Super 78 finds success at the intersection of technology and narrative
by Noam Dromi
ABOVE: This concept art illustrates a major action sequence from the thrilling finale of Dino Tour, Super 78’s latest Immersion Tunnel attraction now open at China’s Dinosaurland theme park. All photos courtesy of Super 78.
During my tenure as head of digital media for Mandalay Entertainment in the early aughts, I was able to witness firsthand – and be inspired by – how founder and CEO Peter Guber, a giant in the business of cinema and cross-platform storytelling, passionately advocated for identifying and supporting creative thought leaders.
One of the companies I became acquainted with during my time at Mandalay was Super 78 Studios, founded by veteran Hollywood visual effects and animation artists Brent Young and Dina Benadon. I think of Super 78 as embodying the kind of creative values that take our industry forward – driving narrative innovation through the creation of transformational digital tools that streamline workflow and improve efficiencies. This magic alchemy of story and technology is the north star for filmmakers, technologists and storytellers, and something that every successful theme park attraction captures.
Two decades since we first met, Super 78 continues to thrive as a globally renowned creative design and production studio pushing the bounds of imagination to develop and produce immersive, interactive attractions for theme parks around the world. Their expertise in this arena encompasses Flying Theaters, 4D Attractions with real-time animation, VR Innovations, Immersion Tunnels and more, in addition to the creation of proprietary technology platforms.
As seismic shifts continue to reshape the media and entertainment industry at an alarming pace, Super 78 Creative Director and President Brent Young and CEO Dina Benadon have assembled a world-class team of creatives, engineers and designers who are passionate about collaboration and ready to take on the “impossible.”
Over the years, I’ve been able to work with the company and its principals on several projects that have consistently raised the bar for location-based entertainment attractions. I recently visited their Silver Lake headquarters in greater Los Angeles (just a stone’s throw from the original Disney Bros. Studio) to talk to them about how they approach storytelling within the constantly changing technology landscape.
How hard can it be?
Since the beginning, Super 78’s philosophy has been “If a creative concept needs a technology that doesn’t exist, then we’ll invent it.” This “how hard can it be?” approach has become a hallmark of every attraction Super 78 has had a hand in creating.
For Super 78, 2019 has been one of their busiest years to date. But you would never guess that from the laid-back atmosphere of their creative space. It becomes clear that this is not a typical office the moment you walk in the door. You’re immediately greeted by a five-foot-tall statue of SpongeBob SquarePants, arms open wide. Then there’s the egg-shaped “Bond supervillain” chair (with incredible acoustics), an original “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” devil sculpture sitting on a tabletop, VR stations set up almost everywhere.
And yet it’s also clear that Super 78 takes their work very seriously. Among the many awards that line the entrance are several that represent the attraction industry innovations they’ve made that have applications well beyond themed entertainment. This includes a TEA Thea Award in 2016 (a top industry honor) recognizing the Geppetto™ technology, the company’s proprietary live animation and show control system that brings digitally animated characters to life in real-time. The ability for guests to have unscripted one-on-one conversations with the likes of Brainy Smurf or Patrick Star is what has distinguished Geppetto attractions and their enormous success at theme parks across the globe.
Exploring Geppetto’s potential
In fact, even the Academy of Television Arts and Science in Los Angeles has taken note of the potential impact Geppetto could have on the production of animated shows. Super 78 collaborated with the TV Academy for two recent events including an interactive television panel at Nickelodeon Studios, which, thanks to Super 78 and Geppetto, was able to star “Star” Patrick Star from SpongeBob.
Following that event, Television Academy Interactive Media Governor and ABC/Disney Executive Chris Thomes summed up the challenges and opportunities from his vantage point. “Traditional television concepts are a thing of the past, and the entire industry is undergoing fundamental change as consumers shift from simply being passive viewers to engaging with content head on. What Super 78 created in Geppetto is a marquee example of lean-in technology and a look at where the future of interactive content is headed.” Added Young, “It was a great case study of how tech advances in theme park shows can help bring innovation to other areas of entertainment.” The Television Academy partnership culminated in one of Super 78’s characters co-hosting the 2019 Interactive Emmy Awards Nominee Gala.
First developed by Young and Benadon for the company’s 2010 production of Donkey Live! —an interactive experience for Universal Studios Singapore — Geppetto has indeed moved beyond the theme park realm.
“Geppetto has shown us that real-time animation isn’t something just for the attractions industry,” said Benadon. “Because of its potential applications across a broad range of entertainment opportunities, we’ve spent considerable time and resources to ensure that the footprint is as small and efficient as possible.”
This led to a collaboration with Microsoft to build the Geppetto system on a Microsoft Surface Studio, which was featured in Microsoft’s demo at NAB 2019 and will be the subject of an upcoming video profile. Added Young, “The Microsoft Surface team have been amazing partners. They instantly understood what we were trying to accomplish with Geppetto and how far it could push storytelling. They came to our offices earlier in the year and put together a beautiful video that did a great job of capturing the process and the culture of Super 78.”
“Microsoft and Super 78 are both in the business of telling stories through technology. Partnering with Super 78 on such a wonderful platform like Geppetto has excited all of us; we were so happy to share their story in the video we created,” said Megan Solar, Microsoft Surface Head of Marketing
Recently, Young, Benadon and the studio team have been hard at work on the company’s most technologically advanced Geppetto show to date, to replace the “SpongeBob SubPants” Adventure at Moody Gardens in November 2019. “We’ve reimagined the incredible story world of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to create a one-of-a-kind interactive experience that will engage and delight audiences for years to come,” said Young. John Zendt, Moody Gardens’ Chief Executive Officer and President, is excited about working with Super 78 and Geppetto once again.
As Benadon explained, “This ebb and flow between technology and narrative is what keeps the balance in our work.”
“Of course, our success is due in no small part to our amazing clients. They are like family to us,” Young and Benadon say almost in unison.
It was this strong empathy for their clients that led to another revolutionary technology: Mushroom VR™ the company’s proprietary pre-visualization system. Their purchase of an Oculus Rift developer kit in 2012 was the first step towards creating this immersive, collaborative, enterprise, virtual reality technology that lets creative teams review projects in production.
Mushroom was an integral tool in the production of the recently launched Dino Tour attraction for China Dinosaur Land Theme Park in Changzhou, China, another of the company’s major 2019 projects. This blockbuster experience starts with a tram ride through a practical rainforest environment filled with animatronic dinosaurs and finishes inside an immersion tunnel “cave.” With the ride vehicle locked onto a motion base, guests are enveloped by 8K 3D media projected on two massive side screens for an action-packed dinosaur-chase finale.
Young was able to “ride” a virtual build of the attraction together with the Dinosaur Land creative team — in real time — before any construction began. “Many of our clients are smaller regional parks and they have to make their dollars really stretch. Building full-size mock-ups in advance of construction is really not an option. Mushroom VR was our answer to that problem.”
With the Dinosaur Land team in China and the Super 78 team in Los Angeles, everyone could “pre-experience” the entire finale from any seat on the vehicle. And with Mushroom’s annotation and measurement tools, communication was visual and unambiguous. “Even with the different languages we all spoke, at the end of a review session, every stakeholder was clear about the creative intent,” said Benadon.
“Super 78 have been creative partners with us for nearly a decade and we find their technical innovations like Mushroom VR to be a critical part of the creative process,” added Dinosaur Land’s President Ni.
Mushroom has also shown its value as a tool during live-action film production. “When we are in the field shooting for our flying films, I can preview my helicopter shots in the virtual theater moments after I land,” Young explained. “If I need to do a shot over, we can get right back in the air without additional costs or time wasted.”
“Mushroom VR has been a standard part of our creative process since 2014. We couldn’t live without it now,” said Benadon.
As a co-writer of the Warner Bros./Alcon Entertainment family film “Dolphin Tale,” I must admit that one of my favorite Super 78 attractions/innovations is the company’s “Reef Rescue,” an innovative, High-Capacity Virtual Reality (HCVR) experience featuring Super 78’s own original IP characters. Since being part of the team that wrote the “Dolphin Tale” team, I naturally enjoy all things that have a message about helping sea life and our oceans, “Reef Rescue” is a great example of both. Launched at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, LA in 2017, the experience moved to Moody Gardens in early 2019 (yet another big milestone for the company this year) and has already extended for a second season.
“Reef Rescue” takes up to 16 guests at a time on a virtual dive to restore a stressed coral reef environment back to health. Guests work together using handheld “ranger” gear to clean up garbage, plant coral and feed fish. This is another example of the company’s emphasis on multi-layered storytelling powered by unique technology solutions. “Reef Rescue” represents an important evolution in LBE virtual reality, allowing large groups of guests to collectively experience a sustained narrative. In contrast to VR arcades and other large-scale attractions utilizing the technology, the competitive price point and multi-player features of “Reef Rescue” make it a stand-out attraction in a cluttered marketplace.
“Lessons learned in developing Mushroom inspired what we did with ‘Reef Rescue’ – adding more users, more interactivity, more game design and more live animation rendering,” Young explained. “This is how we’ve always done it, pushing the envelope of storytelling by pushing the technology,” added Benadon.
From the “Wings Over Washington” Flying Theater at Seattle’s Miner’s Landing to “Alpha Flight,” a thrilling trip through deep space that debuted at India’s Wonderla Theme Park in 2018, Super 78 is a major player in the flying film attraction category. Young explains, “Alpha Flight was a big step for us, the first all-CG flying film we’d ever produced. We also worked with Wonderla to create graphic assets for signage, ride host uniforms, and merchandise, and we helped them to find preshow effects equipment that didn’t break the bank.”
This expanded scope has been an essential part of all the projects the company takes on to ensure that they’re involved in the design process from initial idea through launch. “We enjoy working with master planners and thinking about the kinds of attractions we can create that will become instant ‘hits’ for their guests,” said Young. “Our job is to try and make the entire process as turnkey as possible for our clients,” added Benadon.
As Miner’s Landing’s Kyle Griffith said, “A key ingredient to the success of Super 78 is their passion and energy for their clients’ projects. Dina and Brent’s enthusiasm and excitement helps to bring out the absolute best in all the team members and inspires them to make the vision for the project become a reality.”
Rooted in Disney
Super 78’s proximity to the original Disney Brothers’ Studio is no accident. Life-long Disneyphiles, Benadon and Young have always looked to Walt Disney as a source of inspiration in the marriage of technology and narrative. They take that inspiration so seriously that they stepped in to save the Chicago birthplace of Walt and Roy — a 1,200 square-foot, two-story cottage designed and hand-built by Walt’s parents Elias and Flora Disney in 1893 — when it was at risk of being lost forever.
Since purchasing the home in 2013, the Super 78 heads have stewarded its careful and historically accurate rehabilitation as a passion project that has received considerable media attention. Thanks to thousands of individual donations and a major grant from The Walt Disney Company, the home’s exterior and interior have been restored to their original state. Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the city of Chicago welcomes Brent and Dina’s contribution to preserving an important part of the city. “If you’re going to tell the story of Chicago, the Walt Disney Birthplace is the perfect place to tell it,” he said.
Once it opens for public tours, the home will harness cuttingedge technology to transport guests back to Chicago circa 1905, when the Disney family first lived there. Like Super 78’s other projects, this marriage of narrative and technology will introduce an unforgettable immersive experience to denizens of the “Windy City.”
People make a team
Brent and Dina are just as enthusiastic about their work today as when I first met them, if not more so. The creative passion, intellectual curiosity and sense of fun they bring to each project they take on reinforces why they’re held in such high esteem by their clients, colleagues and peers.
“We’ve built an amazing team with hundreds of years of combined experience in our industry and an unparalleled passion for making great attractions and experiences. As technology develops, so does our creative thinking, with no limit to what can happen,” said Benadon.
I’m sure Super 78’s long roster of satisfied customers, partners and collaborators, would agree. Now if you’ll excuse me, Brainy Smurf was just about to tell me why he’s blue. • • •
Noam Dromi is an Emmy Award winning producer and member of the Writers Guild of America, Producers Guild of America and Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A veteran writer/producer, marketing executive and digital strategist, he specializes in cross platform content developed and produced for corporations, brands and entertainment companies.