The Stone Forest is alive with sound, light, and lasers. Located near Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, the "forest" is actually a 13,000-acre maze of limestone formations of extraordinary shapes, sizes, and heights.
The site has been a magnet for visitors, who wander among the stone peaks where, once a year, the Torch Festival of Yi is celebrated. The Sani, a branch of the Yi, one of China's 56 minorities, inhabit the region and an old Sani legend has been adapted as the theme of an audio-visual extravaganza which transforms major areas of the Forest into spectacular shows.
"The Ashima Experience" recounts the tale of Ashima's love for Arhei and the jealous interference of evil Arzhi that ends in the death of Ashima by drowning and her spirit coming to rest in Ashima's stone.
Phase One of this $6.3-million project comprises the Entrance Lake, the Final Conflict Show on Lotus Lake, Ashima's Garden, and Ashima's Stone and Lake. Laser Creations International, master contractor for the Stone Forest Project, subcontracted Sardis International to develop and install intricate sound systems. Based in Bristol, England, Sardis is noted for both the design and manufacture of its own brand of equipment.
Sardis creative director Peter Giles oversaw the Stone Forest project. "I first visited the Stone Forest in March 1998," he says."Ten days before, I had no idea such a place existed. As we drove into the forest, it was immediately apparent that this was going to be a unique and very special project."
From the start, it was important for all the creative technologies to work very closely together on the concept. "At Sardis, we were particularly keen to communicate the holographic surround-sound field design to the lighting designer and laser programmer so that light and lasers could follow audio effects and vice versa," says Giles. "The final result had to be a cohesive and mind-blowing experience on a truly international scale."
The system design for Lotus Lake-The Final Conflict was based on an eight-speaker stack array around the audience area in front of the lake, which is 165' x 165'. "We needed to achieve a high level of volume within the area to create the effect for the show, yet the client was concerned with 'sound bleed' up to the hotels on the hill behind the show area," says Giles. Sardis' surround-sound technology enabled the concentration of the eight speaker stacks to focus more than enough power where required without a noticeable drop in volume beyond the sound field.
Each stack consists of two Sardis mid-top cabinets and four Sardis sub-bass enclosures. All speaker cabinets had to be fully waterproof to withstand torrential rainfall and sprinkler systems directly drenching the Garden speakers twice a day. The cabinets are made from double rotationally molded plastic and are camouflaged with a rock finish so that they blend into the environment. The mid-top speakers are rated at 300W with the sub-bass cabinets at 600W. The control room has 24W x 1,100W Sardis amplifiers powering the system and the signal is triggered via timecode and processed through a Sardis System 48, 1,100W amps. This is the "magic box" which creates the sound field and decodes the surround-sound programming within the soundtrack.
Ashima's Garden has seven smaller sound fields installed. It was very important to set the scene for the audience, which has just witnessed The Final Conflict. The sound fields here are playing original music arranged and produced in the Sardis studios. "They are very close together, with no physical barrier between them," says Giles. "The fear of creating a cacophony in this area again demanded sound field design whereby the system focuses sound into the designated area. We were cautious to produce the music all in the same key, in the event of sound bleed. The effect is quite astonishing as the music gently falls away from the area you are leaving and the system you are approaching takes over."
Each sound field in the Garden consists of four S200 speakers, a Sardis System 24, and a Sub300. This provides a generous amount of level for the Garden and creates exactly the right magical effect.
Ashima's Lake is a tranquil area, so it was vital to give it an ethereal ambience. "The system design was only slightly smaller than the Lotus Lake system, because, although we were not trying to achieve the same effect, I wanted the system to be powerful enough to create a heady and dream-like effect," Giles says.
Another eight-way system, which completely surrounds the audience area and lake, was installed to create an entire effect throughout the environment. The surround system enabled Arhei to call to Ashima from different areas around the lake while birds and spirits circle above.
Sixteen 1,100W amplifiers and another Sardis System 48 are employed here. Each stack consists of two sub-bass units and two mid-tops. Sardis surround sound uses the full frequency range from each speaker dictating that bass is not omni-directional, as it is with discrete surround systems. A discrete surround system would not have worked on this scale, Giles notes.
The Legend of Ashima has some of the most famous melodies in China. With the help of the project's composer, Sardis was given the melodies for all the principal characters in the story, and the company produced most of the music in-house at its studios. "There were a number of trips to Kunming Television, where we could record traditional Chinese instrument performances onto a portable Pro Tools studio," Giles says. "These samples were mixed into the production in England. We then mixed the music, vocals, and sound effects to the three-screen video production representing the three water screens on Lotus Lake. Finally, using our encoding software, we moved sounds around the sound field creating ghouls and demons coming from behind the audience and Arzhi the Evil One 'flying around' the heads of the audience."
Giles is justifiably proud of the success of this complex project and is looking forward to Phase Two, which will include a "Time Tunnel" and a "Trail of Danger," audio-visual magic for added excitement in the Stone Forest's bewitching environment.