Curtain Up - Theater as high-tech as T2:3D
Date: March, 1996
By: Ron Magid
T2 3-D: Battle Across Time at Universal Studios Florida requires for more than colored glasses to deliver the film's full effect. A state-of-the-art venue had to be built to showcase the groundbreaking, highly interactive experience, which director James Cameron in many ways considers a sequeal to Terminator 2. With characters leaping in and out of the 3-D film to interact with set pieces and actors on stage, the theater had to be matrixed with numerous secret panels, hydraulic lifts and sliding walls, all of which had to be able to work in sync with events on screen with split-second timing.
"You can't take this film to an ordinary theater and run it," grins Jim Schelter, head of the T2 3-D installation team.
After fighting to make the theater a perfectly soundproof environment -a feature no other themepark attraction boasts- Schelter and company introduced a surround-sound system. Now the eerie stillness of the presentation room at Cyberdyne Systems, the corporate villain of the Terminator films, can be shattered via seven racks of audio processing and amplification equipment channeling myriad audio tracks through 80-plus speakers, "The whole experience is very site-specific," Schelter says. "We even created a stage that tied into the projection, which was a real technical headache. If actors attempt to interact with 3-D film on a normal projection system, they would cast horrendous shadows on the screen, so we had to be very precise with backlighting and projection angles. The stage itself has multiple levels and platforms and actors' lifts in order to do the magic."
Harnessing the magic were the experts at Scenis Technologies, whose talents brought such monolithic theatrical productions as Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera to life on Broadway. "They're real good at moving things quickly and precisely," Schelter says. "The difference is that on Broadway, they'd do maybe two shows a day; we're doing 40-something."
In addition to hydraulic lifts taht enable a double for Robert Patrick as the T-1000 to "morph" into position on stage, trainsitioning seamlessly from the 3-D image in screen, Scenic Technologies devised hidden panels in the screen and througout the theater for entrances and exits by the live actors. But most spectacular of all is the motorcycle system, which enables Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator to seque from Cameron's 3-D film into the theater. After a 3-D image of the spheric Time Portal appears on screen, Schwarzenegger plunges into the present day riding his trademark Harley Davidson Fatboy motorcycle. As Arnold turns his bike on screen and punches it, it jumps through the screen, roaring down the stairs -now with a live actor- ontp the stage. "This is our biggest moment," Schelter smiles. "Just like in the films, there's this energy ball moving across the stage and then there's this flah of light and you see this motorcycle with the Terminator riding on it with a shotgun haulin' butt downstairs! That's going to be a pretty dramatic image."
That transition involves moving the screen and propelling the motorcycle through its path on what looks like a roller-coaster track, via a series of computers. "The bike is hidden off stage and is revealed just after Arnold's film image roars with a flash out of the Time Portal," Schelter explains. "After Arnold's double grabs Eddie Furlong's double, the bike shoots right through the movie screen, as the real Arnold and Eddie ride into the Future War of Act 2."
Nothing much happens to the theater itself during Act 2, which is a self-contained 3-D film depicting the journey of the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) and John Connor (Edward Furlong) to Skynet, Cyberdine's mass-destruction headquarters. At the end of the act, when they actually break into Skynet, the lights go out as our heroes ride an elevator down into the bowels of the pyramid-shaped complex. As the "elevator" descends, the walls of the theater appear to rise. When the lights come on, viewers find themselves in Skynet's core, which is actually a living computer. The 3-D creation, courtesy of Cameron's imagination and the hard work of his FX company Digital Domain, fills three 50-foot by 23-foot movie screens linked together by two columns that blend right into the Skynet design. "Two walls on either side of the center screen slide away to reveal two more 50-foot screens, while other pieces of scenery move into place to tie into the look of what Digital Domain has created as Skynet. Skynet is a maze of platforms and ladders, so the seams between the screens are hidden by the columns, covered with umbilical cords and platforms and wires, which the actors can climb. The actors are largely in the theater, but they transition back into the movie screen towards the end of Act 3."
After Skynet is destroyed at the close of the show, the theater transforms once more again into the Cyberdine corporate presenation room where the show began. "One of the biggest technical challenges is that all this stuff has to automatically reset before the next show," Schelter admits. "We're trying to make it so the majority of people who are in the Universal Studios Florida park have the opportunity to see the attraction, and the only way to do that is to do back-to-back shows. Designed into anything that flashes, pops or explodes is the ability to reset itself automatically. The bike even resets itself after going trhough its preprogrammed loop. It's the sum of all those little things that make it a killer."