Cascading images of water in every imaginable form set the scene for Totem, Cirque du Soleil’s current touring show, which is billed as a fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind. "The basic idea was to create a marsh, an animated watery surface from where life emerges," says image content designer Pedro Pires of his debut with Cirque du Soleil. Directed by Robert Lepage, with scenic design by Carl Fillion, lighting by Etienne Boucher, costumes by Kym Barrett, and sound by Jacques Boucher, Totem is a visual feast where the projections and lighting create a series of natural environments (lake, ocean, pond, volcano) in which an upstage raked platform, designed as a marsh bordered with reeds, serves as the main projection surface.
"I thought a concept of metamorphosis between images could be interesting to simply illustrate the idea of evolution in the show," explains Pires. To do this, his images embrace natural phenomena such as erosion, evaporation, melting, freezing, growing, etc. "I began to think of a watery surface that, at a certain point, dries out, leaving only sandy ground. Then, an earthquake would break that ground revealing flowing lava. The cold lava would bring minerals and crystal found in metals, and so on."
The imagery segues seamlessly from one scene to another, morphing from the clowns in the show water skiing with a boat that turns into a plane, to a rocket that explodes in the sky, setting fire to the reeds all around the stage to create an aboriginal ceremony. "The reeds can also be seen as the hair of a giant aboriginal mask on which the people evolve," says Pires, whose landscapes of outer space were derived from actual photos shot by Cirque du Soleil’s founder and artistic guide Guy Laliberté in his Poetic Social Mission aboard the International Space Station. "I went to his house to see his footage, and he gave me a photo bank of 9,000 space images," notes Pires, who modified some of these images to fit the blue blacklight ambience of the Russian Bars number in which cosmonauts are trying to break free of the Earth’s gravity.
At another moment, Pires has grass grow over the blue planet to create a moving underwater seascape for the arrival of frogs and beach acrobats coming out of the screen. "This sequence was shot in a pool with acrobats in costumes and makeup," he explains. "The trajectory and the size of the characters had to be very precise to fit with the live characters seen against the projections. I wanted all of the projections in Totem to be realistic, as if we are there, as if we are traveling through different regions of the world, in different times, and as if the acrobats on stage are evolving beside real water surfaces."
Pires found inspiration in nature itself, travelling to various locations, including Iceland, Hawaii, and Guatemala, to shoot the environments. "I had to shoot them myself with a specific angle to fit the stage and the viewing angle of the spectator," he says. "I shot the lava flowing in the sea in Hawaii, but there was too much security at the site, and we were too far to see the red burning lava. In Guatemala, there was no security perimeter around the active lava site of the Pacaya volcano. We climbed up an hour in the mountain and arrived just a few feet from the red-hot flowing lava. Children were dipping wood sticks directly in the lava." Pires was lucky: Pacaya erupted six months later killing three people.
With three VYV Photon Show media servers feeding images to four Christie Digital Roadster S+20K projectors, some of the images are interactive in realtime with a system of infrared cameras to make the images highly kinetic. "I wanted the projections to be ‘alive’ in the storytelling of the show yet not too distracting for the acrobatic numbers," notes Pires, pointing out that "one review says that the buildings surrounding the big top seem very dull after the show compared to what they experienced visually in Totem. That makes me happy because that’s exactly what I wanted people to feel—the sense that the magnificence of nature has somehow been evacuated from our modern civilized world, and that it’s a good thing to remember its beauty and fragility."
LIGHT UP THE BIG TOP
The lighting in Totem intentionally extends the colors in the projections of the marsh, using colors that Boucher borrowed from nature, with greens and blues inspired by ice, and the reds and yellows by fire. The lighting rig follows the parameters for Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows. "Every Cirque big top has four masts," explains Andrew Penney, assistant head of lighting. "In Totem, each mast has 11 James Thomas Engineering PARs, five ETC Source Fours, and two Clay Paky Alpha Spot HPE 1500s. The conventionals are stacked so they are 10 units high by two wide, with the same symmetrical arrangement on all four masts to give a similar view to everyone." Boucher added A.C. Lighting Chroma-Q Plus scrollers to ensure a diverse range of color combinations.
"There is a Clay Paky 1500 placed low and high on each mast to give a good angle on almost everything," adds Penney, who notes that the upstage two masts have extra ETC Source Fours as specials, as well as Clay Paky Alpha Beam 700s to create air effects. A grid houses an additional 16 PARs with scrollers for toplight color, as well as an arrangement of Source Fours with breakup gobos that create a full wash on stage. "There are also three Clay Paky 1500s spread out for good coverage," Penney points out.
Just upstage of the grid is a truss that links the two upstage masts together. This supports the three projectors that cover the marsh projection surface, which also serves as an entrance onto the playing area, or island, where the primary scenic element looks like a large, abstract turtle carapace that functions as both a decorative piece and acrobatic equipment. At the center of the marsh is a hydraulic bridge, built by Scène Éthique, with seven main axes of movement allowing it to travel upstage and downstage plus lift and lower in different combinations, creating anything from a wooden bridge to the clowns’ water ski boat and a vertical totem pole. The underside of the bridge houses lasers, loudspeakers, lighting equipment, and cameras.
Additional Source Fours with scrollers provide backlight and light the reeds upstage, while three small trusses hung over the audience add lower front fill. "There were many rehearsals during creation whose only purpose was to validate the lighting looks," says Penney. "Basically, it was a long process of Etienne making the looks and then making sure that they would work with the artists."
Lighting and projections are run by the same operator but on separate cue stacks. "We chose this method just in case there were any problems, one would not affect the other," Penney says. "We have a main MA Lighting grandMA2 light plus one as full backup, and we have three media servers: a main, a backup, and a controller."
As Penney notes, Cirque du Soleil big top tours are much different from the typical load-in and load-out schedule of an arena, Broadway, or rock ‘n’ roll tour. "We pack up everything with us," he says. "Load-out takes about eight hours for lighting and sound, and about 12 for carpentry, automation, and rigging. Load-in takes eight days, but it takes approximately 30 hours for lighting to set up and six to eight hours for focus of conventional and moving light positions, and projection focus."
The last three days of load-in are for training and to get the big top site ready for public. "In addition to the setup time, we have eight to 10 hours of maintenance with all of our equipment on the ground every load-in while the big top is being built," Penney points out. "We check the focus of the lights and projections before every show, so we can make sure every show is as good as the last. The design, I feel, really pulls the audience in. The difficulty we have in the big tops is that there are very limited positions to hang lights. Etienne did a very good job of using the positions available to give every seat in the house an excellent view of the show."