Choice, Immersion, & Bringing Suicide Squad From Two to 3-D

A Talk with Scott Sterner of Six Flags About Fright Fest and the Importance of Audience Immersion

Scott Sterner is the corporate Director of Entertainment and Events for Six Flags North America. He’s based at Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles. Overseeing the seasonal attractions at various parks, Scott has a unique perspective when it comes to the challenges we face to continually immerse and astound audiences. We talked to Scott about Fright Fest, which has been running for several decades and in particular, about last year’s ‘Aftermath’ maze and ‘Suicide Squad’ scare zone in terms of how to create audience immersion and a memorable guest experience.

A Little About Scott
“When I first started college, I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I transitioned into live entertainment because the dynamic is experiential in this medium and I think it has more of a long-lasting effect,” Scott explained. “Six Flags is all about live entertainment. We have some of the best roller coasters in the world, but we also have some of the best experiences at some of the biggest events as well. Six Flags provides a lot of opportunities for me to do events where we create immersive environments in which you hear it, smell it, feel it, and get to be a part of it. Whether it’s Fright Fest or Holiday in the Park or a patriotic event that we do for 4th of July, it’s immersive,” he said.

Focusing on Audience Immersion
“Fright Fest continues to grow, become scarier and more immersive,” said Scott. “We’re in the business of creating thrills and having the best rides and some of the best mazes in the world. This past year, we had seven mazes and seven scare zones. We built the largest outdoor maze we’ve ever done, called Aftermath 2—Chaos Rising.” Aftermath 2 involved guests going through a journey that began with a crisis and proceeded through an infection period and into a cure. What was novel about this experience, Scott pointed out, was that guests had to listen. It wasn’t just being startled by visuals. “Guests heard different parts of the story from different actors as they went through this journey,” he explained, and this added a whole new level of narrative dimension.

“That’s one of the things we do at Six Flags Magic Mountain—create unique experiences so you don’t go into a scare zone or maze that was just like the last one you were in. It’s an experience that’s very different from just being scared in a dark environment,” he said.

Creating a Live Event Based on the Movie “Suicide Squad”

“Probably the biggest thing we did last year was partnering with Warner Brothers during the release of its movie, ‘Suicide Squad,’ last summer,” said Scott. “We were able to take that brand and turn it into a scare zone. We took their two-dimensional story and turned it into three dimensions. You walked into Midway City and you recognized the elements and destruction from the movie. We took recognizable scenes, characters, and sounds and created an environment where the audience immediately became a part of the story. It was quite unique from our other scare zones,” he said.

Scott went on to describe how the partnership with Warner Brothers and the movie came about. “We met with the studio and filmmakers to determine how they wanted us to depict their IP [intellectual property—the movie]. When we spoke with them, they were still finishing up shooting.” Scott’s team read the script, noting elements that stood out as the big scenes where a lot of money was going to be spent and scenes that would be particularly memorable for members of the audience. “It’s those strong memories we wanted to try to re-depict and find a way to do live,” said Scott.

“We met with not only the marketing teams at Warner Brothers but also some of the film’s producers to talk about those memorable moments, how we’d create those in a live situation, and how we’d do that time after time after time throughout the event. Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest event is only 19 days, but we had to be able to do this consistently so that regardless of whether you came in on day 1 or day 19, it would still be a thrilling experience.”

Scott continued, “We storyboarded what it was we thought would satisfy the requirements for what they wanted us to depict that we thought we could pull off. It’s one thing to come up with an idea, but we had to determine if we had the technical ability to be able to replicate this, do it consistently, and make it memorable for people. For me in this particular film, it was about the attitude,” said Scott. “The attitude of the characters, the attitude created by the music, the attitude of the irreverence the characters have to society. We had to figure out how to illustrate that attitude so that, when you walk in, you recall those things from the movie,” he explained.

“The whole DC Universe is a stage in which we created the sounds, the lights, and the video mapping that supports and generates these images on the buildings so the audience recalls these things from the movie. For instance, [in the movie] Diablo has the ability to throw fire. That’s a memorable element that we wanted to depict, but how do we do that? How do we burn buildings without having to rebuild the set? We did this through a combination of flame effects and video mapping.”

“It’s All About the Energy”

To Scott, “It’s all about the energy.” His team wanted to take the energy the film’s director created to the next step to make a fun and exciting experience. “We created an environment using the soundtrack, the imagery on the buildings, and the lights surrounding the area to create an experience you walk into. You’re not just going in through the front portal of a maze. You’ve actually entered that portal when you walk into the area. You’re hearing it, you’re seeing it, you’re smelling it.” In addition, the live actors were there to enhance the experience, said Scott. “The EAs [entertainment actors] roaming the area are interacting with the guests. Their job is, of course, to startle, but they’re also there to create atmosphere. The actors did a phenomenal job of replicating those characters and maintaining their mannerisms throughout the evening, so guests could live that experience of meeting them. It was all about the energy and the attitude that ‘Suicide Squad’ was on film that we brought into a live experience.”

The Role of Audience Choice in the Immersive Experience

Both the ‘Suicide Squad’ scare zone and Aftermath 2 were ambitious deviations from what Fright Fest normally offers, and we asked Scott about his reasons for going in these directions. “Our goal is to create unique experiences that are memorable. In order to do that, we had to look beyond what we’ve already presented and figure out what the memorable moments are going to be that guests will talk about when they go back to work or back to school on Monday. It’s not just an opportunity to pop out and scare; it’s actually [making the audience] part of the story.”

A distinctive aspect of these events is that audience members are given choices as part of the experience. “Within the story, you have an opportunity when you’re walking through the maze to make a choice about which direction you’re going to take. At one point, there two paths, and you have to choose one. This allows there to be multiple experiences for our guests. You can go through it twice and have two different experiences,” explained Scott.

Within the maze, there are performers whose job it is to play these various characters, each of whom feeds parts of the story to members of the audience. This provides a challenge to the actors to determine how they’re going to do it, what threat they’re going to pose, and how they move the story along. “It’s all about how the experience of each person will be furthered by the performers, and how deep they take you into the story,” he said.

Prior to entering Aftermath, people are typically separated from the group they arrived with. “This is meant to be intimidating because, when you’re disconnected from your group, the threat feels greater. The point is to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. In Aftermath, you’re walking through a disaster zone. It’s not a maze of scenic flats. There are some scenic flats in there, but mostly it’s real debris and it looks like an explosion just happened. There’s rubble stacked up as high as you are to create these barriers that direct you through pathways, but there are some other areas where there’s no pathway, so you have to keep going because you don’t want to stay there,” he explained. “The neatest thing about Aftermath is having this scare zone within a maze. The maze is over 40,000 square feet—it’s absolutely humungous—and in the middle of it is the scare zone. You have many choices as you try to determine how you’re going to get out. There’s only one way out, which you’ll eventually find, but within the scare zone are threats from multiple directions including a concentration of characters whose job it is to create a frenzy of fear. This maze creates an elevated level of excitement and fear because of these characters, fear of the elements, and the fire that’s burning around you as well.”

The Biggest Challenge Facing the Live Attraction Industry—Keeping it Fresh

“I’m always looking for what’s going to be the new element, the new scare,” said Scott in response to a question about what inspires each new event. “When I go to a trade show, one of the most memorable moments for me might be the bus ride to another part of that event and sitting next to somebody who shares a very unique idea. They talk about finding a way to build that idea out to make money off it. That’s the fun part of this industry—finding those innovative people and working with those people,” he said.

“As an industry, I think we just need to keep it unique, we need to make it memorable, and we have to be very cautious not to repeat what we’ve seen work so the expectations of our audience continue to grow and continue to push us to develop,” he stated.

“The competition isn’t scary,” he observed. “The competition raises our awareness of the possibilities. The more competition and marketing going on for these events creates a higher demand in the market. This grows the size of our potential market by creating more interest in these types of events.

In this industry, we have to be careful not to not take the same elements, mix them up, and call it new. We have to continue to grow the experience, and I think we do that through storytelling. That’s one of the things we were so excited about with Aftermath—telling a story. Even with the Suicide Squad scare zone, it was telling that story and allowing the audience to live a part of the experiences in the film.”

Getting Creative to Make It Happen

Six Flags Magic Mountain creates huge events, and Scott states he’s always looking for the best possible ideas out there. “We have a creative director, Mark Wing, who’s one of the key visionaries for what the events are going to look like. There’s an event producer and executive producer, Pam Bugbee, who’s the head of the Department of Entertainment and Events. Pam’s job is to pull together the details. We usually bring in outside resources to help build out the concept, to make it deeper than what we might be able to do ourselves. We aren’t so prideful to think we have all the ideas. We know there are good ideas out there, and we need to bring them in and find the ones that work for us and our environment.”

In closing, Scott said, “We do it as a combination team. There’s a core team at Six Flags that has a creative side, a production side, and a technical side. We also utilize pinch hitters, you might say, to help us build these things out so we have the state of the art in the scenic and technical elements. Our park’s technical supervisor, Alicia Nabb, went out and found the resources to allow us to recreate the elements from the ‘Suicide Squad’ film and the huge effects we had inside Aftermath 2. We had to find the people who do fire and pneumatic effects, and we had to have the scenic abilities to recreate the environment and make it believable. To me, that’s the fun part of live entertainment. It’s more than just sitting there. It’s experiencing it, and our objective for a guest is always to make it not just a day but a memorable day.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Total immersion means listening as well as seeing.
    It isn’t just being startled by visuals, it’s being brought into the story by live actors interacting with guests and bringing them into the story.
  • Story and atmosphere drive every creative decision.
    “In this particular film [“Suicide Squad”], it was about the attitude–the attitude of the characters, the attitude created by the music, the attitude of the irreverence the characters have to society.”

    Editor’s Note: See Scott Swenson’s series “Follow The Story” for more perspective on how to work with story in your attraction.
  • The immersive experience needs to begin immediately.
    “You’re not just going in through the front portal of a maze. You’ve actually entered that portal when you walk into the area. You’re hearing it, you’re seeing it, you’re smelling it.”
  • Give the audience choice, even if it’s just an illusion.
    Give your guests decisions to make as they proceed through an environment. Decisions not only make the environment more immersive, but they allow for greater individualized experiences.
  • Competition is good.
    “The competition isn’t scary. The competition raises our awareness of the possibilities.”

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