By Mark Eades
Hollow Studios recently rolled out a new, customizable, turnkey virtual reality (VR) experience package. In its first installation, “Wax House: The Legend of Jack the Ripper,” the experience engages guests by blending elements of an escape room with a macabre, problem-solving mystery. This is a departure from the usual format of a first-person, shooter-style VR game. “I thought we could mix a cinematic approach with virtual reality,” said Hollow Studios founder David Love.
“Wax House” is currently running at Mountasia Family Fun Center in Santa Clarita, CA. It opened there in September, in time for the Halloween season. The experience accommodates up to four people at a time for a 35-minute adventure, including pre-show. “People want a chance to explore things,” said Love, who brought his background in specialty filmmaking, theme parks and high-tech experience design to the task.
Hollow Studios is marketing the new VR attraction package for theme parks, amusement parks, FECs, shopping malls and other venues. To that end, Hollow Studios will be exhibiting at the 2018 IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando in November, to demonstrate the product and the “Wax House” show.
Hollow Studios’ new VR experience is designed to scale up or down in size, and with options such as a pre-show and a complement of special effects. Love pointed out that “Wax House” could be a good fit for museums focusing on crime and crime solving. “The VR content could be changed to accommodate a facility, along with reconfiguring the preshow, and of course customized for seasonal attractions including but not limited to Halloween,” Love said.
Ideas and craft
Love got the idea for the VR attraction a year ago, after taking the Jack the Ripper walking tour where the murders took place in London’s Whitechapel area. He brought the idea back to his Hollow Studios team in Simi Valley, CA, where they came up with the idea of placing it inside a Victorian-era wax museum depicting five of the gruesome murders with VR displays of wax figures.
“Wax House” is not the first VR production for Hollow Studios. They worked on a few VR projects for Cedar Fair and others before deciding to tackle this one on their own. The full-service media company also has experience in producing ride films, and large format dome films; recently completing production on two films (titled “Walk Through the Bible” and “Wings Over Israel”) for a dome theater at the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center under construction in San Diego. Those films will premiere when the center opens in the latter half of 2019.
Love founded Hollow Studios following in the footsteps of his father, Jim Love, who worked as a film editor and occasional director at Disney. Four-year-old David even got the chance to briefly meet Walt Disney in 1963 (“Hello, young man.”) Eventually, Love got his first job in the Disney studios mailroom, advancing into film shipping, then moving into set lighting as an active member of the Set Lighting Union. It was while working in set lighting that he got his first experience on theme park films working on Disney’s 3D attractions, “Captain EO” and “MuppetVision 3D.”
Love rode “Star Tours” when it opened at Disneyland in 1987, and was inspired to start Hollow Studios to produce a range of themed entertainment projects. In 2008, the studio rolled out a successful turnkey attraction at the IAAPA Attractions Expo, where it received an award for Best Exhibit 600-1000 Sq. Ft. After that they built up a library of six ride films that are licensed to several companies including SimEx-Iwerks.
For “Wax House: The Legend of Jack the Ripper,” Hollow Studios designed a themed entrance and preshow to virtually transport people in time and place to Victorian London. The theming starts outside the entrance, made to look like the exterior of an old brick building of the period.
Once inside the building, guests see wooden crates, one holding an old-style phonograph, and posters on the brick walls depicting characters from the gruesome crimes. The five-minute preshow begins in that space when the phonograph comes to life with a recording of the lead detective on the Jack the Ripper case is heard. He briefs guests on the history of the unsolved crimes and, once they are admitted into the wax museum, how they are expected to find clues that can help them discern the identity of Jack the Ripper.
When the detective finishes his introduction, a character seen in one of the posters on the wall comes to life through digital projection. The character depicted gives guests additional information about Jack and the murders. In the course of the preshow, all the characters on the posters come to life in similar fashion, speaking to them and sharing additional clues and background. A silhouette of an ominous sculptor of the wax exhibits is seen working on his next gruesome display depicting one of the bloody deaths.
Entering the virtual environment
The preshow closes, and a wooden gate opens, allowing four guests at a time to wander into a large (900 square feet of actual space, though 3,000 sq. ft. of VR space) black space where technicians gear guests up with backpack computers (called BackTops) that also contain the wireless communication technology that makes it all work. “We packed as much of the data onto the BackTops, so we could get as much detail as we could in the experience,” Love said.
To complete their preparation to enter the virtual world of the wax museum, each participant is fitted with a headset and two handheld devices. One device will appear as various objects carried through the virtual environment, such as a lantern, or a magical orb that triggers things to happen in the museum. The other handheld device is a triggering device that appears as a claw in the VR museum, providing the guest with a method to open wooden chests, find hidden compartments, open drawers or pick objects up, such as slips of VR paper with clues scrawled on them.
“What sets this experience apart is you have to take time to search, find clues and think your way to a solution,” said Corey Drake, a technical artist and game programmer on the project. Guests spend a healthy 25-plus minutes in the VR experience, exploring the virtual four floors of the wax museum, all filled with wax displays of the various murders, and a variety of other objects such as furnishings from the crimes and more, all within a virtual world.
There are real-world physical cues to support the virtual experience and help keep guests immersed. To travel between the virtual reality “floors,” guests board an “elevator” in the VR world that carries them up or down. To enhance that VR experience, guests actually stand on a wood platform placed above transducers in the mockup space, simulating the impression of traveling up or down.
Drake noted that, “Throughput is a primary challenge in group VR,” explaining how the Hollow Studios team designed the experience to help keep people moving through. A limit is placed on how much time they have to explore each floor and solve its puzzle. When the maximum time has elapsed, a virtual door to the elevator opens and they must move on. If they solve the puzzle in less than the allotted time, the door opens to take them to the elevator immediately.
The final moment in the VR wax museum is when guests are asked to pull a lever and identify which of five suspects is Jack the Ripper. Choose wisely!
Production, installation and operation
Love acknowledges that there’s a lot of variation in VR image quality out there. “We are on the high end of the quality spectrum, in terms of production values and technology,” he says. “Everything in the package supports that, from the original content to the final display.” The content was created in-house by the Hollow Studios team using a combination of Modo CG software, and the Unity Realtime Render Engine. Hollow Studios also provides, integrates and installs the full technology setup as part of the package, along with training and some post-installation support.
Production on “Wax House” began about a year ago with the development of the storyline. Hollow Studios’ Chadd Cole was assigned as lead animator and producer. When the storyline was finished, digital capture images of actors against a green screen were shot so that Cole and his animation team could incorporate them into the VR experience. Then it was time to integrate and install the entire experience.
Operationally, it takes two people to run the VR part of the project, plus one out front to deal with questions, sell on-site tickets, and the operation of the preshow. With very few moving parts the entire experience is, according to Love, very easy to maintain.
At Mountasia, the cost of admission to “Wax House: The Legend of Jack the Ripper” is $29.95 per person for an experience that lasts 35 minutes including the preshow and gear up time in the VR space. Hollow Studios provides operators with additional tips and support to keep operations flowing smoothly. For instance, it is suggested for groups to form ahead of time – as a solo guest is unlikely to find all the clues on each virtual reality “floor” in the time allotted. The studio also suggests locations use an advance reservation system for guests to book their visits.
Love envisions VR experiences as something that can allow smaller operators to be competitive and make the most of a limited footprint. With a relatively small amount of physical space, state-of-the-art equipment, a great story and compelling content, operators can open the door for their customers to roam through entire worlds that feel authentic. “I see great potential for amazing experiences.”
Emphasizing that the experience is flexible and customizable, that Hollow Studios brings a full complement of media production capability to the table, and that sometimes a first-person shooter experience is exactly what the situation calls for, Hollow Studios will showcase art and a video teaser from a new VR idea as part of its IAAPA Orlando exhibit this November, in addition to its “Wax House” demo. “Survivors of the Citadel” (working title) is a sci-fi, first-person shooter type experience. For more information or to set up a meeting, contact [email protected].
FROM THE PAGES OF INPARK MAGAZINE:
Mark Eades ([email protected]) is a freelance writer residing in Southern California. He was a journalist for the Orange County Register for 14 years covering theme parks, along with stints covering Coto de Caza and breaking news. Prior to that, he worked at the Orange County Newschannel, a 24-hour cable news channel. Before switching to journalism in 1997, he worked as a writer and producer in the theme park design business working on projects for Universal and Warner Bros. He also worked at the Walt Disney Company including 11 years at Walt Disney Imagineering on projects like Star Tours and Muppetvision.