Sunday, May 9, 2021

Super 78: Geppetto Grows

Moody Gardens and Super 78 team up again on a new interactive adventure

by Robert Coker, Super 78

ABOVE: This concept art, developed very early in the creative process, helped establish the overall aesthetic, color palette and character qualities that would drive the rest of the experience design. All images courtesy of Super 78.

“We are on the cutting edge of a revolution in real-time attraction production,” says Brent Young, Creative Director of Super 78, a creative studio based in Hollywood serving the attractions industry with concept design, media, technology and more. In 2008, the studio began developing Geppetto,™ the company’s proprietary live animation and show control system. Geppetto was created as part of the development for “Donkey Live!” – an interactive character experience that Super 78 produced for Universal Studios Singapore.

Super 78’s Geppetto attractions invite guests to become an integral part of the show, having one-on-one, unscripted conversations with animated characters. Controlled by state-of-the-art technology, such interactive character experiences create moments of spontaneous, organic magic that delight guests of all ages and origins.

The prototype configuration of “Donkey Live” proved to be rock-solid, running continuously since the attraction opened. However, due to the technology limitations of the time, it required multiple racks of servers, computers, monitors and operators to manage a single performance.

Geppetto Evolves

In the decade that followed, Super 78 continued to upgrade Geppetto, streamlining the hardware and software, adding more features and boosting its media horsepower. By 2014, Geppetto was able to handle live 3D animation, and synchronize media across multiple screens. The system’s enhanced back-end architecture allowed for branching, non-linear storytelling, empowering guests to choose where their adventure went next. And one performer now controlled everything.

SpongeBob, Patrick and friends brought their inimitable magic to the Thea Award-honored SpongeBob SubPants Adventure. The challenge of replacing this beloved IP was part of what drove the new creative direction for this refresh.

At the time, Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX was looking to add an immersive, guest-participatory experience. Moody Gardens is an AZA-accredited, nonprofit, educational destination with the feel of an amusement park, offering a mix that includes entertaining, media-based attractions to share its mission of nature and conservation. Annual attendance is about 2 million. SimEx-Iwerks, one of Super 78’s longtime collaborators and the provider of Moody Gardens’ 4D theater and AV systems, brought Super 78 on board to develop the show. As a result of the collaboration, in 2015, Moody Gardens debuted the “SpongeBob SubPants Adventure.”

During its multi-year run, “SpongeBob SubPants” took guests on a wacky submarine trip to Bikini Bottom where they had live, personal conversations with Patrick Star and helped navigate the voyage; no two shows were ever alike. Both the attraction and Geppetto were honored with 2016 Thea Awards (Outstanding Achievement: Attraction and Outstanding Achievement: Breakthrough Technology, respectively).

Surpassing SpongeBob

With a three-year licensing deal in place, we knew at Super 78 that the time would come to rework the show without the star power of Patrick Star. By late 2018, the time to bid farewell to “SubPants” was approaching.

Although one of Geppetto’s built-in virtues is the ability to easily update and add new content to an existing facility, following up “SpongeBob SubPants” came with several challenges. First, for that attraction we were blessed to work with the brilliant characters created by the late Stephen Hillenburg (who is sorely missed) and the wonderful team at Nickelodeon; this time, we’d be starting from scratch.

Second, the goal was to repurpose the existing site facilities and maintain efficiencies as best we could, to keep the scenic budget from ballooning.

Third, Moody Gardens – an educational destination first and foremost – hoped to include more didactic, real science content in the main show than was presented in the SpongeBob attraction. This meant that we would be animating photo-real animals against photo-real undersea environments, an appreciably more difficult task than reproducing SpongeBob’s cartoon characters and locations in three dimensions.

The first step was locking in the big idea, and that came from Super 78 Creative Director Brent Young. “Given that we were still going to be taking some kind of submarine voyage, my mind immediately went to the most famous submarine of all: Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. And the book they came from, ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ is just about the perfect IP: internationally-renowned for many generations and in the public domain,” said Young.

The Super 78 team also quickly landed on a kind of Western steampunk aesthetic for the attraction, which would distinguish it from the more whimsical mid-century visual language of the SpongeBob universe.

The basic story came together very quickly as well: after years of solitude at sea, Nemo has resurfaced in Galveston at the turn of the last century to establish a new base of operations. The new mission of Nautilus is to study our oceans for the betterment of all life on Earth. And the guests are volunteers for these exploratory voyages.

The interactive star of the show is Deep, a pufferfish from the Indian Ocean who is the “dive lead” for the adventure. Deep, outfitted with several robotic enhancements (including the ability to speak English, of course) introduces us to real sea creatures as we travel to a Caribbean reef, an ancient lost city, Antarctic ice caves, the Mariana Trench, a trove of shipwrecks and an undersea volcanic plain. Guests will learn how killer whales speak through “songs,” how rays communicate with electricity, and how anglerfish use their bioluminescent esca light to lure prey.

As the design and animation process for the show media began, the Super 78 team also started considering how to update the queue, preshow and main show theater spaces. The previous attraction was created with a small interior queue area and two preshow rooms, all of which were designed to look like a seaside wharf and submarine dock. The essential layout and structure of these spaces would remain.

Super 78 was entrusted to redevelop all of the scenic elements and queue/preshow graphics. Almost nothing was left untouched. The rich visual language of steampunk (with a Texas frontier twist) gave us free reign to redress every surface with engaging period detail and intriguing curios. The former pineapple-yellow “Le Plunger” submarine was transformed into the riveted and copper-clad Nautilus. Custom nautical maps and blueprints, filled with narrative details, were developed to reward those guests who take a deep dive, so to speak, into the world of the experience.

As part of the attraction redevelopment, we were able to redress the queue and preshow spaces with a “western steampunk” look. This allowed us to bring a wealth of rich, engaging detail into every environment, encouraging guests to explore and discover something new every time they visit.

We were able to introduce more educational storytelling devices, such as a Morse Code interactive at the “Frontier Telegraph” office, and a semaphore flag display in the preshow areas.

With the benefit of over three years of performances to review, we at Super 78 were able to work hand-in-hand with the Moody Gardens team to improve every operational component: how guests are physically directed through the preshow spaces; when safety instructions are communicated; what 4D effects get the best reactions.

And the studio brought in accomplished screenwriter Bennett Yellin (“Dumb and Dumber,” “Stuck on You”) – now working in themed entertainment – to make the new script’s comedic aspects as strong as possible.

More compact, more powerful

Since the “SpongeBob SubPants” premiere, the Geppetto system itself has made still more evolutionary — and revolutionary — leaps forward. In 2018, the company debuted Geppetto v.5 which packages all the technology into the Microsoft Surface Studio Pro. And debuting with this new attraction will be “Geppetto 2020,” which includes even more powerful rendering capabilities and a more emoji-based performer interface, to make the system even faster and easier to master. These upgrades have made the system as compact, as powerful, and as mobile as it has ever been; a single performer can control an entire attraction using just the Surface’s massive touchscreen interface and a standard, hand-held Xbox game controller. And we can place a Geppetto interactive character experience into almost any location. (The system was recently field-tested with two live animation performances for the Television Academy, including the 2019 Interactive Emmy Awards presentation.)

These “under the hood” enhancements have allowed our team to push the level of animation detail further than we ever have before. The various sea creatures guests encounter on the adventure – a manta ray, a leatherback sea turtle, an orca – are “feature-quality” realistic. (We did make two exceptions to the “real animals” rule, however, at Moody Gardens’ request. When we meet a seadevil anglerfish and a colossal squid, those creatures – rather terrifying in their natural state – were designed to be more child-friendly.)

Modular storytellling

To incorporate the branching storytelling capabilities of the experience, the show is divided into modules. This structure builds in the capacity to plan ahead for a refresh of the experience, removing one “mission destination” and replacing it with another. Animation pre-production for two new scenes has already begun and Super 78 can continue to update the show for Moody Gardens with new sequences for years to come.

Some of the production team discusses character details for Deep, the interactive star of the show.

This modularity has also facilitated creating a version of the show specifically to serve visiting school groups and other primarily educational audiences. In that version, the Nautilus ventures to the sea floor and “drops anchor” so an educator can discuss the various types of marine life in the environment.

Moody Gardens has been an incredible creative partner to Super 78 for many years. Along with this new attraction, the destination is also currently hosting “Reef Rescue,” a multi-player High-Capacity Virtual Reality (HCVR) experience created by Super 78 and introduced earlier this year. “Reef Rescue” takes up to 15 guests at a time on a virtual dive to an ailing coral reef, where they clean the waters, plant new coral branches, and feed the fish to restore and preserve it.

Microsoft has been an amazing technology partner as well, supporting Geppetto’s integration into the Surface Studio Pro and working with Super 78 to begin developing the next generation of hardware for the system.

“Geppetto is a perfect example of Super 78’s in-house motto: ‘How hard can it be?’” said Dina Benadon, Super 78 CEO. “When we need a new tool that doesn’t exist, we make it ourselves. And we don’t just stop with version one; we keep adding, improving and pushing the envelope because that’s what makes groundbreaking experiences.”

“Animation is an art form and the separation of the creator and their art by time and distance are challenges to the creative intent,” added Young. “The masters described animation as the ‘illusion of life.’ We strive to attain this goal, to bring your spark of inspiration, your moment of brilliance, closer to the moment of creation. This is what the Geppetto system is all about: your idea and its manifestation at the speed of light…bringing characters to life.” • • •

Robert Coker marked his sixth anniversary as Super 78’s Senior Show Writer | Creative Development this past October. His most recent projects include “20,000 Leagues,” “Dino Tour,” “Reef Rescue,” and “Alpha Flight.” www.super78.com

Moody Gardens Quick Facts

• Based in Galveston, TX, Moody Gardens is a public, non-profit, educational destination utilizing nature in the advancement of rehabilitation, conservation, recreation, and research.
• Moody Gardens features three iconic triangular architectural structures: The Rainforest Pyramid®, The Discovery Pyramid® and The Aquarium Pyramid®.
• 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea will be housed inside The Discovery Pyramid, in the “Audience Recognition Theater.”
• The interactive attraction is powered by Geppetto, Super 78’s Thea-Award honored proprietary real-time animation and show control technology.
• After volunteering to become Nautilus crewmembers, guests go on an exploratory voyage to several undersea locations including a Caribbean coral reef, the Marianas Trench, an Antarctic ice cave, a submerged ancient city, a shipwreck reef, and an undersea volcanic plain.
• During the adventure, guests will interact with Deep the pufferfish and the marine creatures they encounter, including a manta ray, an anglerfish, an orca, a leatherback sea turtle, and a colossal squid.
• The attraction includes two opportunities for guests to choose which destination The Nautilus will next visit, further ensuring that no two shows are ever exactly alike.
• The duration of the entire guest experience is approximately 22-25 minutes.
• The attraction opened November 16th, 2019.

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