All fired up about creating great visitor experiences
interview by Judith Rubin
Special effects and technical integration pioneer Ron Griffin of The Attraction Services Company (TASC) is a fireball of the industry. The company is probably best known for its many projects for Universal Studios parks, starting with Twister and all the major flame effects for UIOA, USJ and USS, and other projects dating back to 1995. The company still does work for Universal – a recent standout project was King Kong 360 3D, for which TASC provided custom pneumatic motion bases to make the tram cars rock and roll as Kong battles the dinosaurs. TASC is also active in the museum sector, dating back to Tess the 50-foot woman, created for the California Science Center in 1996.
As Melissa Townsend, his spouse and business partner says, Griffin “never sits still.” He tackles his leisure pursuits, which include painting and auto racing, with the same energy, fervor and perfectionism he applies to his work. Nothing seems to slow him down, neither a punishing production schedule nor a seemingly impossible technical challenge nor the passage of years. He holds himself to the same exacting standards he expects from his staff, and will work as long and hard as any of them, if not more so.
At this writing, the company was in the process of expanding to a new, larger facility in Santa Clarita. In past years Griffin and Townsend have overseen as many as 150 employees, but in its present incarnation, Attraction Services has stabilized at around 20 core staff.
In light of the long professional history of Attraction Services, what do you most want people to know about the company today?
Projects like Jaws and Twister helped establish us as the go-to people for flame effects, and rightly so. But clients have also always been able to depend on us for water effects, animatronics, show action equipment, specialty vehicles and anything unusual or difficult. Our primary offering, really, is problem solving. I enjoy taking on a challenge and resolving it in a possibly unusual or unexpected way that fulfills all the creative, client, budget and other project requirements.
Looking at your recent “Time Machines” project for the Colorado History Museum, what technologies were selected and why?
We partnered with our longtime colleagues at Lexington Design and Production to create part of the Great Map and Time Machines exhibit that opened at the museum in 2011. We built a pair of 7-foot-tall, steam punk-style Time Machines that visitors guide around a large map of Colorado. When the machine hits a specific location or hot spot, video screens come to life with virtual clocks winding back to stories related to the history of that place.
Lexington provides stellar scenic components and we fill in the technical needs. In this case, our knowledge of vehicles and military technology came in handy. We combined top-line AV display equipment and the latest battery technology with autonomous positioning devices, automatic braking systems and wheel governors. The heart of the machine was a custom microcomputer built and programmed by TASC.
Often today’s sophisticated high tech solutions aren’t using new technology per se, but are putting together existing technologies in novel ways. The end result and its control systems are essentially new creations, but the individual components are proven.
Something Lexington and TASC are especially good at is identifying any issues or concerns that may not have come up in the course of concept design – for instance, ways that an interactive could be misused and compromise performance or safety. As the Time Machines are large objects and are propelled around the map by the guests, we saw a potential for their collision, whether caused deliberately or by accident. So we developed a radio connection between the two machines to transmit their positions back and forth. If either machine is being propelled in the direction of the other, the automatic braking system will apply.
TASC and Eli Roth’s Goretorium: William Grayson Production Services
Bill Grayson, an industry veteran with a background in scenic production, was construction and technical manager for Eli Roth’s Goretorium, a 15,000-square-foot, year-round haunted house on the Las Vegas Strip. “Ron thrives on a fast paced, on-the-fly kind of situation. The guy’s brilliant and knows every part of his business backwards and forwards. In other words, he was a perfect fit to deliver the effects we wanted for Goretorium. We had a list of desired effects and we had three months. Ron accepted the challenge and within those three months, he had it all built, shipped and installed. He programmed everything, and it all worked exactly as designed. We opened on time with all effects running as expected. The client was thrilled, and has continued to call on TASC to augment things further. Ron is a true problem solver, interested in finding the real, best solution and always ready to embrace a better idea, whether it is his or someone else’s. He doesn’t waste time on power struggles, and he is honest about limitations. As a producer, I know I can push him: He’ll give me whatever he can, and if he says something can’t be done within the parameters of the project, I can trust him.”
You were on the team that built the gigantic, animatronic owl for the Electric Daisy Carnival, a 3-day music festival held recently in Las Vegas. This was a high-profile success and images of the owl have been all over the media. Tell us about it.
We were approached by Gary Goddard’s entertainment and design company, The Goddard Group, for Insomniac Events to build a 35-foot-tall, 80-foot-wingspan, animated owl for the event, which would see an attendance of over 300,000 over three days.
The creativity of the owl concept and the plan for its use as a key element in the festival were fantastic. The bad news: We would have only six weeks to design (mechanically and electrically), build, test, ship, and install him. We were cautious at first about taking this job – but it was the kind of big challenge that we love to solve. Working with Goddard and Insomniac, we were able to form a plan that we felt would succeed even in the short timeframe allowed.
Six weeks! Our approach had to be simple, yet provide the desired look and animation. It had to use components that we could get quickly and that we knew would work. Experimenting was not an option, mockups were not an option, and testing would be limited. A mere four hours of full testing is all we ended up with.
A huge engineering issue was wind load, as the event takes place outdoors in Las Vegas, which is a windy desert environment. The individual wings were 24 feet tall and 33 feet wide, with two pivot points each. They had to work in winds up to 40 mph, and withstand any damage at winds approaching 65 mph. The loads could be immense. Pneumatic or electric actuation could not provide the power required under high wind loads. Hydraulics was the only option we had with the timeframe.
TASC and Templo del Fuego: Craig Hanna
Thinkwell Group CCO Craig Hanna vividly recollected working with Ron Griffin and Attraction Services during the development of Templo del Fuego for Port Aventura in Spain, when Hanna was with Universal Creative. “Attraction Services provided all the flame effects and a host of other effects and show action equipment such as pop-up mummies, sinking stone, a dropping audience platform, treasure reveals, a show action door, many water cannons, smoke, fog, boiling water, and even rats in the pre-show. When we started, I sat down with Ron and asked him to tell me all the flame things he’d always wanted to do but hadn’t yet. He gave me such a cool list that I tried to get all of them into the project. That was a red-hot collaboration. Ron is the kind of guy who wants to facilitate the creative vision of the team, with stuff he knows how to do best, while being very pragmatic at the same time. He is never adversarial – if something can’t be done, he will explain to you exactly why, and he will make suggestions that give you new options you’d never have considered before but make the thing you thought was already perfect even better. That kind of collaborative nature is what I love about our industry. If you’re open to suggestions, the most amazing things can get even more amazing.”
Were there special challenges with configuring hydraulic power for a giant puppet that needed a subtle repertoire of moves?
Yes. Hydraulics can move large things, but with simple digital valves they can look clunky. Complex valves make for better movement, but the costs can be staggering and the complexity and control issues can take weeks to test and adjust. Neither option looked good. We had to find something in the middle. Again, I turned to the vehicle industry, where we found the right combination of valves and controllers.
The desired intention was to be able to puppeteer the owl with either human-powered devices or human-operated interfaces. His wings would wrap around the DJ booth that sat in front of him, then open back up to reveal the booth. His head would rotate, tilt and roll. His eyebrows and beak would move and his eyes would be electronic displays.
We determined quickly that the massive sizes would not allow for human-powered motion over long periods of time. His head alone weighed around 5,000 pounds. So we looked at each motion individually and determined the best option for realizing it. We ended up with two sets of small joysticks that allowed two people to operate the Owl completely, including full control of the electronic eye motions. This gave the owl a total feeling of being alive and reacting to the crowd and show.
One of the ways I ensured that things would stay on schedule and that the project would operate reliably was through my own personal involvement at every level. I was working seven days a week right along with my outstanding crew during the production process. I was there throughout the entire install, and did most of the control system programming myself. And I worked all three nights of the actual show as one of the operators. While Rick Bentley [TASC senior tech, on staff since 1997] and I controlled the wings from behind stage, Bill Grayson and John Dunn [respectively, project manager and technical director for Goddard Group] controlled the head, eyes and beak from the lighting stand in the crowd area. In our own way, I think we had as much fun as any of the festival patrons. And I’m now a lot more familiar with rave music.
To ensure smooth, elegant motion of the massive wings, we had looked at the normal Hydraulic Power Unit (HPU) technology and decided on some unique modifications to the system. Additional mechanical animations used pneumatics. The system came together beautifully and TASC was able to bring to life the creative vision for Insomniac Events and the Electric Daisy Carnival.
From Billboard, June 24: “The festival’s best year yet was all about the owl, not the talent. The blue owl’s head bobs, gently but unmistakably – which taking into account its massive size is already a bit of a wonder. Up and down, side to side it goes, its plasma retinas brightening or narrowing in reaction to the music; part mood ring, part intensity meter. When one DJ finishes playing, its giant wings close and envelop the booth below it, allowing for discreet changeover between artists and the anticipation/release of a big reveal for every set.”
TASC and Adlabs Imagica: Chris Brown of Contour Entertainment
“I met Ron Griffin in the mid ‘90s, and we have worked together from then to now on a variety of projects for a variety of clients. When things get busy at Contour and we need backup, he’s one of the people we call.” As the design/build contractor for the Wrath of the Gods attraction at the new Adlabs Imagica theme park in India developed by Adlabs Entertainment, Contour subcontracted TASC to create fire effects. “Ron is a tech specialist whom designers and producers know they can trust. We know that we can give Ron generic technical direction and that he will come up with simple, elegant solutions that satisfy the show requirements. Because he understands how tech supports the story, he’s on the same side as the creatives, fighting to realize the vision while working in the pragmatic world of materials, design and installation. There’s an atmosphere of mutual respect and the end goal is clear. He’s also a good guy to have a beer with.”
On another project requiring motion control, King Kong 360 3D for Universal Studios, you specified a pneumatic system, rather than hydraulic. Tell us why that was the better choice for that particular job.
Sometimes massive loads can be moved most effectively using something other than hydraulics. TASC was brought into the project to design and build four large motion bases that would move the Universal Trams around in concert with the action on the surrounding 3D films in the tram tunnel. A single section of the tram can weigh up to about 44,000 pounds with guests. Combined with the structure, you may be moving as much as 60,000 pounds around. Hydraulics is the solution most would likely turn to, but at TASC we had another idea: Air.
We have done a lot of animation and show action equipment over the years using pneumatics, and I was convinced we could do these motion bases with a customization of that same simple technology. Working with Universal we built a mockup, and that demonstration showed that a pneumatic motion base could work beautifully, delivering motions that were lifelike and real. It’s another example of taking a robust existing technology, applying it in a new way, and getting a novel result that is also the right result – a dependable and simple to maintain system that fulfills the creative vision.
I prefer to stay away from hydraulics if at all possible. They are expensive to build initially, and they are costly to maintain, and sooner or later you will have leaks. I have a saying, “I prefer not to use something I have to mop up.” Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where hydraulics are the best choice – but I have seen plenty of cases where other technology could have been used. • • •
For more information, contact Melissa Townsend at [email protected]