Around the solar system in 90 seconds

View of Saturn from Apollo 3000 theme park rideBack in 2005 I worked on this in-ride film – Apollo 3000 – for the Earth Explorer science centre in Ostend, Belgium.

The ride’s one of those drop-tower affairs. It kicks off with a ‘launch’ sequence that lifts visitors rapidly to the top of the tower, at which point the film is run. The ride mechanism delivers various jolts and jounces at key moments, with the final white-knuckle drop being held back until the very end.

The drop-tower design meant I was locked to the 90-second time limit, within which the client wanted as much going on as possible. I pitched four storylines of varying complexity, ranging from a straightforward tour of the planets to an ambitious narrative that began with a launch from a futuristic base on one of Jupiter’s moon and culminated – after a searing close encounter of the surface of the sun – with a crash-landing on Mars.

In the end, they opted (wisely) for a relatively simple whistlestop journey through the solar system. That didn’t sound too bad, until they started adding requests for a flypast not only of the planets but of the International Space Station too … oh, and while you’re at it, can we include as many other pieces of space hardware as possible … and we need to visit the sight of the first moon landing … and when we go past the ISS make sure the audience can see someone inside …

Somehow the quart got squeezed into a pint pot, despite the tight budget and even tighter timescale. To make things even trickier, circumstances at the time meant I was doing everything in my living room at night after a day’s work at my regular job. Believe me, the ‘time left to render’ progress bar never moves as slowly as it does as four o’clock in the morning.

As for the technical rundown, well, it was fairly basic even by 2005 standards. Everything was modelled and animated in 3DS Max running on a fairly standard PC. A few of the satellites were stock meshes I grabbed off the internet. I’d hoped to find a mesh of the ISS that I could use too, but nothing was quite right for my purposes so in the end I modelled it from scratch. The final cut was assembled in Adobe Premiere, using basic transitions to stitch together the various segments rendered out of Max.

I used Max for the graphic overlays too. Not the most obvious solution but, given that the reticules had to track their targets so closely, it seemed to make sense. I created the reticules as simple 2D objects, slaved their movements to the various moons and space probes I’d already animated and went back to the venerable Premiere to comp it all together.

Once the film was complete (in HD, although this web version is at PAL resolution) I turned it over to the immensely talented Jim Bishop, who composed a quirky and energetic soundtrack. Technical wizard Simon Mitchell integrated the finished media files into the complex ride control system and the whole project was managed by Nick Farmer. Our client was Merlin Entertainments Group.

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