‘Transformers’ ride pushes 3D boundaries

Universal Creative, ILM innovate with glasses, giant screens

While the industry’s focus on 3D has centered on innovation at the megaplex, the format is breaking new visual ground through theme park attractions this year, with the latest, “Transformers: The Ride,” opening Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Riders will wear 3D glasses from Germany’s Infitec to view action — often as close as 15 feet — that unfolds on 14 screens of various sizes, the largest 60 feet high. Industrial Light & Magic, which also produced the shape-shifting, computer-generated robots for the “Transformers” films, helped create the ride, consulting with helmer Michael Bay and toymaker Hasbro.

U and ILM initially planned to use more traditional 3D technology but opted to back the more expensive system when Infitec proved more visually impressive and affordable than in the past.

As the theme park biz grows more competitive this year, with new attractions opening on both coasts — U opened a revamped “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” ride at Islands of Adventure in Orlando in March, while Disney’s California Adventure launches “Cars Land” in June, for example — new 3D technology is seen as a way to boost ticket sales.

Infitec’s passive system, which doesn’t require batteries, uses different wavelengths of color to separate the left and right eye instead of a more linear polarization, resulting in a sharper image. It also allows the screen to be viewed at different angles and produces less eye strain. Most movie theaters and theme park rides use polarizing filters.

With other technology, “if you tilt your head too much you lose the 3D,” said Paul Cuoco, Universal Studios senior technical manager. “Now you can move your head any which way you like.”

While most 3D glasses in theaters and theme parks are made of thin plastic, Infitec uses glass lenses, which required U to work with the company to come up with a pair that guests couldn’t easily damage or destroy.

It took eight months for Infitec to custom develop the final product to ensure they were thick enough to protect the glass but also comfortable to wear and easy for ride operators to stack.

“We incorporated special ridges so that when people drop the glasses, they don’t break,” Cuoco said. They were also designed to be washed more after each ride than other frames before being replaced. “Before, we could only get a handful of washes,” Cuoco said. “Now we can reuse them a lot more.”

The new technology, also used on U’s “Spider-Man” ride, proved key in telling the “Transformers” story that plays out during the ride and features new character Evac to appeal to younger auds. The blue hybrid also gets his own line of apparel and merchandise available at stores inside the park. General Motors sponsored the cars in the films, but Evac is not sponsored by an automaker.

The switch in 3D technology, however, meant recalibrating ride footage to make sure it worked with Infitec’s lenses; that upped costs for the ride, which cost more than $100 million to create.

Cuoco and U’s team had to “wait for the technology to become more affordable on a theme park scale,” he said.

Twelve guests ride inside Evac in the form of a flight simulator that travels down 2,000 feet of track as they take on the all-powerful All Spark cube and escape the secret N.E.S.T. military base that’s been invaded by the evil Decepticons. Ride’s exterior features large cut-outs of Optimus Prime and Megatron to “establish the true size of the characters” before guests enter a N.E.S.T. facility modeled after the films, said Chick Russell, show producer for Universal Creative.

“What we wanted to bring to this ride was the look that Michael Bay established through the three films,” said ILM visual effects supervisor Jeff White. “It had to look pretty real so that guests could be immersed in the ‘Transformers’ world. It pushed us to deliver movie-level shot quality on such a different format. Each screen had to be treated differently.”

Footage incorporates physical props like debris, and portions of helicopters and tanker trucks, with the rest seamlessly extended onto the screen. The ride’s lighting effects match up with the footage to pull off the visual trick.

To make the onscreen action seem more realistic, designers photographed HD stills during the production of the third “Transformers” pic while on location in Chicago and stitched them together in computers.

Although footage was produced in 4K resolution, at times it looks more like 9K. The 60-foot screens are so large that three projectors are needed. Ride uses a total of 34 projectors.

“Because of where the audience is sitting, it looks like fish-eye lenses,” White said. “The screen is so wide that we needed more cameras to make sure the images looked really sharp. This hasn’t been done like this before.”It took us a while to figure out. When we first did it, it looked like a fun house. We had to work closely with Universal to make sure that the ride was fun and exciting but also make sure people don’t get sick.”

Footage plays out without edits when onscreen to ease eye strain as well, with the ride vehicle serving as the director’s camera for each move. “It changes views by the way it turns,” Russell said.

Because of moving vehicles, items in the foreground also had to be designed by ILM to shift and match the position of the ride vehicles using front- and rear-projection.

“There’s so much going on that it can be overwhelming,” White said. “We wanted to tell you where to look. But when you look left or right you can see down the streets. We built all of that detail in there.”

White admits he was surprised by the amount of time it takes to create a theme park ride. “When we met with Universal at the end of the second film, they said it would be a long process. I thought 3.5 minutes shouldn’t be too bad. Sure enough, it was two years to put it all together.”

Because the two-story building that houses “Transformers” is attached to two working studio soundstages on Universal’s backlot, designers needed to make sure the ride’s noise levels didn’t distract productions.

To do so, sound dampening walls were installed while speakers are built directly into the vehicles guests ride rather than through the screens.

“The sound is in the cars, not on the track,” Russell said.

The previous soundstage, which had housed the “Backdraft” attraction, on the lower level of the park, had to be razed and rebuilt to enable the “Transformers” ride’s equipment to be stored in the basement.

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