TEA Connect Blog

25 August 2021

Bringing Boom! To Life at the Britannia Mine Museum

Bringing Boom! To Life at the Britannia Mine Museum

By Stefan Lawrence, Western Division Board Member

 

Boom! is an immersive experience at the Britannia Mine Museum in Vancouver, Canada. The attraction converted an abandoned building (Mill No. 3) at a former mining site into an entertaining, educational experience about how copper is extracted from ore. This virtual event explored not only this attraction but also how museums and non-profits can use their resources to create entertaining, immersive experiences for their guests, within budget. The session was moderated by Darren Brown, from the TEA Western Division Board and Dynamic Attractions.

The panel included:

  • Deron Johnston, Site Manager, Britannia Mine Museum
  • Nancy Holmes, Echo West Developments
  • Randal Ormston, Vista Collaborative Arts
  • David Lo, Dynamic Attractions


The Britannia Mine Museum is located in Britannia Beach, which is a 45-minute drive north of Vancouver, British Columbia. The museum has been in continuous operation since 1975, on the former location of the Britannia Mine processing facility. It hosts 75,000 visitors per year, of which 12,000 are local students. The museum is a private, not-for-profit facility, self-funded through admissions and a membership program. 

The goal of the new attraction was to answer two consistent guest questions: 

  1. what was it like to be in the mine back then? 
  2. what is it like now? 

Planning began in 2012, with the experience opening in the summer of 2019.

Following an extensive rehabilitation and renovation of Mill No. 3, it was time to start working on the attraction. Funds were raised over the course of three years and the budget for the attraction was set at a comparatively modest CAN $3.2 million ($2.5M USD). The mission was to find an attraction designer who would fall in love with the project and its many challenges. The museum selected Vista Collaborative Arts for its history of tackling projects of this scale and budget in the past. Randal Ormston, creative director for Vista Collaborative Arts, came on board to creatively lead the project.


Many challenges existed on the site. These included the amount of light provided by the many windows, the lack of original mining equipment, and a wealth of physical hazards for the average guest. However, the museum had one major factor in its favor – authenticity. Guests were visiting a location where the mining actually happened. Randal began by observing guests’ reactions to the current experience – guests would enter the facility and hush their voices as if they were entering a sacred space. The other element of fascination was with the skip track, a 100-year-old train track that used to carry rail cars of material at an incredibly steep angle up the mountain. This skip track would become the “proscenium” for the entire immersive experience.


The other major focus of the attraction would be audio – when the mill was operational, one could hear the booming sounds of the mine from miles away. That overwhelming sound experience would have to be part of the attraction. Tim Archer of Masters Digital was brought in to sound design the experience, which incorporates 30 point-source speakers spread across the mill’s original sound locations.

Shooting video was a challenge on the site, given safety concerns. That challenge was overcome with drone cameras that were deployed to capture spectacular footage of the mill from angles never before seen. The experience was hosted by “Jack” who appears on 70” video screen that appears in situ. Doug Welch of EOS Lightmedia used powerful LED lighting packages to overcome the challenges of the window lit space and create dramatic show lighting to draw the audience’s attention appropriately for the show (winning an Excellence Award in the process).

Other special effects included foggers, spark effects, arc lighting, strobe lighting, scent cannons, and simulated ore dust.

However, the biggest challenge was to place a runaway rail car speeding on the track toward the seated audience. Dynamic Attractions took on the project, becoming a sponsor of the attraction to offset the limited budget allocated for the vehicle. The first step was to rehabilitate the track, replacing rotten beams and fixing cracked and decayed concrete. Next, Dynamic Attractions had to reengineer the track to mechanically drive a rail car to simulate the acceleration of a runaway vehicle. Originally, the intent was to modify an authentic rail car, but this was quickly abandoned in favor of creating a thematically treated replica, aged to look as if it was an original element. This approach was replicated with the set design, which incorporated new elements treated with scenic paint to seamlessly blend with the rest of the mill.


With the technical aspects of the attraction sorted, the panel turned to discussing the story of the attraction. Act 1 answers the question “Why was the mill built?”, discussing the original purpose of the building. Act 2 asks “What does it look like up there?” and takes guests on a complete tour of the mill, using CG-recreations of the original mining equipment. This allows guests to more fully understand the processes of a working mine. In Act 3, guests are immersed in the sights and sounds of a mill in full operation as Jack, our host, fires up the equipment. Of course, something goes horribly wrong, and the skip car comes plummeting toward the guests! With a final bang, the car hits the stop barrier, throwing up a huge cloud of smoke.

Randal Ormston then detailed a few of the lessons learned from his many years of designing experiences for non-profits and museums. One of the most important lessons (aside from the value of building solid relationships and forging innovative strategies for making the most of the budget) is that many smaller museums do not have attraction experience. In these situations, it's best to over communicate, making sure that there’s a dedicated client contact who can understand the process from beginning to end. The approval process is often lengthy, with multiple stakeholders, so the more that the non-profit understands the creative and production aspects of attraction design, the more likely the time spent in approvals will be limited. If the non-profit has a positive experience, it will be more likely to consider attractions again in the future. 

Posted by Josephine Gilmore

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