A (last?) look at Universal Hollywood's Backdraft and Special Effects Stages
Published: February 3, 2009 at 9:00 PM
...where construction continues on "Project Phoenix," rebuilding sets and attractions lost in last year's backlot fire.
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:
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.
It's not that bad, really - just a bit surprising to visitors not used to having an attraction trigger their sense of touch.
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.
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.
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.
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.