Based just north of New York City in Rockland County, McLaren Engineering Group has helped modernize such famous venues as the Longacre and Lyceum Theatres. Specializing in devising solutions that let Broadway theatres accommodate new shows and equipment while improving sightlines, efficiency, and safety, the firm has quite a few accomplishments under its belt. McLaren designed the crane that “flew” Chitty Chitty Bang Bang over the audience in the Broadway production and worked on the stage for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Grendel last year. The team also worked on A Little Dog Laughed at the Cort Theatre, The Pirate Queen at the Hilton Theatre, and Journey's End at the Belasco Theatre.
Beyond theatre, McLaren has also engineered elaborate stages for Rolling Stones tours, the Super Bowl, and Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, as well as helped with renovations at the landmark The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
LD talked with the team's founder and president/CEO, Mal McLaren, and chief of the entertainment division, Bill Gorlin.
LD: How did each of you get started in the business?
Mal McLaren: I began my career as a civil/structural engineer and started my own firm in 1977. During the 80s, I worked on many exotic structures and developed a reputation for working on eccentric projects. In the 90s, I started working in the entertainment industry. An architect working on the portable, outdoor summer-tour stage (Carlos Moseley Music Pavilion) for the New York Philharmonic called me for engineering consulting for a complex piece of machinery used to fold and unfold the stage. In 1994, when Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones came to the US with elaborate stages for their stadium tours, FTL Architects — the architects for the Carlos Moseley Pavilion — recommended my firm to aid in consulting. Our involvement in the entertainment industry took over from there. When Max Lincer, the leading Broadway engineer at the time, died, everyone on Broadway was looking for engineers who could work on theatre renovation and design. Someone I had previously worked with recommended my firm, and that's when McLaren Engineering's role in Broadway theatre and stage design really took off.
Bill Gorlin: I graduated from Cornell University in the mid-80s and began working at a small firm designing buildings. One of the firm's clients was a scenic contractor who introduced me to the entertainment business. My next job was for a rollercoaster manufacturing company and then for a scenic contractor, which is when I first met Mal.
LD: What has been your most important design accomplishment to date?
MM: Cirque du Soleil's KÀ stage in Las Vegas was one of the largest and most significant accomplishments in entertainment design that we've worked on. KÀ pushed the envelope on technology in many ways. We worked with components such as brakes and bearings that were larger than people had ever used in this business. We actually had to go to a fabricator in the offshore oil industry to get the equipment we needed. The KÀ stage had the biggest, heaviest, and largest power plant and the most axes of motion of any stage built. The peak horsepower demand was more than 6,000 — similar to that of a locomotive. The machinery was so big that it became an integral part of the show; they didn't try to hide any of the machinery that was responsible for creating the show's magic.
BG: For KÀ, we designed a moveable piece that weighs 300,000 pounds and moves 70' in 40 seconds. To do this, we used the largest hydraulic cylinders produced in North America. They have a 72' stroke. The cylinder was so long that it needed a special penthouse on the roof just to contain the cylinders. The KÀ stage turns 360° continuously and houses acrobatic rails, lighting, actors, effects, etc. The stage is 50'×25'×6.5'.
LD: What's been the most challenging project you've done?
MM: In 1998, we worked on Twister, a theme-park ride at Universal Studios. That was a challenging project because there were several different components involved. We formed a tornado inside of the building by moving a lot of air, opening up the roof to create a vortex, and discharging liquid nitrogen to produce the visual effect of a tornado. The floor dropped down from under the audience, and things were constantly moving. In addition, the process had to be repeated every five minutes. There were 180 shows a day, which resulted in tremendous repetition. We had to worry about fatigue — how long parts would last — and needed pieces that were durable. We ended up using a lot of hydraulics, elastomerics, and pneumatics.
BG: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway was also a challenge. We had to design a crane for the mechanism that could lift the car and make it appear to fly. The whole mechanism had to be able to be flattened to 18" on the floor. We created a machine that could track up- and downstage, swing left and right, and tilt and roll. The entire base traveled toward the audience and then lifted and moved the car. The mechanism had six axes of motion: car tilt, car revolve, car pitch, car lift, car swing, and assembly drive up- and downstage. Additionally, this was all done in a very tight space.
LD: How has the industry changed during the past two decades?
MM: Today, computers control everything. Because of this, projects have become a lot more sophisticated and have grown enormously in size and weight. For example, the 2005 Rolling Stones tour took 75 tractor trailers to move. Stages now move, spin, turn, go up and down. They have 80,000-lb. video machines within them, and cranes and pop-ups all using the latest technology. As a result, people expect to be awed when they see a show, and each show has to outdo its predecessor.
BG: In the 80s, theatre stages transitioned from wood to steel to handle the heavy sets and modern equipment. Theatre used to be more about imagery and letting the audience use its imagination. Now, shows have to look more real and create more awe. Lighting techniques have also changed. Computer controls allow for more lighting and effects to be used.
LD: Where do you see entertainment technology going in the next few years?
MM: I see projects getting bigger with heavy equipment being replaced by lighter technology in theatre, more pieces moving simultaneously, and pieces that are more realistic and interactive. I also see machines becoming sleeker, capable of more functions, and allowing for more interaction. Rock 'n' roll shows, for example, are becoming increasingly interactive. The interaction between the audience and performers gets the audience more involved and excited. I'm beginning to see a trend of expanding the performance stage into the audience. It's becoming more about bringing the show to the people, instead of the people to the show. The stage we engineered for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw's Soul 2 Soul II tour last year, for instance, included a series of ramps that reached out into the audience and sloped down so that performers were only a few feet above the floor, bringing the performers closer to the audience.
BG: I see a greater demand for speed due to advanced technology, ultimately shortening the amount of time a project takes to complete. I see stages being more portable, lighter, easier to move, easier to connect, and put together. I also see bigger, more complex stage concepts and theatrical effects being used in architectural markets.
LD: How does McLaren Engineering Group fit into those changes?
MM: McLaren Engineering is a design firm providing a greater understanding of entertainment-related technology and mechanical and structural engineering. As projects get bigger, faster, stronger, and brighter, more engineering sophistication will be required. Displays will have more complicated structures and will take a lot more engineering expertise. Many of our projects in Las Vegas are representative of this.
We have become a think tank and are regularly training young engineers to think about creative solutions and ways to use technology. When creative designers have an idea, we get involved early. We have a lot of interaction between our creative designers and engineers.
LD: What has been the most significant innovation in entertainment technology?
MM: Computer programs have become so quick, interactive, and parametric in evolution. We can sketch and refine a lot of projects on the computer before actually building them. The capability of our computers and computer software is the key to completing a project efficiently and successfully.
BG: With the advanced technology, we can pre-visualize projects electronically rather than build in trial and error. Prior to this previsualization technology, an architect would have to build models.
MM: This technology was extremely helpful when we worked on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the previsualization of the flying car. We were able to move the camera point of view in the computer, which helped the producer see how the effects would look from different angles. This technology can produce full-color, 3D prints for seeing and visualizing the lighting changes, structure, angles, etc.
LD: How does developing technology change how you work?
BG: Email and electronic transfers have drastically improved the way we work. Right now, we're working on a project in Las Vegas and have a large pool of technical people contributing from their respective offices around the US.
MM: Collaboration is an important part of our success. Individual engineers can each have 90% of a solution, but when they collaborate with one another, they can find a complete solution. Email and advanced communication software permits collaboration from different locations. Developing technology gives us a greater capability to examine the “what ifs” or explore different solutions, combinations, and ways of doing things. For example, KÀ's moving stage went through more than 30 different combinations. We were only able to do that because of the advanced technology and computer software.
LD: What is something you want people to know about McLaren Engineering?
BG: McLaren Engineering's personnel has a variety of backgrounds in the entertainment industry. We have people with backgrounds in graphic design, scenic and show-action equipment construction, theatrical technical direction, aerospace, amusement rides, and stage production. As a result, this provides us with unique perspectives and capabilities.
MM: What a lot of people don't know is that we are a very versatile engineering firm. We have expertise in entertainment, design, buildings, bridges, and all different aspects of engineering. We do a lot of interesting projects that aren't entertainment-related. We are involved in exploring alternatives for the new Tappan Zee Bridge in New York; we designed the largest floating ferry terminal in the world to be installed in Manhattan within the next six months; and we are currently designing a solution for the Long Island Rail Road's platform-gap problem. The fact that we have these different areas of expertise allows us to think on a higher level and come up with more solutions.