Sep 16, 2023

TRON Lightcycle / Run

On 4 April 2023, the eagerly awaited new TRON coaster opened at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. TRON Lightcycle / Run is the fastest Vekoma roller coaster at Magic Kingdom. It's also one of the fastest coasters at any Disney theme park in the world. Bringing to life the world of Disney's much-loved 1982 sci-fi adventure film Tron, and the 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy, the ride transports visitors to the Grid where they can experience a lightcycle race.

After entering the queue, guests find themselves in a dark, computerised world. They are digitised and taken to the Grid, where they will ride on their own two-wheeled Lightcycles in a race against their opponents, navigating through eight energy gates.

Shanghai Disneyland is home to a similar attraction, TRON Lightcycle Power Run. This launched on the park's opening day in 2016.

Many different teams worked together to create an unforgettable ride experience. However, one of the most iconic elements of the film was its soundtrack. To find out why sound is a vital element of the attraction's design and how the team created a unique sonic experience, we speak to Joe Herrington, the Walt Disney Imagineering media designer who worked on the Tron attractions in both Orlando and Shanghai, and Jonathan Moran, WDI's principal sound mixer on the Orlando attraction.

The sonic experience is a key part of any attraction. Designers use a mix of music, sound effects and dialogue to help draw visitors into the story of that attraction.

Explaining the different elements of the soundscape that come together to create this sonic experience, Herrington says:

"Firstly, we have a harmonious blend of unique music that establishes and sustains the mood. Then we add a sound bed to create a fantasy world. This includes specific sound accents that bring the world to life. And then there is the dialogue, which helps to set up and direct the story.

"Those are the essential layers that we put together in a soundscape to create the sonic experience."

Introducing the sonic experience of TRON Lightcycle/Run, and the team's initial goals for the attraction, Herrington says that the aim is to fully immerse guests in the world of Tron by creating a very sensory experience:

"That begins outside under the canopy, which is designed to create anticipation. This is where you have the structure, the lighting, the music, the vehicles streaking past and the race team overhead, and you start to think, ‘This is going to be cool.’

"Before guests even walk into the building, they are excited. They can't wait to get on the ride, because there is so much to look at, listen to, and feel. And all these things in harmony begin to pull the guests away from the outside world and into our story.

"The soundscape starts this transformation on an emotional and subconscious level. The music resonates with something inside of you. There's a neat vibe to it, it's different from anything else in our park."

Moran adds:

"The score is brooding, pensive and powerful; you hear it, and it pulls you into the experience. It fills you up with this feeling that you’re about to take on a challenge and succeed. So, that helps to build the feeling along with the general anticipation of the fact that you’re about to enter something that's going to move fast.

"You’re making that decision to go and be thrilled. And we allowed the music to reinforce that as guests enter the experience."

Sound is a key consideration from the moment guests head towards the attraction, allowing them to fully enter the world of TRON and leave Tomorrowland behind.

"The music development handles that emotional threshold of leaving Tomorrowland and crossing into the world of TRON," says Moran. "You walk out of Tomorrowland and suddenly, the TRON music surrounds you and the orchestration is a little bit heavier."

"Then, as you get closer to the canopy and you have the physical lightcycle making passes right above your head, we purposely thin out the music a little. This gives that moment its own sonic space so that you can appreciate that you’re standing right under the track. We don't often get that perspective on a coaster as a guest. You’re right under this coaster going extremely quickly and you hear all the reactions of the guests on the ride. That is its own sonic moment that occurs naturally."

Herrington adds that the team paid a lot of attention to the area under the canopy:

"It's got incredible stereo speaker coverage. When you walk into that space, it not only does its job of creating the mood of anticipation, but it also does a very good job of masking out the outside world. You are completely enveloped in this musical score, so it is allowed to do its job of setting the tone and the mood, right at the beginning."

The music also adds a lot to the moment when guests are digitised:

"That's one of my favourite moments in the pre-show area," says Moran. "There are these collapsing physical spaces and the sound of those spaces is this rough, energised analogue form that doesn't feel completely digital yet. And then you go through this digitization moment. That's when you really feel like, ‘Oh, I’m in TRON. I am on the Grid’."

"The harmony of that moment is pure magic," says Herrington. "There were a lot of disciplines involved. The lighting, the video, the sound, the programming; it all had to be perfect for that to work."

Moran adds: "It's one thing when you’re experiencing it as a guest for the first time. But when you’re on the team and you know what it's going to do and you’re just trying to get it to work, and then when it does, there is an audible gasp. That's when the whole project team is hit with that emotional moment.

"Even though they know it's coming, when it all comes together for the first time, you’re still blown away."

The sound team needed a huge vocabulary of unique material belonging to the world of TRON, in order to truly immerse visitors in this world.

"We worked with some incredible sound artists," says Herrington. "There's a difference in sounds created for films and sounds created for an environment where guests are immersed in something they ride on or something they walk through, something that has to make them believe they are really in this place."

For example, the sounds of the TRON lightcycle in the films only last a few seconds.

"We needed our guests to feel like they are in the story. They get to ride a lightcycle, so it needed to sound authentic. We used the effects that the guests know from the films as a style guide. Then we created new believable sounds that live in the computerised world of TRON Lightcycle / Run."

There are many iconic things in the films, but the team used them to create a whole new sound palette for the attraction.

For example, one of the biggest challenges was getting the sounds of the lightcycle right.

"People have a vision and a memory of what the lightcycle was," says Herrington. "So, we had to do something faithful to it. We rented the same type of motorcycle originally used in making the film. Jonathan got on it and put it through its paces on a monitor, and then we took those recordings and processed them through modular synthesisers. That gave us the kind of sounds that we wanted the lightcycle to make."

However, the motorcycle alone still lacked some magic.

"So, our sound artist created a device that played with various kinds of metal objects along with the speed and the pressure in real-time against what Jonathan did on the bike and processed that through a variety of analogue synths.

"The result was that we got a whole different game-like unearthly quality from that motorcycle. We’ve taken something organic as the root element. But with the electronic processing, we’ve given it a whole new sonic image."

For this project, electronic sounds are an important element because they feature heavily in the film. However, the team needed these sounds to feel believable in this environment.

"So, we grounded all those things and anchored them with an organic physical sound first," explains Herrington. "That makes them more believable and helps them belong to the physical world the guests are experiencing. At the end of the day, it's got to feel like they’re really on a lightcycle.

"It's not difficult to make cool sounds. What's difficult is making cool sounds that are believable and feel like they belong in a computerised world."

Herrington also talks about the beds and ambiences that the team created to make guests believe that they are in that world:

"Again, we didn't use synthesisers to create those sounds. That is because synthesisers are cold; they’re not organic and they’re not believable in the real world. Our sound artists took some recordings of ribbon spring steel under high tension. Using proximity microphone techniques, we got some amazing sounds. Even the raw sounds before they were processed were unearthly. They’re rich, they’re emotionally captivating and they’re intriguing.

"Also, some recordings were done with buckets and steel plates and all kinds of items, focusing on the resonant frequencies of those items to the greatest advantage.

"The processes were unconventional, but the results were quite astounding."

The sonic experience created for TRON Lightcycle / Run at Magic Kingdom is bespoke for that particular ride, rather than being a copy of the sound used for TRON Lightcycle Power Run in Shanghai Disneyland. This allowed the team to build on their experience in Shanghai and introduce new elements.

"Working on Tron in Shanghai, I was able to see things that I wanted to do differently," says Herrington. "When we got to this project, there was a remarkable team, who were willing to listen to new solutions. When we would say, ‘We could do this better’, they would say, ‘Go for it’. In most cases, they were little things, but we were able to make the project achieve its full potential."

Moran adds: "The whole team had a good understanding of what the guest experience was in the existing space. That drove a lot of the sound decisions. We understood how the guests reacted and felt in those spaces, and then we could push that with the choice of how we presented the sound as the guests move through the experience."

One of the key challenges that the team faced was how to create a cohesive sonic experience for the coaster itself.

Moran says: "The coaster is very high speed. There are a lot of synchronised lights and sounds. If that isn't very carefully choreographed, that could feel like a very frantic experience. It was important that you really feel like you’re connected with the experience the whole way through."

"We wanted to tell a story on a coaster," says Herrington. "And this is one of our fastest coasters. TRON Lightcycle / Run creates a big noise floor and so the music, dialogue and effects have a smaller soundstage to play on. We call that dynamic range. With a conventional attraction, the story takes up most of that dynamic range and the noise floor takes up less, so the guests hear more of what we want them to hear."

With a coaster, that ratio is reversed; the wind and the mechanical noise occupy most of that range.

"In addition, as you’re zipping through this wind, it creates this sound bubble around you. It's hard to penetrate that bubble with outside things."

"Our engineers designed a special onboard audio system that would have enough power to overcome the wind and sound bubble around the rider. And then on top of that, Jonathan and his team were able to sit on the lightcycle and tweak our soundtrack against that noise. You get a lot of clarity out of the attraction because of that extra work to get it right.

"All those things playing together are what makes that story clear and believable in that high-noise environment."

When it comes to designing the sound for a new attraction, how early in the process should the sound team be involved? Herrington and Moran say that the best results happen when everyone is on the same page, right from the start.

"Good design teams who’ve had experience with sound know that they need us at the beginning," says Herrington.

"Early on, we can work out our problems with each other. We can say, ‘We need a speaker there’, and the lighting team can say, ‘Well, we need a light there’, and we can begin to solve that straight away." But the longer you wait, the real estate gets allocated, the shape of the room gets allocated, the acoustics of the room get determined, and we have less choice to do the things that we need to do."

Moran adds: "The best designs are when story is driving every choice and when you have a real clear understanding as a team of what is important to the story at any moment in the experience."

When the pair were asked about their favourite projects that they have worked on during their careers, this joined-up ethos features in all their examples.

For instance, Moran says:

"I worked on the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction. One of the reasons I enjoyed that project is the team had a clear design directive and a clear idea of the story that we were all trying to tell. When everyone agrees on what is important in the story at any given point, then we work together as an entire project team to bring that story to the guests."

"Sound is the setting and the punctuation for a story," says Herrington. "Making Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway was a wonderful example of that. It's all about story.

"The same was true with Radiator Springs Racers. Again, it was about story from the beginning. Anybody can tell that that is a solid story. You could go back to the original storyboards and see that's what we built, we stayed with that story."

With regards to TRON Lightcycle / Run, the pair reflect on their highlights of the guest experience, and explain how sound has elevated these moments into something truly immersive:

"One of my favourite moments is the lead-up to the launch," says Moran. "You’re on the lightcycle, you’ve gone through the whole queue experience, and you’ve been digitised into the world of TRON."

"You are emotionally invested at this point. But you’re also a little fearful of what's about to happen. You understand you’re about to have this high-speed experience. The sound design that's created right at that moment is this sort of foreboding countdown. That moment seems to go on for longer than it is. You’re going through this solo emotional roller coaster before you take off on the real one.

"The sound plays right into that. It hits you in the chest with the seriousness of what you’re about to take on, even though it's all for fun. That's the moment I love."

All images are kind courtesy of Disney. Top image credit Abigail Nilsson

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