By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
In recent years, theme parks have incorporated VFX into rides in bigger and bolder ways, including the VES Award-winning King Kong 360 3-D and Avatar: Flight of Passage. In the latest example of this, the Walt Disney Company is debuting two attractions in its new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands that have been years in the making, that have visual effects on an epic scale and are exploring uncharted immersive territory. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is an interactive space-flight simulation that will feature real-time rendering, while Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is a lengthy immersive experience that puts theme park-goers inside a Star Wars story. Both were created by Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is scheduled to open May 31 in Disneyland and August 29 in Disney’s Hollywood Studios near Orlando. The Florida version will connect to a Star Wars-themed hotel. Each land covers 14 acres and has the spires and structures of a forgotten space outpost, as well as the two rides and themed shops and restaurants. “From the moment you cross into Galaxy’s Edge, we challenge every one of your senses to transport you to a planet named Batuu on the edge of the Star Wars galaxy,” comments Jason Bayever, Manager, Visual Effects Design, WDI.
On Smugglers Run, guests have the opportunity to fly the Millennium Falcon – the fantasy of millions of Star Wars fans. You enter the spacecraft, pause to interact with items such as the famed holographic chess table, and then climb into the cockpit to pilot the ship on a secret mission, evade Imperial TIE fighters and help space pirate Hondo Ohnaka bring back a pile of loot. “On Smugglers Run, you can control where the ship goes and affect the action,” says Bei Yang, Technology Studio Executive for WDI.
“Each guest will have their own controls. If the pilot wants to go left, you go left. If the gunners shoot at the TIE fighters in front of you, you’re going to see them explode. And if the engineers are doing their job – you’ll make it back in one piece. So while you’ll always make it to your destination, guests control how they get there and how many credits they bring home,” says Jacqueline King, Producer for Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, WDI
“From the moment you cross into Galaxy’s Edge, we challenge every one of your senses to transport you to a planet named Batuu on the edge of the Star Wars galaxy.”
—Jason Bayever, Manager, Visual Effects Design, WDI
Once it was decided that Smugglers Run would be a fully guest-controlled experience, the WDI technical and creative teams paired up to develop the technology needed to deliver the real-time media for the attraction. WDI was in charge of the “creative intent” for the overall attraction and worked closely with ILM on creating the digital imagery and VFX. “ILM has been a partner in this development since late 2015, working on early mock-ups of the media and eventually going into full production,” comments King.
“The digital imagery for Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is all real-time generated,” says Yang. “The workflow to generate such media used a process more similar to video game development.” He notes, “Balancing visual fidelity and performance is always the primary challenge in any real-time rendered project and Smugglers Run was no different. Additionally, we had to render a large field of view on a multi-projector system, which introduced additional complications requiring us to combine state-of-the-art flight-simulation technology and high-end gaming technology.”
Yang explains, “Working with the full support of Epic Games, we were able to create an eight GPU [Graphic Processing Unit] implementation of the Unreal Engine [Epic’s game engine]. This gave us the head-room needed to render at the resolution and fidelity we needed while keeping the frame rate up.”
The attraction’s digital imagery “approximates to about 8k of resolution, but that would be thinking about it as a rectangular screen, which is inaccurate,” says Yang. “We are, however, drawing about 4.5 times the number of pixels of what a typical 4k (2160p) display has, and we’re doing this at a constant 50 times per second.
“Most workflows are optimized for a rectangular screen,” he adds. “We had to employ other methods, like VR simulations of the theme park attraction, to allow us to understand the content during its creation,” notes Yang. “There are a number of things that all have to not only be synchronized, but look and feel believable. The flight dynamics itself, synchronizing the motion base, and tuning the controls were all challenges that had to be overcome.”
Rise of the Resistance, on the other hand, is not interactive, but is highly immersive and full of digital imagery seen in various formats, including holograms. The ride is an extremely complex theme park attraction because of its incorporation of multiple ride systems and multiple VFX pipelines and media delivery systems.
In Rise of the Resistance, guests wind through various themed interiors, including those of an Intersystem Transport Ship (I-TS) and a Star Destroyer. They view animatronic stormtroopers, giant AT-AT walkers, displays of space and much else, before boarding escape pods.
“Lucasfilm and ILM partnered with Walt Disney Imagineering on Rise of the Resistance to push every system, idea and experiment to the level a Star Wars audience expects,” says Patrick Kearney, Executive Media Producer, WDI. “The audience is traveling through a fully realized Star Wars environment that will hopefully leave them overwhelmed by the level of detail.”
ILM started work on the media for Rise of the Resistance in November 2017. A large amount of previsualization had already been completed by that point by the design team at WDI. “Since production started while the building was under construction, our schedule required creative buy-off even before we actually had a ride building. The VR version of the ride system helped us anticipate challenges and move the creative process forward in a timely fashion. Once we had all of our scenes blocked out in the VR ride, we were able to bring our ILM partners literally onboard to view the experience at the beginning of their effort,” says Kearney. “This was an incredibly valuable tool for us not only to understand the attraction, but as a way to review our early VFX work,” recalls Bill George, VFX Supervisor, ILM.
The overall VFX shot count for Rise of the Resistance came out to be 175 shots, according to Kearney. “ILM focused on the large-format space sequences, another vendor developed the motion-graphic packages you see throughout the attraction, and our internal team provided the previsualization, technical layouts, digital mapping and illusion effects, and produced a handful of our own VFX shots and the final DI assembly of the entire attraction.”
A wide variety of imagery required extensive testing. Bayever observes, “How successful a hologram or live projection illusion is to the audience is directly determined by the limitations of the delivery system. Every illusion will have its technical limitations due to the projectors, mirrors, etc., and we had to dive into those effects to determine the best way to produce the media. Before we ever started planning for a live-action shoot, we built one-to-one mock-ups to test costumes, scale, audience point of view and lighting to narrow down our challenges and solutions. We worked with ILM to understand and develop a creative workflow to make sure we stayed within the established look of the films and then applied that to what we had learned. Once we walked onto the set with our team, we were able to allow our director and the actors to focus on the performance rather than the technical parameters.”
Bayever notes that one of the biggest challenges in the ride was making the imagery look real and not cinematic. “We want to make you think that you are actually looking out a window into space, so you can’t use filmic effects that happen because you are using a camera with a lens.” Lens flares and depth of field are two examples. “While these effects contribute to beautiful imagery, it is not what your eye sees. Getting things to look real without these effects, while still honoring the Star Wars cinematic look established in the films, was a creative challenge.”
“On a film, you are working with a static rectangle of an image that people will be viewing in a dark theater,” says George. “The media we created for Rise of the Resistance comes in a variety of shapes – egg shaped, a thin slice, wide rectangles and figures on black. Also, our viewers are zipping by the screens in a moving vehicle. With these variables, all of our training and experience composing shots go out the window. It’s a very different style of storytelling that has a lot of creative challenges. On average, a shot we would create for a film is five seconds long. Some shots for Rise of the Resistance are over two minutes of continuous and connected action. One of our shots is the equivalent of a full sequence on a feature.”
George continues, “Some of the shots are of such high resolution that a single camera cannot capture it all. We rendered the images out on multiple cameras and stitched those images together. The massive size and high frame rate of our shots pushed the limits of the ILM processor farm.
“For Star Wars fans, this attraction is going to be like walking right into the movies,” George adds. “Actually, it will be better than the movies in that the environments will surround you completely on all sides and come with sound effects and music built-in! Our hope is that people won’t perceive the media on its own, but feel that it’s just part of this amazing world they have entered. I’ve never been on a project where all of the varied disciplines have been so in sync, and I think that will shine through when you see the attraction for yourself. On the ride, you will experience a wide variety of scenes that use the full expanse of practical and visual wonders available today.”