In its quest to expand beyond touring tent shows and resident high-tech spectaculars, Cirque du Soleil has tackled the kids' market with Wintuk, which premiered in November 2007 at the 4,500-seat WaMu Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York. Produced by Cirque du Soleil, MSG Entertainment, and BASE Entertainment, Wintuk goes into storage after January 6, before returning to New York for another few winter seasons, marking a new formula for Cirque du Soleil.

Written and directed by Richard Blackburn, Wintuk has costumes by François Barbeau, sets and props by Patricia Ruel, projections by Francis Laporte, lighting by Yves Aucoin, special effects by Gregory Meeh, and sound design by Jonathan Deans and Leon Rothenberg. Rene Charbonneau designed the large puppets, while Guy St-Amour designed the acrobatic equipment and rigging, using Stage Technologies automation systems. One obstacle faced by the designers was the low, wide configuration of the theatre, which has just a 22'-high ceiling and contrasts greatly with the soaring circus tents and custom-built theatres that Cirque du Soleil usually inhabits.

Another challenge was the need for a reinforced stage to meet the stringent load criteria for some of the acts in Wintuk (such as roller blade ramps which remain on stage throughout the show). The solution was the Open Shell Truss (OST) system from Scène Éthique Design & Fabrication in Montreal, Canada. This is made up of a laser-cut structural element that is located directly under the deck platforms. This liberates the sub-stage of cross bracing and extraneous legs by transferring the loads to the OST.

Since Cirque du Soleil also uses the surface of the stage to rig acrobatic acts, Scène Éthique developed a proprietary push, turn, and lock (PTL) attachment system that secures the panels to the sub-structure and creates a membrane effect over the surface of the stage, allowing tension loads to be safely applied without the need for additional components. “The system is very solid structurally,” says Ron Morissette, responsible for corporate development at Scène Éthique. “You can pull out sections anywhere for traps or elevators.”

In spite of the low ceiling, the stage deck was built up 5' to accommodate the puppeteers that manipulate large shaggy dogs, flexible lamp posts with fiberglass heads painted like faces (the posts are made of fabric held up by air pressure), giant ice monsters, birds, and the other puppets in the show. In a young boy's quest for snow and adventure in the imaginary land of Wintuk, “the action moves from the urban environment of the city to the ice-cold of winter,” says Ruel, pointing out that there was no room for set changes. As a result, she created a textured white set where the curved walls first look like metal, banks of snow, or ice, as the surface responds to light.

“It was hard to fit the show into an existing theatre,” says Aucoin, whose challenges included the all-white set and keeping light out of the performers' eyes in the low space. “I like the white set, but light spills and has to be controlled,” he explains. In terms of lighting puppets for the first time, Aucoin says, “You have to make them look alive — not flat but not over-lit. There is a fine line to making them look believable.

“I used more color than I usually do, including an icy-green Lee 219, and there are lighting positions everywhere,” Aucoin adds, noting that he was influenced by the color and ambiance of what his kids read and watch. He used a rig comprised mainly of Vari-Lite automated fixtures with gobos to create patterns on the floor, and ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, as well as 100 Color Kinetics ColorBlast units inside the set and Altman blacklight Fresnels. Aucoin also called for two Robert Juliat Aramis 2,500W HMI followspots and two Strong Lighting 2kW Super Troupers. Control was via an MA Lighting grandMA console. The gear was supplied by Solotech in Montreal and trucked to New York.

The projections, by Francis Laporte, are primarily seen on a large white PVC screen (from Lesna in Montreal) measuring 82'×30' and set on the upstage wall of the set. The projections are used to illustrate various locations in the story as well as show the passage of time. “They are closely linked to the set and lighting design,” says Laporte, who also used colors from a crayon box for many of the images. As is his wont, the images were handcrafted, or “all 2D, not 3D,” he says, “like in a book but animated, almost cartoon-ish — a world seen through the eyes of children.” One of the characters, a little girl, is seen almost exclusively as a projection, and there are shadows of other creatures projected on the set as well.

Some of the images — from houses blowing away in a windstorm and the Northern Lights, to snow drifts that look like lace, cut-out snowflakes, and large birds flying by — were made by scanning hand-drawn images and paper collages, while others were created using stop-motion animation. The projectors are Christie Roadster S+20K DLP® units (with a Xenon Bubble lamp system providing photo-realistic color with the ability to edge-blend and tile images) with 12 units stacked in pairs behind the proscenium arch and four additional ones in front of the set. Ten Green Hippo Hippotizers provided playback, using the Green Hippo timeline controller built into the V.3 Hippotizer software (rather than running via a lighting console). Nigel Sadler of Green Hippo provided technical support.

Aucoin and Laporte collaborated on Cirque du Soleil's Love and have a very symbiotic relationship, yet often in this production, the lighting and projection are opposite. “When one is very colorful, the other is not,” says Laporte, who notes that his favorite scene is a windstorm where the lighting, sound, and projection fit perfectly together. Both designers allude to a dance scene at the end of the show as another favorite, with a red sky and a golden glow on the set as the sun rises.

Jonathan Deans and Leon Rothenberg co-designed the sound. “It was an interesting challenge for us,” says Rothenberg. “With the low ceiling, we couldn't shoot from high above and let the pattern spread out. We needed a lot of loudspeakers that are very focused to create a surround system broken into six zones with delay for the upper sections.” The low ceiling also meant the speakers couldn't be hung too low, or they would interfere visually, so everything is hung tight to the ceiling.

The rig includes four Meyer Sound M'elodie ultra-compact line arrays across the front. “We get a lot of depth from them,” Rothenberg notes. “They work well with loud and softer levels.” These provide the main stereo image, from any two pairs of the speakers. The soundtrack for Wintuk was prerecorded and includes original music as well as ambient sounds, dog barks, snow, and wind. There are also six Sennheiser wireless mics for three characters that speak and three others who make noises. The sound gear came from Solotech.

“If you are sitting in the close seats, the surround sound makes it feel like you are part of the action,” says Rothenberg. “Even if you are sitting in the farther seats, you are still aware of the main left/right image of the sound between you and the stage.” Like the sets, lighting, and projections, the sound added to the overall experience as the young boy finally gets his wish and snow begins to fall. As it does, the entire Wintuk theatre is filled with millions of tissue paper snowflakes falling through the air, to the delight of the entire audience.

EQUIPMENT LIST

LIGHTING

Control and Dimming

1 MA Lighting grandMA

1 MA Lighting grandMA Light

1 MA Lighting grandMA Ultra Light

4 MA Lighting NSP

5 ETC Sensor Dimmer Rack

Conventional Instruments

4 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal

24 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal

45 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal

36 ETC Source Four PAR MFL

14 Altman UV-703 Blacklight Fresnel

19 Strand Iris 1 Single Cell Cyc Light, 1kW

100 Color Kinetics ColorBlast12

Automated Lights

12 Vari-Lite VL 3500 Spot

24 Vari-Lite VL 3000 Spot

42 Vari-Lite VL 3000 Spot

24 Vari-Lite VL 2500 Wash

Followspots

2 Robert Juliat Aramis 2,500W HMI followspots

2 Strong Lighting 2kW Super Troupers

Atmospheric Effects

2 MDG Atmosphere APS Haze Generator

1 MDG Max 3000APS Fog Generator

44 Artistry In Motion Confetti Machine

36 Bowen Fan

16 CO2 Cannon

VIDEO

10 Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers

16 Christie Roadster S+20K projectors

AUDIO

Console

1 Level Control Systems CueConsole System

Processing

1 TC Electronics System M3000

7 Meyer Sound Galileo Loudspeaker Processor

Loudspeakers

7 Meyer Sound M1-D for Front Fill

38 Meyer Sound M1-D for Surround

65 Meyer Sound MUB M1-D Mount

8 Meyer Sound 700HP Subwoofer

6 Meyer Sound UPA1-P Stage Foldback

12 Meyer Sound UPA1-P Delay

10 Anchor AN1000 Self Powered

Wireless Systems

2 Sennheiser SK-5212 UHF Transmitters c/w 10dB Pad & Limiter Disconnect

2 Sennheiser 3532 RX Diversity System

1 GZA 2003TVP UHF Active Ground Plane Antenna system, with boosters and 10db Stepped Attenuators at Input

5 Sennheiser EW 300 IEM G2 In-Ear System

10 Shure E3 Earphones

2 Sony WRT810a RF Handhelds

1 Sony Dual WRR840 Receiver

CREDITS

Yves Aucoin, lighting designer

Francis Laporte, projection designer

François Barbeau, set designer

Patricia Ruel, set and props designer

Jonathan Deans and Leon Rothenberg, sound designers

Greg Meeh, special effects designer

Rene Charbonneau, puppet designer

Guy St-Amour, acrobatic equipment and rigging design

Claude Plante, lighting director

Alexandre Lefrancois, head electrician

Dan Hochstine, sound mixer

Jake Hall, mics

Jake Davis, assistant to Leon Rothenstein

Sebastian Laurendeau, playback operator

Gavin Whitely, Giga system