By David Cox, Sharp Cookies
The Blackpool Tower is an iconic structure and long-standing visitor attraction in the seaside resort of Blackpool, England. It is now owned by the Merlin Entertainments Group, whose portfolio includes Tussauds, Sea Life, Alton Towers and the London Eye amongst others. In fact Merlin is the market leader in Europe for visitor attractions, and worldwide, is second only to Disney.
(All pictures used in this article are credited to Blackpool Tower 4D Experience, Sharp Cookies Ltd (courtesy of Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd))
As part of the refurbishment and re-opening of the Blackpool Tower, in January 2011 Merlin commissioned production company and brand agency, Sharp Cookies, to provide an exciting 4D-experience film. This was to comprise a 3D film, 7.1 surround sound and physical effects such as snow, rain, smells, a vibrating floor and more, with a public opening date of the 1st September 2011.
The 4D experience is provided to visitors to the Tower immediately prior to their ascent to the Tower top. Sharp Cookies also provided several other 2D films for the attraction for screens situated in ‘front of house’, the 4D cinema waiting area and the queue area for the lifts to the top.
The original brief for the 4D film was to create a sophisticated yet fun 4D film that captures the essence of Blackpool and the northern coastline through aerial views and creative storytelling. The idea was to build on the success of the London Eye 4D film and create a more enhanced 4D visitor experience.
In response, my co-founder Michael Hall and I worked with writer Paul Shearer to construct a story that provided a visual tour of flavours and experiences on offer to tourists to Blackpool. It features a young boy who is obsessed with flying and has an imagination to match. The idea of flight was designed to link with the panoramic views that visitors enjoy from the top of the Tower, which are heightened by the installation of a ‘Sky Walk’ – a large area of glass floor and adjoining glass walls that make the braver visitors feel as if they are walking on air.
The script was then used to create a storyboard, but because this was for a 4D-experience film, we felt that a presentation based on a paper storyboard would not do the project justice. Instead, the storyboard frames were cut out into layers, animated and taken into an SGO Mistika post-production suite to create a 3D video version of the storyboard. A 5.1 surround sound mix was also added. Since the project is an experience film, there are some key ‘3D’ moments, and these were carefully scripted to provide a powerful effect while sitting comfortably in the story.
To create the film, we put in place a team of people. Michael was the director, and I was the Stereographer and Post-production Supervisor. Paul Darter on behalf of Anglo Filming Ltd became the producer for the project as Anglo Filming provided logistical services for the production. Matt Wynne on behalf of Splitt Limited became the CGI supervisor and headed a team of animators to provide the computer-generated elements that the script required. The director of photography was Adam Hall and the editor was Matthew Hall.
3D can be used subtly to allow the audience a window onto another world, or it can be used more immersively by directly involving them in the action. Generally, a drama feature film would use the former, but an experience film such as this must be more engaging from a 3D perspective. One consideration was that stereo objects that use a great deal of negative parallax, that is, stuff that comes out of the screen, can be very difficult to look at unless they are very carefully designed and other depth cues such as perspective, focus and distance-fogging support the stereo effect.
So my job as project stereographer across both production and post was to control 3D as if a character in the story – there are times when it should be the star and those moments are carefully scripted and designed for maximum effect without viewer discomfort. But there are times when it should let other things on the screen take the audience’s attention and at these times it should be more subtle.
Apart from the usual considerations for a large-screen 3D project, the Blackpool 4D Experience threw up some very specific issues. Firstly, the Tower and the building it rises from, as well as the promenade and the famous trams that travel along it, were all subject to substantial refurbishment. The Tower was covered in scaffolding, the promenade was being re-modelled and the tram lines were being dug up. These building projects would not be completed until after our delivery deadline for the film, so it would not be possible to film any of these items despite the obvious fact that they should be centre-pieces of the film. Secondly, we would be unable to rely on the weather in the North West of England until much later in the year, and since our delivery deadline was August 2011, we could not wait until then to shoot.
The decision was made to separate the film into four logical production areas. Many of the shots could be created in a greenscreen environment and these were shot in Black Island Studios in West London. Specific internal shots would be filmed on location in Blackpool and these included scenes in the world-famous Tower Ballroom and Tower Circus. All external shots of the Tower, promenade and illuminations would need to be created digitally, whereas the aerial sequence featuring the surrounding landscape to the Tower was scheduled for later in the year when the weather would be more accommodating.
The production started with a camera test so that Michael and I could specify which camera and recording systems to continue the project with. The choice came down to ARRI ALEXA and RED MX. Although both cameras performed well, RED MX mounted on an Element Technica Quasar 3D rig was chosen. The deciding factor was how efficiently images could be recorded that would provide a suitable base for the greenscreen effects shots.
The ARRI camera could record to either its own RAW format or to the Apple Pro-Res format. While the former would provide the greenscreen quality that was needed, it also required the use of cumbersome external recording solutions. On the other hand, the test greenscreen shots recorded as Pro-Res to on-camera storage did not perform as well as the RED material when the greenscreen element was tested in post-production.
The shooting kit
The shooting ‘package’ consisted of a pair of RED MX cameras, an Element Technica 3D rig, a playback and data handling station as well as suitable 3D test and viewing monitors. All of these were supplied by film and broadcast services company ONSIGHT, along with a digital image technician and a 3D rig technician.
Since this project features both children and animals, having an agile rig was a clear advantage, so we decided to use zoom lenses. Zoom lenses can create problems for stereo shooting, as a pair of zoom lenses will often zoom the left and right images slightly differently, causing the 3D effect to be diminished and causing significant discomfort to the viewer. However, because this project was destined to be post-produced on the Mistika Post system, we knew that such differences could be very quickly removed. The result was that shooting could happen much more quickly than if we would have had to constantly change fixed lenses on the 3D rig and re-calibrate.
Shooting with the greenscreen
Two sets were built in the greenscreen studio in West London. The first was an impressive full-scale section of the Blackpool Tower while the second was an antique shopfront that provided the background and props for a part of the film. The Tower section was used to create a historical aspect in the story.
By using both the live action shot around this set and CGI elements, a sequence depicting how the Tower was built was created. It features suitably-dressed workers building the Tower with hand tools, hot rivets, etc. Other elements shot in the greenscreen studio included a game of beachball which was later set against the famous Blackpool beach. Also, a donkey was filmed and placed in a similar location, the donkey being a key trigger for one of the 4D effects: smell!
The greenscreen element of the shoot took seven days. One of the more complex shots features the ‘hero’ boy and family experiencing the Sky Walk. The real venue was not due for completion until after the delivery deadline for the film, so to create the shot, the boy and family were shot against greenscreen by the stereo camera rig which was slung under a Technocrane.
The shot starts by looking straight down, and then moves and tilts over the family until the view is straight ahead. In post, this camera move was tracked and the green replaced with a digital rendition of the Tower interior and the corresponding view outside the glass, generated from the Tower’s project designer’s plans.
Shooting on location
Following the greenscreen studio, the unit transferred to Blackpool for two days of filming. The first day was spent in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, where a dance sequence was filmed that provided a ‘time warp’ in the narrative of the film, by seamlessly moving from dancers of the 1920’s, to the war years and to modern day. On the second day, jugglers, clowns, acrobats and trapeze artists were filmed in the Blackpool Tower Circus.
The final element of filming was to shoot the aerial sequences, which were shot in 3D with a stereo rig attached to a helicopter. This final element was actually shot just a short time before the public opening and well into the post-production phase of the rest of the film, in order to take advantage of the local summer weather.
Once the bulk of the filming was completed, the stereo rushes were taken into our Mistika system. All of the rushes were stereoscopically aligned, which means that the left and right images were synchronised together and any geometric or colour errors between the images removed. Movie files were then provided to editor Matthew Hall to begin construction of the base film. The purpose of ‘pre-processing’ the images in this way was to avoid any difficulties created for the editor by having to deal with raw camera files and stereo images that, being shot with a parallel rig, would be uncomfortable to view prior to some depth adjustment.
Once the link between the camera files, the correction metadata and the offline movie files was established in Mistika, further work could be carried out on the full-resolution shots in Mistika at the same time as the editing process, because Mistika has the ability to conform future edit lists from the current work, rather than just what was originally sent to the editor. The editing process itself was carried out on Final Cut Pro.
While editing was underway, Splitt Ltd created the CGI elements. Key shots included the essential opening sequence, which started with a ‘straight down’ view of the Tower so that the top of the Tower and the flag pole on top of it provided an initial 3D hit, as it appeared to stand out of the screen. Immediately after, the camera follows a seagull as it drops vertically down the side of the Tower, across the promenade just missing a tram and then out to sea. This entire sequence including the bird, sea, tram, promenade and people on it were all computer-generated.
Once the edit began to take shape, I completed the special effects work on the shots. In fact, almost every shot has some level of visual effect on it, due to the amount of greenscreen work, as well as the intent to provide the most polished images possible.
Post-production work included greenscreen composites, set extensions, ageing of material, colour grading, sky replacements and graphic design. An example shot would be one of the Tower-building shots that originated from the full-scale model in the greenscreen studio. From this, the camera move was tracked and the white tracking markers removed. The green was then swapped for sky and the lighting changed on the actors to reflect this. Sparks were added where a worker hits his hammer against the metal framework of the Tower, as well as a plume of smoke that rises from a heat source below frame. Finally, foreground fog and clouds were added to further increase the sense of space before the whole composite was colour-graded and treated to give an aged appearance. All of this, as well as the other elements of post-production, were accomplished in a single Mistika suite over about six weeks.
About a week before the public opening, the final pictures and 7.1 surround sound mix were handed over to Austrian company Kraftwerk, who were responsible for installing the technical aspects of the 4D cinema. The cinema itself was constructed by MCL Projects. At this time, the programming of the 4D effects, including snow, smoke, wind, rain, aroma, vibration and lights, was supervised by Director Michael Hall and Creative Director Craig Sciba.
The 4D Experience opened to unanimous approval on the 1st September 2011. The first showing was to invited members of the press, who ended the viewing with spontaneous applause.
The creative process was very easy between Merlin Studios and Sharp Cookies. Both teams had an open dialogue to help meet the brief and come up with new ideas to enhance the film. It was an excellent collaborative process, resulting in a film with its own original personality.
YouTube Video: The Making of The Blackpool Tower 4D Experience.
Production Company/Agency: Sharp Cookies Ltd
Client: Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd
Director: Michael Hall (Sharp Cookies)
Stereographer/Post-production: David Cox (Sharp Cookies)
Creative Director: Craig Sciba (Merlin)
Producer: Paul Darter (Anglo Filming)
CGI Supervision: Matte Wynne (Splitt)
Director of Photography: Adam Hall
Editor: Matthew Hall
Production Manager: Marjan Debevere (Anglo Filming)
David Cox is a Co-founder of Sharp Cookies, a production company and brand agency that specialises in producing brand-led communication and entertainment content across all areas of media, with a keen interest in using the latest technology, including 3D, 4D and 5D, to provide visual communications that have the maximum impact on viewers and value to the client.