Saturday, April 17, 2021

Super 78 turns twenty

Two decades in business: Eight secrets of success

by Robert Coker, Super 78

Happy anniversary, Super 78!

Since 1997, Super 78 has grown into a leading experience creator, recognized for contributions in design, technology, animation and media production, with many awards to its credit and projects on five continents. Super 78 has partnered with iconic studios and their globally famous characters – including Universal, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks, Cartoon Network and Warner Bros.

Dina Benadon and Brent Young

Super 78 senior show writer Robert Coker spoke to company founders Dina Benadon (CEO and Executive Producer) and Brent Young (President and Creative Director), plus several of their distinguished colleagues and collaborators, to learn how a 20-year-old company keeps things fresh and on the bleeding edge.

TOP OF PAGE: Reef Rescue at The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. Photos courtesy of Super 78.

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It’s a fall afternoon at Super 78’s Silver Lake, CA offices. Several people sit in the bullpen wearing VR headsets. They’re gazing in all directions, high and low, each extending and waving an arm into empty space. A couple of the headsets have googly eyes glued to the front plate. At a glance, it looks like avant-garde theater. Until you listen:

“The new coral shapes are awesome. Love the caustics on that fan piece.”

“Victoria is looking a little chuggy.” (“Victoria” is the nickname of a blue whale.)

“Can we add some more ‘success’ sparkle around the zapped trash?”

This is a daily test session for the company’s newest attraction: “Reef Rescue,” an innovative, high-capacity virtual reality (HCVR) experience. Set to open at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans in November 2017, Reef Rescue will take up to 16 guests at a time on a virtual dive to rehabilitate a stressed, coral reef environment. Guests will work together, using handheld “ranger” gear, to clean up garbage, plant coral, and feed fish.

Lesson #1: Leave your comfort zone

(“Besides being strapped in a helicopter flying 10 feet off the ground, which is already out of most people’s comfort zone,” mentioned Brent.)

“Every year, we do something we’ve never done before, building on what we’ve learned,” said Dina Benadon.

Super 78 is an early adopter of technology and immediately embraced the Oculus Rift in 2012. After purchasing the first Oculus developer kit, they began developing custom applications, one of which became MushroomVR, the company’s proprietary pre-visualization system, which was an integral tool in the production of the “Lost Temple” Immersion Tunnel at Movie Park Germany, located in Bottrop. Brent Young collaborated with Riva Creative on the development of The Lost Temple, which opened in 2014. Since then, Mushroom VR has been a primary concept development tool for all Super 78 attractions.

Reef Rescue presents several new challenges. “We’re jumping into the deep-end of the VR pool,” quipped Brent. “Lessons learned in developing Mushroom have inspired what we’re doing with ‘Reef Rescue’ – such as adding more users, more interactivity, more game design and more live animation rendering. We’re throwing every one of our skillsets into this attraction.”

“We’ve been collaborating with Super 78 since 2002, when we developed ‘Awards Night’ for the Insectarium together. We share similar values and that’s why partnering on ‘Reef Rescue’ was a no-brainer for us.” —Jason White, Director of Media and Exhibit Projects Audubon Nature Institute

Lesson #2: Reinvent yourself – again, and again…

The company has come a long way from its roots as a boutique media production house. “We call that Super 78 1.0,” said Dina. “Our early motto, ‘How hard can it be?’ stemmed from our careers launching in the early days of computer animation and visual effects in the mid ‘90s. Being at the forefront of technology is where we feel most comfortable.”

Super 78 had the opportunity to contribute to the effects and animation of “The Franklin Spirit” show created by BRC Imagination Arts for the US Pavilion at the 2005 Aichi World Expo in Nagoya, Japan. For this nine-screen, front- and rear-projected experience, the Super 78 team provided an onsite video mix. Mixing in the venue where the show will play has the benefit of allowing the creative team to enhance and fine-tune the media during onsite installation and get the experience exactly right.

Concept art for “Donkey Live”

In 2010, Super 78 expanded its creative aptitude to include attraction design. They produced “Donkey Live!” – a live, interactive character experience for Universal Studios Singapore – powered by Super 78’s first version of Geppetto ACS, a proprietary digital puppetry system.

Lesson #3: Keep getting the band back together.

In 2007, Super 78 began collaborating with SimExIwerks and Nickelodeon. They developed three media- and IP-based projects together: two ridefilms, the 2010 release “Dora and Diego: Catch That Robot Butterfly!” and the 2013 release, “SpongeBob SquarePants 4D: The Great Jelly Rescue,” followed by the 2015 attraction, “SpongeBob SubPants Adventure,” for Moody Gardens (Galveston TX). In 2016, TEA Thea Awards honored the latter attraction as well as the Geppetto technology on which it is based.

“The biggest challenge with relationships is time. We’re all so busy these days. But repeatability and technology allow for more time to do the fun, creative work, especially on a short schedule,” said Dina.

“And it allows you to add new ‘band members’ more quickly and smoothly on each subsequent project,” added Brent.

Lesson #4: Merge art and technology.

“Our background in IP-based attractions taught us a lot about maintaining a character’s personality and brand integrity, especially for live interactive performances,” said Brent. “That insight helped build Geppetto.”

SpongeBob SubPants Adventure

Since 2010, the company has continued to innovate Geppetto, adding such features as show control and branching storytelling game architecture. It was ‘Geppetto 3.0’ that was used to create and power the SpongeBob SubPants Adventure for Moody Gardens.

For Super 78, building and refining such tools as the Geppetto Animation Control System and Mushroom VR are simply a part of the process. “In this industry, art and technology are so intertwined, and we really have no choice but to get under the hood,” said Brent. “Fortunately, we’re good at it and we love doing it.”

“Collaborating with Super 78 on ‘Wings Over Washington’ was a great partnership experience. This company brings an enormous creative appetite to the table.” — Kyle Griffith, Co-Owner, Miner’s Landing at Pier 57

Lesson #5: Learn to conduct the orchestra, not just play a bunch of instruments.

“At the peak of our media production phase, we were also doing a lot of broadcast work, for things like ‘Pokemon,’ ‘Ben 10’ and ‘Family Guy,’ said Brent. “We had a staff of over 30 people, and a whole IT department. As we evolved into more of a creative studio – Super 78, version 2.0 – we realized that we didn’t want to do it all, and transitioned to a more efficient operation.”

Dina elaborated: “The casting for each project and team is essential; this is a valuable talent that Super 78 has honed over the years.”

The highly themed theater at Wings Over Washington. 

Pier 57’s “Wings Over Washington,” an immersive, flying theater attraction that opened in summer 2016 in Seattle [see ‘Flying High,’ InPark issue #62, link below]. Super 78 joined forces with a “dream team” of creative and technical partners: Dynamic Attractions; Garner Holt Productions; Great Northern Way Scene Shop; GP Color; Electrosonic; Yessian Music, composer Antonio Di Iorio, and the Sacred Water Canoe Family.

“We’ve had the pleasure of working with Super 78 for nearly 10 years now. They are some of the most creative, collaborative and passionate people in our industry. Super 78 just plain gets it.” —Brian Yessian, Partner/COO, Yessian Music

Lesson #6: Think like an owner/operator.

“Alpha Flight,” the newest flying theater project for Super 78, is set to debut at Wonderla theme park in India this winter. As Dina explains, “’Alpha Flight’ will take guests on a wild ride through the universe, and is our company’s first all-CG flying theater attraction.” Passengers on “Alpha Flight” are civilian test pilots for a new faster-thanlight spacecraft. Spoiler alert: the mission doesn’t go quite as planned…

Alpha Flight

“Beyond the normal creative scope, we also offered suggestions to improve flow through the queue, developed additional graphic elements for marketing and merchandising, and sourced budget-friendly equipment to create the preshow special effects,” said Brent.

“We look at every project from an entrepreneurial perspective, as well as a creative one. We try to do it in a way that makes for a better show and makes our partners’ lives easier, especially after our job is done,” said Dina.

“We enjoy collaborating with Super 78 on projects like ‘Wings Over Washington.’ Their 20 years in the industry comes through as polished, detailed attractions that clients and guests love and that we’re all proud of. Let’s do more!” — Cindy Emerick, Business Development, Dynamic Attractions

Lesson #7: Give something back.

A passion project that has received a lot of attention in the press is the restoration of Walt and Roy Disney’s birthplace home in Chicago. This modest, 1,200 square-foot, two-story cottage was designed and hand-built by Walt’s parents Elias and Flora Disney in 1893. By 2013, the home was facing destruction. That year, Dina and Brent stepped in to restore it, and since then have stewarded its careful and historically accurate rehabilitation. Today, thanks to thousands of individual donations and a major grant from The Walt Disney Company, the home’s exterior and interior are restored to their original states.

Walt Disney Birthplace

In 2015, The Center for Early Childhood Creativity and Innovation (CECCI) at The Walt Disney Birthplace was granted 501(c)(3) non-profit status and is the official corporate entity overseeing the restoration project. “CECCI’s mission is to develop an outreach program that nurtures underprivileged children with the creativity and innovation that is inspired by the work we do in themed entertainment,” explained Dina. “It’s a great way to give back to the community and also honor the creative spirits of Walt and Roy.”

“We’ve worked with Super 78 on several projects over the years, going back to ‘Madagascar: A Crate Adventure’ at Universal Studios Singapore. And I started my company because of a visit to Disneyland.

So to honor Walt and assist the restoration efforts, we created and donated a spot-on replica of the front door of The Walt Disney Birthplace.” — Garner Holt, Founder and President, Garner Holt Productions, Inc.

Lesson #8: Go a little overboard with entrepreneurship.

We had one more question for Dina and Brent: “What do you do with all your free time?” Once the laughter died down, here’s what they had to say.

“There are at least 10 new projects we would love to kick off,” said Dina. “We’ve been developing an animated feature with the writers of Newsies and Tarzan that’s really fun. Oh, and we’re thinking about our next O-Zell soda flavors, perhaps some seasonal items and carbonated water,” referring to The O-Zell Soda Company they started as part of the Walt Disney Birthplace project. (www.O-Zell.com.)

“We’re continuing to expand what we can do with Geppetto by mixing it up with AR and holographic tech,” added Brent. “We hope we’ll have an exciting announcement about that soon.”

Also in the works, they are developing a highly interactive escape room attraction incorporating Geppetto-controlled characters.

“It’s really been an amazing 20-year ride and one that we share with so many incredible creative and production partners from over the years. We are so grateful to them, and we’re forever excited about the future.” said Dina.

“Sounds like a good excuse for a party,” Brent added. Stay tuned! For more information, visit www.super78.com or call 323.663.7878 •

Robert Coker just celebrated his fourth anniversary as the Senior Show Writer | Creative Development at Super 78. His latest projects include writing the attraction and guest experience scripts for “Reef Rescue,” “Alpha Flight,” and “Wings Over Washington.”

Super 78 Recent Projects

Reef Rescue – Designer, Producer and Licensor
High-Capacity Virtual Reality Experience
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans, Louisiana
Opening November 2017

Alpha Flight – Designer, Producer and Licensor
Flying Theater
Wonderla Theme Parks, India, 2017

The Smurfs Village Playhouse – Geppetto/Media Production
Geppetto-powered Interactive Character Experience
Motiongate Theme Park, Dubai, 2017

Wings Over Washington – Designer and Producer
Flying Theater
Miner’s Landing at Pier 57, Seattle, Washington, 2016

SpongeBob SubPants Adventure – Designer and Producer
Geppetto-powered Interactive Character Experience (Thea Award recipient)
Moody Gardens, Galveston, TX, 2015

The Forbidden Caves – Designer, Producer and Licensor Immersion Tunnel
Bobbejaanland Theme Park, Belgium, 2015

Did You Know?

• Brent Young’s impersonation of legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans is so good that
Evans himself approved Brent as his official V.O. stand-in (martini first).
• Super 78 executive-produced the first televised video game award show in 2002 with the AIAS and host Patton Oswalt.
• Brent Young was nominated for an Emmy for Character Design on “Ben 10.”
• Super 78 has received 10 VES nominations for Best Visual Effects.
• Super 78’s first Thea-awarded project was in 2001, for the animatic pre-visualization for “Revenge of the Mummy.”
• Brent played lead guitar in a band called “Plastic Slap.”
• Super 78 produces a soda line called O-Zell Soda.
• Super 78 produced the pilot episode of “Drawn Together” for Comedy Central.
• Brent Young is a co-host of The Season Pass Podcast.
• Super 78 produced animation for over a dozen Pokemon commercials.

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