Monday, March 8, 2010

3D Films versus 3D Environments Part 2

So it turns out Eddie Sotto came across my blog entry before I’d even told anyone about it and contributed it to his discussion thread! It was great to see he appreciated my response, and it also prompted a number of replies that I feel I should respond to.

To recap, my basic argument is that attractions like Pirates, Mansion and perhaps even, eventually, Indy, which rely on immersion over physical thrill, are at threat of being superseded by immersive films if the films continue along their trend of duplicating more and more human senses and motion.

The response by HMF, I suspect, speaks for a number of people when he or she replied; “that post sums up my worst fears.”

It’s an unfortunate opinion, and I can certainly understand where they’re coming from, but I thought I’d explain my reasoning as to why the future doesn’t need to be pessimistic for themed attractions. Initially, I had the same reaction. Pirates of the Caribbean is my favourite attraction, and to think that progress is making it obsolete is worrying. There is something magical about drifting through that built environment that doesn’t seem like it could be replicated by a simulation. Similarly, I have a sadness about the decline of model making and set building in the movie industry – there’s something special about knowing that suit of sci-fi battle armour was built, rather than it just existing in a computer. I’m not intending to argue my point from any predisposed standpoint, I am merely trying to figure out where the trends will lead, what threats Disney may come up against, and how they can react.

Similarly, Tirian suggests that “a physical environment presents the intangible feelings of visual weight, substance, realistic atmosphere, and placesetting that a mere projection cannot provide—not to mention the "WOW!" factor that the incredible environments physically exist.”

The worry at the moment is that the sets will be replaced by fake looking screens, but this shouldn’t be a worry. At the present, yes, screens don’t look as real as physical environments, but that means Disney will only be threatened when the screens do reach that level of sophistication. Whether they reach this level is, I suspect, only a matter of time. When they do reach it; the sets will be replaced by screens so well done, it will be hard to tell the difference, and weight, substance and atmosphere will all be conveyed. The threat will emerge when projections can elicit the same ‘WOW!’ as physical environments – or, at least, we won’t be able to tell the difference. These won’t be typical projection screens; the ideal is ‘glassesless’ 3D, orientating dependent on the individual, even when there are multiple viewers.

But at the same time, I have to point out that I see these high-tech screens will only be part of the attraction, and in fact the physical sets that captivate us so much will be required to take on a greater role in the future. Essentially, let me ask you this; haven’t you at some point desperately wanted to get out of your Pirates bateaux and explore the Pirate world around you? That’s what Disney needs to provide.

At the moment, Disneyland is remarkably an incredibly passive experience, but cinemas will take a hold of passive leisure time and Disneyland needs to act to claim real interactivity and guest control as its own. Yes, the passive dark ride ride-through will be replicable in a theatre, so instead let guests explore and interact with the environment in a way that cinema won’t allow. Pirates of the Caribbean won’t be forgotten, it will be made even more explorable.

That said, there is undoubtedly a pleasurable sensation found in just gently drifting along a water flume. I feel my argument about making things explorable falls down with things like “it’s a small world” – while numerous people would love to step out their boat and explore the town in Pirates, walking through small world just wouldn’t compare to the merrily drifting bateaux.

My solution is as follows; while boat rides and Omnimovers won’t, by themselves, be able to entertain the pleasure seekers of tomorrow, they can compliment immersive environments that can. The ‘old fashioned’ bateaux ride becomes one of many possible activities, not just the sole attraction.

Originally, Disneyland set about building three-dimensional movies. Movies let you watch, and that’s all you did at Disneyland; drifted slowly by and watched. Now, Disneyland needs to build three dimensional video games. Video games let you interact and influence; at Disneyland, that’s what future guests will need.

There are some new issues. If these immersive environments are being vehicle-less, capacity is going to be a major issue. Both Pirates and the Haunted Mansion were intended as walkthroughs, but when it was realised that the capacity simply couldn’t keep up, they needed to redo them to their respective forms of transportation – am I directing myself towards impending doom if I suggest a return to walking? Not necessarily; most of Disney’s lands avoid congestion, and attractions in the future built with this in mind will be able to make safeguards against it. Another problem might be ‘museum feet’ – there is quite simply to much walking and activity for the guest to spend an entire day at the park. Heck, most of us already get tired out at the parks already, and practically all of the attractions have us sitting down. The solution will most likely be all about balance; have some things, like the Mark Twain or Disneyland Railroad, that let us sit down and take a break for a while.

Practically, here’s how I see the future…

Most likely, attractions like Captain EO, Muppets 3D and “it’s tough to be a bug” simply won’t happen. In fact, I’d be very surprised if Disney ever built a 3D show again (although I first said this a good six months ago and then EO came back, so I fully admit I can be wrong!).

Permanence definitely affords Disney an advantage. Imagine a local cinema playing “it’s tough to be a bug”; they could replicate the smells, chair movements and water sprinkles, even the animatronics – hopper, the spiders, Flik and the bug that gets hit by acid - could theoretically be brought in, but it’s unlikely they would theme the outside of the theatre to be a giant tree. The container for the attraction is important I feel; Walt recognised this when he made us walk beneath the train station and separated us from reality. Without the theming inside and out, we almost always know we’re in a movie theatre when we’re watching a film. This is why pre-shows will be important; they are an element that will most likely not be replicated in a movie theatre.

Tirian also pointed out that 3D screens just don’t work for a number of people. This is obviously a fact, but it’s a reality that isn’t impacting the financial viability of cinemas showing 3D films, and I doubt it would impact the viability of these future attractions. More importantly however, I doubt that 3D screens in an attraction will totally be accepted until ‘glassesless’ 3D is brought in. Without a doubt, this will have its own strengths and weaknesses, but we’ll have to wait to find out what these are.

Another issue I’m having trouble figuring is capacity; without Disney’s data and formulae, I don’t think I can made an educated opinion on how to deal with this. But still, if this problem can be conquered, I think I see where Disney should head in the future:

Eventually, I see Pirates of the Caribbean not as a single flume ride through sets and animatronics. Instead, Pirates of the Caribbean will be a high-tech interactive complex. Guests will have access to cutlasses to duel with one-another; rope swings across jungle ravines; cliffs to climb and rock chutes to slide down; access to a huge pirate galleon where they can climb the rigging, head below decks or fire the cannons at villainous ghost ships appearing and disappearing across the bay. Guests may uncover pirate maps and follow them the piles of stolen treasure hidden in the mysterious ghostly caves, accessible only by creaky rowboat. Guests might relax in the hammocks strung between leaning palm trees, or join the rowdy pirate band singing ‘Yo Ho’ in the raucous tavern. Whilst practicing their aim in the powder room, a misaligned shot may ignite a key of gunpowder and set fire to the town itself. The Governor of the island might be in the Governor’s Mansion, asking for your help in ridding island of its plague of swashbucklers, or we might help Jack Sparrow himself escape from the Fort’s dungeons. And who knows where that voodoo compass leads? Perhaps to the rickety shack in the bayou, where any moment we might stumble across the spell that revives the goddess of the sea summons her to tower above the island. The screens will not be touchable by guests; they will be take the place of the black walls at the far end of the soundstage that currently are lost space, or hidden at the end of impassable caves; even above us as the sky, or on the ground as bottomless pits.

The future of Pirates of the Caribbean won’t be a passive boat ride through a pirate theatre; it will empower you to become a pirate yourself in a highly detailed, fully interactive pirate world … as well as a boat ride.

My wonder is what Disney will do when virtual reality becomes so sophisticated that it can simulate reality. I’m reminded of a psychology study that was done that concluded that people would rather have real imperfection that simulated perfection, so perhaps they would prefer actually being in Disneyland – but then perhaps saying Disneyland isn’t simulated perfection is rather naïve.


  1. You should read Cory Doctorow's book Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, if you haven't read it yet. It is interesting to see where Doctorow, who writes for the blog Boing Boing, sees some of the tech going WAY down the road in Disney. (Plus it's a good story)

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't read it, though I've certainly heard of it. I'll have to give it a look!