There’s a moment early in THE TRIP™ 6 when the rider descends from the recognizable world of roads, houses and trees into an underground realm of pure imagination. It’s called “The Rabbit Hole”, and it is as good a metaphor as any for the journey its creators have been on themselves since they embarked on their ambitious IMMERSIVE FITNESS™ project.
“Technically, it was like nothing we had ever done,” says co-creator Les Mills Jnr, “so learning has been a huge part of the process.”
While Les worked on the creative side of the project, his friend and colleague Adam Lazarus concentrated on the structural challenges. “It was a battle,” Les continues. “And we’re still working on it with the visual animators, because it’s tough building these elaborate worlds and then, at the perfect time, having the road change right as a beat drops. They’ve got it to the point where it’s basically perfect – but it’s been a long process to get it here.”
Key to that process has been Darkroom, a New Zealand-based design studio specializing in video and event installations. Darkroom works closely with leading event production company Inside Out, which oversees both the creative and logistical demands of producing THE TRIP, in liaison with Les Mills.
Says Darkroom’s Creative Director Bruce Ferguson, “The initial idea was to bring immersive visuals to a cycle class. This raised a lot of questions, like what would it look like? Would it be shot with cameras or computer generated? Will it enhance the workout experience or just be too distracting? Will it make participants fall off their bikes?! For me it was a really exciting project artistically, but was it going to work from a workout perspective?”
The key challenge, according to Chris Richardson, Immersive Product Manager for Les Mills, lies in translating initial concepts into workable technological solutions. “It’s not like math,” he says. “It’s not like you put a formula down on paper and everyone has the same answer. You’re putting down words and ideas – in fact, you’re not even putting them down, it might just be a picture that inspired you, or a thought you’re trying to describe. It’s in your head, and you’re trying to convey that to someone.”
From initial picture and mood references, track listings, choreography notes and route design, storyboards are created, samples of which you can see throughout this article. From these Chris develops detailed cross-sectional drawings that mark out the cycling course itself, including rates of incline and timings, which are now measured down to hundredths of a second to synchronize the overall audio-visual effect.
“It really does make a difference when you’re riding the road,” he says. “A second when you’re travelling at speed is actually quite a long distance, a lot of imagery goes past. A transition from a flat section to a climb needs to be at the right time in the music. Trying to pinpoint the feel is what is really hard. It’s easier when you don’t have visuals – when it’s music only, you can just find it by feel. But when you have visuals it’s hard.”
For Darkroom, the big challenge was scale – a 45-minute immersive video at high resolution, on a viable budget within strict deadlines. “To be honest, at first I thought it was all too crazy,” admits Bruce. “But the creative lure pushed us on to make it work.”
After investigating an in-camera approach, Darkroom quickly settled on a purely digital approach, creating everything in 3D CGI. “Creating our own imaginary roads meant we could design them to fit the choreography perfectly. Something real roads could never do.”
Key to the next stage has been Berlin-based event production company Crossworks Projects, involved from the outset as the “architects” of the various technical components. “We’re really prescriptive about the technology,” says Les Mills Technology Specialist Kim Walker. “Each piece goes together to make the Les Mills immersive system. And that guarantees a level of performance and consistency from site to site, right down to curved screen and size of screen.”
Given that THE TRIP – which involves multiple, purpose-built projectors and large screens – is a major investment for clubs, the right balance between price, componentry and ease of installation is hugely important. But there is a limit to how far costs can be contained before the quality of the experience is compromised.
“There isn’t anyone in the market doing what were doing,” says Marina Nola, Immersive Business Manager for Les Mills. “The minimum solution for us is two projectors, with a minimum height and width for the screen … What we’ve done with Immersive is that we’ve said, this is the prescription, and you must follow it. If you’re going to produce an expensive product, especially one that is experiential, the level of the technology is really important.”
That attention to quality and detail is what has driven THE TRIP to the state of the art it now represents, but everyone involved agrees the trip has only just begun. Says Marina, “We don’t really know where its going to go. We just know it’s going to keep getting better.”
“My answer is that we still have a lot of room to move with this,” adds Chris. “It’s really just a matter of watching this space, because the technology is moving so fast … But we’re going to make a point of keeping this really unique.”
For Bruce Ferguson and Darkroom, the joy of working on THE TRIP comes from the fact that each version is unique, but also more and more familiar from a technical perspective. “This provides an amazing opportunity to master the art form,” he says. “The technology available to us is changing rapidly. There are new tools allowing us to basically make it better, faster. We’ve also built our own tools along the way to provide solutions that commercial products don’t offer. So we’re constantly raising the bar.
“I think the name says it all – it’s a trip! Creatively we’re encouraged to go deep. The wilder and more imaginative the better. This is not cinema and it’s not VJ visuals, it’s something else. It’s defined by the audience, I think. Everyone is there to work out. That’s not your typical audience, and I think that’s why THE TRIP is so unique.”
Discover how THE TRIP changes the way you work out – and why.