Creative Director Rich Hill has been creating memorable attractions for Sally Corporation since 1999. His work includes serving as lead designer on the popular Boo Blasters dark rides, co-designer of the Ripley’s Scream in the Dark! attraction in Thailand, and production designer on many others. Rich also was an animatronic artist for Sally involved in creating robotic and human fantasy characters.
Rich most recently led the design of the award-winning Justice League: Battle for Metropolis dark rides that opened in St. Louis and Texas. Six Flags will be adding two more versions of this attraction in 2016. Rich was kind enough to answer my questions about his diverse career. It was a thrill to learn about Rich’s background and the development of such a great ride.
How did you get started in the themed entertainment business?
I have been a big fan of theme parks, water parks, dark rides, and rollercoasters since I was a kid. Mix that with a love of sci-fi and horror movies, comic book art, and all kinds of assorted geekery, and it was an easy choice to pursue ride design as a career…specifically dark ride design.
What attracted you to working as an artist?
I think it’s in my blood. My mother is an artist, along with most of my aunts and uncles. I have been drawing, writing, painting, and sculpting for as long as I can remember. Fantasy artists like Sid Mead, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, and H.R. Giger had a big influence on me while growing up. I loved the incredible, strange worlds they created. Designing dark rides, I get to take people to my own strange worlds. I feel like I am designing these rides for my kid-self…they are rides that a young Rich would have ridden over and over, absorbing every detail.
I’ve also always been fascinated by technology and how it could breathe life into otherwise inanimate objects. I remember once when I was young, taking apart a tape recorder and hooking the mechanisms up to my Star Wars action figures to make them “move” all on their own. Hit the play button, and Boba Fett would drop into “The Great Pit of Carcoon”…pressing reverse would save him!
You’ve worked at Sally Corporation for more than 15 years. What’s the best part of working there?
Definitely the people. Sally is comprised of such a talented group of artists with all types of backgrounds. I think you can really get a sense of who the team is by what they do for hobbies. Some make miniature doll houses, some make cosplay costumes, others turn their trucks into zombie battle machines, and others make custom bicycles on the side. There are surfers, punk rockers, rednecks, comic nerds…they are some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet!
Sally is known for its dark rides, particularly interactive attractions. What makes dark rides so special?
Riding on the biggest, fastest roller coaster is quite a thrill, but generally your experience takes place here on planet earth. The thing about a dark ride is that it can transport you to another world…somewhere special that is a totally new experience. It can show you things that have never been seen before and allow you to interact with people and places in new and exciting ways. In my book, there’s nothing better!
You were the lead designer on the new Justice League: Battle for Metropolis 4D attraction that’s been drawing so much acclaim. How did this project originate?
For years we had been dreaming of creating a world-class dark ride for Six Flags…a real anchor attraction that could take the place of a roller coaster in their yearly roster and go to multiple parks. Six Flags is perhaps the only group with the capital, growth, and vision to make a plan of that magnitude come true.
In 2011, Sally Corporation was fortunate to be given the opportunity to create a DC Comics themed dark ride at Warner Bros. Movie World in Gold Coast, Australia. Justice League: Alien Invasion 3D allowed us to take a huge step in the evolution of our rides. We blended high gain projection screens with massive dimensional sets and scenery. Interactive targets in both the virtual and practical. One of the biggest leaps forward conceptually was making a game that didn’t rely on seeing the (typical) glowing targets everywhere. This makes guests seek out the threats instead of just looking for red dots everywhere. Alien Invasion opened in 2012 to excellent reviews and continues to be one of the most popular rides in the park.
Sally’s CEO, John Wood, and I took the success of JL: AI3D to the board room at Six Flags. Our initial meetings with Tom Iven, Hank Salemi, Les Hudson, and Sam Rhodes let us know that there were a few things they would require as far as guest experience in order for them to move forward with a major dark ride. They challenged us to design a ride that has the thrill Six Flags guests have come to expect, a story that put the riders in the action instead of just being a passive observer, and great gameplay that rivals even the best video games. We went to the drawing board and developed a ride concept that we felt met all of those criteria. After a few tweaks, we all presented it to Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. At that point, we got the green light and started production.
One of Battle for Metropolis’ highlights is the ride vehicles from Oceaneering, who also developed vehicles for the Universal Transformers attractions. What made them the right choice?
Oceaneering has produced some amazing conveyances for a number of legendary dark rides with Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and others over the years. Those big projects only seem to happen every few years though. So, Oceaneering approached us about helping them break into the regional theme park market. They knew Sally Corporation had a good track record and we are a trusted dark ride manufacturer in that sphere.
We knew all about their work with the destination parks, and that they could definitely deliver the thrill we were looking for in Sally’s “Next Gen” rides. Once we revealed our new design for the upcoming Justice League ride vehicles (motion base vehicles with video sync and interactive gaming)…it was obvious that they would be a perfect match. They have been a real pleasure to work with, and I look forward to many years of creative collaborations with them!
Speaking of Transformers, Battle for Metropolis feels like a unique mix between the projection technologies of that attraction with the interactivity that’s a trademark of Sally. How challenging was it to connect the 3D screens with the interactive side of the ride?
Oh, it was a piece of cake! Just kidding…it actually took years of blood, sweat, and (almost) tears to develop the 3D interactivity in those rides. The credit really goes to Pure Imagination and Alterface for making the gaming as great as it is. Early on, we challenged them to make the real-time interactivity more accurate and natural feeling than anything else out there. They really blew everyone on the team away with the results.
Alterface developed an incredibly solid system that works with in-scene detection cameras and can make on the fly changes. As a designer, that gives me a lot of creative freedom to make adjustments to game feel on site. They also helped us create the “Congratulations Scoreboard” that allows riders to compare their teams score (vehicle score) and their personal score against anyone who has ever ridden the ride. This is really fun for the gamers who are competing online (there are a few theme park groups who have held competitions through social media).
Another aspect that puts the gaming over the top was that Pure Imagination developing visual “trajectories” that allow each player to see their shots coming out of the gun. This has never been done with an interactive device that is not dashboard mounted. The geniuses at PI figured out all of the math to make it work flawlessly. The results are just amazing, too. I truly believe this is the best gaming system that’s ever been put into an attraction…and trust me, I have played them all!
One of the most impressive aspects is the Joker animatronic, which brings a different level of immersion. How involved was DC Entertainment in making sure you presented him right?
Thank you! We continue to preach that bringing practical elements into a media-based ride are very important, and the Joker proves that point flawlessly.
Luckily, we have some of the most talented artists in the industry working at Sally Corp that can help bring some of those practical elements to life. The Joker was sculpted by Russell Hall. His head was animated by Steve Phillips, and his body was animated by Grant Hamilton. Harold Esposito and Nick Gilder built his Laughing Gas Cannon. The Joker just might be the coolest animatronic we’ve ever built (besides our amazing queue line character, Cyborg…built by John Salisbury). The costuming and figure finish of both characters was supervised by Luda Budnik.
Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are very protective of every character in the DC universe. Some of these superheroes have been around for 75 years now! We went to great lengths to represent them as true to the brand as possible. That doesn’t mean that we had to copy existing designs though. Actually, they allowed us to develop many new looks so they exist only in the world of this ride. The Joker and the Batmobile are two of the unique elements we were able to play with. We had weekly meetings with WB/DC and Six Flags to review the ride progress and give them an opportunity to make notes.
Battle for Metropolis will expand to two more parks next year, which represents a serious investment in dark rides from Six Flags. Do you expect dark rides to continue to have a greater presence in regional parks?
We can only hope so! Dark rides have always held an important position in amusement parks through the years. And with the new parks being built in Dubai and China, not to mention chains like Cedar Fair announcing their commitment to bring dark rides to all of their parks…I think we are going to be looking at a whole slew of indoor attractions popping up in the near future. Roller coasters are fun, but it’s usually the dark ride that gives the park its unique identity…its heart.
What are some of your favorite other attractions that you’ve designed over the years?
Scream In the Dark! was a funhouse/horror ride I designed with our VP of Design Drew Hunter about five years ago for Ripley’s in Thailand. It was a mix of new and old techniques that really made it a fun ride. It featured many of the standard “stunts” you would expect to see in Laff in the Dark type dark rides like pop out characters, shaking doors, and strobe effects to create movement on static characters. The ride also included some new technology like a huge laughing clown projected on fog screen and high end animatronics.
We also developed a unique interactive feature for that ride, “Scream activated” bonus targets that would only turn on when riders shrieked at the top of their lungs. So…the end result was that people waiting in line to ride would hear people inside the attraction screaming bloody murder. It really made them wonder what the heck was going on in there!
I also enjoyed doing the production designs for a float through dark ride in Spain that took guests on a tour through human evolution, called “El Ultimo Minuto” (or “The Last Minute”). The ride is inside one of the largest paleontology museums in the world. Everything had to be incredibly accurate because all of the characters needed to be approved by real paleontologists and archaeologists…so it required a ton of research. That might not sound like much fun, but I really enjoy that part of it!
What is the future of dark rides? Where are they heading in the next few years and beyond?
We will keep telling great stories, but technology is going to allow us to tell it in better and more entertaining ways. Gaming will become much more prevalent in future rides, but we will get away from the typical “shoot em up” traditional techniques. You will see more gesture based interactive systems and fewer guns. Virtual reality is really hot right now, but there are many issues that need to be figured out before it is acceptable for consumer use.
Personally, in the future I would like to get rid of queue lines altogether. It can be so boring standing in line for a ride. I think Universal has done it the best so far…the Harry Potter queues are pretty entertaining. The budget for a ride should extend out into the line every time in my opinion. Usually when the budget gets cut, the first thing to go is queue theming and that’s sad because it’s where guests spend most of their day.
Other than that, I would really like to develop a rollercoaster/dark ride hybrid. I think that could be really amazing if done right. I have been on a few that come close, but there are simple design issues that always kill the delivery of the story. When you’re designing a dark ride, it’s all about capturing the audiences imagination and telling a great story!
Thanks so much to Rich for participating in this interview!
Check out my review of Justice League: Battle for Metropolis at Six Flags St. Louis.