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The Other "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film

Jim Hill

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The Other "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film

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You know, I hammer pretty hard on the Mouse. On a fairly regular basis, I'm posting articles that go into great detail about how the Walt Disney Company cut corners on this project or that film or whatever. And it just doesn't seem fair that I always take aim at the very same target.

So today, I thought I might vary the menu a bit and turn my sights toward Disney's competition: Universal Studios. And offer you a tale about how the theme park division of that corporation bobbled "Back to the Future: The Ride."

"And what's wrong with 'Back to the Future: The Ride'?" you ask. Well, to be honest, I find that the version that exists right now is a pretty entertaining attraction. From the truly entertaining way that "BTTF:TR"'s back story is fed to you as you're waiting in the queue ... to all those witty touches that you'll find tucked away in that tiny, little room where you wait in before you board ... to the thrill that comes over you when that door flies open and you're being hustled into what appears to be a genuine time traveling DeLorean ...

Okay, I'll admit. Universal's "Back to the Future: The Ride" really is one hell of a ride. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. I've personally spoken with a number of Imagineers who actually feel that "BTTF:TR" is a better simulator attraction than Disney's own "Star Tours."

Me personally, I don't know if I would go quite that far. By that I mean: I honestly think that "BTTF:TR" is a truly entertaining experience for the first time rider. But -- that said -- the ride does lose a little bit of its charm on your second or third go-round. Particularly if you make the mistake of glancing to your left or your right while you're up in the Omnimax theater.

That's when you realize that this isn't really an intimate experience that's just happening to eight people who have been crammed inside a duplicate of Doc Brown's DeLorean. But rather, you're one of 12 carloads of tourists who are all watching the very same ride film at the exact same time. Which spoils some of the fun. At least for me.

Anyway ... I still think that it's really one hell of a ride. But how many of you out there know that the "BTTF:TR" ride film that you see when you visit Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Orlando and/or Universal Studios Japan isn't actually the first ride film that Universal's theme park division commissioned for this attraction?

Strange but true, folks. But the folks who are credited with producing the ride film that you can see today -- FX veteran Douglas Trumbull and his team over at the Entertainment Design Workshop -- weren't actually the first team assigned the "Back to the Future: The Ride" project. That honor falls to Academy Award winner Richard Edlund and his crew over at Boss Films Studios. And this team of effects artists had already created dozens of miniatures for their version of the ride film when they were unceremoniously pulled off the project.

So why did the plug get pulled on this initial version of the "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film? Would you believe that it all stemmed from some contractor in Hollywood who evidently couldn't read a blue print?

To explain: Had everything gone according to plan, "Back to the Future: The Ride" was supposed to have opened simultaneously in the Spring of 1990 at both of the stateside Universal theme parks. With Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood splitting the production costs for the attraction's ride film right down the middle.

Edlund's Boss Films Studio put in a bid on the "BTTF:TR" ride film in early 1989 and beat out several other FX houses in Hollywood for this year long gig. So Richard's crew quickly got to work on the pre-production aspect of the project. Building models, doing tests with the Ommimax camera equipment, etc.

Meanwhile, preliminary construction of the two "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride buildings was getting underway. The pouring of the foundation for the Universal Studios Orlando version of the attraction went off without a hitch.

Whereas the one in California ... well, clearly the contractors at the West Coast work site must have had trouble reading the blueprints. Because the foundation that they ended up pouring for the Universal Studios Hollywood's "Back to the Future: The Ride" show building was six feet short.

Now those of you who are familiar with construction will realize that there's no quick fix for a screw-up like this. The construction crew in California was just going to have to tear out the concrete foundation that they'd poured and start again.

So the officials who ran the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park told the folks down in Florida: "Forget about the simultaneous openings. You go ahead with your 'Back to the Future' ride. Once we fix this foundation f*ck-up, we'll go forward with the Californian version of the ride."

As soon as they heard about this, the accountants at Universal Studios Orlando immediately put the brakes on the "Back to the Future: The Ride" project. Why for? Because they realized that -- since the opening of the Hollywood version of "BTTF:TR" was now going to be delayed by months, if not years (Universal Studios Hollywood's "Back to the Future: The Ride" didn't actually end up opening 'til 1995, a full four years after Universal Studios Orlando's version of the ride opened) -- the Florida theme park was going to have to shoulder the entire production costs of the ride film.

So -- while Edlund and his team continued to do pre-production work on the "BTTF:TR" ride film -- the project ends up getting put on hold while this huge pissing contest erupts between the two theme park divisions of the company. Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando brawl for so long that Boss Films Studio's one-year contract to work on the ride film actually expires.

So -- strictly as a formality -- Universal Studios puts the contract for the "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film out for bid again. And Richard and his crew at Boss Film Studios -- seeing as they've already put in a year's worth of work on the project -- felt that they had the inside track on this job. Which is why they didn't change the terms of the contract when they resubmitted it to Universal.

Which is why Edlund and his Boss Film Studios team were flabbergasted when Douglas Trumbull came along and put in a lower bid on the job. Which is why Universal Studios ultimately awarded the contract for the "BTTF:TR" ride film to the Entertainment Design Workshop.

Now keep in mind that Universal still had to pay Richard Edlund for all the work that his crew at Boss Film Studios had already done on the "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film. So they cut the FX house a check for $2.1 million. Edlund's crew then packed up all the models that they'd created for the film and sent them off to Universal ...

And not a single one of those models was ever used in the version of the "BTTF:TR" ride film that Douglas Trumbull's crew eventually put together. Which is why (I'm assuming) that they're all locked away in some warehouse in LA right now. Or maybe those models just ended up getting trashed.

To quote a former Boss Films Studio employee (Boss closed its doors in September 1997): "Nobody wastes money like Universal. The studios just swallowed that $2.1 million charge-off to the project without even blinking. Which is probably how the Florida version of the ride ended up costing $40 million to build."

Now where this gets really interesting is that the version of the "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film that Richard Edlund and his team at Boss Films Studio was working on actually had several different scenes than the Trumbull version. These included:

A sequence that was set in the future that was quite different than the Hill Valley of 2015 we glimpsed in "Back to the Future II" as well as Trumbull's "BTTF:TR" ride film.

Richard's version of the future was very big on blimps. Your DeLorean -- as it pursued Biff across through the sky -- was going to avoid dozens of collisions with blimp cars, blimp boats, even blimp police cruisers. Edlund's team even spent months lovingly detailing a flying 1950s style diner -- complete with a miniature neon sign that really worked -- which would have played a prominent part in this version of the future.

A sequence (which ended up getting dropped from the Trumball version of the ride film) where your DeLorean follows Biff back to the old West. Your ride vehicle pursues Tannen into a darkened railroad tunnel ... only to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a steam train.

Those folks who were lucky enough to experience Edlund's version of the "Back to the Future: The Ride" ride film (How'd they do that? Well, Richard and his crew used to make trips up to Vancouver -- where they'd rent this empty IMAX theater that was left over from the 1986 Worlds Fair. They'd bring along the prototype DeLorean ride vehicle and use that to test some of the rough versions of the attraction's sequences that the crew at Boss Films Studio had already cobbled together) say that Richard's "BTTF:TR" ride movie would have put Trumbull's to shame.

Is this true? Well -- thanks to some Hollywood contractor who couldn't evidently read a blueprint -- I guess we're never going to know.

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