By Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Wynn Las Vegas, Steve Wynn's lavish new hotel and casino, is at the epicenter of what's new in entertainment technology. If Las Vegas has been the new frontier for technical exploration in theatrical systems in recent years, the venues at the Wynn have raised the stakes once again. From the Wynn Theatre that houses Franco Dragone's latest aquatic spectacular, Le Rêve, to The Lake of Dreams, a sophisticated front feature in a man-made lake, there is some pretty cool stuff going on out in the hot desert.

“The front feature has the most complicated lighting system I know of,” says Jim Holladay, who served as senior project manager for PRG, supervising the company's involvement (including systems design and integration, and supplying of equipment) for the lake, the Wynn theatre, and a second theatre that opened in August for Avenue Q. At The Lake of Dreams, four shows set to music involve a large head with a projected face that rises out of the lake, puppets by Michael Curry, and lighting by Patrick Woodroffe with 4,008 Color Kinetics C-Splash 2 submersible fixtures (for complete details about the lighting design see Lighting Dimensions, July 2005, p. 22-25).

“One of the design requirements for the lighting system is that we are able to upgrade it to ACN,” explains Holladay, referring to the impending Advanced Control Network. “We are also running a limited RDM system, one of the first. The infrastructure is designed and set up to eventually remove DMX and put in Ethernet switches when they want to update the system. It's all very forward thinking.” In other words, rather than install regular DMX cable, the entire lighting system runs on Cat-6 cable now, to avoid a labor-intensive process of replacing the cabling down the road.

Holladay is one of a small army of top industry pros who worked on the Wynn project, and in each area, from hydraulics to audio, the technical solutions were indeed forward-thinking if not downright revolutionary. “For us, the thing that's so revolutionary is that this is one of the first systems to use RDM to monitor not the lights, but everything else,” says Gary Douglas of Pathway Connectivity. The “everything else” includes Tempest Lighting enclosures for the Martin Professional moving lights located around the lake.

“We have a central management system called RDM manager,” notes Douglas. “It constantly monitors things like temperature inside the domes. The RDM even tells you how hot it gets in there. The RDM on the DMX lines queries the dome about its environment. There are also bi-directional RDM splitters between ETC's two-port Ethernet nodes and the Tempest domes.” Pathway's central monitoring system is web-based so it can connect any PC to the system and call up the status via a web browser. “We see the power of RDM in the network itself rather than putting it on the console,” Douglas adds. “The web browser in the console can go to the RDM manager as well.”

“The use of RDM is the keystone to the forward-thinking side of the project. This is not yet an off-the-shelf product as RDM is not a completed standard,” explains Douglas. “Network-centric system management, done from the network side of things is what makes this system different. The console is not the central manager; the RDM manager is watching everything, almost like a big brother.”

Audio for the lake feature was designed by SPL, who also designed a closed-circuit television system that monitors lifts that move scenery in the lake and the equipment room in the man-made mountain that buffers the lake from the street. The audio system provides distributed foreground music that is primarily digital, using an LCS Matrix 3 automated audio control system with Peak Audio's CobraNet for digital transmission to the QSC Basis units used for digital signal processing. QSC amps and EAW loudspeakers (including UB52, UB72, JF60, SB150, SB180, SB250, SB650, and six models of custom boxes) complete the system. “The custom speakers were developed because of the outdoor placement. On the central patio there was very limited placement in lampposts. The goal was not to see the speakers at all,” explains Phil de Paula of SPL in Orlando.

“There are five listening zones, each of which is physically and aesthetically different,” he continues. All of the zones are on the outdoor patios that line the lake. While there are no speakers on the far side of the lake, provisions were made so that they can be added in the future. At show time, the background music recedes to allow the performance music to be heard. “We provide a signal to the casino-wide sound system. We ramp their feed down and ramp ours up for a dynamic segue into each show,” notes de Paula. “There are two Ethernet networks, one that transmits digital audio and one that transmits the control. Each network is doubled and there is a copper backbone in case the Ethernet fails. There is a lot of redundancy built in so they don't lose a show or have long down times.”

Craig Janssen and Ryan Knox from Acoustic Dimensions in Dallas were brought in by SPL to consult on loudspeaker placement, selection, and speaker design. “We worked with them to get high-quality, robust, up-front, clear, in-your-face sound, which is one reason the speakers are so close to the audience,” says de Paula. “Steve Wynn wanted a recording studio sound on a patio.” The consultants from Acoustic Dimensions also ensured there was no sound leakage from the lake to the other outdoor areas of the hotel, or to the street.

Kane Fritz of Entertainment Techknowledgy LLC in Orlando was hired by SPL to supervise the installation of the system by union contractors. He was on the job from July 2004 through opening in April 2005. “The facility is enormous and everything takes a little longer,” says Fritz. “Some of the underwater safety cameras were a challenge. Once the lake was filled, we had to use divers to fix things below or bring them up to the surface.”

“The underwater cameras watch to see that there is no physical contact between the head that rises out of the lake and a sunroof above it,” says Fritz. The sunroof is a black fiberglass panel with Color Kinetics LED fixtures attached to it. “The head retracts into a 31' pit in the lake. When it isn't used, the hatch closes over it to create a solid surface for the lighting.”

Rod Hickey, president of Big Show, served as project manager for Lake of Dreams, writing specs for hydraulics, fog and mist, mechanical and projection systems, and show control. Their work included some process of elimination. “We did full-scale mock-ups with water screens in Germany, but that option did not work out due to rear projection issues,” Hickey reports. This early stage also included a track system to get scenery and giant props from the mountain to the lake. “At that point we were still trying to build a toy box for the designers, as nobody knew what exactly the shows would be. We eventually moved to a different concept with things coming out of the top of the mountain and rising from the lake.”

For Hickey, the biggest challenges were both time and technology, as is true for projects of this scale (see sidebar, p. 32). “The production schedule was very compressed,” he notes. “And technically, in the realm of hydraulics, the system in the mountain is huge, with custom-made valves.” Another challenge was the routing of pipes and cables through sections of the mountain made of Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MES) and into the utility building. “We knew the earth would settle as time goes by, so all the pipes (including hydraulics, fog fluid, water, pool chemicals, etc) had to have flexible joints so they don't break as the mountain shifts.” All of the trees on the mountain are real (salvaged from the golf course that was once on that location) and sitting in 10'-deep planters on top of the MES.

“Steve Wynn's concept was to create a feature that was for his guests and could not be seen from the street,” notes Wyatt DeFreitas, who served as technical director for Lake of Dreams (he has since gone to work for Trevi Manufacturing). “There is no light pollution from The Strip. The lake is a controlled environment.” The bottom of the lake is like a bathtub with a raised fiberglass floor covering the miles of cables and wires needed for the technical systems. Lighting fixtures are attached to the floor panels with stainless steel bolts and special insulators to avoid corrosion.

DeFreitas agrees with Hickey that the compressed production schedule was a challenge. “We really had to work hard to keep everybody going,” he notes. “We tried to resolve every detail to the best of our ability in advance to avoid issues later.”

Rick Gray, general manager for entertainment operations at The Wynn, was responsible for writing the specifications, sending the specs out for bidding, and supervising the installation of all the technical systems for the Wynn Theatre, working closely with Dale Hurt, Wynn's director of technical operations.

The theatre was designed in-the-round with a central swimming pool 60' in diameter (the design concept was by Claude Santerre, Dragone's theatre creator, with input from theatre consultants Scéno Plus). “One of the big challenges is that there is no backstage in the space, making all the necessary tubes and wires and cables a logistical nightmare,” explains Gray. Also, with many lighting fixtures in the pool a lot of the equipment is under water, with the only access via diver to lights, cables, pipes, and mechanical equipment. “Distribution for everything is in the pool,” Gray adds. (For much more on the show lighting for this project, see the July 2005 issue of Lighting Dimensions, p. 26-30.)

Fisher Technical Services was responsible for the complex automation in the theatre, as well as the lake (see sidebar, right), while the lifts in the theatre are by Scenic Technologies, and the Medialon show control and video playback systems for the lake were provided by Scharff Weisberg. “It is like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Gray says. “In addition, the environment, with the chlorine and water, is very aggressive. There is a micro-climate area in the seats and we need to keep the water warm. There is a good balance in the temperature because the pool is in the center and because of the way air flows in the space.”

From man-made mountains and lakes to a complex underwater world of lighting and hydraulics, the projects at The Wynn have pushed the expectations of entertainment technology into new realms. “This was a very unusual and unique job,” confirms Hickey. “The systems were larger than anything we ever saw before. Every time we leave Las Vegas we say we'll never see anything that big again, yet when we go back the next time, it's all bigger.”


By Sam Fleming

Scott Fisher and his company Fisher Technical Services Inc (FTSI, or FishTech to those in the know) were originally contracted to provide a comprehensive automation system for Le Rêve in the Wynn Theatre. The creative team had specified a level of complexity and performance for their automation gear that had previously been unknown in theatre. To meet this challenge, the company invented entirely new technologies that impressed the Wynn team enough to ask FishTech to provide the automation solution for the lake-based front feature as well.

FTSI has been developing automation solutions for the past eight years. Prior to Le Rêve, the largest system FTSI had built included 22 axes. Le Rêve has 79. To complicate matters further, the software had to integrate and control the motion of the lifts provided by Scenic Technologies. To overcome the control challenges presented by this project FTSI brought their vision of a unified solution to life with the Navigator system software that allowed FTSI to integrate, control, and program all of the gear, freeing the mechanical design team to concentrate on the incredible challenges of the physics of the equipment specified in this theatre.

The 79 axes are distributed across multiple levels in the theatre's ceiling as well as submerged in its deep pool. The most impressive piece is the Carousel mounted in the ceiling 92' above the level of the pool. The Carousel weighs 80,000 lbs and rotates at a maximum speed of 4 rpm. Four rpm might not sound very fast but the Carousel is 53' in diameter, which puts the rim speed at about 12' per second. That is about eight miles an hour (wind up the treadmill to eight miles an hour the next time you are at the gym and imagine something that weighs 80,000 lbs going that fast). Simply put, no one has ever installed a piece of equipment that is this fast and powerful in a theatre.

The Carousel is supported by a massive bearing that is 5' in diameter and usually found in construction cranes. This bearing is bolted to the roof of the theatre and the rim of the Carousel is supported by urethane rollers. The ceiling of the theatre is exposed to the harsh Nevada elements; thermal expansion being what it is, the roof of the theatre bows up and down in relation to the sun and changing outside temperatures. The roof of the theatre can actually raise and lower up to 2" over the course of a day. The spokes of the carousel, therefore, had to be rigid enough to support all of the loads which would be placed on them, but also be flexible enough vertically to allow the Carousel's chassis to follow the flex of the roof to which its hub is bolted.

Something that heavy, moving that fast, stores a tremendous amount of potential energy so that the mechanical breaking system was designed with a little slip in the brakes to allow the energy to dissipate slowly instead of transferring the entire load into the structure of the building.

The Carousel also has ten tracks mounted as spokes on the wheel. Each track has two winches that can move objects up to 650 lbs at 8' per second for both lift (up and down) and travel (back and forth) along the spokes. For more dramatic effects, two of the tracks are fitted with winches that are capable of moving 1,000lb payloads at 12' per second for both lift and travel. Using the Navigator software the operators can easily create effects where they can move ten objects (performers, props, equipment) up and down, back and forth, rotating, and all perfectly choreographed.

“For Le Rêve we were able to create beautiful, choreographically intricate flying sequences, says production stage manager Phyllis Schray. “The Fisher system gave us the tools and the flexibility to write very complex cues very quickly.”

One level down from the Carousel at 60' above pool level you'll find what have been dubbed the large diamond assemblies. (The “large diamonds” are actually round and retain their name from obsolete original drawings for the theatre. At that time these assemblies were going to be controlling motion through large diamond-shaped holes in the ceiling. The holes are no longer diamond shaped but the nomenclature lives on.) There are six of these assemblies. Each one is sort of a mini-carousel with a circumference of 11' and can rotate at 7rpm. The entire assemblies can move back and forth on a single track. They are each equipped with two lifting winches that can move 400lbs at 12' per second from the pool level up to the grid. The last axis of motion on the large diamond assemblies allows the two lifting cables to be moved closer together or further apart. If the two lifting cables are connected a few feet apart to a performer, or prop, then the net result of moving the axes closer together or further apart is to vary the pickup points. The action of all six assemblies is controlled by Navigator so the speed, motion, rotation, up and down, and pitch can be choreographed precisely with each other as well as the rest of the theatre.

On the same level as the large diamonds are an additional 15 winches each with a capacity of 400lbs at 12' per second; these are also integrated into the Navigator system. Three flying tracks are splayed out from the center of the theatre equally spaced 120 degrees apart. Each of these flying tracks is equipped with two winches to allow 400lb payloads to be moved at 12' per second. The flying tracks are made using a special aluminum extrusion designed by FTSI. The extrusion allows for a runner with urethane wheels to be safely captured and provide almost silent and friction-free flying effects. These are also integrated into Navigator.

Virtually all of the automation above the pool was designed and built by FTSI; beneath the surface of the pool lies a series of hydraulic lifts from Scenic Technologies. These lifts allow a dry floor to be created within the 25'-deep pool. The lifts move as a couple of different sections, allowing some parts of the floor to be solid, while other parts are covered with shallow water and still others are in water 25' deep. In the center is one lift that can raise and lower as well as rotate. In the very center of that is another hydraulic axis that allows for moving props and acrobatic gear.

Surrounding the center lift is the “donut lift” which is round with a hole in the middle for the center lift. Three walkways raise and lower, and use an ingeniously designed system of mechanically compensated push-pull cables to allow proper operation with the main lift without binding or breaking the control cables. These lifts can be raised or lowered at 6' per second. The lift control systems are thoroughly integrated with the Navigator system.

Since Navigator is controlling all the motion in the theatre, it only made sense to integrate the cue lights for the stage crew and the performers, so it does. The show currently uses about 300 master cues that contain over a thousand individual cues. Each cue can control up to all the axes on the system or as few as a single axis.

Once the programming was completed, all of the automation in the house could conceivably be controlled by a single operator, but for Le Rêve there are currently three: one main operator, one at the Carousel and one for the Large Diamonds and related axis.

After the gear had been designed it took about eight months for the installation to be completed. The actual programming took a few months longer as the creative team evolved the automation work to match their creative vision.

After almost a year of usage the system has been very robust with the only failures being a few electronic cooling fans and the odd piece of computer network hardware. Not bad for the most advanced theatre in the world, employing state-of-the-art designs and a revolutionary control system.

“It's surprising how far Fishtech has come with the PC-based system compared to a PLC-based system in such a short amount of time,” says Keone Kim, head of automation for Le Rêve. “It's easy to forget when people are breathing down your neck asking ‘What happened here?’ but when you do slow down to think about it, in the grander scheme of things, we really didn't have any big problems.”


Next up was the outside attraction, The Lake of Dreams. On this project, the main lift (11.5'×38') weighs 20 tons (when empty) and can handle another 20 tons, moving up to 45' in 10 seconds. A massive hydraulic cylinder controls that motion with 1' of hydraulic motion to 4" of height. The hydraulic system for the main lift has eight pumps and an accumulator system to boost the flow of 1,200 gallons per minute of hydraulic fluid through a 5" pressure line. Safety railings, safety doors and anti-intrusion beams are all interlocked by the Navigator system to prevent someone from walking into a giant hole created by the lowered or raised lift.

“There are so many things to control with this show that simply don't exist in a regular show,” says Fritz Schwentker, a programmer for the front feature. “Turning on and off waterfalls, for instance, or air compressors or triggering robots and being able to respond in such a way so that we don't crash things into the wall or run them into each other.”

The telescoping lift for the head that rises from the lake can handle 30' of vertical travel with a three-dimensional face, which serves as a projection surface (8,000 pounds, 30', eight seconds). The lift for the 30'-diameter disc raises into position in eight seconds, is counter-weighted, electrically driven, and can handle a thirty mile an hour wind without bending or failing. The disc has safety rules programmed into Navigator so that it won't rise if the winds are blowing too hard. Three weather stations feed data into Navigator.

Navigator also controls the flow of the waterfalls by varying pump speeds that are adjusted for show control as well as wind; the hydraulic power unit for all hydraulic systems provided by Comoso Controlled Motion Solutions (main lift, head lift, intrusion railings, sun roofs); the pneumatic system provided by Hansen Mechanical (bubbling the lake to allow light to show up in the water) that controls and monitors six giant air compressors; fog, smoke and mist; the safety and anti-intrusion systems including magnetic locks on doors, beam sensors, electrical lock-out tag-out stations, and the entire E-stop system. Navigator communicates with the show control system by Scharff Weisberg, which orchestrates the video and audio system (Medialon) that selects which show to run. Navigator also reads a SMPTE time code stream, communicates with the lighting system to modify lighting for a variety of conditions, and simultaneously talks TCP/IP, UDP, Modbus and all the various interfaces. Basically, if the piece of equipment has a signal or can receive a signal then Navigator can communicate with it, yet one operator can run all the front feature shows.

“The problems we had to solve with Navigator on the front feature were totally different than for the theatre,” says Scott Fisher. “The front feature was all about getting the myriad of different systems to talk to each other, while in the theatre we had one system but we were asking it to do a hundred things at the same time. But once they saw that we could implement almost anyone's equipment just by plugging it into the Navigator software they started asking us ‘How about you run this too? How about the lake? How about changing the velocity of the waterfall because the wind is picking up?’”

Done, done, and done.

Sam Fleming is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.


By Rod Hickey

What's the difference between creating a show for a small theatre and creating a permanent venue? It's really about scale and complexity. You still have a few major variables to deal with — time, space, labor, and money — but when a production requires a custom-built venue, major construction enters the picture and everything becomes more complex. Planning takes on additional layers of complexity, as the building trades have to be considered as well as the theatrical goals and needs. We can't be experts in everything; I can't program a Medialon system or run a Wholehog®, but I have to have a pretty good idea how much time and resources they require. I know how long it takes to take a crane apart and move it, how long it takes to install a control rack, how long it takes to fill a 2.5 million gallon pool, and how many hours of sleep crew members need per week before they get useless.

We spend a lot of the planning phase working with vendors and contractors, figuring out how long it takes to build and install their equipment and what kind of resources they need. How long, how much trade labor, how much power, how much storage space, are just some of the questions we ask. At the start of every project we create at least a few large detailed timelines to rough out a schedule. Do we think that schedule will stay accurate? No, but the process of creating the timeline helps us figure out how the myriad parts tie together and, importantly, what parts can run independently, and what parts are linked with other important segments of the project.

We try to spend as much time as possible on a site once the project has started. It's difficult to get a feel of how a project is progressing from weekly meetings with subcontractors. Making up a schedule in an isolated office and then yelling at contractors who aren't meeting fictional delivery dates sounds irrational, but you'd be amazed how often it happens.

Many of the construction trades and subcontractors have never worked on a project of this type and they may not be the best judges of their own progress. We try to work with them to understand their needs and how those needs relate to the project as a whole. It doesn't help anyone if subcontractors are onsite with their teams ready to go, only to be told they have to wait for days while another contractor finishes his work first.

There are endless design changes throughout the process no matter how much foresight we think we have, the plan is constantly adapting to these changes. Once it was rare for a project to be “fast track,” but this is now the norm. It is not at all unusual for the general contractor to start construction of the building while the architects and engineers are still drawing the upper floors. It's also not unusual for the building to start before the show design is started. When you're planning a casino, mega-resort, or theme park addition the construction team is in place long before the show production team is hired. The show creation process may be well behind the building creation process.

This can be difficult time for some theatrical designers who may be working months, if not years, ahead of the development of the show. Designers are often reluctant to tell us what the shape of the stage lift is long before the show has been created. But this is one of the first issues that will come up during the building design process; how big are the lifts, where do they go, what type of machinery will be used to move the lifts. That is where the structural engineers will start. Once the architect has drawn the first backgrounds of the building, the structural engineers can start working out the steel and concrete frame. As the building develops, more engineers will be added and eventually we will have structural, electrical, and mechanical engineers all asking questions about what will be required from the building infrastructure.

Structural engineers want to know the weight of production equipment, the need for catwalks, whether custom lifts will be bolted to the walls, whether you're hanging unusual rigging from the roof. The electrical engineers will want to know how much power you need and what voltage because they need to start roughing in the main feeds and power distribution throughout the building. They will use your information to block out their requirements for substations, transformers, motor control centers, and breaker panels. Mechanical engineers determine the cooling needs, and question everything; do you really need to cool a 1000-hp hydraulic system? Will there really be 150kW of light in the lighting tunnel? These are loads more common in heavy industry than they arein theatre and the engineers will question all your estimates. These estimates directly relate to the size of the ductwork and the size of the mechanical support spaces. They may even affect the size of the cooling plant for the entire project.

If you are the project manager/technical director representing the show while the venue is being constructed it is likely that you and your team are the only group of people who understand what the final product is supposed to be. There really is no other position in the organization where the knowledge of all the building systems, show systems, and the show design reside. A custom venue puts more restraints on architects, engineers, and contractors than they are used to. The number of additional services, the volume of additional piping, and the unusual layout of the space all add to the complexity of the project. One of the most important aspects of our job is translating the technical needs of the show into drawings, sketches, and documents to aid the understanding of the building architects and engineers.

Most of the project will be installed by union construction workers. Lifts, machinery, and rigging systems will be installed by structural ironworkers. Hydraulic systems, fog systems, and water effects systems will be installed by pipe fitters and plumbers. All the electrical work from running conduit and installing motion control centers to mounting limit switches will be done by electricians. The labor complexity expands with each additional union. Unlike a theatre full of IATSE stagehands, construction sites have unions with different rules about shift hours, overtime, and holidays. You have to plan so your biggest piece of equipment doesn't show up on Columbus Day when you have ironworkers and pipe fitters, but your electricians are on holiday, unless you've budgeted for double time for holiday work. IATSE stagehands are generally not allowed on a construction site as they are not a “construction trade.” This is a big drawback in rigging and lighting. It's not uncommon to find union electricians who have never touched a Leko. Your rigging crew may never have seen the backstage of a theatre.

During this entire process the budget hangs over your head. It seems absurd to walk around a construction site and complain that a billion dollars doesn't go as far as it used to, but it's the truth. A mega-show in Vegas has a price tag of 60 to 100 million dollars. It seems huge, but that has to cover a huge amount of design, equipment, and labor. Over 200 construction workers worked on the Wynn main lake for over a year. And that's just the site labor; it doesn't include all the engineers and consultants and manufacturers. Experience helps us create budgets. Some basics like steel construction, concrete pricing, and drywall costs we can price by rule of thumb. For unusual systems, we price the old-fashioned way, by breaking down the components and pricing them individually. But for projects this complex you always have to plan for the unexpected.

Much of the equipment is brand new and untried in theatrical venues. We've adapted industrial machinery and equipment for use on these projects. Most of the systems have a lot more in common with a large industrial manufacturing plant than they do with a theatre. That's what's amazing about these projects. Near the end, there are a few great moments. The first time the 100' silk curtain whisks away in seconds, the first time the ship sinks and comes back up. It's an incredible moment when all the systems work together and function the way you've hoped and planned. Of course, it can be a short-lived moment. Whenever something of this scale works for a few minutes it will cease to work moments later. But eventually all the bugs get worked out and opening night arrives. Even opening night is larger and more complex. It can now spread over a few nights with press openings, private openings, and finally the opening for the public. Satellite trucks, live feeds for the morning news shows, special celebrity performances are all part of opening now. For us, opening night usually means we're done with the day-to-day operation of the show and the permanent show crew will take over. We're usually still around for a while doing the final accounting, reviewing and signing off on manuals, and training the show crew. At the end of this process we're finished and can relax a little after a solid two years or more of controlled chaos. Then we start looking for the next big show.

Rod Hickey is president of Big Show Construction Management in New York.