Making a Splash in Times Square


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The co-founder of the company behind the city’s new underwater adventure takes us behind the scenes


Photos



  • Visitors to “National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey” at Times Square. Photo: National Geographic Encounter




  • William Pennell, the co-founder of SPE Partners, the entertainment developer that created and produced “National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey.” Photo: National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey



For the past three years, a team of National Geographic scientists, as well as Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners, have worked on a one-of-a-kind experience in the heart of Times Square. The attraction, “National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey,” uses digital and immersive technology to make guests feel like they are on an ocean journey from the South Pacific to the West Coast of North America.

To ensure scientific accuracy, marine biologist and National Geographic explorer David Gruber was called in and walked from room to room of the exhibit. And to create its sea creatures such as humpback whales, great white sharks and sea lions, they consulted Thilo Ewers of Pixomundo, the Emmy Award-winning visual effect company behind the dragons in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The underwater sounds heard throughout were composed by Grammy-winner David Kahne, who collected them from libraries worldwide.

“Ocean Odyssey” opened on October 6, at West 44th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and quickly garnered raves, according to William Pennell, co-founder of SPE Partners, the entertainment developer that created and produced the project.

The Upper West Side resident and New York native has quite a multifaceted résumé, with highlights that include a law degree, acting gigs, work as a talent agent, and finally, the creation of SPE Partners with a high school classmate.

You attended New York Law and Fordham. Did you grow up in New York?

I grew up in Smithtown, Long Island. At this point, at my age, it’s crazy to say I’ve spent most of my life on the Upper West Side. I started Fordham when I was 17, and basically lived on 66th Street and Amsterdam since Fordham, except for six years in LA. So I moved away, and then came back to the same street, which is pretty funny.

Tell us about your work as a talent agent in LA.

I guess what led me to be a talent agent was I was an actor in my 20s. To make a very long story short, I finally got myself in a brand new Edward Albee play and said, “This is it.” And two weeks before we started our official rehearsal, he pulled the show. And I said to myself, “I need a little more control out of my life,” and that’s when I went to law school. And right out of law school, I moved out to Los Angeles and became a talent agent, with an understanding, having been an actor. My niche was advocacy for artists. I did that for about six-and-a-half years at Abrams Artists Agency. We represented someone on every television show, from the kid on “Two and a Half Men” all the way up to the famous actor Hal Holbrook, and everybody in between.

What led you to create SPE Partners?

I called an old friend who I’d gone to high school with, Alex Svezia; he’s the “S” in SPE, and the “E” is entertainment. We’d always planned on doing something in entertainment together because we were both crazy cinema guys. And I called him one day from Los Angeles and said, “Let’s form a company. I’m going to come back; let’s figure something out.” The trend had been in immersive cinema. We had seen an article about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in The New York Times, saying that immersive movies were the future. So we started to try and think about how that would manifest, and that started our path on this project.

How did your partnership with National Geographic come about?

We were trying to decide who would be the right partner to do something like this, and for many reasons, National Geographic was at the top of our list because it’s such a trusted brand and world-renowned. And also, there’s a woman named Lisa Truitt, who’s now the managing partner and chief creative officer of SPE. She was one of the leaders in IMAX and 3-D technology in film already. So it happened serendipitously. She was kind of thinking the same thing we were. Like how do we break the boundaries and take someone and put them in a movie three-dimensionally, rather than sitting in a seat and watching a movie?

How can you explain Ocean Odyssey?

It’s closest to a walk-through movie or documentary. So it’s as if you walked into a film frame of a National Geographic documentary or a fictional film and that frame became four-dimensional and you were able to step inside it. And you basically take a scientifically accurate geographic journey through the South Pacific. And you walk through each room where you not only experience the science and entertainment through the technology, but you also learn. It’s very much based in science. National Geographic calls it storytelling with a purpose. We’re big on making science entertaining. You can go to a science fiction movie, but when you come to “National Geographic Encounter” and you see the Giant Humboldt Squid Battle, it’s based on science, looks real and actually exists in the world, and it’s just as exciting.

Who are the scientists who worked on it?

There were a lot of National Geographic explorers and scientists involved, but our most prominent was our chief science advisor for the project, Dr. David Gruber, an established National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is the rock star of bioluminescence and underwater coral reefs. There’s plenty to read about him. Basically he would come in and go from room to room. And we worked with him to make sure we were getting everything scientifically accurate.

What is your favorite part of the exhibit?

There’s definitely a crowd pleaser and it’s the bait ball. We put people in a bait ball, which is a phenomenon that occurs and ours is off the coast of San Diego, California. And it’s where anchovies, to escape their predators, become a giant sphere and predators, like whales and sharks, attack it. And we put you right in the middle of one in a high-resolution, 8K, 60 frames per second in a single shot, so it’s very exciting.

You had a lot of Oscar, Grammy and Emmy winners working on this, as well as the visual effects team from “Game of Thrones.” What was their role?

They did all the CGI animation. The company is called Pixomondo. One of their lead animators, Thilo Ewers, is the guy who designs and creates the dragons for “Game of Thrones.” We wanted someone who was going to be a real creature guy, who understands how to build them. And they won the Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” for visual effects. Our sound composer is David Kahne, who’s world-renowned and has worked with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Kelly Clarkson and created this incredible soundscape using music, but primarily real ocean sounds. It’s been pretty amazing to work with people like that.

What are your future plans?

To create more locations around the world. “National Geographic Encounter” is really the brand and in each encounter we can do Ocean Odyssey or additional National Geographic-type subjects. So the next one could very much be an African safari or a space voyage. And we’re looking at cities, not only domestically, but also overseas. Very much so in London, it looks like that could be the next one.

www.natgeoencounter.com


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