Ten years after playing host to the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta, Georgia is once again hosting a world-class attraction, and this one is a permanent feature of the city's skyline. The 505,000 sq.ft Georgia Aquarium, which opened this past November, is the largest in the world in total square footage, number of fish, and in the amount of water. Its massive structure houses over 100,000 animals of 500 different species in more than eight million gallons of marine and fresh water. The vision of the aquarium came from benefactor Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, who, with his wife, Billi, has created the world's most engaging aquarium experience as a gift to the people of Georgia through the Marcus Foundation.

Atlanta-based architectural firm Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback, & Associates (TVS) created a unique exterior to this extraordinary building, so the visitor's experience begins immediately upon arrival. The large blue metal and glass exterior of the aquarium is designed in the abstracted shape of a ship. The hull emerges from two large buildings that feature curved, flowing roofs designed to represent swells in the ocean. Under the bow of the ship, visitors enter walking through a narrow corridor featuring two tanks that create two “walls of fish” leading into an open atrium, or plaza. This large plaza serves as the main hub for the aquarium with all five of the exhibit galleries, the food court, gift shops, and theatre radiating off the space.

As the central location of the aquarium, the plaza space reinforces the underwater theme with a flowing blue and white terrazzo floor and seating areas that float in bubbling fountains. However, the real attraction for this space is the wave wall: measuring 150' long by 25' high and made of five stacked bands of Barrisol fabric running the length of the area, the wall illuminates the entire space with a continuously changing light show and doubles as a projection surface for a 75'-long video image. The lighting designer for this particular space was Ted Ferreira, principal with City Design Group. “The plaza is like the Grand Central Station of the aquarium,” Ferreira explains. “Everyone comes in and continually goes through the plaza between the galleries. The wave wall is essentially a curving light box that was conceived by TVS. The wall's bands of Barrisol, a stretch material, are backlit. It effectively serves as both a lighting device and a picture frame for the video system. I used over 500 Color Kinetics ColorCast® 14 LED fixtures. It is an enormous LED color-changing wall, and when it is running at full in a rainbow of color, people are just knocked out. It is amazing.”

Since the wall is also a projection surface, Ferreira had more than just aesthetic concerns to address. “We had to be careful about how much light we put on the video wall because we didn't want to wipe the video away.” That was a similar concern for Electrosonic Systems, Inc., who provided all the AV hardware throughout the aquarium. “Obviously, reflecting on an illuminated surface is the biggest challenge,” says Chris Conte, design consultant for Electrosonic. “We actually did a mock-up in our shop before I committed to saying this can be done. I knew it could be done, but I wanted to see what the images would look like with the colored light behind the Barrisol material. Surprisingly, with the right amount of light on the material, you could still see the image. The other challenge was that, because it is a waved surface, I was a little concerned about the field of focus — whether it was going to be in focus on the forward portion as well as the back portion of the wave wall — but the projector that we used had a pretty large field of focus, and there weren't any focus issues. We didn't need resolution; we needed light, so I chose to go with the little 5K Panasonics and double-stack them, which gives me 10K on each cell. I needed as much light as possible, and they did the job. For the throw, we used the standard lenses and then put the projectors where the lenses threw the image; I think it ended up at 20' for all three double-stacks.”

Electrosonic supplied eight double-stacked Panasonic PT-D5500UL edge-blending projectors. Conte continues, “There are actually two separate images in the space; there are three stacks creating the 75'- long video image, which is really three video images edge blended together, and the fourth stack creates a marquee image for the 4D Theatre.”

Ferreira was pleased with the final effect. “We created some pretty sophisticated sequences that resemble the movement of kelp and color rolls that work with the film,” he says. “It is really a pretty amazing space. People walk in the space, and they are really blown away. It is a very impressive effect, once it was all up and running, but it took work to get there.”

Ferreira supports the wall with additional theatrical lighting throughout the space. “There are four [Martin] MAC 550s with custom gobos by Apollo where we actually took the gobos of stills of fish, and they dance around the walls and the floor to support the experience,” he says. “We have 18 MAC 300s that are just color washes and 24 or so [ETC] Source Fours with GAM SX4s with the ripple disks. We have 12 Wavelight projectors, a nice ripple effect machine from Precision Projection Systems in California.” All the theatrical lighting is being driven by a Genlyte/ET Horizon LPC with Gold Software programmed by Brian Evans and Robert Bell. However, Ferreira notes, “The overall building-wide lighting control is Lithonia Synergy System. This controls most of the dimmed and switched lighting in the building, including the plaza.”

An Ocean Of Possibilities

From the plaza, you can select one of five different exhibit galleries: Cold Water Quest, Georgia Explorer, Ocean Voyager, River Scout, or Tropical Diver. In Cold Water Quest, you can tour a gallery that profiles the rich variety of marine life found in cold ocean waters. The Georgia Explorer-Discover Our Coast gallery brings you up close to the aquatic life living off the Georgia shore. In Ocean Voyager-Journey with Giants, you walk down a 100'-long acrylic tunnel through the heart of a huge tank, which features the second largest viewing window in the world at 61' wide by 23' tall and 2' thick, looking into a tank containing more than six million gallons of saltwater. River Scout-Freshwater Mysteries is a gallery focusing on the rivers of Africa, South America, Asia and, closer to home, Georgia. Tropical Diver-The Coral Kingdom has, at its center, one of the largest living reef exhibits of any aquarium in the world; the re-creation of a tropical Pacific coral reef even has waves crashing overhead. Each gallery offers a unique experience as designed by PGAV, the exhibit design firm, with lighting design by Fisher, Marantz, Stone (FMS).

FMS was excited to answer the challenge of the designs created by PGAV, according to Charles Stone, president of FMS. “We had a lot of fun,” says Stone. “It is theatrical lighting on one hand and truly biology-driven lighting on the other. The most challenging gallery in that regard was in the Tropical Diver tank. There is a tremendous wall of coral that is carefully placed and manicured by divers; the water has to move at a certain rate, and there has to be a certain amount of light at a certain spectrum reaching it. So it was very challenging for us, technically, in these areas. The big picture challenge on this whole project was to balance our desire to do what the themed exhibits needed of the theatrical lighting treatments with the unwavering demands of the keepers of the fish.”

FMS associate principal Zack Zanolli agrees. “You have to remember the fish aren't actors; animal husbandry is trying to create a world for them so that they will thrive,” Zanolli explains. “Lighting is a huge component of that, along with the incredibly sophisticated life-safety systems and the filtration. The themed environment [of the visitors] and the technical requirements of what animal husbandry needed us to do in the tank required us to blend the theatrical with the scientific. You were working two separate lists of issues at the same time to try and make it one world.”

The Belly Of The Beasts

The collaboration between the PGAV and FMS is never more successful in creating a one-of-a-kind experience than in the River Scout gallery, in which a river has essentially been built over the head of the visitors, who can see the bellies of the fish as they swim by. “It is the point of view everyone wants to have but doesn't, because it is risky, and it is really hard to achieve,” says Al Cross, project manager for PGAV. “Zack convinced us that he could render daylight and make it seem like — as you walked under the river — you would be seeing daylight through the river, and most importantly, it would feel right. What he was promising was that he knew what daylight should look like at the bottom of the river, not at the top. There was a lot of doubt from the animal care staff as to the colors you would have to use to render it properly; they feared that it would be ugly, that it would look dirty. In fact, Zack was dead-on, and the light is, essentially, perfect.”

Zanolli is pleased with the result as well. “That is one of the most successful things in the project,” he says. “Animal husbandry took a leap of faith with us. It is not natural that the river is over your head. Sunlight, in a theatrical way, is warm compared to what animal husbandry wants the fish to see, which is a very crisp, cool light. We used a tremendous amount of high-pressure sodium, which is the orange streetlight as opposed to the white of metal halide, to push warm light through the tank. The light goes through the water and makes projected ripples of water on the floor, so you are kind of in the water with the fish, looking up at them. High-pressure sodium, while not really desired by animal husbandry as a rule, since it is not very good at color rendering for the fish, in this case worked, since the fish we were looking at were kind of dirty brown catfish and fish that didn't have a lot of color anyway. Once we demonstrated it to animal husbandry — at a mock-up at a borrowed aquarium tank in Florida — we got a great deal of collaboration.”

Indeed, it appears the animal husbandry staff learned one or two things about lighting on this project. “There were really two reactions by the animal care staff,” says Emily Howard, PGAV project architect. “The first was when the electrical contractor was just installing the fixtures themselves, so of course, they didn't aim them; they just put them up. A lot of the staff thought, ‘Is this it?’ When we got FMS there, and we were focusing and aiming the fixtures, we usually worked after hours. The staff would come in the next day and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this exhibit.’ The large open ocean tank, in particular, really just popped out, because of the way they positioned the lights and highlighted different aspects of the tank, the objects inside the tank, and lighting the rear of the acrylic, so it highlighted the animals. It was a dramatic difference.”

Blending the lighting fixtures into the actual exhibits was also a concern, as pointed out by Howard. “One of the challenges that sticks out in my head was at the River Scout gallery, where we were trying to conceal a lot of the fixtures within the rock work,” she says. “We have a lot that looks like trees, so it feels like you are going through the roots of the trees; a lot of the fixtures were hidden there. The challenge was that we wanted to conceal the fixtures from the guests but still illuminate the signs and the paths. The Georgia Explorer gallery had a lot of themed fixtures, so that one was a lot more fun because we could theme the fixture to make it look like it belonged in a boathouse. I know FMS chose fixtures with that in mind. They picked something that could look like it belonged and then we could theme it to make it look old.”

There are numerous high points to the Georgia Aquarium, and everyone seems to have his favorite. Stone, for his part, was particularly impressed with the Ocean Voyager Gallery. “The big tank with the whale sharks is really just extraordinary,” he says. “It's really hard, technically, to push light into 30' of water and make it look like dappled sunlight. It's an extraordinary window of plastic and glass, about 2' thick, and it holds back an enormous volume of water, and it is crystal clear. Our job was to make it look like dappled sunlight that the big whales swim through. That was great to work on. The scale of this project overall was so big that all of the challenges were magnified.”

Fish In 4D

There is one more attraction of the aquarium that visitors can immerse themselves in, the 4D theatre. It features a 3D film, a live actor, and interactive seats. The theatre is one of the most advanced in the world, combining digital projection with a high-definition 3D film.

The entire enterprise was overseen by Gary Goddard, founder of Gary Goddard Entertainment. Goddard created, designed, directed, and produced the major 3D/4D family attraction. The 3D film works with polarizing glasses and explains the ecology of the ocean and how littering affects the oceans.

Ferreira, who was the lighting designer for both the space and the show, again had to balance lights and film as he had in the plaza space. “One of the challenges in 4D shows is getting the lighting to not overwhelm the film.” He was supported by Jim Ohrberg, the show lighting programmer, who wrote some of the more complex cues for the show. There are literally several hundred cues in the 10-minute film. “Jim did a masterful job of cueing some of the moving lights where it supports the film in a couple of places. The goal is to make you feel immersed,” explains Ferreira.

For the 4D theatre, Ferreira chose to use an ETC Expression 3 lighting playback controller to control a package that includes Martin MAC 250 Entours; Wavelight Ripple Machines from Precision Projection Systems; eight Diversitronics 2kW strobes; a mix of ETC Source Four® ellipsoidals and PARs; and LeMaitre Bubble Master 2000s. Ferreira believes these choices helped allow some of his lighting effects to underscore the film experience. “When you go underwater, the water ripples start on all the walls, but it is very supportive of the film. We used the Diversitronics strobe lighting to support the electric eels scene. All of it was very, very theatrical.”

Ferreira explained another effect he particularly likes. “In one scene, four fish do a sort of barbershop quartet bit, and they are self-illuminated,” he says. “They are deep water fish — the kind that provide their own bioluminescent light — so we programmed the moving lights to do a barbershop quartet kind of ballyhoo. Different colors come up with each of the fish's colors so they are bright red, bright green, bright orange; we basically chase them in followspot created by the MACs. As they sing on and offstage, the MACs follow them on and off, so it looks like they are glowing.”

“The most difficult thing in 4D is to realize that the star of the show is the film,” he continues. “The lighting and all the visceral effects like the water and the seat ticklers are there to support the film experience. If you upstage the film, you have missed the point.”

Ferreira's final assignment for the project was actually the beacon for the “ship” itself. The building has what is called a lantern wall, visible from the highway and parts of downtown. “It was essentially a huge wall wash exercise with the 40 Elliptipar fixtures mounted 35' to 40' in the air on the steel, because they wanted to minimize the sightlines to the fixtures, washing a 55'-high wall,” he says. The lanterned ship's hull is visible from Centennial Olympic Park, once again beckoning the world to Atlanta.


Architect, Interior Design & Exhibits: TVS Architects

Base Building

Lighting Design
Quentin Thomas Associates

Entertainment Design Consultant
Gary Goddard Entertainment


Lighting Design
City Design Group

Plaza Wave Wall

Content Producers
On Track Themes


Designer & Producer

Lighting Design
Fisher Marantz Stone

Video Content Creators
Gary Goddard Entertainment, Chedd Angier

4D Theater

Show Created, Written and Produced by
Gary Goddard Entertainment and Big Fish Productions

Project Design
Gary Goddard Entertainment

Architect/Interior Design
JSFA Architects

Lighting Design
City Design Group

Animation Production
Digital Dimension

Lighting Equipment

City Design Group


1 Genlyte/ET Horizon LPC with Gold Software
1 Color Kinetics Light System Engine
4 Martin MAC 550 with custom Apollo ColourScenic® Gobos
18 Martin MAC 300
12 Precision Projection Systems Wavelight Ripple Machine
16 ETC Source Four® HID
16 GAMProducts SX4 Effects Projector
18 Lighting Services HID PAR38 with Apollo Dichroic Filters
500+ Color Kinetics ColorCast® 14 LED Fixture
50+ Hydrel MR16 Ingrade Uplight
50+ Hydrel MR16 Niche Pool Light
40 Elliptipar HID 400W Wall Wash Fixture

4D Theatre

1 ETC Expression 3 LPC with SMPTE
1 ETC Sensor 24 Dimmer Rack
1 Doug Fleenor DMX Opto Splitter
24 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal (Various Beam Angles)
18 ETC Source Four PAR
12 Precision Projection Systems Wavelight Ripple Machine
6 Martin MAC 250 Entour
8 Diversitronics 2kW Strobe
2 LeMaitre Bubble Master 2000 DMX

Video Equipment

Electrosonic Systems Inc.


8 Panasonic PT-D5500UL edge-blending Projector

Themed Galleries

1 Christie LX25A Projector
1 Christie LW25U Projector
1 Christie LX32 Projector
1 Christie LX32 Projector with Navitar long-throw lenses
1 Christie LX37 Projector, 0.8 Lens Epson Powerlight Cinema 200+ Projector
1 NEC WT610 Projector Draper Screens
19" ELO Touchscreens
19" Philips Monitors
Clarity Bobcat 41" LCD Monitors
Electrosonic ESCAN Show Control
AMX Touchscreen

4D Theatre

Christie DS+8K Projectors
20'×35' Stewart Screen
ESCAN Show Control