STRAPPING EXPLOSIVES TO A landmark may not seem like an appropriate way to celebrate New Year's Eve, especially in a city vying to host the 2012 Olympics, but the Greater London Authority decided to do just that for their New Year's Eve extravaganza.
Marking Midnight 2004, a light and fireworks show, centered on the British Airways London Eye Ferris wheel and was overseen by project director Jeremy Garbett for Jack Morton Worldwide, who also provided the projections. Durham Murenghi designed the lighting, and Christophe Berthon-neau and his team from Groupe F created a 10-minute long firework display.
The event began on December 31st at 6:30pm with images of London lights projected 328' tall by 98' wide onto a building behind the Eye on the South Bank of the Thames. Dan Colborne, creative director at JMW, calls the still images a “gallery experience” for the crowds gathering for the fireworks at midnight, and assembled iconic images of London which included the green man symbol from road crossings, the word “play” from a video arcade, Chinese lanterns from London's Chinatown, and a sign from a fish and chip shop. Thirty or forty images were projected for 15 minutes each onto the Shell Center, and after a security guard had run around closing the blinds on all the windows, the white, rectangular building became a perfect screen. Colborne also used the opportunity to boost London's bid to host the Olympic games as the projections included sporting pictures and, Colborne says, “We used colors that were representative of the Olympic rings and consulted with the 2012 committee to include Back the Bid images.”
Colborne used eight PIGI Xenon 6kW projectors from E\T\C UK in Barking, mounted in two rows of four inside a truck parked on the South Bank. The hardest part of the project for Colborne was restricted access to the Eye. The crew had to wait until it closed for the evening so they could drive the truck in and begin focusing. “We were testing at one o'clock in the morning in freezing cold temperatures,” he says. Because the crowd all needed to hear London's Big Ben strike midnight at the same time, Colborne used a sound system from Delta to relay the chimes along Victoria Embankment.
At the last moment the GLA decided to hold a two-minute silence to remember the victims of the Asian tsunami. Because the images were still, the program was fortunately quite flexible and the collection of photographs already included an appropriate one. “We already had in the show an image of three candles [from a London church] and we just put that up for the two-minute silence, all the lights went down on the Eye, and the crowd was absolutely silent. It was an amazing moment,” says Colborne.
It was an especially poignant moment for Murenghi, who would have been on his annual family vacation in the Maldives, which were hit hard by the tsunami, had it not been for the London event.
To light the Eye, Murenghi placed Martin Professional MAC 2000s inside each of the 32 pods on the Eye, 14 Syncrolights searchlights at the bottom of the Eye, and 100 VARI*LITE VL5 arcs on pontoons moored on the river. He also worked closely with fireworks maestro Berthonneau to coordinate looks on the London landmark.
Berthonneau designed the fireworks to launch off the Eye like a stationary Catherine Wheel, but “explode” within the camera frame for the benefit of the live TV audience, rather than rocketing upwards and away from the structure. This meant that the smoke remained within the camera frame as well, a potential problem for Murenghi. “We had to be careful which direction we came in at the Eye so we didn't lose it in the smoke,” he says, “If we were front-lighting the Eye from the VARI*LITEs on the pontoon, we were always in purples, reds, and blues; bright colors would have lit up the smoke and made the Eye disappear.”
Lighting a live show at night for a TV audience was another challenge. “Normally a light show and a television show are worlds apart,” says Murenghi. “In the theatre you have light and darkness, in television you've got light and less light.” Coordinating colors with Berthonneau helped, and the British weather, for once, was kind, and although it was cold there was no rain or snow to contend with. Murenghi had previously lit the ceremonies for the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in the pouring rain. It may have added a certain somberness to the occasion but, the designer says, “We lost about 30% transmission of light for the cameras because of it, and you can't really plan for that.”
Lack of time was another problem for Murenghi; he had only an hour on the two nights before the show to focus and program. “We really wanted to hand as much time as we could over to Christophe because in the eyes of the public its very much a fireworks-oriented show,” Murenghi says. Safety was also an issue, but he adds, “Christophe is very good at strapping explosives to buildings and doing very little damage.”
Fortunately, Murenghi was able to pre-program most of the design using WYSIWYG from Cast Lighting. Another break was having LD Paul Cook as his associate on the project. Cook had already lit the Eye for the welcoming ceremony for British Olympic medalists and so was familiar with its idiosyncrasies. Murenghi says Cook's experience meant “we didn't have to re-invent the wheel.”
The show was run from a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 with a wireless dAFTdATA DMX link to the other side of the river where Murenghi watched from a tent at the RAF memorial in front of the Ministry of Defense. John Wallace of Stage Electrics, who supplied the Syncrolights and Wholehog system, says his single biggest worry about the project was the wireless system. “The Ministry of Defense building controls all our military, so there are quite a lot of secure broadcasting devices coming off the building and they have all sorts of scanners and blockers,” he says.
There was some concern that they were running on the same protocol and it would affect the control system. In the end, he says, “there was a little bit of a lag on a few lanterns,” but fortunately no real problems. (No word from the Ministry on whether one of their spy satellites was inadvertently re-directed during the show.)
Because tourists were still riding the Eye during the day, all the equipment had to be moved on for nighttime testing and off again in the early hours. The MAC 2000s were strapped onto flight cases and wheeled on and off, three pods at a time. The VARI*LITE fixtures were secured on a barge beneath the Eye, where the only mishap of the night occurred.
According to John McEvoy of PRG, who supplied the moving lights, a fireboat hosed down the perspex roof of the barge carrying the VARI*LITEs to prevent it from melting just before the fireworks show began at midnight. “We lost six breakers and 36 lights,” he says, but his crew repatched them and got them back in time for the show, “After a scramble!”
PRG also supplied Lightning Strikes at the base of the Eye, which were used during the fireworks finale, what Murenghi describes as Berthonneau's trademark “alien attack” blitz. The evening went off without the high-profile firework failures of last year's New Year's Eve event, and, Murenghi says, “We felt we finally got it right.”