On the recent Britney Spears tour, nearly every type of rock-show magic was employed during the course of the show, from custom double-sided LED video cubes to a flying platform with pyro to make it look rocket-powered to lasers and confetti and snow machines. Then, for the encore, came something never seen before: a 50'-high (15m) water column, with video projection, in the midst of which the performer and her dancers rose up, then burst through the sheet of water. This spectacular effect was created by Chameleon Productions, which makes the water screens, in collaboration with production designer Steve Cohen, Mirage Water Works, which consulted on the engineering, and Tait Towers, which incorporated it into the complex staging.

But Chameleon Productions of Orlando, FL, does more than just water screens; it's a full-service production company. Chameleon began in Los Angeles in 1987 as a laser company, and for the first five or six years produced laser shows, mostly for amusement park finales, corporate meetings and product reveals, and openings of new buildings, such as the Orlando Arena and Orange County Convention Center.

The firm started a lighting division five years ago to do corporate theatre, cruise ships, and amusement park shows, using existing instrumentation and reprogramming for the show coming in, sometimes augmenting with additional gear. There is also an effects division, which includes the water screens and fog and laser systems. Chameleon first started using water screen technology about five years ago.

Company president John Markham explains, “It was designed as an effect that could easily, without impacting the production, be brought in even as a last-minute [design element] for corporate theatre, amusement parks, that kind of thing.” Many water-related companies, such as motorboat manufacturers, use water screens for new product reveals. “You can make it look like anything from a kinetic movie screen to a nearly invisible scrim. In a completely dark environment you can have near-holographic images levitating. [Video] is a little more magical when it's projected onto water than a regular screen.”

As another example, a car company exhibiting at the New York Auto Show produced a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance routine with video images of New York scenes projected onto a 30'-high by 40'-wide (9×12m) water screen, “and three cars drove through the water screen onto the stage,” Markham says. “That's the kind of thing that it's really designed to do.”

For all its splashy spectacle, a water screen is relatively simple to incorporate into a production, because “it's modular,” Markham says. “For ease of setup for corporate theatre and the more regular events that occur in the entertainment industry, it's transported in 10' sections and seamed together on-site.”

A standard water screen can be set up in a ballroom, convention center, or theatre. The pipe sections are hung on standard truss with reclaiming troughs placed on the deck directly underneath. (These troughs also act as transportation cases.) Grating is installed instead of normal stage deck so that the water can flow into the troughs and get pumped back up into the system.

Markham hopes the use of the custom water column on the Britney Spears tour, which proved the effect's reliability and repeatability, will open producers' eyes to the possibilities of the technology in more traditional theatrical applications.

“It was originally supposed to be one effect on the Britney Spears tour,” Markham concludes. “From what people have told us, it is the premier effect, the signature effect. I've read reviews that compared it to the candelabra in Phantom or the helicopter in Miss Saigon. We're very happy to think that it is being compared to things that have been known through the years as stellar effects. We're hoping that Broadway and theatre will take a look at it and will see the validity and allow us to show them some of the things it's capable of.”