the building. It's not my job to build the show building, but to make sure that the building works for our show purposes.

Valerie Johnson-Redrow
"I also worked with the publicity and the marketing teams. They chose me to be the 'voice' of Kong for various presentations that we did, both in-house and for sales outside. I didn't come up with the campaign, but I was the liaison between [Jackson's company] Weta Digital and our marketing group to get elements from the ride to use."

It's quite remarkable that such a complex attraction came into being less than two years after the fire destroyed the precious incarnation of Kong. But as Johnson-Redrow explains, "[Universal] did some marketing research which showed that King Kong was a much-loved attraction on the tour by international crowds as well as domestic. So they know they had to bring him back." We bandied about working with animatronics, incorporating pieces of the feature film, etc. and we knew "we wanted to work with Peter Jackson's King Kong because it was a Universal film and we loved his version of the character. Things evolved and we realized that digital technology had come much further than animatronics, and if we used 3-D media, we could bring Kong to every guest...and quickly!"

Over the past few years, many of use have been learning how to produce stereoscopic 3-D media and we all have experienced modern digital 3-D movies in the theater. Such producers understand the basic requirements for a good illusion - a specific angle of projection between the audience and the screen at all times. Considering the King Kong 360 3-D audience is sitting in a moving 120-foot, four-car tram, significant considerations had to be adressed for steroscopic 3-D to work properly from every guest's perspective.

As Johson-Redrow spelled it out, "You have the architecture of the tram that's between you and the screens. You can't change that. It's not at all like a typical theater situation. You have a roof over your head and you've got the bars of the tram to look through. We had concerns over how can we bring out the 3-D to the maximum without compromising the illusion for people on one side of the tram. So we did a lot of grid sightline test and interocular tests to figure out the best show. We brought out the 3-D as far as we could and it feels like [Kong and the dinosaurs] are actually bumping the tram.

"That was the goal," she states, "to not make it a 2-D media experience but to make it an immersive experience. Since our show building wasn't built yet, we had to find a soundstage large enough to do our testing in. We ended up leasing the same stage in Playa del Rey in which Howard Hughes built the 'Spruce Goose'! We built a fake tram out of wood and a full-size mockup of the screens for our projection tests. Then those screens got recycled.

"The compound curved screens were conceived and custom-built to accommodate the uniqueness of the attraction's viewing environment and to maximize light return to the guest's eyes," Johnson elaborates. "There's a 25% vertical squeeze built in so that it's about 1,350 pixels squeezed to 1,080 pixels tall; the width of each frame we were getting from Weta was 6,686 pixels, we had a pixel map built to plan and test the overlap and owrk out final delivery from Weta Digital."

And as far as the monstrous aspect ratio for the two screens that deliver the steroscoic digital animation, Johnson-Redrow explains, "The media was delivered in four pieces...each a long frame that we divide up and project. The various camera angles were stitched together by Weta Digital and color-corrected. Weta Digital delivered a left eye and right eye for both tram left and tram right. We then processes those four files to project from 16 projectors."

Digital technology aside, at its core, King Kong 360 3-D is a compelling and engaging story from beginning to end and has a development process similar to feature films in most aspects. What makes it unique is the physical location of the audience in realation to the media, and the tactile interation that is available to immerse them further than ever possible in a standard theater.

"It was a real collaboration," Johnson-Redrow details. "Universal came up with some concepts, then we got Peter Jackson's input. He had his own ideas and then once we decided on the parameters of the attraction, it was in collaboration with Peter that all the decisions were made. We said, here's the palette, we've got special effects like air, water, scents. We've got accent lighting on the architecture of the trams and shadow effects, we've got pneumatic-powered tram given that, let's make this a great experience!

"Peter really embraced the film side of things," she continues, "and worked with us to choose things like the specific scents. When the ride begins, you're on Skull Island and since he knows Skull Island better than we do, he chose the environmental scent. He also decided what 'dino breath' would smell like, and for Kong we all agreed we didn't want banana breath!

"We did tests for cycling times to determine how fast the tram could or should move. We spent weeks programming the pneumatic tram mover to complement the movement in the media. We needed to see what a show experience would be like based on all possible viewing possitions."

Of course, no one undertakes a project of this size and scope on her own, and throughout the conversation, Johnson-Redrow is quick to acknowledge the members of her award-winning team, including Sassoon Film Design for grid creation, Weta Digital for media dividing and processing, Peter Anderson and Electrosonics for their screen design and projection system, Park Road Post in New Zealand for color-correction and audio production and Visual Terrain for show lighting.

And as far as Johnson-Redrow's biggest challenge as show producer, it came down to something we can all relate to in any project we've produced: the time factor. Johnson-Redrow adds, "As show producer, I had to keep the momentum going, to get feedback from New Zealand as to how things were progressing. We knew that we had to open the ride in July for the summer and I needed to drive that process to make sure we were finessing a show instead of still designing a show when we got into the final facility (at Universal Studios). Ultimately, we had to get the digital media right. We needed to get the timing and the speed of action to work in 3-D at a scale not done before. You can't judge those aspects until you are the right distance from the screen. And there were certain things we couldn't plan in our facilities in Playa del Rey. We couldn't move the tram. We could only sit still. We didn't have the perfect lighting conditions there. We didn't have audio other than a few mockups here and there, but we were fortunate enough to get the audio design and mixing team from the 2008 film to create our audio."

The results of Johnson-Redrow's and her team's efforts speak for themselves. "Universal Studios Hollywood is thrilled," she beams, "the attendance of the park shot up. They had a very busy summer and it's continuing. The ratings have been through the roof, according to the guest surveys. Overall, the park management has been very happy with the guest reaction."

Not surprisingly, since interviewing Valerie this past fall, this landmark achievement in special-venues design and production recently made industry history when it won the "Best Achievement in Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project" at the 9th annual Visual Effects Society Awards ON February 1, 2011. This is the first VES Award ever presented to a theme park ride.

With summertime quickly approaching, this classic Universal Hollywood's saga continues as it should. Kong is "King of the World" once again.