Close Encounters of a Special Effects Kind : Entertainment: At Luxor Las Vegas, Douglas Trumbull has created a cinema attraction that is the newest combination of theme park ride and motion picture wizardry.


When filmmaker Douglas Trumbull helped design the innovative special effects for such movies as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” he had a sense that the filmmaking process was on the move.

But it soon became evident that while Trumbull was headed in the direction of bigger screens and greater effects, the film exhibition business was downsizing movie theaters and screens. The message to Trumbull was: Leave Hollywood and find a new canvas.

After setting up shop in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, he found one outlet in designing Back to the Future--The Ride, which marries advanced motion picture wizardry with movement and sound technology. The thrill rides at Universal Studios’ theme parks in Orlando, Fla., and Los Angeles are hugely popular attractions.


Now he’s found his latest outlet here in this entertainment and gaming city, inside the $375-million Luxor Las Vegas, a 30-story pyramid-shaped hotel-casino built by Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., which opens to the public Friday. The hotel is named after the ancient Egyptian home of the pharaohs’ tombs.

Circus Circus sought Trumbull to create an attraction that would complement the hotel’s Egyptian theme and provide entertainment. Company president Clyde Turner said Luxor is the latest example of how “the gaming industry is evolving into a recreation and entertainment industry.” The company’s giant Excalibur Hotel, which is next to the pyramid, features an earlier motion-cinema attraction known as Showscan, also developed by Trumbull.

For the Luxor, Trumbull created a cinema trilogy titled “Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid,” which are shown in three state-of-the-art theaters that may be eye-openers to the theatrical exhibition establishment. The theaters and their recording-studio quality sound systems bear no resemblance to a neighborhood multiplex. But there are aspects that will remind audiences of the Back to the Future ride and of Disneyland’s Star Tours attraction.

Each of the three 15-minute episodes of “Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid” has a $4 admission. The films take viewers from ancient Egypt to the present and into the future--all with an array of effects including 3-D, motion simulators and projections that use twice the normal number of frames per second, giving unusual clarity to the film.

Perhaps the most unprecedented feature of Trumbull’s work at the Luxor is a theater with a screen that measures seven stories high by 35 feet wide, and seating that rises at a 45-degree angle--each row four feet above the next. It makes for a towering, almost dizzying effect for viewers. Trumbull says the screen dimensions allow for full-length close-up shots of actors instead of the typical shoulder-up view, and also unusual angles for aerial shots.

As a theater it is believed to be one of a kind. To label it unique is saying a lot when you consider the context in which it is set. This 2,526-room hotel-casino is, after all, a one-of-a-kind mega-complex that boasts of a 10-story Sphinx at its entrance and a fleet of barges fit for a Pharaoh on a “river” that flows around the periphery of the pyramid’s interior atrium.

Luxor also claims to have the world’s most powerful light beam: It rises from the peak of the pyramid and shines two miles into the heavens.

As visitors enter the hotel’s towering atrium, one of the theaters is visible almost immediately, although it looks like an ancient temple.

It is home to the first episode, a motion-simulator ride and film titled “In Search of the Obelisk.” The conceit Trumbull devised with screenwriter John Groves is for the audience to explore the remains of an ancient civilization whose artifacts were discovered by archeologists under what is now the site of Luxor. A wild chase begins as someone tries to steal a powerful crystal obelisk.

Trumbull’s version of the motion simulator differs from its predecessors in that it is a compact self-contained unit made by his Ridefilm Theaters company. Its size is a contrast to the massive structures required by the Back to the Future ride, for example.

Incongruously situated next to the temple is a replica of New York City’s Times Square, complete with neon signs. These “buildings,” some rising as high as 15 stories into the heart of the hotel atrium, house episode two--”Luxor Live.” In this experience, the audience becomes part of a TV talk show in which the explorers from episode one are interviewed, and there is also a simulated live feed from Egypt where a solar eclipse is occurring. As the eclipse approaches, viewers are instructed to wear special eyeglasses that provide another visual experience.

For the final episode, titled “The Theater of Time,” Trumbull said he wanted to experiment with a theater design that permits the audience to experience “a different sense of what shape movies can be.” Thus, the creation of what is perhaps the world’s steepest movie theater. Half the 350 people in the audience sit below the projector and half above.

The screen’s vertical shape is a dramatic departure from that of regular theater screens, not to mention other large-screen formats such as IMAX, which, although gigantic, retains the standard horizontal presentation.

Will these futuristic and showy theaters have any impact on average moviegoing? “I think not,” Trumbull said.

“Traditional cinematic theater is a slowly declining business, as we all know. These shows are a new entertainment alternative, but I don’t believe they will contribute to the erosion of feature films.”