Animation powerhouse Super 78 supplied the 3D magic for one of the most technologically sophisticated, visually rich and thrilling theme park experiences ever produced Curse of the DarKastle debuting this season at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The spectacular next generation attraction, which takes thrill-seekers on a bone-chilling journey through a frozen Bavarian castle, is a dark ride in which patrons travel through the 40,000 square foot castle environment in computer-controlled, motion-based sleighs as rear-projected, 3D imagery appears all around them. Integration of the 3D effects with the ride's physical set, the state-of-the-art motion of the cars, 5.1 surround sound and 4D environmental effects is taken to new heights, providing park patrons with a totally immersive experience that is beyond compare.
Super 78 produced all of the stereoscopic 3D imagery featured in the ride as well as the cleverly executed pre-ride film that introduces patrons to the sinister King Ludwig. Attraction architect Cecil Magpuri of Florida-based Falcons Treehouse designed the ride. Oceaneering Entertainment Systems, also of Florida, was the project engineer.
Unlike many theme park attractions, Curse of the DarKastle is not based on any preexisting story or characters, but rather is wholly original. King Ludwig, the central figure in the tale, is a bloodthirsty ghost bent on recruiting others to join him in the hereafter. For the 3 minutes and 40 seconds of the rides duration he pursues patrons through the castle’s haunted chambers with cunning, ruthlessness and diabolical zeal. They escape but barely.
The ride is replete with eye-popping 3D effects. Swords, knives and sundry other objects swoop toward riders heads. The sleighs are jostled by a boulder that rolls out of the screen. Riders are pelted with wind and snow. The ride also features one nerve-rattling drop, although a CG-induced illusion makes it seem as though the sleigh is plummeting farther and faster than it actually is.
"Busch Gardens wanted an experience that was world-class, that would blow people away," said Super 78 managing director Dina Benadon, with the best 3D anyone has ever seen.
In order to fulfill that request, Super 78 assembled a production team with A-list experience in location-based entertainment. Benadon and Super 78 creative director Brent Young had previously contributed to such ground-breaking attractions as Seafari for the MCA Universal theme park in Japan, Star Trek: The Experience for the Las Vegas Hilton and Race for Atlantis for Caesar’s Palace. Additionally, they tapped as animation director Mario Kamberg, whose previous credits include The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera and Jimmy Neutron’s: Nicktoon Blast for Universal Studios in Orlando. 3D specialist Chuck Comisky (James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, Terminator 2-3D) was brought into assist with the stereoscopic effects.
What separates Curse of the DarKastle from other rides is the way the 3D effects interact with and occur on all sides of the sleighs. When ghosts fire arrows at the patrons, they seem to whiz right by their heads. A tray of wine glasses that floats across a room seems to hover in mid-air just beyond reach.
"The sleighs have complete range of motion," explained Young. "They can move forward and back, tilt side to side and spin 360-degrees. You may be looking at one screen, when something hits the vehicle. It turns you in the opposite direction and suddenly you're facing another screen. It all happens very fast. You don't have time to say, I get it. I know how they're doing it."
Pulling off such heady illusions required especially tight collaboration between Super 78 animators, the rides design team and the vendors building the cars, the track and the ride environment."Before we began work on the animation, the engineers provided us with a ride profile that mapped out the physical environment down to the inch, as well as the precise timing and motion of the cars," explained Super 78 CG supervisor Aaron Powell. "We knew the physical parameters of the room and how the cars were oriented at every moment. From there, we went to work designing and executing the animation and dreaming up all of the 3D gags."
"The ride is designed to make it impossible to tell where reality ends and cinematic illusion begins. The physical sets were built and lit to match up perfectly with the CG so that the edges of the projection screens are invisible to riders. It all blends together," observed Young. "As a result, we were able to make it appear as though some of the rooms extend 40 or 50 feet with mountain-scapes appearing in the windows in the background. When you add in the 3D effects that appear to project out of the screens,
you get the feeling of being completely immersed. It's no longer a 3D film, it's a 3D environment."
"The technical complexities notwithstanding, Klamberg said that the greatest challenge in Curse of the DarKastle was creative. It is a family attraction and therefore it couldn't be frightening in a way that would be inappropriate for kids," he said. "Still it had to be entertaining to adults as they make up at least half of our audience."
"Pleasing both sides of the generational divide," said Klamberg, was a matter of good storytelling. It all comes down to the mood, the pacing, the ups and downs, the drama followed by the calm, the sense of what lies around the next corner?" he said. "The ride is a ballet of 3D. What separates this from other rides is the role of 3D. We rely less on fast action and more on depth, richness and quality. The quality of the film is very strong in the ride."
In order to insure that all of the effects worked to perfection, Super 78 set up a stereoscopic projection system in its Hollywood studio identical to those used in the ride. Animators made several trips to Florida for test rides in a prototype sleigh and mock up of the track. In the week's prior to launch, senior crew members visited Williamsburg to assist fabricators in making final tweaks and adjustments.
"Because Curse of the DarKastle has an original story, the pre-ride film assumed greater-than-normal importance. With most other rides, patrons arrive already familiar with the characters and the plot," explained Young. "Here they are meeting King Ludwig for the first time, so we had to introduce the characters, supply the whole back story and familiarize patrons with the environment they are about to enter."
The pre-ride film appears in an ante-room to the castle where patrons wait before boarding the sleighs. What appear to be tapestries hanging on the wall suddenly spring to life and relate the frightful history of Ludwig and his clan. Although patrons aren't yet wearing their stereoscopic glasses, Super 78 created an illusion of 3D by arraying 2D CG elements across a series of receding plains similar to a pop-up greeting card. Animators then used a virtual camera to travel through the tapestry and tour Ludwig's world.
"As Ludwig becomes progressively evil, the tapestry's imagery begins to degrade," noted Young. "Snakes and skulls appear. The fabric of the tapestry becomes old and rotten. Along the way, we provide hints at what lies inside the castle and what they can expect to see along the way. While the pre-show film makes patrons prepared to enter King Ludwig's world, there is no way they will be able to take in everything that awaits them inside the ride." "That, too," said Benadon, "is intentional. The attraction is so rich that patrons will have to ride it multiple times to get the full experience, she said. We're hoping that when people get off the ride, they'll turn around and get back in line."