What medium tells the story the best in a theme park attraction? Should designers rely on practical sets and animatronics to set the scene and drive a narrative, or does screen-based media work better to create a truly immersive environment with realistic performers and action?
Look, I go into today's "which is better" question knowing that a lot of you were sick of screens in theme parks before this whole mess happened. Now with work and school becoming entirely screen-based for many of us, I am sure that screen fatigue stands at an all-time high. So I suspect that many of you are rushing to jab that "Animatronics" button before I have a chance to break down this question.
So chill and gimme a chance first, okay?
I actually think that this is one of the more interesting questions in themed entertainment design right now. Sure, every designer likes to say that everything starts with story. But if story's all ya got, you never move beyond that starting line. You have to find the right tools and the right media in which to tell your story. Pick wrong and you've failed not just the story but the fans who have given their money and time to ride.
Animatronics are great - except when limited motion capabilities of most animatronics make your action look like some cheesy slow-motion replay of an actual story. Or when character faces fall into the creepy uncanny valley of robot masks. So many big-budget theme park attractions today rely on established IP. But if that IP is dependent upon recognizable actors who aren't hiding behind masks or makeup, you might have a tough time depicting them convincingly as animatronics. Even if you invest in top-quality animatronics and laser-scanned, 3D-printed character faces, your story might fail if a park doesn't have - or won't spend - the money to maintain those expensive animatronics in top condition.
So how about media? Great choice - assuming that you can get your acting talent to perform for the theme park ride, too. And what if your director doesn't understand the laws of physics and chooses to create an action sequence that leaves your audience green and heaving? It's not just about casting, shot set-up, and story-boarding, either. You'll need to invest in proper lighting, color grading, and sound production to ensure that your media blends seamlessly into the immersive environment that you're trying to create. And even if you get the media production right, you run the risk that fans will dismiss your work as too much like going to a movie theater - or worse, watching a screen at home - to justify being in a theme park.
That said, for most major projects these days, "animatronics or media" is not an either/or question. Today's standard for excellence in themed attractions demands a blend of practical and media tools to establish and sell the story in the most convincing and engaging ways possible.
So let's consider this a question of which medium should be used as the starting point to build the narrative in a world-class theme park attraction. Should you typically start with something screen-driven, then add practical sets and animatronics to support and provide literal depth to the on-screen narrative? Or should you start with an animatronic environment, using screens as accents to provide additional dynamism within the scenes?
Weighing it all, where do you prefer to start? To begin the process of creating a great theme park narrative, which is better: animatronics or media?
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