Mr. Serafine’s Wild Ride

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Sound professional brings surround realism to a new Busch Gardens theme park attraction.

by howard massey

Theme-park aficionados everywhere are already familiar with Busch Gardens Williamsburg, but with the help of award-winning sound designer Frank Serafine, the park just got a little greener with the opening of the Ireland Pavilion. One of the main attractions at the new Pavilion is a state-of-the-art ride called “Corkscrew Hill” – a larger-than-life adventure that invites guests to experience life as miniatures in a world ruled by roaming giants. Advanced computer-generated animation, along with a 150-seat motion base, actually makes visitors the main characters in the story, where they encounter a hungry witch, a magical stallion, and soar on the talons of a huge beast to survive a perilous journey. Technical innovations include digital stereoscopic projection, which allows for sharper imagery, higher pixel resolution, and images that are perfectly stable, unlike film projection. No illusion, though, would be complete without stunning surround sound – provided in this case by a person whose career has spanned from feature films to commercials – Frank Serafine.Written and directed by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak (best known for “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” and “Monsters of Grace”), it was Kleiser, one of the original animators on Tron, who made the initial approach to Serafine. “I first worked with Jeff about 10 years ago, when they were just getting into animating computer figures,” Serafine explains. “We did an independent project called Dozo; I wrote the music for it, and they did all the animation. Since then, he and Diana have done a lot of major feature films, and Busch Gardens approached them and asked them to produce and direct an Irish-theme, motion-based ride, and then they brought me on board.”

Serafine, of course, is a well-known industry personality with more than 20 years experience in the business and credits on such major-league films as Hunt For Red October, Tron, and Field Of Dreams, but he is truly excited about the innovative nature of this project. “It’s especially interesting because all the characters are developed in the computer; the expressions on their faces are really beautiful. I think what we are going to be able to do with computer animation and humanistic characters is going to be more wild than what humans will be able to do in the future – even beyond Jim Carrey’s expressions!”

The music for “Corkscrew Hill” was created by composer Kubi, with sound design and 7.1 soundtrack mixing by Serafine and staff (head engineer Frankie Gomez, engineer/mixer Jon McBride, and chief technician and editor Alex Zmamal), both at Serafine’s Venice, California studios and onsite. “At first we were under the impression we were going to actually mix on the motion tables, with all the gear strapped down, rocking around for three days. Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way,” he laughs. “At least I had plenty of Dramamine with me, just in case!”

Initial soundtrack work began in early spring 2001 when composer Kubi provided Serafine with musical elements on eight tracks of stereo stems. After mixing the basic music and sound effects, Serafine and Gomez did an “analog dump” of all elements onto two Mackie HDR24/96 hard disk recorders.Serafine points out, “The capabilities of the Mackie HDR combined with the Mackie D8B mixer are very impressive, and I wanted to keep it as much of a closed system to avoid as many problems as possible.” The stems were reverb-free, though a reference stereo mix was also done with reverbs created on the D8B to simulate the room at Busch Gardens. Serafine and Gomez then packed up their gear and headed to Virginia to do the mix. As Serafine notes, “The best vantage point to mix the surround sound for the ‘Corkscrew Hill’ film was where the attendees would sit – in the same room as the attraction.”

The 7.1 format allowed Serafine great creative freedom in enhancing the on-screen action with sonic movement. “First of all, we always put music fully in the sides and surrounds in order to fill the music out so it sounds totally spatial. In this particular movie, there’s a lot of running up and around the Corkscrew Hill, so there are a lot of hula-hooping-type surround effects. For example, there are ghosts that come at you while you’re riding on the horse, so we’ve created some Doppler ghost-by effects; we even have some of the ghosts taunting you from the rear speakers, so you want to look back to see if they’re gone yet.

“Sound is such a great tool for creating more than you see on the screen. On the screen, you only have a certain 30 x 80 space – once an actor walks off the screen, he’s gone. But, having worked on a lot of movies with a lot of great editors, I’ve learned that it’s the stuff that you don’t see that sometimes really creates the feeling that you’re virtually there.” Serafine also uses the rear surrounds to great effect in “Corkscrew Hill”: “There are scenes where the horse ends up picking up the people – us on the motion base – and flying around this whole town in Ireland, so you get the incredible sensation that you’re flying. At one point, the horse falls back, like he’s floating back, and through the rear surrounds, we’re able to supplement the sensation and get people to feel as though they’re actually falling back, as if they’re falling in mid-air and are hearing the wind going back toward them.”

In addition, the rear surrounds provide enhanced ambiences. “I often take a stereo ambience and copy it several times on other tracks, then move each channel up or back 8 or 10 seconds, creating time delays. But when I put all the ambiences together, splitting them between the fronts and rears, the stereo fields are still proper because it’s the same recording. This creates a full-field ambience where different things are going on, though there’s no phasing or anything like that. It just creates an amazing stereo multi-ambient feel.”

The LFE channel is also an important part of the Serafine mix. “I use a dbx sub-harmonic synthesizer, pump all the bass through it, shape it there, and then we record that onto a separate track. There’s a scene in ‘Corkscrew Hill’ where the giants go into a bar, and one of them bangs on the table. The LFE channel allows the audience to feel the bang – and not only by using the motion base as if you just got jolted on the table. In that sense, the motion base acts almost like a subwoofer tool. We also use the LFE channel when you’re riding on the galloping horse – when you ride on a horse, it’s thumping your body. There’s a certain amount of that going on with the motion base, but we’re also able to enhance the feeling with the subs.” There was a problem, however, that Mackie’s engineering and design team had to solve before the “Corkscrew Hill” mix could be completed. “This was to be a 7.1 mix for a themed attraction, which uses a different algorithm than a theater surround 7.1,” Serafine notes. “Therefore, this new mix configuration had to be integrated into the D8B software. The software guys at Mackie said, ‘No problem,’ and updated the latest V3.0 OS to include a 7.1 sound configuration for themed attraction surround sound. Literally, it was right at the start of the session that we downloaded it from the Mackie Web site and installed it in the Mackie D8B. It worked flawlessly; the Mackie team really came through when we needed them.”

Multiple Mackie HDRs were used for playback, mixing, and editing on the Busch Gardens soundstage. In the end, there were over 60 tracks of information that had to be juggled. After five days of working onsite, Serafine and Gomez returned to Venice, CA where they remixed the entire film again using HDR24/96’s, the D8B, and a Mackie HUI. Serafine notes, “There were quite a few acoustic issues in the attraction’s soundstage room that made final mastering impossible, but it was very important to the finished product to do a lot of mixing on the Busch soundstage. Ultimately, we wanted to get a feeling for how the surround mix would play out in that room, so when we played it all back in the controlled environment of my room, we were able to get it dialed in – I would have to say – perfectly.”

Surround Professional Magazine