In Vegas, Resistance is Futile

Trekkers flock to Borg Invasion 4D
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Trekkers flock to Borg Invasion 4D

LAS VEGAS

Frustrated in their attempts to assimilate mankind, the Borg-that race of cybernetically enhanced villains from the hugely popular Star Trek realm-have settled for a foothold in the Las Vegas Hilton, where Borg Invasion 4D opened in March.

Featuring the first all-digitally shot and projected 3D film, the simulated-motion thrill ride-part of "Star Trek: The Experience," the $70 million, 65,000-square-foot attraction drawing Trekkers around the world-is the latest offering from Charlotte, N.C.-based Paramount Parks. It combines live-action actors with 3D digital film as it takes participants through an encounter with those perennial adversaries of Starfleet captains everywhere.

Although the result is very much a production full of "firsts," according to Ty Granaroli, vice president of creative for Paramount Parks, and director of the 2K-produced video portion of the show, one production feature especially noteworthy is the first-time use of steadycam shots for a 3D production that features a three-story set.

"It puts people where we very much wanted them-right in the middle of the action," he said.

Filming inside a tunnel representing an "assimilation chamber" at the Culver City studio where the feature was shot, however, called for some innovation. George Johnsen, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Threshold Digital Research Labs and producer of the film, knew that the crane and bungee mount approach would not be feasible.

"Our job was to come up with a rig that we could mount on a steadycam," he said.

INNOVATION

The dual-camera steadycam rig used a modified version of the small rig used in James Cameron's aquatic 3D "Ghosts of the Abyss," which proved to be an essential tool in achieving the look of the film, while also solving the space limitations of the scene.

"We wanted to make the camera more like the human eye," said Johnsen, while also achieving the filmlike ability for the audience to see everything on the screen in focus. "That is not typical of 3D productions."

The challenge was to find a way to vary and adjust the distance between the lenses. Johnsen credits Vince Pace of Sun Valley, Calif.-based Pace Technologies, a veteran of the Cameron film, with the variable interocular answer to the challenge.

"He built us the variable interocular rig in a matter of days and we shot. If you look anywhere in the screen, it is in focus," Johnsen said.

The result, the Threshold Digital Beam Splitter Rig, carried two custom-modified 24P high-definition Sony F900 cameras for the shoot.

"They weren't quite Sonys when they got finished [being modified]," said Johnsen, who says that considerable work was performed both on the optical block and the electronics of the cameras to create a "quieter" system. "Since we were going to blow it up to 40 feet, and we didn't want noise in the picture. Sony was helpful and supportive in ensuring we got to the point that the unit functioned properly."

PROJECTION

Initially, the idea of digitally projecting the movie meant dealing with the limitations of the digital attraction genre head-on.

"We're talking about filling a large screen, so size and resolution is an issue. The guests are sitting pretty close to the screens in these shows, and that's a huge factor," Granaroli said.

Advancements in digital projection enabled the staff at "Star Trek: The Experience" to take a close look at the best options available for projecting the movie.

"We felt that Christie Digital Systems was ahead of the game, with a bigger and brighter image," said Len Turner, department manager of engineering, pointing to the Texas Instruments' three-chip DLP Cinema "dark chip" present in the Christie CP2000 digital cinema projector as a key factor in its selection.

"The Texas Instruments chip has a good black level, which was really critical for us. We're projecting a lot of dark space," he said.

That high contrast ratio is key according to Craig Sholder, vice president of business development for Christie. "It means images with black in them really look black instead of gray," he said. "We're honored that they chose our digital projection technology."

Featuring a contrast ratio greater than 1700:1 and 45-bit color processing, the pair of 22,000 lumen projectors were also bright enough to compensate for the light losses occurring with 3D.

"Generally, you have the necessity of a lens correction that takes up to 50 percent of your light, " said Turner, which when combined with the requisite 3D glasses worn by the audience, can result in up to a 65 percent light loss. "The Christies are bright enough to compensate for the losses. You are still shooting 20,000 lumens up on the screen."

Another benefit of the Christies, said Turner, is its 2K (2048 X 1080) resolution. "It is a tad above the high-def standard, and since the film was produced in 2K, there was no manipulation of the video necessary."

Installation challenges surrounding the Christie revolved more on the facility than the projector itself, according to Ken Wheatley, project development manager for the lead integrator, Electrosonic Systems of Burbank, Calif.

"This was a retrofit to an existing facility, so the bottom line was that we had a limited throw of distance that couldn't be exceeded," Wheatley said.

As a result, Coastal Optical Systems of West Palm Beach, Fla., was contracted to build a custom lens that would accommodate the shorter throw of distance.

FOOTAGE

The original HDCAM footage was delivered from the Culver City production facility as 30,000 individual TGA files, and the 30,000 frames currently are running in native resolution off DVS noncompressed playback servers (HS2U-200, HD/4:2:2).

"There's a left eye and a right eye playback device, and the output is straight HD/SDI right into the Christie projector," said Steve Calver, Borg Invasion project manager, Electronic. "We use the DVS machines for sourcing the main screen video and sourcing the timecode, which in turn is distributed to audio playback devices, HD media and the lighting system."

That approach enables the server to act as a master, locking the audio to the timecode. "With our film 'Klingon Encounter,' we've had synch problems sometimes, because the film wasn't the master," Turner said.

Audio for the show is run from Foztex 24-track D242LV digital recorders, feeding an array of EAW speakers (JF-50, UB-12, and FL 103) and subspeakers (XB120 and SB180P), as well as a handful of JBLs.

As a cost-saving measure, 7,700-lumen Sanyo PLC XF-20 projectors also are in place in the theater, for the overhead screens. Footage for those smaller screens runs compressed on Mediasonic MS9200P HD players.

"They go through a polarizer to give a left eye/right eye, so they lose a little of their light, but since the screen is not that large, we didn't need as bright a projector down there," Turner said.

Additionally, a pair of Christie plasma side monitors are fed by Oxmoor SD four-channel playback units.

The master show control system managing all aspects of the ride, including projectors, HD servers, audio, and the overhead screen projectors is the MediaSonic ESCAN interactive show control platform.

"All inputs and outputs are being routed through to control all aspects of the ride," Turner said.

Despite the complexity of the infrastructure, Turner was adamant about keeping one matter simple.

"I made sure when we were designing the new attraction that we had one central control room instead of two or three of them spread out. When we have an issue we go to one room and know exactly where the problem originates from, and from there we can just trace back cabling issues to the divides," he said.

The overall result of their brush with the Borg is leaving Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike pleased.

"The fans have responded extremely well to Borg Invasion 4D," said Elizabeth Williams, vice president of "Star Trek: The Experience," "and we are pleased with how they are responding to the special effects."