Behind the scenes at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
By Jeff Salton
February 10, 2011
Many Muggles, fans and aficionados of the Harry Potter franchise would no doubt be aware that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Theme Park and Resort opened last June. And judging by the fact that the park just sold its one millionth Butterbeer (non-alcoholic) beverage, its popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. The success of Universal’s newest park, located in Orlando, Florida, like most theme parks, will be judged on the experiences it offers its guests. Often this boils down to the teeth-rattling speed, stomach-churning loops and turns, or the full-on "shock and awe" of its rides. Gizmag spoke with Senior Vice President, Creative Studio for Universal Parks and Resorts, Thierry Coup, to get a behind-the-scenes insight into the creation of the park’s rides, namely the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and The Forbidden Journey.
Universal Creative is the division of Universal Parks & Resorts – comprising project managers, designers, artists, engineers, financial analysts, architects and builders – that is responsible for delighting and often scaring the pants off park visitors through its conception-to-development park attractions, such as King Kong 360 3-D, Universal’s parks in Orlando, Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, The Simpsons Ride, Shrek 4-D, Revenge of the Mummy, The Incredible Hulk and, of course, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We spoke with newly-appointed Senior Vice President, Creative Studio for Universal Parks & Resorts Thierry Coup – who leads the creative development activities for upcoming attractions at all of Universal’s theme parks world-wide – specifically about the group’s latest park.
“The biggest technological breakthrough within The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This incredible attraction takes our guests to an entirely new level of experience, utilizing cutting edge ride systems, robotic technology combined with fully immersive projection systems, some of the most intricate theatrical sets and practical special effects,” says Coup, who served as Creative Director at the park.
“All these elements are seamlessly orchestrated to create a thrilling flying experience that moves riders physically, virtually and emotionally through the amazing world of Harry Potter.”
Coup, who began his career with Universal Creative more than 10 years ago and has played an integral part in shaping the award-winning rides and attractions at Universal’s theme parks ever since, still gets excited when talking about the latest rides. His work in creative theme park development has taken him around the world to Japan, Shanghai, Hollywood and Paris.
The biggest technological challenge the team faced was to create a magical experience that lived up to what people had read in the books and seen in the movies.
“A pretty tall order but we knew we could not deliver anything less and really wanted to take it to a whole new level. No existing ride system could deliver our vision — so we designed a whole new ride system. Any time you design a brand new ride system there are incredible amounts of technical design requirements and safety considerations. This was especially challenging for this ride because we wanted it to do so much.
“One of the other main challenges was seamlessly transitioning between projected images and real sets. So we had to trick the eye when we flew from sets into media. In a sense it’s a series of giant, elaborate magic shows,” he says.
Coup says it took about five years to create Harry Potter World, “from the very first concepts, which we shared with J. K. Rowling, to the design of a ride system that could deliver the story in the Forbidden Journey.
The illusion of flight
“We filmed the cast of the Harry Potter films in England on the same sets they used for the films. Then we installed the ride, projection, sets, lighting, special effects, and audio. Even with five years, we were making adjustments right up to opening day to give our guests the best possible experience,” says Coup. Coup believes the greatest technological achievement a design team can make is the illusion of flight. Coup says it is the “holy grail” of ride design.
“It takes a lot of careful planning and programming to fool the human brain into believing you are really soaring over Hogwarts. Yet, when every single person gets off the ride that’s exactly what they feel they did. Much of this is achieved by motion control technology.
“We create a previz computer animation of what we want the rider to see in the media. Then we use that data to determine the movement of the final animation. That data can even be programmed into live action cameras and flying broomstick rigs to get the precise movements required by the show.” Coup explains some of the difficulties encountered emulating movie scenes and characters in "real life".
“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.
“All the magical events which happened on the movie screen relied entirely on computer graphics, and we had to bring the magic to real life. “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the most popular attraction because it takes our guests into one of the most fantastic Harry Potter adventures, during which they fly along with Harry and Ron over Hogwarts and into a Quidditch pitch, are attacked by a dragon and chased by Dementors. There’s nowhere else can you do that.” Currently, Coup is leading the creative team developing the new Transformers attraction for Universal’s theme parks in Hollywood, Calif., and Singapore.
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