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The research process at exhibit and attraction designer Mousetrappe can lead to some interesting encounters. For the short films that accompany the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it was interviewing astronauts and NASA engineers. For a film at the World War II Museum in New Orleans, it was meeting with historians and combat veterans. But what about compiling the background necessary for a renovation of the hippopotamus exhibit at a New Jersey aquarium? “They spent time with the animal husbandry team at the aquarium who deal with the hippos every day,” said Daren Ulmer, founder and chief executive of the Burbank firm. The Adventure Aquarium exhibit, set to open in June, is among the newest projects completed by Mousetrappe, which is a leading company in the field of creating video that is projected onto walls (which has the odd name of architectural mapping). The Atlantis exhibit is nominated this month for a Visual Effects Society Award, Mousetrappe’s second nomination from the trade group. Other credits include Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World, the Magical Starlight Parade at Universal Studios Japan, the Explore Blue Planet-Red Planet at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, and a live theatrical production at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. It’s a niche business that generates $3 million to $6 million in annual revenue for Mousetrappe and in which it competes with a number of other companies, including The Hettema Group in Pasadena, Thinkwell Group in Burbank and BRG Imagination Arts in Burbank – some of which it worked collaboratively with in the past. Southern California, with its abundance of creative and multi-media professionals, has a number of companies in the exhibition and attractions industry, which continues to grow as large parks are erected in Asia and the Middle East. Judy Rubin, the communications and publications director for the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry trade group in Burbank, said the multimedia presentations Mousetrappe specializes in are now expected in parks. “You are entering a creative environment and the media is helping to create that,” Rubin said. Disney origins Ulmer has worked in themed entertainment and attractions for more than 20 years, including a decade at Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of Walt Disney Co. He and collaborator Ken Murphy co-founded Mousetrappe in 2005, taking the name as a nod toward their Disney heritage. Mousetrappe got its start in theme parks and added museums, expos, casinos and hotels to its client lineup. The creative process at Mousetrappe starts with a focus on the end of an attraction’s presentation – what the audience will think, feel and do as they exit. For “Beyond All Boundaries,” the 37-minute film at the Word War II Museum, the end was designed to whet people’s appetite to learn more about the war. For the Atlantis exhibit, the two films were meant to get the viewers in a peak emotional state and connect them with the pride, awe and wonder of the space shuttle program, Ulmer said. “The whole point was to make (Atlantis) feel alive rather than a relic,” he said. Because the staff is working on such diverse projects as the Atlantis films and the projections at Disney World, Ulmer said he seeks artists whose styles fit those works. “I want someone to recognize a Mousetrappe project by its uniqueness and not the look and feel,” he added. (The company declined to disclose its employee count, partially because it varies depending on its projects. It keeps a core team and then staffs up with freelancers as needed.) John Gross, founder and former creative director of Eden FX, a Santa Monica visual effects firm, and his staff contributed 26 minutes of digital sequences to the film featuring models of Atlantis, the International Space Station and the Hubble space telescope. Working with the Mousetrappe team involved many meetings to chart out the direction of the Atlantis exhibit. Mousetrappe even got NASA to buy into some new ideas that the agency had not considered, said Gross, who has since left Eden to start his own independent firm, Muse FX, in Hollywood. “They are partners and not clients, basically,” he said. Enhanced experience Hippo Haven at Adventure Aquarium, by contrast, is less deeply fact-based than the shuttle and war exhibits and meant to be more artistic by using bright, primary colors and a seven-minute animated film played in a loop. The exhibit has a back story about a local artist who goes on safari to capture impressions of hippos. Audio is a critical part of the exhibit. Jon Baker, a Thousand Oaks composer and audio designer who contributed to Hippo Haven and other Mousetrappe projects, said the music enhances the loop’s visuals. Low drums are used to mimic thunder during a rainstorm, and Baker also borrowed from the animal’s native continent for percussion, flutes and mallet instruments typical of Africa. “The music makes sense with the themes you are seeing,” Baker said. “The ending has a final emotional statement so it is not just background music.” While theme park building has slowed domestically, the company still does a fair amount of U.S. business as museums, cultural centers, zoos and aquariums add-on multi-media experiences for half-day visitors. These attractions look for the equivalent of what IMAX theaters did for museums in the 1980s in providing an updated attraction. “People are looking for an immersive version because IMAX is not unique anymore,” Ulmer said. Still, to design those experiences, Mousetrappe is up against plenty of competition, some of which are companies it has collaborated with on past projects. Hettema Group in Pasadena contributed to the “Beyond All Boundaries” film; Thinkwell in Burbank was the client for work done on the opening night of “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios Orlando; and BRG Imagination Art in Burbank designed and built the Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center. The competition that Mousetrappe faces is why Ulmer is honored to have the company nominated a second time by the Visual Effect Society, the Sherman Oaks trade group made up of artists around the globe. The winner, to be announced Feb. 12, will be judged on technical criteria and presentation. “This is a discriminating membership,” Ulmer said of the society members. “But we have a strong chance this time, maybe even better than last time.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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