Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 2

In museums all over the country MediaMation is taking theaters beyond 3D video and surround sound to moving seats, spraying water, and even smells in the air for a totally immersive experience. 11/24/2010 6:51 AM Eastern

Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 2

Nov 24, 2010 11:51 AM, With Bennet Liles

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Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 1
In attracting younger patrons, museums all over the country are installing small theaters with 3D video and 5.1 sound, but the experience goes beyond sight and sound to motion, aromas, and wind blasts. ...

In museums all over the country MediaMation is taking theaters beyond 3D video and surround sound to moving seats, spraying water, and even smells in the air for a totally immersive experience. Dan Jamele is going to finish up his talk about how MediaMation builds and tests the machinery that makes it all happen.

SVC: Dan, thanks for being back with me for part two on the Zable Theater project at the San Diego Air and Space Museum for creating this total theater experience that goes way beyond just sight and sound. A lot museums and planetariums have gone with these small theaters that are heavy on extra synchronized effects. What’s been driving that market—the falling cost of technology along with maybe public demand?
Well, museums in particular have a lot of issues right now because you want to capture the new generation of kids coming up and that includes people into their 30s and 40s—[they] now are considered the technological generation. And there’s a certain attraction to seeing artifacts behind glass, but museums are constantly striving now to get more draw, get more pizzazz, and bring in technologies that people are comfortable with that they feel familiar with, and as we start getting more and more high-end systems in our homes, these things have to be pretty slick in order to make people say, “That was an experience worth going down and paying 20 bucks to go walk around this museum for a day.” Sure, you want the educational part, but there’s a big part these days, they need to drive people in and on that front. They’re looking at what actually brings people in and in a lot of cases, “What can we actually generate some revenue for while we’re still doing our core mission of educating the people and presenting the items at the museum that we want to talk about?” And so when you start doing that, these theaters start to be a very cost effective way of getting something in there that when you want to change it, you just put a new movie in and boom, you have a new attraction. [Timestamp: 2:23]

And I guess a lot of the promotion on this comes from the word getting around from the kids who have been there saying, “Hey, this is a cool thing,” and then telling their parents and any of the others have gotten to just go there and see it. We were talking about this a little bit in part one, but what kind of effects do they have in the Zable Theater?
Well the standard effects on the seats. First off, the seats are a full 3 degrees of freedom motion. That means they pitch back and forth, they roll side to side, and they go up and down, and all those motions are servo-controlled. We have a full digital servo control, so we have precise control over their position, speed, and everything of all three motions interacting at the same time. Each seat has an air blast and a water mist blast from the front. There are neck ticklers behind your back neck. There are leg ticklers underneath. Mounted in each seat we have a tactile transducer, low-frequency tactile transducers, that we create a separate sound track with just sound effects that allows us to do all kinds of things, especially when space ships are taking off or dinosaurs are walking and things like that that tend to go through your seat and give you a nice startle as well as that. The theater has wind fans built in it. It gives a great sense of motion. You don’t even notice it. The movie’s moving, you’re in 3D, you’re moving around, and there’s wind in your face, and you suddenly realize, “Wow, I really feel like I’m moving here. I don’t know why.” There are strobe lights in the theater, so when lightning hits or some of the explosions happen, we can strobe the audience as well. I think that pretty much rounds it out; optional effects are extra buzzers in the seats, pokers that come up and poke and pop at you behind your back, underneath your butts basically—we call them butt pokers—and different kinds of aromas and scents. With the Zable Theater being a wide audience and having a lot of different movies, the scents didn’t really make much sense for that theater. [Timestamp: 4:13]

Yeah, one of the basic requirements of any success is what theater professors always refer to as the audience’s suspension of disbelief and how well this works is a function of how well all the elements of the production come together to reinforce each other and synchronization is a real key to all that. How do you go about making sure everything happens at the right time and in the right order?
Well, in this theater, as in most of the theaters that we install, we integrate all of the audio/video and control systems into our one VidShow controller unit; we also use the Richmond Sound SoundMan-Server to playback the audio tracks as well as routing and EQ and all of that fun stuff. That particular system requires a SMPTE signal in order to drive it to keep it in sync, so what we actually do is as we’re playing the movie, we lock directly into the movie for all of the motion effects and everything else that we have to play as far as the motion files and special effects. The movie has a SMPTE audio track on it that we loop through right into the rack back into the Richmond Sound system, so when we command the Richmond Sound system to load a file and start playing it, it locks it right in almost instantaneously. It has a great SMPTE lock and that takes regular audio input. We don’t need a special SMPTE converter or anything and away it goes—everything stays in perfect sync throughout the entire movie. [Timestamp: 5:36]

And there’s got to be a lot of serious testing going on before this whole production is unleashed on the public. Does it take a big crew to do this? It seems to me that a big secret to this would be where it’s just one push button and away you go.
Absolutely. We’ll either give them a small touchscreen in the theater or wherever they want it mounted, or in this case, we give them actually a Kramer. It’s just a small little single gang box with eight buttons in it that communicates over a serial intel net back to the control system—basically says they pushed a button. And the process for the operator is select which movie. They have three or four movies at most theaters. I believe they have four at the San Diego museum at the Zable Theater. They select the movie, they hit the start button; there’s a stop button if they want to stop it, and then there’s a lights on and off button as well. So it makes it very easy for the operator because everything is automated from playing the promo video at the beginning to cuing up the lights back and forth to settling the seats and getting the whole thing going so the operator pretty much hits start, goes back outside, waits for the show to end, goes back inside, clears people out. So it’s typically just a single person operating the theater. [Timestamp: 6:42]

And at the Zable Theater I think we’re talking about an outfit called EnWave that produced the shows they’re running now. Are there a lot of production companies that are specializing in these short maximum experience productions?
Yeah, a lot more are coming out. EnWave is definitely one of the top producers of 3D movies. They have been doing it for a long time and motion effects movies and 4D movies; typically they will call it a traction movie—a 4D movie. It’s a 3D movie it’s got some action sequences and then a lot more story and those will be a little longer. And EnWave is definitely one of the top ones, but there are certainly a lot of other companies now that have jumped on that bandwagon over the years. And with the cost of producing 3D movies and computer editing systems and everything else coming down, we’re starting to see a lot of things, especially from the Asian market coming over. And their quality is definitely improving, and there’s certainly always competition to them, so I think, now that 3D is becoming mainstream more or less with the 3D Blu-ray and a lot of 3D in the movies, I think we’re going to see a lot more of what they call branded movies such Fly Me to the Moon, which was actually a full theatrical release and then they made a cut down, a short version, that is able to play at these 4D theaters. [Timestamp: 7:55]

Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 2

Nov 24, 2010 11:51 AM, With Bennet Liles

I noticed some of these shows are just a few minutes long, and I guess there are some pluses and minuses to that. You’ve got to get your audience’s attention right off the bat, and you don’t have a lot of time to create the mood or anything, but at the same time, I would figure that the production time is less so it would be easier to handle.
Yeah, well, I think that’s one of the draws for a lot of these people that have the capabilities to create 3D movies, and it’s almost all computer generated at the moment. We don’t get very much live action 3D at all, which I think is something that will be the next step, in my opinion, is live action production because you go so far with 3D and then people might get a little tired of it. But yes, having that short film, our seats allow you to do the ride films with the motion. People are excited. They’ve had a great time. They’ve just had a nice little experience as if they were at an amusement park, maybe they’ve learned something if they’re at a museum. So it makes for a very nice little presentation. [Timestamp: 8:47]

And in most of the museums doing this, the general idea is the same, but is there a lot of customization that’s done on these depending on the subject matter or do you just stamp these things out and leave it to the local users to make their mark on it?
Well it’s a little bit of both. It really depends on the theater. In Detroit, we worked for the Detroit Science Center, and their’s was very customized because they were good at making their own content. So we’ve definitely chose the effects, the placement of all the fans, and everything else. They had scents there because they had very specific things they were doing, and it was a three-screen blended. They had a large-format viewing angle as well, so it was a very specialized theater. The basic seat is a standard thing. It comes with the standard effects, and from there, we work it up. One of the most custom things that we usually end up doing is the audio seat transducer file because we have to actually create a sound effects file that runs the entire length of the movie to play the different sound effects underneath that shake from underneath the seat. Each seat has a transducer in it, so it’s one of the more fun things for me to do because the results are very exciting, and I’m an old sound and engineer guy so it’s makes a good thing for me to say, “I’ll do that.” [Timestamp: 9:59]

You’ve got so many moving parts on all these things. How is the maintenance and up keep on it? Do you have to come in and make some tweaks every now and then?
As with anything, there are a few things at the beginning of the project. Typically you go in and you find a few things that might have happened—a screw might have popped out that we didn’t put in correctly or something like that. Once they get going though, then the theaters are pretty long term. We do everything. All of our motion is created using pneumatics, and that’s just air-driven systems, and those are so easy to maintain. Practically in every city, in every country, that we go to, there’s no problem finding parts or people that are familiar with those systems. And they’re very energy efficient. They’re the most compact way of providing energy to a small area, and you’re using a single motor, so you’re using a lot less energy than you are with electric-driven actuators and such like that. Most maintenance people can get underneath there, and if there’s a problem, we have remote log-ons that we do with web cams, and the guys can take a camera out there into the thing and point it at a seat and say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” We can usually just walk them through anything they need to do. [Timestamp: 11:03]

Oh yeah, that would be great with a remote camera and everything so you can actually see what the situation is on video.
Yeah and it’s great. We’ll just give them a Skype account built into the computer that because all our systems have a computer in them, and then we’ll say, “Here’s a camera with a long extension cord.” And if they need to get out there, we have a conversation with them. We just log on with them. Plus we have a remote log in so we can actually operate the computer and make changes and do things remotely as well as upload and download files. So 99 percent of everything we have to do after the initial installation we get to do remotely. [Timestamp: 11:36]

Yeah, testing a show like this would be really something to see. Do you just add one thing at a time or do you just put everything in all at once and give it a go and see what happens?
Well, the first thing is we have to build the benches. Whe seats are configured in benches of four seats each, and the bench moves as a whole and everything happens at the bench. So at our production facility, we have a separate mechanical production facility where we do all the building of the benches. They will lay them out up six benches at a time; they’ll have them all laid out; they’re all moving and testing at the same time. We try as best we can, because these things are all being installed in some remote location, to set up as much of the theater as we possibly can at our production facility so the installation onsite goes easier and it is quite a lot of testing, I’ll tell you, because you’re involving computer systems, audio systems, video systems, synchronization systems, control systems; we have air, we have mechanics, and we have all of that stuff that has to be integrated together, so it’s quite a wide range, and sometimes finding people that have skills in all of those areas is an interesting search. [Timestamp: 12:42]

Yeah, just put an ad in the paper saying, “Wanted, man behind the curtain.”
Yeah, basically.

So what’s on the horizon for MediaMation? Do you got some things in the works right now?
Yeah, we’re working on several different things right now. One of the exciting things we’ve been doing is we’ve been working with a company called Games2U who has an unbelievably great franchise situation. They are one of the fastest growing franchises in the United States. They produce these game vans that go around to kids’ parties and special events, and they have found that putting in a small 4D theater. We’re the exclusive supplier of 4D theaters to them and we’re working exclusively with them. It’s been a huge hit, so we’re cranking out these little mini theaters that go in these mobile vans that go all around to kids parties and kids are just having the greatest time on them all over the country. We’ve got a couple of theaters going in. We’ve got guys flying off to Saudi Arabia next month as well as we’ve got to go over to Hawaii; have no problems getting people to go on that job. [Timestamp: 13:38]

I can imagine.
So big and small. We do a lot of fountain control work too, so we’re pretty much getting ourselves all over the world right now. [Timestamp: 13:47]

All right; moving fountains, wafting scents, vibrations, and all sorts of stuff coming at you. Dan, thanks for being here and explaining how all this stuff works. I am still just wowed by good old video and sound so this stuff really just knocks me over. Dan Jamele of MediaMation. It’s a fascinating business and I’m glad to have you here to tell us about it.
Oh it was my pleasure and I appreciate you taking the time to run through this with me.

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