UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — The 10-foot-tall, red-blue-and-silver Transformer Optimus Prime stomps his way through the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park — sending adults and kids scrambling.
No, this isn't a scene from a new "Transformers"" movie. It's part of the theme park's latest attraction — "Transformers: The Ride — 3D." And one of the highlights is a chance to take a photo with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, the heroes of the toy, television and film lines.
The ride doesn't officially open until May 25. But many park visitors in May got to ride the attraction early as it was tested for any glitches.
"Transformers: The Ride — 3D" has taken over the soundstage that once housed the "Backdraft" and special effects shows. The front of the massive building sports life-size images of Optimus Prime, who check in at 28-feet tall, and Megatron, who stands 38-feet tall.
"Even with that, the space wasn't actually big enough," says Chick Russell, show producer for Universal Creative, the team that designs everything connected to the Universal parks. "We had to dig a basement and add another floor."
The 60,000-square-foot space was needed to bring together a ride that features a mobile in-car action attraction that's similar to Disneyland's "Indiana Jones" ride mixed with the giant projection screen work of "The Simpsons."
The thrill ride, which takes you from city streets to the tops of buildings, was made with the help of creative consultant Michael Bay, the director who brought the "Transformers" to the big screen, plus the technical wizards at Industrial Light & Magic.
"We came up with a brand new story for the attraction. It's not based on any of the films," Russell says. It's a new story, but features many of the Autobots and Decepticons from the animated and feature film offerings.
Before getting on the ride, parkgoers pass through a military maze — known as N.E.S.T. — designed to entertain fans and educate those who don't know Bumblebee from Devastator. Images and props tied to the feature films are used through the pathways leading to the ride.
The orientation visit becomes serious when Optimus Prime speaks: "Humans, you are in grave danger. The Decepticons have taken over. We need your help."
That help means 12 "volunteers," encouraged in drill sergeant fashion by the show's cast, pile into Evac, an Autobot created just for the ride to help keep the much-prized All-Spark shard from the bad guys. The cars have flight simulation technology that allows them to tip, twist and turn 360-degrees.
Bay says the ride is designed to envelop the audience and make them feel like they're in the middle of the battle between the giant robots.
On the ride, no car ever sees the group ahead or behind them. Russell points out that at one point the car moves up one floor but the rider does not notice the change.
Each car moves along 2,000 feet of track at perceived speeds of 60 mph. Fourteen massive screens make the 3-D images reach from floor to ceiling. There's no image loss, despite the massive size, because the images are projected at four times the resolution of HD.
"The screens are bigger than anything we've ever projected on before. Our goal is to make guests feel like they're in a Transformers movie. It is unlike anything anybody's ever seen on a ride," says Jeff White, the visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic. "This is the most complex and technically challenging project we have ever worked on."
That's high praise for a company that has distinguished itself through special effects work from "Star Wars" to the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.
The scope of the ride becomes clear when the car speeds down a city street while massive Transformers battle. Every image on the ride is animated, but it looks real. To create the city street, a high-resolution, sphere-shaped still camera shot 75 panoramic images every 50 feet within a square mile area of Chicago.
"We couldn't shoot this with video cameras or film cameras because we wanted to be changing the perspective of the scenes during the ride. So what they did was (they) went out and shot high definition stills and then took those images and stitched them together. Those images were then put on a 3-D environment — much like a video game — and when they did that they end up with images that look like a city street," Russell says.
Along the way, elements such as water, heat and wind are used to create the most realistic ride as possible.