When the early-’80s home video game business began dwindling in the US, Atari looked to a Laserdisc arcade cabinet to boost its fortunes. That’s according to Richard Taylor, who served as the film director for Atari Playland, an unreleased arcade cabinet from classic Atari’s waning days.
Laserdisc games were already a hot commodity by 1983, as seen in the Don Bluth-directed Dragon’s Lair, which used hand-drawn animation instead of an arcade’s usual pixellated sprites. But unlike the single-game Dragon’s Lair cabinet, “the idea [or Atari Playland] was to make a freestanding arcade structure that, using Laserdisc, would have 10 games in it,” Taylor told Ars in a recent interview. Also, unlike Dragon’s Lair, everything in Playland would be filmed with a real camera floating above elaborate miniatures on sizable sets.
Atari Playland featured multiple miniaturized sets; there were plans for an intro inside a killer clown’s dressing room, a shot outside the park’s entrance, and a fully filmed ride-selection screen. The construction of those sets was “not cheap,” according to Taylor, and required a lot of specifically filmed transitions.
“I want to go to the Fun House or I want to go to the Airplane ride or do the Roller Coaster or the Tunnel of Love.” Taylor explained, taking the role of a potential player. “And we filmed all of those moves from the front gate to the facade or the front entrance of each of those pavilions. When you finished playing that game, you would come out of that pavilion, and you could either go back to that map or exit the park. So we shot an exit from each pavilion out the back gate of the park.”
The game layer
Atari Playland was canceled before the game was fully designed, but Taylor said the gameplay would have involved floating superimposed ghosts for players to shoot. A player’s view would follow on-rails routes, filmed using a complex, pre-programmed series of camera movements and a rotating platform supporting elaborate sets that could stretch over 40 feet long, Taylor said.
Everything was planned to work in a system designed by Pacific Data Image (which would eventually become part of Dreamworks); every movement was mapped out in advance. “We made little vector models in their system and were able to preview those moves and then figure out exactly how we needed to build the models to make it all work,” said Taylor.
The shoot ran for 10 to 12 weeks, with the sets designed against pure black backdrops and the miniatures inset with plentiful lighting. “That’s something I insisted upon: [the miniatures had to] have a lot of self illumination to make a fun and exciting amusement park,” said Taylor. The set had constant smoke vapor, which was monitored by infrared sensors for continuity between shots (the crew wore protective equipment during the long hours of shooting because of the vapor).
All that smoke inhalation was for naught, though. With the market crashing, Atari imploded, and the project was shuttered. “The footage was given to Atari. Atari went through a collapse, so that game never went into final production,” Taylor said.
Taylor still has copies of the footage somewhere, but he hasn’t been able to find them amid all of his other work. What’s left are the images seen here and a single video showing what would have been the introduction after players dropped in their coins. Hopefully, Taylor can scrounge through his garage, find the footage, and assemble a rough cut of what almost was.