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A (last?) look at Universal Hollywood's Backdraft and Special Effects Stages

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Published: February 3, 2009 at 9:00 PM

Tuesday Park Visit: It was a gorgeous day today in sunny Southern California. Perfect for a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood...

Universal Studios Hollywood

...where construction continues on "Project Phoenix," rebuilding sets and attractions lost in last year's backlot fire.

Universal Studios' back lot

But that's not what brought me to Los Angeles' most popular movie studio today. I came to mark a different change at the theme park: the upcoming closure of the Backdraft and Special Effects Stages attractions, to make room for the park's planned Transformers ride.

This is the last season for those two attractions, so I thought I'd spend a Tuesday Park Visit to give them one last look. First, Backdraft:

Backdraft show at Universal Hollywood

Based on the 1991 Ron Howard movie, this attraction isn't grabbing anyone looking for Hollywood's latest trends and special effects. Backdraft leads visitors through three set stages, the first two offering filmed montages from the movie and its production. Neither goes into any specific detail on how Howard's crew created the fire effects, though the montages do pay deserved tribute to both the crew and the real-life firefighters who inspired the movie.

It's the third set we all came to see; a life-sized reproduction of the film's climatic scene, complete with real-life pyro effects, hot enough to make folks in the first row lean back and clutch their cameras, lest Backdraft's flames singe their newly-bought gadgets from a certain electronic shop's "going out of business" sale.

Flames erupt at the Backdraft show

It's not that bad, really - just a bit surprising to visitors not used to having an attraction trigger their sense of touch.

More pyro special effects

I won't miss Backdraft when it's gone. The movie it's based on is not a classic - it's just ancient - and the attraction doesn't provide any fresh insight into filmmaking. Basically, all you are left with is pyro, and that's just not enough to engage me for more than one (hopefully, short-wait) visit. Give me a story that draws me into such action, instead.

After this flame out, it's a quick walk over to Special Effects Stages, where the show was starting just as we let out. (Point to Universal for good show scheduling.)

Like Backdraft, Special Effects Stages moves us through three sets, each with a filmed montage, as well as audience volunteers/draftees dragged on stage as props for the two live hosts. We're learning about the technical side of movie-making here, specifically, about green screen photography, make-up and sound effects.

On the first set, two audience volunteers act out a scene from "The Mummy," which is overlaid with CGI effects.

Volunteers at the Special Effects Stages

Before, of course, something goes terribly wrong, and the male volunteer ends of a skeletal crisp.

There's no time for mourning (indeed, the volunteers' friends shrugged when asked about their pal); we're off to the next stage for a make-up demonstration, where a host hacks through a volunteer's arm, gushing studio blood. We learn about robotic effects, too, and a child is hooked up with a remote-control suit to manipulate "Fluffy" the monster.

Fluffy

The boy does a fine job, every goes "awwww" and claps, and then... something goes terribly wrong and the blood-thristy monster springs from his perch to chase the beleaguered (and, presumably, tasty) host from the room.

There's no time for mourning; we're off to the next stage, where audience volunteers/conscripts are quickly put into place to serve as Foley artists demonstrating the creation of studio sound effects.

The Foley stage

Another small boy does fine with his task, but a grown-up volunteer botches his line, earning him a banishment to side recording studio where we see the volunteer/impending victim only in profile. Sure enough, something goes terribly wrong; the monster from the previous scene emerges and consumes his dessert.

There's no time for mourning, though, as our volunteer and the host return unharmed to the stage and it's time to leave.

Universal's spent some time and money keeping Special Effects Stages fresh through the years, and it shows. The hosts handled their jobs gracefully, and with much humor and enthusiasm, and, frankly, I will miss this show when it's gone.

But not too much. One moment sticks with me. As the co-host put the audience volunteers through their tasks in the sound studio, he tossed off a remark that all real movie and TV sound effects these days are added digitally. So, does that mean the only working Foley stages anymore are in theme-park demonstrations? The movies referenced and the hosts' patter may be fresh, but the movie-making techniques explored in Special Effects Stages sometimes aren't.

Along with the Studio Tour, this should be one of the core attractions in a movie studio theme park. Here's hoping that Universal finds space for a new Special Effects Stages elsewhere in the park, one set in a computer studio that really shows us how the latest in CGI and computer sound effects makes today's movies magic.

In the meantime, though, if you make it to USH before fall, give this version of the show one last shot. And if you can't? Well, life goes on.

There's no time for mourning, you know.

Readers' Opinions

From Raul Araoz on February 3, 2009 at 9:49 PM
I always liked Backdraft better than the similar Twister attraction in Florida. I will miss it but the designs for the Transformers ride look tremendous.
From Joseph Staconis on February 4, 2009 at 1:42 AM
I must admit with Backdraft and Special Effects Stages closing at USH what is left
to go to the lower lot for Jassic Park (Maybe In The Summer)

The Mummy Ride ok I'll give you that one but With Transfromers not opening till 2011 here's what I think USH needs to keep people coming back until then

1. Waterworld is great (Main reason I go)

2 Simpsons (I can Do Without)

3 The Black Lagoon Musical (My Friend Loved It When It Was Spiderman so maybe it will be good)

4 Terminator 3D (This one is mostly a 3D movie Ok but not great

5 The Tram Stuido tour (Great until 85% of it buned to the ground) they better rebuild fast with a lot of new stuff for the tram

they also need to put something where the Wild Wild West Stunt Show Was

That said is four things enough to get people to come until 2011 when Transfromers is suppose to open

From Rob P on February 4, 2009 at 3:16 AM
Although I do take Robert's point about the sound effects studio being redundant in today's digital age I also think that there's enough here to educate and entertain. I quite like to see the old techniques of movie-making. In fact the modern " push-a-button" method has no entertainment value whatsoever. So witnessing, and participating in,the invention and ingenuity of those old methods is actually quite a lot of fun.

I do agree that Backdraft has seen better days and warrants replacing. But even this wasn't that bad either...in it's day.
Fact is : People do like Pyros !

Technologies like CGI are heaping ever more pressure on the Theme Parks. How do you make an interesting walk through when all the guy has to do is push a key on the computer or a button on a console ? Unless you're into computers it's going to seem more like a lecture than a fun demonstration.
So I prefer the more animated stuff with liberal amounts of contrived jokes and corn thrown in for good measure.

From Robert Niles on February 4, 2009 at 8:27 AM
With any tour, and that's what Special Effects Stages is, it's all about the host and his script. Make it engaging - draw out the conflicts, the resolutions and the narratives inherent with the work - and the tour will be a success. You can do that in a computer lab, just as well as on a Foley stage.

The current Special Effects Stages works on this count. There's no reason why Universal Creative can take its talent and build a new SPS for the digital age. I'm confident in them. But will Universal devote the resources to it? I hope that it does.

From Deidre Dennis on February 4, 2009 at 1:01 PM
My husband and I really enjoyed the special effects stage show. I really didn't care for the Tram Tour, though. We're hoping the attraction at Universal Orlando is similar to it. I remember when the werewolf thing "lost control", I freaked out. My husband cracked up laughing. I'm a big chicken anyway so it reallys spooked me! Too bad they're getting rid of it.
From Nick Markham on February 4, 2009 at 4:01 PM
I went to Universal Studios Hollywood for my first time last June and actually had a great time even though a small park. I rode The Mummy twice but am sa special effects sound stages will be going. I think they should add a Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror type ride themed to Incredible Hulk including an encounter with the big green guy himself!
From Joshua Counsil on February 4, 2009 at 7:52 PM
This is a damn shame. Backdraft was by no means a classic, but then again, neither is Transformers. And this furthers my belief that A.D.H.D. adrenaline-fueled mayhem is replacing actual informative attractions. Don't get me wrong, every park needs A.D.H.D. adrenaline-fueled mayhem, but to cut out two demonstrative attractions in order to make room for one that won't premiere for two years seems foolish. That is, unless Uni has some simple-to-build attractions that will appear before then to make up for this loss.

The real loss is The Special Effects Stages, one of the few remaining movie-making attractions. Reminds me of when Disney's Hollywood Studios lost their Foley stage to make room for a more popular-at-the-time fad, Drew Carey. I mean, I love Drew, but what a sad attraction. Please don't make the same mistake, Universal. If you're going to do this, Transformers had better be incredible.

From Joseph Staconis on February 4, 2009 at 10:51 PM
The Sad part about them making new things lately is why most things there now with WaterWorld being the lone man out sort of speak I would not come back for

Once you seen it you don't care or mind if you see it again i'm 31 now I remember when I was 10 or 11 and a class mate of mine was so happy because we went to Universal and his dad had worked on King Kong and he could tell us about it.

Before King Kong burned down I remember thinking this has been here a while when will they replace it.

Then I thought ok replace it but with what and here's something else to think about some of the stuff there now Universal does not even make movie-wise or TV Show-wise Ie The Simpsons

From Scottland Jacobson on February 5, 2009 at 1:33 AM
I love the special effects show! I've been chosen twice to be the guy on the wall that spins (it was previously the clock from Back to the Future and I was Doc Brown - now it's the Indiana Jones-type movie set). And coming back in screaming and then having my arm "cut off" was always hilarous! My niece loved participating in the sound effects part. I'll miss it...
From Rob P on February 5, 2009 at 4:00 AM
Although I do concur with Robert's comments about the script and it's delivery being important on shows like "Sound Stage" I don't agree that it would work so well without that interactive element. I still think that the part where we have audience participation is more fun when they're rattling sheets of metal or clanking some other apparatus to generate sound effects rather than simply pushing a button. People can do that now in the comfort of their own home whilst sitting at the computer with a beer and a sandwich.

It's only my opinion of course.No offence intended.

From Robert Niles on February 5, 2009 at 8:39 AM
Oh, I absolutely agree that the show needs audience participation. But I think there are many ways that can be done in the context of a CGI/computer lab show, too. In fact, if you equip the show theater with devices at each seat, or handheld devices for each viewer, or ask people to text in with the cell phones, you can involve the *entire* audience in designing and selecting show effects.

I'd still bring folks up front, but why not involve *everyone* in the theater, too?

From Rob P on February 6, 2009 at 2:10 AM
Good points / Well made
From Scottland Jacobson on February 6, 2009 at 6:36 PM
The Laugh Floor at MK incorporates texting - and it's just as awesome having your jokes delivered on "stage" even if you're not singled out by the monsters.
From Sheldon Gel on February 7, 2009 at 9:59 AM
i think they should replace shrek 4d instead.

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