A star(tling attraction) is Bourne
How Universal’s The Bourne Stuntacular shattered the wall between the physical and digital worlds
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As a child, my grandparents took me to see the Ice Capades’ annual touring shows. It was a curious tradition to venture out during New England’s teeth-chattering winter to the drafty, smelly, old Boston Garden and watch scantily clad performers spin around on the ice. During one memorable show, the house lights dimmed, and a filmed scene was projected onto a large scrim at one end of the cavernous Garden. It depicted a group skating on a pond. One of the skaters far in the distance began racing towards the foreground. At the precise moment he reached the front of the shot, a live skater emerged from behind the scrim and continued racing forward on the Garden’s iced-over floor.
It was a crude attempt to blend filmed and live action, but it left a lasting impression on me. It was thrilling to witness the theatrical magic trick–to see the wall between the movie and the real world figuratively and literally break.
I’ve been following the evolution of E-Ticket rides and shows for decades, and have watched, with great fascination, as attraction designers have whittled away at the gap separating media and reality. Nobody, in my estimation, has been able to fully make the leap and traverse the uncanny valley. Until now.
The team that developed The Bourne Stuntacular at Universal Studios Florida found the holy grail. The seven-year-old inside me was stunned and overjoyed to see live actors and physical, practical set pieces seamlessly—and I mean SEAMLESSLY–integrate with digital media. I’ve already rhapsodized about the show in my review of The Bourne Stuntacular. But if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering, how did they do it? Let’s geek out and take a look at what it took for its creators to accomplish this impressive feat.
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Putting things in perspective
It was Renaissance Entertainment, a production and attractions company, that pitched the concept of combining live interaction with a screen to Universal–back in the 1990s while it was working on the legendary WaterWorld show at Universal Studios Hollywood.
“The ideas were there,” says Lisa Enos Smith, the company’s co-founder and president. “We just didn’t have the technology then to really pull it off.”
So what changed and evolved in the intervening years that led Enos Smith and Renaissance’s CEO and other co-founder, Jon Binkowski, to pitch Universal anew with the audacious idea of merging live action with media on a grand scale for a stunt show? While there have been lots of advancements, such as high frame rate rendering and crazy high definition resolution that can make motion pictures nearly indistinguishable from real life, it was not any one technological hurdle that made cracking the code possible. Rather, it was an amalgam of breakthroughs along with the collaboration of many creative disciplines.
One of the major conceits of the project is that if physical objects in front of a screen move in harmony with the shifting dimensional perspective of media behind it, audiences merge them together and perceive them as coexisting in the same space. As a proof of concept, the Renaissance folks gathered Universal executives together and showed them a demonstration of puppet-like, small cars on sticks turning in tandem with video footage of a chase scene. The execs were immediately sold on the idea.
It would take a lot more than miniature car puppets and a video monitor to bring the Bourne franchise to life, however. Let’s start with the media.
A picture is worth 19 million pixels
At 130 feet wide and 28 feet tall, the screen used for Bourne is massive and largely envelops the audience. With 9K resolution (more than double the 4K on “ultra high definition” TVs found in many people’s homes), the humongous LED panel contains 19 million pixels. The imagery is enhanced with digital mapping technology using exceptionally bright and powerful Christie projectors. Digital mapping is featured in many nighttime shows at parks such as Wonderful World of Animation at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and has recently been introduced into attractions like Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. For Bourne, projection mapping is used both on the screen and on the physical set pieces and props on the stage.
As for what is shown on the screen, although the locales include Dubai, Tangier, and Washington, D.C., nothing was actually filmed on location. It’s all synthetic, computer-generated imagery, also known as DMP for digital matte painting. That gave its creators total control over the content, which was critical in syncing it with the live action.
As Salvador Zalvidea, the former visual effects supervisor for Cinesite Studios, which developed the show’s media, explains, he and his team did a lot of photogrammetry. Using cameras on the ground as well as drones, they were able to take still images from many angles of the different locations. That enabled them to reconstruct digital 3-D models for the backgrounds. Instead of creating digital characters, real actors were shot in front of green screens. That helps convey a sense of realism, especially when the actors on screen have to interact with the live actors in the theater.
Instead of 24 frames per second, the standard that’s been used for years for motion pictures, the Bourne content was rendered at 60fps. That helps give the content a more photorealistic look and eliminates some of the stuttering and blur that would be apparent, especially in scenes with lots of motion. The original tech specs called for an even higher resolution of 18K.
“There was no point in going higher than 9K,” says Zalvidea. “We were able to get a believable image.” Besides, he adds, the higher rate would have made the rendering time and file storage for the media even more challenging than it already was at 9K.
Mix it all together in the blender
In addition to the live action and the media, there are some old-school in-theater effects helping to sell the story, such as mist rising from a pool of water, steam escaping from a pipe, and fans creating wind gusts from an overhead “chopper.” A stirring score and sound effects support the production as well.
Another key player in bringing Bourne to life was TAIT, which provided the hydraulics, rigging, hoists, and show action equipment used in the show. The production company created large set pieces and placed them on trackless vehicles that are computer-programmed to precisely move across the stage in concert with the media. The live actors climb on and otherwise interact with the moving props, which meld remarkably well with the digital content. As with any great attraction, the technology is invisible, and the effect is seamless. But stepping back and looking at what actually happens, it is a mesmerizing ballet to behold.
One of the most impressive pieces of show equipment is what is known as the “blender,” according to Deb Buynak, Universal Orlando’s VP of entertainment and one of Bourne’s visionaries. It is 20 feet wide and accommodates two cars that are featured in the show’s climactic chase scene. It rises seven feet from under the stage and can rotate 280 degrees in a matter of microseconds to match the action on the screen. There is a large production crew helping to make the blender and other aspects of the show work.
“There are actually more people behind the scenes than on stage,” Buynak says. She notes that each show includes 11 performers and 13 technicians.
During Bourne’s three months of rehearsals, it took much more than putting the live stunt actors and the stage crew through their paces to bring the show together. Everything was tweaked and then tweaked again to make sure it was all in perfect sync. Scenic painters worked with the lighting technicians so that the stage and set elements matched the digital content, for example. Because Cinesite used game engine technology to create some of the media, it was able to change color temperatures and make other edits on the fly during the rehearsals.
The human touch
The technology is fairly astonishing, but in the end, it came down to the humans involved in the project to make everything work. Collaboration, coordination, and open communication among all of the creative disciplines were essential, says Renaissance’s Binkowski, who adds that there were a lot of actual and metaphorical moving parts.
“It hurt my head,” he says with a laugh. “And we came up with the damn thing.”
In the end, it’s the live actors, not the technology, that make Bourne’s incredible illusion work.
“You’re focusing on the live humans performing in front of you,” notes Zalvidea. “If all the elements behind them move in sync, it fools your brain into thinking it is really happening.” Consider my brain totally fooled.
Now that Universal and the Bourne team have bridged the gap between reality and on-screen media, what’s next?
“We only did a fraction of the things we wanted to do,” Binkowski attests. Bourne, he notes, is rooted in the real world and bound to its constructs. What if a show with live actors and digital content were to veer into fantasy or explore science fiction? “Oh my goodness. The opportunities are endless,” he says.
Can you believe what it takes to put a show as sophisticated as The Bourne Stuntacular together? Knowing what’s involved, does it make you want to see the Universal Orlando show? If you have seen it, might you have a new appreciation for it?
I got to see it last summer, and it was better than I even expected! There are times when you can't tell if a person is a real person on the stage or a rendered/recorded one on the screen.
Wow! This sounds absolutely wild! I hope I get to see this show one day!