Interview: Secret Cinema's experience designers

If you want a truly immersive film experience, just sitting in a darkened room isn’t enough – even if the film’s being shown across a jaw-droppingly massive IMAX screen in stereoscopic 3D. Over the past five years, Secret Cinema has shown that the best way to appreciate a film is to be thrust into an interactive theatre similar to that from a troupe such as Punchdrunk – where the audience explores a set packed with actors, installations and other things that make you feel as if you really are in post-WWII Vienna (The Third Man) or an all-singing, all-dancing speakeasy (Bugsy Malone, which ended each night with a massive, messy pie fight).

Secret Cinema moved away from cult classics for its latest production, turning an old clothing factory near Euston in London into the spaceship Prometheus for Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel of the same name.

The ship was dotted with displays and projections of sometimes impenetrable purpose

The project launched the same day as the film hit normal cinemas and ran through June – taking three per cent of the film’s UK box office receipts – jumpsuit-wearing audiences spent hours before the film engaging in hypersleep drills, visiting a planet’s surface, being scanned for alien infection and being led down dark tunnels to view writhing forms who had been infected. The ship was decked out not only with props from the films – including full-sized landcrawler vehicles – but also with custom-designed motion graphic displays and interactive consoles created by creative duo Death to the Flippers – aka twins Gavin and Jason Fox – and the digital department of top VFX house Framestore.

“We drew heavily from all the promo videos and trailers, studying anything that looked even remotely like an interface,” says Gavin. “The rest of the Alien films have already set up the character of [Prometheus’ owner] Weyland Industries, so we knew exactly the kind of subtly menacing tone it needed. We found a lot of our research was already being done by people much more fastidious than us on fan forums. Massive thanks to everyone on”

While exploring dark tunnels, scanners allowed users to ‘scan’ for life forms

The teams also collaborated on a series of one-minute CG films for the landing sequence, where small groups would go into the ship’s cockpit and experience a difficult landing on the planet LV-233 in the film, while crewmembers (actors) barked orders. A looping space scene segued seamlessly into the landing, which ended into another perfect loop of animation of the surface. A huge amount of effort was put into making it as immersive as possible.

“With the help of the incredibly talented actors, we wanted people to feel they have piloted and landed a spaceship through a hazardous atmosphere onto a very real feeling planet. No detail was too much,” says Jason. “As the ship cuts through the storm clouds, we spent ages getting the rain drops that form on the screen to move in the right manner as if we’re hurtling forward at 400mph. I doubt anyone noticed them, but it’s just one tiny part that makes the complete simulation feel as real as possible.”

The landing sequence featured looped CG films that meshed together seamlessly as viewers went from deep space onto the planet’s surface

Geo-mapping an Alien landscape

The trickiest element was getting the look of the planet right when all they had for reference were a few frames in the film’s trailer. From one shot of the planet in the cockpit’s windows, Jason and Gavin removed the window frames and computer screens in Photoshop (using the Clone tool and some painting).

This was used to make a model of the planet’s surface in Cinema 4D, onto which the image was projection mapped. Turbulence and lighting effects were added in After Effects. The brothers turned to Framestore to create the clouds and skies. The results were surprisingly accurate to the film, though Gavin isn’t bothered by small inconsistencies – it’s the impact on the viewer that mattered. “The ringed planet should have been massive,” he says, “but we didn’t find that out until we saw the movie. Ho hum.”

The medical scanner used a Microsoft Kinect to map the ‘patient’s skeleton, and ‘discover’ whether alien DNA was present or not

The brothers also built a scanner prop, which projected red lasers that matched the film’s ‘pup’ robots – though unlike those Jason’s version didn’t fly. “We sacrificed the flying model due to a lack of anti-gravity parts in Maplin for a handheld model”, he explains. “[This involved] trawling through websites to find the right lasers, wandering the aisles of B&Q for the right pipes and bits to house it, then trial and error with a soldering iron and trips to Maplin to replace the bits I broke during the construction.”

The ‘medical scanner’ was created by Framestore digital creative director Mike Woods’ team, using some ‘hacks’ for Microsoft’s Kinect motion tracking system, the team had developed for a showcase at a trade show last year. While Kinect was developed for playing games on the Xbox 360 console, it can be connected to a PC for a much wider range of functions.

Is there something inside you?

Framestore used it to drive a real-time ‘scan’ of the person in front of their skeleton, overlaid with ‘information’ that would reveal whether they had been infected with alien DNA.

Mike sees this Secret Cinema project as just the beginning of what the house can do. “Framestore is responsible for [the VFX on] four/five blockbuster films a year,” he notes. “Ironically Prometheus was a film we didn’t work on. You can imagine if we had all the film assets in the building and a head start, what we could do.”

With direct contact with the director, Mike says Framestore could go even further. Even at Secret Cinema there’s a boundary between experience and film, when the former stops and you sit down to watch the latter. “I’d love to see the kind of non-linear experience a top director could create if let loose in this environment.”

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