Friday, 14 June 2019

We need Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux more than ever 💥


After 17 years, the Russian Space Station could no longer withstand any more meteor showers. So many actors on the same script! Whilst yes, the time has come for a natural conclusion to this innovative attraction, it represents a unique time for Disney that I am honestly humbled to have witnessed. In 2019, are we confident we should have conquered… Armageddon?  

Hot Set! 🔥

This first section recalls the attraction narrative (I was compelled to include this as I felt no other article encapsulated the spirit of this experience). If you were not able to enjoy the Armageddon world for yourself, I recommend watching a walkthrough to immerse yourself first.

Disneyland Paris brings to life fantasy, inviting guests to craft stories where they are the star. However, Walt Disney Studios takes us behind the scenes of these stories, offering an appreciation for the creation process. Specifically, Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux appoints budding actors into the world of special effects, celebrating the iconic, constant and flamboyant use of explosions in the steller blockbuster movie, Armageddon.

The attraction is in Studio 7 - a large, metal carrier soundstage, with obstruction barriers saying ‘Hot Set’ letting us know that we are on a movie set (the park was originally designed to be a working studio)! Orange, boiler-suited special effects crew oversee us in the waiting area. We can see the Armadillo (mobile driller) used in the film, alongside movie posters of the characters with their reasons for risking it all to save the world:

Honour ❤️
Country ❤️
Thrill ❤️
Adventure ❤️
Fun❤️
Money ❤️
Love ❤️

Gliding into the pre-show area we are almost ready to film, with sketches and models of the various space vehicles on display. Our director is eager to remind us all about the history of special effects and how far we have come - this means we’ve gotta really prove ourselves for the extra scene we’re filming today for Armageddon! 😱 Utilising the latest special effects techniques, we’re going on the Russian Space Station ‘Mir’, 70 miles above Earth. With the trusty onboard computer and Colonel Andropov, will we survive the upcoming meteor shower?


In the station's main deck, anything can happen. Whilst it all seems calm, once the director shouts ‘ACTION’, everything breaks loose. Meteorite chunks hit, sparks fly, lights flash, windows open exposing us to the debris and harsh rough winds of space (10,00 cubic metres of air is forced upon us)! When everything feels hopeless, the ceiling falls and a meteor shard slashes through the station, causing a fireball explosion! The lights go out… CUT!

“It's a gigantic technical feat” -  Paul, Special Effects lead on  Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux 🎥

I’m always drawn to this attraction for sheer uniqueness - it was especially made for Walt Disney Studios and had two years of development time. In the waiting area looking at the Armadillo and posters, I love how we are instantly juxtaposed between thinking about whether we would save the world (and why), alongside envisioning just how a mission like this could be brought to the big screen. For me, there could only be one reason to risk it all:


This attraction goes beyond convention with the hybrid of non-fiction (an appreciation of real-life special effects) and fiction (our quickly approved astronaut credentials). This is reflected in the source text, such as with the armadillo being fictional (costing 1 million to create!), but the shuttles seen otherwise being actually prepared for launches by NASA. The attraction’s success with a believable feel, however, is pulled off by neither style being taken fully seriously - it was decided for example that the set should not be reset each time like a true movie-set would, to support guests immersion in space.

Blurring of worlds works throughout the attraction, even in full circle once we leave the space station, seeing models of our ship and the meteorite which destroyed us just moments ago. Also, the fan we see in Bears pre-show instruction video is out for us to enjoy, giving another space to both appreciate (and be involved in) special effects. Even the vending machines outside have become ‘sub zero’, where Perrier, Magnum and Cornetto all receive a frosty themed retouch. This effort to immerse us even when we have left the attraction is impressive and one I feel all experiences should aspire to be like (whilst in their world, we should never disconnect).


Of course, a big push for this attraction’s high quality is the special effects used - the working name for the experience was ‘Armageddon - The Amazing Effects Show’ after all. There are over 250 effect shots throughout the Armageddon film and this passion for cutting-edge technology is celebrated here for many who will never even step foot onto a movie set. The liquid nitrogen for fog and steam for vapours is identical to the process on a real movie set, and the space effect when the station doors open (caused by pulling a vacuum on the room, sucking away the air and smoke) almost didn’t make it past health and safety! Whilst more controlled than a movie set, this is “as close as the audience is gunna’ get to experience exactly what the actors did” (Paul, Special Effects lead). Every element activates at a specific time to carry on the story - truly, this attraction must be applauded even just for the passion involved. This reflects the passion of the original film - the movie took 1 year to make with 2700 staff, and the director had two meetings every day on set with the various visual effects teams.

Could we survive an Armageddon?  ☄️

Repeated surveys from guests reveal satisfaction for the experience even recently, highlighting the themes timeless appeal. However, after 17 years with no upgrades, it feels right that Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux in its current state should close. A closure should always be judged by its replacement though - and this will be a high-tech, Spiderman ride. Is this the right choice?

Did you know Armageddon was a Disney film? It was distributed under Touchstone pictures (a label of Walt Disney Studios) to ensure that core Disney maintains a family appeal. Walt Disney Studios becomes the perfect space to celebrate non-conventional Disney stories like Armageddon. Whilst Touchstone is now dormant, Disney recently released ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ (snow leopard documentary) and ‘Queen of Katwe’ (American biographical drama about a Ugandan chess player). These new and unique stories would offer their own powerful attractions which could fit well in a wider, behind-the-scenes park, as Walt Disney Studios is. Spiderman is...safe. Everywhere. Predictable.

Taking a step back from the benefits of giving all movies a space to thrive within parks, Armageddon is powerful on its own. The messages still resonate today. God, I cried so much wondering about what I would do realising that the world was going to die that day.  Leaving the attraction knowing that some of the men on the mission don’t come back in the film, is another raw feeling. One movie segment has the Air Force Colonel brashly threatening the space crew with a gun, which could have been enough for the air force to force Armageddon to remove all scenes featuring him - but they felt his choices in that situation... were justified. So it was kept. The choices this movie brings upon us are not easy. The notion that a meteor with the force of 10,000 nuclear weapons will destroy all life (regardless of wealth), and so EVERYONE has to work together - doesn’t that sound like the perfect analogy to today’s climate crisis? This attraction reaffirmed my own role in stopping the world’s destruction, and the power Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux has on me to this day.


A similarly potent theme in the film was the variety of masculinity representation  - it’s refreshing to see a group of friends just so truly different from each other come together, all with their reasons for wanting to save the world. Really bold and unique storytelling:

“People always shy away from showing all that much emotion. They’re afraid that if you get really upset that somehow that means you’re not cool or you’re not sufficiently heroic, but I thought Bruce is the hero, really, so I could have the opportunity to do that, and I thought why not”
- The director of Armageddon recalling the ‘I love you’ scene between the main character and his daughter's fiance.


If we mix this narrative focus in with a bigger celebration of special effects (which is developed into the narrative of the pre and post attraction areas), an upgrade could truly inspire the next generation. Changes to the pre-show with a hands-on understanding of special effects such as green-screen suits (so we could watch back our time as astronauts on the big screen) is one exciting idea. Becoming the director yourself, choreographing each effect into your own symphony would also be exciting. Even Nitrogenie replacing the vending machines would offer a refreshing touch. All these ideas would work perfectly for a reboot of Armageddon (showing off new special effects in the process), but any new movie offering a destruction element would work well, opening up an immersive experience which guests would come back for.

As Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux is replaced by Spiderman, Art of Disney Animation fades away for Frozen and Studio Tram Tour is overrun by Cars (I really hope the Armadillo is put here), we are removing the very essence of this park - celebrating the world, behind the screen. This change dissolves the uniqueness of the Parisian offering, making the parks theme much more predictable. Disneyland Paris becomes ‘old’ Disney and Walt Disney Studios becomes ‘new’ Disney. This makes me sad - it confirms that any new attraction will only be made if it has a long-standing, heavily-grossing IP. Original, park-only storytelling will disappear. I know Disneyland Paris has had financial troubles, and I want them to take steps to ensure it doesn't close. But still, it's a grey thought to think that there is no longer a point of inspiration for special effects out there in theme parks and that the aim of Walt Disney Studios is no longer the link between education and fun. Regardless, looking back, I am honoured to have walked into Studio 7, and that I was able to enjoy  Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux - a truly one-of-a-kind celebration of special effects, and beyond.



To find out more about the Armageddon: les Effets Spéciaux world, you can watch a walk-through, listen to the Magical Disneyland Paris podcast, enjoy the movie soundtrack, read more from the movie commentary on the passion/special effects that went into the movie (including the Walt Disney sound stages), or relive the attractions closing ceremony.

Photography: Justin
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