Universal goes ape for 3D Kong

New attraction at Hollywood park opens July 1

Two years after being destroyed in a devastating fire, King Kong is roaring back to life on Universal’s backlot.

The company has spent about $100 million to revive the big ape with “King Kong 360 3-D,” an attraction that will become a permanent part of its Hollywood theme park’s studio tram tour starting July 1. It will also be prominently featured in the park’s annual Halloween Horror Nights event.

King Kong’s rebirth represents another example of how the entertainment biz is turning to 3D to attract audiences — and it also reps U’s latest move to aggressively compete with Disney and court theme park goers after opening the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in Orlando last week, backed by a $300 million budget.

And more construction is coming as the company hopes to expand the Hollywood park with 146,000 square feet of new space and attractions, including a “Transformers” roller coaster.

Expansion is part of NBC Universal’s Evolution Plan, a blueprint for a $3 billion makeover of the 391-acre property. Earlier this year, Universal Parks & Resorts also said it is moving forward with the construction of a new $3 billion park, CityWalk and entertainment destination in South Korea, set to open in 2014.

All of this activity has been in the works for years despite speculation that NBC Universal may one day move to sell off the parks. That speculation may heat up again now that Comcast is poised to take majority ownership of NBC U from General Electric. It’s not entirely clear how Comcast feels about the theme park biz. Some industryites suggest NBC U is putting cash into the parks to make them more attractive for a potential sale.

If so, then so much the better for tourists.

The Kong project is the first theme park attraction that Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based f/x shop Weta Digital has created. Company had also produced the computer-generated visuals for Jackson’s “King Kong,” which Universal released in 2005.

The new attraction borrows heavily on character designs and plot points from that pic as guests, wearing 3D glasses, find themselves deep in a jungle where they encounter a pack of menacing raptors. Guests are then caught in the middle of a battle between the dinosaurs and King Kong as the ape tries to save the jostling trams from sliding off a cliff.

“Over the years, I visited Universal as a tourist and then, more recently, when we were working on our movie,” Jackson said. “I got quite familiar with the old Kong attraction. Our remake was not related to the attraction, but I thought it would be cool if the Universal theme park attraction had a Kong that matched the one in our film.”

3D extravaganza

Universal is hyping the attraction as the world’s largest 3D projection installation ever produced.

“King Kong has been an integral part of Universal Studios Hollywood for decades and, after the 2008 fire, we knew he had to be reintroduced as a new, groundbreaking, thoroughly over-the-top experience that will thrill new generations of studio tour guests,” said Larry Kurzweil, president and chief operating officer, Universal Studios Hollywood.

It’s certainly big.

Because of the 2008 blaze, a new football field-sized soundstage was constructed to house the attraction, which serves as a drive-in theater that the tram pulls into.

Inside, two massive screens that are 40 feet high (and span the equivalent of 16 movie theater screens) are used to unspool the two-minute action sequence that unfolds using Surround Digital 3D projection. The screens curve around the sides of the tram cars, like the hull of a boat, to bring the 35-foot-tall reptiles and 25-foot-tall ape to life. The film and tram are placed on a motion simulator to replicate the movements of the action, while water and air effects are also incorporated.

Sound designer Brent Burge, who created the voice of Kong in Jackson’s reboot, oversaw the audio effects for the attraction.

The team behind the project opted to do away with the animatronic ape that had resided on Universal’s backlot and instead use the 3D technology Weta developed for “Avatar.”

“Coming off ‘Avatar,’ we had our training shoes on,” said Matt Aitken, visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital, and a CG supervisor who helped create the environments and creatures on “Avatar.” “We learned a lot about how to do great stereoscopic 3D on that show, and we could carry over a lot of that experience” to the Kong attraction, he said.

Immersion experience

The size of the screens is designed to immerse the viewer into the world of Skull Island.

“We wanted to make sure that no matter where you’re sitting, you could see the whole experience,” Aitken said. “The only thing you see is the world we’ve created.”

The 3D footage, which Jackson helmed, is projected using 16 projectors at 60 frames per second (rather than the traditional 24 frames per second) to make the visuals seem more realistic and eliminate motion blur and image flickering. Despite the change of locations, sequence was produced as if it’s one shot.

“You can’t cut at all in a ride experience,” Aitken said. “It would take you out of the world. All the transitions are happening while you’re in this epic battle” between Kong and several Tyrannosaurus Rexes, he said.

Company spent nine months producing the ride, considered a short turnaround time for an attraction of Kong’s scale.

Jackson jumped on the chance to create a theme park ride when he realized he could “create the illusion of reality in a way that is much more tactile and profound than can be done in a cinema environment of a normal theater. As a filmmaker, you’re hoping to have the audience step inside your movie and become part of the experience.”

Bow of “King Kong” comes just weeks after Universal reopened 13 rebuilt New York Streets to productions and the tram tour. The faux Gotham structures were also destroyed in the fire.

New attraction will be feted Tuesday with a red carpet event at which the studio will put a spotlight on the Wildlife WayStation, located near the Angeles National Forest, which has cared for more than 400 injured and abandoned exotic animals, including primates, over the past 35 years.

At the event, Jackson will appear in 3D via an enormous HD flatscreen monitor to introduce the technology on display in the new attraction. He’ll also be a regular fixture on the tram tour, introducing guests to what they can expect during a pre-ride sequence.

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