When you think of Dracula, Van Helsing, and other vampirisms, visions of dark, foreboding terror, combined with the lure of life eternal, come to mind — not exactly what you'd expect from a family theme park. However, Universal Studios Hollywood was determined to make it happen when they approached Radiance Lightworks, Inc. and principal lighting designer Clayton Alexander about planning the new, walk-through attraction, Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula, based on the film Van Helsing.

Alexander has worked with Universal on several projects for the last seven years, including permanent attractions and live events held at the Hollywood location. He started at Universal as a sound and lighting intern while attending CalArts, so his long-standing relationship paid off once he started his own design company.

During the planning process for VH:FD, which opened the same day the film premiered, artisans working on the attraction didn't have the advantage of actually seeing the movie. With over 20 different rooms, live characters, and special effects to be sorted, this was a bit of an impediment to the design process.

“The attraction was to be very specifically based on the characters, scenery, and story line of the film,” says Alexander. “We had trailers, some edited scenes, and photographs to preview, but we never saw the film in its entirety. That was a major challenge.”

The plan was to recreate one setting from the movie, The Fortress, as the main attraction and incorporate important elements into rooms, corridors, and the entrance, using lighting effects to simulate events taking place inside, and others implied from outside, the structure. The team also had to reflect the story of Van Helsing, the roving hunter of all things evil.

Since the design called for many rooms to fit the requirements of a fully featured walk-through attraction — four or five rooms would not do at all — some areas that had to be created were not even part of the film. The designers had to fabricate completely new spaces, such as a library dubbed “Drac's Parlor,” that would be believable in the home of a well-read immortal experienced in the ways of the world.

WALK TOWARD THE LIGHT

Lighting played a dual role, not just to establish the mood of each room, but also to draw the spectator through the attraction in a navigable, practical manner. When in route on foot, guests tend to move in the direction of the brightest source of light, and this was one of Alexander's main considerations.

“Low ambient light levels and key lighting were my two main design approaches to this project,” says Alexander. “In general, you have to show people where to walk and where to look to enhance the experience. For each specific room, though, I had a different thought process from a lighting design perspective. ‘What is this room supposed to look like?’ was a consideration each time we started on a new area.”

Radiance Lightworks' Colin Feeney provided associate lighting design and programming for the project. According to Feeney, the space alone posed somewhat of a challenge. “This space had been used for other attractions prior to this project, so there were existing rooms and gear we had to use as they were,” says Feeney.

For a family attraction, consideration also had to be given to the “scare factor.” A balance had to be struck somewhere between being frightening enough to be true to the subject and ensuring guests wouldn't run screaming from the park, cradling children destined for a month of nightmares.

“If it's too scaled back, it's not a good experience,” says Alexander. “I like to stand at the exit to see how people react. We have to make sure we're communicating what it would be like to be a character in the movie, without scaring them too much.”

THE PORTAL

As the entrance to The Fortress, The Portal was designed as the pathway connecting the normal, outside world to the dark world waiting within. Animated props on motion sensors, such as a skeleton with a spear clear though him, are accompanied by small bumps in light levels. For an ominous feel, Alexander used very steep angles on the uplighting of the columns, using TMB ProCan PAR20s, to bring out the relief and carving detail and create elongated shadows.

“Not only did we use a steep trajectory angle, but it's also a sharp, hard-edged look,” says Alexander. “I didn't want to use any frost or other effects here, because that hard line of the shadow would turn into a soft line. The smaller the filament in the actual lamp, the better for this type of look. We wanted the details of the columns to be dramatic and noticeable, and the light levels here are so low that we could get away with using PAR20s.”

For illuminating the bridge at The Portal, Alexander used City Theatrical EFX Plus units with both fire and art glass discs, rotated slowly over one another to give a rippling movement in the path of the guest, drawing them into The Fortress.

DRACULA VELCOMES YOU

With an overall theme of being in the castle during a lightning storm, the Stairs Room, complete with an unwelcoming animatronic Dracula in front of an arched window, uses a tightly focused ETC Source Four® for front light as well as a Source Four with a City Theatrical Half Top Hat and Diversitronics End Cap Strobe effect for the lightning from behind. At the end of a sort of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” speech from the homeowner himself, lightning strikes.

“Any rooms with exterior windows had to have the lightning effect,” says Alexander. “Because it's not an actual finished set, and there aren't actually windows or walls behind the window opening, I had to completely hide each source, have one that was very focusable and DMX-controllable, and make sure too much light didn't spill out. I placed the strobe as far back as I could, way up in the corner of the arch of the window, with a half top hat on it, so you can't even see the lens. Then, it's specifically shutter-boxed onto the back side of the ‘window,’ and it projects Dracula's shadow onto the floor. You can't see the source at all.”

For Feeney, who has also spent his share of time programming large rigs of moving lights, this was a specific area that required a great deal of attention. “The lightning effects were particularly challenging to program, and we really spent a lot of time on these,” adds Feeney. “Because of the complexity and combination of fixtures for these looks, I had to make sure the timing was absolutely perfect, especially so that none of the lamps would overheat.”

THE LABORATORY

Since the beginning of the project, the design team knew The Laboratory was going to be the apex of the attraction. With a 30' open ceiling, a suspension bridge, and guests visiting this area twice — once on the upper level and once on the lower — this room was designed as the center of the experience.

Guests cross the suspension bridge first, for an overview of The Lab, where live actors as characters are at work below. After leaving the upper level and visiting other rooms, guests make a second pass on the lower level for a closer look.

The goal in The Lab was to give a feel of intense electrical charges and pulsating strobe effects. Alexander used five High End Systems Dataflash® AF1000s here, with reflectors kept in, focused straight down. While up on the bridge, spectators are only a few feet below the AF1000s, so Blackwrap tape was used to conceal the light source and flashing inside the reflectors.

At the lower level, the challenge was to bring character to the room up close and make it seem real by means other than just highlighting objects. Here, practical light sources were used to create the more intimate setting, including GRP Electronic Pillar Candles.

“We have the candelabras from the movie, which are gorgeous, and they already had wax dripping down the sides, so we needed to have candles on them look real somehow,” says Alexander. “We couldn't use real flame, of course, so we used the GRP Candles, which have real wax and look and smell like real candles. They have three flicker settings and take only three volts, so they run forever and look absolutely convincing. They're actually on a dimmable transformer that brings the footcandle output down a little bit.”

THE MIRROR HALLWAY AND THE WINGED BRIDE

Another of Alexander's tasks was to disorient the guests as they make their journey through the attraction. In between the two levels of The Lab is the Mirror Hallway, where the challenge was to make it look like a continuous mirror all over the room, without any of the seams between the actual mirrors visible. American DJ Pin Spots were strategically placed all along the path and aimed straight down, so they multiply infinitely via their own reflections, creating an illusion of hundreds of dots of light in every direction.

Also in this room, a frightening female vampire consort hangs on a wall, while another is suddenly revealed from behind a mirror by Altman Micro Ellipse fixtures. Low light levels and key lighting keep the characters' “scare factor” intact, while allowing the surprise effects to be more successful.

“While all this is taking place, there's even a real character that pops out of a dark hole while the guests are trying to figure out how to get out of this hallway,” adds Alexander. “This really adds to the shock factor in this room.”

CORRIDORS AND DARK ROOMS

While some rooms were predetermined as to their function in the overall scheme of The Fortress, Alexander also had to make some creative decisions about pre-built areas that did not fit into the rest of the attraction as obviously.

“We had one corridor with a dark black box room off of it, and we had to figure out how to make use of it,” says Alexander. “The art direction team wanted to have more animatronic characters here, so we wanted to add more of that startling effect we've tried to maintain throughout.”

Props here included Alien-esque birthing pods, which are supposed to appear electrically charged, that Dracula creates in the movie to reproduce his own little militia of Draculum. Using Wildfire paint to treat the props and Wildfire DMX UV fixtures for dimming and strobing, the rest of the room is kept completely dark, so that guests simply get a glimpse of flashing from this hidden area as they approach.

“We used the Wildfire fixtures, basically as a ground row, and uplit pneumatic bats, which fly at the guests when they approach the hidden pods,” says Alexander.

“This was a great effect,” adds Feeney. “I really like working with the dimmable UV units and programming them as strobe effects. They really add punch to the particular scare.”

Before exiting the attraction, guests are treated to a final heart-stopping moment when an 8' wolf, cued by a footpad sensor, triggers roaring sounds and two Diversitronics DK-2000 PAR64 SCM-64Q DMX strobes. With that, guests flee.

NO TURNING BACK

Because this is a permanent attraction, the installation was required to be free from excessive extension cords and cabling. All effects were connected by conduit wire right up to each fixture, with a maximum cord length of 6' to avoid extraneous cabling throughout.

“There really was no such thing as major ‘last minute changes’ with this project,” says Alexander. “Having done many live events, I've been in situations where we could just move a fixture if we didn't like how it looked. We didn't have that option here, once the installation started. The boxes had already been wired by the electricians right where they needed to be, so we really had to be detailed during the design process to make sure everything was going to work exactly where it was.”

And navigating “the maze,” as Feeney calls it, was a new experience in programming. “I sat most days programming in a room with monitors playing back the various rooms in the attraction,” he says. “We mostly communicated via radio, so someone could let me know if I was getting the right look on the other end.”

It's no surprise that Alexander and his team have undertaken over 20 such installations for Universal. Between the fear factor and the dramatic special effects, VH:DF is one attraction to run to (and out of).

Sveet dreams!

Universal's Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula

Lighting designer

Clayton Alexander

Associate lighting designer/programmer

Colin Feeney

Master electrician

Ben Lewis

Assistant master electrician

Kuo-Lung Kai

Lighting technicians

Sid Tinsley
Mike Fracassi
Mustafa Johnson
Mike Serniky

Lighting equipment supplied by:

TMB, Pacoima, CA
Entertainment Lighting Services,
Sun Valley, CA
Ghost Ride Productions,
North Hollywood, CA

Gear List:

87 TMB ProCan PAR 20
46 ETC Source Four®
02 ETC Source Four® PAR
03 Altman Micro Ellipse
12 American DJ Pin Spot
28 6" Altman 65Q Fresnel
20 18" Fluorescent Single Tube Fixture (with UV lamps)
3 Diversitronics ESM-DMX Source Four End Cap Strobe
4 4' Wildfire Effects Master DMX Dimmable Dual Cell UV Fixture
2 Diversitronics DK-2000 DMX Dome Strobe
2 Diversitronics DK-2000 PAR64 SCM-64Q DMX Strobes
10 High End Systems Dataflash® AF1000
2 City Theatrical EFX Plus (with 5231 disc and 5262 art glass)
20 G.R.P. Electronic Pillar Candle (made with real paraffin wax)
96 ETC Sensor® Dimmers
1 ETC Express 250 Console

Clayton Alexander's Five Strategies for Proper Illumination of Themed Attractions:

  1. Avoid Light Source Glare
    • Half hats, top hats, and barn doors should be used to mask sightlines to any visible light source.
    • Always consider the direction in which the guest is traveling when calculating your trajectory angles.

    Note: The general concept behind a themed attraction is to immerse your guests into a different reality. If the theatrical lighting fixtures and rigging are clearly a visible element of the attraction, you take away from the theme you're trying to reinforce.

  2. Enhance Scenic Elements
    • When illuminating the set, choose your lighting fixtures and trajectory angles to best suit your lighting and the type of mood you're attempting to create.
    • Enhance the scenic elements by choosing colors that complement the color tones of the set.
    • Collaborate with the art director and tech director to create ways to incorporate lighting fixtures and effects into the scenery.
  3. Show Guests When and Where to Look
    • Strategic illumination of objects and scenic elements should influence guests to move or look in a specific direction at a specific moment within their journey.
    • Pay attention to the contrast ratio of your lighting levels. You may find that you need to lower your overall ambient light levels so that objects and characters can be highlighted with controlled pools of light. It's very important to keep a healthy level of visual contrast between your background and the key objects in the room.
    • When setting up a scare, it's very important to influence guests when to look and where to look. Example: you might illuminate an object on the left side of a room that a guest enters (while the remainder of the room is dimly lit). Then, from the right side of the room, you might have a pneumatic character that pops out at you. Taking a trigger from the show-control system, you snap on a light that is distinctively focused on the pop-out character (up-fade time = 0 or 1). At that same moment, you might also dim down the key light on the object on the left. This is a great way to set up a scare, influencing the guest to look in a certain direction, and then, startling them with a scare from another direction.
    • In a walk-through style attraction, the lighting design can be used as a wayfinding tool. Through strategic illumination, you can help guide guests in the appropriate direction (so you don't have guests wandering off into the egress hallways, etc.).
  4. Create Special Effects

    Creating special effects with lighting fixtures and design techniques can add value to any attraction.

  5. Taper Light Levels from the Beginning to the End

    It's important to have strategic footcandle tapering from the beginning of the attraction to the end (as associated with the guest path). This is especially important when guests are entering an attraction from the exterior, where footcandle readings can be in the thousands. Your pupils take time to dilate, and the greater the difference between the light levels in the cue line and the interior of the attraction, the more time your pupils take to dilate. It's important to consider this when it comes time to set levels.

Example: you've been inside for three hours, and you think the light levels in the first room of the attraction look great. However, if you were to stand in the cue line, whether inside or outside, for five minutes letting your eyes adjust, then walk back into your first room, you'll notice that the levels you just set are far from where they need to be. Considering this as you travel through the attraction, you can then begin to taper down your ambient light levels as you move through the attraction based on the time it takes for an average person's pupils to dilate.

Radiance Lightworks has designed the lighting for many Universal attractions, such as The Grinch and The Chicken Run Maze. For more information, visit www.radiancelightworks.com or contact Clayton Alexander at clay@radiancelightworks.com