Dahl's dream made reality

AUTHOR: Inavate

What happens to a theme park attraction when it needs upgrading? InAVate looks at the creation of the Charlie and the Chocolate factory experience at the Alton Towers Theme Park in the UK.

The Tussauds Group, owners of Alton Towers in Staffordshire, England, have recently rejuvenated a popular feature of the park called Toyland Tours by converting it into a ride based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

In February 2006, the company hit upon the idea of creating two “Great Glass Elevators” as the finale for an upgraded water flume ride. The original Toyland Tours ride featured a meandering boat trip through a toy factory. The new ride can accommodate up to 36 visitors, who become enveloped within a disorienting projection cube, or ‘cave-like’ environment and be taken on the journey of their lives.

Design director Paul Lanham and his team at Tussauds Studios set to work on creating this finale within what would be an enlarged building, contracting Electrosonic to convert their ideas into a 3D reality.

By April 2006, Alton Towers were ready to unveil ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Ride’ a multi-sensory £4.5 million indoor journey, which takes guests on a mesmerising adventure via a succession of animated and dynamically lit scenes. Each scene represents a particular episode from the book, taking the visitor into the heart of Willy Wonka’s world.

After following the ride through these various scenes, guests step out of the boats into one of two identical elevator chambers. The immersive environment then takes them on a virtual 3-D, 360’ panoramic tour before eventually “exploding” through the factory roof.

Electrosonic director, Kevin Murphy, whose company became engaged in initial discussions about the feasibility of using high-definition projection in a simulator nearly two years previously said, “The creative sector has used ‘cave’ technologies for some time, enabling designers to work within a virtual environment. We are also extremely familiar with simulators in the attractions world. The Charlie finale is an interesting and unique solution combining well know technologies into a new theme park environment, and it works extremely well!”

Alton Towers marketing executive Wayne Burton agrees. “We have invested heavily in technology to create a world’s first.”

The concept and development of this highly specialised, audio-visual infrastructure on site was overseen by project manager, Philip Hartley of Phil Hartley Associates.

Kevin Murphy of Electrosonic explained how the company went about assembling the team. “We were clear about who and what we wanted – to achieve high definition playback. We chose Paradigm at an early stage as they have previous experience of building a cave and as a result were able to solve the practical problems of screen resolution and narrowing of the edges butting the screens together. They also helped considerably with projector mounting and mirrors.”

The audio system was designed by Bose, who supplied most of the equipment, but installed by Electrosonic. A selection of Bose speakers provide background music throughout the whole ride, as well as spot effects including the sound of Augustus Gloop stuck in a chocolate tube and also dialogue playback from the various characters encountered.

Loudspeakers used include 302A’s, which are extensively deployed for playing low level background music and ambient noises. Bose 402-II and 32-SE’s are preferred for spot effects and actor voices. An 802 accompanied by an MB12 bass module is employed to give maximum impact to the explosion and splat associated with Violet Beauregard. Elsewhere MB4 bass modules, 502As and M32 ceiling speakers are installed.

Bose also proposed the use of Allen & Heath’s iDR8 audio processing solution to ensure a simple system design and minimise the number of different pieces of equipment that are required. All sources, sound stores and microphones are simply fed into the iDR8 processors and the outputs of the processors fed via the Bose amplification system to the loudspeakers. Bose 1800-VI and M2150 amplifiers were used along with EQ cards.

This approach allows small changes to be made without costly and time-consuming re-wiring. Multiple levels of priority and ducking, system equalisation, delay and volume limiting were achieved at a fraction of a cost of the equivalent analogue equipment and additional wiring.

The processors are all linked digitally allowing the operators’ microphones and pre-recorded message stores to be routed to any area or combination of areas.

The Allen & Heath gear included iDR In expanders, iDR8 audio processors and an iDR switch interface. The sound stores used are Golding DMS300 units including Soundstore nests, DMS300 Lite Soundstores and DMS300 Full Soundstores.

The ride’s Medialon Show control system is responsible for triggering all of the audio content throughout the attraction in time with the other elements of the ride. The touch screen operator consoles that accompany it can be programmed to provide zone selection and activation of pre-recorded messages or live microphone.

The climax to the ride, as previously stated, is the “Great Glass Elevator”. The four walls and ceiling consist of rear projection screens and are the result of an incredible engineering feat by Paradigm AV within the 6m square by 3.4m high spaces, to create one single 360’ and overhead movie screen.

Following comparative tests at their factory to select the most suitable material, the Bedford company recommended the Dalite flexible daylight screens to work in conjunction with their own giant foil diverter mirrors and custom engineered OPTI screen structures. At the same time Electrosonic and Paradigm conducted projector comparison tests and selected a total of ten Christie DLP projectors.

The four ‘wall’ screens are addressed by Christie’s 5000 ANSI lumens DW3K projectors in a 16 x 9 wide screen ratio while the larger 6m x 6m ceiling screen is served by a compact Christie DS +5K 6500 ANSI lumen projector in 4 x 3.

The finale also uses five Electrosonic MS9200 high definition video players running in frame sync.

Overall show control is based on the Medialon Manager, which triggers all the animatronics, special effects, CCTV (from Vista CCTV), projection, motion-based FX. DMX lighting, show power relays, video servers and MP3 units. For daily operation a pair of Rugboard touch screen interfaces were provided in the ride control room, and at the ride load point.

Paradigm MD, Paul Wood said that the finale represented a considerable challenge for his company, “What we effectively had to do was develop a structure within an existing, enlarged building.”

To achieve the 1mm edge butt they stretched a flexible screen over a blunt, specially coated plastic knife-edge, bolted onto a frame that could be continually manoeuvred. “With such a large structure which had to support the screens it was essential that the frames of the screens could be manipulated in order to get them into exactly the right position,” said Wood.

It has been Paradigm’s ability to minimise the gaps between each screen that has been the real technological feature of the installation, Philip Hartley believes - building the credibility of being immersed in one of two identical projection boxes.

Overseeing the development and eventual commissioning of the ride with Hartley were overall project manager for Tussauds, Doug Bullock and Electrosonic project managers, Kevin Murphy and Gavin Aldridge.

Summarised Philip Hartley, “For a theme park it’s unique to be able to offer this type of 360’ x 180’ simulator experience in a vertical projection which is entirely seamless. It captures the elevation idea out of Charlie perfectly, and I think there will be other organisations using this type of technology in the future.”

And Kevin Murphy concluded, “as with any new idea, evaluation and trials were necessary to help eliminate some of the uncertainties when using technology. It’s only when the final project comes together, with story, images and motion, that the concept can really be put to the test.”