1973 saw the release of (arguably) one of the greatest and most haunting British horror films of all time – Robin Hardy's, The Wicker Man.
Now, we're not a movie website, but for those that haven't seen it, the plot is essentially about how a policeman is sent to a small Scottish island to investigate a missing girl, which mysteriously no one seems to remember existed. Turns out the island is inhabited by a mob of deeply religious folk, who each year offer a human sacrifice by the way of burning them to death.
Pleasant, right? So, 45 years after its release, it may have come as something of a surprise for many when UK theme park Alton Towers announced it was building a new £16 million special FX filled wooden rollercoaster (the first built in the UK for 21 years), based on the film.
“Wicker Man is Alton Towers’ most ambitious project to date," commented Francis Jackson, operations director at Alton Towers Resort ahead of the ride's opening in March. "We’ve spent four years creating an experience that is truly spectacular by investing in the latest technologies which combine wood, fire and special effects to give riders the genuine feeling that they will be racing though flames."
As you would expect, the option of hurling riders through actual flames runs the risk of the ride becoming a little too faithful to the original movie. But Alton Towers wanted the rollercoaster to be more than just a ride. It wanted to create immersive visual, audible and sensory experience – extending the thrill of the ride from just a few minutes to something that guests will remember, talk about and share for years to come.
To achieve this, Alton Tower'owners Merlin Magic Making (MMM) called upon Leicestershire based Holovis, a firm globally renown for its abilities in designing and creating mixed reality solutions using a multitude of AV (including VR and AR) technologies and techniques.
Peter Cliff, creative director, Holovis spoke to AVTE to talk us through the process of building the UK's "most immersive" rollercoaster.
Hi Peter. When did Holovis first become involved with Alton Towers for the Wicker-Man rollercoaster?
We first got involved with the project a year and a half before opening. From the onset the vision was always for this to become the UKs most immersive coaster, combining technology and storytelling in new and unique ways. Therefore we needed to be brought on early to help bring this vision to life and make the seamless integration possible. The narrative driven elements needed to dictate the physical space and construction of the site.
Why did they choose you?
Another experience that we delivered with Merlin at the same time as Wicker Man is The Walking Dead: The Ride at Thorpe Park, UK. This showcases how existing attractions can be given a new lease of life through AV, integrated media, special effects and theming, making it a quick and easy transition, with minimal structural work required.
We designed and delivered the terrifying multisensory experience that surrounds the coaster, which is a retrofit of X: No Way Out . This originally launched in 1996 as the world's first backwards roller coaster in the dark, and it is completely unrecognisable.
We worked with Merlin Magic Making from the initial design phase through to capturing and creating all the media and integrating it with the AV and lighting across the whole attraction and special effects. This allowed us to really maximise the impact, as the repercussions from things that are being seen and heard are interconnected to fit the gripping story.
The immersive experience wraps guests in the story from beginning to end, starting with the initial queue line and continuing with the preshow, dramatic on-board effects and a death defying finale.
The process for Holovis began on our Demonstration Campus in the UK, filming all the media scenes and capturing the audio in the Green Screen and Sound Studio, then adding a full post production treatment.
The preshow sets the scene for guests, placing them in the Safe Zone then seeing this be compromised through a series of visual and sensory special effects that are dissimilated into the theming. This includes through mocked CCTV footage showing Walkers attacking the area of the queue line they were just in and clambering against a window, which is actually a 4K screen.
Guests then move through the rest of the line as a batched queue, with zonal surround audio and lighting giving the illusion that they are the only group there. The immersive media scenes continue into the loading station and on the coaster, with interludes at key moments combining physical and digital effects with real actors.
Talk us through the process.
We delivered the complex AV, digital, show and media set ups, including recording original audio and creating a projection mapped spectacular for the preshow.
One of the earliest decisions we had to make was to define the voice and intention of the ride, answering questions like who is telling this story, who will the transitional character be, what’s the backstory and how do the guests become involved? The results then inform what technology will be used to tell that story.
The Wicker Man needed to have an air of dark magic around it, so we wanted something that was mystical and almost not human. We chose projection mapping as the digital medium to create that.
The process began by modelling the whole site and experience in RideView, a Holovis proprietary visualisation suite which takes place in a CAVE. This is a five-sided structure where all walls feature 3D projected content to immerse users in the scene in 1:1 scale and in real-time.
Within RideView, CAD data is translated into the intuitive and interactive scenarios and users wear 3D glasses to decipher the immersive data set. Multidiscipline teams from designers to engineers and stakeholders used this facility to experience the creative process but in the physical space, long before they would normally be able to.
Using RideView proved to be vital upon the discovery that that the capacity in the preshow room with the design being proposed wouldn’t hold the desired amount of people, so the teams were able to amend that to make sure theoretical throughput was met before any physical builds began, which would have escalated the redesign costs.
The ride is described as providing a ‘multi-sensory experience’ – what does this include and how did you achieve it?
From the moment guests enter the queue line they are immersed in surround audio and media sequences that feature throughout and into the preshow, station loading zone, enclosed sections, exit and within the six-story tall Wicker Man structure.
To compliment the visual storytelling, a dynamic sound scape evolves at the pace of the queue flow. This tells the story through subtle audio changes, narrative voiceover and key messaging, so no matter how long or short the queue time, that narrative is being communicating with all guests.
The effects continue within the Wicker Man structure, experienced when on the coaster, which was built by Great Coasters International. As guest’s speed into the wicker head it appears to be rising in flames, an effect created using 6.2mm pixel pitch LED displaysthat sit within the structure featuring flame effect content, dispersed between the wooden-effect exterior. The physical effects of flames are conjured using steam generators to look like smoke, lighting effects highlighting the wood with the wash of amber and ash colours and flame risers which sporadically give it that real glow.
How did you achieve this?
The audio immersion is created using combinations of 500w and 800w OHM speakers that play ambient effects and vocals recorded in the Holovis Sound Studio on the company’s Demonstration Campus in the Midlands. These build from being general excited chatter at the beginning of the experience to adoring shouts of ‘it’s him’ and ‘he’s here’, in the loading station from the perspective of the ’Beornen’, once the true nature and terror or the narrative has been revealed.
5:1 surround subsonic audio makes the guests feel like they are being encircled by the ’Beornen’ – a fictional community who are part of the ride backstory, heard through their whisperings.
Infrasub speakers add level of physically to the preshow, vibrating the guests at sub audible levels. Triggered DMX controlled scent effects synchronise with key moments in the media and show action equipment reveals new elements to the preshow as it progresses.
More drama and intrigue is created by the lighting; four rogue spots with moving head light profiles from Stage Electrics and 12 Chauvet colour LED dash lights.
All the SFX including pyrotechnics are synchronised with the audio and visual experiences throughout, controlled from a Medialon Show Control unit and Hippo Karst server from Green Hippo. The clever combinations and immaculate timing that synchronises the effects and makes them look spectacular, especially at night.
Did the ride being made of wood require any special consideration – particularly given the use of fire?
The flame effects are a clever combination of LED screens that sit within the structure featuring flame effect content, dispersed between the wooden exterior. The physical effects of flames are conjured using steam generators to look like smoke, lighting effects highlighting the wood with the wash of amber and ash colours and flame risers which sporadically give it that real glow. These elements aren’t difficult to source on their own, but it the clever combinations and immaculate timing that synchronises the effects and makes them look spectacular, especially at night.
Tell us more about the use of projection mapping
The pièce de résistance is the preshow which takes place in the ceremonial hall and focuses on a seamless and dramatic combination of straight up and 3D mapped projection. Initial shadow puppetry forms the exposition of the ride’s backstory before merging to create the mapped face of the deity. As guests realise that they are about to be invited to join a ritual that will summon the Wicker Man, the face transforms to grow twisted wicker horns and becomes the Ramshorn skull.
The projection mapping is created using three Christie 4K projectors which are seamlessly aligned using Holovis’s proprietary PixControl software. Bespoke content for this was created in-house by the Holovis media team.
You also used augmented reality (AR) technology?
To support the park’s marketing of the attraction, we used Augmented Reality to track a model of the coaster and show its operation and flow of guests.
How many people were involved in the project from Holovis?
Holovis is unique in having the full turnkey capability for attraction delivery all working together under one roof, to include art and content creation (both visual and audible), software and engineering. This project drew on the experience form all teams whilst working alongside Merlin Magic Making to bring its vision to life.
Having these diverse disciplines working together means that we can see the project as a whole throughout its evolvement, rather that just being focused on one element.
How important is the role of AV and VR now in the building of rides and the experience they go on to provide?
From the onset the vision was always for this to become the UKs most immersive coaster, combining technology and storytelling in new and unique ways.
Immersive pre and post show scenes have now become a staple of the traditional rollercoaster experience, extending the thrill of the ride from just a few minutes to something that guests will remember, talk about and share for years to come.