As part of the grand re-opening of the historic Blackpool Tower on September 1st, Merlin Entertainment hired brand agency Sharp Cookies to produce a pre-ascent 4D cinema experience to take viewers on a virtual journey through Blackpool’s historic and iconic landmarks such as the Pepsi Max Big One rollercoaster, offshore wind farm, Ballroom and circus.
Joining forces with 4D cinema specialists Kraftwerk, Sharp Cookies produced a 5 minute 3D film, surpassing the Merlin owned London Eye 4D attraction in every way.
3D Focus TV attended the recent press screening and was highly impressed but what technology, processes and collaborations were behind the show that’s receiving such positive audience reaction? (We recently visited the tower after the press screening to monitor audience reaction).
Merlin Entertainment Group, who bought Tussauds Group back in 2007, took over the tourist attraction management of the Blackpool Tower, adding the Eiffel tower inspired landmark to its portfolio of other Blackpool attractions such as the Sea Life Centre, Madame Tussauds, the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and the Blackpool Dungeon. Following on from the success of the London Eye, Merlin have installed a 4D cinema experience at the base of the tower which they have renamed the Blackpool Tower Eye.
Once visitors have had their photographs taken whilst sitting on a construction girder in front of a green screen (so they can later purchase a photograph of themselves 150 metres high in the air) visitors enter the standing only purpose built cinema after picking up a pair of 3D glasses. The only clues that it is different to a regular theatre is a group of powerful looking fans installed on the sides of the screen and water sprinklers dotted around the ceiling.
With 7.1 surround sound, the 3D film combines a mixture of CGI elements and real footage with the 4D effects of smoke, LED lighting, scent, floor vibrations, water, snow, wind and even confetti.
Highlights of the short film include a POV shot on the UK’s tallest rollercoaster, a girder swinging out into the audience, a time-warp sequence of dancers in the great Ballroom, a clown squirting out real water from a bow tie flower and a dramatic fly-over the ocean which culminates in a spectacular sequence where the Blackpool Tower lifts off like a space shuttle and the entire auditorium fills with smoke, vibrations and flashing lights.
Craig Sciba, Creative Director and Project Designer for the “Blackpool Tower Eye” explains that the original brief for the 4D film was “to create a sophisticated yet fun 4D film that captures the essence of Blackpool and the northern coastline through aerial views and creative storytelling. We wanted to take the success of the London Eye 4D film and build upon it to create a more enhanced 4D visitor experience.”
In response to the brief, Sharp Cookies founders Michael Hall and David Cox worked with writer Paul Shearer to construct a story that provided a visual tour of flavours and experiences on offer to tourists to Blackpool.
Michael Hall told 3D Focus, “When we pitched the script, we pitched it as a 3D film with 7.1 surround sound. In it, we had flashing text to say what 4D effect would happen where, for example 4D effect: smoke, 4D effect: water. It was integral to when we wrote it so Merlin would understand we knew what they were looking for.”
The storyboard frames were cut out into layers, animated and taken into a Mistika post production suite to create a 3D video version of the storyboard. A 7.1 surround sound mix was also added.
Sharp Cookies put in place a team of people to create the film. Its founders Michael Hall and David Cox assumed key roles; Hall as director for the film and Cox as Stereographer / Post Production Supervisor. Paul Darter on behalf of Anglo Filming Ltd became the producer for the project as Anglo Filming provided logistical services for the production. Matt Wynne on behalf of Splitt Limited became the CGI supervisor and headed a team of animators to provide the computer generated elements that the script required. The director of photography was Adam Hall and the editor, Matthew Hall.
David Cox, the project's stereographer and post production supervisor elaborates on how 3D was to be used in the project. “3D can be used subtly to allow the audience a window onto another world, or it can be used more immersively by directly involving them in the action. Generally, a drama feature film would use the former, but an experience film such as this needs to be more engaging from a 3D perspective. The thing is, stereo objects that use a great deal of negative parallax – that is, stuff that comes out of the screen, can be very difficult to look at unless they are very carefully designed and other depth cues such as perspective, focus and distance fogging support the stereo effect.
My job as project stereographer across both production and post was to control 3D as if a character in the story – there are times when it should be the star and those moments are carefully scripted and designed for maximum effect without viewer discomfort. But there are times when it should let other things on the screen take the audience's attention and at these times it should be more subtle.”
Michael Hall told 3D Focus “It’s something that David and I talked quite a lot about. David is very technical and gifted in terms of understanding the physics of everything but we decided that sometimes we had to ignore the physics in order to get the 3D moments we wanted, so for example the confetti hovers in the air when it really should fall to the ground and the biplane flies towards you and shrinks back slightly so its hovering in front of your eyes, which a biplane can’t do. It was about finding the balance between reality and providing the best 3D experience for the people paying money to go in there.”
The decision was made to separate the film into four logical production areas. Many of the shots could be created in a green-screen environment and these were shot in Black Island Studios in West London. Specific internal shots would be filmed on location in Blackpool and these included scenes in the world famous Tower Ball Room and Tower Circus. All external shots of the Tower, promenade and illuminations would need to be created digitally, whereas the aerial sequence featuring the surrounding landscape to the Tower was scheduled for later in the year when the weather would be more accommodating.
The shooting “package” consisted of a pair of RED MX cameras, an Element Technica 3D rig, a playback and data handling station as well as suitable 3D test and viewing monitors. All these were supplied by On Sight along with a digital image technician and a 3D rig technician.
Two sets were built in the green screen studio in West London. The first was a full-scale section of the Blackpool Tower while the second was an antique shop front that provided the background and props for a part of the film. The Tower section was used to create a historical aspect in the story. By using both the live action shot around this set and CGI elements, a sequence depicting how the tower was built was created. It features suitably dressed workers building the tower with hand tools, hot rivets, etc. Other elements shot in the green screen studio included a game of beach-ball which was later set against the famous Blackpool beach. Also a donkey was filmed and placed in a similar location.
After seven days filming the green screen elements and two days filming a time warp dance sequence in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and acrobatic sequence in the Blackpool Tower Circus, the crew shot the aerial sequences, which were shot in 3D with a stereo rig attached to a helicopter. This final element was actually shot just a short time before the public opening and well into the post production phase of the rest of the film, in order to take advantage of the local summer weather.
Once the bulk of the filming was completed, post production commenced by taking all the stereo rushes into Sharp Cookies' Mistika post production system. At this stage, all the rushes were stereoscopically aligned and any geometric or colour errors between the images removed. The editing process itself was carried out on Final Cut Pro.
While the editing was under-way, so also was the creation of the CGI elements by Splitt Ltd. Key shots included the essential opening sequence, which started with a “straight down” view of the tower so that the top of the tower and the flag pole on top of it provided an initial “3D hit” as it appeared to stand out of the screen. Immediately after, the camera follows a seagull as it drops vertically down the side of the tower, across the promenade just missing a tram and then out to sea. This entire sequence including the bird, sea, tram, promenade and people on it were all generated by computer by Splitt.
Once the edit began to take shape, David Cox commenced the process of completing the special effects work on the shots. In fact, almost every shot has some level of visual effect on it, owing to the amount of green screen work within the project but also due to the intent to provide the most polished images possible. Post production work included green screen composites, set extensions, ageing of material, colour grading, sky replacements and graphic design. An example shot would be one of the tower-building shots that originated from the full-scale model in the green screen studio. From this, the camera move was tracked and the white tracking markers removed. The green was then swapped for sky and the lighting changed on the actors to reflect this. Sparks were added where a worker hits his hammer against the metal framework of the tower, as well as a plume of smoke that rises from a heat source below frame. Finally, foreground fog and clouds were added to further increase the sense of space in the shot before the whole composite was colour graded and treated to give an aged appearance. All of this as well as the other elements of post production were accomplished in a single Mistika suite.
About a week before the public opening, the final pictures and 7.1 surround sound mix were handed over to Austrian company Kraftwerk, who were responsible for installing the technical aspects of the 4D cinema. The cinema itself was constructed by MCL Projects. At this time, the programming of the 4D effects including snow, smoke, wind, rain, aroma, vibration and lights took place under the supervision of director Michael Hall and Creative Director Craig Sciba.
Michael Hall told 3D Focus, “I went up to Blackpool 10 days before in order to do the 4D programming. Things were running behind. In the end we had three days to programme the 4D but that was the only on-site programming. I gave kraftwerk a script with frame accurate indicators for the effects. They programmed them and then Craig and I went back and shifted things a little way forward or a little way backward. For example, when the donkey farts, there needs to be built in travel time for when the scent reaches the noses of the audience and it’s the same for squirts.”
He continued “We were still testing the principle systems 12 hours before launch.”
However, it was “alright on the night”. The 4D Experience opened to unanimous applause after the September 1st premiere. When asked whether he was nervous about the audience reaction Michael Hall replied, “We were nervous. Paul, David and I knew that we had something that was pretty special and worked very well but some of the very senior people who were buying into this had only seen coloured up wireframe animations to begin with. They looked like corporate animations from the late 80s and I think some of the people in charge were thinking – is this what we are paying for? They didn’t understand it was an anamatic so we were nervous in terms of what people were actually expecting. They wanted something that was good and I think we delivered them something that was pretty jaw dropping but at the same time, I was second guessing at what level of sign off it would be so we were really nervous about that but it turned out everybody loved it.”
Michael Hall concludes “Paul, David and I had put a lot of work into this and we want to do a lot more about them, so it’s important for this that clients are delighted. I wouldn’t say we made this as a loss leader but we certainly put a lot into this project so we could use it as a calling card, going above and beyond, so people can say ‘these guys are mega hot on 3D’.
The Blackpool Tower 4D cinema experience is now open to the public and can be enjoyed as part of the Blackpool Tower Eye. Merlin Entertainment are also offering The Big Ticket which gets you access to all eight attractions for £33.
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