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

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

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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]

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