Puppet master extraordinaire Michael Curry has turned his attention from multiple productions of Disney's The Lion King to a new Disney attraction, the colorful Tapestry of Nations pageant that is part of the Millennium celebration at Disney World in Orlando, FL. This large-scale parade premiered on October 1 in the World Showcase Promenade at Epcot, where it remains a daily feature (along with IllumiNations2000: Reflections of Earth) until January 1, 2001.
"I worked with a conceptual team from Disney as they decided what kind of show this would be," says Curry, whose design studio is in St. Helens, OR. "We were worried about sightlines for a stage show, and decided that a procession would get the most mileage and touch everybody." The theme of the 35-minute event is reflected in its title, with a myriad of nations condensed into one visual design theme.
The puppets that Curry created are massive, stretching to 18' tall, with a maximum span equally as wide. "The puppets are huge compared to their human operators," he says. "They have to work like a film, with closeups at 6" and long shots from many feet away. There is a real connection at eye level with the puppeteer and a second boost from the impact of the puppet." As Curry s ees it, there are two performers: the puppet and the puppeteer.
"We stood out on the site and paced off the distances," he notes, recalling how they held up sticks to gauge the size of the puppets. "How many objects would we need to create the sense of spectacle?" he asked at the time, convinced that the visual impact of kinetic puppets and people would be more dynamic than floats.
Curry then made two prototypes and brought them to Orlando to walk them around the lagoon at Epcot. "I knew immediately we were in the right realm of design," he says. The final number of puppets is 120; they are divided into three identical groups of 40 (with 10 spares to avoid duplication in case of any necessary replacements).
The 18' height proved optimal. "There is a physical restraint as to what can be operated by a human being," says Curry, who looked for operators with dance experience, physical stamina, and a sense of performance. "It is very exciting to watch the energy flow from the dancers to the puppets." The puppets are attached to the operators using adapted backpack frames worn like harnesses, which can be adjusted to fit operators of all sizes. Some of the puppets are also connected at the ankles, so that walking helps provide extra control.
Once the size of the puppets was determined, Curry's next challenge was to manage wind and weight loads for such giant creatures. He opted for sheer fabrics and closely woven netting that is painted to look opaque but allows the wind to flow through. There are also cleverly inserted slits and wind outlets built into the puppets. Appliques add depth to the painted fabrics.
The puppets also have flat silhouettes, which fare better in the wind. "They can be seen high above the human head, silhouetted against the sky and the architectural background." Curry explains. "They can be seen from everywhere. It almost seems as if some of the puppets are walking on the heads of the crowd. They are literally uplifting."
The puppets are very light in spite of their large size. They have super-light frames made of titanium and aluminum, with wings of carbon fiber and spring wire, which Curry likes for its ability to move yet always spring back. "It's stable and flexible, yet holds its shape," he notes. The frame construction is similar to that of a parachute or parasail.
In choosing fabrics to dress his puppets, Curry went for those with colors that wouldn't quickly fade in the sun. "They need to look as fresh next year as they do now," he says. To make sure their choices would hold up, samples of both fabrics and metals were tested in a special climate chamber with massive light exposure.
The narrator, or drum major, for the procession is the Sage of Time, who represents all people at once. This is an impressive stilt walker who reaches a height of 14', thanks to 4' stilts and a mask that floats above the actor's head. His flowing silver costume was designed by Marilyn Sotto, Tapestry of Nations costume designer, who also created the outfits for the puppeteers and the drummers in the parade.
Two of the puppets that stand out for Curry are the 16' Bird Man and an 11' Sprite. The Bird Man is a large, winged character that Curry considers the hardest to operate. "It is like an Asian fan that opens into the silhouette of a human torso," he explains. The wings are made with 92 sq. ft. of polyester and nylon, and engineered with wind-relief slits and elastic pockets that open under wind pressure. The head (made from carbon fiber and a French vacuum-formed structural foam called Zote Foam) and beak move when the operator's head moves.
"This puppet has a very proud, very vertical silhouette like a bird with a broad wing span," says Curry, who notes that the wings are 18' across when fully opened. "It is very light and very fragile, weighing just 14lbs. This is a ground-breaking use of carbon fiber. The puppets seem to defy gravity."
Curry's shorter 11' Sprite fills the optical middle ground between the tallest puppets and their earth-bound operators. This puppet relates more to dance costuming, with four sprays of stretched netting held into wing-like panels that attach to a female dancer's ankles. "It can open like a butterfly or envelop you like a cocoon," says Curry, who describes the costume as overlapping transparent colors, with blue over yellow, which gives a second "read" of green.
"There are little bits of every culture in the pageant. It's half kite museum and half bird sanctuary, or a zoo of winged creatures," says Curry, who describes his color palette as "the entire rainbow used evenly. We used ancient and prehistoric motifs as well as futuristic ideas for a look that's up to date."
The puppets are stored on a system of rolling racks with clamps to hold them in place. The operators clamp the puppets to the rack, then step away from them easily. Curry worked on the project for one full year, with a crew of 17 building the puppets in his St. Helens studio.
Contrasting in style with the puppets are 15 rolling percussion units, created by scenic designer Lynn Holloway, who is based in Charlotte, NC. Each percussion unit has 48 drum heads (24 per side) set into a metal filigree frame around a metal disk that measures 14' in diameter. Two drummers, one on each side, ride along on the units, which are pulled by small motorized vehicles or industrial tuggers.
"The wheels and wagons of the units are made of steel, so they are very heavy," says Holloway, whose platforms add a rhythm section to the pageant. "The drummers also have cymbals and other metal percussive pieces. Our hope is that they will play the units themselves, so they hit the rails and can make quite a bit of noise."
The central disk seems to turn along with the wheels of the platforms, but in reality it has its own drive unit to guarantee a uniform speed of rotation for the drummers. Layered onto the disk is a clock face which represents the passage of time, with one layer for the minute markers and another with Roman numerals for the hours cut into the plastic surface.
Freelance lighting designer David Agress was brought in by the show's director, Gary Paben, to help update the lighting at Epcot and add punch to the lighting for the pageant. "The puppets are 18' tall, and the existing focus of the lighting was down," he explains. "There was not enough room in the parade pole housings to change the focus." Instead, one fixture was moved to be freestanding on top of each of the poles along the parade route, and on nearby Epcot pavilions. "These can be focused where needed," Agress explains.
In addition, 575W lamps were added to Thomas Outdoor PAR-64 fixtures (both short- and long-nose versions). These have custom-made double gel frames with a 3" space to move the color away from the heat of the lamp and allow extra air circulation. "We completely re-fixtured the pageant poles and re-invented the rooftop positions," says David Stephens, facility lighting director for Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment, who coordinated the lighting for this project.
As these PAR cans are not dimmable, their on/off control originates in a new control booth located at the top of the Mexico Pavilion. "We programmed the show on a Rosco Horizon," says Stephens, adding that the Horizon was selected "because it allows the user to select whatever graphic interface is desired."
Stephens was attracted to the Horizon for its HTML page capacity, which offered the possibility to create a graphic representation of the World Showcase promenade with the pageant poles in the correct positions. "You can create a hyperlink between the picture and the channels you need to program," he notes.
The color palette on the puppets includes Rosco 44 (middle rose) and Rosco 58 (deep lavender), as well as no-color pools of light to highlight specific sections of the promenade. During the show, the nearby pavilions are lit with both rim and wash lighting which has been re-gelled to Rosco 79 (bright blue) and Lee 126 (magenta).
Some of the puppets (those with hollow interiors and mesh coating) are illuminated internally, using modified battery-powered Nite-Rider bicycle lights with custom mountings for 15W, wide MR-11 lamps. These are mounted on the upright poles that support the puppets. "The puppets look like Chinese lanterns glowing from the inside," says Stephens, who points out that 70 of Curry's puppets are lit this way.
Light for the 15 rolling percussion units is provided by MR-16 fixtures by BK Lighting that are used to light the performers and the units themselves. In addition, 75W short-arc xenon Maxa Beam "flashlights" manufactured by Peak Beam Systems and distributed by Xenotech (four per unit for a total of 60) are welded into the frame of the wagon. The beams are bounced off of High End Systems Cyberlight(R) automated mirrors on arms at the sides of the units, and reflect into mirrorballs extended over the floats. "This is a simple, age-old effect, but it's gorgeous," says Stephens.
"It is an all-encompassing effect," agrees Agress, who notes that the xenon beams "strobe" as well for extra "pop." He also points to the use of "glove followspots"--other Nite Rider bicycle lights worn in the gloves of several dancers to add accents to the parade at night.
"The overall look is outer-space and metaphysical," Agress continues. "There are three units moving simultaneously on the promenade around the lagoon. You see giant puppets in front of you, coming toward you, and across the lagoon." Sixteen gas-powered torches around the lagoon add to the tribal feel of the event.
The drama of the pageant is heightened by the musical score written by Gavin Greenaway and recorded by members of the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras at Abbey Road Studios in London, England. Its percussive beat and soaring female vocals are propelled along the parade route by an audio system based on Electro-Voice loudspeakers, QSC amplifiers, and Peavey MediaMatrix control. "This is a unique parade for us," explains Joe Knapp, audio design director for Walt Disney World Entertainment. "There are no systems on the moving units due to the look and feel of the show, and no electric reproduction of the live sound of the drums."
Instead, Knapp reconfigured the existing system along the parade route, adding modified EV components from the company's X-Array line of loudspeakers to a total of 60 pageant poles. There are an additional 150 speakers tucked into building facades and set pieces, as well as in the torches around the lake. "These are the primary source of the audio," he says. Each pole has two 12" drivers and two horns, with a dual 12" subwoofer to add bass. The QSC CX1202V amplifiers were selected to drive these speakers as well as some older 70V speakers that are still in the park.
The modular control provided by 14 Peavey MediaMatrix systems is used for routing the audio throughout the World Showcase area. There is also a Midas XL88 matrix mixer (and an operator) located in the control booth atop the Mexico Pavilion. The mixer combines the multitrack audio into three tracks (right, left, and surround) with two Akai DR16 hard-disk multitrack players running on SMPTE timecode (one is a slave to the other for backup) acting as show playback devices.
"The audience faces the lake during the fireworks show and then turns back to watch the puppets," Knapp explains. "The audio is sent accordingly so the right and left tracks match the way the people are facing." The system can also control the volume, but Knapp finds it is better to leave it loud to add punch to the show. The MediaMatrix systems are linked to an ethernet network, which allows for the remote control of loudness and direction if need be.
Once the parade begins, the audio track is heard throughout the World Showcase and outside of all the various pavilions. A series of prerecorded announcements let the audience know when the show is to begin. "This was a lot of fun," says Knapp. "I've wanted to update the Epcot system and we needed an extra push to do what this show required. Our needs evolved, so the system required some new tricks."
With massive puppets glowing like Chinese lanterns, their reflections floating on the water, and a pulsating soundtrack filling the air, Tapestry of Nations creates a fanciful and symbolic passage of time. "It's like a medieval carnival circa 2000," says Agress. What a way for Disney to enter the 21st century.
Tapestry of Nations Creative Team
John Haupt, managing producer
Paul Marosi, producer
Denny Leistner, project manager
Gavin Greenaway, composer
Gary Paben, show director
Michael Curry, puppet designer
Marilyn Sotto, costume designer
Lynn Holloway, scenic designer
David Agress, project lighting designer
David Stephens, facility lighting designer
Joe Knapp, audio design director
Kelly Prince, lead audio design specialist
Joe Kurta, Media Matrix programming
Ken Blanchies, audio design specialist
Louie Hall, audio design specialist
Craig Genest, production assistant