A heroic undertaking: The latest exhibit at Madame Tussauds – one of London’s most famous visitor attractions – is a specially created 4D experience featuring superheroes from Marvel Comics. Paddy Baker takes his seat
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The Marvel Superheroes 4D exhibit at Madame Tussauds in London is not the largest 4D install that Kraftwerk Living Technologies has been involved in, but it’s arguably the most prestigious. While the Austrian company has installed an attraction in Jakarta with marginally more seats than the 278 at Tussauds, there are two factors that single out this project: the auditorium is topped by a massive dome – it’s the former London Planetarium; and, as project manager Jens Pfennig observes: “I don’t think you can find a person anywhere in Europe who hasn’t heard of Madame Tussauds.”
While much of what’s on display at the iconic venue is still centred around the waxworks of the kind created by its eponymous founder, interactivity is everywhere, and visitors are encouraged to pose with the exhibits. Also part of the Tussauds experience are a ‘dark ride’ through London’s history in a black taxicab, live actors in the Chamber of Horrors, and, since May of this year, the Marvel 4D exhibit.
Overall, the aim is to provide “a rollercoaster of emotions”, according to Tussauds marketing manager Richard Orr. He explains: “We’ve had interactive shows with actors and a film in the auditorium, we’ve had a full 360º animation, but we wanted to take it to the next level and create the ultimate 4D experience.”
Visitors to Marvel Superheroes enter the secret Superhero Command Centre, where they can see numerous exhibits before entering the auditorium. These include a giant Hulk; an upside-down room featuring a lifesize Spider-Man on the ‘ceiling’, whom visitors can pose alongside; lifesize models from Iron Man; and more besides.
Created by Threshold Animation Studios, the 4D movie is set in London. A number of superheroes battle to save the capital from destruction by a giant robot and other evil creations. Beginning at Buckingham Palace, the action moves to outside – and then inside – the Command Centre in Madame Tussauds. All of this involves realistic recreations of numerous London landmarks, which were photographed in exhaustive detail to be recreated within the nine-minute movie.
Feeling the effects
The show itself is a miracle of immersive technology. While the 3D action (at 1920 x 1080 resolution) is projected onto a 16:9 screen (double-curved to fit its surroundings), the remainder of the dome is filled with 2D projections, also created by Threshold, that enhance the viewing experience. These can be either static – such as graphics of Command Centre data files – or animated effects, particularly during the action scenes. A Meyer Sound Cinema Experience system provides a wholly compelling audio experience. And taking the experience into 4D territory, effects are delivered via the seating, along with wind machines, strobes and moving heads around the dome perimeter.
So, for instance, transducers in the seats provide additional rumble for vehicle noise, explosions and falling debris. Air jets rush past your ear when a high-velocity weapon is fired. Wolverine unsheathes his metallic claws, and you get a vigorous poke in the back. Someone lands uncomfortably in a fountain, and you get squirted with a fine mist of water – as you do when Hulk sneezes! The effect I really wasn’t expecting – and which took many other audience members by surprise – came when the Command Centre was overrun by crawling insect-like mini-robots: suddenly my legs were tickled by thin rubber tubes under my seat, flapping as air blew through them.
All of these effects are run from by a timeline-based show control system, running in exact synchronisation with the movie. The show effects – both in-seat and in-theatre – are sent out as data signals. In the seating, converters change these to 24V electrical signals that operate compressed air valve blocks (for the air jets, back pokes and leg ticklers) and programmable logic controllers (which run the pumps and jets in the water system). The vibration in each seat is generated by an LF transducer connected to a special audio amplifier module, which receives audio files from the show control system.
The show control system also takes care of the in-theatre effects. The wind machines (around 20 in number) are connected to a specially designed digital dimmer pack, which enables an inductive load to be generated and allows them to be operated at anywhere between zero and 100% intensity. Eight hyperblast strobe lights are installed around the dome, and are particularly used to heighten the effect of explosions. The moving heads are mostly used in the pre- and post-show segments; they feature custom-made gobos created by Kraftwerk from designs supplied by Merlin Entertainments.
Kraftwerk worked closely with longstanding collaborator Meyer Sound on the audio design for the project, with the final configuration set to make the Marvel Superheroes 4D exhibit a reference installation for the new Meyer Sound Cinema Experience system. The result is a 7.1 system comprising seven Acheron screen channel loudspeakers, two 700-HP subwoofers, and a Galileo loudspeaker management system with two Galileo 408 processors. After Kraftwerk installed the audio system, Brian Long, senior cinema and live sound design manager, and Thomas Mundorf, European technical support at Meyer Sound, EQ’d and time-aligned it.
Meyer Sound’s involvement did not end there, however; Long, with Constellation project director John Pellowe, mixed the audio for the movie in the auditorium itself. Pellowe mixed the orchestral score, while Long looked after dialogue and effects. “Mixing in the exhibition space enabled us to create maximum impact,” says Pellowe. “With stunning sound effects flying around the room to match the action in the film, we were able to deliver a rich tapestry of immersive sound from the beautifully crafted orchestral score.”
Long carried out some pre-mixing on the Acheron system in the Pearson Theatre at Meyer Sound’s headquarters in Berkeley, California. The soundtrack was mixed on two linked Pro Tools systems. Around 280 channels were mixed down to a 7.1 mix for the venue. “For the sub system, I was careful to pick out only the relevant instruments – basses, tubas, timpani and so on – rather than sending the full orchestral mix,” adds Pellowe. “In fact, we kept the level on the subs down a little, because of the in-seat vibration.”
There were a number of issues, at different stages of the project, relating to working in a dome-shaped auditorium. First, as Pellowe points out, any dome presents an acoustic challenge, because of their tendency to focus sound in the centre. The design took this into account and prevented the formation of a central acoustic ‘hot spot’.
On the visual side, the image is projected from seven 2D projectors: five edgeblended Christie DS+10K-M are used to create the 2D projection over the surface of the dome, apart from the 3D screen; two Christie CP-2000ZX, fitted with linear polarising filters, produce the 3D image. However, 2D and 3D projections cannot overlap, so edgeblending between these two areas was not feasible. Instead, the edges have to be precisely aligned (within a 2mm tolerance).
Karftwerk managing director and 4D expert Markus Beyr explains that linear polarisation is chosen in the majority of 3D installations in theme parks and visitor attractions, as the cheaper glasses are the most cost-effective option for the intensive use that is inevitable when the audience changes every 10 minutes or so.
To ensure that the alignment remains in place over the time that the Marvel 4D attraction is running, Kraftwerk has installed an auto-alignment function. After, for instance, a lamp change, a button on the operator’s touchpanel calls up a routine where the projectors display a special grid, which is photographed by three high-resolution network cameras placed around the auditorium. These images are fed into software which calculates the necessary adjustments for each image and sends a signal to the projectors’ graphics cards accordingly.
Then there are the issues relating to the install itself. Curved scaffolding was required to access the space between the inner surface of the dome (on which the projection surface is mounted) and the outer dome. In addition, getting the 75kg Acheron speakers in place was less than straightforward, as they needed to be carried up the existing ladders and catwalks and positioned – on anti-vibration isolation mountings – with just a couple of centimetres clearance either side.
Designed to run for five years (although the waiting area exhibits will be refreshed during this time), the exhibit has pleased everyone – project partners and public alike. Paul Williams, creative director of Merlin Studios (Merlin Entertainments’ creative hub), says: “The audio is absolutely mind-blowing, and the beautifully crafted film is jaw-dropping and hugely entertaining. All in all, this is an amazing product which is being incredibly well received by our guests.”
Markus Wieland, systems engineer at Kraftwerk who designed the systems and programmed the effects, says: “I was absolutely happy when I saw the finished product. It’s an absolutely perfect thing to see. It’s a high-quality produced movie, together with high-quality equipment. We had a lot of time working on this project – about half a year – but we needed the time to make everything perfect.”
Last word goes to Pellowe: “What I really like about this installation is that everything about it is so good – the sound, the visuals, the effects, everything. Nothing outshines anything else.