When it comes to the art of storytelling, Nicolas de Villiers, president of Puy du Fou, the French theme park famous for staging epic historical shows, believes in “emotion more than physical sensation”.
According to Mr de Villiers, story-driven shows which visitors can enjoy with their families are the best way to inspire emotion. “A live show speaks to people’s souls,” he says.
This year Puy du Fou introduced Les Amoureux de Verdun at a cost of almost £3 million. The evocative walk-through experience combines live performance, theatrical sets as well as video, animatronic and special effects to recreate life in the trenches of the Great War.
We all have love, suffering, death and hope in common, wherever we come from – a story that uses these ingredients will work with everybody
Visitors listen to touching exchanges between a French soldier and his wife. The soldier’s comforting words belie the reality of trench life – ground-shuddering explosions, gunfire, flames and men resorting to rats for food. “You really are in the middle of the war,” says Mr de Villiers. The experience culminates in hope, with the calm of the Christmas truce, when opposing forces united in song.
“Poetic vision of history”
The “poetic vision of history” presented in attractions such as Les Amoureux de Verdun continues to draw new visitors to Puy du Fou. Its team maintains a distinctive vision by developing everything internally. “We never follow the market. We follow our artistic mood,” says Mr de Villiers. “Everything comes from the story that we want to tell. We just find the right way to tell it.”
A signature Puy du Fou show starts with universal themes. “We all have love, suffering, death and hope in common, wherever we come from – a story that uses these ingredients will work with everybody,” says Mr de Villiers.
Storylines are rooted in history and scenery is built to scale. Productions can involve mixed media, special effects, live acting and even animals. “It’s like a movie, but in real life. Everything is authentic,” he says.
If the technology doesn’t exist to create the desired effect, Puy du Fou will invent it. The team recently collaborated with Koert Vermeulen at ACT Lighting Design to create 50 Neopter drones to illuminate the night sky during this summer’s Cinéscénie show.
For 2016, Mr de Villiers and team are perfecting a motion-based system for a new indoor show called Le Dernier Panache. Guests will watch the adventures of an 18th-century French naval officer inside a huge theatre featuring 13 stages. The motion technology will allow audiences to follow the character, as if by magic, without realising they are moving.
Puy du Fou’s experts are bringing their brand of historical entertainment to the UK next year through a collaboration with the Eleven Arches charity.
From July 2, 2016 they will present Kynren, an epic tale of England, in a £31-million open-air theatre event, against the backdrop of Auckland Castle in County Durham. The 90-minute evening spectacular will transport visitors through 2,000 years of English history, from Roman times to the Second World War.
Kynren, which echoes the Anglo-Saxon word for generation, takes place across a 7.5-acre stage, involves more than 1,000 volunteers and will host audiences of up to 8,000. It will run for 14 performances in the first season. “Our ambition is to be there for generations to come,” says Anne-Isabelle Daulon, chief executive at Eleven Arches.
Justice League at Six Flags
Another major attraction putting guests in the heart of the action is Justice League: Battle for Metropolis. Created in partnership with Six Flags, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and DC Entertainment, the ride debuted in May at Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags St. Louis in America. Guests join Batman and Cyborg on a three-and-a-half-minute dash to save Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern from Lex Luthor and The Joker.
The superhero-themed dark ride is a technical tour de force. Guests board custom-designed, six-seat vehicles armed with laser blasters. With multiple degrees of freedom, the vehicle movements match the on-screen action. The ride features 3D animation, including the world’s first virtual loop on a dark ride, real-time interactive gaming, themed sets, animatronics, holograms and special effects. The 2,000-square-meter attraction accommodates close to 800 people an hour.
Six Flags entrusted the project to dark ride and animatronics specialist Sally Corporation, which had successfully completed a Justice League-themed attraction for Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia.
Sally Corporation chief executive John Wood, along with senior designer Rich Hill, handpicked a team of seasoned industry superheroes to bring the attraction to life.
Oceaneering provided the ride vehicles, Pure Imagination developed the computer-generated 3D content, while Alterface added cutting-edge interactive gaming. Lexington and Wyatt Design Group helped with set design and scenic work. Other players included RealD, Bose and Techni-Lux.
Their combined efforts allowed Justice League: Battle for Metropolis to offer “a more dynamic game, a more dynamic ride conveyance system and a more dynamic storyline”, says Mr Wood.
The impact of storytelling
“A dark ride is one of the world’s most complicated attractions,” he explains. “You could put the same ingredients in the same space and it could be a flop. It comes down to experience, choreography, the combination of effects and timing. We rode the ride weeks before it opened and we would have all given it a ‘C’. By developing better audio, pacing and programming on the ride vehicle, we came out with an ‘A+’.”
The dark ride was a game-changer for Six Flags, a regional theme park chain best known for its thrill rides. “It changed Six Flags in the public mind’s eye. Six Flags had a record year,” says Mr Wood.
“Walt Disney understood the economic impact of storytelling,” according to Michael Collins, senior partner at Leisure Development Partners. Immersing guests in story-driven attractions and richly themed environments “increases the perceived value of the experience, allowing for higher prices”, he says. Guests tend to stay longer, and spend more on refreshments and retail.
Mr de Villiers concludes that attractions should give people an opportunity to be part of the story. “You could have the best home cinema, but it’s not the same as standing with 13,000 people in our Cinéscénie show,” he says. “You have to come here to feel that emotion and you’ll keep it in your hearts for a long time.”