Tuesday, April 26, 2011



Originally posted by Cynthia Lieberman on April 15, 2011 at www.mediapsy.net


I was mesmerized by the range of ideas and applications for multi-platform narratives that circulated during the Transmedia Hollywood: Visual Culture and Design (@transmediahwood) conference at UCLA this month.  Co-sponsored by UCLA and USC, the one-day public symposium explored the role of transmedia franchises in today's entertainment industries and offered many inspiring interchanges and insights about how transmedia works and what it means.

I was particularly intrigued by the first session, “‘Come Out 2 Play’: Designing Virtual Worlds from Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond.”  Comprised of several panelists who are all experts in theme park design, these high-concept thinkers provided a rare glimpse into how to structure a franchise around not just the core of a narrative, but the physical exploration of a world as well.
I have always thought that story=content=the King of all messaging.  In most instances, story (aka content) is the base of all messaging and without a good story, everything else around it will fail.  At the core, this may hold true when it comes to designing theme park and resort attraction design, but it doesn’t always translate in the traditional ways one would think.  

As USC’s Dr. Henry Jenkins explained to the crowd, “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated plan experience.  Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

In the instance of theme parks, the story is just one part of an entire resort experience, which includes various methods of narrative for each experience, such as hotels, dining, retail, transportation, and of course, theme park rides.  Because the story is a collection of not just mini-tales but experiences, there is not enough time to tell the whole story in the time frame a theme park/resort experience will allow.

Unlike other transmedia narratives, such as comic books, videogames and mythological stories dreamed up by fans, the theme park medium has several particularly unique considerations when replicating and unfolding “real life” virtual experiences.
when replicating and unfolding “real life” virtual experiences.

One of the theme park subjects that the panelist discussed in great detail was “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” an exciting new area of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando that celebrates all things Harry Potter."

There were some surprising aspects involved in the design and fabrication of this highly successful theme park area that is based on the Harry Potter books and the “tentpole franchise” that resulted from its success.


Designers recognized it was important for the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter world-building of be an experience that is authentically based on the rich, imaginative text created by the author, J.K.  Rowling, as well as the special visual effects and fantasy environments created for the films by Warner Bros.  To help ensure its “realism,” they made sure to run everything by both Rowling and the studio starting from the very first concepts, to taste testing the “ButterBeer” concoction (which sold 1.5 million cups in 18 months), to the design of the signature attraction called Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey. 

The good news is the Harry Potter mythology provides fantastic environments to work with which helped them produce immersive stories that engage all of the senses.  It also involves compelling characters that readers and fans have connected to for years.

The flip side is that the team of developers and designers were also faced with the challenge of creating a magical experience that lived up to what fans had read in books and seen in the movies.  If that wasn’t enough, they had to meet safety issues and never-been-done before technical design requirements and expectations (such as a ride that replicates a sense of real flying in a Quidditch match).  The real magic was doing this seamlessly, transitioning between projected images and real world sets, without people realizing it.


“In a film you have the advantage that everything is media.  It’s not a real world, the camera sees only what the director wants us to see, and the audience never gets a chance to look around.  In The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, everything is as real as can be from the stones in Hogsmeade to the floating wand in the Ollivanders shop window, the animated paintings in Hogwarts castle and the characters from the films appearing throughout Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” explained Senior Vice President, Creative Studio for Universal Parks & Resorts Thierry Coup (Salton, 2011).

Designers faced another challenge:  in order to recreate the visual story, they had to create replicated environments that were pleasing, entertaining for all ages (and not too scary) and also be built to scale.  Besides safety and believability, they had to break all the rules of perfect retail design in order to accommodate the large throngs of crowds while still keeping the experience authentic and intimate.  Not an easy task considering the attraction has to pump 30 thousand people a day through the curving streets.  If not done right, it definitely would have altered the interactive value of the entire resort experience.

Fortunately, the original art designers from the movies welcomed the opportunity to assist.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter gave them the rare chance to finally complete their vision.  Participating allowed them to tell more than what they originally designed, and on a permanent and broader scale.   From castles to real life merchandise (not props!), they had a field day. 


Theme park attractions are not like 3D monitors at home… once you enter it you live with experiences and if done properly, you think you lived with it in real life.  A person virtually becomes an actor while on their vacation, and they have a chance to share their exciting experiences with family and friends.  They are given an opportunity to suspend reality as they know it and become engrossed in an illusion in a safe space.  Part of their willingness to be immersed is that they know they paid real money to be in a trusted environment where they can experiment, experience, and wonder how things were created.

Universal Studios Florida also brought in the cast to film tailor-made scenes to incorporate into the park.  This was done much to the delight of the actors, especially the younger ones, who had grown up virtually spending most of their scenes (and their childhood) for special effects instead of on real sets.

Unlike many other media forms, developing full scale resort attractions requires the ability to create an experiential, magical, visceral experience.  As a result, audience expectations grow higher every day.  Luckily, the possibilities to satiate their needs remain endless.  Like many other evolving transmedia platforms (ARG, 3D gaming, etc.), better technology is allowing designers to increasingly create even more incredible systems that will engage, enhance and transcend an experience to audiences in ways that have never been possible before.

Salton, J.  (2011, February 10).  Behind the scenes at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Gizmag | New and Emerging Technology News.  Retrieved April 14, 2011, from http://www.gizmag.com/behind-the-scenes-at-the-wizarding-world-of-harry-potter/17846

Video of Chicago Family Tour of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Media.  (n.d.).  Universal Orlando Resort Media Site.  Retrieved April 14, 2011, from http://media.universalorlando.com/harrypotter/videos.php?item=44ZZ

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