Blackpool Tower ready for lift-off
Adrian Pennington, November 21, 2011
Adrian Pennington was one of the first journalists to visit the Blackpool Tower regeneration project. This multi-million pound investment is key to the town’s future.
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Blackpool’s iconic tower reopened to the public in September after a major 10-month restoration programme. The regeneration project – aimed at encouraging families to stay longer in the resort – is part of a £20m investment in eight new or refurbished attractions and is itself part of a £250m, 10-year plan (2006-2016) to bring the town and its promenade back to some of its former glory.
This ambitious project was made possible following successful bids for European and Government funding by Blackpool Council, combined with a £10m contribution from the town’s own budget. This allowed the Council to acquire the Blackpool Tower complex in 2010 and seek a partner to develop and manage a set of attractions which would entice families to visit, rather than stag and hen parties.
“Something clearly needed to be done with the resort. It had been in decline for many years,” says Iain Hawkins, head of Blackpool Cluster at winning attractions operator, Merlin Entertainments Group.
The town used to attract 20m visitors a year. This had dropped to a low of 10m. “It has been a tough year convincing people that this time the town’s prospects really can change. They have had bloody noses on several false dawns (notably having the plug pulled on a Super Casino in 2007),” adds Hawkins.
Merlin already operated the Sea Life centre in Blackpool but the plan devised with the Council saw the company build or refurbish another seven attractions, including Pirate Adventure Golf – the transformation of the existing Louis Tussauds wax attraction into a second UK Madame Tussauds – plus five in the Tower complex itself: The Tower Ballroom and Circus, a Jungle Jim’s play area, a new Blackpool Dungeon and its centerpiece – a new ‘Eye’ branded observation platform experience at the top of the Tower, reached by elevator and preceded by a 4D ride at its base. The ‘Eye’ experience is operated, as is London’s, like a flight with attendants guiding the way.
“Everything about Blackpool starts with the Tower,” says Hawkins. “It is a beacon for UK tourism. Everyone knows what it is and we (Merlin) have always wanted to get our paws on it.”
When they did they realised the sorry state of repair the 118-year old Grade-1 listed building had lapsed into. “It was a rusting hulk that desperately needed TLC,” adds Hawkins.
Blasting away the past
High pressure water was used to blast away the old paintwork for a fresh paint job that won’t be finished for another seven years. When it is, it will last for 20.
“We got hold of the original site surveys of the building and stripped back areas to their original steel that had been boarded-up for decades and incorporated the arches into our designs,” explains Craig Sciba, project designer at Merlin Studios Design Department.
In fact all of the original metal in the Tower has been replaced over the last century.
The Tower used to have a walk of faith – a metre square of glass which looked down the legs of the tower. Merlin developed the entire west elevation into 8ft floor-to-ceiling glass for panoramic views over the town and coastline.
Interactive screens installed by Pacific Wave connected to cameras under the observation deck allow visitors to zoom in to the Pleasure Beach or towards the Isle of Man. Additional buttons reveal information and postcard images of the same scene from the past.
LED screens throughout the site deliver wayfinding signage. A timeline of the resort’s development has been installed along with plasmas showing a 15-minute ‘making of’ the 4D film. A photo-op against green screen (and part of the 4D film set) with a view from the outside of the tower and the promenade below is proving popular.
“It is no longer about a corridor, a lift, a view and down again,” says Hawkins. “It is a far greater experience. People are not standing around waiting for lifts to come and doors to open.”
A ticket for all eight attractions is £45 valid for three months, but you don’t even need a ticket to explore the architecture of the five different ground floor levels of the Tower. “The whole complex operates in freeflow,” says Hawkins.
The 4D attraction “contains the most 4D effects of any of our cinemas,” says Sciba who brought in Austrian specialist Kraftwerk Living Technologies for the design and install.
“We have done a number of these attractions so we were confident we could technically achieve it,” says Kraftwerk project manager, Jens Pfennig.
The biggest problem was simply time. The company won the tender in February 2011 for a premiere on September 1.
“The room is unique with two exposed steel arches in the room so projection was a challenge. Using a 3D model of the site we worked to specify the right projector and lenses because only certain types of projectors are suitable for that environment.”
The design of the theatre itself was briefed to be similar to that at the London Eye and involves a tiered railing system for a 120-person standing audience.
“The major difference between the two attractions is that the effects in the Blackpool Eye have a bigger impact on the audience. This includes a vibrating platform for which we installed a steel floor plate and low frequency transducers with a vinyl finish.”
Other effects include ground fog, snow, rain, and wind plus bubbles, scents and air-blast some of which are installed in the SFX railings. All the systems are under a fully automated show control system located in three racks, including door opening and closing. It needs setting once a day.
LED banks are sequenced with the film to enhance a firework effect; the stereo 3D film itself is designed to merge with the archways surrounding the audience at one point.
The wider £250m scheme involves the redevelopment of the 12.8 hectare Talbot Gateway in the north east of the town. The project, managed by commercial developer AMEC, is set to introduce a new civic and cultural centre to Blackpool including a new public square, council offices, courthouse, 70,000 sq ft supermarket, two hotels and a multi-screen cinema.
Blackpool Council estimates that these investment plans could bring an extra 800,000 visitors to the town every year, generating up to £55m more spend right across the resort.
Merlin has plans to add a bar and even a climbing wall to the top of the ‘Eye’ platform.
“It is about generating repeat business to the resort,” says Hawkins. “Every demographic is catered for now with very high calibre attractions. There is a new vibrancy to the town.”
For its part, Merlin wants to be the biggest global attractions operator within five years (it is currently second) with 75 attractions. “We want to get to a hundred which means opening seven or eight new attractions a year,” says Hawkins. A sister cluster to Blackpool’s is simultaneously launching in Sydney.
To complete the merger of Blackpool with tradition and cutting edge the final of Strictly Come Dancing will be filmed live from the Tower Ballroom in December by the BBC in HD and in stereo 3D.
Filming the 4D experience
The four-minute 3D plus sensory effects film takes the audience on an aerial journey over Blackpool and its surroundings in the company of a boy.
Filming processes included green screen composites, graphic design, 3D camera tracking, set extensions, and object removal, such as safety wires and CGI integration. The finished piece has a 7.1 surround sound mix.
“The storyboard we pitched last August is 90 per cent of what is in the finished project,” explains Michael Hall, director of production company Sharp Cookies. “We created an animatic in 3D for the pitch accompanied by a 5.1 surround sound mix, took the client to a 3D viewing room and showed them the timings we wanted to use as well as the 4D effects.”
Since the Blackpool promenade was being renovated and the tower itself covered in scaffolding, models were made of the tower and shot against green screen. Sequences include a circus, the famous Blackpool ballroom, a lifeboat chase and an aerial shot of motorcycle rider Guy Martin in the TT Races on the Isle of Man.
It was shot on two Red MX cameras mounted on an Element Technica Quasar rig. The cameras, lenses, rig, rig technician and playback devices were supplied by On Sight. Aerial shots of the town, the Isle of Man and the Lake District were shot using a helicopter gyro stabilised C-Stab.
“This is an ‘experience film’, so the 3D becomes a character in its own right but the amount and position of 3D was carefully controlled, so for example when the expressions of the child actor are the key messages from a scene, the 3D is subtle and not over-powering,” says stereographer and post supervisor, David Cox.
Carefully orchestrated ‘3D moments’ are placed through the film which will make the audience duck or reach out to touch hovering objects.
“Since the film is so short, it is possible to dial up the 3D effect without causing viewer fatigue, but it is still vital to limit and manipulate the 3D so effects are strong but not uncomfortable. This usually means carefully linking the stereoscopic aspect of 3D with other depth-cues such as focus, brightness and perspective,” adds Cox.
4D may feel state of the art but there are also a number of 5D attractions emerging. The fifth element could be the result of cinemas placed in unusual environments (such as water theme parks) or employ image mapping in which the audience is surrounded by projections; or utilise seats capable of moving in-sync with the pictures.
Sciba believes true 5D is more about audience interaction with the screen and that this is on its way. “We have moved from colour to digital HD to 3D. Now 4D is the next big progression. Beyond 4D we want to take audiences on an interactive ride where the decisions they make alters the effects they feel or the direction of the film they see.”
2x Christie 3-chip DLP HD10K-M projectors, 9500 lumen, 1920×1080
2x Christie ILS-HD lenses, fixed, 1,1:1
2x Kraftwerk customised projector housings
1x Harkness Hall silver-screen, size: 41.4m² – 8500mmx4871mm (visual), perforated, wrap-around
3x UPJ-1P left, centre, right
10x HMS-10 surround speakers
1x 600-HP sub-woofer
Control (main & pre-show):
3x Kraftwerk customised control racks (43U each) including server redundancy
1x Kraftwerk customised set of SFX-railings for SFX distribution (scent & air-blast including app. 80m of LED
1x Kraftwerk customised scent-rack featuring three scents
1x Kraftwerk customised nozzle distribution system in SFX-railings
1x Kraftwerk customised air-blast effect in SFX-railings
1x Kraftwerk customised rain system
14x Magic FX stage fan, 230V, 4500 M3 p/h
2x JEM ground-fog machines including distribution system
2x Ultratec snow-machines, 220V, DMX controlled
2x Ultratec bubble-machines, 220V, DMX controlled
1x curvLED customised system installed on arch
4x Robe Colorsport 250AT featuring customised gobos
1x mirror ball, 40cm diameter