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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.

Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 1

Nov 11, 2010 10:19 AM,
With Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

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. Dan Jamele from MediaMation is here to give us the low down on his company’s project for the Zable Theater at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

SVC: Dan, welcome to the SVC podcast from MediaMation in Torrence, Calif.; it’s fascinating all the gear and gizmo’s that you use. What all is MediaMation into?
MediaMation’s basically an interactive specialist with audio, video, and control systems for theme parks, amusement parks, museums, exhibits, and family fun centers, so we specialize doing audio, video and control systems specifically to those kind of entertainment venues. [Timestamp: 1:17]

And there’s a huge amount of things that can go into that with all of the things that technology can provide for museum theaters, in this case at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. How did you first get into the project at the Zable Theater there?
San Diego had reached out to look about putting in a new attraction, something that they could not only do presentations in but would be a draw for other things and that they could use as just part of their whole client base. Zable funded it and that brought that in. And we were recommended by one of the film manufacturers that they had contacted, and they contacted us as well as several other companies, and we then went through and visited them and went through the whole process of proposals and everything else and they saw our seats and they said, “Wow, we want to have those seats in our theater because we want the best seats and the most fun we can do in the space provided.” [Timestamp: 2:10]

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Now when this project came up, was the theater complete with your work going on, on top of that or was it during some stage of construction?
Oh, it was a classroom. So we went down there, and they had to try and point out, “Well, we’re going move these tables out of the way; we’re going to put this over here,” so we had to go start drawings and envisioned it and figure out what rooms were going to be torn down and everything. So it became a construction site, but it started out it was just an existing classroom that they said we could stick something in here and actually bring people in. [Timestamp: 2:40]

OK, so that was a conversion project. It looks like in the museum in this case was interested in quality over quantity. This is a fairly small theater. How many does it seat?
This is a 36-seat theater. [Timestamp: 2:52]

And this seems to be a big trend for museums now in starting these theaters for smaller crowds and shorter productions, so bringing a lot of people through in small groups [and] maybe running 10 or 12 shows day.
Oh well, a lot more than that; sometimes they’ll get over a 1,000 people a day through there. Most of the movies are somewhere in the four minutes to 10-minute range for the show, and depending on what the crowds are like, they’ll pick different versions of it; they have long versions and short versions as well. So if it’s a crowded day, they’re going to play the short versions anyways and get them through. They decided rather than charge an extra admission price for the theater that they would just bump the general admission price and not charge for it so people don’t have a problem moseying around the museum and just coming in when they can get in the line or waiting a few minutes. They try to keep the lines as short as possible, but on busy days it gets a little crowded there. [Timestamp: 3:43]

Looking at some of the show titles, it’s obvious that this is mainly to shoot for the younger crowd. Is that the plan or do the parents get into the entertainment too?
Well, the movies are definitely aimed at the kids; we’ve got talking flies or we’ve got a talking cat and kids are flying around, but, I’ll tell you, the parents love it because they get in there and they’re yelling and screaming and just happy as anybody else. And on the days where it’s not so crowded, they’ll let them ride a second one, and every time I’ve been there I haven’t seen a single person say, “No, I want to get out.” They’re like, “Yes, show me another one.” [Timestamp: 4:13]

Yeah, at all the tradeshows now you hear so much about 3D, but you’ve taken it to what I’ve heard described as a 4D experience with the seats doing things and working sort of a tactile aspect to it. What are you doing with theaters like this to introduce an added dimension?
Well, there’s a lot of marketing terms going on and floating around the Internet. Originally 3D was like, “Wow, we’re looking at 3D!” and that was a big thing. The next thing people started to do was put effects into the seats and into the theaters themselves. Things like fog, overhead rain, and then air blasts, water blasts, and things poking you in your seats, etc. And so they started marketing that as 4D. Well, we took it upon ourselves to start making our own seats after being in the simulation control business for 20 years practically here. We said, “Well, we’re going to make our 4D seats, but we’re going to make them have full motion as well.” And we kept calling them 4D, but there are people out there that would now say, “Well, 4D when you have theater effects, 5D is when the seats move, 6D is when you do this, and 7D is when you throw fog at them.” And it all becomes marketing terms; the general term for 4D means there’s some kind of other experiential event happening that is aimed at the audience to draw them further into the film and most of the time when the seats move people are referring to them now as 5D. [Timestamp: 5:32]

So at any rate, it’s designed to be an immersive experience, going beyond just sight and sound.
Right, we try and get the audience in there; the movements to the seats are all synched up, an elephant sneezes on a screen and bam, you’re covered with a fine mist of water in your face, etc. [Timestamp: 5:47]

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Special Effects at San Diego Air & Space Museum, Part 1

Nov 11, 2010 10:19 AM,
With Bennett Liles

Oh boy, even elephants sneezes! I’d like to see some of the control code labeling for this stuff. But the sound system for this has to be pretty sophisticated too. How was the sound system for this configured? For this type of show you probably have sound coming from lots of different places.
Right, it’s not that big of a theater; we had a very low ceiling height to deal with. So we’ve got basically a 5.1 surround system. We’re using all JBL Cinema components on this and Crown amplifiers. I think we have the CDi series in there with the DSP built into the amplifier, which is a really nice thing, and we really enjoyed the fact that since they’re both owned by Harman company now, there’s presets already in there for all of the JBL Cinema speakers. So we set up three across the front behind the screen with two subwoofers and the surround and four surround speakers in the theater itself. And in a room that size, it has plenty of power. For the processing, we use SoundMan-Server, which is made by Richmond Sound, which is basically a software program that emulates a lot of the more expensive DSP processor as far as the capabilities within it but it gives us full control and gives us full playback from all the audio right off the hard disk. So we’re able to take full 40 AK 24-bit sound files and play them back directly; we don’t have to worry about having any kind of AC3 encoded audio that degrades the sound. [Timestamp: 7:15]

And since you were working with an existing room and doing a conversion on that, were there any surprises in the architecture when it came to running cabling for all this stuff or mounting things?
We have wind fans up in the ceiling and as well as lighting up there. When you’re moving forward, we turn the fans on and you get wind in your face and it gives you a very realistic experience, and we got up there to mount those things and found out that the drop ceiling was really not able to support anything, and the other ceiling was far enough above it where we were having some issues with that, but other than that, it was pretty straight forward because they punched out the wall and they built the risers for the seats custom made for it. So we were able to access underneath there, and so it wasn’t too bad of an install process; we got the benefits of a new install in that they tore all the drywall off the walls for us. [Timestamp: 8:06]

And one of the most important things on all this is that it’s all synchronized and everything happens at the right time. I know that MediaMation handles a whole line of show controllers from single PC cars all the way up to whole rack mounted systems.
Yeah, for all of the 40 theaters that we’re installing we put our ShowFlow show control system in there. If we add video to it, which we do in this case, we call it the VIDSHOW. It’s got the same full programmable system underneath it and it’s PC-based. So the whole theater runs off of the one program. Basically we’re playing out the 3D video, the high-def video, 3D two channels of that into the projectors; we’re playing all the sound via the SoundMan-Server; we’re triggering that and bringing that in and giving it all its commands for mixing and routing and everything else as well as all the operator interface, synchronizing the motion and all the effects to the whole thing as it plays back. So we get a very nice compact system, and the whole system is loaded into one rack, including the audio, the video, and the control system. [Timestamp: 9:07]

And where is the rack located? How far away from the action is all that?
Typically we like to have a nice control room or something or projection room that we can put the stuff in, but in this case, we were extremely limited by space so we had to actually put the rack behind the theater on the other side of the hallway in a small utility closet. So everything goes back to that; it comes back in. [Timestamp: 9:30]

Well when you come in after the initial construction is finished, sometimes you have to get a little creative on where to put things.
That’s very true. [Timestamp: 9:37]

When you have project like this, do you customize the theater in anticipation of specific productions being shown and in consultation with certain content producers?
Well, usually what the client likes to do is get as many effects as they possibly can to keep it open. Our system is what we call an open system, which means we aren’t locked into any one movie production company’s movies. So they can license movies, or create their own for that matter, from anyone that they wish to and so there’s a wide variety. And so what the client will typically do, they might have a movie or two that they have in mind. In particular at the Space Museum, they were going to show Fly Me to the Moon[and] were going to show Robots in Mars. These are movies that have some relevance to what they are doing there; they have a lot of space stuff of course. And so they looked at that movie, and there was a few things that they wanted specifically such as strobe lights and [things] like that, but there were other things that they might not of wanted to pay for like extra seat poppers or different scents and scents in particular and aromas. Those are keyed into the movie, and so usually they will have something specifically in mind if they order that option. [Timestamp: 10:41]

Now that must be a very tricky thing to control, using the speed of wind from fans to carry a smell through the air. That sounds like it’s probably as much an art as a science.
We always send a programmer down as part of the installation thing. We like to train our more technically adept clients into programming themselves. We do all of the motion programming; we call that whole file the motion program that triggers the effects, moves the seats up and down and synch and everything else—we do all that using a standard min-file. So we use a standard mini-sequencing software package that allows us to basically leverage all of the research and money that have spent on those things into creating the motion file. So we have unbelievable editing capabilities and audio and video right in the program while we are doing it so we do a lot of the programming from our hotel room, wherever we are staying at or preprogram ahead of time and then we drop it in there. And then we pretty much only have to do some final tweaks and adjustments because absolutely, like you said, you might put a scent out and go, “Wow, that took a sec; that took one second longer before it actually reached the peoples face.” Or you might put a water blast and it might take a half second from here or there might be some bumps and stuff that don’t quite work, and you just simply pop it up on the sequencing software and you change it in realtime while you’re writing it and you’re sitting right there. When you’re done you save it and drop it into the system for playback. [Timestamp: 12:00]

And of course all this is in 3D video. How does the projection system work?
For the projection system, there’s several different ways to do 3D. Still the most economical for most theaters is just a two projector system using a left eye and a right eye with the proper polarizing filters in front of it, and then you wear the funny little glasses and everything looks 3D to you. For this one we were given a Digital Projection, which is a great company; it makes some fantastic projects. We were very interested in making sure that they had a presence at this theater because it’s a pretty high-profile theater, and so they were able to give us a very nice package using their dVision 1080p projectors. And we had two of those in there, and we were just thrilled to death with them; the communications format that they have is straight forward, works really well, very bright, beautiful colors. We haven’t had a single issue with those projectors, and they’re very compact and quiet, which is a big thing in this room since we didn’t have a projection room. We had to actually just cut a cubby hole in the back wall and set the projectors in there; we didn’t have to put a piece of glass or anything in front them, which is great because glass just cuts down your light with reflections. So we were very pleased to use the dVision 30s on this particular job. [Timestamp: 13:16]

And those are, from what I hear, are fairly bulletproof too, and obviously if a projector goes out in a 3D production that’s pretty hard to gloss over.
Right. So you have to have both of them. They have to work, and they give very nice reports back to the control system on how they’re doing and what they’re up to, and the control has been just a joy to work with. We have some units where you send them command, they do what they do, and some units you send the command and maybe they’ll do what they’re supposed to do, but these worked really well. And with the Ethernet built into them, it was just really nice to tie it into the control system. [Timestamp: 13:51]

All right, it was great to have you here for part one Dan to explain how all these multidimensional experiences work in the museum theaters, in this case the Zabel Theater at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, and part two we’ll get more into the seats and how you test and synchronize everything. Dan Jamele from MediaMation; thanks for being here.
My pleasure.

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