Create Animation Control Room - Haunted House How to

Wed, June 03, 2020
  Secrets Revealed:  The House of Torment Control Room
By Jon Love and Daniel McCullough from House of Torment 
                                                                                                               
 
Back end procedures tend to vary from haunt to haunt depending on size, location, and attraction type.  Operations for a 10,000 person/year single attraction haunt differ than that of a 70,000 person/year multi attraction scare park.  Despite the differences between events one thing is universally certain:  smooth behind the scenes operations are a critical part of any successful haunted attraction.  For our business, the House of Torment in Austin Texas (a two attraction haunted house serving 40,000 + patrons/year) we created a centralized command center that is the beating operational heart of our event.  From it we activate all of our props, visually monitor and record every room in our haunted house via infrared cameras, control sound levels, operate lighting and fog controllers, maintain air supply, and coordinate communication with our entire 100+ person/night staff.  We call it the “Control Room” and we are going take you through our theory behind its use and the benefits it has brought our business.
 
The Idea Behind it all
 
From the start we wanted to have the best timing possible with our props.  We wanted customers, even if they spotted a prop, to be stunned when it activated when they least expected it.  Year one we researched other haunts, builders, and electronics manufacturers and discovered that by combining the use of infrared video security technology, custom switch boards, and some minor wiring techniques we could run prop triggers and video feeds to a central station with monitors and activators.  We could then sit back, watch the show, and at the perfect time flip a switch giving customers a scare they’d remember. 
 
Early on after building out our first camera station and prop trigger board we decided to run our audio controllers back to the same area to keep them out of the fog filled haunted house. The room we were using was also somewhat removed from the attraction so it ended up being a good place to store our compressors as well.  That first year our control room was equipped with a 4 camera monitor unit with VCR, a small compressor (compared to the ones we have now), a few CD players and a handful of radios.  It was a modest version of our present command center that has since been through tens of thousands of dollars of upgrades, expansions, and improvements.  We now use digital video recorders, dozens of commercial grade night vision cameras, MP3 players, DMX lighting and DMX fog controllers, better communication units, and much larger compressors. 


 
What was supposed to be a timing technique quickly turned into operational gold for us becoming a core element of our business and over the years the control room has in a way become our brainchild.  Finding ways to broaden its capability and increase its function have become staple parts of our off season as each year we continue to face growing demand, and improving haunt technologies.  So far, we have identified 4 major categories of benefits the control room provides our business (they are list below in no particular order).  In the future however there will undoubtedly be more, but for now these are the main reasons we use a control room to operate our haunt.
 
 
Benefits
 
 
Safety, Liability, & Security
 
One of the main features of our control room, the camera system, allows us to have eyes and ears everywhere in the haunted house which increases haunt safety and security while reducing liability.
 
During the course of a season inevitably some incidents will occur as people walk through or work in our attraction.  It’s a dark, loud, chaotic environment and while we take every safety precaution known to man to ensure our customer’s and actor’s safety sometimes things happen.  Clothing may get torn, personal items may get lost, sets may get trashed, or even worse, every haunted house owner’s nightmare, someone may get hurt. 


 
Our camera system not only allows us to monitor activity inside the haunted house in real time, it records the footage on to hard drives.  Whenever we have an incident we never end up in a “he said she said” situation.  We simply pull the footage from the drives and watch to determine what really happened, and where the fault, if any, lies.  To no surprise we have found that over 99% of incidents occur when people, whether it’s a customer or an actor, don’t follow the rules and guidelines of the haunted house. 
 
In addition, because we can see everything in real time, we are able to track potential “problem” customers we think may be aggressive towards our actors or sets.  They may have had a bit too much to drink or they may seem a little too hostile or afraid.  Whatever the case may be when we identify a potential “problem” customer we have a security officer monitor their trip through the haunted house in our control room and at the first sign of trouble, escort them out.       

  
 
Timing & Prop Activation
 
Because we can see everything in our haunt during operation we don’t time our props, rather we time our customers.  Our control room operators are experts at timing groups and using a group’s personality to understand what will be the best time and way to activate props and effects.  Sometimes that means blasting a group twice with an air shot, or waiting until the big guy in the front has passed the Skele-rector, or even letting some one think “It’s not going to move,” and then surprising them out of their shirt (it has happened).  Each group acts its own unique way and monitoring them on camera lets us learn something about them and then tailor their experience accordingly.  Our props are essentially extensions of our control room operators and whether the effect is the misdirection for the actor or the actor is the misdirection for the effect, having props manually timed and activated adds another layer of depth to our event.
 
It is also beneficial to manually activate props from our control room so there are never step pads or sensors for customers to find.  Sometimes with “in haunt” triggers customers will stand in one place and continually activate an animation over and over again killing throughput, bogging down operation, and draining air supply.  Customers may also get too close or end up somewhere they shouldn’t be making a prop activation potentially hazardous.  Putting the power of activation in the hands of a trained professional prevents those problems from arising keeping the show safe and moving along.      

  
 
Centralization of Systems
 
Our control room is much more than a camera and prop activation station.  While visually monitoring our event and manually activating our props provides a plethora of advantages, having all of our core functions in one place is key.  We monitor and control lighting, fog, communication, audio, and air supply all from one location.  Coupled with our camera system we are able to instantly adjust almost any element of the attraction with the press of a few buttons.  We are able to know what systems are up, at what intervals they are running, at what levels they are operating, and what if any need adjusting.  We always have a good idea if our customers are getting the experience they paid for because we can simultaneously monitor all the critical functions of our attraction.  In the event something needs tweaking it is very simple to diagnose what is going on when everything is right in front of you, coordinate with the appropriate staff member, and address the issue.  We also store our tools alongside a variety of spare parts in our control room to have quick access to anything we may need in an emergency maintenance situation.  Overall, centralizing the control of our haunted house is the fundamental theory we have used to develop and run our back end operation.  It’s the basis on which the control room is built.     


 
Refinement & Training
 
One of the biggest benefits the control room has offered us, the ability to see what works and what doesn’t, has made for some of our most exciting and humbling experiences.  Because we are able to constantly watch our props, effects, actors, and customers we can see when our ideas work better than we ever expected and when they fail to even be noticed.  What ever the case may be the control room has enabled us to continually refine our event.  We watch to see if scares provide the impact we want, to pin point areas that create flow problems, and to monitor our actors to make sure they are doing a good job.  When something doesn’t work we change it until we get it right and in doing so grasp a better understanding of what will invoke the best reactions out of our customers.    
 
In addition, similar to the way football teams that watch film of competitors to understand what they’ll be facing in an upcoming game, we show our actors videos of customers.  We show them what works, what doesn’t, analyze customer types and study the footage together with our team. It’s great to be able to show our staff how making slight changes can create huge differences or how something on one side of the haunt affects something on the other side of the haunt.  Overall, monitoring and recording haunt footage night after night has made a huge impact on the quality of the event we produce.      
 
 
In conclusion our theory of having a centralized area to control the critical systems of our haunt has worked out to our advantage and fit our model well.  It has helped us produce a product that we haven’t seen replicated in our market.  It has given our business significant advantages and provided us with an operational infrastructure allowing us to smoothly sustain exponential growth while forever bettering ourselves and our attraction.  It has provided us with a priceless wealth of knowledge about our customers and how to be really good at what we do.  We understand the control room won’t fit everyone’s model and recognize that each event has its own way of running back end operations.  No way is right, no way is wrong.  Our way works for us and we hope that you may be able to take something from that.  Thanks for reading and good luck this season!  For more information about the House of Torment please visit www.houseoftorment.com

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