Feature: Creating a legend
Feature: Creating a legend
ECA2 pushes the creative boundaries of multimedia shows across the world, with a growing number of permanent spectaculars opening, many in China. Caroline Moss reports on The Legend of Pan Gu
Founded in 1974 as ECA, the Paris-based firm initially focussed on architectural lighting and graphics before adding a “2” to its title 10 years later and shifting into the design and production of sound and light shows. To date, ECA2 has conceived and brought to life more than 60 multimedia spectaculars across 17 countries, including Olympic ceremonies, World Expos and, increasingly, permanent shows for theme parks and tourist destinations.
Since 1994, ECA2 has staged sound and light extravaganzas in Asia, starting with the Encore Garden theme park in Taiwan. Today, the company has offices in Dubai, Hong Kong and Shenzen and partners in Shanghai and Singapore, plus local freelance talent that it has worked with for up to three decades, who cooperate on projects with staff based in the Paris studios.
ECA2’s latest Asian project is The Legend of Pan Gu in Lanzhou, China, the company’s ninth permanent show. Indeed, five of these have opened in China including Lake of Illusions at OCT Shanghai Happy Valley, Eastern Sunrise in Rizhao Olympic Park, Wuyishan’s Fountain of Dreams OCT Bay’s Mangrove Groove in Shenzhen and The Big-O Show that opened in 2012 for the Yeosu International Expo and is still running.
Like many contemporary Chinese attractions, The Legend of Pan Gu aims to bring tourists to a remote part of the country and extend their stay in the region. Drawing on a popular legend, ECA2 has crafted an immersive spectacle to bring the story alive, wrapping the audience in sound and visuals using video projection and audio as the base for the narration and adding in lasers, lights, water, mist, flames and pyrotechnics. The 26-minute show takes place twice a night in a theatre in Lanzhou in Gansu Province, Northwest China, a city on the ancient Silk Road, today an important element of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The ECA2 team was approached by Gansu Xirong Cultural Tourism Development, which is responsible for cultural tourism development and construction projects in the region. The French company had come to its attention in 2016 with Eastern Sunrise in Rizhao, Shandong Province. Among its innovations, Eastern Sunrise featured “wave water screens” – jets shooting columns of water into the air, creating a wall of water to project onto.
Representatives from Gansu Xirong travelled to Rizhao for the opening of Eastern Sunrise and to meet the team behind the show. “They wanted to create the same appeal in the region to attract Chinese tourists, duplicating the concept of having a permanent night-time attraction to attract crowds throughout the year,” explains Julien Causeret, ECA2’s global sales and marketing executive. “This would accompany the renovation of the Hekou Village, an old district close to Lanzhou, and they wanted us to work with them on this new creation.”
The ECA2 team started development work in early 2017. Creative and artistic director, Olivier Ferracci, and executive stage director, Nora Matthey de l’Endroit, travelled in the Gansu region, conducting research for visual and musical content to create a strong link to the region’s culture and history. The Legend of Pan Gu is an ancient Chinese creation myth. With some guidance from his grandfather, the hero Pan Gu creates the universe through the division of a giant egg with the help of a phoenix and a dragon, separating the earth from the sky and eventually transforming himself into elements of the planet including the wind, clouds, thunder, sun moon, stars, minerals, flora, fauna and rivers.
“We handled everything but the construction of the venue,” recalls the show’s technical director, Clément Rabréaud. “We analysed the location and did a site visit to see how we could implement a show and came up with three design ideas. They chose one that was similar to the final result because one of our strengths is to suggest ideas that are technically feasible. We have three in-house departments to carry this out, the artistic department, the space design and architecture department and the technical department, so we know we can make our ideas happen. We procured the equipment, some of which was invented and manufactured by our technical team, and programmed it with our designers.”
The complex storyline needed a venue in which it could unfold. Enter chief architect Chengcheng Chi, who created a 110m x 100m x 38m domed theatre with an open space in the roof, which would give the 1,450-strong audience the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. The audience is located under one half of the dome, facing the other half used for the stage, In the stage area, the domed roof features an open space to support the show scenography and use of water, lighting, and laser effects. The shape of the building, with no flat surfaces, posed challenges for the ECA2 technical team.
“The main audio challenge we faced was that it’s is a semi outdoor venue with a double curved roof covering the audience,” continues Rabréaud. “In terms of reflection it’s the worst situation, and we had to work with Dutch acoustic engineering company, Peutz, on the acoustics of the roof. We had to design and build something that could absorb the sound and not reflect it back into the audience.” This was accomplished by covering the inner ceiling with perforated metallic panels concealing a space within the roof where the catwalks for technical access are located. The panels are backed with a build-up of Megasorber G8 acoustic fabric, an Australian fire- and water-resistant solution, and layers of fibreglass of different density that absorbs almost all the sound coming from the PA, avoiding any reflection to the audience.
ECA2 enlisted fellow French company L-Acoustics to supply audio systems throughout the installation. “We’ve worked with ECA2 on several projects; they have a consistently creative approach,” says sales manager Olivier Inizan. “Each ECA2 project is unique and they always challenge our applications engineers to define the best technical solution. We greatly appreciate their philosophy: innovation, no compromise, focus on the spectator experience, and they are all great people, both professionally and personally. Jean-Philippe Badoui and Clément Rabreaud worked on an initial sound design and we supported them to optimise and solve integration issues while maintaining a top-level audio quality.”
“The sound engineers on our team worked together with the architects on the sound design, taking into consideration all the aspects of the architecture,” adds Rabréaud. “We managed everything – from the architectural drawings to the technical studies to the system performance – using tools and software from L-Acoustics and working with their technicians to make sure that the entire audience had the same level of sound quality.”
The front PA system consists of six stacks of Kiva II ultra-compact line array speakers and an SB15 subwoofer, evenly distributed across the entire width of the bottom of the stands. A total of three KS28 high power subwoofers have been added in between the six stacks. The rear system consists of four L-Acoustics X8 speakers distributed at the top centre of the stands, with four groups of one Syva colinear speaker and a Syva Low low-end extension between the top centre of the stands and the extreme stage left and right of the top of the stands. Inizan cites the major challenge as being the space available for speaker integration. “Kiva II and Syva are the best condensed SPL solutions we can offer,” he says. “Both of these compact systems have exceptional SPL capacity: 138dB for Kiva II and 142dB for Syva/Syva Low.”
After validation of coverage and SPL targets, L-Acoustics application engineer, Arnaud Delorme, worked with Badoui on frequency response optimisation using the Auto-FIR line source processing tool in SoundVision software.
Audio is distributed from a PC to eight LA4X and one LA12X amplified controllers through two QSC Q-SYS Core 110f processors – a master and a backup – and Q-SYS I/O frames. Q-SYS is also being used to generate and distribute timecode to all technics, including lights, lasers, water effects, flames, pyrotechnics and video.
Modulo Pi – another French company whom ECA2 had worked with in Rizhao – provided media servers, as well as calibration technology designed and trialled on this show. Two Modulo Kinetic Designer workstations and six V-Node media servers were set up, in conjunction with 30 Christie video projectors. Modulo Kinetic was used for show simulation and VR, programming, effects and media playback. “Modulo Kinetic offers in-depth 3D capabilities and a flexibility that is rare in media server solutions,” comments Rabréaud.
ECA2 designed and installed two innovative water screens: the copyrighted Magic Screen, a 2D mobile projection surface of 700m2, and the Cascade Screen, at 960m2 the largest double curved water curtain screen ever built. The Magic Screen addressed issues presented by the hole in the centre of the semi-outdoor venue, where parts of the production called for projections to cover the entire dome. This upside-down water screen can be rotated by a motor to close the hole so that images can be projected from behind the building.
Both water screens allow for overlapping projections – via eight Christie Crimson HD25 laser projectors, and two Christie DS+ 14K-M projectors – by playing with the water transparency.
For the projection on the dome, 20 Christie Boxer 2K30s cover the 2,800m2 surface area. Incorporated into ECA2’s design are 14 robotic focus jets, four 3D robotic moving jets, six robotic arch jets, a high-pressure mist installation, eight airshoot geysers, 54 patented Fog Jet nozzles to create fine rain descending from the roof for lighting, laser and video effects and 32 straight jet nozzles.
Video mapping onto the double curved asymmetric dome presented a huge challenge for ECA2. To achieve seamless media projection, with no interference to the light beams caused by the water effects, projectors were installed in 10 dual stacks along the base of the dome. This positioning, which resulted in deformed projections, presented its own issues, however.
“The system calibration on the asymmetric dome was a major challenge: 20 video projectors, 20 different video feeds, an asymmetric projection area with a double curve and the positioning of video projectors resulting in glancing beams,” says Rabréaud. “All of that required a finicky and extremely time-consuming calibration despite the highly skilled video technicians working on the project – it would take at least a week. It also meant that any new calibration after a projector is moved would be almost impossible for the operators running the show onsite, as they are not trained for such complex and tricky maintenance operations.”
Incredibly, this was eventually accomplished in less than one hour thanks to a new auto calibration feature that was being developed by Modulo Pi. “The function was not ready yet, but Modulo Pi agreed to play the game and to develop the auto calibration functionality while we were doing our install,” he continues.
Régis Dumaine, who lead the video system installation, and Lawrence Ryan, ECA2 technical manager, worked closely with Modulo Pi, testing developments made by the R&D team in France on the ground in Lanzhou. The auto calibration feature was operational shortly before the end of the show programming.
During the construction and installation period, Rabréaud and architect Chi, accompanied by the technical and architectural teams, visited every four weeks during construction to check that the architectural drawings, made in France and redone according to local regulations, were being followed in accordance with ECA2’s precise designs. “When it comes to video projection and lights it’s very tight because we try to make everything as invisible as possible; the position of all the technology has to be verified so that everything works perfectly,” he says.
The Legend of Pan Gu opened in September 2019 after a 30-month of development period involving 150 ECA2 staff members. As well as the AV systems, the company’s dramatic design incorporates 32 flame generators, 60 pyrotechnic firing positions, smoke generators, lasers and lighting effects including 18 Robe BMFL Spots, 14 Robe BMFL Blades, 24 Robe BMFL Mega Pointes, 56 LED donuts for the water jets and 126 Helios Bronze submersible LED lights for the water effects. The show is now operated by local technicians whom the company has trained to work and maintain the equipment.
“When the show opened, it was mainly a local audience from this remote location who attended, and they were really amazed at the technology and quality of what had been achieved,” reflects ECA2’s Causeret. “From our point of view, we pushed the boundaries of technology compared to what we’ve done before, but for people in this region, it was really the future. it’s definitely something they’ll remember forever, and that’s what we set out to do.”
The mission statement on ECA2’s website is “Creating emotions to last forever.” It would appear that with the realisation of The Legend of Pan Gu, that mission has been well and truly accomplished.