Monday, May 27, 2024

4D Comes of Age, Part One: Edmonton’s Capitol Theatre

By Joe Kleiman, IPM Online News Editor & Judith Rubin, IPM Co-Editor

This is Part One of a two-part article.
Click here for Part Two: Airboat Adventure at the Museum of Discovery & Science, Florida

Two new 4D multimedia attractions at museums in Canada and the US—in Edmonton, Alberta, and Fort Lauderdale FL—are representative of how today’s audiovisual designers apply the innovations of Hale and Gance in the 21st Century. By combining technology and creativity, they are taking audiences along new journeys into the past and into the world around them. But this time, they have a new challenge: They’re sharing space. 

In the Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park, the theater housing the 4D show is dual-purpose, designed and equipped to also function as a multipurpose cinema and performing arts space. At the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, the Everglades Airboat Adventure simulator ride is contiguous to an exhibit on what the state looked like millions of years before. In both cases, the team was able to seamlessly integrate the attraction into its surroundings, visually, aesthetically and technically. In both cases, a renowned, veteran giant-screen filmmaker was involved in media production: Reed Smoot for Edmonton and James Neihouse for Fort Lauderdale. 

Don’t let the term “4D” mislead you. These attractions are quality educational exhibits designed and created by top-level teams of themed entertainment, theater and cinema professionals. In practical terms, each operator now has a unique attraction to help draw visitors and generate revenue, without the need to build a separate black box to house it, and the potential to be refreshed with new content at a future time.  

Edmonton – Making the historical modern

In 1966, the City of Edmonton set out to restore the historic 1846 Fort Edmonton as part of the country’s Centennial celebration. Over the ensuing years, Fort Edmonton Park grew to become Canada’s largest living history museum, with more than 80 historic and reconstructed buildings from various time periods in the city’s history. In 1988, a new master plan was designated, with the intent to include revenue-producing projects that could offset park operating costs. Of the 120 projects submitted, third in priority on the list was the Capitol Theatre.

The original Capitol Theatre was a mainstay of Edmonton culture, presenting both live stage shows and motion pictures from its 1919 opening in downtown to its closure and demolition in 1972. In 2008, as part of a revision for the Fort Edmonton Master Plan, Robert Wyatt, founder of Los Angeles-based Artisan Design, devised a scheme for the park that would combine the latest audiovisual technology with live history interpretation. The Capitol Theatre would be a prime example of this new design philosophy.

Although the exterior was maintained to be as authentic as possible, the interior had to combine the latest in theatrical technologies.

The building itself was designed by HIP Architects, an Edmonton firm responsible for many leading arts and cultural facilities throughout the region. Los Angeles-based FSY Architects, whose
credits include numerous theaters and themed attractions, served as theater design consultant on the project. One of the imperatives was that the external portion of the building maintain as much historic authenticity as possible while adhering to modern codes. To achieve this, HIP not only used traditional building methods, but also a technique called Building Integration Modeling (BIM), which allows any changes in construction to be automatically added to the computer model, showing how modifications and changes affect other construction components.

Dual purpose
The new theater was designed to be dual purpose from the start. Year- round, it serves as a performing arts center and rental hall, showing live performances and films. And during the busy summer months, it also shows “Northern Light,” the 15-minute 4D multimedia presentation designed by Wyatt and his team about the history of Edmonton. Although the exterior was maintained to be as authentic as possible, the interior had to combine the latest in theatrical technologies for both Northern Light and conventional use.

The first step was to shrink the audience space. Although the original Capitol sat 1500, the new venue holds just 250 (246 seats plus 4 wheelchair spaces). According to Wyatt, “We had to maintain the essence of the architectural finishes and the theater without diminishing anything. We concealed the modern technology (lights, speakers, effects) as much as possible.” It was decided early on that the theater would use the same light and AV systems for both Northern Light and conventional presentations.

UK- based David Willrich of DJ Willrich Ltd. served as audiovisual designer on the project. He recalls, “The auditorium uses the same projectors and speakers, and we added the Yamaha sound desk into the system for live sound control. We have patch panels around the theater, primarily on the stage, as well as CobraNet links back to the DSPs. The Yamaha desk is plugged into the system via CobraNet; then, routing of any external audio channels from the stage to the desk is done via the DSPs to the desk through the CobraNet link. This gives greater freedom of positions for the desk, plus makes it much easier to connect and disconnect the desk when the theater is in dual mode, like Northern Light and an alternate use.”

Visual Terrain, the lighting design firm for the Capitol Theatre, also provided a Smart-Fade data control console for alternate programs. Under lead lighting designer Lisa Passamonte Green, the company designed both the architectural lighting package, maintaining as much historical authenticity with the fixtures as possible, and the show lighting for Northern Light. For the 4D presentation, a temporary programming console was brought in and tied into the show controller’s DMX. All other lighting is run through a Unison Paradigm control system from ETC. Show lighting is shared between Northern Light and theatrical presentations, although additional lighting can be added both above the stage and in openings in the theater’s ceiling, mounted with pipes and accessed from above.

1920s Preshow 
As visitors pass through the Capitol’s lobby, they are greeted with a brief pre- show, hearing voices from the 1920s over five Bose 32E speakers, with video on seven Winmate LCD monitors, hidden behind poster frames. Once inside the theater, the film begins, continuing the 1920s theme as a silent movie about Edmonton during the era shows onscreen. As winter arrives in the film, the theater environment itself appears to become a frigid landscape through a combination of lighting and projection effects. Snow falls from the ceiling, in one of many in-theater special effects provided by Technifex , and the side screens suddenly appear on each side of the stage. The 4D multimedia journey begins in earnest, taking visitors through Edmonton’s past from the Ice Age through the 1920s, covering the time- line the park interprets. The film ends with a historic speech by Edmonton’s mayor on New Year’s Eve, 1928. Snow again falls from the ceiling; the auditorium returns to normal as the presentation concludes with the silent film on the single screen.

$1 Million Film 
The $1 million film was produced by Doug Yellin of Matilda Entertainment. Yellin, whose special venue media and 4D credits include being involved in media production on the award-winning “Beyond All Boundaries” at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, set out to create an experience that would not capture Edmonton in a patriot fashion, as many multimedia history shows do but, rather, one that would be humanistic in nature. The heroes of the film are the people of Edmonton and their perseverance over hardship. To direct the live action portions of the film, he hired themed entertainment design veteran Adam Bezark, who had previously directed Lego Racers 4D for the Legoland theme parks. Both Wyatt and Yellin agree that Bezark brought a “childlike quality” to the production. As Yellin explained, “His biggest contribution is not in directing actors, but finding the right voice for the production. He has that innate curiosity to find out what’s next and to make sure it’s right.”

The heroes of the film are the people of Edmonton and their perseverance over hardship. 

Yellin also decided on Reed Smoot, a cinematographer whose credits range from an award-winning IMAX film on the Grand Canyon to last year’s 3D concert film starring Justin Bieber, basing his decision primarily on a single IMAX film Smoot had shot: Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure. This giant-screen film transitions smoothly from actual glass plate photographs of the icebound 1914 Antarctic expedition to accurate IMAX-filmed reproductions of the photographed events. The design of Northern Light required a similar approach, and one that would evoke the same kind of emotional response from the audience.

Using a Canon EOS 7D for the live shoot, Smoot was able to capture both moving and still images for later manipulation and presentation. Some of these images were changed in post to appear as oil
paintings, water colors or lithographs. According to Yellin, “We worked to fit in the appropriate art style to match the time period shown on screen, giving us a lyrical visual palate.”

Also contributing to the feel of the film were John King, who provided design boards on which the final product was based; Aurora Rising, which provided visual effects; and Lyle Eckmeier, who handled the extensive animation in the film. Yellin was quick to note, “This was a collaborative effort in the best and most salient part. I don’t just mean the film; I mean everything. Not one single person is responsible for it all. Everyone worked closely with everyone else. We were all listening to each other and this allowed a great amount of flexibility. As a result, there’s nothing in Canada close to this.”

There were some challenges inherent to being a mostly US-based team working in Canada. Willrich found that most of the practices and standards were the same as those he is familiar with in the UK, but he did note, “Amusingly, there were differences in site terminology between the Canadians and the Americans.” Wyatt, the American guiding the project, remarked, “We had to be very careful about the amount of US labor working in Canada because it was taxed 15%. And the local technical labor force was not as skilled to work in the themed entertainment environment.”

Simulating 3D Effects 
Northern Light is designed to be evocative of the entire Fort Edmonton property, with a blending of the real and the recreated. Once visitors have finished the show, they then encounter the same park volunteers who starred in on screen portraying the same characters in real-life environments throughout the park. With this idea in place, a stereoscopic 3D film would not have been appropriate for the project. Instead, to achieve their goal, designers combined modern technology with theatrical techniques that were common in theaters at the turn of the 20th Century.

In its original incarnation, the show was to have used all rear projection, most of which fell victim to value engineering. The revised projection scheme involves three Panasonic DZP-12000U WUXGA projectors, each mounted above the second story control booth. The central projector, which is also
attached to a Blu-ray player for conventional presentations, uses an ETD75LE1 zoom lens, while the side projectors use ET-D75LE2 lenses.

A stereoscopic 3D film would not have been 
appropriate for the project.

The side projectors also only use two of their four bulbs so they don’t overpower the central screen, while reducing heat and power consumption. The three screens are the same aspect ratio and image size, with the sides being 19½’x26′ and the center being a 39’x46′ scrim. The side screens are custom
“traveling projection screens” designed by Eric Gill, serving as Technical/Mechanical Designer for LA ProPoint (

Members of the Capitol Theater team on the IAAPA floor near the Technifex and TEA booths. From left: Brian Yessian, Dave Goodman (Goodman Experiences), Chris Barbee (Bandit Lites), Doug Yellin (Matilda Entertainment), Rob Wyatt, Vijay Sehgal (FSY Architects). Photo: Judith Rubin.

According to Andy Halen, LAPP’s Project Manager on the Capitol Theatre, the screens “moved horizontally from offstage pockets to audience view, turning a very tight corner in the process, at a rapid speed.” The motor and track system for the side screens was fabricated and tested in LAPP’s shop, then installed under the supervision of Chris Collins, the firm’s Installation Supervisor for the Capitol Theatre project. LAPP also provided additional services for conventional theater use, such as mechanisms for opening and closing curtains and moving scrims in and out of scenes.

Second Screen
Behind the center screen lies a second screen, 6½ feet distant. Onto this, rear projection emanates from five Digital Projection Titans mounted in an alcove above the theater’s dressing
rooms and green room. Because the theater is also used for live performances, the rear projectors would have to be placed out of audience view. One possible solution involved the use of mirrors for the image to reach its target, which Willrich found impractical.

 The rear projection screen and the space between it and the scrim create the illusion of three dimensionality.

Fortunately, the close working relationship he had with the architect resulted in a viable option. “Using mirrors was not a great idea either; fitting them in was proving to be a real problem with the architecture. Once we had established the projection alcove, I spoke to Digital Projection about its wide angle lens (0.67:1) and about mounting the projectors in portrait, to which they agreed. That meant things got easier and took away the mirror risks. Therefore, we flew a piece of truss, then
mounted directly to that the proper hanging frames for the Titan projectors.”

The rear projection screen and the space between it and the scrim create the illusion of three dimensionality. Artisan incorporated four moving props that move in this space. Wyatt explained, “There are four live sets: York boat, wagon, train and coffin. The boat, wagon and train are dimensional, multi-layered flats that are painted. The coffin is three dimensional and comes out of a pit.”

Willrich added, “The models were designed by Artisan Design and fabricated by LA ProPoint and The Nassal Company. LAPP did the mechanisms and Nassal the models. Our role was just to control them during the show. “We agreed early on that we would locate an Adam box in the LAPP control
cabinets so we just had to put the cabinets on the show control network and make the cabling easier and the system more integrated. By using the Adam box, we had a good interface boundary in that we either gave or received a contact closure and the same for LAPP. This, of course, made our respective testing easier. The good news is that the first time we ran the system under show control, it worked!”

These props moved on a custom track system fabricated and installed by LAPP. The Northern Light show is designed to be an automated presentation operated by a single host who fills the auditorium, then pushes a button in a wall panel, either at the front or rear of the theater. Show control for both the pre-show and main show are handled by a Medialon MNG-V5 PRO located in the equipment room adjacent to the control booth and above the theater entrance.

Willrich was brought on board early enough to work with the architect and design team throughout the install and implementation process. Training of Fort Edmonton staff on operation and maintenance “went to the wire as frequently happens,” Willrich said, “We stayed on for a further three days to work with the Park staff to ensure that they were confident with the system. We then went back at the end of the season to spend a week with the site technician to take him through the alternate-use aspects of the system and tweak the show control programming to meet their additional needs.”

In keeping with the mandate of maintaining the original architectural essence, sound sources in the theater had to be hidden from view. Willrich used Bose Modeler to design a speaker scheme centered around digital signal processing (DSP) that achieved this goal. By using this software, Willrich was
able to determine that no additional acoustic treatment had to be added to the building. “Bose Modeler proved that the materials being used, primarily plasterboard [sheet rock] were not giving
us any major issues and we have an RT of around 1.5 seconds in an empty theater.”

A 5.1 mix was achieved by installing a Bose LT9403 full range speaker into each side of the proscenium with a series of Bose DS100SEs providing the surround. Each speaker has its own amplifier and DSP. Bass was supplied by a combination of a Bose Panaray MB24 and Buttkickers.

These two shows share much in common with many seemingly conventional audiovisual projects. The approach showcased at the Capitol Theatre is familiar to anyone working with multipurpose venues ranging from houses of worship to AV-intensive eateries and nightclubs. Issues with open space and directional sound, such as in the Fort Lauderdale project, occur every time an event is staged in a public space during regular operating hours. By using the philosophy of integrating creativity with new digital technologies, audiovisual designers can now present experiences that allow their clients to communicate and explore in new and immersive ways—and share space with other functions. 

This is Part One of a two-part article.
Click here for Part Two: Airboat Adventure at the Museum of Discovery & Science, Florida 

Reprinted with permission of Testa Communications from the March 2012 issue of Sound & Communications magazine. For more information, go to

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She reports on design and technical design, production and project management, industry trends and company culture. From 2005-2020 she ran communications and publications for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA and publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association, and has contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a BFA from Pratt Institute. She has lived in Detroit, New York, Oakland, and now Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts community.

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