Interview with Universal Creative's Mark Woodbury: On Harry Potter, King Kong and Transformers
Written by Robert NilesWhen I was in Orlando, I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury, who talked with me about theme park attraction design, as well as three of the top projects Universal Creative's worked on recently: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, King Kong 360/3D and the upcoming Transformers ride.
Published: August 10, 2011 at 11:38 AM
Listening to Mark provides theme park fans a delightful opportunity to peek inside one of the minds of the designers who dream up and then make real some of the world's best theme park attractions.
Theme park attractions, obviously, are a different medium than movies, stage or architecture. But creating an attraction prompts designers to draw upon similar skills as creators in other media, Woodbury said.
"From a development standpoint, the process is quite similar. You try to understand the parameters, you try to understand the property, you try to understand what you want the end result to be, and you start to craft the roadmap to get you there."
Designing great theme park attractions requires balancing the various media elements that come together to create a unique experience, he said.
"I look at what story are we trying to tell, what visceral experience are we trying to create, and what immersive experience are we trying to create and how do we bring all of those together so that they are all pointing in the same direction," Woodbury said. "That, to me, is the trickiest part of what we're doing, to get the story and the visceral experience and the immersive experience all to line up.
"You can shoot someone in the air in a roller coaster and that's a great experience - you go upside down and you create some really great Gs and you do all that stuff - but to find the right fit of that visceral experience to a story, or vice versa - a story that you're trying to find the right technology to - that's really a tricky piece of business."
Unfortunately, as a relatively new medium with few new creative works each year, theme park designers don't have a long history or huge repertoire to draw upon for inspiration and guidance.
"I guess we've kind of created our own history, and I don't mean that to sound self-congratulatory," Woodbury said. "We don't spend a lot of time looking around. We look at the evolution of the things that we've done, and in each case we try to create some revolution in what we're doing next.
"What I mean by that is, we started with these big epic prototypical experiences going way back to Jaws and King Kong and employing all kinds of different technology to create big, major immersive experiences," he said. "Each time we do it, we're building on the evolution of the things that we've done before it, and finding in that process what's going to take it to the next level: What's the revolutionary part of the experience we're trying to create?"
"In the brainstorming process, if you're really good at it, it's a very open forum and ideas are thrown about like nobody's business. And the crazier, the better. Occasionally, someone will throw out an idea and it'll just silence the crowd for a moment, and everyone will be like, 'Wait a minute. That's not just an idea. That's genius.' That happens quite often in the process, and it's this volleying back and forth of ideas coming from all different directions, and some totally irrelevant to the topic we're on. If the process is working really well, even the craziest ideas become a stepping-stone to build on."
"That happens by creating an open forum and a body of talent that is really important to that process. When we do it, it's not just a bunch of Creative folks sitting around. We have creative folks, we have engineering, we have project managers, who knows? We'll even have people from our legal team, our marketing team - a lot of people will participate in some of those early brainstorming ideas. And it's really great to see where some of the best ideas come from. They may come from the least expected person in the room. When your finance guy throws in a really great idea, or your lawyer, and you're like, 'Darn it, why didn't I think of that?'"
On Harry Potter
"Potter was one of the best examples of trying to find a way in which we could really bring the iconic fiction to life. How are you going to fly with Harry Potter? When we started thinking about Forbidden Journey, that was one of the big things we thought about. What technology would be employed that would give us the variety of experience we wanted to create in one single ride?"
"Before Potter was a seven-book, eight-film franchise, we already knew that it was going to be a great theme park. That was after just the first book. On one hand, you'd like to know that you have this proven franchise, with tremendous box office results, but in the case of Potter that really wasn't it. We knew it had the makings of a great theme park experience because of the characters, because of the action, because of the magical places that Jo Rowling created."
"Oftentimes you go down a path technologically to tell a story and you get to a point when they're not quite lining up. You might have this really cool visceral experience and you might have this really cool story, but they're not necessarily building on each other. And there comes a moment in time when you have to make some hard decisions."
"There was some of that on Forbidden Journey. When we were doing Forbidden Journey, we knew that the technology we were going to use to tell the story was the right technology, but there's nuance to that, there's subsets to the technological challenge, part of that has to do with dispatching and all that stuff. Because we were using a really small, four-passenger vehicle, we're dispatching very quickly, but we wanted to make sure that we had an individual experience. We didn't want to see a lot of the vehicles going around. At the same time, we wanted to spend a lot of time with the characters.
"So we had to find a way - and this was a revelation way later in the process than we would have liked (laughs) - but we came to a point in time where we were not spending enough time with the characters, and we knew how important that was to the experience and to the storytelling. So we abandoned the direction we were going and created a new direction."
"We were struggling and struggling with how we can to solve this problem and the more we worked on it, the more evident the problem became - that we kept coming up to the same wall. Finally, somebody broke through and said, 'What if we do this?' We pretty much dropped everything we were doing and built a mock-up to see if we could pull off the interface of this vehicle and those media moments. And the reason to do that was to get more time on screen, more time with the vehicle and the characters together in order to really bring the story to life and give you the opportunity to fly alongside Harry and Ron and do all that stuff. Figuring out how to create that interface happened way later in the process - it was a totally different ride experience before, and then we hit that, and we were like, 'That's it.'"
On King Kong
"We did a great King Kong attraction in California. There was a case where we had an opportunity - it was by virtue of a disaster that the opportunity arose - but it clearly was a moment in time when we thought, 'Gee, Kong is gone, what are we going to replace it with?' And that moment lasted, in my mind, about 10 seconds. I was, 'We gotta bring Kong back.' What better thing to do than to bring Kong back from the ashes of a historic attraction and create an opportunity to really bring it back in a completely different way? Then it gets into, 'How are we going to go about that?' Certainly, the only way to go about it in that case was to collaborate with Peter Jackson. It's kind of an interesting process, how that all comes together, and it's different every time we do it."
So will we see Kong in another Universal theme park?
"Of course, one of the first things we thought [afterward] of was 'where else can we do that?' Because of the uniqueness of that site [on the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour], there are not a lot of places you can take that particular experience. What you can take away from that experience, though, is this really wonderful fully immersive, multi-dimensional [technology] that Kong created."
"What was a revolution is now part of our evolution, and we can continue to build upon it, because it really was a stunning experience when you are fully surrounded by 3D and that whole world comes to life in a totally different level of immersion."
"We're doing this really spectacular Transformers attraction right now [under construction in Hollywood and in Singapore]. And there were a couple of [breakthrough problem-solving] moments there. We have a very limited piece of real estate and we wanted to tell a really big story, so we devised a way that we would be able to create a vertical experience.
"The adversity was that we didn't have enough real estate. The idea that we could go vertical created an opportunity to create a media silo, a 60-foot-high silo that we would really be able to explore the full scale of the characters. So we solved the technical problem of real estate by creating a double-decker, or two-story, attraction."
"The technical problem leads to creative challenge, because here we have a 28-foot robot and how are we going to get this guy to unfold in a single-story space? Well, we created a volume of space that enabled us to do that as well as solve the technical problem of the real estate."
"We had tight real estate in Hollywood and we had tight real estate in Singapore, so the solution was beneficial in both locations, and it's exactly the same building [in both theme parks]."
Woodbury said that Transformers is on schedule to open later this year in Singapore and in 2012 in Hollywood.
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