30 September 2013

Action-Packed Special Effects Set

There have been plenty of reports and rumors over the years that the Studio Backlot Tour will be closing for the construction of a new area for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Everything from lands dedicated to Star Wars or Cars, to the broader Pixar library, have been on the docket to reclaim the behemoth swathe of land that is Catastrophe Canyon and Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. Exploring the main rationale for why these two attractions should be closed and why, and how, they could positively affect the park is precisely what we have of the call sheet for today.

The recurring argument for the demolition of the tour and the stunt show is that in these days of Blu-ray bonus features where any and all of the work that takes place behind the scenes on feature films, is there really a need to rehash those same types of lessons? Action movie bonus features show off how they launch cars with hydraulics and ramps. Science fiction features rotate between green screens, rough animation, and full-fledged computer renderings. Explosions, wire work, stunt doubles, set construction, even weather effects, everything can be gleamed from a fifteen minute behind-the-scenes segment on anyone’s favorite movies.

The same types of effects are explored via the stunt shows and backlot areas of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Is there a correlation between seeing the information passed on in person as opposed to on a home theater? The belief of those who think the time has come to shutter these attractions is that there is no measureable difference between the two methods of how the information is distributed to guests and film viewers. The question is, are they right?

Personally, I think there is something to be said for actually experiencing the effects firsthand. In looking at Catastrophe Canyon, the gimbals on the bridge really toss guests about in their rows, rather than just watch an earthquake set crack a set in two and guests feel the heat of the fire and get sprayed with the water. Then you get an idea of how the fire lines are run and how the water is collected and released as you go around behind the set pieces. In my opinion, guests understand, or want to understand more, because they themselves have just experienced the effects themselves rather than watch them happen.

As for the stunt shows, in particular Lights, Motors, Action!, guests are again watching the action happen but not necessarily taking part in the events themselves. As I said above, experiencing something firsthand is key to being invested in finding out more about how and why something happens. The stunt shows still only offer static viewing, and with that being their primary means of exposing guests to special effects concepts, and aside from feeling the concussion of explosions here and there, there isn’t a big difference between watching the stunt show inside the park or watching a featurette on a television screen.

Don’t mistake what I am saying here, I’m not trying to take away from what the stunt personnel do each and every day in the parks. It is dangerous work that requires a critical understanding of all the pieces in play and perfect timing, but it is not as engaging to the guests as putting them into the scene. Similarly, the main problem I still have with Catastrophe Canyon is that we have all experienced the same earthquake and flood time and time again. So, without demolishing everything and build an entirely different land that no longer exposes guests to the behind the scenes world of moviemaking, how do these areas becoming reinvigorated?

Isn’t it obvious by now? Make it more personal to guests. During the early days of the tour, when there was a walking portion, younger guests could fly on a blue screen bumblebee, reenacting a scene from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You don’t have to let everyone participate in order to make it personal, but if you put a guest on a wire in a carefully constructed set and pull them away from an ‘exploding’ wall, and people will stand up and want to know how it works. For larger effects, build a massive exterior set, but unlike Catastrophe Canyon don’t show off all of your effects in single scene. Rather, have multiple scenes that can mix and match effects, this way guests are continually seeing, experiencing, and learning about different effects.

Is any of this cheap or easy? Absolutely not, but it would be Walt Disney World or Imagineering if it were easy, and likely it wouldn’t be worth doing either. The backlot and the behind the lens effects are crucial to the success of Hollywood, and likewise are a fundamental part of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They should always have a place in the park, but just as filmmaking and special effects have adapted over the years, so too must the park’s backlot.

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