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A new dimension

Special to The Times

The smarmy “Magic Mirror” emcee greets visitors at the dungeon foyer entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood’s newest attraction, Shrek 4-D. But it wouldn’t be out of place to resurrect Bette Davis as a hologram so she could cite her famous line from “All About Eve”: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Shrek 4-D, the bone-jolting digital theater attraction opening Friday, literally rocks audience members via seats that look normal but behave quite oddly once the lights go down. As the 13-minute 3-D film plays on screen, the rigged chairs barrage audience members with simulated wind, water and jiggles cued to the animated action.

But if Shrek 4-D itself revels in turbulence, the process of creating the theme park thrill turned out to be a remarkably smooth one. “3-D can bring the action off the screen, but then we came up with this idea of adding lots of special effects to create a fourth D, so the movie basically lands in your lap,” says Scott Trowbridge, the Universal Parks & Resorts vice president who started working on Shrek 4-D two years ago after a series of meetings with DreamWorks founding partner Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The famously meticulous animation auteur had parlayed a couple of earlier DreamWorks films, “Antz” and “Chicken Run,” into minor attractions for Universal’s theme parks. But “Shrek” -- which earned $268 million domestically, charmed critics with its witty dialogue, awed techies with it’s cutting-edge computer-generated imagery and won the first animated feature Oscar in 2000 -- is clearly the jewel in Katzenberg’s crown. With a “Shrek” sequel in the pipeline, why gamble on a theme park attraction that might dilute such a valuable franchise?

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“I love the challenge of trying to tell a good story in a virtual world, which is what a theme park is,” says Katzenberg, relaxing in a conference room at DreamWorks’ Glendale headquarters. “Given that we are off doing ‘Shrek 2,’ this is essentially a giant risk because if we made something and it wasn’t great, it actually could diminish the value of the property.”

Reducing the risk: Katzenberg and DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg are hardly tyros when it comes to transforming hit films into hit rides.

When he ran the studio now jokingly referred to as “The other D” (Disney), Katzenberg extended the shelf life of “Little Mermaid,” “Toy Story” and “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” by turning the hit films into attractions for Disney’s theme parks, while Spielberg helped hatch “Indiana Jones Adventures” for Disneyland, and his “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” “ET” and “Back to the Future” movies all spawned successful attractions for Universal.

Besides Katzenberg and Spielberg’s genuine fondness for movie-to-theme park transformations, it didn’t hurt that “Shrek 4-D” would bring the jolly green ogre back into the public eye after an absence of two years, bridging the gap between the original film and next summer’s “Shrek 2.”

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“The timing was perfect,” Katzenberg recalls,” because the Universal parks people were looking for a big attraction for this year. They came in with a menu of ideas and we laid out a story idea for them, which they liked very much.”

In a departure from the standard-issue rock ‘em, sock ‘em theme park experience that emphasizes sensation at the expense of narrative coherence, Shrek 4-D picks up where “Shrek” left off.

The vengeful ghost of Farquaad plucks Fiona from the fairy tale “onion” carriage seen during “Shrek’s” closing credits. Shrek and Donkey follow in fast pursuit, tangle with a flying dragon and survive a wicked waterfall before being deposited, safe and sound, at “The Honeymoon Hotel,” where they’ll be primed to resume their journey in “Shrek 2.”

Katzenberg says once the story outline was agreed upon, “then we said, ‘How can we embellish it, how do we “ride” this movie?’ ”

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The 3-D format made sense to Katzenberg because altering computer-generated animation data is relatively easy. “When you make a CG movie like ‘Shrek,’ ” he says, “it exists in a digital file so you can replicate images and move them around and adjust the cinematography to accentuate dimension at the push of a button in a way that is much more compelling than what you could do in live action.”

Trowbridge was game. “Shrek’s kind of an in-your-face kind of guy, and 3-D is an in-your-face kind of technology. We pretty quickly got into the mind-set that 3-D was the way to recreate the style of imagery that would also allow us to bring back the voices and the acting that everybody loved.”

But 3-D has become a familiar theme park fixture in recent years, deployed in “Spider-Man,” “Terminator,” “Muppets” and “Little Mermaid"-based attractions. To up the 3-D ante, a simple solution was conceived: Double the cameras to double the intensity.

Trowbridge explains, “When ‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” came out two years ago, digital projection was a big deal, but we’re actually projecting an image that’s twice the resolution that ‘Star Wars’ was. It was really important that ours be crisp, clear, rock steady and bright, and that’s why we had to make our own system to do it.”

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As Shrek 4-D’s digital projection system was being developed, Universal technicians devised chairs that are individually rigged with computer-controlled “tactile transducers,” pneumatic air tubes and water spray nozzles, which are capable of translating Shrek’s on-screen escapades into an in-seat rock-o-rama.

To make sure Shrek, the ride, stayed true to “Shrek,” the movie, Katzenberg kept the beast’s creative DNA intact by drawing on talent from PDI/DreamWorks, the Palo Alto-based visual effects house that created the film’s original animation. Most important in terms of public recognition, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow, who voiced Donkey, Shrek, Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaad, respectively, in the original, all revisited their characters for the 3-D film.

Shrek 4-D will need all the help it can get; it’s opening at a time when the theme park business is sorely in need of a hit. A weak economy and after-effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cut sharply into leisure travel. Consultant Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services says, “My feeling is, the summer is going to be a flat season. The parks and operators I’ve talked to have not seen the huge bookings that they normally see.”

As the traditional Memorial Day-to-Labor Day summer season kicks in, other venues are vying for their share of novelty-seekers. SeaWorld in San Diego introduced its own 3-D theater experience, R.L. Stine’s “Haunted Lighthouse,” a couple of weeks ago. And this spring, Paramount-owned parks introduced a SpongeBob SquarePants 4-D attraction that is based on the popular Cartoon Network character.

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But for Katzenberg, launching an interim “Shrek” adventure offers an intangible payoff that has nothing to do with numbers or marketing.

A self-confessed theme park junkie, Katzenberg says, “I can’t wait to stand in the back of that room when that spider gets dropped into the theater, because I know the place is going to go nuts. I want to watch people levitate. I want to watch the entire theater levitate. To me, that was the challenge of making Shrek 4-D.”


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