One of the unsung heroes of the moviegoing experience has died. He was only 46.
Chances are, if you’ve been to a movie at a Regal Cinemas in the last two decades, you’ve seen John McLaughlin’s work: the legendary 1990s roller coaster animation that played before movies at Regal. For me, who made a second home of my local theater as a child, the roller coaster preview was as familiar a sight as the iconic Universal or 20th Century Fox intro animations.
According to his obituary, McLaughlin was a visual effects artists for both LucasArts and DreamWorks, and worked on films like Kung Fu Panda and Shark Tale. But even he, like millions of others, had a special place in his heart for that silly roller coaster: ”One of John’s favorite personal projects that he created was the Regal Cinemas preview trailer featuring a roller coaster in space speeding between soda, candy and popcorn that played before each and every movie,” the obituary reads.
At the theater I frequented as a kid in suburban New Jersey, the Regal logo that was displayed on the screen after McLaughlin’s animation would always freeze in place, prompting groans from the audience and a collective panic over whether or not the projector was broken. It happened every time.
The roller coaster preview never froze, though. It was the last bastion of comfort before heading off into the unknown. McLaughlin managed to capture the wonder and excitement of the movies while hitting all the notes that delighted moviegoers, especially younger ones—preposterously large sodas, endless candy, and oil-soaked popcorn popping right before your eyes. A Reddit thread commemorating McLaughlin is filled with anecdotes of people’s experiences watching the animation.
Launched in the early 1990s, the animation played at Regal theaters in spurts until about 2004, when it was retired. Regal has updated it recently with more modern animation (video), but it’s just not the same. There was something about the chintzy effects and that quintessentially ’90s guitar riff that could have compelled me to watch forever.
Next time you’re at the movies, pour a bit of your oversized, overpriced soda out for John McLaughlin, the man who helped us coast into the world of cinema.