Soon the hapless humans are plunged into total darkness, then led through a spinning vortex of laser beams and fog to find themselves inside an alien spaceship, surrounded by advanced machines and indecipherable glyphs.
A gray-skinned extraterrestrial drops out of the ceiling at them, but somehow they manage to escape back to the house, which has been taken over by the legendary Men in Black. Every stick of furniture has been wrapped in clear plastic sheeting to preserve the quarantine conditions, but even that precaution turns out to be inadequate.
Isolated behind an observation window, a government doctor prepares to perform an autopsy on what appears to be a dead alien, but suddenly the creature leaps up off of the table and crashes through the window, fighting its way to freedom. The MIBs usher the guests to safety, where (surprise, surprise!) there’s a gift shop.
The attraction took top honors at the Los Angeles County Fair, and also picked up a THEA award from the Themed Entertainment Association, among others kudos. Now, county fairs are known to harbor quite a lot of livestock, but as far as we know, there were no reports of mysterious mutilations. Perhaps the aliens were ordering out.
Premier Properties built a shopping center in Plainfield, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis. Bucking the “warm and friendly” trend of other malls in the area, developer Chris White had a more futuristic vision, one that included soaring towers of lighted LED panels and other visual effects, creating a party atmosphere that might attract the young and adventurous in search of a unique shopping experience. But he needed something more: an overarching theme.
That’s where we came in. Following a short period of vetting and some telephone discussions about the need to draw shoppers, diners and other businesses to the open-air mall, we were flown out to Indiana to consult in person and pitch a few ideas. In anticipation, we did some brainstorming and a little bit of research, coming up with a short proposal that outlined several possible directions the project might take.
The first two were obvious – the classic silent film Metropolis, by Fritz Lang, with its iconic robot Maria and all sorts of flashing beams and hoops of light setting the stage for a dystopian future ripe for revolution, and the modern Metropolis as inhabited by Superman and Lois Lane, full of DC Comics heroes and villains and their environs, from LutherCorp’s looming industrial headquarters to the whimsical Teeny Titans daycare center. Obviously, this would require coordination with the owners of the DC brand, but we didn’t see this as much of an obstacle.
Another branded property that might lend itself to this venue was the Monopoly game from Parker Brothers. The game itself had already been adapted to produce custom versions for various universities and themes for limited markets, so why not a shopping mall? We would install oversized game pieces (the metal car, iron and top hat, for example) in front of buildings and restaurants named after Park Place, Marvin Gardens and the other spaces around the board and call the whole thing Metropoly.
The idea that elicited the warmest reception was a retro-futuristic spaceport concept featuring Flash Gordon-style rockets whizzing by overhead on swooping metal tracks and plenty of interplanetary theming.
But, as is too often the case with development projects of this nature, it wasn’t too long before the client started running into money trouble, and it became clear that we were not going to be adequately compensated for our efforts. So the whole project came to a screeching halt. The property was eventually bought out by an Israeli company with a more mainstream plan for attracting new businesses, so it is highly unlikely that they are going to keep the more fantastic elements in the mix. The future, as they say, ain’t what it used to be.
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A completed job that we're still proud of
Keys to Happiness
Designing a Better Computer Keyboard
Good news! Computers are not going to take over the world. Not that they don’t want to, but the way they’re made, and the software that goes into them, they’d crash before they even finished synthesizing an evil laugh. You can’t be the world’s tyrannical overlord if you’re dependent on everyone hitting the reboot button for you.
The bad news, of course, is that we’re stuck with unreliable computers just when we’re becoming more reliant on them. Now, I realize computers are complex machines and programming them is hard. If it weren’t, Bill Gates would be living in his parents’ basement, trying to market incremental patches on other people’s software.
Unless otherwise indicated, all content © Mike Conrad or Radical Concepts, Inc.
Our part was finished, then -- what?
This Mirage is the real deal.
Unlike its intangible namesake, Mirage Entertainment has a solid track record of building high-energy shows and attractions throughout the world – ones in which live actors handle real-world props and perform actual death-defying stunts in the service of grand illusion. In an industry filled with companies that seldom descend from the blue sky of high ideas, Mirage has the drive to take a project all the way to the finish line.
Drive is a key concept in the action-packed Car Stunt Show that they recently installed at Tianjin Binhai Aircraft Theme Park in China (yes, that is a rather pedestrian name for such a slam-bang spectacle, but anything better would likely just get lost in translation). This is the place where their Strike Force Action Stunt Show has been wowing audiences since 2010, employing a real-life aircraft carrier as its main set.
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An example of what we've been working on lately
Daredevil Drivers Duel in Dangerous Downtown Drama
More Bang for Your
One Man's Trash is Another Man's Jet Pack
I was making kluges long before I’d ever heard the word. In the realm of sets, props and special effects, a kluge is basically a piece of faux technology that is made up of other stuff (commonly referred to as “gack”). A good example would be a piece of styrofoam packing material from, say, a boxed TV set, that is painted and stuck to the wall of one of the corridors on the starship Enterprise to simulate a bit of plumbing or an electronic access panel. It doesn’t have to function; it just needs to look like it belongs there.
In the Beginning, There Was Nothing Much
When I was in grade school, I often spent some of my lunch hour constructing what I called “bug catchers" out of empty milk cartons. I don’t recall where I got the idea, but I’d wash a carton out, then cut a mouth across the middle, usually with teeth like a jack-o-lantern’s, and then cut out eyes and limbs from construction paper and glue them all together. Each critter was unique: one would have claws like a crab, one a broom and dustpan for hands, and another a baseball and glove. Pretty soon, I had a whole menagerie of the things lined up along the classroom shelf.
Later, when I started building model cars, I could not resist “coloring outside the lines.” Inspired by such cool hot rod models as Tom Daniel’s Red Baron, Dragon Wagon and Tijuana Taxi, I began looking around for things I could repurpose to build my own themed vehicles. I don’t recall ever building a car kit as per the instructions; my method was to mix and match parts to create something different. I’d include whiffle balls, clear plastic gumball containers, model airplane parts – whatever looked cool and could be cut down to fit with the other parts.
I did pretty much the same thing when I got into model rockets, preferring to buy the parts and assemble my own original designs. I had two inviolable rules for each design: it had to actually fly, and it had to look like a coo spaceship. No scale models of Nike missiles for this kid, no sir! But these were made out of paper and balsa wood, so I’ll save those stories for a later date, and get back to plastic and metal kluges.
My first serious kluges were ray guns. I collected all sorts of shampoo bottles and deodorant containers, plus every little doo-dad that might look like a bit of technology once I’d hit it with metallic paint. The biggest challenge was finding a glue that would work on the kind of plastic that is made to repel liquids so they will pour out of the bottles. Super glue won’t do it, and neither will a host of other things that people suggested. At first, I just stuck the pieces together with masking tape, but eventually I discovered Dap contact cement, which worked after a fashion. Still, there were situations where the only real solution was that universal cure-all known as duct tape.
I made a blue and silver ray gun with a flashlight bulb that was activated by pulling the trigger. It worked so well that I made a smaller, more slender one for my girlfriend to wear when we went out together on Halloween. The triggers were from spray bottles, the bodies of which were turned into holsters. Waste not, want not!
The Master Blaster I made years later employed many of the same gimmicks, but in this case the handle was actually a Round-up bottle cut down and rejoined to resemble the battery base of a power drill. The handle was joined to the body of the gun by the bottle’s screw-top, so it was a cinch to take it apart for easy storage.
Now, this might all seem like a terrific waste of time, but I’ll have you know that I’ve actually been paid by a couple of laser-tag companies to help design new ray guns and vests for their game arenas. I didn’t have to kluge them together, but in some cases, I had to design something that would fit over the client’s existing weapon, so the same kind of ingenuity was called for.
A Ship Off the Old Block
I have seen some people make pretty impressive “crash-built” spaceships, using cannibalized model car and airplane (and ship!) parts, but I prefer to limit myself to things that were never supposed to be part of a vehicle in the first place. Thus, the galactic privateer Nightshade was made out of a skin lotion bottle, a couple of deodorant sticks and some contact lens cases, among other unrelated bits.
The Jet Set
My long-suffering wife only just tolerates this little hobby of mine, partly because I apply some of these techniques to the creation of props and costume pieces for my 11-year-old son. One day, he had a friend over to play, and they asked me if I would make them a pair of jetpacks. “Sure,” I said, “Just give me a few minutes.” With a few cardboard tubes, some plastic Easter eggs for nosecones, plastic cups for nozzles, and the strapped vests rom of a laser-tag set – plus some silver spray paint, of course – I soon had the Lost Planet Airmen equipped and ready to soar off into the sky.
Imagine how surprised I was when my lovely wife came to me with a request to make a jetpack for one of her friends, a big fan of futuristic gadgets of all kinds. I just happened to be between freelance gigs, so I had the time to do a really professional job on this one. Starting with a defunct (yet still pretty funky) stereo boom box and the plastic back-frame from my son’s old toddler car seat, I installed plastic almond canisters for the twin engines, a plastic dome and some square conduits that had started life as the posts of a cheap backyard badminton set. I cut a pair of wings from the sides of a big plastic storage bin, combining their molded curves to suggest functional air scoops. While I was doing this work out on the back patio, I noticed a set of black straps from an ambulance gurney, complete with the metal buckles, just lying there on the ground in my neighbor’s yard. He was kind enough to let me have them, and a coat of paint later, the jetpack was complete. I even included a heavy metal loop by which its owner could hang the thing on a hook when she wasn’t out battling evil interstellar overlords and stuff.
Ro, Ro, Ro Your Bot
Ray guns and space ships are fine and dandy, but my portfolio would hardly be complete without at least one robot. So I had to build one, even though it turned out to be a bust. (literally – there was nothing at all below the chest). A friend (and client) of mine, Mark Simon, was putting together a book entitled Facial Expressions, a collection of photos of different people trying to convey a range of emotions. These mug shots were intended to be used by artists as reference material for their works, and Mark asked some of us to do just that so he could include the results in his book. I could have done a painting, but I decided to be different and do a kluge. I chose to replicate the pose of one young lady in the form of a robot.
I entered it in a one-night exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art, and had a great time standing beside its pedestal, asking people what they thought it was made of. Guesses included a car’s transmission housing, a set of barbells, and all sorts of other heavy metal pieces, which was to be expected, considering I’d painted some rust into the joints to give that very impression. But a thump with the fingers proved that it was all just a bunch of plastic gack. There are two chlorine-tablet canisters from my swimming pool, a big Listerine bottle, a bundle of TV cables, and some marker pens I’d cut up to make the fingers. To make it seem more like a piece of fine art, I slathered on a thick layer of pretention, calling the work Answering Machine and describing it as a comment on people’s being at the beck and call of their technology, instead of the other way around.
It’s Only a Game
I have done some work designing things for the video game industry, so I’m certainly not against their use, but just like alcohol and junk food, there’s a point where the excesses become harmful. So to comment on people’s unhealthy addiction to electronic games, I threw together what looks like a laptop/gaming console with robotic hands rising out of its keyboard, their fingers steepled together in a devotional pose, but holding a game controller. It’s a video game that plays itself, along the recursive lines of that famous Escher rendering of hands drawing themselves. I call it Pray Station. Unfortunately, the concept of video games as an object of worship was deemed too controversial for the museum show, and so for this show at least, it was "Game Over."
Aliens Walk Among Us and Apparently Take Souvenirs
The universe is a strange place indeed.
The idea that advanced beings from another world are traveling billions and billions of miles just to pick up random people or obtain select cuts of beef is, on the surface, kind of wacky. Deeper down, it’s doggone scary. But as an entertainment concept, it’s pretty hard to beat.
That’s what the gang at Renaissance Entertainment thought when they dreamed up the UFO Encounters, a travelling walk-through experience that gave guests a taste of the alien abduction experience first-hand. Working from an outline by Jon Binkowski, we were tasked to visualize key scenes in a series of high-energy color storyboards. Having always been fascinated by the UFO phenomenon, we set out to portray all of its mystery and eeriness, while maintaining that reassuring level of playfulness that kept Spielberg’s movies from degenerating into maudlin horror stories.
The storyline itself owed a lot to Mr. Spielberg – an inescapable fact of life, considering the influence his films have had on the popular conception of aliens and their unearthly activities. The attraction is typically set up inside a big warehouse whose exterior is done up to resemble the infamous Hangar 18, where the U. S. government allegedly housed the wreckage of the flying saucer that crashed outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. A museum exhibit waits inside, displaying a mixture of Hollywood props and “real world” UFO evidence to set the mood.
Guests are taken by groups through a series of chambers, starting with a suburban home suddenly beset by mysterious forces that defy explanation (unless, of course, one is aware of how special effects are done with lights, wind machines and servo motors).
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Shopping for a New Look at a Futuristic Mall
drive-through waterfall. These flanking units were to carry the ambience up and out of the arena itself, all the
way back to the rear of the audience. The seating area itself would be under an overhanging shade structure, with a control booth in the middle of the top row.
The Roads Not Taken
David had a couple of pieces of concept art from previous iterations for us to look at. One was a Mad Max post-apocalyptic theme, apparently slapped together from scraps of corrugated metal and rusty girders, while the other was set in the world of Steampunk, with an industrial-revolution factory look and lots of wrought iron decor.
He asked us to try incorporating some of the Steampunk styling in our concept, so we added some wrought iron flourishes to the handrails, widow walks and video frames. But then he decided not to go that way, possibly because we’d need to redesign the cars themselves in order to put the idea across to the audience. It wouldn’t have been impossible, just expensive; using “off the rack” gas-powered vehicles would make replacing them much faster and easier.
The waterfall idea was eventually dropped, too, replaced by a monumental train station with brick arches for the cars to drive through. It wouldn’t be as impressive as crashing through a wall of water, but it would present fewer technical difficulties, and also allow for some pyro on that side of the set.
From there, the design process turned toward the adjustment of smaller details. Where we had originally planned for two video screens mounted on the metal bridges we now had a single screen affixed to the façade of the central building. This particular edifice morphed into an official-looking embassy with stately Greek columns and a capitol dome.
Zigging and Zagging
Once the project entered the construction phase, and the stunt coordinator had a chance to work out his team's choreography at full scale, the sheer physics of the proposed action dictated some additional changes, as one might expect. But a comparison of our final renderings and photos of the live performance shows that the fabricators were surprisingly faithful in their interpretation of our design intent.
The resulting show is stuffed with explosive action and amazing vehicular stunts, including a commando assault, a car that gets cut in half and another one crashing through the upper stories of a row of buildings. It's all a big illusion, of course, but this is one mirage that is sure to leave a lasting impression.
All images © Renaissance Entertainment
Superman's Metropolis, with its iconic heroes and villains
Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with flashing hoops of light and a robot named Maria
Metropoly, the popular game board writ large
Retro-rocket Spaceport, yesterday's vision of tomorrow
To this day, I maintain a stash of intriguing plastic and metal doo-dads out in the garage. I add to it whenever someone uses up a shapely shampoo bottle or one of my son’s toys breaks apart. I’m trying not to let it get out of hand, but my wife and I come at this from opposite ends. Whereas she is quick to toss out anything that is no longer of use to her, my default setting is to hang onto it. It’s not hoarding (not by a long shot), but a matter of being prepared. My motto is this: if I can imagine someday being able to imagine a use for something, I’ll keep it just in case. Hey, you never know when someone might need a custom-made ray gun!
Custom ray guns and a holster
Interstellar privateer "Nightshade"
A jet pack for all occasions
© Renaissance Entertainment
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There are no aircraft in the Car Stunt Show, but there’s plenty of high-flying action. A fictional motion picture crew struggles to capture it all on film as daredevil drivers take their vehicles through a roaring, skidding ballet of a movie chase scene complete with rapelling mercenaries, somersaulting motorcycles and flaming explosions. And let’s not forget the cars, the real stars of the show.
We at Radical Concepts were excited to ride shotgun through the set design phase, cranking out sketches, color renderings and changes galore as we worked through the design challenges with Mirage’s David Draves and Bob O’Neill.
The set was to be a row of buildings patterned after East European architecture that would tie in neatly to the faux Russian street scene set up nearby.
A unique aspect of this set is the metal trestles spanning the gaps between the buildings. They had to be wide enough for a car to traverse them as it crashed through walls at the second-story level. Built into the railings would be frames for giant video screens to provide the entire audience with a close-up of the action, ostensibly a live feed from the camera wielded by the ersatz film crew.
Anchoring one end of this row of facades would be a gas station (an opportunity for pyrotechnics and fire effects); on the other, a natural rock formation with a
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