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A Futuristic Photographic Experience - Futuroscope could be the best European theme park that you've never heard of! It's ideal for a family visit but for photographers, particularly those interested in 3D or other special effects, it's a treat.
Words and Photographs Tim Goldsmith
Advertised as the European Park of the Moving Image , Futuroscope in France must be unlike anything else in the world. If you imagine a cross between a collection of specialist cinemas and a conventional theme park like Disneyland, you are nearly there (well, for the concept anyway). Now add some of the most futuristic architecture this side of Florida's Epcot Centre and there you have it.
Although it opened in 1987, I can only remember seeing Futuroscope advertised once and that was several years ago on board a cross channel ferry. A huge poster showed some weird modern buildings and had the magic words (for me anyway) 3D plastered all over it. I made a mental note to get there one day and the opportunity came in June this year when my partner and I went to stay with some friends in France.
As usual before travelling to unfamiliar parts, I logged on to the Internet to find out more about the area and soon found the Futuroscope web site www.futuroscope.com . I have to admit to being disappointed with the site as there were no proper descriptions of the various attractions, nor did it really give you a feel for what the park has to offer. With so many people now relying on the Internet for information, this must be losing them visitors. While there I found out that of the nearly 2.5 million visitors to the park last year, only around 25,000 were from the UK, just 1%. So come on Futuroscope - get your marketing together as there is a whole country of visitors over here that you are missing out on!
As we were going to be in the region we decided we would add a couple of days to our holiday and take in the park anyway. And am I glad we did! We arrived at the motorway exit for the park at around 6 o'clock on a sweltering June evening. Not quite being high holiday season we had not bothered to book a hotel (which we could have done via the Futuroscope web site) but just headed for the first reasonable one we saw. We knew there were are a dozen or so hotels within a 10-minute walk of the Futuroscope gates we didn't think we would have a problem. As it happened the hotel we chose, like most of the others at this time of the year, was only around a quarter full. Looking at the size of the hotel car parks though, I would certainly book if I was going to be there during the school holidays as it looked like it could get busy. Also bear in mind that Futuroscope hosts the start of the Tour de France during the first week in July. Judging from the television pictures, the whole area is always packed at this time.
Sunday morning started hot and clear and after a short walk from the hotel we were at the Futuroscope entrance by 9.30am. We spotted the Press Office entrance alongside the main gates and so, just out of interest, thought we would see if anyone was on duty. The door was unlocked so we went in and to our amazement we found Carol and Christine (everyone in the park has a name badge - first names only), both immaculately turned out (as were all the staff) who greeted us with huge smiles. All I said was 'Good morning' and, realising we were British, they both switched themselves into the correct language mode and addressed us in perfect English. I wonder how many press office staff at a theme park over here would be working on a Sunday, let alone be multi-lingual?
I explained that we only had one and half days to see as much as possible and that I was going to write up the visit for ePHOTOzine. I told them that we wanted to see all the 3D shows and they suggested where we should go and how best to make the most of our time there.
After entering the park we first collected our electronic, infrared, simultaneous translation units, a real mouth (and ear) full, but essential as all of the films are in French. Each unit is about the size and weight of a doctor's stethoscope (and you wear them in the same way) and give you an English version of the soundtrack for each attraction. They are supplied free of charge but you will need a passport, credit card or driving licence as a deposit. Once inside one of the shows, check your unit is working by listening for a hiss (you will only hear speech when the film is running). I found the units to be a bit uncomfortable for prolonged use and soon got into the habit of slipping them off for action sequences, only using them when there was dialogue to follow. As the day progresses you may find the battery needs replacing (mine died at the beginning of the longest show we saw). Battery replacement can be done quickly and efficiently by any of the numerous attendants at each entry desk or turnstile.
Several of the attractions have showings at set times and vary in length anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes. You will find that 15 or 20 minutes spent studying the timetable the park provides will more than pay for its self as the day goes on. It's worth mentioning that a new timetable is printed every day, no mean achievement in itself, so make sure you pick up a new one each time as occasionally the start times may vary. These timetables also show any of the attractions that may be closed for maintenance as well as new ones opening (currently there are at least three in preparation).
I remembered from a visit to Epcot many years ago that most visitors to a theme park go in the main gates, turn left and queue at the first big ride or attraction they come to, even if the ones further up the park are less crowded. With this in mind we headed straight to Solido, a 3D cinema right at the top of the park, only pausing a couple of times to look at the amazing buildings all around us.
On entering the Solido cinema (the spherical building top left in the photo above which was taken from the panoramic Gyrotour ride) you are handed a pair of LCD glasses, about the size of a pair of old style flying goggles, but a bit heavier. These are a clever way to allow you to see the film in 3D. Each of the LCD panels on the glasses alternately pulse on and off. These pulses are timed to coincide with a similar pulsing of the dual lens projector, which also has two LCD panels. So, when the projector is projecting through one lens, the view through the opposite lens on your glasses is blocked. When projecting through the other lens, the view through the other lens of your glasses is blocked. Your brain is now getting a slightly different image from each eye just as it does in real life. It is therefore fooled into thinking it is seeing the scene as it would do normally and it processes the information into a three dimensional image. If all this pulsing sounds like it may put you off watching the film, don't worry, it happens so fast that you don't even notice.
This is all clever stuff, but the brain can be fooled even further. By varying the distances between the lenses when actually making the film, the 3D effect can be enhanced and things can be made to stand out from the screen (or the 'stereo window' as it called) further than they would do normally. This effect is called hyper-stereo and, if used correctly, can produce some really impressive results.
The film at Solido is a newly released storyT-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous Era, a 20 minute 3D film. This is unusual enough on its own, but there is a twist - it is filmed in 70mm IMAX http://www.imax.com/ . If you have never experienced an IMAX film (and experienced is certainly the right word) then it is difficult to explain the difference in quality over a normal film. Normal IMAX films are shot using highly specialised equipment and projected on to the inside of huge domes, many times bigger than screens at even the largest conventional cinema, and the quality is quite superb. It's like comparing a medium-format transparency with 35mm, or maybe the difference between watching Ben-Hur on your portable television at home and seeing it in Cinerama with full-blown stereo sound. Now, IMAX in 3D is something else entirely.
The inside of the dome onto which the film is projected is a massive 27 meters in diameter. It covers around 900 square meters and fills almost your entire field of vision. Just by looking straight ahead you don't see much else other than the screen area, not even the people in front as the seats are tiered quite steeply. As the film started we all put on the 3D glasses and waited in anticipation.
The film, which is obviously inspired by Jurassic Park, starts with a hyper-stereo shot of a man at the bottom of a quarry, breaking rocks. The massive image of the crouching figure fills about a quarter of the projection area. Suddenly, he hits a rock with his hammer and pieces fly off in all directions, including straight at the audience, most of whom all gasped and flinched at the same moment. As you settle into the film the 3D really adds to the narrative as the story continues with a young palaeontologist who has a dream about finding live dinosaurs in a primeval forest. I found the scenes with the teradyctall hovering and then flying off, plus any scene featuring good old T-Rex himself, to be particularly impressive. This has to be one of the best uses of 3D film making to date. I even noticed several children in the audience fruitlessly groping at the thin air directly in front of them to see if the images really were just a few feet in front of them. This is a must-see show for all Futuroscope visitors and looking at the length of the barriers used to keep the queues in line at busy periods you may have to wait, but it is worth it.
One tip for your visit is that at busy times you don't always have to go for the attraction with the shortest queue. Look to see the length of the show and the building's capacity, both are marked in the main guidebook as well as on boards outside each building. While some shows only hold 100 or so, others take over 500 people at a time, so even a long queue can move quite fast.
After leaving T-REX behind we decided we could just make it to another 3D IMAX showThe Battle for Atlantisat the next-door-but-one building. Often we found that you need to be in the queue well before the advertised start time of a show to be sure of getting in to a performance, but this time we were practically straight in. Once inside we heard screams coming from those already seated in the main area and soon discovered that along with several other of the park's attractions, this film involved a roller-coaster ride simulator, an added bonus which we weren't expecting. The simulation is created by mounting each row of seats on a movable platform, controlled by a series of hydraulic rams, similar technology to a flight simulator used to train airline pilots. These rams tilt, push and pull the seats, sometimes only very slightly and are synchronised with the film or camera movements, which all adds up to an amazing show. During one sequence however, the movements were much more pronounced, so much in fact that Sally, my partner actually had her 3D glasses jolted off! Due to their nature, some of the shows that use these ride simulators have height and health restrictions. Bear this in mind if travelling with small children, pregnant women, or those with bad backs or hearts.
The Battle for Atlantis is a brand new computer generated film about a futuristic race around the city of Atlantis with its inevitable population of aliens. Maybe it was the film's content, but I found the fast and furious pace with its combination of 3D, plus the huge IMAX image, plus all the jogging and jolting to be just a little over the top. I found it a bit reminiscent of an average quality shoot-em-up style computer game. As with any special effects the 3D should have enhanced the experience, but occasionally it just got in the way. Judging from the deafening screams from the rest of the audience though, I was in a minority and the children obviously loved it.
After this five minute assault on our senses, we decided the next show should be something a little more relaxing so we headed for Kinemax, probably the most radically designed building in the park. Kinemax overlooks the central lake and due to its size and unique shape, likened to a huge crystal formation thrusting out of the ground, it can be seen from all over park. At 35 meters high and with its myriad of smoked glass surfaces, each creating a riot of reflections, it must also be the most photographed building at Futuroscope.
Inside Kinemax, an IMAX projector throws an image onto a massive, but this time perfectly flat screen, over seven stories high. The film shown here isGrand Canyon: Hidden Secretsand tells the story of one of the wonders of the natural world. Again, the IMAX image here is incredibly sharp and completely fills your vision. The Grand Canyon is a perfect subject for the IMAX process and when the camera is mounted in a helicopter or on a raft, it really does feel like you are actually there. With a running time of almost 40 minutes, this is the longest IMAX show in the park. Although it uses a standard IMAX projector, it requires a reel of film some four kilometres (that's nearly 2.5 miles) long! For a finale, as the film ends the entire screen and the whole of the end of the building slowly rises and you exit out back into the park. Definitely not one to miss!
Next on our list was the circular building in front of the Gyrotour, a circular platform that slowly rises 45 metres in to the sky. This housed the Cinema 360 which literally puts you in the middle of the action. After entering through one of the side doors, you find yourself surrounded by nine long, thin screens forming a massive circle, 21 meters in diameter. This process uses nine conventional 35mm film projectors, each set into the wall and projecting its image to the screen directly opposite. The final effect is at first slightly lost as you automatically fall into the routine of being in a conventional cinema and stand still, looking straight in front of you. After a while however you start to look around and realise that not only can you see in front, but also to either side and even behind, to where you have just been. I could not find any technical details of how the film was made, but I should imagine that trying to synchronise nine projectors must prove to be a real nightmare.
The film we saw here was an account of a round-the world race for catamarans and featured some dramatic footage of the boats at sea at full speed, banked over at almost unbelievable angles, plus some more gentle shots of the teams in port. The most impressive shots achieved were those filmed by cameras actually mounted on the boats, giving a real impression of what it must be like to sail on these yachts. By the time I had finished constantly turning around to see the full panoramic scenes of racing in some very rough seas, I was almost starting to feel a little seasick. Overall this was a slightly difficult concept to handle, but with some memorable moments. This film was starting to show its age and from summer 2000 will be replaced by a travelogue filmed in Brazil.
After a welcome refreshment break we next went to see the show at the Tapis Magiqu. With our French the only translation we could make out of this was Magic Carpet so we weren't quite sure what to expect. We entered and, set below the floor in the foyer was a huge IMAX projector. This is the only time any of the technical equipment used at the park can be seen and immediately is apparent why the IMAX image is superior to that of a conventional cinema. Not only is the projector massive, maybe about the size of a family saloon car, but so is the film, which can be clearly seen as it runs up from the projector pit, way up into the roof of the building and then back down again.
After a short wait, we entered the auditorium of what we first thought was just another IMAX cinema and took our seats. We noticed that the floor was made of glass, but didn't think anything of it. The film,Flowers in the Sky, billed as the incredible life story of the Monarch butterfly, started and we were again treated to some high quality images. After a couple of minutes there was a scene were the newly emerged butterfly takes to the air and the camera pans up and follows it. Suddenly a second projector is switched on and a section of the film was projected onto a screen beneath our feet. It was if we were suspended in the middle of the screen with the film above and below us. We were right in our translation as it was just like being on a magic carpet. Particularly memorable was the scene where we flew over a city with its towering skyscrapers. It felt just like we were all travelling in a hot air balloon.
For the final show on our first day we went to the IMAX 3D cinema to seeWings of Courage. This time the 3D process used is of the more conventional type and uses two polarised filters, one horizontal and one vertical placed over the projector lenses. The Polaroid glasses you of are issued with have their polarising lenses in the opposite order, therefore only letting each your eyes see the image intended for it. Again, your brain thinks it is seeing as normal and produces a 3D effect. This is the system that produces two separate images on the screen and both can be clearly seen if you take the glasses off.
Having taken a leaf out of Disneyland's book, before we got to see this show we were first ushered into a holding theatre where we shown a taster for the show. This included a very good explanation of how 3D works, plus details of how this film was created. This holding system is used in several of the park's attractions and is quite a clever idea since you feel like the show has started while in effect you are still queuing.
The story here is of the first airmail service between from South America to Europe. This film turned out to be more interesting than we expected but I found that prolonged viewing of the huge IMAX screen (the film lasts nearly 40 minutes) coupled with the 3D can prove to be somewhat tiring on the eyes. In fact there were occasions when I felt the didn't contribute to the story at all.
After dinner back at the hotel, we returned to the park later that evening for the night laser show. This takes place during the summer and at selected other times throughout the year and proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. The show takes place around the large central lake that is transformed into one large water stage. It started with a light and laser show, all set to music and included huge coloured fountains and fireworks. A few minutes into the show and all the lights went out and just a few of the central fountains threw up a fine mist of water into the air. Then projected on to this mist, were still, moving and computer generated images, the mist acting as a huge screen. This was a very impressive show which we later found out was orchestrated by the same company who put on the spectacular Eiffel Tower show for New Year's Eve 2000. I certainly would have taken some fast film had I known what to expect. My pathetic result reproduced here certainly does not do the show justice, but then it was hand-held and taken on ISO100 film.
Whilst on the subject of film, make sure you take plenty as there were many more photo opportunities at Futuroscope than we were expecting. A polarising filter for each of your lenses will pay dividends, allowing you to play with all those reflections in the glass buildings and the (hopefully) vivid blue skies.
The following day, Monday, we returned to the park to visit the few shows we had not yet managed to see and were not surprised to find that quite a few school trips were visiting the park. According to the Press Office, Sunday afternoons are the quietest times of the week, probably because visitors who come for the weekend are on their way home by then. Most weekdays during term time there are school parties, but apart from the extra noise in some shows, we found them to be very well behaved. Unsurprisingly, Saturdays are the busiest days particularly in summer, thanks to the evening laser show.
First on the list for our second day was the Cinema Dynamique which, thanks to all the screaming coming from inside, we knew was going to be another simulator ride. This film isThe Secrets of the Lost Temple which owes more than a passing nod to the Indiana Jones series. A young student finds an old book and dreams about discovering an ancient civilisation, with of course the inevitable treasure. As in several other shows, here the seats are mounted on platforms that move, rock and bump along with the action. In fact you can get so engrossed that it takes a minute or two to realise that the entire dream sequence is computer generated. You follow the hero as he floats along an underground stream and has numerous adventures on his way. After all these computer generated effects, you exit the show and end up in a Cyber Avenue, a large video game arcade.
If you only have one day for your visit (ideally you will need the best part of two days to see everything properly) I suggest you skip the two pavilions we visited next. You won't have missed very much if you have to pass on the Pavillon du Futuroscope (shown above) with its Images of Taste experience or the Imagic show which is peculiarly French in its content. To the discerning eye, I'm afraid the latter is a very boring 30 minutes and obviously contrived, featuring a dubious mix of live action and special effects. Being generous, I shall just say that it loses somewhat in the translation.
The next stop was the splendid building that houses the Omnimax cinema. Looking into this glass building you can see the large IMAX dome but the whole effect seems to be constantly changing due to the way the sun shines on it at different times of the day.
The IMAX film shown here is Everest, the story of a team of mountaineers and how they conquered the world's highest peak. Considerable modifications had to made to the normally massive IMAX cameras in order for this film to be made. Full details of all the hardships the film crew had to endure can be found on a special section of the IMAX web site http://www.everestfilm.com/. Again, Everest is a perfect subject for the IMAX process, and by projecting the film onto the inside surface of a sphere it gives a truly panoramic show, the field of view being a true 180 degrees wide. A totally absorbing and fascinating film, for once the sheer scale of the mountain when compared to the tiny human climbers can really be appreciated.
As it was a very hot day we decided to make a stop at one of the many refreshment places. The one we had chosen was next to a gift shop and outside I noticed something that looked a bit like an telephone kiosk, but styled like an overgrown film cassette. Looking inside however I found that it contained a video camera and a Nikon F301 fitted with a 28mm lens. At first I though it must be something to do with the closed circuit security system, but why the still camera? After some further investigations inside the shop we discovered that it was used to take souvenir photographs of people with one of the futuristic buildings in the background. Apparently the cashier inside the shop checks the shot by looking at the picture coming from the video camera and fires the Nikon by remote control. The processed picture can then be printed in a variety of sizes, or onto a choice of several other items including mugs, t-shirts or calendars and either collected before you leave or posted on. An interesting concept - I wonder how long all that equipment would last in a British theme park?
By the way, I recommend you leave any souvenir shopping until you are on the way out to save carrying extra weight around with you all day. There are many shops and boutiques around the park, mostly selling the same things, but the best selection is in the group of shops around the entrance gates. Stereo enthusiasts should look out for the Lestrade 3D viewer and cards, a bargain at 50 Francs (about 5) and the unique Discover 3D viewer for 130 Francs (about 13). The latter is battery operated and has interchangeable film cassettes, although I did not see any other subjects for sale.
Suitably refreshed, we continued on our circuit with a visit to the Cinema Haute Resoloution for a 25-minute tour of the countryside around the local area. This High Definition film is was shot at 48 frames per second, twice the normal speed, which when projected produces an image with far more detail than you would normally expect. Couple this with 70mm film stock and even a picture this large is pretty impressive. If you intend to spend time in the area after your visit to the park, then this and the following show are worth seeing to whet your appetite.
After another trip on the Gyrotour for our second a panoramic view of the park, we next we made for the Pavillion de le Vienne . This is an unmistakable building due to the fact that the entire front has a waterfall running down it. Here we had one of our longest waits, around 20 minutes, but the cool area under the waterfall was most welcome. This pavilion shows Dynamic Vienne, a mix between a 12-minute commercial for the local Vienne region and a roller-coaster ride that goes nowhere. Again the simulator rocks and shakes you in time with the action. The show, which is about a man trying to get to his wedding on time has many memorable sequences. My favourite was when the camera is strapped to the front of a car and it races through the narrow streets of a picturesque village. Hardly time to spot the stuntmen jumping out of the way as you are literally thrown into the corners. Watch out for the crash at the end, judging from the screams this was the favourite section for most people.
After this 12-minute shake-up we set off in search of a seat and some lunch (I can recommend the cheese and ham duo French sticks at less than 2 each) before we visited the final attraction.
Unknowingly, we had saved the show with probably the best 3D effects until last. The Cinema en Relief shows the 3D film with the best story line in the entire park. Only opened in February 2000,Alien Adventureis a 35 minute computer generated film which tells the story of a race of Aliens who send a scouting party to Earth before they decide to launch a full-scale invasion. Unfortunately for them, they land in a theme park which is not yet open to the public and mistake the rides they are taken on as real life on earth. You will not be surprised to learn that the theme park bears an uncanny resemblance to Futuroscope. While not wishing to give away too much of the plot of this film all I will say is that you should watch out for the ice-ride sequence and the Toy Story inspired ride around a child's playroom. The latter features some of the best computer graphics I have seen outside of Hollywood blockbusters. The 3D really does make it feel like you are travelling round inside an enclosed space as in the background you can see sections you have already passed. Add to this the really clever mannerisms the programmers have given to the aliens and we had a pretty impressive end to our visit.
You will find Futuroscope near Poitiers, just about half way down the length of France and, thanks to the recent opening of a T.G.V. high speed rail link, now less than an hour and a half by train from Paris. If travelling by road it is between three and four hours from Paris, depending on which way you go. The park has its own exit off the A10 motorway, junction 28, and this is the quickest way there but be prepared to fork out at least 25 in motorway tolls. If you only have one day for your visit, I recommend you bite the bullet, pay the tolls and save yourself an hour or two. The park is less than two hours from Disneyland, Paris so can easily be combined with a trip there if you have the time.
The cost of a visit to Futuroscope is about on par with other major theme parks. A one-day pass for adults in high season is around 20 and 15 for children. A two-day pass is around 35 for adults and 25 for children. Both are considerably cheaper in the off season, but opening times are shorter. It is worth noting that children are classed as those under 12 years of age. Tucked away in the back of the Futuroscope guide, shown left (which at just 2 is very good value) I found mention of a Futuropass, which at 55 and 40 gives unlimited access to the park for 2 years. This has to be well worth while if you regularly visit the area.
Overall I would say that Futuroscope offers exceptional value for money. Although I was a tiny bit disappointed with a couple of the shows, mostly due to a difference in the sense of humour between the French and us no doubt, the park's unique setting with its imaginative buildings more than made up for it. I could have spent the whole visit just photographing the fantastic architecture with its acres of glass and amazing reflections. Next time you are in the central region of France, try to include a visit to Futuroscope - unless you have very young children who despite the presence of a large play area may quickly get bored, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
Many thanks to the Futuroscope Press Office for all their help at such short notice and their permission to publish photos taken in the park.
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