Most lighting designers do not offer lists of words to define their work. But most lighting designers are not Luc Lafortune, the Las Vegas-based French-Canadian who has dedicated the past three years to creating a lighting vocabulary for , Cirque du Soleil's fourth resident show in Las Vegas, which opened officially on February 3 at the MGM Grand. Lafortune collaborated with director Robert Lepage and architect/ scenic designer Mark Fisher on one of the most challenging projects of his career.

To begin with, the theatre has a 50'-deep abyss where the stage would normally be. Rather than a fixed stage, Fisher designed a 300,000-lb. floating deck (referred to as the sand-cliff deck) that measures 50' wide by 25' deep and 6' tall, manufactured by Tomcat USA. There is also a 30'-square Tatami deck (built by Show Canada) that serves as a B stage, sliding open like three drawers and allowing scenes to cross fade. Five smaller, odd-shaped lifts by Gala bring scenery and/or performers into view.

The 1,951-seat venue, also designed by Fisher, with Auerbach Pollock Friedlander serving as theatre consultants, has an incredible volume and seemingly infinite space. The design concept is what Fisher calls “industrial Baroque” with four levels of posts (vertical pillars) and beams (metal catwalks) embracing the show and serving as performance platforms as Cirque du Soleil blurs the formal delineation between the performance area and the audience.

opens with fire and smoke effects billowing from the abyss. The special effects are by Gregory Meeh of the Brooklyn-based Jauchem & Meeh, with pyrotechnics from Groupe F in France. “Fire is one of the main themes of , and it is used in a primal, primitive way,” says Lafortune, who added red and amber to the light to support the action of the fire. At the same time, the archers begin to appear in the post and beam construction of the theatre, and it is here that the beauty of the theatre design is apparent.

“I worked closely with Mark Fisher to get a scenic finish that would take on different personalities, and the look of the posts and beams could change throughout the show,” says Lafortune, who played with the placement of the lighting on the interior of the post and beam construction to add to the sense of infinity, as if the theatre went on forever.

Lafortune eventually used almost 600 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® LED fixtures, custom powder-coated in Mole Richardson red, and 750 Mole Richardson single cell Molefay fixtures, whose signature maroon color blends with the oxidized red of the pillars themselves. More than 1,800 fixtures are integrated into the post and beam construction including internal fixtures such as A-lamps, which illuminate the “crystals” on the bottom of each post. “The theatre looks as great as it does because of Luc's lighting,” says Fisher. “It was designed to be lit.”

By placing so many small, discreet sources in the posts and beams, Lafortune can create different looks. “It can look like a Japanese temple or an iron foundry or even a jail when the railings are lit in cold white to emphasize the steel,” he says. At one point, the posts are lit internally with ETC Source Four® Parnels, adding a green glow as drummers perform on the exterior of the catwalks.

The second challenge for Lafortune is the fact that has a plot, another first for Cirque du Soleil. “ is more literary and story-driven,” says Lafortune, who admits to finding the idea of a plot-driven show a little intimidating in the beginning. “The process was more like theatre than I am used to, and the script served as a catalyst for design choices.” The simplified version of the plot tells the story of imperial twins who are separated when their empire is attacked by the evil archers. They survive various ordeals, starting with a shipwreck as they try to escape, and find each other in the end, as the bad guys are defeated, and the good guys live happily ever after.

Lafortune, who has designed almost all of Cirque du Soleil's productions to date, is used to a more organic working process. “I quickly realized that Robert Lepage is a man of words. He also works with continuity and a chronological order. My work is more intuitive,” he says.

Lafortune began by reading the script. “The story is Shakespearean with twins, separation, conflict between groups of people, the fight for survival, and coming of age,” he explains. “I wanted to define the two different worlds: that of the protagonists in the emperor's court and the antagonists who are the rival archers.”

Finding himself in a literary ambiance with script in hand, Lafortune decided to write his own lexicon, including words of inspiration to help define each of these worlds. For the emperor's court, the primary words were water, wood, and paper, further honed by such descriptions as a summer night, floating, ephemeral, lightness, thinness, warmth, lanterns, and incandescent light sources. In contrast, the archer's den was defined principally by metal, with such adjectives as industrial, solid, structural, oppressive, heavy, immense, monolithic. In contrast to the warm incandescent glow of the court, the archers were bathed in the cold, ugly glare of arc sources.

Lafortune also looked to images to put these words into a visual vocabulary as well. “I went to google.com and found images that reflected each of the words on the lists,” he explains. For the archers' environment, he was dawn to images of refineries at night with glowing green light, transposed on stage as 48” green neon tubes by Encapsulite. “The archers are not aesthetic. They live in a cold metallic world and are motivated by meanness,” says Lafortune, who sat with Lapage and showed him his collection of images, including rippling reflections of water and iron foundries. “We kept some and discarded some until we agreed on the inspiration for the show.”

The words and photos were a way for the lighting designer to reach out to a new director, creating a bridge between their working styles (all of the Cirque du Soleil productions that Lafortune has designed to date, with the exception of Zumanity, were directed by Franco Dragone, and over the years, the director and designer had established a design shorthand). “The images helped define the look for each environment,” notes Lafortune, who then transposed the looks into lighting fixtures and colors that would convey the various images.

is very cinematic, so I looked to films for inspiration as well,” notes Lafortune, who mixed a DVD of scenes from a range of films, from Sally Potter's Orlando and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books to sunlight reflected on the bottom of the ocean in Pirates of the Caribbean and the industrial quality of Blade Runner. “The film clips were a powerful way to show the director what I had in mind, as I couldn't always explain it,” Lafortune adds. “Much of the final lighting echoes the spirit of these images, making it easy to specify the sources.”

Some of the industrial sources include 400W Mariner SFMM floodlights by Hubbell. “These have high-temperature HTI arc sources as are used in parking lots,” says Lafortune, who adds that these fixtures are used with mechanical dowsers to overcome the long strike time. He also opted for 5000W Mole Richardson Molebeam projectors to serve as backlight followspots. “I wanted the look of followspots without the ellipse of the followspot light in the air,” he adds. These are used with the “toothy” Wybron Eclipse dowsers. “A perfect look for the archer's environment,” says Lafortune.

From the very beginning of the show, Lafortune creates lighting that draws the audience into the far-away world of . A twinkling effect is created with 12 Selecon Pacific luminaires with 575W MSD light sources, fitted with customized City Theatrical EFX Plus3 effects machines. “The look is like the Northern Lights. It is ethereal and aquatic,” notes Lafortune. During a stormy shipwreck scene, with powerful Lightning Strikes strobes flashing along the proscenium, Lafortune added realistic cloud projections (on a scrim) by mixing clouds from front-of-house Barco projectors with cloud effects wheels on the Selecon fixtures. “The color-corrected warmth of the Selecons with the cold white of the projections creates great depth for the clouds,” Lafortune explains.

Although fire is a main theme of , Lafortune used red very judiciously in his lighting. “It is a color you have to use carefully to make a clear theatrical statement,” he points out. One scene where he effectively uses red light is a battle scene, where the performers are fighting on the sand-cliff deck in a vertical position with extraordinary projections timed to their movements. Here, the red is clearly the color of blood and battle. “The red is like the abyss of hell,” says Lafortune. “The bodies floating above the deck might be the deceased or are angelic, something very melancholic. The red is a strong choice.”

The projections in , designed by Holger Forterer, are abstract and nicely integrated with the lighting and scenic elements. In the battle scene described above, the archers are lit by the projections on the vertical deck, while the principals are lit with followspots, creating interesting layering in the light. “The deck is moving, so sidelight is not possible,” says Lafortune. “When the deck is completely vertical, the light casts shadows that are larger than life and very menacing.”

By far, the brightest scene is on a beach, where crabs pop out of the sand and a starfish dances jauntily (articulated costumes courtesy of designer Michael Curry). “The idea is that you need sunglasses, and there is a reflection of the sun on the sand and the water,” says Lafortune, who used a row of PARs to backlight the performers from behind, with additional sidelight to accent the sand. Followspots help pick out the creatures and actors from the sandy background. All of the followspots are 2500 HMI D'Artagnan by Robert Juliat, and positions include the lighting booth, a mid-house catwalk position for a steeper angle, and at the proscenium. Altman beam projectors in the basement are used to light translucent fabric birds that flutter over the audience as a transition to the beach scene. “The birds are only lit from below,” says Lafortune. “There is nothing above them but the stratosphere.”

The lighting also has various textures and layers, from icicle gobos in a blizzard scene where falling snow twinkles against the black abyss, and a more whimsical look for a forest scene with split gobos of green and yellow, or a faint blue wash on galvanized metal pipes that track in as trees. There are also projections of concentric moving lines that add yet another layer. Lafortune notes that these scenes are equally lit from above with steep back angles (rather than straight overhead positions) and below with a lot of gear in the basement. He also points out that the “residue” lighting has to “die” in the abyss, as there is no room in the wings.

One of the harshest scenes is the construction of the Wheel of Death, a large acrobatic apparatus that is later used by acrobats who defy gravity as they fly around the moving wheels. As the evil archers are “constructing” this torture machine, real sparks are flying, and the entire stage area is empty, with the performers suspended on a catwalk over the void. Lafortune added to the evilness with the green neon tubes, PAR94 nine lights and 4kW HMI fixtures upstage on catwalks. “The theatre is the decor,” he says. “The masking is gone; there is no deck and no tatami mat. All of the catwalks are visible all the way to the top of the theatre, and there are lights everywhere including on the hoses for the hydraulic system and the steel columns of the theatre.”

To accomplish all of this, Lafortune and his lighting team, including associate lighting designer Nol van Genuchten, lighting director Jeanette Farmer, moving light programmer Hubert Tardif, and assistants to the lighting designer Paul Copenhaver and Alexandre Tougas, spent 11 months in the theatre, starting in March 2004. Tardif programmed the moving lights on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3, while Lafor-tune programmed the conventional lights himself on a Strand 550 console. “This is a big show but not a big moving lights show,” he points out.

Lafortune certainly found the right words to describe the worlds he has created in KÀ. There are also words that come to mind to describe his work as a designer: passion, intuition, life. “As designers, we must detach ourselves from our field of expertise and find out what's out there, listen to what's going on,” he notes. “I might be influenced by what I see in the Mojave Desert or walking the streets at three in the morning. You need a life outside of the theatre, away from trade shows and the industry. Otherwise, you'll only have the tools to achieve your vision but nothing to say.”

This is also a designer who knows how to be brave. “It's safer to do the same thing over and over because you know how,” he says. “Cirque du Soleil expects you to take risks and go the distance, putting yourself out there. You might have to rethink your choices, but that is the nature of our craft. The more you do it doesn't make it any easier. Fear is part of the process; you might as well embrace it.”

Fear? It seems as if Lafortune is every bit as fearless as the acrobats in KÀ. His lighting, like their gravity-defying feats, takes your breath away.

Gear

CONVENTIONAL FIXTURES

36 ETC Source Four® 5°
74 ETC Source Four 10°
138 ETC Source Four 19°
120 ETC Source Four 26°
65 ETC Source Four 36°
61 ETC Source Four 50°
24 ETC Source Four ZOOM 15-30°
24 ETC Source Four ZOOM 25-50°
12 Selecon Incandescent Body
12 Selecon 90° Barrel
417 Altman PAR64
12 Altman PAR36 9-Lites
4 James Thomas PAR64 9-Lites
48 ETC Source FourPAR
104 ETC Source Four PARNEL
10 James Thomas PAR36 Ashtray
1 James Thomas PAR46
12 Strand CODA 500W
15 Altman Sky Cyc
48 McMaster 1549K13 Halogen Quartz Light (Black)
12 MR-16 Ministrip Lights
7 T-3 Strip Lights
9 Altman 500W Fresnel
389 Mole Richardson 650W Molefay
8 Mole Richardson 5000W Skypan
830 Mole Richardson 650W Nooklight
99 Mole Richardson Custom 4-Lite Moleeno (with 500W PAR64 MFL lamps)

ARC SOURCES AND FOLLOWSPOTS

4 Robert Juliat Aramis 4.5-8° 2500W HMI Followspot
4 Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 9-21° 2500W HMI Followspot W Stand
2 Mole Richardson 5K Tungsten Molebeam Type 8331
2 PANI Beamprojectors
8 Robert Juliat D'Artagnan HMI 2500W 9-26
8 Robert Juliat D'Artagnan HMI 2500W 18-38
8 Robert Juliat D'Artagnan HMI 2500W 30-50
1 LTM Super 12/18kW HMI Fresnel (Used) with 100' Cable
14 Selecon Pacific MSR
10 5-13 Zoomspot
2 Mole Richardson MolePAR 4000W HMI, Type 6641
2 ARRI 6000W HMI Daylight Theatre Fresnel
2 Strand 4KW HMI Daylight Fresnel
4 Hubble SFMM Mariner 400W

MOVING LIGHTS

12 Clay Paky Stage Profile Plus SV
20 VARI*LITE VL3000 Wash
12 VARI*LITE VL3000 Spot

EFFECTS EQUIPMENT

16 Martin Atomic 3000 Strobe
1 Lightning Strikes Lightningstrike 70K Focusable
11 Rosco Image Pro
4 GAM Film FX
18 City Theatrical EFX 3+ (with 2 Disks, Type #5225 and Art Glass Type #5255)
42 GAM Twin Spin Gobo Rotator
11 Rosco Double Gobo Rotator

OTHER

526 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 6
116 Color Kinetics Powersupply PDS 150 E
48 Hubbell ZV/ZB Zipline Series (Blue Light)
43 Encapsulite Twin Lamp Control Box
82 Encapsulite 48" Tube (White)
6 50' 5-Light Incandescent Stringlight
2 Mole Richardson Senior Size Litewate Low Stand Type 418181
2 MGM 19" Decorative Fresnel
3 Mole Richardson 14" Decorative Fresnel
5 Mc Allister 12" Decorative Fresnel
3 Mc Allister 10" Decorative Fresnel

SCROLLERS AND DOUSERS

10 Wybron Scroller Power Supplies
112 Wybron COLORAM II 7.5
25 Wybron COLORAM II 10
7 Wybron Large Format
1 Wybron Scroller for 6K HMI Fresnel
14 Wybron Eclipse I 2K Model for the 18PACM SR513HR units
10 Wybron Eclipse I 5K Model for Molepar, Mariner(2), 6k, 4k Fresnel
2 Wybron Eclipse II 5K Model for Molebeam
1 LTM Gradalux Electroniques for 18KW Fresnel

PROJECTION EQUIPMENT

3 Barco ELM R18 DLP Projectors
2 Dell Precision 650 Workstations
3 Wybron Eclipse I .2K Model Dousers
2 Cisco 3550 Network Switches
2 4-way DVI Video Signal Amps

DIMMING AND CONTROL

Strand SLD 96-way dimmer racks

2 Strand 550i control consoles
2 Strand 510 control consoles
3 Strand 520 control consoles
2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3 consoles

Power Relay System by Douglas Relay DMX /Ethernet distribution by Strand Electrical distribution devices by Strand Doug Fleenor Design Isolation Amplifier and Splitters (custom DMX125EE and DMX1211 Splitters and one 4-way Switch)

lighting team

Lighting designer: Luc Lafortune

Projection designer: Holger Forterer

Associate lighting designer: Nol Van Genuchten

Assistants to the lighting designer: Paul Copenhaver, Alexandre Tougas

Moving lights programmer: Hubert Tardif

Lighting consultants: Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander

Cirque du Soleil infrastructure design team: Luc Plamondon, Gabriel Pinkstone, Don MacLean, Eric Liston, Rick Dobbie, and Jeanette Farmer

General contractor: Marnell Carrao and Associates, general foreman — Randy Kuiper

Electrical engineering: JBA and Associates

Project Lead: Dave Magdefrau

Electrical contractor: Bombard Electric, foreman — Ron Hatter

Lighting equipment supplier: PRG Las Vegas, project manager — Maggie Bailey

Lighting cable supplier: TMB Associates

show production team

Production manager: Stéphane Mongeau

Technical directors: Paul Bates, Matthew Whelan

lighting operations team

Lighting director: Jeanette Farmer

Assistant lighting director: Nils Becker

Crew:

Larry Carrasco
Selina Davenport
Chris Escher
Cliff Gutierrez
Danny Grose
Gabriel Hernandez
Martin Isaac
Bernie Lehman
Curt McCormick
Jon Mytyk
Majid Khazal
Liz Koch
Chris Kortum
Jeff Kyrish
Alan Pilukas
Stuart Pitz
Jon Pullen
Doc Roth
Tony Saurini
Mike Wescoatt
Susan Wilson