On Tuesday, King Kong 360 3-D, which is billed as “the world’s largest 3-D experience,” makes its grand opening at Universal Studios Hollywood and, if the attraction lives up to the advance buzz, the park’s venerable tram tour will never be the same. The attraction’s creative team included Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, who brought the world’s most famous ape back to theater screens in 2005, and the visual effects wizards at Weta, but the jungle spectacle is far more than moving pictures on a screen. To understand this new monkey business, I caught up with Matt Aitken, the visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital Ltd., for the latest installment of Five Questions. — Geoff Boucher
MA: It’s different than anything we’ve done before. The thing that we thought was great about it is it was a chance to give Kong himself another lease on life and build on the work we did for the 2005 movie and do it in a unique screening environment and viewing experience. It’s a modern hybrid of the movie technology we’ve been developing for shows like ”
GB: Talk a bit about those constraints — what is the size and duration of this spectacle? And “attraction” is such a wide-open term, can you explain a bit about the content and texture of this one?
MA: The experience overall … is maybe about four or five minutes, but the actual core of it — the work that we’ve produced — is under two minutes. Its a very compressed, focused piece of work that we’re dealing with. As for the experience: People are on the backlot tour of Universal Studios and, somehow, they’re transported to Skull Island. They’re still on the tram tour, they’re still driving through, but now the world around them is Skull Island and what we’ve done is used all the technology that we had at our disposal and some very highly tuned specifications to make the experience a very compelling one; we’re working with very high resolution images so the images have an enormous amount of detail in them. We’re working at a very high frame range — 60 frames per second — so a lot of the [adverse things] associated with a typical movie experience at 24 frames per second — motion blur and flicker –those go completely out the window. The audience is getting delivered a huge amount of visual information at a very high rate.
The images are huge. The screens completely fill the audience’s field of view. And of course the media is 3-D. They have to put on a pair of glasses as they drive into the stage space, this dark space, into Skull Island, and from there the story takes off in terms of all the action that we’ve worked with Peter to create and the story he wants to tell…
GB: Can you tell us more about that story? All things considered, I’m guessing there’s not a lot of dialogue…
MA: Peter had a pretty good idea from the start what was the story that he wanted to tell. It involves, initially, just being in the wild, crazy beauty of Skull Island and then, through a set of circumstances, coming into a situation of peril and being set upon by these three giant Tyrannosaurus Rex. When things look really bad, that’s when Kong arrives. He sees that we, the audience, are in a tricky situation and he comes to our rescue. The fight ensues between Kong and the T. Rex as he takes on these creatures to save us. He’s a great guy at the end of the day. He’s not all bad … we have a huge canvas to tell the story, with screens on either side of the tram. We play action across both screens and up and down the screens in order to structure and tell the whole story that Peter wanted to tell in the time frame.
GB: How does this endeavor fit into the story of Weta? Is this the beginning of a new specialty or more of a one-time foray into the amusement park sector?
MA: It was a natural progression for us, given that we had done all that development work on “Kong” and that story environment and on “Avatar” we have experience with 3-D that we can bring to bear. We worked very closely with Universal Creative, who commissioned the ride and with the other vendors that they brought on board in terms of motion-based programming and the “4-D” effects in terms of the air cannons and the air knives and water sprays and all the scents and other things…
GB: Scents? What scents are there — dinosaur scat? And what do you mean by motion-based programming?
MA: I’m not going to give too much away, but let’s say that Kong may not have the banana breath of the old animatronic Kong experience … [On the motion-based programming] what was great was working with the other vendors because we determined the story, the pacing and the action, so we were able to provide motion data to the motion-based programming that ensured that, when the a T. Rex comes up and nudges at the tram — and remember that he pops right up out of the screen because he’s in 3-D — the motion-based programming kicks in a knocks the tram sideways a little. There’s a tie-in between all the experiences.
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— Geoff Boucher
PHOTOS: Top and second photo are promotional concept images for King Kong 360 3-D (Universal Studios); Third, a publicity photo showing tram ride as it goes through new King Kong sequence (Universal Studios). Bottom, World of Color at California Adventure (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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