Enhancing the attraction of a natural wonder is no mean feat. But that is exactly what London's Laser Creations International (LCI) has achieved in the Stone Forest, near Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan Province.

About 200 million years ago, this area in southwest China was covered by water. As the seas receded, countless limestone formations of extraordinary shapes, sizes, and heights formed a veritable forest of stone peaks, stalagmites, stalactites, subterranean rivers, and caves.

Locally it is dubbed "the Number One Wonder in the World." Visitors have flocked to the site for years to wander among the maze of rockery that covers 13,000 acres (5,261 hectares) and to participate in the annual Torch Festival of Yi. The Sani, a branch of the Yi (one of China's 56 ethnic minorities), inhabit the region, and an old Sani legend has provided the theme for an extravaganza that transforms major areas of the "forest" into spectacular shows of light, color, and sound.

LCI is no stranger to China. Since 1995, the one-stop shop has designed and installed projects for the Grand World Scenic Park, Guangzhou; Future World, a high-tech entertainment center in Hangzhou; and two in Shenzhen City, where the company opened a permanent office last May to be close to the complex Stone Forest project and a burgeoning number of Chinese commissions.

Projects director Brett Salmon, a 20-year veteran of audiovisual presentation, joined LCI five years ago and handled Stone Forest from the start. "We first met our client, Yunnan Tourism Group Co. Ltd., at the Amusements & Leisure China exhibition in Beijing in October 1997. After initial correspondence on my return to London, I traveled to its offices in Kunming that December, in part to undertake a site survey. We were then able to put together a full proposal that I presented in February 1998."

At that stage LCI was one of four companies invited to submit proposals. In March the firm was commissioned to prepare a detailed feasibility study, presented in early May. "I then had many more meetings to make changes to our proposal. In July 1998 our efforts were rewarded by the signing of contracts for phase one of the project, totaling $6.3 million," Salmon says.

The Ashima Experience, as the project is called, is based on Sani folklore which tells of Princess Ashima's love for a local man, Arhei, and the jealous interference by an evil rival, Arzhi. It culminates in the death of Ashima by drowning; her spirit comes to rest in Ashima's Stone, highlighted for all visitors.

Phase one comprises the Entrance Lake, the Final Conflict show on Lotus Lake, Ashima's Garden, Ashima's Stone and Lake, and a 56-seat simulation theatre with pods (capable of six-axis movement) supplied by Camber UK. Jean-Hicks Associates was contracted to direct and co-produce the ride film. The simulation theatre pre-show, an "edutainment" film detailing the formation of the Stone Forest, was produced entirely in-house under the direction of Andy Day, LCI's creative manager. "The ride aims to thrill, and also allows the audience to see further-flung areas of the Stone Forest region, including incredible natural lakes and the magnificent Dadishui waterfall," says film director Simon Hicks.

Water screens are a key element of the Stone Forest shows. Day and LCI's creative department worked closely with Hicks and producer Ian Sharples to explore the region on film and fine-tune the productions. Says Hicks, "Of particular interest was the ability to use four different water screens on the main lake show, enabling us to position characters and imagery almost anywhere in the lake. Tony Clynick of LCI devised the optimum positions for these screens, and the possible combinations that could be in use at any one time. It is much more theatrical and 'happening' than cinema, despite the images being largely projected, and viewers will experience a different show depending on where they sit or at what time they arrive at a venue."

This show is a ghost story, summoning up the legendary spirits of the past, which become caught up in a conflict that also involves the audience. "The use of the ghost genre allows us to make a virtue of the very nature of water screen projection, which can be transparent and varies in clarity," Hicks says. "It has also allowed us to use beautiful and unusual lighting effects, which draw on the mysterious feeling of the location at night."

Of working in China, Hicks says, "The Yunnan National Film Studios had equipment reminiscent of a Hollywood studio of the 40s. The gantry was a suspended wooden rig and the lamps were big old fresnels with a man behind each lamp. With no available laboratory, we had to wait until we were back in London before we really knew what was in the can. The hard part was making sure all the crew and equipment could be taken to and from China efficiently. With over half a ton of equipment and endless paperwork to be processed, it took over 10 days of hard work on my part and Ian's just to get the equipment free of customs in Kunming--and this was when they knew we were coming." The time delays were used for reconnaissance work within the Forest, "so that when the equipment was available, we knew exactly what we had to do."

Light Projects was contracted to design, supply, and install all effects and architectural lighting for the project to fit LCI's brief. LD Benny Ball, a disciple of Richard Pilbrow, was retained by Light Projects director Roger Beckett to design all the installations, and fuse theatre with long-lasting external techniques and equipment. Ball created visions of vistas and lakes, painting with light. "This is a huge outdoor extravaganza project, a cross between theatre, garden, and son et lumiere lighting," he says.

Beckett says Kim Lighting USA supplied numerous Entablatures, both 70W and 150W metal-halide, to accurately illuminate several of the roads around the site. This type of light control was paramount in the design team's vision--control of light and louvering, plus accurate positioning and limited light pollution, were musts to achieve real theatre and vary scenes across the site. In such a black-sky environment, 6,500' (1,981m) above sea level, accuracy and control are important; with a low lux level, it would be all too easy to bleed into the sky.

Tokistar was also used extensively, supplying tapelight to the Lotus Lake, and netting to the Entrance Lake and the Cosmos Lawn at the entrance to Ashima's Lake. A total of 110,000W of Light Projects, Lumerscape Australia, and Hydrel underwater lighting equipment (MR-16s, PAR-56s, and PAR-64s) was put into the Entrance Lake, running at both 12V and 120V. Average lamp life of 4,000 hours is powered from two out of five dimmer rooms by a bank of Strand Lighting CD80 dimmers. The Entrance Lake Willow Fountains are driven by another bank of CD80s out of the second dimmer room.

Large splashes of color are used extensively around the site. Hundreds of MR-11s cross-grazing pathways, MR-16s picking out trees and smaller rocks, and AR-111s for grazing larger rocks are fitted with high-temperature colored glass in steel blue, dark steel blue, cyan, flame red, and red at the Entrance Lake, Lotus Lake, Ashima's Lake, and throughout Ashima's Gardens. These fixtures are mainly supplied by Lightscape Projects UK, Kim Lighting, and Lumerscape Australia; the colored glass was supplied by Softone Filters. PAR-64s with Rosco dichroic glass filters in dark steel blue, Follies pink, and light green are also used, as are 400W blue metal-halide fixtures from Venture Lighting.

Many specials were designed and manufactured for the project, such as swinging pendant fittings with thousands of holes allowing shafts of light to dance around the tree-lined areas (by Light Projects UK), water ripples and fire flickers with 1,000W metal-halide projectors behind them (White Light North UK), gobo-projecting exterior PAR cans (Lightscape Projects UK), and Strand Brio projectors with DHA Gobo Rotators all housed in exterior jackets (also from White Light).

The Lotus Lake projection room houses six 1,200W Starlite MK5s, creating everything from a proscenium arch of light around the main center water screen to projecting gobos of skulls and monsters during the Final Conflict, all carefully designed and plotted by Ball and his assistant, Stanley Wilson. Ten 1,200W MK5s are used in Ashima's Garden and Lake along with fiber optics, xenon strobes, UV projectors, and eighteen 1,000W tungsten beam lights by Francis Searchlights UK. A 6,000W Pani projector is used to project images of flowers onto the enormous rock formations that provide a backdrop to Ashima's Garden.

Light Projects' Mission 1 PAR-64s running at 110V with strong color bring up many interesting rock formations within the backdrop created by Ball. There is a constantly moving and shimmering effect across the site, topped off by five 2kW xenon DMX searchlights from Francis whose rainbow color changes create a high impact many hundreds of feet into the sky. The site has five dimmer rooms, all with CD80s. The control room contains four Strand 510i desks programmed in London by Ball and adjusted on-site. Because ofthe distances involved among all these buildings, a fiber-optic network of over two miles was specified by the LD to carry vital information between all technical points and bunkers across the site.

Hicks and Ball collaborated on the lighting for the filmed sequences. "To give a feeling of light from below the water and reflected off the surface of the lake, we made much use of underwater reflectors and broken-mirror ripple boxes," says Hicks. "Most performances take place on artificially created 'lakes' from which characters emerge or into which they fall and dive. This gives the feeling of performances taking place on the surface of the lake. For the shot of local Sani dancers celebrating on the lake, we constructed a 40'x40' pool, 2" deep, in the studio, allowing 40 performers to create splashes as they moved around. Where the characters were required to fly, or in one instance be surrounded by fire, we used more specialized equipment: flying rigs and flame bars. In the final fire effect, flames erupt around the performer on all four water screens at the same time and flame gobos are simultaneously projected onto the surrounding rocks. This effect is the biggest in the show, with the width of flames on the lake measuring 150' (46m)."

One of the most dramatic moments in the large water show occurs when the hero does battle against a sea monster that emerges from the lake. The live action was filmed first in a London studio, complete with swimming pool and standard modern studio lighting, with the actor reacting to an imaginary monster towering over him. When the monster breathes fire, the actor was blasted with a massive grain blower and close 5k red backlight at the same time. He was blown backwards into the pool and remained underwater, with the help of a diver, until the water settled. This footage was then used by Labyrinth, a computer animation company, to build the monster into the shot. Separate shots of foaming water were then added to the entire shot around the monster, completing the image. This single 20-second sequence ended up costing 10% of the entire budget--not a large price considering how fantastic it looks on the water screen.

Lasers are a crucial element. The show's historical feel would be compromised by modern effects dominating the subtle and evocative projected imagery. In one sequence, the ghost of Ashima responds to numerous small laser elements that fly around her. This was achieved by the actress being shown the laser design, acting as though the elements were surrounding her at the time of filming, then fine-tuning the laser images on-site so they exactly match the filmed performance. For the graphics sequences, the power of the Spectra-Physics laser tubes has been reduced so that the light level of the projected video image is not overpowered by the brightness of the laser.

At times several different media are combined. When the villain Arzhi first emerges from the lake, he is a projected live image surrounded by CGI skeletons flying into the air. The shot of the actor rising is composited with another shot of dry ice bubbling on the surface of the lake; this makes it look as though he and the ghostly skeletons have risen out of the fog. At the same time, projected gobo skulls rise into the air. As Arzhi points at the surface of the lake, a synchronized laser flash flies from his hand to the surface of the lake and a live fire fountain throws up a ball of genuine flames into the air from the lake. All the elements combine within five seconds.

"Most of the editing and compositing of the projected images was achieved in a Smoke postproduction suite at TSi in London's West End," says Hicks. "These exceptionally long sequences were a real challenge for the operators and had very high rendering times. As we had to end up with three individual masters to run through three separate projectors, the same edit timeline needed to be used for the edit of all three sets of pictures. Ultimately, the timecode on the videos would drive everything in the show--lasers, lights, fountains, sound, smoke,and fire effects. We had to be absolutely confident that all three pictures had synchronous timecode. Editing three different sets of pictures in a normal tape environment would have been far too time-consuming, if not impossible. Not surprisingly, TSi had never done anything like this before, but they created a series of amazing effects. As ever with these effects, if nobody notices them, the job is well done. If you can see the joints...."

After the Final Conflict concludes, the audience moves through Ashima's Garden to Ashima's Stone. Architectural lighting and a number of surround-sound fields create a tranquil atmosphere during the walk. The show on Ashima's Lake is continuous and runs on a hard disk, programmed for 15-minute cycles. The projected ghost of Ashima appears on the rock to sing her famous love song; stunning images of blooming flowers, flying doves, dancers, and lovers shimmer off a water screen, and a musical fountain dances to underwater lights. A team from Sardis International, led by creative director Peter Giles, developed and installed the audio systems, which work in tandem with the light and laser programs to ensure a cohesive experience.

After a soft opening period that began last October, phase one is scheduled to open to the public next month, in time for Chinese New Year celebrations. Phase two of the theming of Stone Forest, planned to begin June 2001, will see visitors ferried across the Entrance Lake on a boat where they will be told the story of Ashima before docking in a Time Tunnel. There, the travelers will be taken back to her age via a new set of effects-laden programs. After disembarking, guests will be led down the Trail of Danger, a walk-through adventure past some of the Stone Forest's most rugged terrain, before reaching the main lake and the Final Conflict. LCI promises extravagant presentations yet to come with this project, reaffirming that in China, the company's future seems set in stone.

Julie Rekai Rickerd is a Canada-based freelance writer specializing in travel and the arts.