Entertaining The Entertainers at the 2013 Thea Awards

Posted by Sasha on Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Transformers at Thea Awards Gala 2013

It’s not often that you get an opportunity to dine with Transformer robots, death eaters, and your favorite character from Cars. And it’s even rarer when that same dinner also includes a slew of entertainment legends such as Pixar’s John Lasseter and Imagineering’s Tony Baxter. And yet, that is exactly what happened at the annual TEA Thea Awards Gala, fondly known as the Oscars of the entertainment design industry. As an event in the themed design world, it had all the bells and whistles you would expect, including Harry Potter collectible wands as party favors, dance interludes, and fun special effects. In typical award show fashion, Thea Award winners accepted their “Oscars” and gave speeches, but what made this event particularly unique was the host of the show: a 10-year-old boy, who, in addition to demonstrating impressive stage presence, led the audience through some key protective spells when death eaters stormed the show.

Host of the Thea Awards fighting off death eaters

Harry Potter Wands

Cars Character Mater at the Gala

Perhaps the most interesting and insightful part of the Thea Awards was the Case Studies Day, in which various award winners gave a personal look into how they brought their projects to reality. Among the projects presented were two of our favorite attractions from 2012: Transformers The Ride 3-D at Universal Studios Hollywood and Singapore, and Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii. Prestigious as it is to win a Thea Award, it made these two winners even more impressive to hear the stories of their creation.

Chick Russell Presents Transformers The Ride at TEA Case Studies

Transformers The Ride may seem like “just another impressive simulator,” but the creative and logistical forces behind it had to overcome quite a few challenges. Chick Russell, a Show Producer at Universal Creative, explained during Case Studies day that the intent for this ride was to bring guests as far into the world of Transformers as possible. Michael Bay, Executive Producer of the Transformers movies, had the relative luxury of moving the camera around a CGI environment; but bringing the audience into the world of giant robots in the physical reality of a ride posed quite a challenge to the Universal Creative team. The team needed to find a way to blend physical and virtual realities, and their approach was to create a motion-based simulator ride on a track that travels through set environments with flat and curved projection screens. Creating this innovative simulation ride posed several key obstacles:

1) Perspective – as guests move past a screen, their perspective changes, so in order for the video to make sense from any angle, the perspective of the video had to change at the same pace as the ride in order to create a seamless and realistic experience.
The solution: “3D squinching,” wherein the ride projects a sequence of changing perspectives matching the position of the ride vehicle.

2) Disappearing screens – as the ride moves from room to room, projection screens needed to appear as imperceptible extensions of the physical world.
The solution: many videos are rear-projected so that physical props can be right up against the surface of the screen; a line of gas canisters look as if they go on for a distance in space, when only the first two props are physical, and the others are a line of mirroring virtual canisters. These visual illusions help to make the edge of the screen disappear. Also, many of these screens are curved (toroidal curves, to be exact), which extends beyond the riders’ peripheral vision, preventing them from perceiving the screens’ edges.

3) Physicality – the Universal team wanted guests to feel like robots were actually coming into our world.
The solution: physical effects such as thud motions and heat blasts well timed with the video action helped to achieve this. At one point, Megatron even seems to pick up the ride vehicle and shake it. The rear-projection technique also facilitates physicality by allowing props to be right in front of the screens.

In addition to these creative problems, the Universal team had to contend with logistical challenges such as designing the ride in a 2-story building: they had to find a way to bring the ride up to the second floor without the guests realizing that they were essentially riding an elevator. The solution? They built a smooth, fast, reliable elevator to lift the 20,000 lb. ride vehicle up to the second floor, and installed a projector that travels up at the same speed as the elevator. The projection distracts the audience, and they don’t realize that they’re traveling up to another floor.

A second project with an insightful back-story is the Aulani Disney Resort and Spa in Oahu, Hawaii. Imagineer Joe Rohde, who played a large role in bringing this project to life, presented the story of how this unique hotel became an authentic expression of Hawaiian culture.

Joe Rodhe Presents Aulani

From a distance (or rather, through the lens of TV commercials), Aulani seems to be a lovely retreat into Island paradise, peppered with classic Disney references and fun touches. What we didn’t know, and what most may not know without actually visiting, is the thoughtfulness that went into its design. While many resort destinations stamp their brand into the ground and build a hotel without giving much thought to the surrounding culture, the folks at Disney made it their goal to create something distinctly Hawaiian: “Aulani is all about story…Hawaiians are the central focus, because only they can say what Hawaii really is,” explains Joe.

Imagineers went first to the Hawaiians themselves to find out the DNA of their culture. As a result, Hawaiian language, customs, rituals, and values became embedded into the hotel’s design, which is a very fresh, contemporary expression of Hawaii’s culture today, as opposed to an anachronistic representation of its past. One example of a distinctly Hawaiian touch is the hotel’s “Piko stone,” which marks the exact center of the site. A local Hawaiian marked this spot during early construction, and told Joe that he had to be the one to find the Piko stone to mark this spot. As is customary in Hawaiian culture, nothing is done arbitrarily – this had to be a pretty special rock. By lucky chance, Joe remembered that he had stopped a construction truck from hauling away a load of rocks from the site; he had no idea why, but his intuition told him that those rocks might be useful later on. Sure enough, when it came time to pick the Piko stone, Joe remembered that salvaged group of rocks that were supposed to be carted away and went to take a look at them. He found a rock that stood out as perfect for the role as Piko stone, and it now serves as the sacred marker of the very center of the hotel property. The confirmation that Joe did a good job picking the Piko stone came in the form of locals leaving small sacred offerings, which is customary for the site of a Piko stone.

Aulani is not just a hotel in Hawaii; it’s an authentically Hawaiian place. Even the name “Aulani,” which means, “one who speaks on behalf of a higher culture,” was chosen by a Hawaiian naming priest. Anyone who visits, works at, or experiences this hotel is an “Aulani.” This thoughtful approach to designing a project as large and commercial as a beachside resort could only have been achieved by Disney. With this project, not only has Disney created a one-of-a-kind family destination, but they have also made the statement that local culture is something to be embraced and respected.

These were just two of the projects presented, and the Case Studies were just one component of the awards celebration. That should give you some idea of the breadth of fascinating content that a few hundred of us experienced at the Thea Awards. As a first time attendee, I can honestly say that even though it’s hard to impress someone who’s seen so much in this industry, the Thea awards managed to do it. Bravo!

John Lasseter and Executive Producer Kathy Mangum accept Thea Award for Cars Land

photo credits: InPark Magazine

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