No environment is less hospitable for an entertainment system than the high seas. “It's much worse than the road,” says Christopher Vlassopulos, Royal Caribbean International's (RCI) entertainment technology specialist in Miami. “It's installed, but it's being vibrated constantly and abused by the ship's power, which is dreadful.” So it's not unreasonable to expect that Freedom of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship RCI has ever launched — that any cruise ship company has ever launched, even Cunard's Queen Mary 2 — would present the vessel maker with its biggest challenges as it departed Miami for ports of call in the Caribbean on its maiden voyage in May.

Everything about Freedom of the Seas, which was built by Finland's Aker Finnyards, is outsized. The first of RCI's new Freedom class of vessels, it is 1,112' (339m) long and weighs 160,000 gross registered tons. More than 4,000 passengers can roam its 15 decks, which are serviced by a 1,300-person crew.

Entertainment options that have been expanded from offerings aboard previous classes of RCI ships like the Voyager are available indoors and out. Freedom is highlighted by the Royal Promenade, a four-deck-high shopping area and gathering place for guests that runs nearly two-thirds Freedom's length. The five-story Arcadia Theatre hosts three shows and other events. Ice shows and skating are available at Center Ice at Studio B; when the skates come off, voyagers can hit Bolero's, Freedom's main disco. (Fuel, another dance space, is for teen travelers.) Abundant outdoor attractions include a rock climbing wall, the main pool deck, rainforest-themed solarium whirlpools that are cantilevered off the side of the ship, and two attractions brand new to RCI: a family pool deck and geyser-filled water park called the H2O Zone, and the FlowRider, a shipboard surf park where voyagers hang ten.

With so much to execute onboard, the possibility of a wipeout existed. But over the past decade, RCI has been remarkably consistent with its designers, production companies, and equipment suppliers, which help it weather any rough seas that come up. On the lighting side, RCI's seafarers include its design consultants, UK-based Project International, helmed by Richard Dixon; the firm handles its architectural illumination, in tandem with Vlassopulos' entertainment lighting. TDI, JMP Lighting, and Lightenen of Finland supply design, programming, installation services, and entertainment lighting gear, drawn largely from Pulsar, which developed a new X3 LED system for Freedom, and Martin Professional, whose luminaires are also used architecturally.

“Martin is one of the few companies that understands this market,” says Vlassopulos. “They were the first in it, and they understood that cruise ships are literally a moving target. You either have to have someone on board to sail with the ship or come back and work with us every weekend when we're here. And Martin, which has the further advantage of being based in south Florida, has done both.” He adds that their gear — like the MAC 550 profile spots, MAC 2000 profiles, MAC 600 washlights, MAC 250+ profile spots, Atomic 3000 strobes, and Raptor effects lights used within the Arcadia Theatre, or the MAC 550s, MAC 600s, and MAC 2000 Performance washlights that provide atmosphere for the Royal Promenade — is a prominent part of the Freedom line. “We have a core lighting package on each vessel that we maintain and augment. But the Grandeur of the Seas, which has been sailing for 10 years now, still has functioning 1220s. You don't want to touch the wiring, as it's so brittle, yet they're working.”

Vlassopulos and Dixon have worked together since the mid-1990s. “Lighting is how we get our ‘wow’ factor aboard these ships, but we didn't really start integrating architectural and entertainment lighting until the Radiance class, around 1998,” Dixon recalls. “That's where we had the first big challenge in the atrium space, which was eight decks high, and it's where we first started using Martin show gear, like the MAC 250 and 300 moving heads, for our own purposes, to light these huge suspended pieces of artwork. They were very well concealed in the elevator shafts. We also had some color changing going on, some Exterior 200s, which we used on the indoor/outdoor solarium, and controllable fiber optics. The LightJockey handled the show control quite well. We were able to link the house lighting to it, allowing for both architectural effects and show looks, and we were able to bring that system to the pool and solarium areas. That experience and the lessons learned set the standard for how we were going to tackle Freedom of the Seas.”

“Everything we do with Martin is a piece of cake at this point,” Dixon says. Previsualization helped plot out different effects used within the pool areas, a change from the usual, time-intensive procedure, where everything is installed, powered up, and refined once the ship is built. The decision to integrate LED into the mix, within the Royal Promenade and the pool areas, was not without hurdles. “There were a lot of different products offered to us when we decided to pursue LEDs that were, perhaps, more economical, but given the size of the project, we really had to go with a company that was going to back us up. We decided to go with Pulsar, whose product is very well-engineered.”

Of their use, Dixon says, “We were tasked by Royal Caribbean to try to do something with the very high, long ceiling that runs through the ship in the Promenade, which is 450' long now. They wanted the ceiling to color-change and have pools of light that would flow through the space. Traditionally, we had different colors of neon in deep coves that washed either side but not very broadly. We wanted to replace it, but we couldn't guarantee how effective it would be, and the cabling issues were considerable. Plan B was to uplight the ceiling with addressable LED projectors, in conjunction with the Martin moving heads, but a lot of indoor cabins look out onto the Promenade, and we'd end up uplighting those as well. With the London-based architectural firm, Designteam, we brainstormed a suspended arrangement that would break up the monotony of a long tunnel effect, with LEDs concealed within the ‘ribs’ of the frames that were suspended. We ended up with 80 units on 20 frames through the Promenade, all individually addressed and channel-assigned, so you could get color flowing either left to right, or in blocks, or however required. It was quite a complicated process, as there had to be a prototype. The Pulsar advantage was onboard-powered DMX, so we could use interconnected multicore cables and not separate controllers, which would have been a nightmare.”

An LED color changing system was also designed for the 35' glass bridge that spans the aft atrium, which was definitely not standard operating procedure. “The bridge is made from a thick glass laminate, with an etched laminate in the center, and the idea was that it would glow completely at night, with the color flowing backwards and forwards in a rainbow effect,” Dixon says. “Space was minimal, but Pulsar pushed the development of their X3 LEDs, 1W RGB units in a less than 50mm [1.97"] profile finished similarly to the stainless steel finish of the bridge. Then we had to cable them. It was complicated: you had an LED company that just wanted to build its product, which they wound up customizing for us, a bridge builder that just wanted to build its bridge, and a yard that just wanted to build its ship. Fortunately, it fit together well.”

Integrating three shows into one space was the main task for production co-designers Vicki Baral and Gerry Hariton, Broadway veterans who have been at sea for years now and are hard at work on other ship shows. “We were brought in to RCI in 1995 by Mark Dow of the Wilson/Dow Group,” says Baral. “He was just beginning a creative relationship with them as a director/choreographer. At that time, the theatres were much smaller on ships, but the entertainment department at Royal Caribbean had the vision to nurture a creative team that would set the standards for the industry. At first, we would design one new ship a year for them, but our involvement grew, as did the size of the theatres. At last count, we have shows playing on 20 ships. Our approach to designing on ships is no different than designing in any theatrical venue, whether it is Broadway or Las Vegas. The shows are a unique hybrid of music and dance, walking a tightrope between entertainment and art. Most of the shows have flying [by Flying By Foy]. Our role is to take the audience to as many places and dimensions as we can.”

There are three full production shows on Freedom: the Broadway-themed Marquee, Now You See It (featuring large-scale illusions and starring magician Drew Thomas), and Once Upon a Time, an innovative retelling of fairy tales through contemporary music. They are, Baral says, “the next step in the evolution of the entertainment on board. They are far more ambitious in terms of scale and complexity, with much more dimensional scenery and more spectacular effects.”

The biggest problem with them, however, is “simply fitting them in one theatre,” says Hariton. “While Freedom is one of the most technically advanced theatres on board a ship — the proscenium is 40' wide, with multiple stage lifts, motorized floor tracks, and a sophisticated motorized fly system — wing space and backstage storage is extremely limited, not unlike a typical Broadway theatre. To accommodate the number of sets required by the three shows, we took advantage of one of the outstanding features of Freedom's fly system: the two-ton weight capacity of the winches. We are constantly developing new ways to exploit these heavy-duty flying trusses. In one case, Once Upon A Time has an enchanted forest backdrop, which is actually a 45' wide digital print applied to a hard wall surface, enhanced with iridescent and opalescent glitter, plus applied Swarovski crystals. For Marquee, the same unit flies in and then hinges open to become a three-wall rainbow-hued light wall with 1,500 lamps circuited in a 4×4 matrix chase. Similarly, most of the fly pipes have revolving panels or traveler tracks contained within the scenery to transform into multiple sets.”

A “well-oiled” machine that has been together for 10 years keeps the shows in ship shape, the designers report. “The creative team that RCI uses for most of their shows is headed by Harrison McEldowney of the Wilson/Dow Group in Chicago, who, together with Sherry Zunker, conceived and directed the shows,” adds Hariton. “Costuming was split between Edwin Piekny in Paris, Jordon Ross in Kansas, and Jackson Lowell in Los Angeles, each of whom did one of the shows. Lighting was designed by Peter Moore, based in Miami, and Mark Pranzini, based in Los Angeles. We coordinate extremely closely with the other designers in terms of color and concept. Our work is produced almost entirely digitally — Adobe Photoshop and VectorWorks — so there are constant emails of files back and forth around the world. River City Scenic in Cincinnati builds almost all our shows for RCI. They are a total joy to work with, as they are constantly evolving and inventing new techniques for construction and scenic design. For example, one of the unique problems of theatres on ships is that any rolling units must have braking mechanisms. River City has developed a whole series of deviously clever systems that can be deployed by performers to instantly lock rolling units in place. They have also developed the most cost-effective system of LED edge-lighting that we have seen. We use LED lighting on most of our sets.”

New York-based Rose Brand is another long-time sailor. “We've been doing all the soft goods for Royal Caribbean for six years now and also refurbishments,” says outside sales vice president Roger Claman. “This was by far the biggest. River City Scenic brought us in initially. A large metallic Austrian drape, 24' high by 45' wide — made from fusion material that is either aqua or purple-colored, depending on how you're viewing it — was among what we supplied, as was a black-gold sparkle velour curtain that looks like a fiber-optic curtain under regular light. We also supplied a large-format digital image of a brick wall that was worked into one of the sets. The theatres are absolutely gorgeous, at the level of a Las Vegas showroom. It seems to me no expense is spared.”

The next Freedom class ship to sail is Liberty of the Seas, due to launch next May. Dixon says his firm is working with Martin to improve the control integration, as the LightJockey, effective as it has been, can be “a bit over-the-top” for some architectural purposes. “With the evolutionary process that we have in place, we'll expand even further for the next super class of ships, the Genesis.” A rising tide of efficiencies is clearly lifting all boats at Royal Caribbean.

Robert Cashill blogs about entertainment at Between Productions (