How to bring a movie and video game to life in a theme park

July 2, 2023, 5:47 PM · Editor's note: While he was covering the grand opening of Uncharted: The Enigma of Penitence at PortAventura last month, Ben Mills interviewed two leaders of the attraction's creative team, Rich Hill and Logan Zawacki from Sally Dark Rides. You can read Ben's review of the new indoor coaster at PortAventura crafts a winning adventure with 'Uncharted'. Spoilers below.

Ben: Well, congratulations! Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in the project and what the development process was to get to this point?

Rich: It all started when PortAventura contacted us. They were thinking of doing a new dark coaster attraction and said they would like Sally’s involvement based on our previous success with Sesame Street. [For more on Sally's work on PortAventura's Sesame Street: Street Mission interactive dark ride, see These artists can tell you how to get to Sesame Street - Editor.] They’d already talked with Intamin about the plans for the coaster, so they had a layout and a basic design building. They did not have a pre-show really, but they had plans for an hour-long pre-show. That was their early design parameter. So we got into it. It’s interesting – this actually started as a blue sky concept where they wanted us to basically craft a story that was completely unique that the coaster would be wrapped around.

Ben: And was it Uncharted at that point?

Rich: No, it was not. We started down that path – we actually went pretty far, we developed seven or eight stories, kind of got down to three stories, then got down to one story, started into that design process – and then they gave us the call. “Hey guys, uhh… little change of plans here. We’ve been talking to Sony; we’ve got the rights to the Uncharted IP. Start playing the video game, watch the movie.” We’re like, we’ve already done that.

Logan: Yeah, easy!

Rich: We’re already super fans, so that was an easy one. So we threw all that stuff in the bin. Here we go, let’s go to Uncharted-ville. So we started that process, and a year and a half later here we are.

Sally at Uncharted
The Sally team, from left to right, Logan Zawacki (Project Manager), Lauren Weaver (VP of Marketing and Business Development), Andrew Beger (Animation Fabricator), Rich Hill (Chief Creative Officer)

Ben: And were you led by the film primarily? I sense there was a video game element there in the mix as well.

Logan: The film was the focus, that was the specific agreement that was made between Sony and the park. So it leans heavily toward the film, and we were directed to go that way. But as you just said – you can’t talk about Uncharted, and even the movie, without having that knowledge and reference to the video game. And in this case with this attraction, bringing in those elements, because it’s not a passive movie – it’s an immersive, interactive attraction. Tying those video game elements into the entire experience – not just the ride, but the entire experience – became critical to making that connection to the IP.

Ben: We were just talking about some of the video game aspects – and maybe not even video game, but interactive puzzle-based aspects. Could you talk about what those highlights are in the attraction for you?

Rich: It was really important to bring all of those puzzle, adventure, treasure-seeking themes into the attraction – based on the movie and based on the video games. It’s full of trying to find things, trying to solve things to advance – so in the attraction we’ve done just that. Nate gets captured, and our mission changes from treasure-seeking to freeing Nate. That’s halfway through the attraction. Then we have to solve puzzles, we have to find our way through a labyrinth of caves, and we do that by using our flashlight in our phone to illuminate way-markers that take us toward the load station, where we’re going to get into our vehicles. We free Nate in the attraction – then in typical Uncharted format, we get the treasure, but it’s basically lost at the end. The bad guys take off with it, it all blows up, but we get away with just enough to fund our adventure. But Sully sneaks off with it. So very typical.

Ben: I did a bit of a deep dive over the last week – I watched the movie, played some of the games, and asked an obsessive fan of the franchise, “what do I need to watch out for?” He’ll be very happy that Sully has a moustache in this attraction!

Rich: Yeah, right!

Ben: How involved were Sony or Naughty Dog as you were developing the concept?

Logan: Extremely involved. We wouldn’t even be working on it if we didn’t already have their buy-in and involvement from the beginning. It was great to actually have their direction, to have their blessing to the point where we understood the film took place at this particular timeline. We know that the attraction is going to be after the film, so we need to create something that is a continuation of the story.

What was amazing to all of us is we were given the opportunity to create a brand new character. Rich came up with this really great concept for this main villain, and then it all got massaged by PortAventura’s input, Sony’s input, PlayStation’s input. Everybody got a chance to dissect, add and create this whole new villain and these henchmen that are part of the Order – which is established within the Uncharted franchise – but in a totally new way. Just to be able to say that we had the opportunity to create a new character for a franchise. That’s amazing! That is so cool. Nobody gets to say that.

Rich: Landon Killbride and Killbride Industries are now part of canon for Uncharted and Sony. I mean, forever! They can never take that away from us!

Ben: Maybe they pop up in the next game, who knows.

Rich: You never know!

Logan: The character’s been created now - who knows what may happen with it. And that’s the exciting part about it.

Rich: If you see the KI logo flying by on a helicopter in the next video game - you know. That was us!

Ben: So obviously there was a back-and-forth with the rights holders, and with PortAventura. But having a bit of experience with your rides, it also feels very much like a Sally ride. There’s so many little touches – the animatronics, the interactivity. And even in that first interaction with the rocket launcher, I thought: “ah, that’s Joker!” [An animatonic encounter from Sally’s Justice League rides at Six Flags parks.] The DNA is there. For you, what makes this a Sally ride?

Rich: The Sally trademark really is to use all of the tools in our toolbox to create story. Whether it’s through practical sets and scenery or digital media, interactivity, audio – all of the things that come together. It’s really important for us to create a 360-degree immersive experience that tells you a story, and makes you feel a part of the story. You’re not a secondary character, you’re a primary character in the story – actually driving the story. I’d say that that’s really a hallmark of Sally Dark Rides.

Ben: I think that comes across really well. That’s the bridge into it being video gamey; not totally passive. Obviously it’s a relatively small footprint for what feels like a massive experience. You’ve packed a huge adventure into a comparatively small show building – compared to, let’s say, Gringotts. What are the challenges of packing so much technology and so much story into a small space and such a tight experience?

Logan: Well, thankfully at Sally we are very used to that. That’s really what we do with many of our dark rides. We are given this very small footprint, and we have to solve the puzzle of how to maximise every single inch of the space. Like Rich mentioned earlier, when the original talks were done with this, we knew what the ride was, but the queue was really just this mystery box. What can we do with this? It’s understanding how things need to flow, where we have a single rider lane versus a standard queue. Being able to dissect and determine where the story is taking us. How can we utilise the space to make it feel like you are really in this crazy labyrinth for an extremely long amount of time?

But it is like you said; it’s a relatively small space, and it’s having those different zones where you really have these fleshed-out, variable, different environments, where each one feels like a whole new experience. And then you add all the interactive elements, and then you have all the subtle variations that people don’t even really comprehend. They subconsciously get it, but they may not necessarily recognise it the first time they walk through – even subtle things like music and lighting choices. All of that really helps to take a small space and give so much variety that it feels like a massive environment.

Ben: And that makes it true to the IP – that sense of the unfolding adventure.

Logan: And the different levels of the game. If we’re comparing it to a video game, he doesn’t just go to one location. The games always involve multiple locations as you’re going along the journey. We didn’t travel outside of Penitence [the fictional town in which the ride is set], but we managed to give this environment the feeling of a video game where you are passing through these different levels as you go to the main big boss battle, if you will.

Ben: Working with an existing coaster design – was that a challenge?

Rich: It was a challenge. But this is Sally’s first dark coaster. We’ve dreamed of this for years and years, and it’s finally come to life. Just understanding the design parameters was really important for us to get an education as well as design a story around this ride track. Having Intamin help us understand what are the aspects of this ride: when do we speed up? When do we slow down? What do you see from various vantage points? Pre-visualization of all that in 3D was super helpful to understand. If one vehicle is out there, and we’ve just been dispatched, what are they seeing, what are we seeing, what are they hearing, what are we hearing? And being able to separate those with the dividers. Every choice you make is expensive in a space like this, where it’s massive. So we had to be very conscious of our design choices. Just learning along the way was its own struggle!

Ben: You’ve sort of touched on it there, but the synchronisation of scene-to-scene, not spoiling what’s coming next or seeing the reset… We know from experiencing attractions where that doesn’t work how difficult that must be to achieve.

Rich: We’re all big fans of coasters that tell a story-based experience. I’ve ridden all of them. I have faults with some of them; I see the flaw in the armor. So I was very conscious to try and not make those same mistakes with this attraction - and try to solve some of those things that I’ve seen as issues with other attractions. I don’t know that we totally solved everything, but we sure did our darndest to try and solve those issues.

Ben: We talked about Intamin. Can you tell me some of the other partners and manufacturers you worked with on the ride?

Rich: We brought in a number of teams; teams we’ve worked with before and new teams. Bon Art was a big help in providing the CG media; they were fantastic. They also worked us on the media for the Sesame Street attraction. That was interactive, this is non-interactive – this is more of a cinematic look, and that had more of a video game feel. They absolutely were a big part of this. Tecnolux – we’ve been working with them for years and years on different attractions. The provided the amazing lighting. Sim Leisure – they were a big help with sets and scenery. That was an amazing partnership.

And I’ve got to mention Stephen Cavit, the composer who produced all the audio. He actually came at Sony’s recommendation and ended up being an awesome guy to work with.

Ben: Because you’re using screen media, a solid performance – even in computer-generated imagery – must be such a key thing. When you’re working with characters who are so well established in people’s minds, what kind of a challenge does that throw up in how you develop those performances?

Rich: We cast for actors that acted as well as spoke like the characters. It’s in Spanish, so first everything was done in English and then translated to Spanish – and then we cast Spanish actors. And we actually filmed them doing the performances as they did the voice-over dialogue recordings. The animators were able to use that, using sophisticated software that translated that into performances that at least gave them a baseline. It really is amazing how much technology has advanced to be able to translate those actors’ performances into our CG media here.

Ben: And do you take the same approach with animatronic animation as well?

Rich: Absolutely, yeah. We try to capture everything in video as the voice-over dialogue is done, and we use that throughout. Any way that we can get more and more reference for the artists. It’s just so important because your vision at the beginning ends up being more streamlined toward the end.

Ben: Were you involved in the VR experience for guests with disabilities? [A VR/simulator booth hosted at the exit allows guests unable to ride to experience a version of the attraction.]

Rich: Yeah, that’s right. Inclusivity is so important for dark rides and for our attractions. With all new attractions we want inclusivity to be a primary focus. So when PortAventura came up with the idea for including this VR experience, we jumped on it, absolutely. We had already [done pre-visualization of] a lot of the ride in 3D, so we provided all the digital assets, and then they actually added to it. You notice, if you watch the VR, it’s got some things that ride doesn’t have that I’m thinking about maybe we add! There’s a couple of little things they threw in there that I was like – wow, okay, that’s different. But it absolutely is something that is a primary focus of the park. Bringing disabled guests in, giving them the same experience. We think that we’re going to do that more and more in our new attractions. And the park is actually thinking about expanding that into other attractions in the park.

It’s doing the right thing. If you come here with your family and you happen to be in a wheelchair, and you don’t get to experience the coaster, that’s no fun. So this way, you get to do the exact same thing, then you meet in the retail: “Wow, wasn’t that great?” “Sure was!” “Okay, now let’s go do the next one!”

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Replies (2)

July 3, 2023 at 1:42 PM

This is an excellent insight into the ride development process. I wish more park were willing to allow fans to know all of the teams that come together to create world class attractions. Even for industry leaders like Disney and Universal, there are numerous outside contractors and 3rd party suppliers that help to bring an attraction to life. It's great to see Sally give kudos to all of the other companies that worked with them to deliver this unique ride.

July 3, 2023 at 5:07 PM

Thank you, Ben! Great report!

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