MEN IN BLACK
Soundelux Showorks was involved in all of the above-mentioned themed attractions, and then some. The latest effort from the Orlando-based company is Men in Black, predicated on the 1997 Will Smith comedy, sci-fi romp and situated at Universal's Orlando theme park, where it opened last spring. And this ain't no Tunnel of Love. As Showorks president John Miceli describes it, “This is more like total immersion into the world of a video game. It's completely interactive, even though visitors go through it in tracked vehicles guided by a central control system. And, just like a video game, people tend to get better at playing it the more they do it, so you often see the same people going through it two and three times a day.”
In a nutshell, MIB, the ride, puts six passengers into each of two vehicles on parallel tracks that pass through a 40,000-square-foot building. Broken into 14 scenes, the first phase informs riders — each car is now considered a team — that Earth has been invaded by aliens, and it's their job to stop them with the laser guns aboard each car. After a quick how-to on operating the weapons, the cars and riders pass through several urban tableaux populated by animatronic aliens who can be both fired upon and can fire back. Hits are tabulated electronically by a computer and graphically by special video and audio effects, all to the sound of a high-energy rock music track created by Showorks staff composer/producer Pete Lehman. In the penultimate phase, each team of riders is made to appear to the other as aliens via a video overlay, and they get to fire at each other. Finally, points determine the winning team, which is congratulated by a video of Will Smith. The losers are told by an animatronic alien that they are not quite MIB material.
Showorks, which entered the theme park and multimedia market 11 years ago and develops related content, production, post and new technologies for its clients, faces a different mix of those tasks each time out, says Miceli. For MIB, the company performed the character animation, as well as video and audio production, including dialog, sound effects and music.
“The challenge in this case was that, normally you have control over the occupants [of a ride],” Miceli explains. “They're captive to the narrative, as are the effects and dialog, so mixing them is similar to mixing a feature film in post. In MIB, [the participants'] ability to shoot determines how the ride goes. The more hits, the more effects. And we have to keep the sound focused on them.”
Brian McQuillian, project manager for Soundelux Showorks, elaborates on some of the additional technological challenges: “From a design standpoint, careful placement and integration of speakers into scenes and set pieces was required to avoid sound bleed from scene to scene, and [to] maintain control of the overall sound level. By implementing careful speaker placement, we were able to create a three-dimensional feel that also complemented the scenic design of the attraction.” Main components of the installed sound system include Community SLS915 and SLS918 speakers, Tannoy CMS-55/-65 ceiling speakers and EAW SB150 subwoofers, all powered by Crown CT and MT Series amplifiers and controlled via a Peavey Media Matrix System.
Sound for MIB comes from all over. About 20 speakers per zone — nearly 450 total speakers throughout the attraction, each under independent control — are placed linearly through the experience. The music track, which is the sole linear component of the entire sound design, is stored on Anitech DSM-4020 digital playback devices and is synched to start with the launch of cars. While the music track is not interactive, its playback is: VCAs control the volume of zone speakers, cued by the master computer as to each car's relative location within the ride. Each car has a laser gun for each occupant, and each laser gun has its own pair of speakers for its sound, as does each alien and effect in the set. “That way, there's directionality and localization of each sound,” Miceli says. “You can localize cause and effect when a gun is fired or an alien is hit.” Those sounds are stored on flash PROM chipsets, controlled by the master control computer and triggered by events, such as trigger pulls and hitting specific targets.
Showorks created the entire soundtrack from scratch, though the film's dialog tracks provided inspiration for the aliens' attitudes and personalities. The laser sounds were created by staff sound designer Richard Morris, mainly with analog synths — reflecting the fact that many of Showorks staff are still musicians at heart — with other elements like recorded gunshots pitched up or down in Pro Tools and layered in for impact effect. When an alien is hit, each one has its own particular blood-curdling or comical response, most of which are also organic, combinations of screams, custom Foley recorded splats and ricochets.
What's particularly interesting is that the soundtrack went through its final design and mixing phase in the field, at the attraction site, as the ride was being built and tested. “We'll bring our custom SmartTerminal interface station, which consists of a large Pro Tools system and a controller and processing gear into the site, along with sampling and analog keyboards,” says Miceli. “You want to see how each animatronic character moves and reacts in order to get a better sense of what it should sound like, as well as seeing the environment in which it's set.”
Depending upon how expert the riders are — and don't forget some of them have done this quite a few times — the potential for cacophony is ever present. A lot of hits at once can overwhelm the effects. Thus, Miceli stresses that the frequency ranges of each effect were carefully coordinated. In addition, the cavernous space was given significant acoustical treatment by Showorks' senior VP of the technology group, Bill Bittel. “That tightened the space dramatically,” says Miceli. “It also added a lot more intelligibility for the effects and dialog. Combined, all these elements make the experience more believable.”
STAR TREK LANDS IN VEGAS
The Star Trek Experience, which opened two years ago at the Las Vegas Hilton, manages to combine virtually every iteration of Gene Roddenberry's brainchild into a single, bombastic attraction. The event, which was devised and produced by Landmark Entertainment Group, a 20-year-old Los Angeles-based firm specializing in themed attractions — and whose previous work includes Spiderman 3-D at Orlando's Islands of Adventure, Terminator 2 3-D at Universal in Orlando and Jurassic Park — The Ride at Universal locations in Orlando and L.A. — is designed to sneak up on patrons. What appears at first to be a museum-like, 30-year retrospective of Star Trek's television and film incarnations, including displays of memorabilia and video montages from the original show and its successors, such as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, plus the theatrical film series, suddenly and dramatically transports visitors onto the deck of the Starship Enterprise itself, via the ship's famous transporter room. There, they become part of a journey through time and space, culminating with a celestial chase by aliens and a fast and low approach over the Vegas Strip back home.
Ted King, VP of show production for Landmark, who supervised the audio and video production and post of the attraction, won't reveal how the transformation takes place, citing trade secrets. But he stresses how important the audio was for not only the experience of the ride but to the way that sound helps lull visitors into a comfortable credulousness, which makes the transition from a museum stroll to a chase with Klingons through space that much more dramatic.
“The familiar sounds are critical to the success of the attraction,” King says. “The transporter itself is a very well-remembered sound by generations of viewers. We took the essence of the sound used on the different series — the original and Next Generation had two different signature sounds for the transporter, for instance — and enhanced them considerably. But the basis for the sounds are ones that people find instantly familiar.”
That was the case with much of the ride's sound effects. Paramount made specific sound effects from its Star Trek libraries, as well as music and dialog excerpts, available to Landmark's team, which included soundtrack producer and mixer James Fielden and creative director Luc Mayrand. Using the original sound effects as the fundamental building blocks of the event's sound design, they expanded and enhanced them, making them bigger and tailoring them to the live-action setting of a theme park attraction. Many of the effects are played back from discrete multichannel playback sources — both hard disk- and solid-state memory-based — which are controlled by a show control computer created by Triad AV Services, of Des Moines, Ia. In many instances, point-source speakers are placed close to or within the visual effects they're meant to animate. EAW was the prime speaker vendor on the project.
The mix of the audio was done in situ — the only way, King says, it could be done. “We took all the various sound elements from our studio to the actual site for mixing,” he explains. “We'd been sending over stereo versions as they were created for the [attraction's] creative director to listen to and evaluate. But when it comes down to the final mix, there's only one place that they will ever need to sound good, and that's at the attraction itself. It's unlike any dubbing stage or studio.” Landmark brought in a 32-channel Digidesign Pro Tools system and a Yamaha 02R digital console for the mix process for the entire attraction, with the exception of the final four-minute ride, which was mixed by Paramount. “Each space was very different,” King points out, adding that the line between sound design and sound effects became a no-man's land that Landmark's audio technicians have dubbed “museffects.” “The room with the [memorabilia] displays is large, and we used sound design to create a setting for all the effects from the shows and movies. Setting the mood was important — did it need to be dreamy and futuristic, or did it need to have electronic and mechanical sounds underneath the effects? We sent over various ideas for evaluation in the rooms themselves.”
The sound design was intended to have significant though subtle subliminal impact: In the antechamber, King says it was kept relatively low-key, in part to “lower expectations” and thus set the stage for an even more dramatic transition later. During the ride, sub-woofers add a visceral low-frequency impact that exceeds that of even movie theater sound systems, contributing to the sense of motion.
Recording was to both hard disk and to three Tascam DA-88 digital tape multitracks in a rack, which were later used as the archive and transfer medium to load the final mixes onto the installed playback systems, which include an AKAI 16-track digital reproduction system.
The most critical aspect about the sound design was that it had to both enhance the events at hand and conform to the memories that anyone who has not lived in a cave for the last 30 years invariably has of Star Trek. “We had to have respect for the Star Trek image and brand, certainly,” says King. “But we also had to have as much respect for how people remember the shows and the movies, and the fact that they were part of millions of peoples lives.”
Themed attraction audio is going to grow as a part of the audio industry in coming years. But as the attractions themselves are increasingly tied into other entertainment ventures, and as live entertainment ventures have to progressively outdo each other, the challenge to audio professionals is going to increase proportionately. Make it big, make it real, but also make it true to our collective unconscious. Theme park sound has its future cut out for it.
Dan Daley is Mix's East Coast editor.