An insider's Q&A with 'Men in Black Alien Attack' creative director Dave Cobb
Published: April 22, 2009 at 9:19 PM
I picked what I thought were the top 10 questions and forwarded them to Dave, whose responses you'll find below. A big thanks to Dave!
Dave Cobb and friend. Photo courtesy Dave Cobb.
Q: What is the design process like for creating a theme park ride? How much time is spent on just drawing up the idea? How many people are working throughout the project (design phase thru completion)? Are you given strict guidelines (besides money and space) as to how and what the ride will be?
A: Wow, that's four questions in one. I could easily spend hours answering just *one* of those, LOL.
Most theme park projects start out with a few business-related requirements in mind -- usually a specific audience demographic, and a budget, and sometimes a piece of land. Sometimes there might be a character, or movie, or other intellectual property attached at the start. Beyond that, it's all "blue-sky" -- we usually kick things off with a big group brainstorming session called a "charette" (Google it). After that, the early concept phase can sometimes be quick, or can go on for a long time, depending on the complexity of the project. Very few companies have the luxury of languishing in concept design for a long time -- it's nice work if you can get it, but I also find that there is tremendous creativity to be found in constraint. Any artist will tell you that the most daunting thing is a totally blank canvas -- it's nice to have a bit of challenge spelled out for you early in the process. I've found that all of my most rewarding projects start with some sort of defined challenge or set of requirements. With MIB, we had not only a business plan laid out for us, but also a strict schedule. We actually went from day-one, nothing-on-paper concept to opening day in just about twenty-eight months -- which is pretty quick, but not unheard of.
As far as the number of people that worked on MIB, it’s hard to answer. The immediate team -- meaning the Universal employees who created, designed, and managed the project -- was only about fifty or seventy-five people. However, a big project usually involves dozens of other vendor companies -- architects, construction, scenic fabricators, special effects, lighting, audio, show control, ride systems -- and each of those companies have staff of their own. Which means, it’s probably well into the hundreds, if not near a thousand or more.
It's most definitely a team effort -- no one person "designs" any theme park ride. It's a lot like movie production, in that respect -- all sorts of talents and disciplines that come together to create something that entertains an audience. Only we build it permanently.
Q: I'm curious to know the thought process behind the creation of the ride. Was it always meant to be a shooter, or were other options considered, such as maybe a roller coaster or some sort of 3D attraction? Was it always going to be MIB? Did they start with that brand to begin with?
A: There were briefly some other concepts thrown around (I vaguely remember an indoor coaster) but it was pretty clear from the beginning that a shooter was the way to go. I mean, c'mon, have you *seen* the movie? :) The minute we saw the scene in the weapons room with all the awesome alien zappers, we were hooked on the idea.
Where MIB ended up was actually Universal Florida's largest empty expansion area, so there were at least a dozen alternate ideas for that *location* over the years -- for instance, before IOA was created, it was an early option for the Florida version of "Jurassic Park: The Ride". However, that's just the nature of theme park development and expansion, and those ideas came about long before MIB was even a movie, and years before we came up with the MIB attraction -- which was never going to be anything other than MIB.
Another interesting tidbit: from the start, we knew which ride vehicle we were going to use. Over at IOA, they were in the middle of production on "The Cat In The Hat", and Universal was very pleased with the performance and reliability of that vehicle and its spinning motion base. So, we decided very early on that we'd adapt it for MIB.
Q: I want to know what was planned for the ride that never actually made it into the final design. Cool things we wish we could've seen.
A: Surprisingly, not a lot. Given our accelerated schedule, we just didn't have time to waste... but, there were a few things.
First, there was the issue of the "little red button" -- in the movie, it makes the MIB sedan launch into super-speed. In our original concept, we tried to put a "super-speed tunnel" about halfway through the ride, through a combination of wind, audio, and projection effects. In fact, it was the transition from the "Central Park" scene into "Times Square" -- which is currently the "Alien Scanning" scene where you see the opposing car filled with aliens (if you look closely, the entrance to that scene is under a tunnel archway, similar to the "red button" scene in the movie). We realized pretty early on that our relatively slow-moving vehicle would never truly give the sense of massive speed, and a convincing projection-tunnel speed effect would have taken up way too much room. Plus, from a story perspective, we really needed to set up the vehicle interaction, and the ability to shoot the opposing car. So, we changed the scene entirely, and made the red button more of a surprise at the end.
Second, very beginning and ending of the ride went through many, many changes. We actually didn't start with the early-60s worlds-fair architectural theme for the exterior of the building, and finding an environmental story that kept the MIB headquarters "hidden", but still created a cool, inviting building and entry, was a bit tricky. Originally, the building was going to look just like the ventilation building of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and guests would walk past the giant fan & vent before taking the elevator down to HQ -- just like in the film. At the end of the ride when you got zapped, we went through a number of iterations that were all meant to be a complete, head-scratching non-sequitur -- like ending up at the end of a Florida orange juice factory tour, or at the luggage claim of Orlando International Airport, or even the end of some nondescript "international" pavilion of a world's fair -- to make you feel like, "huh? what just happened?", like you've been Neuralized. But then we thought, how does all that relate to a theme park? Worse, we worried that most people wouldn't "get it" if they weren't a diehard fan of the movie. So, we needed something more direct to make the Neuralizer finale really work -- and the mystery of whether aliens exist became the most effective setup and punchline. Plus, including the towers of the 1964 New York World's Fair fed directly into the MIB mythology. Now, the entire building serves as a bookend that both "conceals" and "winks" at the world of MIB inside the ride (and it even fit into the park's existing "World Expo" area theming, which might be gone by now).
Q: I'd like to know what, if any, engineering innovations were implemented for the ride. What were their inspirations?
A: Well, there is a patent for the dual-track ride system, and the way the vehicles can interact with each other. Getting pairs of vehicles to line up isn't as easy as it sounds, because the two tracks are different lengths. The speed of the vehicles varies from moment to moment to make sure they stay in pairs -- for instance, on a big turn, the outside track has to speed up, while the inside track has to slow down. So there was a lot of new code and ride control stuff that we had to come up with.
Also, getting the on-board scoring system to wirelessly communicate with the rest of the ride, that was a bit of a science project. We wanted the scores to show up on-screen for the finale, and wanted your vehicles *average* score to cause a change in what Agent J (Will Smith) says to each pair of vehicles, and we wanted that to translate into one of three "rankings" for each vehicle that triggers a specific animatronic gag in the final scene. It's all existing hardware -- from solid-state video playback, to video title generators, to theatrical lighting and scenic scrim, to pneumatic animatronic characters -- but there's some very clever programming in there to make it all talk together and work right.
A lot of innovation in theme park attractions comes from not only new technology and new hardware, but also *how* existing technologies are combined. That's very true in MIB, where we took a lot of individual components and proven technologies that had been around awhile -- infra-red game systems, animatronics, busbar dark-ride tracks -- and combined them in a way that no one had ever attempted before. Sometimes the "next big thing" is really just looking at what already works, and tweaking it into something new.
Q: I have a question about the ride vehicles, are they able to be reprogramed (such as 360 degree movement) easily and or quickly? What did you use to program them? Also, are some sets in the ride controlled by the vehicle or do they rely on timing? What type of programs did you use to design the ride vehicles and sets?
A: All theme park attractions are run with the same kind of technology that you'd see in an assembly line. It's all derived from industrial and theatrical automation. The same technology that runs the lighting and scenery for a broadway show, or puts your car together, or handles your luggage in an airport, can be adapted to run a dark ride. Even the MIB vehicles are, in essence, on an "assembly line" and are controlled as such. Obviously, the specific system architecture and code are different, but the system designers and programmers we worked with came from an industrial-automation background, working under the direction of wacky creative/theatrical types like me. That's typical of our industry, to smash together two seemingly different worlds and disciplines like that. Happens all the time.
To address the specific vehicle rotation question, It's an encoded motor -- we had to program the vehicle rotation with a series of numbers that didn't really relate to any physical or visual position of the ride, just what the vehicle control system understood as its motor position in relation to the chassis on the track. It was all very complicated and involved a ton of trial and error.
Hardware-wise, a complex ride like this usually involves a hierarchal system -- each individual component (a ride vehicle, an animatronic character, a special effect) has its own internal logic programmed into it, and they take their cues from a series of larger automation systems that control specific categories within the attraction. Most attractions are usually overseen by three main automation systems -- Ride (vehicles, track logic), Show (animatronics, effects, audio, lighting), and most importantly, Life Safety, which rules the roost and can shut down all of the other systems safely in case of an emergency.
As far as how the sets and vehicles were designed, most of those were done with a combination of hand illustration & drafting, Photoshop, and 3D modeling -- later in construction and manufacturing, it involves translating those creative ideas into a lot of CAD drafting & engineering, and sometimes using high-tech manufacturing techniques like computer-controlled routers and laser cutters. But a lot of it is still done by hand, just like most other creative industries. There's no special software just for the theme park business -- whatever tools that designers use in other jobs like product design, animation, video games, theater and architecture, that's what we use, too.
Q: Too often armchair creative directors discuss the "cost" of developing a ride in terms of its design and construction. Another type of cost associated with an attraction is its operation and (especially) its maintenance. I'm hoping that DC will comment on whether or not new ride systems and special effect technology are addressing these cost considerations. In other words: are new ride systems and special effects not only becoming "cooler" but are their warranties stronger, are they becoming more durable -- and thus -- are they more cost effective over the long term than they have been in the past?
A: This sort of relates back to what I said about innovation. It's really great when you can come up with something for a theme park that no one has ever seen before. Obviously, setting new standards for technology and innovation is certainly part of what we strive for, and nearly every theme park project is "prototypical" in one way or another. It's not an industry where we churn out millions of widgets and distribute them around the world, it's just the opposite -- we have to build *one* thing that's cool enough for millions of people to travel to.
But it's also a business. If you build something that's really cutting-edge, but it breaks down half the time, then it's not really doing its job. If everything we did was completely prototypical, we'd never get anything open. I've had really awesome, technically difficult elements in attractions that, after breaking down too many times or costing too much in repairs, have just been completely shut off. There's a balance between innovation and successful operation, and that comes with the territory. Good design is also smart design.
So, it's all about balance, and picking your challenges. We like to stay aware of cutting-edge gadgets and techniques to inspire us -- but at the end of the day, it has to really *work*. That's where the true talent in this industry lies -- people that are *generalists*, who can look at the broad picture of technology and creativity and find ways to wow an audience that are safe, reliable, and maintainable.
Q: Why have no other companies come close to matching the detail and interactivity of MIB? Many shooting gallery dark rides have opened since MIB debuted (Turkey Whirl at Holiday World, Ghostwood Estate at Kennywood, Reese's Challenge at Hersheypark, numerous incarnations of Scooby Doo across the country, and Toy Story Mania). How much of MIB is Sally, and how much additional money did it take from Universal to take the attraction from a "stock" ride to one of the most amazing and unique dark rides in the world? Will another theme park ever consider investing the amount of money necessary to modify a "stock" ride to take it to the level of MIB?
A: The term "stock ride" is a bit misleading when you're talking about dark rides. Sure, the Sally Company has an existing library of designs, themes, and engineering -- but even their "stock" rides are still custom designed and manufactured. It's not like they have a warehouse full of characters, vehicles and track pieces sitting there waiting to be bought. I understand what you mean, though -- and yes, the more that these kind of experiences get commoditized and cheaper to build, the more you'll see them in other parks. Look at simulator rides -- Disney was one of the first big parks to put one in with "Star Tours" in 1987, and by the late 90s they were ubiquitous in parks, malls, everywhere. But therein lies the rub - the more common something gets, the less special it is. Keeping the concept fresh is key.
However, MIB was not manufactured by Sally, nor was any of it "stock". Although I admire Sally's interactive dark-ride products, they had nothing to do with MIB at all.
MIB's base vehicle came from pre-existing engineering (as I said, from "The Cat in the Hat"), but the rest of the vehicle design and production was all custom. The game technology was from a company that develops laser-tag arena games, but it was all custom-designed and manufactured for our specific vehicles and gameplay. The sets and characters were all custom designed and manufactured from scratch (fun fact: the vehicles, weapons, and about half of the aliens in the ride were designed by the same guy who created the monster from "Cloverfield" and creatures & spacecraft in the new "Star Trek" movie -- and he's currently working on concepts for "Tron 2.0"...*squee!*).
Q: What is the major skill you need to possess to do this kind of work? Illustration & graphics, theatrical design, architectural engineering, script writing?
A: Depends on what job you want to do. Like I said, no one person "designs" theme park rides, it's a highly collaborative business that takes all sorts of talents, everything from artists to engineers to project managers. Almost any skill set you can think of can be applied to a theme park project in one way or another. It's one of the reasons I love the work so much -- I get to meet and interact with all kinds of really interesting, really unique people with a wide variety of skill sets. One project had me working with a "wind acoustician" to figure out air-current patterns inside of a building, while another had me working with a spinal surgeon and ergonomic specialist to help make sure a simulator was programmed safely for people to ride.
As for me, I consider myself a writer and a "pollinator", who helps dream up and define the concept, and then helps keep it moving as it grows. A creative director becomes the source of guidance and inspiration for the team -- I get to collaborate with really creative folks on fun ideas, and then I have to keep them inspired and moving forward as those ideas develop. Think of it like a writer/director on a movie or theater show -- do they design the sets and costumes, or focus the lights, or compose the soundtrack? Not usually, but they have to be *highly* conversant in all of those skills and art forms, to be able to give direction to the team and inspire them to do their best work. It's a combination of being very broad-minded and very detail-oriented at the same time. You have to be able to stay the course and keep the team focused on the overall vision and the big picture -- but also be able to drill down to small details and help figure out specific design challenges from all sorts of disciplines.
Just having great attraction ideas, and writing or drawing them is only the beginning. You have to know about how attractions work in the real world, too -- from how they operate to how people line up to how they're maintained to how an audience reacts, it's all important to know and study. Working in a theme park, in any capacity, is one of the best ways to start. I worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios Hollywood right out of high school, and it was incredible real-world training -- both the on-stage public speaking part, as well as the behind-the-scenes operational part. Anything that allows you to work with or around an audience -- be it a theme park, a museum, or even your local community or school theater department -- it's all great training for theme park design. Know your audience!
Put simply, it really helps to be a fan of *everything* -- design, technology, coasters, live shows, animation, special effects, architecture, fine art -- it all applies. The people who succeed in this industry are generalists.
Q: I want to know his top score.
A: Somewhere in the high 800,000s, but that was ten years ago when we opened. Even then, there were employees and kids from across the street at Dr. Phillips High School (behind the park, lots of pass holders) who could totally kick my ass. There's a proud group of folks out there who can max out their scores to 999,999 (they don't roll over - at least, they didn't originally, but that may have been changed since opening). Last time I rode was November of 2008, and I barely cracked 500k. I'm getting rusty. :)
Q: What are your top three tips, to help get the suit at the end of the ride?
A: I remember reading some Internet rumors about "hidden targets" in the ride -- targets without a character or visible hit point, but that if you knew where to zap, you got hundreds of thousands of points. I swear that, as of opening day in 2000, we hadn't included anything like that -- so if there are any hidden targets, they've been added since then. However, there *are* some good points to be had by really looking for aliens in difficult places -- like up in the higher windows, or hanging from the streetlights, or zapping at the Big Bug's teeth and eyes (look closely and you'll see some targets hidden in there). Another good one is Frank the Pug -- he's hidden to the right of the inside track, next to the Crashed Spaceship, at the Locksmith's counter. He's not animated or anything, he just sits there -- but he's worth a bunch. Right next to the locksmith, look for Steven Speilberg's head -- he's the disguise being used by the aliens holding up the newspaper -- if I recall, he's worth quite a bit, too.
Also, remember that your guns work via infra-red beams -- which are actually *cones*, and the diameter of your beam gets bigger as it goes farther away. In other words, you're slightly more accurate with distant targets than you are with close ones. However, the beam *power* falls off a bit as it goes farther away, too -- so it's a trade off. Try to stay on targets that are a car's length or two away from you.
Most importantly, stay on one target at a time. If you hit something, hit it again. And again. In quick succession. In fact, stay on a single target and hit it as many times as you can before you have to move to another one. Don't waste time targeting when you could be shooting and scoring.
Finally, be ready for that red button. The first person to hit it gets points galore. I've even heard of people being able to score more than once if you push it very rapidly in quick succession. Might be a glitch, or perhaps they reprogrammed it after opening.
That's the nice thing about a game-based ride -- there's enough software flexibility so you can change the scoring system and create new target logic anytime you want. I have no idea if the game programming is the same as opening day, or if the park has changed up the scores since then, or if the three rankings are even the same score level we originally established. The park would be crazy not to fiddle with those elements every once in awhile, to keep the fans guessing. I certainly would. :)