How the DreamWorks Theatre At Universal Studios Hollywood Puts You Inside the Movie Album

The next DreamWorks Animation feature doesn’t hit theaters until March 1, 2019. That’s when “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” the third film in the beloved franchise, is released; it’s also worth noting that it’s the first DWA movie since “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” which came out way back in the summer of 2017.

But if you need your DreamWorks Animation fix, there’s a brand-new attraction opening at Universal Studios Hollywood this summer that plunges you into one of your favorite animated adventures.

As part of a continued effort to revitalize the theme park, which includes the popular (and very lucrative) Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the DreamWorks Theatre featuring “Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest” is set to officially open next week. The past home to the Shrek 4-D attraction, this new state-of-the-art experience is something that is genuinely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And we got to experience it early, while taking a behind-the-scenes peek.

If you’ve visited the park and been to Shrek 4-D, you’ll notice some, at least superficial, similarities to that previous attraction (which opened in May 2003 and closed last summer). But virtually everything else has changed.

The show building will remind you of a classic Hollywood studio, and if you’ve ever visited or seen photos of the animation studio’s campus in Glendale, California, you’ll recognize that some things — including the Spanish-style architecture — have been borrowed, too.

After watching a pre-show in which various DreamWorks characters bicker and argue about who will get to star in this brand new experience, one character triumphs: Po from “Kung Fu Panda.” From there, you enter the theater for what John Corfino, the Creative Director at Universal Studios, described to us as “a transformative and immersive experience.” (He also stressed how different the 241-seat theater was from the previous attraction, explaining that the new theater has “a different geometry.”)

The actual ride film follows Po and some of his friends as they track down a mystical artifact that has been stolen. Corfino was cagey about what celebrity voice talent would be returning, so it’s unclear who is in the movie but it sounded, at the very least, like Jack Black was back. As you watch the ride film unfold, the action expands, outwardly, until the entire theater is a part of the action. The attraction isn’t 3D, but the seats do have motion and you will feel the wind in your hair and get sprayed with water (of course); Corfino said that in many ways the seats furthest most back are the very best, since you can survey everything that is happening, all around you.

But what magic allows, say, Po to climb out of the screen and into another part of the theater? Two words: projection mapping.

Now, the basic technology behind projection mapping has been around for a while, and in recent years has become a favorite for theme park projects, where its been utilized for everything from nighttime spectaculars to more articulate faces for audio-animatronic figures. But this is the first time it’s been used like this in a theater setting. Corfino said that there was a lot of trial and error, with testing to figure out what shape the theater could be for the effect to work. 3D was considered for the attraction but they wanted people to look around the theater more organically. “Embrace the peripheral potential” is the phrase he used.

And while we didn’t see the finished product (it was still being tested); the experience of watching the ride film unfold (and we mean that literally) is incredibly thrilling. It’s one thing to just be seated in front of a screen, it’s another thing to watch the characters and action spill out into the physical environment around you. Quite frankly, it really does make you feel like you’re inside a DreamWorks Animation movie, with all of the zany humor, sight gags, and subtle nods that you’d expect.

When the attraction opens next week, visitors to Universal Hollywood are going to get a truly animated experience.

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