UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.
Two years ago, a fire ravaged the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, turning several famous outdoor sets into ashes and apparently setting iconic giant gorilla King Kong free. At least, that's how the fact-meets-fantasy story line goes in King Kong 360 3-D, an immersive addition to the studio tour that opened July 1.
Rather than simply move past the real-life blaze that destroyed the theme park's original 30-foot-tall animatronic ape in 2008, the fire has become part of the revamped attraction's mythology, addressed by tour guides and featured in footage broadcast inside the tour's trams. One doctored image ominously depicts the figure of King Kong emerging from the smoke.
"The fire presented us with a unique opportunity to rebuild King Kong, which had been without a doubt one of the most popular stops on the studio tour," said Universal Studios show producer Valerie Johnson-Redrow. "The initial thought was, of course, to go back to Peter Jackson's 2005 film and reimagine King Kong in an entirely new way for the studio tour."
Instead of re-creating the animatronic Eighth Wonder of the World that burned down alongside exterior sets from Back to the Future and To Kill a Mockingbird, Universal Studios enlisted Jackson and his team at special effects company Weta Digital in New Zealand to craft a new adventure that would transport visitors to his rendition of Skull Island.
During the breakneck three-minute encounter, the computer-generated, battle-scarred big ape tussles with a dinosaur gang on the side of a cliff. As the beasts seemingly smash into and lunge over the tram, a system underneath the winding vehicle jolts in synch with the action while bursts of air and water mimic King Kong's breathy roar and the dinosaurs' wet slobber.
The sequence is screened at 60 frames per second from 16 hidden high-definition film projectors on two 40-foot-tall, 180-foot-long curved screens. The screens envelop the tram inside a soundstage, nestled in a new hillside location on the backlot across from the newly rebuilt New York set.
Before boarding the tram, riders are given 3-D glasses and instructed by Jackson in a video when to don them for the brawl, which at one point cleverly depicts the last car of the tram being ripped off. Some moments, such as King Kong toying with his prehistoric prey and a foolhardy tourist snapping a photo, can only be viewed from certain vantage points.
Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor for the films King Kong and Avatar, said the team was tasked with several challenges in bringing 3-D to the studio tour. Most noticeably, the gorilla-versus-dinos smackdown is entirely seamless, so there are no cuts during the battle, and unlike a typical 3-D movie, the audience isn't always looking in the same direction.
"Everyone is seeing something different because they're not facing the same screen," said Letteri. "Every time someone goes through this ride, they're going to have a different experience depending on where they sit and look. We're making sure that everybody in the tram — whether in the front or the back — experiences something interesting and exciting."
In a 3-D video from New Zealand, Jackson introduced King Kong 360 3-D to a crowd of celebrities and media gathered in a soundstage two days before the attraction opened. Attendees were entertained by African dancers and drummers and noshed on such dishes as shrimp skewers and bite-sized banana cream pies at the jungle-themed soiree before boarding trams.
"Today is the first day you will ever be inside of a 3-D story as opposed to viewing the story from a seat," Larry Kurzweil, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios Hollywood, told the crowd. "You will literally be as deep inside a battlefield on Skull Island as you could possibly imagine. It's riveting. It's intense. It's perilous."
The attraction was first constructed 20 miles away inside the massive 281,000-square-foot hangar where Howard Hughes built his 200-ton plane dubbed the Spruce Goose and where James Cameron filmed several scenes for Titanic and Avatar. A mock tram filled with balloon-headed mannequins was fabricated to aid technicians in tweaking the audiovisual systems.
King Kong 360 3-D is expected to breathe new life into the venerable 46-year-old tram tour, which includes stops at the Bates Motel from Psycho and Amity Harbor from Jaws. Attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood dipped from 4.6 million in 2008 to 4.3 million in 2009, according to the most recent report from the Themed Entertainment Association.
The theme park's sister resort in Orlando has already experienced a surge in visitors since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Islands of Adventure theme park in June. Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., is also drawing big crowds this summer with the debut of the high-tech World of Color lagoon show.
"The hype surrounding Kong is certainly going to give people a reason to visit and see it for themselves," said Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme park management at the University of Central Florida. "The allure of seeing something totally new and remarkable in 3-D, and the fact that Peter Jackson is involved, is going to make people naturally curious."