Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
Life is a Roller Coaster
London, UK
Ride-creating experts from Framestore and GCVRS tell LBB’s Alex Reeves why building theme park experiences has never been more of a thrill
“It’s hard to pin down where we got our schooling from,” says Framestore rides director Jason Fox. He’s talking about the niche that he and his brother Gavin have carved out for themselves, creating the most thrilling rides in the world’s most high-tech theme parks. Most recently the Foxes, along with the rest of the Immersive team at Framestore, developed the media for five rides at Lionsgate Entertainment World - Asia’s first film-themed indoor vertical theme park. The park opened in Zhuhai, China this summer with more than 25 rides and virtual reality experiences based on the Hollywood studio’s movie titles, all packed into a sleek, futuristic looking building that stands 10 stories high, complete with interactive restaurants.

Jason might not be sure exactly where all the experience came from get the pair into this futuristic creative position, but it seems clear that it began when the pair took one Halloween party a bit further than usual, transforming their garage into a ghost train. Many years on it’s a tradition they’ve kept up, changing their front garden into a spooky immersive spectacular each October. One year they even built their own steampunk time machine for it.

Since then Gavin and Jason have immersed themselves in all things immersive, creating experiences for Secret Cinema, the Monster Supplies Store and on the many virtual reality projects Framestore gets stuck into as a global VFX and entertainment powerhouse. It’s that VR heritage that got them involved in working on rides. The key, as Gavin puts it, is knowing how to work on projects “where you’re doing things on non-traditional screens that are not traditional stories”.

The brothers’ first ride project with Framestore began five years ago and became a mammoth task that eventually took five years. It was Pearl Quest - a dark ride for Wanda Group’s new theme park in Qingdao, China, bolted onto a new, giant complex of three theme parks with shopping centres and restaurants. The company had been “courting” Framestore for a while, says Gavin. They needed a team with a creative skillset to write and execute a full nine-minute entertainment experience.

“We were very frank to say we’d never made a ride before. But we won the project on showing them how enthusiastic we were for the medium,” says Gavin. “They liked our ability to make really good imagery. They just needed to make sure we could take that skillset and move it into this other medium. So we had to convince them that we really wanted to. That project allowed Framestore to start making rides.”

It was good timing. Theme parks are having a bit of a moment. “There is a growing appetite for these location-based experiences,” says Jason. “Making a reason for people to go somewhere and enjoy themselves. All these companies, brands and investors are looking to raise the bar, incorporate movie IPs, video game IPs or TV IPs into their parks. So they’re looking for people who can execute their media and design their ride experiences to be the next grade up.”

Attractions are becoming ever more important to get people out of the house, says Gavin. “Shopping malls around the world are becoming more entertainment destinations,” he says. They may have always had the odd cinema, ice rink or bowling alley, but some are transforming into mini theme parks. With shopping and entertainment delivered to your home so readily, out of home entertainment needs to take things to new levels.

“Immersive entertainment offerings normally involve something you can’t do at home,” says Gavin. VR experiences, for example, use high-spec computers, headsets, specially designed rooms that take entertainment to new extremes you can’t get at home. 

The social aspect is also huge - the ability to share an experience live with your friends or family. Just look at the rise of escape rooms, or food and drink experiences that are unashamedly built for selfies. “I think that’s one of the boxes these things are ticking,” says Gavin.

Theme parks are the perfect focus to satisfy these societal changes. And with the world’s entertainment giants in an arms race to deliver the best experiences, incorporating their intellectual property into ever more exciting thrills, it’s a competitive space that companies like Framestore are happy to slot into. “We’re grateful that all the big guys are always in competition so it’s such fertile ground,” says Jason. Universal might bring out a new attraction that pushes the boundaries and then Disney pushes back with even more new, whizzy location-based entertainment. “There’s this back and forth all the time. So we fit into that melee of trying to always be on the new trend, the next thing.”

One aspect of this is the concept of a ‘world first’ - bread and butter of the theme park world. The Foxes have been involved with several. And one of the new Lionsgate rides they worked on was a great example. ‘Gods of Egypt: Battle for Eternity’ is a coaster that incorporates VR to take visitors on a high-speed ride through the fantastical world of the 2016 film. “Everyone wants to say it’s a world first. This one genuinely was, as far as we’re aware, the world’s first purpose-built VR roller coaster,” says Gavin. 

'Midnight Ride', based on the Twilight IP, is a group VR experience that sees visitors mount motorcycles to join Jacob Black and his wolfpack in a journey through the forest to hunt down newborn vampires. It’s also arguably a world first, combining a VR headset with a simulator, giving people agency and allowing them to see their friends go through the experience. The combination of those factors makes it unique, even though all of these concepts have been used in rides before.

But Jason doesn’t want to focus on the novelty factor. “Those firsts are something I never get too excited about,” he says. A first is a marketing thing. inevitably the type of work we do, the technology we use, we’re going to be doing things that have not been attempted before. But sometimes you read about things that are a ‘world’s first car made of jelly’ - great! Why would I want to be in a car made of jelly? The new Star Wars ride, I know is going to be amazing. There is not much in it that’s not been done before, but it’s been done excellently, as far as I’m aware. You want to have the best experience. Sometimes that involves things that haven’t been done before but that shouldn’t be the driver.”

Upping interactivity is one possibility that has potential to improve the world of rides. That’s what makes Midnight Ride so exciting for the brothers. “You can change the ride, you can discover new things, get a higher score,” enthuses Jason. But this brought some massive challenges for the Foxes and their team.

A ride has to be a certain duration. A theme park relies on people getting on it at a certain time, in groups of 20 or so, and then all disembarking at the same time. “If people have got control of what they do, it’s hard to do that and make sure it makes sense,” says Gavin. So the Framestore team used some tricks to manipulate the software. On Midnight Ride, guests can control their speed most of the time, but when it matters to the story, this agency is only an illusion. 

“At one point we want you to feel scared, so you’re at the back of the pack and everyone else goes off into the distance. That happens to everyone but at the time you feel it’s just happening to you,” says Gavin. “And at another point you see another motorcyclist that you think is Great Aunt Maud, or whoever’s riding along next to you, thrown through the air, coming off the bike and hitting a tree. You think that’s her and that could happen to you.”

The big step change changing rides in 2019 is the fact that so many surfaces can now be screens of a high quality. It’s one of the key reasons companies like Framestore with a visual heritage are so well suited to working on theme parks right now. Frame rates and resolution has come on leaps and bounds. “We’re approaching that area where many times you cannot realise whether something’s media or a physical set, an animatronic or animation,” says Gavin. 

Advances in technology have helped make ride building more immersive than ever, but the brothers are keen to note that the discipline of ride building follows the same principles as ever. “They’ve always been illusions,” says Gavin. “Everything, including the sound and the vehicle, the wind and the media all needs to be believable.” The only thing that’s changed is how ambitious you can be. 

For a VFX house to adapt to this work has been surprisingly smooth. “What’s interesting is it’s not really anything new,” says Jason. “We still use writers, storyboard designers, art department, modellers, layout, rigging, all those skillsets we use in visual effects. We’re just applying them to a slightly different canvas.”

What does differ is the production. Compared to a film project, there are so many moving parts that need consideration. “With a ride there are so many things that can derail what you’re doing,” says Gavin, willfully punning. On top of the media task, there’s a physical engineering aspect that it’s intertwined with. “There’s a reason Disney call their designers Imagineers, because it’s a mix of physical engineering as well as storytelling. That has always been true and still is today.”

Sometimes the engineering idea is in fact what drives a story, because someone has developed a roller coaster that didn’t exist before, or a new kind of log flume or indoor vehicle. The story needs to fit a physical brief. Jason calls it “squeezing it into the box.”

On Gavin and Jason’s first Wanda attraction, everything was set. The screens are going to be in certain places. The tracks were built. The brief was to add story and media to make a ride out of that. “There was no real logic to why the screens were where they were,” says Jason, “so it was about trying to sculpt a story to fit these environments.”

The duo quite enjoy that challenge, knowing there’s a left turn coming up they have to imagine why the riders will need to turn left. “Something hits us from the right. Bang, we’re off,” Jason laughs.

Gods of Egypt was a similar challenge due to the fact that Lionsgate’s new park is indoors. The roller coaster is sizeable but not huge, relatively fast and with a few dips and turns, but with the VR aspect built in from the start, Framestore’s job was to make it seem bigger and more extreme than it really was. 

“We knew we had to tell a story within the Gods of Egypt world, which is quite bonkers,” says Gavin. “Crazy environments, massive fight scenes, big creatures, anything can happen in that world. So it’s working out a story that does the film justice. We wanted to make sure fans of the movie see their favourite scenes played out with them as the protagonists.”

But at the same time there were certain drops, twists and turns that needed explaining through the narrative. With the VR component as well as variable speed on the vehicle itself, the team had a lot of toys to play with.

When riders are being chased by giant snakes through the desert, the ride needed to go fast; when they were going into an underground cave it needed to slow down. Everything had to happen at a certain time, a certain speed up to the split second so riders felt that they were really in that world.

Fitting a story into a box is hard, but there’s an enticing benefit for creatives like Gavin and Jason: there is only one box that it has to fit. When an experience is unique to one place in the world, rather than delivered on millions screens of varying sizes and qualities, you can make that place the perfect environment for that experience.

“Knowing exactly what projector is going to be projecting on what screen, how big the screen is, the curvature, where the light is bouncing around the room, you can paint areas certain colours so the ambience is as perfect as it can be.” says Jason. “It’s about bending that technology so it’s the best it can be, just for that spot in the world, nowhere else. Just there. It’s all in your hands, so you can really hone it as a piece of engineering.”

Working on commercials or films it’s a frustration that they’ve felt before. Jason remembers spending weeks in a sound studio mixing audio that nobody will ever truly appreciate. “You know most people are going to watch it on a phone or a laptop. And no one’s going to be able to hear that bass. That week’s worth of work? You didn’t hear any of that.”

Sound is of course a key component to immersing riders in the other worlds and Lionsgate worked with audio specialists GCRVS, whose team recreated the speakers and headsets as accurately as they could in their Soho studio to make sure the sound would fit the physics of the rides precisely. Then they had to go to China and mix it all again meticulously in the real space. 

Steve Lane, technical director of GCVRS, explains that they had to make sure that the sound translated well to each individual playback system. Some were headphone based, some were multiple speaker arrays in an environment and some were custom immersive arrays. “Each required a very different approach to ensure the sound fitted and reacted correctly,” he says.

Having worked on a lot of VR projects in recent years, rides aren’t out of Steve’s comfort zone. “It’s actually quite similar,” he says, “as most of the experiences we have worked on are kind of rides. However, most other VR experiences allow users to explore at their own pace, whilst rides need to keep the excitement and energy up as they generally have a shorter run time to keep people going through.”

The mixing process to ensure the sound worked with the combination of speakers and surfaces in the Zhuhai park involved tireless testing and re-testing. Extensive tweaking is one of the defining traits of creating rides - constantly changing one component after another, all of which have an effect on the rest. “There’s no way of predicting how the sound’s going to work or how the projectors are going to work in relation to all the lighting,” says Gavin, remembering particularly how ‘The Twilight Saga: Bella's Journey’ took a lot of fiddling. “In the end we got somewhere really good with it but it took us a couple of weeks of big engineering, changing things around. 

“I always describe these things as illusions. Everything needs to work in harmony for that to work, even the smallest things. Like if you’re coming round a corner and the vehicle doesn’t move the way it’s supposed to - say the visuals suggest it should be rough ground but it doesn’t feel rough - or if the bass cannons don’t work in the right way and you’re not feeling the rumble of the engine beneath you, everything feels a bit hollow.”

The endless tweaking and attention to detail sounds maddening, but it’s worth it for people like Gavin and Jason when they see that first visceral reaction they’ve provoked. ‘Divergent: Dauntless Fear Simulator is a VR experience that tests your resilience in the face of common fears like vertigo. It takes place in a physical environment that’s designed to perfectly match the virtual one. 

The brothers remember a moment when the physical space had been finished and the VR aspect had just been installed. They invited the foreman of the Australian construction team to try the headset on. He’d been working for months building this room. “He knew every nut and bolt,” says Jason. But he put the headset on and couldn’t take more than a few steps. “He was too scared, like ‘Nah. No fucking way mate!’ He just couldn’t.”

Another gratifying moment was when the Lionsgate executive team first mounted the motorbikes for Midnight Ride in the park. All of them knew the story, had tried the experience on headsets outside of the park, but with the full physical set built, with all senses stimulated at once, Gavin recalls at least four of them screaming uncontrollably at one particularly scary vampire moment. There’s nothing better for him. “They can come off and say they enjoyed it. But if you hear someone scream or see someone unable to take a step… Bodily fluids. That’s what we’re after.”

With their Chinese mega-project behind them for now, October is near and the Fox brothers are working on getting spooky in their garden. 2019’s Halloween experience is going to be voodoo themed, with a Louisiana shack kind of flavour. After working on ambitious theme park rides for global entertainment giants, the pair love to get back to their DIY immersive projects. Gavin recently enjoyed the process of buying a pair of beautifully carved antique chairs, polished and wrapped carefully, only to get them home and “smash them with chains.”

“We just got a pair of shoes for our skeleton,” says Jason. “It’s quite exciting.”
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