Titanic-the Experience is a new, 20-minute adventure based on James Cameron's 1998 blockbuster movie. The $20 million attraction debuted on November 7, 1999, when Fox Studios Australia celebrated the gala opening of its new 60-acre complex outside Sydney. The facility includes six working television and film studios, the entertainment retail district Bent Street, and the Backlot, a theme park that takes guests behind the scenes to experience the magic of television and filmmaking.
In keeping with this mission, Titanic invites guests to become extras on a mock set of the epic film. When the assistant director calls out "Lights, camera, action," the curtain lifts to reveal the Titanic docked at Southampton, England, and the guests become passengers aboard the Edwardian liner on its fateful maiden voyage. "The architectural details, the fog [provided by Mee Fog] that rises from the floor, the sound of seagulls, and the hum of the engine cue all your senses that this is real," says Rock Hall, chairman of Technifex, the special effects company that produced the attraction. "When you cross over the gangplank, you forget about being in a theme park or on a soundstage."
The guest experience has two possible outcomes. You'll either be among the lucky ones who survive, or one of the ill-fated who go down with the ship. Unbeknownst to them, the visitors' fates are sealed in the preshow area, a soundstage littered with prop cages containing first-class furniture, costumes, china, silver, and other relics from the film. There, the group of up to 160 guests is subtly split in two and filtered to either side of the 46' beauty model of the ship. One group will fight its way up to the first-class deck, scramble into lifeboats and make it to safety. The other will perish in an engine room-turned-inferno. Ultimately, both groups are reunited in the viewing room, where the assistant director commends them for a job well done.
"We wanted to make the audience members feel as if they were in real, physical danger," says Gerard Howland, president of The Floating Company, which developed the concept in conjunction with Fox. Working closely with Howland, Ron Holthuysen of Scientific Art Studio (SAS), along with Kenneth Sly, provided design development for the project. Concept sketches were created by SAS creative director Maren Van Duyn. "To create that imminent sense of danger, we became the crazy, over-the-top entertainment designers who kept asking for the impossible," Howland says.
Technifex led a team of 14 vendors from Australia and North America to create the effects-laden extravaganza, which was in production for more than two years. The show equipment includes two giant hydraulic motion-base platforms, three water treatment plants cycling 127,000 gallons of water per show, state-of-the-art digital projection, high-definition video, and a multitude of live steam, water, lighting, and pyrotechnic effects. Ambient temperatures on the set range from 38 degrees to 12 degrees Celsius.
Technifex used Anitech's Mediaprobe show control system, networked to Allen Bradley PLCs (programmable logic controllers) to mastermind the thousands of show events. Technifex did the majority of the design work and hired show integrator Bytecraft to install the system. It took meticulous programming to ensure that there wouldn't be any overlap between the different groups that progress through the attraction, for at any given time, three different stages of the show are in progress.
When the ship first collides with the iceberg, all the passengers are in the third-class lounge, which lunges violently forward. Its Edwardian jelly jar-style lights go dead, the wall at the far end of the room cracks in nine places, water shoots in through the seams, the sound of an emergency generator revving up comes on, water spritzes the guests from overhead, and the lights flicker back on. At the end of the sequence, the image of the iceberg passes by the five portholes (actually embedded, Sony cube-style monitors) and the floor comes to rest at a 9-degree angle. At this point, one group escapes into the cargo bay and the other into the ship's gymnasium.
Mahogany flooring, mirrored walls, a glass ceiling, other scenic elements, and lighting conceal that the third-class lounge is actually a vast, stand-up motion-base platform. Measuring 65' x 35' and weighing 95,000lbs, it exerts 1,000hp and two Gs of force at full speed, to simulate the impact of the iceberg. The second motion base is stacked above it, on B Deck, and is part of the survivors' experience. While they stand on it, trying to climb into the two lifeboats, it tilts 10 degrees. Once they're aboard the boats, it continues to rise until it reaches a 22-degree angle. Performance Structures, Inc. constructed the two bases.
The unluckier passengers who exited to the cargo bay meet a fiery demise in the engine room. Guests scramble along catwalks that criss-cross the upper reaches of the space as the room fills with water. In true disaster style, just before they reach the last unblocked doorway, a chain swings down, hits a piano, and wedges it into the space. Down below, 25'-high, stainless-steel boilers belch real flames that mix with the water to create live steam effects. One of the boilers shoots forth a fireball and ignites a 30' expanse of water. "We created this effect by submerging a manifold gas pipe a few inches beneath the surface that has a series of small pipes reaching up to the surface," says Hall. "When the boiler spits out the fireball, gas is fed down the manifold and the flame rushes up the ancillary pipes to create the effect of a raging oil slick." The Doyle Street Group designed and engineered the fire effects.
After their deadly experience in the boiler room, the scorched guests ascend a barnacle-encrusted staircase into heaven. Lighting these environments provided Lisa Passamonte Green of Passamonte Lighting Design with some unique challenges. "The attraction is based on a real tragedy where people died," she says. "The lighting couldn't be tacky or disrespectful." For the raging inferno, she used bright ambers and reds before plunging the guests into total darkness. The lights come back on in a rippling, surreal blue-green to simulate the effect of being underwater. Passamonte Green selected Lumiere exterior landscape MR-16 fixtures because they could withstand the dousing.
The underwater lighting effect continues halfway up the staircase that eventually reunites the deceased with the survivors. Passamonte used GAM Products Twin Spins with rotating double patterns to cast light over the domed glass ceiling and give the effect of water rolling over the scenery. Once the guests reach the halfway point, the lights shifts to a pristine whiteness to imply that they've entered heaven. The lighting controller was a Strand 5101, which worked in conjunction with Anitech's Mediaprobe. With installation help from Bytecraft's crew, Passamonte Green programmed the show with a Strand light board.
Located on the site of Moore Park, home to Australia's Royal Agricultural Show since 1882, Fox sought to preserve as much of its heritage as possible. The Art Deco-style Commemorative Hall was refurbished to house the Titanic attraction. "The ship was actually a building inside a building: the soundstage inside the Commemorative Hall," says Rock Hall. "We had 60'-long steel beams that we couldn't disassemble, and limited door space to move them through." Technifex constructed a model to see what was physically feasible, then carefully surveyed the site to determine the exact locations for the cranes. "It was a crane ballet," Hall says.
"Over the top" might be the best way to describe the success of Titanic-the Experience. On an average day, about a dozen victims of sensory overload have to b e escorted out. "With all the guests yelling and screaming, it can become overwhelming for young children," remarks Hall. "But it can be a bit much for adults as well."
Other vendors on the project include Sanderson Group Pty Ltd. (scenery fabrication and installation); FX Illusions Pty Ltd. (show action equipment and special effects installation); Lexington Scenery and Prop (props, movie prop refurbishment, murals, and scenic elements); Performance Audio (audio system design and fabrication); Foundation Imaging Systems (CGI graphics/high-definition video storage); and Timo Spekkens Design (music composition and sound effects).