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UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. • Which 'bots are in, and which are out?
That's the question the special-effects gurus at Universal Studios and Industrial Light and Magic, as well as "Transformers" director Michael Bay, first asked themselves five years ago when they started developing a $100 million theme park attraction based on the popular franchise. Much like the robots themselves, the answer changed shape.
"We knew we had to have Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Megatron," said Universal Studios producer Chick Russell. "Beyond those characters, we didn't want it to feel like everyone else was just making a cameo. We wanted each character to feel like they were contributing to the attraction. It's four minutes. You don't have a lot of time to introduce characters."
When designers originally envisioned "Transformers: The Ride 3D," which debuts Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood and opened in December at Universal Studios Singapore, their first inclination was to build life-size versions of the famous 'bots, but Russell said they quickly learned that even the most sophisticated animatronics wouldn't do the trick.
"We realized early in the process that we couldn't get them to do the things we wanted them to do fast or realistic enough to match the excitement of the Bay films," said Russell. "We instead decided to go with a multimedia approach and match 3-D footage with intricate set work, so it doesn't feel like you're just going from screen to screen to screen."
The attraction puts riders inside a 12-person vehicle designed to look like a nimble new Transformer named Evac, who goes on a breakneck chase from the headquarters of the top-secret NEST agency through city streets, across rooftops and even inside an office building on the hunt for a missing shard of the AllSpark, the powerful Transformers artifact.
The action is digitally projected on 14 screens among real-world sets that the ride vehicles move into and past, mixing computer-generated fantasy with reality. For example, at the beginning of the ride inside a military facility, the front half of a parked truck is real, while the other half of the vehicle that the Transformers fight atop is on screen.
Jeff White, the visual effects supervisor from Industrial Light and Magic who worked on both the films and the attraction, said designers created the footage in 4K resolution, which has quadruple the number of pixels found on most screens, and used photographs of the actual Chicago cityscape to craft the virtual urban terrain where the robots battle.
One of the attraction's most spectacular effects is the least explosive. At one point, during a calm moment in the villainous Decepticons' assault on the heroic Autobots, hulking Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen in both the films and the attraction) kneels down to address the riders, coming closer to the audience than ever before.
"Originally, that was going to be a physical build, but we couldn't quite work out the animation with something practical," said White. "That whole scene was changed over to a screen, and what was great about that is more so than ever before in any of the movies, people can feel what it's like for Optimus Prime to come right up and talk to them."
White said the designers pushed Optimus' face as closely as possible into riders' perspectives without the robot general's noggin appearing blurry or distorted. The effect meant that ILM had to create more 3-D animations and textures for Optimus' mechanized eyes, mouth and other facial features than what's usually required in the "Transformers" films.
The ride's footage was crafted by ILM at the same time they did effects for the "Transformers" sequels "Revenge of the Fallen" and "Dark of the Moon," which allowed the designers to include new additions like Bumblebee's gun-toting hybrid mode and hulking baddie Devastator, who sucks up everything in his path in Egypt at the end of "Revenge of the Fallen."
While the Singapore and Hollywood versions of the ride are nearly identical, the one inside a two-story building on the Hollywood back lot of Universal Studios, owned by Comcast Corp., uses Dolby 3D, the newest version of 3-D projection. Russell said there are no plans for now to bring the ride to other theme parks.
Ultimately, "Transformers" mastermind Bay and the ride's designers are featuring 13 different characters from the "Transformers" movies in the ride, as well as new 'bot Evac and human General Morshower, who pops up in videos broadcast in the ride's waiting area. (And, of course, there are Evac action figures for sale in the gift shop outside the attraction.)
Bay is set to helm a fourth "Transformers" film, which Paramount Pictures announced earlier this year would be released in 2014. White said there wasn't any discussion about the Transformers' next movie adventure when creating the ride. He noted the ILM designers set out to create an attraction that could "withstand the test of time" outside of the films.
"Typically, we make a movie, and then it disappears from the public consciousness," said White. "Here is something that people could perhaps go and experience for 10, 20 or 30 years, so we really tried to make sure that it was its own encapsulated story but also that the visuals were of a high enough level that it wouldn't show its age in 10 years."