Aqueous Maximus: Technical Prowess Bubbles to the Surface in House of Dancing Water

Having made a big splash in Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil’s O and Le Rêve at The Wynn, Franco Dragone has directed another mega-scale show with H2O: House of Dancing Water at City of Dreams in Macau, China, working with members of the “O-team,” set designer Michel Crete, lighting designer Luc Lafortune, and sound designer François Bergeron. Patrick Neys provided projection design for this $250 million production that premiered in September.

House of Dancing Water lives in a purpose-built 360° theatre-in-the-round, designed by Pei Partnership Architects, with a swimming pool that holds 3.7 million gallons of water (equivalent to five Olympic-sized pools). The audience wraps 270° degrees, while the other 90° comprises an entrance for performers and scenic elements, including a large projection screen.

“The design process was complicated due to the size and configuration of the venue,” confirms Lafortune, who faced a 25m (82′) trim height, intended to fly scenic elements on catwalks above the audience and allow for breathtaking high dives. “The 25m mark is a tipping point in the world of theatrical production,” he says. “If we go bigger in terms of the stage as we know it, we go into stadium operas, and you come to a point where you are doing one or the other. When the trim gets too high, it changes the tools you can use, so this is as big as we can get.”

Lafortune adds that he is missing the classic 45° angle. “We are at 20° flat, or 65-70° steep, so I had to work around that,” he says. “Most of the light comes from way up above, mainly due to the architecture but also because of the noise, given the close proximity of some fixtures to the audience. As a result, in the lower position, I used mostly incandescents, fluorescents, ellipsoidals, strobes, neon, and two-lights, primarily to define the theatre, add effects, and add character to any particular scene.” Philips Vari-Lite VL3500s and Clay Paky automated fixtures are in the upper position for their long throw and zoom. At the 50m (164′) mark on the high grid, Lafortune added a Clay Paky Alpha 700 automated beam projector, noting that, despite the unusual trim, “It really kicks,” he says.

The 270° of seating is on concrete bleachers above water level, allowing scenic pieces to be stored below and artists to come in and out from any direction under the water. “There is more water than meets the eye,” says Lafortune. “A dry corridor circumvents the entire pool, and the theatre is architecturally very complicated.”

In order to light the water, climate-controlled lighting bubbles, equipped with Clay Paky Alpha Wash 1200 units, line the edge of the bleachers. “They provide color mixing and strobes, with some pan and tilt in the bubbles, which are placed one meter below the surface of the pool,” explains Lafortune. Upper lighting bubbles, with Clay Paky HPE 1200 units, are on the “beach,” or dry crossover area between the audience and the pool.

“It was essential to light the water,” says Lafortune. “The intention was to take this one element, treat it as a character, and give it different personalities, at one moment a raging sea, with lighting and atmospheric effects, at another, a piece of glass, calm water with images reflected from the projection screen above.” In addition, 2,000 Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd flicker candles twinkle at different speeds (using just one speed seems too mechanical, says the LD) all the way around the theatre. “As they change from warm candlelight to green fluorescent, you go from one world to another,” Lafortune notes. (See below for the full gear list.)

For daredevil motorcycle jumpers, Lafortune built a number of cues around the constant of the motorcycle ramps. “They are always lit, no matter what cue you are in, but you can modify the lighting as the riders go up or down,” he says. “They need to see the floor when they land and know where the back wall is, so I put vertical neon fixtures on the back wall, dressed up in saturated colors for an urban feel, and added a row of PARs to light the floor where they would be landing.” A GAM pattern called Opera Hose (as in fishnet stockings) creates the look of a metal fence in a shallow light corridor at a 20°-45°. “Most of the light is behind the riders, so it stays out of their eyes,” Lafortune says.

The lighting designer notes he’s using a lot more red than he has in the past, realizing that cultural references are totally different in China, and he had to be careful when choosing colors. “We use a lot of blue in the West, but it has a different meaning in China, so I started using a lot of red, which looked good in the theatre and with the water,” he notes. “I used to think red was too loaded, in terms of meaning, and shied away from it, but in this case, it looks great with the staging and projections. Chinese red is a lucky color, used a lot in gifts and celebrations. A dark, somber show would not have worked there, and this is a much happier, ‘wow’ kind of show.”

Six Robert Juliat Victor 1159B followspots are at a height of 16m (52.5′). “The stage is 22m [72′] across, and the diameter of the house is 50m [164′], so the trim, even at 16m [52.5′], is still steep,” explains Lafortune. “I had to not fall into the trap of a directional manner with the 270° audience and 2,000 people. Instead the followspots are spread around the 270°, so there are no front or back spots.” Lafortune found the Victors bright enough to work well at that distance with operators in a truss and chair hanging above the audience. “I am partial to their fixtures, and these worked out quite nicely. We work on the distances, from 12m-36m [39.3′-118′], and with iris and zoom, so the operators are tweaking throughout the show. We hired—some locally, some came in from other shows—a very international lighting crew.”

Hubert Tardiff, who programmed KÀ and Zumanity with Lafortune, programmed this production on an MA Lighting grandMA 2. White Light in London provided the lighting, while Simon Fraser of Ptarmagan consulted on the lighting system. Steve Colley is the technical director of the venue.

House of Dancing Water
Selected Lighting Gear

MA Lighting grandMA 2 console

Automated Lighting
48 Clay Paky Alpha Spot HPE 1200
4 Clay Paky Alpha Wash Halo 1200
56 Clay Paky Alpha Wash 1200
8 Clay Paky Profile 1200
5 Vari-Lite VL3500s

Followspots and Arc Sources
6 Robert Juliat Victor 1159B Followspot
18 Robert Juliat D’Artagnan HMI (9–26°, 18-38°, and 30-50°)
2 Strand 4kw HMI Daylight Fresnel

320 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal (5°, 10°, 14°, 19°, 26°, 36°, 50°, 70°, 90°)
44 ETC Source Four Zoom 15-30°
12 ETC CE Source Four Junior 36° and 50°
50 ETC Source Four Par MCM
204 ETC Source Four Par EA, +48
24 ETC Source Four Parnel
25 ETC Source Four Drop-in iris
74 Kupo Par64 Black
12 Kupo Par36 8-lite
48 Kupo Par36 2-lite
68 Hubbell Outdoor Vaporlites
4 Pauluhn Rotating Beacon
48 Encapsulite SLT8 Sticklilghts
24 Encapsulite 230v Twin Lamp Control Box
10 City Theatrical Color Extender, model #2473

Pool Lighting
348 Floor Mounted Acelab LED
6 Hydrel WD4415, 3-cell 12 volt MR 16

8 Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobes
1 Hungaoflash 15kw Strobe
24 GAM Twin Spin Gobo Rotator
12 Dual Channel PSU
6 City Theatrical EFX Plus 2
32 Type 5225 Water Disk
16 Type 5255 Ocean Art Glass
2280 HellUK Flicker Candles
56 HellUK DMX Power Supply

Scrollers & Dowsers
84 Wybron Coloram IT 7.5
16 Wybron Coloram IT 10
190 Wybron 7” Forerunner IT
12 Wybron 5kW Eclipse I IT Dowser
12 Wybron Scroller/Dowser PS-600
2 Wybron Scroller/Dowser PS-300
2 Strand 4kW Mounting Plate

Projection designer Patrick Neys discusses creating images for House Of Dancing Water at City of Dreams in Macau, China

“The role of the projections is to transpose the journey of the protagonists in an imaginary kingdom, borrowing from Chinese and Western poetry,” says projection designer Patrick Neys of House Of Dancing Water at City of Dreams in Macau, China. “To complement the story, each scene should have its atmosphere, its character. The aim is to give the impression of moving from one place to another—from one tableau to another, from one era to another—while sitting in the same seat and forgetting the theatre that surrounds the viewer. The universe created by Franco takes the viewer through time, from that of the Silk Road and the major navigators to a technological future, while focusing on the deepest human values and intimacy. Sometimes we created really sharp images and sometimes only impressions to help convey this epic adventure.”

Ten Barco High End Systems DML-1200s and four Barco FLM R20+ projectors hang below the performer catwalk at level four in the theatre. The FLM R20+s are used for the main projection screen, as well as for a white mobile backdrop and painted mountains reminiscent of Mount Hua Shan. The DML-1200s bring the stage floor and the surface of the water to life. “We also use them on the ‘drum walls,’ two curtains placed above the audience and printed with a bamboo forest,” adds Neys, who also projected holographic characters into the fountains.

For the fountain effect referred to as “the house of dancing water” moment, the lighting and projections come together with interrelated cues. “The scene was staged after we showed the images to Franco,” says Lafortune, who worked with Neys at night to combine projections and lighting. “All the lifts under the water were up except one, and we needed to treat it with a pattern to indicate the edge of the lift…I came up with the idea of putting a frame around the water, like a Rococo frame around a mirror. Then we showed it to Franco. When he sees an image he likes, he’ll stage around it, an unusual way to work. It’s an interesting process to create images that don’t have to fit within the story—the freedom to create beautiful images and then find where they fit. The audience will interpret them individually anyway.”

“The treatment and management of high-definition images on multi-surfaces during the creation of live performance is extremely complex,” Neys adds. “I had the opportunity to discover and test different systems, but I finally turned to those with whom I had the opportunity to collaborate as an editor on the 2009 The Circus Starring Britney Spears tour: VYV and the Photon media server. Months before entering the theatre and during the creation period, we were able to collaborate to develop and optimize the software to Franco’s particular working method,” a factor Neys considers key to the successful completion of theprojections.

Francois Bergeron discusses his sound design for House Of Dancing Water at City of Dreams in Macau, China

“Systems are bigger, the pool is bigger, goals and expectations were bigger, as well,” says Francois Bergeron, sound designer for House Of Dancing Water at City of Dreams in Macau, China. “Like any other show we have done with Franco, the overall intent is to provide a sound system that is high-quality yet as flexible as possible and can turn on a dime. As many decisions as possible are made directly in the theatre. That’s the beauty of live theatre and Franco’s process of build-as-you-go.”

The initial coverage and placement of loudspeakers were determined in January 2007, as the theatre design was set by that time. For this theatre-in-the-round, there are essentially eight Meyer Sound M’elodie line arrays in the center, broadcasting directly to the audience below. “There are three vertical tiers of surround sound with variable delay times plus overhead imaging using the Meyer Constellation system,” explains Vikram Kirby, associate sound designer. “For most of the audience, most of the surround sound arrives at the same time as the front sound. The low rear positions need more delay, but as you move forward in the seating area, the delay delta decreases.”

The big reason for the three levels of surround sound is the huge amount of H2O. “The closer you are to it, the louder the water is, especially when there are loud fountain effects, so we worked on the sound to make it more uniform,” Kirby adds. “The system has two gain taper settings to deal with the fountain noise. We’d turn up the speakers covering the audience near the water’s edge to get a better sense of the music over the effects. The system was designed so coverage would be even throughout the theatre.”

Bob McCarthy of Alignment and Design Inc. tuned the system so that, wherever you are in the theatre, there are just a few decibels of difference. “The Constellation system was used in the traditional way of electroacoustic architecture to make up for the fact that the room is dead,” adds Kirby, noting that 10,000 acoustic panels hanging around the room make it as dead as possible. Alan Crockett, an acoustic vibration specialist out of Hong Kong, helped dampen the resonance of the overhead winch trolleys.

“We wanted to play with and manipulate the shape of the reverberations—even within songs—so we can alter the emotions, be more dramatic when it’s not just in-the-box reverb,” says Kirby, who quotes McCarthy as saying, “With the Constellation system, we are all in the shower together, rather than the band in the shower and the audience in the desert.”

Using DMX via Art-Net protocol, the sound system looks like an extra projector in the video system. “They send us DMX-over-Ethernet, and the data is converted from Ethernet to Open Sound Control (OSC), and then goes to the LCS console and Meyer Matrix 3 audio show control system,” notes Bergeron. “Even with the sheer size of the system, space maps can send sound anywhere in the house at any time.”

“We source, or counter-source, to the immersive video projections to help let the audience know where to look,” Kirby adds. “With the video, the creation process was very loose, very open to experimentation. The system is so big and so flexible, a palette is available at the snap of a finger in rehearsal, so we could play with various ideas and combine them quickly. Then at night, we would ferret it out programmatically.”

Bergeron and Kirby are part of Thinkwell Group, Inc., which played a continuous role from the audio system design to the sound design. “From a design point of view, we knew how the system would respond and what kind of soundscapes and effects we wanted to generate,” says Bergeron. They also worked in conjunction with Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc., providing the specs and schematic drawing package for the sound and CCTV systems, and supervising the install done by Solotech, who provided the sound gear, including a range of Meyer Sound speakers (M’elodies, 600HP subwoofers, CQ-2s, UP-Juniors, UMP-1Ps, MM-4XPs, SB-2s, UPQ-2Ps, and UPJ-1Ps. For the full gear list, see below).

“We also did the site acceptance for the owners at Melco and then moved on the sound design once we delivered the theatre to ourselves—or the owner turned it over to Franco—and we changed hats,” Bergeron adds. “That’s the advantage of the turnkey package and an advantage to the owner. We inherit any of our own problems, if there are any.” After four site visits in 2008 and 2009, plus a month to commission the system, the sound designers were then on site from March through September this year for the creation of the show.

The sound designers used full remote control via the JazzMutant Lemur, a wired multi-touch control pad, as well as wireless control via an Apple iPad, with a wired proxy server at the control booth. “It un-tethers you,” notes Kirby. “François was able to walk around the theatre and see what the operator was doing; every time a button was pushed, the screen would update. He was able to see and hear how the show sounded from another point of view.”

The sound varies, from really loud with motorcycles or fountains, to softer for love scenes, with a four-person band behind glass that is part of the projection surface (you can or can’t see them, depending on the lighting). There is no live singing or speaking on stage; only sound effects, amplified props, or grunts of acrobats are amplified.

“The band is acoustically isolated from the house,” says Kirby. “They link to the house electronically only, so we mic the audience so the band can be aware of the audience reaction. They also have good sightlines of the acrobats so they can follow the show. The advantage of this kind of show is that there is no acoustic bleed from the band going into the house and no feedback, which really helps us move the sound of the band around the house.”

“It is truly an immersive 360° theatre with an overall soundscape,” notes Bergeron. “Action comes from everywhere, as does the audio. There is no upstage or downstage—truly a surround sound experience. Performers and scenery come in from anywhere , horizontal or vertical, from above or below from the water, with fountains literally dancing in time to the music.”

Monitor System
1 Digico CS-D5
1 Digico Minirack
1 Digico Digirack
1 Yamaha M7-CL32
6 Meyer UPJ-1P
1 Meyer SB-2
1 Yamaha LS9-32

Constellation System
24 Meyer UPJ-1P
5 Meyer LX-300
12 Meyer Sound MS-CARD
20 Meyer Sound MS-OMNI
56 audio inputs (40 analog, 8 AES, 8 Cobranet), 96 audio outputs (40 analog outputs, 24 AES, 32 Cobranet)

Band Package
2 Neumann U87ai
4 Neumann TLM-103
4 AKG C-414 XLS
4 Shure KSM-44
2 DPA 4021
4 Neumann KM-184
4 Sennheiser MKH-8040
4 Sennheiser MD-421
4 Beyerdynamic M201
2 DPA 8011 Hydrophones
8 Shure SM-57
8 Shure SM-58
2 Avalon U5
13 RME Micstasy Mic Pre with MADI output
4 Buttkicker Shakers
3 Apple Mac Pro
64 output MADI card for keyboards (one 48-channel Ableton Live system with full online backup, one 16-channel Mainstage keyboard output)
2 JazzMutant Lemurs
Lemurs running custom software for Ableton triggering (via LiveOSC API)

Read Part 1: The Lighting here.

Read Part 2: The Projection here.

Read Part 3: The Sound here.

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