The $800 million flagship of the Cunard fleet, the Queen Mary 2, set sail January as the world's largest cruise ship. Nautilus Entertainment Design (NED) in La Jolla, CA, designed the lighting and entertainment systems for a wide variety of venues. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux catches up with project manager Mike Lindauer of NED to take a look behind the scenes at the grandeur of it all.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: Please talk about the scale of the project.

Mike Lindauer: From the sheer size of the ship and number of public spaces to the operational speed (30+ knots), the project was immense from the start, and the scale of the entertainment systems was proportional. We ended up designing entertainment systems of one type or another for 40 different venues around the ship, ranging from small audio systems for the crew areas, to full lighting, audio, video, rigging, and control systems for the Royal Court Theatre, to overseeing the integration of the video and rigging for the planetarium system in Illuminations, to the design of the ship-wide television system.

ELG: Which space is most unusual?

ML: If we had to pick one space to highlight, it would have to be Illuminations (planetarium and theatre) because of its unique combination of equipment and usages. The original brief for this space called for it to be used for live entertainment, business meetings, product demonstrations, video presentations, 35mm film projection, broadcast studio for on-board productions, and the first planetarium at sea. This was quite a daunting task for both the architects and those of us designing the technical systems to support these uses.

It was the goal of the architects to hide as much of the technical equipment as possible to present a physically clean look to the room design. However, they understood that the room had to be functional for many different applications. We were lucky to have a good working relationship with DesignTeam who were in charge of the architectural design of this area. They designed the plasterwork of the FOH lighting cove in such a way that we were able to mount 5,000-lumen video projectors under the catwalk and shoot through custom openings in the plasterwork.

The Planetarium also introduced some very unique challenges. From the design of the dome to the choice of planetarium projection system, this was all new to everyone involved in the project. The shipyard did a wonderful job designing the mechanical dome system that is actually constructed in two parts. The lower half of the dome is designed to lift up and nest within the top section, which gets it up and out of the way so that the room can be used for other functions. The original concept of the planetarium projector was a singe projector located in the seating area at the center of the dome, similar to what is seen in most traditional planetariums. However, this type of system is a bit limiting for Cunard's application, as it only allows for projection in one color unless it is supplemented with additional video projectors. This is great for a traditional star-field shows, but those would have limited appeal to a cruise audience. Certainly, a passenger on 15-day cruise is only going to be interested in seeing stars once, maybe twice. Cunard needed a way to make passengers want to come to several different planetarium shows. The system that was chosen is manufactured by Sky-Skan, Inc. and utilizes six full color video projectors positioned in the audience area around the circumference of the dome. Sky-Skan's custom processing system laces the images together to present a full color, full motion video presentation. Cunard can display educational “starry-night” shows as well as more entertainment oriented shows with full color video.

ELG: What lighting consoles are used?

ML: We decided on the MA Lighting grandMA series for almost all of the venues.* The process started with looking for a console to handle the quantity of DMX channels required in the Main Lounge. To keep the venue flexible, we specified a wide variety of moving lights, including High End Systems X-Spots, Vari*Lite® Series 2000 fixtures, as well as close to 180 conventional fixtures, most of which have Wybron CXI scrollers. In the end, we needed almost 3200 DMX channels to drive the rig. On top of that, we had DMX interface into the house lighting system as well as DMX control of a custom, backlit proscenium that was illuminated by three-color LED panels. All that required several hundred more DMX channels — almost 4,000 total control channels. This significantly reduced the number of options for consoles.

The grandMA was also attractive because of the wide range of consoles, all with the same operating system. We could put a full console in the Main Lounge and Illuminations but one of the smaller versions in G32 and the Queen's Room. As all of these consoles run the same operating system, so an operator can move from one room to another easily and only has to learn one console. This is very valuable on ships, as they tend to have a high turnover of crew and little time for training.

ELG: Are the productions run via time code?

ML: Yes, the productions are run via time code through a couple of different paths. The master time code is generated from a dedicated time code generator located in the audio booth. The SMPTE is then distributed to the Tascam MX2424 hard drive audio system for audio playback, to the Medialon Control System for show control, and to any other component, such as lighting consoles or video equipment, that accepts time code directly.

The Medialon serves as both a proper show control system as well as an integrated remote control system for the theatre. With touch screen interfaces in both lighting booth and on stage in the stage manager's rack, the technicians can access and control almost all of the equipment in the room remotely. Likewise, cue lists can be developed for each of the components needed within a show and then run simultaneously via SMPTE during show playback. Currently, Medialon controls all of the various entertainment components directly for production shows.

ELG: What about the use of moving lights in the various venues?

ML: All of the large venues on the ship are really multi-purpose spaces. There may be a production show in the Royal Court Theatre in the evening, but there will be activities in that space all day. When designing the systems, we aim to make them as flexible as possible. The use of using moving lights not only offers the production designer a powerful palette, it also allows the space to be transformed easily from one activity to another with minimal time and crew.

The Royal Court Theatre was outfitted with 30 High End X-Spots and 22 VL2402 wash units, in addition to 180 or so static fixtures with Wybron CXI color mixing scrollers. The X-Spot's very wide angle covered the performance space very well, and the combination of profile and wash fixtures made the rig very versatile.

Illuminations was also outfitted with a fairly extensive package of moving lights. The throw distances and available space were a factor in selecting fixtures and we settled on seven High End Systems Cyberlight CLs, 12 VL2402 wash units, and 11 HES Studio Spot CYMs, in addition to almost 100 conventional fixtures with Wybron CXI scrollers to meet that venues needs.

ELG: What kind of lighting is in the nightclub, G32?

ML: The lighting in G32 was kept pretty simple. The bandstand area and the dance floor are relatively small spaces, and we did not want to clutter the look of the room with unnecessary equipment. The theme of the venue was intended to celebrate the actual process of building the ship. The name G32 is actually the QM2's hull number from the Chantiers shipyard, and the general décor is very “shipyard-like” with lots of exposed steel. The ceiling over the stage is constructed of several stainless steel boxes of varying sizes and depths that are all covered in steel mesh. We used 44 PAR46 fixtures to shoot through the steel mesh and then a combination of 34 Martin Mini-Mac Profiles, PARs, and 16 High End AF1000 strobes mounted around the box structure at the perimeter of the ceiling. This gave us a nice combination of color, motion, and effect lighting for the disco.

ELG: What are the overall challenges in lighting on a cruise ship?

ML: Designing entertainment systems on ships certainly introduces some unique challenges that we don't see on land-based projects. The basic fact that the venue is going to be moving — sometimes quite extensively — needs to be considered from the very beginning.

All physical connections of equipment need to be considered for both strength and resistance to vibrations. Simply hanging an instrument with a standard clamp is not enough for most ships. If a 100-lb moving light is to be hung above the audience, we need to evaluate the hanging clamps and any threaded connections to make sure that they will withstand the pounding of rough seas as well as the constant heavy vibrations that are seen when the ship's maneuvering thrusters are used.

ELG: What about power considerations on a cruise ship?

ML: The power systems have come a long way over the last several years. We have been successful on recent projects, including the QM2, to have a dedicated delta to wye transformer for the entertainment systems in the large venues. This allows us to have much more control over the power for the large sound systems and lighting systems. Most of the large venues are fed with 208/120V. It used to be that the entertainment systems were run off of the same power as the galleys or house lighting. That presented a lot of problems with inconsistent and dirty power.

ELG: Are the systems Ethernet-based?

ML: Technology has changed incredibly over the last two to three years, and we've found that networking and Ethernet are becoming standard in more and more parts of our entertainment system designs, including lighting. A majority of the entertainment components actually live on the ship's network. We worked with Cunard's IT department to create a dedicated V-LAN just for entertainment, which provided lots of flexibility. Unique IP addresses were coordinated with the IT department to ensure that there would be no conflicts, even if a piece of equipment got plugged into the wrong network jack.

The DMX distribution in the Royal Court Theatre and Illuminations are both run on Ethernet networks dedicated to DMX utilizing Pathway Connectivity's Pathport system which allowed us quite a lot of flexibility in setup and gives Cunard versatility in the theatre. With Pathport in combination with the grandMA consoles, we were also able to connect the output of the console directly into the DMX network and avoid the need for lots of DMX input nodes near to the console. We still installed the input nodes in the system in the event that another, non-Ethernet console is ever needed in these areas. However, the nodes are buried in one of the booth racks out of the way.

ELG: How do you deal with maintenance of gear at sea?

ML: The ships typically carry only a handful of technicians who must cover all of the events in all of the venues. Additionally, most of the venues are used throughout the day for lots of different activities, leaving almost no time for maintenance. We are very specific about the fixtures that are chosen for these venues as they must have a proven track record — they must stand up to pretty harsh treatment day in and day out.

The last point that I think is worth mentioning is the operators. Even the most competent technicians are typically given little to no handover or training prior to joining the ship. One might board the ship in the morning and run a production show that evening. Therefore, we try to make the systems as straightforward as possible. Along those lines, we also make a point to choose components whose settings can be backed up easily on a computer. If an operator accidentally makes a system change, we want them to be able to restore the defaults very quickly and easily. With so much lighting now being based around computers and Ethernet, that is getting much easier and, in most cases, means simply reloading a configuration from a disk or dongle.

* Lighting Console Inventory:
Royal Court Theatre: MA Lighting grandMA + replay unit (backup)
Illuminations: grandMA
Queen's Room: grandMA Ultra Light
G32: grandMA Ultra Light