As part of a £20-million refurbishment of the iconic Blackpool Tower, London-based production company Sharp Cookies has produced a breath-taking 4D Cinema Film that was almost entirely post produced using SGO's Mistika post production system.
The visually stunning film was directed by Michael Hall, Co-Founder of Sharp Cookies for Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd – the owner of many major entertainment brands such as Tussauds, Alton Towers, Sealife and The London Eye. David Cox, also Co-Founder of Sharp Cookies, was the Stereographer and Post Production Supervisor on the project using Mistika.
The immersive 4D Cinema experience, which incorporates incredible 3D images, 7.1 audio surround sound and "fourth dimension" physical effects which include snow, rain, wind, smell and a vibrating floor, to name a few, is shown in a purpose-built theatre beneath one of the tower's own arches. Visitors to the top will view the 4D film as part of their overall Blackpool Tower experience.
Sharp Cookies' Co-Founder, Michael Hall, explains some of the key challenges that had to be met when creating the innovative film: "Apart from the underlying challenge of creating a piece of world-class entertainment for Merlin, the refurbishment works being carried out in Blackpool meant that we could not film the actual tower, including the building it rises from or the promenade and trams, as they were covered in scaffolding or being re-modelled at the time." Michael expands: " Needless to say though, these locations had to be the centre piece of any film about Blackpool and the Tower. Sharp Cookies split the production into four main areas which included a green screen shoot in London; internal location shoots in Blackpool for the Tower Ball Room and Tower Circus scenes; a stereoscopic 3D helicopter aerial shoot of the surrounding landscape, while all external footage of the tower and promenade was created in CGI. Clearly, and not withstanding the fact that it was a stereoscopic large screen project, the workload for post production was very high."
CGI played an important role in the making of the film and Sharp Cookies chose to interpret the restriction of having substantial on-going building work around the tower and seafront as an opportunity. Using CG allowed more freedom of camera moves, especially around the tower itself.
David Cox took the original drawn story board into Mistika and cut each shot into different layers so they could present and consider the effect of Stereo 3D on the project. "In an experience film, the 3D becomes a character in it's own right and as with all characters, there are times when it is the star and times when it should be in the background." David adds. Across shooting and post, the amount and position of 3D was carefully controlled, for example when the expressions of the child actor are the key messages from a scene, the 3D is subtle and not over-powering. On the other hand, carefully orchestrated '3D moments' were placed through the film making the audience duck or reach out to touch hovering objects. With the film being under five-minutes in duration, it was possible to 'turn up' the 3D effect without causing viewer fatigue, but it was still vital to carefully limit and manipulate the 3D so that effects were strong but not uncomfortable. This usually means carefully linking the stereoscopic aspect of 3D with other depth-cues such as focus, brightness and perspective.
Sharp Cookies shot the Blackpool project using two RED MX cameras, mounted on an Element Technica Quasar rig. Zoom lenses were used for the stereo shoot, rather than prime lenses. The common thinking for shooting 3D is that prime lenses provide a better match between the two images, as zoom lenses invariably zoom the left and right images slightly differently. However, because of the post workflow being carried out by SGO's Mistika, the team were confident in Mistika's ability to rapidly align the left and right images and therefore be able remove any mismatches from the lenses. The benefit was that the team could shoot much more quickly, because changes in framing did not require lens changes and rig adjustment. This was very important as the crew were shooting with young children and had time constraints to consider, however, they completed ahead of schedule every day and were even able to shoot many "bonus" takes.
The post workflow had Mistika involved at the start and at the end of the process; preparing the rushes for offline at one end and creating visual effects and grading at the other. David Cox, Stereographer and Post Production Supervisor across the project reveals: "Mistika provided the bulk of the post production work. At the outset, it aligned and prepared all the rushes for offline, meaning that the FCP editor did not have to concern himself with RAW camera files or unprepared stereo images that are hard to watch. Mistika's "Equalize" function meant that syncing and aligning some four hours of rushes took less than an hour."
David continues: "After the edit, Mistika carried out all the conforming and compositing, which included set extensions, green screen keying, CGI integration, graphic design, tracking and stabilising." Mistika was also used to grade and depth-grade the final images and deliver them in the required format. David adds: " I am 100% confident that no other post production system could have dealt with that much work, to that level of quality within the time-scale available, as Mistika had. And that's before we even considered the project was going to be in Stereo 3D!"
Using NVIDIA high performance Quadro graphics processing units (GPUs) driving Mistika's innovative stereo 3D technology contributed to achieving striking results. Super-performance Hewlett Packard Z800 workstations and 24" monitors were used in the post set up in order to improve efficiency and provide real-time working.
In the final week leading up to the official public opening, Mistika was relocated from London and installed in a nearby hotel suite in Blackpool with no complications. Director Michael Hall states: "Owing to Mistika's flexibility and portability, we found it to be very convenient technology for this project, as we decided to have it with us for the final leg of installation and 4D programming close to the actual location." Michael continues: "This allowed us to provide final tweaks and finishing touches to the 3D, to make it as perfect as possible in the environment in which it would be viewed." David Cox adds: "Since we had the Mistika in Blackpool, we even found something else to do with it. One of the 4D lighting display matrices inside the theatre could be run from an 8 pixel by 336 pixel video file, so I created that in the Mistika hotel suite, giving me the ability to synchronise the lighting effects to the film itself with ease."
Geoff Mills, Director of SGO Global Sales & Operations states: "This remarkable flagship project demonstrates perfectly just how versatile and powerful Mistika really is. The Blackpool Tower 4D Experience film was an immensely complex project, yet all the rushes preparation, conforming, visual effects, colour grading and deliverables have all been generated from a single Mistika system. Without Mistika, a project of this magnitude, would have required several systems from various manufacturers which would waste time as the project is moved and converted between the various post production areas." Geoff continues: " In such competitive times where value and quality are key, Mistika is a clear winner."
Miguel Angel Doncel, CEO of SGO adds: "We are very excited that Mistika’s capability has being recognised in the entertainment and attractions arena as well. The fact that a creative production company, like Sharp Cookies, and their client Merlin, are equally impressed with what the technology has achieved for their 4D film, is rewarding." Miguel concludes: "SGO considers David Cox as one of the top post production geniuses of his time. It is wonderful to witness the explosive results when a genius embraces Mistika."
The "Blackpool Tower 4D Experience" opened on the 1st September 2011, initially to over a hundred members of the national press. The end of the film was met with spontaneous applause and is now open to the public, who are also giving it widespread acclaim.
SGO will be showcasing the Mistika post production system again this year at IBC 2011, Stand A11, Hall 6, with footage from the Blackpool 4D project.