In Beijing's central business district, a huge LED screen was constructed as the main attraction for The Place, a new 700,000-sq-ft. development area for a mixed-use retail center developed by the Beijing Aozhong Xingye Real Estate Development Co. Ltd. Covering the entire street between two new five-story, high-end retail centers and two 23-story office towers, the Sky Screen is 2,296' long — a city block — and is 88' wide by 80' high. The viewing surface, clad entirely with LED modules, makes the square-footage a close second to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the largest single screen in the world.

One Thing Leads To Another

In 1992, I conceived the Fremont Street Experience, with Jon Jerde and David Rogers of The Jerde Partnership, after I was hired to design a light parade. I subsequently created, directed, and produced the first shows.

In 2003, Mr. Ji Zeng He, president and owner of the Aozhong Development Company, decided that he wished to use a Sky Screen as the main attraction of The Place. I was head-hunted by his agent and was hired until the completion of the project, which opened this past fall.

A Chinese Puzzle

Doing business in China is a hot topic these days, both politically and in our entertainment industry. For me, this experience was one of the most enriching and memorable of my career, not only because of the wonders of a great civilization, but also because of the kindness, humor, and enthusiasm of the people.

I originally tried to take the Fremont Street team, guided by Technifex (www.technifex.com), to China, but when I traveled there and met with the developers, the mayor and vice mayor, officials from the government, and even members of the Olympic committee, I realized that the developers were under pressure to keep the business in China.

Once I let go of my expectations and understood what was really required, things fell into place. The developers were sincere and sophisticated, so I threw caution to the wind, deciding that I would be able to undertake the entire project using local technology and engineering.

Dreaming Of The Biggest

The first design that I created for the Sky Screen expanded the uses and viewing angles so that the screen could be integrated into the original architectural concept of Neil Kritzinger of Kritzinger+Rao architects, but because of budget and engineering conditions, a simplified structure with a large flat frame covered with glass was eventually engineered in China. The LED panels were manufactured in China by Optotech, a Taiwanese firm located in Suzhou, a beautiful old garden city on the outskirts of Shanghai. The panels were attached to the underside of the soaring structure.

Street Theatre

The Aozhong Development Company, a family business, was dedicated to creating a landmark attraction to bring many visitors to this huge retail site. Not only is The Place spectacular, but in the generous Chinese tradition, it offers a free theatre-like experience. For me, this inclusive atmosphere made the project more exciting and more challenging because the content of the shows must appeal to a wide range of interests by being new, while still calling on venerated Chinese traditions and values.

The huge scale of the Sky Screen presented another challenge. It is too big to function as a single movie screen. Traditional movie-making techniques such as cuts, dissolves, and camera moves tend to disorient the viewers rather than guide them through the narrative. The show had to be approached more as an arena or stadium event. My challenge was to drive the narrative with music and images moving at realtime speed in a show no more than ten minutes in length.

With the support of show-control technology, the Sky Screen is divided into zones: In one area, movies can be shown; satellite TV broadcast in another; and there is even an attraction where — for a small fee — visitors can upload their own pictures for that proverbial minute of fame. The whole surface of the digital architecture can also deliver single screen images and spectacle in breathtaking color and scale supported by a state-of-the-art audio system. Medialon Show Manager controls a complement of Electrosonic equipment, including five MS9300 HD video players and two Vector image processors which drive the video canopy, which is really an array of five XGA-equivalent displays working as one single display. It can show eight simultaneous video feeds derived from local cameras, a local video editing suite, off-air and even gaming devices and phone cameras. It can also show XGA images from local computer sources.

The Blessing

The main content was created by a series of storyboards and notes. First, I created a static storyboard with a written treatment for approval by the clients. The next step was to create an animatic version of the storyboard — a timed, partially animated version of my static storyboard with a temporary soundtrack. From there, the companies of choice took the animatic and, scene-by-scene, created the images with a computer graphics program. In some instances, they would build wire-frame characters and sometimes a live shoot to build the diverse and dynamic story. Then music and sound effects were added. It was necessary to test the shows up on the screen for speed timings as the scale is so huge things have to move in real time for the full effect to be exciting.

The primary purpose of the shows is to attract new shoppers to The Place without cutting into their valuable shopping time. The premier show, The Blessing, begins with the flight of the red and yellow dragons of Fortune and Power, and then progresses though scenes such as updateable performances of Olympic hopefuls, Chinese hip hop, Kung Fu, fireworks, and the largest image ever created of The Great Wall. People on the street below experience the four seasons, from the peach blossoms of spring gently falling to the lightning strikes and thunderstorms of winter. My favorite line is, “No matter what the weather is like in Beijing, The Place can always change it.”

The script and storyboards were given to three companies to animate and do their versions, and the work was quite spectacular. The finished shows, produced by Crystal Graphics and CCTV, are of great quality. These companies were driven to produce these ten-minute shows as a matter of national pride. The formula and techniques for these large screens are very different from the usual filmmaking techniques, and it has been hard to get the filmmakers to believe me. Flash cuts, zooms, and normal-speed objects make you feel like you are in an earthquake or that the sky is falling. I have found that the techniques I used are closer to the techniques of a live arena show than to filmmaking. Objects have to make an entrance and an exit just as in a live performance.

Although I supervised most of the work in China with the help of Patrick Zouli — an adept translator — I was supported by a number of premier American associates. David Steinberg of Earshot Music, who composed and arranged the original music for the first shows of the Fremont Street Experience, created temporary music tracks used as a template for Chinese composers, arrangers, and performers. Brian Edwards of ETI, a multimedia pioneer in theme parks and attractions, consulted by looking over the shoulders of the local suppliers to ensure high quality and perfect operation of all the audio-visual and show-control systems. Dean Morris partially animated my static storyboards to add sparkle to the presentation.

Chinese Know-How

The architectural design, engineering, and all architectural support and construction was completed with amazing speed and efficiency by accomplished teams. There is a tendency on the part of the local producers and digital companies to jump in and say, “We can do that,” more out of enthusiasm than from any real understanding of the particular problems or challenges. Much of my time with the media companies was spent teaching them this new format. Fortunately, Mr. Ji Zeng He, Mr. Ji Zeng Ping (the director and vice general manager), David Deng (manager of Sky Screen project department), and David Zhang (IT support) were involved with me from the beginning and fully understood the difference between moviemaking and giant screen entertainment, and have shown clear determination to keep to the program that had been carefully delineated.

The difficulties of doing business in China are no greater than anywhere else in the world. A successful outcome depends on the quality and understanding of the clients, who, in my case, have been prompt in their payments and honorable in their commitment to excellence.

For those nervous about doing business in China, they need only find out what is truly required for the project. Patience is a necessity to create a partnership based on respect and friendship, topped off with the understanding that there is a genuine need to find employment for as many local companies as possible.

My clients have close ties with the county government officials, the mayor, city council, and the Olympic committee. All of these relationships are necessary to provide approval and community participation at many levels. One of my important public-relations functions is to interface with local media and officials and communicate confidence in the outcome of the project based on my experience of having done it successfully in the past.

There is a huge demand in China for creative talent in all fields, as well as technical knowledge and the operational skills that our experience can provide. At a recent TEA roundtable discussion on China, I discovered that American companies' disappointment seems mostly to happen at the supplier/vendor level, just as I was disappointed when I started the Sky Screen project. But with a flexible attitude and patience, the experience of doing business in China has proved to be universally rewarding and exciting.

There is a genuine desire in the new China to join the international community that respects intellectual property rights. It will take time before the system is perfect, but with a country so large, it's not surprising that the process seems a little slow. Certainly, the Aozhong Development Company stands for the spirit and energy of the new China.

Jeremy Railton is a designer in several mediums including theatre, film, events, television, themed attractions, architainment, and master planning. He served as the production designer for the Winter Olympic Ceremonies in Salt Lake City in 2002, and he has also worked on The MTV Video Music Awards and The MTV Movie Awards, as well as gigs for the White House and Presidential Inaugural events. He also designed Cher's Farewell tour and Barbra Streisand's most recent tour. For additional information, visit www.entdesign.com.