Friday, January 30, 2009

Raising the Nautilus

Once a crown jewel of the Magic Kingdom, today 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been reduced to a trivia question: "Did you know that there used to be a submarine ride where the Hundred Acre Wood play area is now?" Although it was well-loved, the E-Ticket attraction always did have its problems. For one thing, it was a maintenance nightmare. If you've ever owned a swimming pool you know what a pain in the neck they are to maintain. Now imagine an 11 million-gallon swimming pool populated with mechanical sea creatures and brightly-painted set pieces, all of which are in a constant state of corrosion thanks to the heavily-chlorinated water. No wonder WDW management wanted to shut the ride down.

Of course, Magic Kingdom "guests" (Disney's word for paying customers) were angered by 20K's sudden closure. They even wrote letters to Disney's corporate headquarters, leading then-president of the Walt Disney Company Michael Ovitz to investigate whether the ride could be re-opened. (The entire amusing story can be found here) It wasn't, of course, and today the lagoon has been filled in and paved over. Those of us who remember 20K, though, will always miss it. And while it's safe to say that the ride will never be resurrected in its original form, could it perhaps be re-imagined for a 21st century audience? Personally, I believe that a 20,000 Leagues attraction would be the perfect fit for the stereoscopic 3D dark ride system that I proposed in an earlier post.

Imagine a queue area designed to look like Captain Nemo's cavernous lair on the island of Vulcania, where the Nautilus is berthed. As you move toward the boarding area, the path slopes gradually downward, and the atmosphere seems to grow more cavelike. In the boarding area (which I imagine to be similar to the Pirates of the Caribbean, but not as "open") , visitors would step down into the Nautilus, presumably via some handicapped-accessible method. The ship would seem to be partially submerged in an actual underground river. Once aboard, riders would be seated in front of a large circular viewport, initially shielded from view by an irislike screen, just like the film version of the ship. The ride vehicle would move out of the view of the people in the boarding area, and into a "backstage" area where there is no water. The ride, of course, would be viewed through the large circular viewport, which is actually a glasses-free stereoscopic 3D movie screen. Exactly how the ride vehicles should be configured, I don't know. Ideally, they'd resemble the Nautilus and seat around 4 people. Perhaps there could be a large Nautilus-like vehicle with three or four seperate compartments, each one seating 3-4 people. The core of the idea, though, is that you think you're going on a boat ride, when actually you're in a simulator. Of course, a ride like this would do a much better job of simulating a dive to the depths of the ocean than the old 20K ever could have. And with no water, except in the boarding/unloading area, you escape the maintenance issues of the old ride.

I caught 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea on Turner Classic Movies a while back, and I was impressed by how well it still holds up. If Disney is looking for a new franchise to replace Pirates of the Carribbean, why not a series of Captain Nemo movies? It has the potential for all the action and adventure that Pirates had. If Disney went that route, a new 20K ride would make a lot of sense. Where in the Magic Kingdom would it go? Adventureland would be the best thematic fit, but I really don't see where there's any free real estate there for a new building big enough to house a ride like this. Fantasyland has room, though. When you look at an aerial view of the Magic Kingdom, it strikes you just how little of the old 20K lagoon is taken up by the Winnie-The-Pooh play area. In fact, there's quite a bit of room between that and Mickey's Toontown Fair, more than enough for a building to house the new Vulcania.

What do you think? Would a new 20,000 Leagues attraction be a welcome addition to Disney World? And should 20K be given the franchise treatment? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

EDIT: I didn't realize when I originally wrote this that Disney has already greenlighted a new Captain Nemo film. If it proves to be as successful as Pirates, it would be hard to imagine Disney not trying to bring Nemo and the Nautilus back into the parks in some fashion.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Naturalistic Star Trek

Although I don't always agree with the way the characters behave, I'm a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica's "naturalistic" approach to science fiction. It was a conscious decision on Ron Moore's part to break from the genre's status quo of bumpy-headed aliens, endless reams of technobabble, stock characters, thespian histronics, and utter disregard for the laws of physics, a status quo represented primarily by Star Trek's many spinoffs.

What many people forget, though, is that when Star Trek began in the 1960s it was as much a departure from the science fiction status quo as Battlestar Galactica is today. Back then, filmed science fiction was seen as cartoony, unsophisticated kiddie fare. Showrunner Gene Roddenberry, along with artists like Matt Jefferies, set out to change that. When designing the Enterprise, Jefferies was instructed to stay away from rockets, fins, or anything that would date the design. The final design was, in many ways, rooted in realism. Jeffries reasoned that, since space is an inhospitable place, it didn't make sense for important machinery to be located on the outside of the hull, hence its smooth appearance. And since the "warp" engines that powered the ship had to be incredibly powerful, Jefferies placed them away from the main body of the ship so they could be jettisoned in case of emergency. On the bridge, workstations were designed with controls in a comfortable arc within reach of the operator's hands. The design of the Command Chair was even based on the captain's chair on new U.S. Navy vessels of the time. Although the prop and costume budget was extremely limited, the people who worked on Star Trek were careful to steer clear of a Flash Gordon design sensibility. The costumes and props looked functional and real for the time. Even Isaac Asimov was impressed by the attention the show paid to real science.

In later years, though, Star Trek became a victim of its own success. New starships, sets, and costumes were designed with an eye toward updating whatever had come immediately before, each iteration becoming farther removed from the realism that Matt Jefferies had worked for. Realism, in fact, was consistently abandoned in favor of whatever looked "cool". The technical details of Star Trek's technology were so endlessly expounded upon to the point that "Star Trek science" became its own separate thing. If there was a conflict between previously-established Star Trek technical dogma and actual science, writers were expected to adhere to the Trekkian technical dogma. With a new movie set to premiere in less than four months, I think now is a good time to look at how realism could be injected back into Star Trek. Most of these things involve the look and behavior of the technology, and the way that real scientific principles are utilized.

There is no sound in space: I know that sound in the vacuum of space is a convention of sci-fi TV and cinema that only 2001 had the gumption to ignore (although Nicholas Meyer said in the directors commentary for Star Trek VI that he wanted to) but it simply isn't realistic and it doesn't add that much to the experience. Especially egregious is when something explodes in space and the characters watching on a viewscreen actually hear the explosion. It's stupid, it insults the audience's intelligence, and it won't kill the box office returns if you leave it out. Really.

Objects in space should be bound by Newtonian physics: At some point, the folks in charge of Star Trek decided that viewers wanted to see Star Wars-style space battles, and perhaps they were correct. These days, though, it takes more than pretty CGI to impress an audience. We've seen it all. It's time for Star Trek to impress us with realistic depictions of how objects in space actually behave.

Weapons should function believably: I don't think Star Trek should mimic BSG and use guns that fire metal bullets, but the behavior of phasers and other energy weapons could stand a dose of realism. Virtually every time someone fires a phaser on Star Trek, we can see the energy beam leave the weapon and strike the target a second later. Phaser beams move so slowly that it's actually possible for people to dodge them, even at fairly short range. This is patently ridiculous. Have you ever used a laser pointer in a foggy or smoky environment? If so, when you pressed the button, could you actually see the laser beam shoot out of the end and hit the first thing in its path a few seconds later? Of course not, unless you're The Flash. Laser beams move at the speed of light. Logically, phasers and other Star Trek energy weapons should behave similarly. When Captain Kirk pulls the trigger on his phaser, there should be a brief flash of light, an accompanying sound effect, and the thing he's aiming at should be hit instantly. This would simplify things on the production side, as well. Phaser effects would be easier and (one assumes) cheaper. Also, FX artists wouldn't have to "draw" an oddly angled phaser beam in situations where the actor isn't aiming the phaser at exactly the right point.

Stop using the bridge viewscreen as a window: The very earliest sketches of the Enterpise bridge included a prominent, window-like viewscreen at the front of the room. Fairly early on, it was established that the viewer was not a window, but a large, high-resolution "TV screen" that was capable of displaying a wide variety of information. Except for a very few exceptions however, the main viewer is pretty much only used to show a forward view of space directly ahead of the ship, or as a videophone. That's like having a Blackberry but only using it to make telephone calls. The stupidity of the way the viewscreen is used became apparent to me when I played the 1997 Starfleet Academy video game on my PC. Most of the game's missions are space battles, and the game's AI was good enough that enemy ships didn't just sit directly in front of you and wait for you to shoot them. They were constantly moving, rendering the forward viewscreen almost completely useless. The crude-but-effective "radar" display was far more effective at giving you a picture of what was going on in space around your ship. On the "real" Enterprise, of course, the Captain doesn't have access to such a display. He's dependent on someone else to look at a sensor display and relay information to him. It seems to me that in a battle or some other critical situation, those are precious seconds that could mean life or death. I'm a big fan of BSG's DRADIS displays. They simply yet realistically give a three dimensional picture of objects in the space around the ship, and since there are large ones mounted in the center of CIC, Admiral Adama doesn't have to wait for Gaeta or an equivalent person to relay information to him before making a decision. We've seen Star Trek's viewscreens used this way before, most notably in the opening scene of Star Trek II, and in my opinion they should be used that way again. And speaking of sensors:

Place realistic limits on the sensors: Gene Roddenberry very wisely instructed his writers to never try to explain how the Enterprise sensors worked. Unfortunately, he never placed any kind of limits on their capabilities. Thus, sensors have generally been able to do whatever the writers want them to, and generally the writers have wanted them to give way too much information. The idea that our science officer can look at his magic sensor display and learn everything
about a situation, down to the DNA of the aliens aboard an approaching ship, has robbed many a Star Trek epsiode of the mystery and danger of space exploration from which the franchise theoretically derives much of its appeal. The capabilities of the sensors should be extrapolated from things our science is capable of currently. Additionally, I think that the degree to which sensor data is useful should depend on the skill of the science officer who's interpreting it. Thus, Spock would be able to get more out of the sensors than Chekov, for example.

No more canned plots: The alien with godlike powers. The culture that's controlled by a computer. Evil twins, time travel, time-travelling evil twins, mind control, technobabble-driven plots and other tired cliches of the genre need to go away. Why? Because Star Trek has done them over and over. The stories were good the first few times, but they quickly devolved into tired repetitious dreck, especially in the post-Original Series era. It wasn't worth watching Voyager and Enterprise because we'd seen these stories before, and we already knew how they'd end.

It's especially important for Star Trek to stay away from any excessive unreality because of the inherent unreality in its core premise: that space is as densely populated as Queens, New York. Whereas BSG can totally eschew "planet of the week" stories, Star Trek cannot. Seeking out new life and new civilizations isn't too interesting, after all, if you never find any. I think the first season of the Original Series struck a good balance in this regard, especially the early epsiodes. Space was a big and lonely place. Most planets were barely liveable, even if you could breathe the air. Some of them had once harbored intelligent life, but it had died out centuries earlier. Every once in a while, the crew would encounter a new alien race, but it was a fairly rare occurrence.

I doubt very much that we'll ever see a Star Trek production that follows all these rules. After all, the viewscreen on J.J. Abrams' Enterprise bridge is actually a window. Still, there's lots of evidence that Abrams isn't afraid to break the Star Trek mold a little bit. Will the resulting Trek be believable, or so stupid it makes your head hurt? Come May 8, we'll find out.

Monday, January 26, 2009

High-quality Future World icons

Poking around the Internet the other day, I discovered this fantastic set of EPCOT Center icons. Unfortunately, there's no comments area on the page where one can leave notes of appreciation, but the artist who put these together did one heck of a job. If you're in the market for some new icons to EPCOTize your desktop, why not give them a shot?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mid-January Bullets

  • Disney's online attraction rehab schedule shows Future World's Universe of Energy going down for a rehab from January 5-March 22. According to Screamscape, the downtime will allow a new ride-control and tracking system to be installed, and they speculate that the groundwork is being laid for a more extensive update of the show itself sometime in the future. You know, if Disney made a new film for the pavilion and kept Ellen (she's still a popular celebrity, after all), they wouldn't need to touch the Animatronic portion of the show at all. It could be a fairly inexpensive upgrade for a pavilion that really needs it, and maybe we would finally get a show that doesn't focus on fossil fuels.
  • I noticed that the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure is a prominently featured "attraction" in the EPCOT section of the Disney World website. Didn't Kim Possible go off the air? Why would Disney expend so much energy promoting a defunct cartoon series? Oh, I understand the reason for it: Disney wants to give the kids something to do in World Showcase to keep them from complaining to their parents that they're bored every ten seconds. I'm against it. I say kids should have to suffer the same way I did on my first trip to EPCOT at age 7, when my parents marched right past all the breathtakingly cool Future World pavilions just so my mom could spend an interminable amount of time in Morocco's shops, just aimlessly looking around. It builds character.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On the future of dark rides

Hi! Sorry it's been so long between posts, but things have been hectic. Also, due to some stuff going on at work, it looks like I'll have to postpone my November trip to Disney World until January 2010. So about a year from now you can expect the first of many posts filled with recent pictures from all over WDW (with a heavy bias toward EPCOT, of course) and my impressions of the Siemens rehab of Spaceship Earth. But on to the topic at hand-

I love Disney's Audio-Animatronic dark rides. They offer an immersive experience like none other. Unlike thrill rides, which primarily rely on the ride system itself to deliver the attraction's experience, dark rides are all about theming and detail. The great dark rides (Pirates of the Carribbean, Horizons, Journey into Imagination, World of Motion, and Peter Pan's Flight, to name a few) make you forget that you're in a Florida theme park. Returning to the "real world" after a good dark ride is always a bit of a shock.

Unfortunately, Animatronic-based rides tend to suffer the worst when Disney goes into Clueless Cost Cutting mode. During Spaceship Earth's sponsorless period, the movements of the Animatronic characters were stiff and jerky. The ride system was loud and creaky. It was painfully obvious that Disney was skimping on maintenance because there was no sponsor to help foot the bill. This is perhaps the Animatronic dark ride's biggest flaw: all the Imagineers' brilliant work can be completely undone by a miserly maintenance schedule.

All of this was running through my mind recently when I saw the Horizons ride vehicle that's for sale on eBay. It occurred to me then that, if you placed the vehicle in front of a large-enough screen that was playing a good-quality Horizons ride video, you'd have a pretty fair approximation of the Horizons experience. Then it occurred to me that, with today's technology, a good CGI artist (or a team of them), could essentially re-create the ride in CGI, and do it so well that only a hardcore EPCOT fanboy would be able to tell they weren't watching an actual ride video. And then I remembered how impressed I was with the 3-D version of Meet The Robinsons, how the Disney artists really made it appear as though you were looking into a diorama, as opposed to watching a movie screen.

I think you can see where I'm going with this: if you created a stereoscopic 3-D CGI Horizons ride movie, projected it onto an Omnimax-like screen positioned in front of a row of ride vehicles similar to the ones from the original pavilion, then topped the whole thing off with piped-in smells (oranges, anyone?) and simulator effects, you would effectively re-create Horizons without having to construct a huge pavilion with hundreds of Animatronics and set pieces. Ah, but would it have the same immersive quality as a "real" ride with physical sets and characters? That's a matter of personal opinion, I suppose. However, my experience with Soarin' makes me think it could. As an old-school EPCOT fan, I was skeptical of Soarin' at first. There is almost no theming at all. The ride system is basically a giant Erector-set construction in front of an Omnimax screen, and absolutely no effort is made to hide this. Then the ride starts, and you forget that you're sitting inside a giant Erector set construction in front of an Omnimax screen. The combination of scented air blowing at you and subtle ride carriage movements synchronized with the film completely sells you on the idea that you're really flying. It's amazing. When I rode it, I sat at the leftmost edge of the carriage and I could clearly see the edge of the movie screen, but it didn't matter. The ride sucked me in and made me believe in it. So, if Disney can deliver an immersive experience with metal benches, scented air, and a 2-D movie, I believe they could do the same thing with a 3-D movie, a more enclosed ride vehicle, and a bit more theming. Maybe some "real" foreground elements could be added to hide the edges of the screen and blur the line between what's physical and what's not. Of course, there's still one major problem to consider: to un-immerse yourself from the ride, all you'd have to do is remove your 3D glasses. Or would you? Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D screens do exist. Sure, it's still brand-new technology, but after a few years I imagine the bugs will be worked out and the price will come down.

The way I see it, 3D movie-based dark rides would stand the test of time much better than Animatronic rides, if for no other reason than that they'd need much less maintenance. Animatronic dark rides are hugely expensive to build and maintain. A dark ride like this would still be expensive to create, but it would probably cost less to maintain in the long run. And when the guests begin to tire of a certain ride, all you have to do is re-theme your queue area, commission a new film, reprogram some vehicle movements, and mix up a new batch of scented air and boom!- you've got yourself a brand-new ride.

Just to be clear, I am NOT suggesting that Animatronic dark rides need to go away. They're an irreplaceable part of the Disney World experience. I'm just speculating on what the future could hold. Hopefully, it's a fun synthesis of the old and the new.