A behind-the-scenes walk through Transformers: The Ride - 3D at Universal Studios Hollywood
Published: April 13, 2012 at 11:12 AM
Universal Creative show producer Chick Russell greeted me, along with three other writers, before dawn this morning for a tour of the new 3D motion-base ride, which stands on the site of the old Backdraft and Special Effects Stages soundstages on Universal's lower lot.
Russell walked us through the 60,000-square foot show building twice, once with the work lights on, and then a second time with the work lights off and the 14 embedded film screens activated.
Having already ridden Transformers in Singapore, walking through the identical show building in Hollywood was a revelation. This perspective showed me some of the tricks that Universal Creative and Industrial Light and Magic artists employed to create the illusion of a real-life battle between the good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons - where where you're taken along for the ride.
The opening screen in Transformers, as seen during our construction walk-through.
"The ride is a series of magic tricks," Russell said. "We use the vehicle like a director uses camera angles and cuts to focus your attention."
The vehicle in question is EVAC, which is a Transformer himself, assigned to move the all-important Allspark to a safer location after its home at the NEST compound comes under Decepticon attack.
A front view of the EVAC ride vehicle
A side view of EVAC
If you're unfamiliar with the Transformers story and terms, don't worry. They'll all be explained to you in the ride's queue. And if you can't wait for that, take a look at our December interview with Universal Creative's Thierry Coup, where he explains the ride in great (spoiler-laden) detail.
The short version is, you're a visitor to the top-secret NEST military compound, enlisted into service to help battle-rookie EVAC get out of town safely, with the powerful Allspark in hand.
The screen where Autobot Bumblebee and Decepticon Sideswipe fight for the Allspark. The prop helicopter in the foreground will blend with additional helicopters on the screen.
Universal manages to seamlessly blend the action on screen with the physical setting along the track. Only by walking the track could I effectively see where film action ended and physical props began.
Near the end of the ride, after you crash through a roadway, you'll end up here.
Even as the movement of the ride vehicle focuses your attention to the various screens, Universal's filled the periphery with physical detail, including props and scenery that all but the most dedicated repeat visitors likely will miss noticing consciously. But its presence helps sell the veracity of the experience, even subconsiously.
Here's more of the wreckage detail from the final scene - detail most riders will miss as their attention turns to the screen with Optimus Prime on the other side of the track.
Additional detail on the ceiling of the ride as you approach the unload station - detail perhaps only best seen when on an invite-only, pre-construction walk with the lights on. ;^)
Do be sure to look up after Optimus Prime bids you farewell, though. You won't want to miss the most impressive physical prop in the ride.
The one tactile Decepticon in the ride - the remains of Megatron, hanging horizontally above the track. Watch his eyes when you're on the ride.
But it's standing inside the ride while the film clips are running that you best appreciate how film and physical space intersect on Transformers. Universal and ILM have taken great care to synchronize the film with the motion-base vehicles' movements, so effectively that you don't really notice that you are watching short clips of films on 14 different screens when you're on the ride.
Standing still within the ride, you can see how the point of view depicted on the screen changes, to match the movement of the ride vehicles in front of it. The angle of the walls begins to slide to one side, as the ride vehicles move relative to it. The backside of an otherwise incomplete prop vehicle appears on the screen, as the EVAC ride vehicle moves to the side so you can "see" it.
As Russell explained, each rotation of the ride vehicles serves as a cut, redirecting your attention to the various screens and props inside the ride. But it's all so well coordinated that to you, the rider, the entire experience seems like one continuous "take."
Notice the physical props in front of this particular scene. Russell explained that Universal had to employ a rear projection 3D screen here so that the props would not cast shadows on the screen. That's the attention to detail that helps make the "magic tricks" in the ride so convincing.
Megatron battles Optimus Prime, in one of the climactic scenes of Transformers: The Ride. (Universal projected this image in 2D for us to take still photographs.)
More than once, I had to remind myself that the concrete plinth upon which I was standing wasn't actually moving, as the illusion of motion on the screen was so convincing. Add in the ride vehicle motion, and you'll easily believe you're hurtling down a city street at more than 60 miles per hour.
And I had to laugh at myself while watching one rooftop scene, as I instinctively walked to one side to get a better view of a building in the background. "You dummy," I quickly realized. This is a movie. The point of view is the same no matter where you stand. But the quality of the high-definition 3D projection was so convincing I'd forgotten that.
The one element I missed in today's walkthrough? Sound. The ride's audio is contained on board the EVAC vehicles, which deliver 5,000 watts of sound from a 14-channel audio system. By keeping the audio on-board, Russell explained, Universal avoids the inevitable audio bleed that would happen between scenes if the sound were projected from speakers on the track.
As impressive as the visuals might be in Transformers, it's the audio that brings this story to life. EVAC talks with us throughout, and we hear directly from Megatron, Optimus Prime, and the other Transformers (voiced by their original film actors), as we engage with them in battle. It's those conversations that make us feel like characters within this story, as opposed to theme park tourists along for a ride.
But to hear that sound and have that full experience, we'll have to wait a few more weeks.