Feature - And Justice for All - June 2018

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How Sally and Six Flags changed the industry with ‘Justice League: Battle for Metropolis’

by Jeremy Schoolfield

All images courtesy Sally Corporation

On July 12, 2017, Six Flags Magic Mountain threw perhaps the most extravagant grand-opening ceremony for a ride in company history. As the sun set over the Valencia, California, theme park, laser lights scythed through the sky, a booming soundtrack filled the air, fireworks exploded overhead, and confetti rained down like colorful drops from the heavens. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking this breathtaking display must have been in honor of a new record-breaking roller coaster. After all, thrill machines are what Six Flags Magic Mountain—and its parent company—are best known for. 

But, no.

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Oceaneering created a new custom multi-DOF ride vehicle for “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis.”

Instead, this cacophony of sound and light celebrated the debut of “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis,” the first dark ride in Magic Mountain’s history. The interactive, 4-D attraction marked a capstone of sorts for both Six Flags and the ride’s creator, Sally Corporation, as it was the seventh and final version of “Battle for Metropolis” to open in Six Flags parks between 2015 and 2017. Along the way, this partnership between two long-standing companies turned the attractions industry on its ear by delivering to a regional audience an immersive experience typically reserved for destination parks. 

“The collaboration is what made this project work as successfully as it has,” says Sally Chairman and CEO John Wood. “It was intense at times, but extremely gratifying. There was a sense of trust between us that we’d do the right thing and achieve greatness if we could.”

Without a version of “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” rolling out this summer, that meant the parties involved in creating this landmark attraction finally had a moment to step off the treadmill, take a breath, and reflect on their achievement—all the twists and turns this story took, and what “Battle for Metropolis” could potentially mean for dark rides and regional parks in the future. 

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Six Flags Vice President of Design Les Hudson (left) with Sally Corporation CEO John Wood

Out of the Woodwork

IAAPA Attractions Expo 2013 was a memorable event for John Wood. On the first day of the trade show, he was inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame in recognition of a career building dark rides; later that week, Six Flags executives walked into his booth in the exhibit hall and signed a contract for the first two installations of “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis.” 

Wood co-founded Sally Corp. in 1977 with a couple friends; originally, it was an animatronic company geared toward helping companies use robots to market themselves in fun and entertaining ways. But when Wood attended his first IAAPA Attractions Expo, he found a home. A lifelong fan of the attractions industry (he attended the 1964-65 World’s Fair), Wood evolved his company into a dark-ride specialist, producing more than 60 to date including several at Six Flags parks. So Wood already had a relationship with Six Flags leadership stretching back decades when, about 10 years ago, he learned the company was looking for a next-generation dark ride. 

“We had been in the roller coaster race for a long time, but in 1999 when ‘Spider-Man’ came out, it was a key milestone because it was a dark ride that was thrilling,” says Six Flags Vice President of Design Les Hudson, referring to “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. It wasn’t until recently, though, that such an attraction became remotely affordable for anyone outside a destination resort. 

“We wanted a dark ride to deliver on three metrics: it had to be thrilling, repeatable, and one-of-a-kind,” Hudson says. “Over the years, as dark-ride technologies emerged and the costs came down, we were able to combine the right balance into a dynamic attraction.”

Sally’s breakthrough came in 2012 when it built “Justice League: Alien Invasion 3D” for Warner Bros. Movie World in Queensland, Australia. It marked Sally’s first use of digital media in an interactive dark ride, and it established a relationship between Sally and DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Consumer Products, owners and licensors, respectively, of the Justice League characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). Six Flags’ licensing agreement with Warner and DC stretches back more than two decades, so when the theme park company’s executives found out Wood and his team were working on a Justice League-themed project, tumblers started clicking into place. 

Sally’s “Alien Invasion” ride in Australia used a traditional dark-ride vehicle, which was relatively static. Six Flags was looking for a more dynamic component to its ride, so Sally clinched the deal by bringing in Orlando-based Oceaneering Entertainment Systems. Oceaneering built the original multi-degree-of-freedom (DOF) vehicles for Universal’s “Spider-Man,” but those were way outside a regional-park budget. Having just developed a smaller version, though, for SeaWorld Orlando’s “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin,” Oceaneering was recruited by Wood to create an even smaller, custom DOF car for “Justice League.”

“What we learned in Australia fed into what we could really do to make Six Flags’ attraction top of the line,” Wood says. “First and foremost was to change to a DOF ride system.”

The DC Sandbox

The initial contract was for two “Justice League” rides, one for Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington and the other for Six Flags St. Louis in Missouri. Signatures on the dotted line, Sally shifted into full development mode, led by Creative Director Rich Hill. A self-described comic-book fan, Hill wrote the script for “Alien Invasion” and was eager to once again play in the DC sandbox: “These characters are all great and have such a rich backstory. That helps you in a dark ride, where you don’t have to explain who Superman and Batman are.” Six Flags’ history with Warner helped Sally gain access to even more characters than it had for the Australia ride, most notably archvillains Lex Luthor and the Joker. Hill’s first take on the Clown Prince of Crime was akin to Jack Nicholson in 1989’s “Batman” film, but DC nixed any likenesses that would be recognizable as Hollywood actors. “We had to break off and almost create our own universe for this attraction to live in,” Hill says. 

Battle for … Gotham? 

Fun fact: Originally, “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” was supposed to be set in Batman’s hometown of Gotham City. Sally’s Rich Hill based the story around Arkham Asylum, the infamous home to Batman’s rogues’ gallery of villains. However, DC Entertainment asked to switch the setting to Superman’s Metropolis, instead, since Gotham has been used as a setting so many times in the past. 

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During “Battle for Metropolis,” Joker blasts riders with “laughing gas.”

So Hill holed himself up for a weekend and reworked the entire story. One of the benefits of moving to Metropolis, he says, was the inclusion of Lex Luthor as the co-main antagonist alongside the Joker, but it required Hill “to rethink what the attraction is” by adding such a major character.

In “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis,” Joker and Luthor have kidnapped the Justice League heroes and are holding them prisoner. Guests enter the Hall of Justice to join the Justice League Reserve Team, boarding their Reserve Team Vehicles and using laser blasters to fight their way into LexCorp headquarters and free Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash.

Though Wood and Hill traveled to the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, twice to pitch the story, they say earning approval for “Battle for Metropolis” was a relatively smooth process, overall, because they’d already built up equity and trust with Warner from Sally’s work on “Alien Invasion.” 

“It was no longer a question of quality,” Wood says. “It was now, what’s the story and execution.”

Dial It in Just Right

With the storyline approved, work commenced in earnest on the ride’s layout and character mockups. Hill sketched the initial concepts by hand, then Sally’s modeling department took over to create the foundational molds on which all iterations—be they animatronics or animations—would be based. In addition to “Justice League’s” bevy of iconic characters, the ride experience offers more than 600 targets spread across media screens and physical sets, seamlessly integrating animated segments with scenic detail.  

Sally brought back its two key sub-contractors from “Alien Invasion” to complete its team: Belgium’s Alterface created the interactive, real-time gameplay using the Unreal Engine platform, while Pure Imagination Studios out of California was responsible for the 3-D animated sequences, executed via RealD projection. The combination of technologies allowed Sally to claim a couple “world’s first” elements for a dark ride: a virtual inverted loop and a fog screen with interactive targets. 

‘Justice League’ Animatronics Feature Painstaking Detail

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Sally spent months building the animatronics for “Justice League”—some of the most complex figures the veteran dark-ride company had ever designed. 

“Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” features two of the most sophisticated animatronic figures Sally has ever produced. 

Cyborg—the half-man/half-machine hero—greets guests in the queue and sets up the story. One of his signature features is a huge metal arm; the character took about six months of research to make it work and look convincing as a real person. 

“It’s one thing to have a soft costume with nice fabric that moves around,” says Sally’s John Wood. “But you put a suit of armor on there, you really have to animate it. We put a thousand hours into each one of our Cyborgs.” 

Guests also encounter an animatronic Joker during the ride; he sits atop an ATV and blasts riders with laughing gas out of a front-mounted cannon. Sally couldn’t find the exact right purple pinstriped suit it wanted for the Clown Prince of Crime, so a Sally artist literally painted each figure’s stripes by hand.

Pulling all that equipment together into one groundbreaking experience proved challenging, though. Hill compares it to fine-tuning a clock—everything has to be dialed in just right, or the whole immersive illusion falls apart. He rode both Texas and St. Louis versions thousands of times each for weeks on end, making notes about how the laser guns were performing, orchestra cues, ­lighting … the list went on and on. “You have to sit in every seat, in every scene, for about an hour, just shooting,” he says.

Meanwhile, “Six Flags wanted as much thrill as you could possibly put into that ride car,” Wood says, so Sally asked Oceaneering to push its brand-new vehicle to the perceived limit of its capabilities. Testing lasted a month, and initial runs didn’t quite hit the mark—it just didn’t yet have the oomph everyone was hoping for. 

“We knew what we had—a lot of it was in my head, though,” Hill recalls. “There were a lot of people questioning what this thing was going to be and how it was going to work.”

“Right up until opening day, there were long nights running it, tweaking it, then running it again,” Hudson adds. “It is very complicated to mix all these technologies and make them work together and blend into the background.”

Not helping matters were construction delays in Texas that set the project back by six weeks. Originally, Arlington’s version was supposed to open much earlier than its cousin in St. Louis, but they ended up only two weeks apart, forcing Sally to spread its resources thin between the two projects. Eventually, all of the technical effects wove together to create the thrilling, visceral experience riders now enjoy, but it wasn’t easy getting there. 

The night before the St. Louis media event, Wood remembers going to sleep wondering if the press would have anything to ride the next morning. His team worked throughout the night on final tweaks, and “it turned out that was one of the best operating days all season. It was miraculous.”

Sally had employees on-site at both parks throughout the summer overseeing operations and troubleshooting technical glitches as they arose. By the end of the year, “Battle for Metropolis” had come a long way and was widely considered a smash hit (it won an IAAPA Brass Ring Award in November 2015 as the industry’s top new product). 

“Everyone had a learning curve,” Wood says. 

“When you’re going through it, you’re just trying to make it happen,” Hill says. “Looking back on those long work days, it was a lot more fun than it seemed at the time.”

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Sally Creative Director Rich Hill wrote the story for “Battle for Metropolis” and oversaw all seven installations across North America.

A Step Up for Southern California

After bringing the first two versions of “Justice League” across the finish line, Wood and his team immediately set to work upgrading the attraction, he says: “We knew we had a winner, but we picked on every weak point we could find and tried to improve it.” 

Following the 2015 summer season, Six Flags signed a contract for two more installations the following year: Six Flags Mexico in Mexico City and Six Flags Great America north of Chicago, Illinois. On Sept. 30, 2015, about a dozen Six Flags representatives came to Sally headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, for a massive brainstorming session on how to improve the ride; turnaround was tight, as Six Flags wanted Mexico City’s version to open two weeks prior to Easter. Ordinarily, starting from near scratch and turning a project around in less than six months would’ve been impossible. But Wood believed all along Six Flags would ask for more “Justice Leagues,” so he already had his team working on animatronics for the next build—on spec. 

“You have to gamble in this business. That’s my job, knowing when to push the button and when not to,” Wood says. “We were hoping they were going to come back, because we had hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment built—we had to start work before we had the contract signed.”

The meeting of the minds in Jacksonville led to several changes for the next round of rides; the most notable was constructing the show building from scratch, rather than trying to use an existing structure. 

“Everything else was complicated enough, so we wanted to build a building that didn’t add to the difficulties,” Hudson says. 

Some other improvements: 

  • The preshow media was re-rendered with motion-capture actors instead of straight animation to add realism to the characters. 
  • A Lex Luthor hologram originally produced on a scrim was replaced with a projection screen, upgrading the image quality.
  • Dead spots between some scenes received additional physical theming and detail. 

The 2016 installs went much smoother, and Six Flags again signed on for more in 2017: Six Flags Over Georgia outside Atlanta, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, and the grand finale, Six Flags Magic Mountain (SFMM), which sits north of Los Angeles in the hyper-competitive Southern California market. While Georgia and Great Adventure received the now-perfected standard version of “Battle for Metropolis,” both Sally and Six Flags knew Magic Mountain was a different equation altogether, where the dark-ride shadows from Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios Hollywood loom large. 

“When you go to L.A., you’re under a different magnifying glass,” Hill says. 

“We wanted to make a number of additions and improvements, because customers out there are very familiar with dark rides, and they have high expectations,” Hudson adds. 

The most impactful change to SFMM’s version is the addition of villainess Harley Quinn, who appears in both animatronic and digital form. She alters the final two scenes from previous versions, including a new twist ending. Magic Mountain’s “Justice League” also features 180-degree toroidal screens, which surround the guest’s field of vision. New animatronic henchmen enhance the level of malice and intensity in the ride experience, while new projection mapping on scenic structures increases the number of available interactive targets (for example, when riders shoot a truck’s headlight, it breaks and goes out). Sally also extended the preshow, creating two new rooms with batched queuing and new media to deepen the ride’s storytelling and make it more reminiscent of the cinematic dark rides found at the destination parks down the freeway. 

“We’ve always had to compete with the likes of Disney and Universal, and I think it makes us sharper,” Wood says, wearing his sly grin. “We have a chip on our shoulder. Sally has always felt we could measure up to anybody, if we got a shot. Magic Mountain was a chance to prove it—and we did.”

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With guests dressed in costume as their favorite superheroes, Six Flags Magic Mountain lit up the Valencia, California, sky when “Justice League: Battle for Metropolis” officially opened in 2017

The Future of Regional-Park Dark Rides

This year will be relatively quiet for Sally—not surprising, considering how much work went into opening seven “Justice Leagues” in three years (“I’ve never turned down more business in my life,” Wood says). But 2018 is merely a pause; at press time, Sally has four major projects opening next year, all custom builds using interactive media and several different intellectual properties. Though these new rides have yet to be officially announced, it’s clear other operators around the world saw what Sally did with “Justice League” and said: We want that.