Working with a cast of 74 performers, 115 technicians, 1.5 million gallons of water, and almost 2,000 lighting instruments, it might seem like a contradiction in terms for Luc Lafortune to say that his lighting for the Cirque du Soleil's new show is simple. But when "O" premiered at Bellagio in Las Vegas last October, the lighting added a beautifully restrained elegance to a 90-minute spectacular performed in, on, around, and above a giant swimming pool.
"Simple" is of course a relative term. There is nothing simple about the complicated ground-fault dimming system created for the pool (see sidebar by Bob Barbagallo of Sceno Plus in Montreal), and the infrastructure for the entire lighting system has a cutting-edge crispness. "O," as in "eau" (French for "water"), is performed in a purpose-built 1,800-seat theatre at Bellagio, Steve Wynn's newest hotel and casino (see Vegas Italian style, page 42). For Lafortune, who has lit Cirque productions since the company was founded in 1984, "O" provided an aquatic canvas full of movement, both in and out of the water.
"Things fell together at a late period," he says of the design process. "I started lighting the elements last spring." He was faced with an enormous pool, painted a dark blue, that reaches as deep as 25' (8m) and an upstage white cyc that measures 45' wide by 80' (14m x 24m) high. In addition there are automated scenic panels, white ones that look like sails and brown ones that look like an underground tangle of roots. "There is no single configuration to the set," Lafortune points out. "It's not the kind of environment where you can work from a model or software." It was also necessary to hang the plot before the show was completely defined artistically. When the director, Franco Dragone, started working in the theatre, Lafortune was able to start making design choices.
"Some things we showed Franco in Montreal didn't look the same in the theatre," he admits. This meant changing the color stream that had been ordered in more than 200 Wybron color scrollers. "They had to do a fast turnaround," says Lafortune, who moved to Las Vegas to spend a four-month period in the theatre working on the selection of colors, patterns, and gobos. "I designed certain scenes several times in different scenic environments. This is a very demanding method."
Also demanding is Lafortune's own style of working. He does not arrive at the theatre with a preprogrammed look or concept. "I work in a more intuitive way with more exploration, and I program the console myself. The downside of working this way is months of long hours, and the design process can be difficult and frustrating. The upside is that we push ourselves and really come up with what we want." For "O" the idea was "to keep the tableaux in the show simple, with only one, two, or three lighting gestures, or elements that stand out," Lafortune explains. "It's never too busy in spite of the large scale of the stage. I try to keep the human scale."
The real challenge was the nature of the set, designed by Michel Crete. "It was tough with this show; the scenery doesn't offer much direction, it's very vague and abstract." He is also faced with the difficult task of lighting circus performers, and balancing the light on the performers and the rest of the environment. "I ask what each light adds to a given tableau, or what does it add to the scene. Sometimes I need to peel things away."
The end result is a mixture of magic and mystery as the action of "O" moves in and out of the pool. For a fire act, Lafortune uses a gun-sight target gobo in a front-of-house followspot and bounces it onto the floor off a large round mirrorthat flies in over the pool, whose lifts have come up to create a solid stage. In the side boxes and on the set are flame effects created with billowing white raw China silk fluttering with Reel EFX fans. Amber gel in Altman ZipStrips and PAR cans create the flame effect.
"This both backlights the performer and creates an environment for him," says Lafortune, who uses a 2.5kW HMI Robert Juliat followspot with no color and a hard-edged beam to light the show's high-divers, who plunge fearlessly into the pool. There are a total of eight Juliat followspots in the theatre: four long-throws front-of-house; two medium-throws on the proscenium arch; and two more medium-throws in lower side positions.
Lighting the water in the pool was another design challenge. The majority of the frontlight comes from a subterranean light tunnel (at the same level as the pool) which has eleven 4"-thick Plexiglas windows that open along the downstage perimeter of the pool. Located in the tunnel are 22 Altman single-cell far-cyc units, half with no color and half with GAM 890 blue, or one of each per window. There are also seven Juliat 2.5kW HMI profile spots and two 4kW Strand fresnels with Wybron Coloram scrollers, each with 24 color choices.
Lafortune often uses a sober color palette on the water, including earth tones like Rosco 13 Straw Tint and Lee 201 color correction. "These are not necessarily pretty colors, but we wanted the water to be an element in the show, not just a prop. I didn't want anything with a candy quality--the light didn't seem natural. Light turquoise and lime green seem more appropriate." At times, subtle crossfades let the color of the water change almost imperceptibly.
On the 8' (2.4m) covered gutter around the edge of the pool (which has the same perforated rubber Mondo covering as the stage lifts), Lafortune added a soft, textured gobo on the stage floor, laying sharper images of foliage, webs, and branches on top of a more abstract Rose Window gobo that looks like stained glass. The Cirque du Soleil scene shop in Montreal also created custom gobos for Lafortune, using high-heat paint in acid colors on Vycor glass. These are added to metal gobos and projected on the stage and the proscenium to add extra interest to the lighting. In fact, there is rarely (if ever) a full color wash without a gobo or texture and contrasting color. Many of his gobos and gels come from GAM Products, which also provided 100 StarStrobe 3s and 24 TwinSpin II slow speed gobo rotators.
The lighting rig also includes more than 500 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, plus 72 automated luminaires: 42 High End Systems Studio Colors(R) and 30 Clay Paky Stage Scans. These are hung on short, articulated battens, referred to as Scan Sticks, over the stage, with additional positions on the Telepherique, or acrobatic rigging structure which moves both performers and scenic elements over the stage. The size of the Telepherique prohibited the use of standard lighting pipes.
Unlike his work in other shows, Lafortune opted not to rely on the movement of these fixtures. "They are used in the style of marking in the dark," says Jeanette Farmer, the lighting director for Cirque du Soleil at Bellagio. "The color, position, and gobo changes are preset in the dark and fade in like conventional fixtures. The advantage is the fantastic range of colors, focus, and gobos." Only twice during the show can movement be seen. "Luc doesn't use the same bag of tricks for each show," Farmer adds. "He goes into each project with different colors and gobo selections."
Farmer has been working with the Cirque du Soleil since it began building its first permanent home in Las Vegas, the Mystere theatre at Treasure Island. During the Bellagio construction period, she served as a liaison between the architects and Lafortune. "I would find out what he needed, and work with Bob Barbagallo to make sure the room could handle it," she says.
Two and a half years before the theatre opened, Farmer and Barbagallo roughed out the basic infrastructure for the lighting system, including switch gear, power panels, dimmers, and signal distribution (both DMX and ethernet). The Gray Interfaces Pathfinder DMX routing system, which has 96 DMX outputs and 16 inputs, controls all the dimming, moving lights, smoke effects, and rain. Effects cabinets built by Production Arts turn the DMX signal to analog to control fountains in the pool and other aquatic features. "In effect, the lighting console is controlling plumbing," says Farmer, chuckling.
Besides the scenic design, Crete was also the major force in the design of the theatre. A dramatic mesh ceiling treatment, designed by Crete with Michel Aube of Sceno Plus, is a focal point of the theatre. "Michel Crete showed me the wings of a dragonfly as how he envisioned the ceiling," says Aube. As a result, the galvanized metal mesh has one layer pulled taut and a second layer hand-crunched according to Crete's specifications. Lit from behind, the mesh shimmers above the audience with GAM 725 (turquoise), GAM 890 (deep indigo) and Lee 161 (steel blue) gel on more than 4,000 MR-16 halogen lamps and 192 Altman PAR-64s.
An oval catwalk was added in the ceiling with additional lighting positions to allow fixtures to shoot both through the double-layer mesh and underneath it. A smaller circle opening in the center of the larger oval design allows a chandelier to descend at the top of the show holding a trapeze artist, who is bathed in cyan (Lee 116) and indigo (GAM 890) light coming from the followspots. Cable tray runs the length of the catwalks in the theatre, which are tall enough to walk around on and carpeted to control noise.
Another catwalk is hidden on the stage side of the proscenium arch for additional positions and front-of-house followspot locations. Scott Fisher of Fisher Technical Services designed custom-built chairs using car seats with lumbar support and headrests to add extra comfort for the followspot operators, who wear fall-protection harnesses. The chairs also have special pivoting mechanisms to make the followspots easier to articulate. There are four of these custom chairs, two in the proscenium catwalk and one on each side of the stage.
The balcony-level light booth is integrated into the ceiling. Its design was based on the booth for Mystere and an estimate of how many people would be needed to run the new show. The control booth for "O" is set up with a followspot location at each end, with five control stations. These stations have two Strand 550 consoles for the conventional lights; two Flying Pig Systems Wholehog consoles for the automated luminaires (with a Strand 520 for extra power circuitry); a stage manager position; a Strand 520 console for fluid special effects; and computer control for 85 different automated elements including the chandelier, acrobatic rigging structures, a moon, light ladders, and scenic pieces. Elevators take technicians up to the grid, and they can circulate around the entire theatre at any level without going up and down stairs.
There are four dimmer locations for the 1,695 Strand CD80 Supervisor dimmers (including the 288 GFCI dimmers for wet-location lighting): In the lighting tunnel with 96 of the GFCI dimmers; 192 GFCI dimmers stage level for the pool and onstage circuits; in the light booth for house lights and front-of-house; and in the grid for the grid circuits over the stage. The goal was to localize the dimming as much as possible to reduce wire runs and avoid voltage drops. A full reporting system identifies voltages, amp loads, burnouts, and other troubleshooting data for every individual dimmer module. A signal panel in the center of the auditorium (in front of the sound mixing board) has a second set of input jacks that echo the light booth for remote use of consoles for programming in the house. The lighting control system integration was assumed by Production Arts.
Mark Lewis, head of fluid special effects, controls the fog, mist, fountains, and rain used during the show. The system includes water mist fog from Island Systems, which is controlled by rows of tiny nozzles on fog battens around the stage. Fog machines include four DF-50s from Reel EFX, two Roadies from Jem, and six Rosco 1600s. Liquid nitrogen would have made the atmosphere too cool for the swimmers, and the extra humidity provided by the pool enhances the use of water mist fog.
"One issue that had to be faced was the crystal-clear, filtered and treated pool water, and its lack of reaction to light," says Farmer. Instead of adding permanent haze or clouding agents to the water to help see the light, a system of tiny bubbles has been added to give the water extra body and make it look a little milky. Hydrel uplights mounted under the stage lifts are used for underwater cues since the visibility is somewhat limited.
Additional stage lighting comes from a series of pods that are hung on rigging lines from the grid. The pods are designed to look like chandeliers with clear plastic Uni-Par fixtures as lamp shades. Stage ladders fly in on the sides of the stage to provide sidelight positions, as shinbusters would have been too close to the pool for safety.
For Lafortune, the lighting system offered the flexibility to create stunning scenes such as an African tableau with cutouts of an elephant, an ox, birds, trees, and two performers who step out of a boat silhouetted against the white cyc. Here he used gobos in ETC Source Fours as backlight with amber gel to suggest clouds and textures. "I used a singular source for singular shadows," says Lafortune, who also had to avoid casting a shadow of a large boat rigged to fly in for the next scene.
Certain acts were harder to light than others, such as the synchronized swimmers and divers on a swinging acrobatic platform. Many of these performers were either acrobats new to working in water or swimmers new to theatrical lighting, so the use of followspots was difficult. "If the light comes from the front, the eye doesn't adjust as fast as the divers when they flip," Lafortune notes. For the swimmers, he needed to create a color-coded system of lights over the pool since they can't see marks on the bottom. He bathed them in red light to hide their bodies as they emerge from the pool, feet first, as sea creatures from the primordial sludge.
Citing the work of Dali, Magritte, and Picasso as a visual influence, Lafortune bought quite a few art books for inspiration as he worked on the design of "O." "I like the surrealist movement in painting between the world wars. The juxtaposition of the colors is just amazing." His own use of dramatic light cutting through the mist and bold choice of colors in "O" confirms Lafortune's own artistic bent.
"I wanted to make a statement, as selfish as it sounds, so that the lighting would be noticed as something that's really out there. I like the idea of pushing the envelope and discarding old lighting rules." Rather than rely on old recipes or past experiences, Lafortune would rather push himself so that his art doesn't become static. "I wanted to do things we hadn't done before in terms of composition. We have an obligation to ourselves to recreate the art form."
Early in the conceptual phase of show design for "O" it became clear that there were many challenges regarding the electrical installation and the vast pool of water that was contemplated for the stage. As Cirque du Soleil's theatre consultants, Sceno Plus had the mandate to solve anticipated problems in and around the performance area.
A research project was undertaken in parallel with the show design to identify areas of concern. One was the performance lighting and dimming system being designed for installation in and around the pool. Our first task was to resolve safety issues for the performers and personnel working in the theatre. Our research concluded that the total electrical installation in and near the pool area required ground fault protection and that all connectors, receptacles, cabling, and fixtures be waterproof.
The ground fault protection required is a device commonly known as a GFCI (or ground fault circuit interrupter) and was specified on all circuits. This device de-energizes a circuit when a current to ground (a possible electrical shock) is detected that exceeds what has been deemed safe. These devices are required by the National Electrical Code in all wet and potentially wet areas such as bathrooms and outdoors.
In the process of the dimming system design and specification we discovered that no manufacturer had a standard product responding to the design requirements. When we initially approached the dimmer manufacturers with the GFCI requirement we were informed that this type of protection was not compatible with them. Their reasoning was that when GFCIs were used to protect a dimmer circuit the device would "nuisance trip," making reliability unpredictable. However, no manufacturer could fully explain to us the cause of nuisance tripping. So we contemplated using only non-dimmed relay circuits compatible with the required protection in the pool area. LD Luc Lafortune made his desire for total flexibility from the system clear, and we knew the solution we had been thinking about was unsatisfactory.
Sceno Plus set out to fulfill Luc's requirement. The first step was to determine the exact nature of the problem. In discussing it with an industry expert--namely Steve Terry of Production Arts--it was evident that a major factor in the reliability of the protected dimmed circuit was the cable length from the dimmer to the fixture. The industry rule of thumb was 75' (23m) from the dimmer and everything "should" be all right, but as Steve put it, "no guarantees." This length limit was unacceptable in the Bellagio installation, where there were cable runs of more than 400' (122m) in some areas. Throughout our research the cable length constantly came up as the major obstacle, but we still did not know why, and not knowing the "why" we could not find the "how."
Two months were devoted to the "why." Through a series of bench tests we finally determined what the problem was. It is known that the cable length is directly proportional to the overall capacitance of the cable. It is also known that dimmers generate a large amount of high frequency harmonics. When the two are put together, a leakage current is produced by the harmonics, causing a current flow to ground via the capacitance of the cable. This would be seen by the GFCI as a ground fault, and it would de-energize the circuit. An analogy to this phenomenon is a garden hose with pinholes evenly spaced along its length. The longer the hose, the more water leaks out. We had to come up with a way to seal the leak.
We started immediately. From our tests we knew the cable posed part of the problem. We had to find a way to control the leakage current between the cable and ground. Looking back to the analogy of the garden hose, we had to not only plug the leak but recover the water as well. After many hours we came up with the idea of shielding the cable, along with an atypical way of connecting it. The cable would have to shield the neutral and phase conductors from the dimmer to the load, and carry the ground conductor external to the shield but internal to the cable assembly, and have a shield drain wire for a total of four conductors. Our theory was that putting a metal barrier between the phase/neutral pair and the ground conductor would give us control over the leak current. Connecting the cable at the dimmer was the key to recovering the leakage current. We theorized that connecting the shield drain wire to the neural conductor at the dimmer would allow the leakage current to flow back and be added to the neutral current at the dimmer module. This would be seen as a balanced current in both phase and neutral conductors by the GFCI. The next step was to test this theory.
First we had to obtain a GFCI-protected dimmer. Since this was not a standard product we persuaded Strand Lighting to modify one of its single standalone dimmers with GFCI/ overcurrent protection. We specified how we wanted the GFCI wired. Next we needed a shielded cable, which was non-standard and had to be specially ordered. The time frame for the cable was too long, so we improvised with a 12-gauge shield pair with drain wire and taped a 12-gauge single conductor insulated ground wire to it.
Our preliminary tests to prove the principle were performed in late April 1996 at the Cirque du Soleil studios in Montreal. The test equipment consisted of the special cable assembly and standard cable assembly (400' long), two 1,000W PAR-64 fixtures, the Strand modified dimmer, two True RMS voltmeters, and an oscilloscope. Our tests included running the dimmer at different intensities alternatively with the standard cable and the shielded cable. The results were very convincing. The standard cable tripped four out of 10 times while the shielded cable did not trip once. We further quantified our results by measuring and recording the leakage currents. The results showed that the leakage currents on both cables were approximately the same, but with the neutral connect shield at the dimmer we were able to recover the leakage current and return it through the GFCI, eliminating the false tripping. We considered our tests successful and reported our results to Cirque du Soleil project manager Rick Gray.
In September 1996 Rick issued a request for proposals to all dimmer manufacturers as well as system integrators. The RFP contained our theories and preliminary test results. It also contained a request for the manufacturers to validate the results and theories or to propose an alternative method. Strand was chosen for a demonstration, which was held in October 1996 at the Bellagio test pool in Las Vegas.
At the pool test Strand demonstrated that our theory was in fact a practical solution to a problem that had haunted the industry for years. The company also provided evidence that the intended method did not compromise safety in any way and that it would stand behind the use of this method with their equipment. At the owner's request, Steve was present for this demonstration. Skeptical at first, he was also excited by the results. Following the demonstration a meeting was held with the owner's representative, Atlandia Design, at which it was agreed that a full-scale mock-up would be required to clear up any doubt.
Production Arts was commissioned to coordinate the mock-up with supervision by Sceno Plus. A series of drawings and a bill of materials were produced outlining all the equipment required. A total of 48 circuits, 24 dry outside the pool and 24 wet submerged within, were required. The specialized cable was ordered as well as 1,000W submersible PAR-64 fixtures.
A test procedure was outlined in which all circuits would be tested for a period of four hours. This test would be run from a lighting console connected to a Strand dimmer rack consisting of 48 GFCI-protected dimmers. A series of cues consisting of long and short fades was written on the console to be looped. The test was held in early January 1997 at the Bellagio test pool--to complete success. Today there are a total of 288 GFCI-protected dimming circuits used on "O."
Bob Barbagallo is the system designer of Sceno Plus.
Lighting Designer Luc Lafortune
Lighting Director Jeanette Farmer
Assistants to the Lighting Designer Jon Champelli, Nol Van Genuchten
Moving Lights Programmer Zeb Cochran
Assistant Head of Lighting Tracer Finn
Moving Lights Operator Neil Montavon
Lead Technician Kirk Mortenson
Deck Electric Mark Dooley
Lighting Crew Michele Anderson, Jon Champelli, Roberto Clemente, Martin Crawford, Peter Engel, Brian Gerard, Dave Huber, Jeremy Jones, Michael Wescoatt
Additional Load-In Crew Brian Fehd, Marc Janowitz, Melissa Lionetti
Bellagio Project Management Atlandia Design
General Contractor Marnell Corrao Associates Mitchell Trageton, project architect
Theatre Design Michel Crete, Sceno Plus
Lighting Equipment Vendors Production Arts, dimming system and control integration Cinema Services, lighting equipment suppliers
Lighting Equipment Suppliers Fisher Technical, spot chair custom fabrication TMB Associates, cable manufacturer and supplier
Theater Project Manager Rick Gray, Cirque du Soleil
Theatre Consultants Sceno Plus
Lighting System Consultants Bob Barbagallo, Sceno Plus Jeanette Farmer, Cirque du Soleil
Underwater Lighting Consultation Bert Oberhansley, Hydrel
Electrical Contractor Sturgeon Electric Company Inc.
Bellagio Theatre Lighting Equipment (2) Strand 550 lighting consoles (3) Strand 520 console (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog IIs (1) Dell dimmer feedback PC (1) Dell WYSIWYG system complete with PC (1) Dell DMX patching computer (1) Gray Interfaces Pathfinder DMX router (1) Interactive Technologies wireless DMX control (1) Strand SN 100 ethernet distribution (2) Strand SN 104 ethernet distribution (15) Strand 96-space dimmer rack (6) Strand 48-space GFCI dimmer rack (1) Strand 12-pack CD-80 (3) Strand Outlook stations (350) Altman PAR-64s (50) Altman 200W PAR-46s (40) Altman outdoor PAR-64s (12) Altman PAR-64 ACL bars, four 60" units per bar (350) ETC Source Fours, 50-degree, 36-degree, 26-degree, 19-degree (75) ETC Source Fours, 5-degree (75) ETC Source Fours, 10-degree (24) ETC Source Four jrs (50) ETC Source Four PARs (24) Altman single-cell Far Cycs (6) Strand Beamlite 1000s (18) Altman 9-Lights (92) Uni-Par clear PAR-64s (30) Clay Paky Stage Scans (42) High End Systems Studio Colors (44) Robert Juliat 2,500W HMI D'Artagnans (2) Strand SuperNova 40/25 4kW HMI fresnels (4) Robert Juliat Heloise short-throw 2,500W HMI followspots (4) Robert Juliat Aramis long-throw 2,500W --HMI followspots (2) Pani 1kW parabolic followspot (12) Wildfire UV 401f with douser (24) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 strobe units (100) GAM Products Star Strobes (8) Altman outdoor UV units (1,120') Tokistar 7.5W stringlight (12) Remote Source Lighting fiber-optic projectors (99) Wybron Coloram 7" scrollers (60) Wybron Coloram 10" scrollers (3) Wybron Coloram large-format scrollers (33) Wybron Aquaram 7" (24) GAM Products TwinSpins (108) Hydrel 1kW pool fixtures (24) Hydrel 75W 12V MR-16s (192) Altman PAR-64s (141) Altman 6' 3-circuit ZipStrips (14) Altman 3' 3-circuit ZipStrips (32) ETC Source Fours 50-degree (32) Wybron Coloram scrollers