The Legend of Pan Gu is an adaptation of one of the most popular Chinese myths. ECA2, a leading creator of high-quality multimedia shows, was responsible for the design, direction and production of the show, commissioned by Gansu Xirong Cultural Tourism Development Co., Ltd.
Aimed towards a local audience, The Legend of Pan Gu showcases a spectacular visual tale. It uses state-of-the-art technology and exceptional architecture and is hosted in a theatre in Hekou Village in Lanzhou, in the Gansu Province of China. It made its debut on 28 September 2019.
Blooloop spoke with key team members from the project about their inspiration for the storyline, the technology behind it, and what’s next for the French company.
The Golden City
Lanzhou is the largest city in the Gansu Province, Northwest China and was one of the major points on the ancient Silk Road. The city is a key regional transportation and telecommunications hub and well as a major industrial area and a centre for the petrochemical industry.
Together with a dense railway network that connects areas further west to the eastern half of China, and the New Eurasian Land Bridge, Lanzhou is an important city in the “One Belt and One Road” economic region.
Home to more than 3.6 million people, Lanzhou reflects many different ethnic groups and cultures and is a hub on the Silk Road Tourism Ring. To the east and west, there are the Maiji Caves and Bingling Temple Grottoes. Then to the north and south, there are the Dunhuang Mogao Caves and Labrang Monastery. And now, joining these cultural heritage sites is Lanzhou’s first multimedia spectacular created by ECA2.
Putting Lanzhou in the spotlight
The ECA2 team was approached by Gansu Xirong Cultural Tourism Development, which is responsible for cultural tourism development and construction projects in the Xigu District in Lanzhou.
ECA2 has over 30 years of experience in creating quality multimedia shows. This includes OCT Shanghai Happy Valley’s ‘Lake of Illusions’, Wuyishan’s ‘Fountain of Dreams’ and OCT Bay’s ‘Mangrove Groove’ in Shenzhen.
It was ECA2’s trademark projects, including ‘Eastern Sunrise’ in Rizhao Olympic Water Park, Shandong, which made Gansu Xirong Cultural Tourism Development choose the company.
“The intention was to create an attraction to extend people’s stay here. Lanzhou is a big tourism hub. Because it is surrounded by a lot of world heritage sites, people visit for a short time, before going to the other sites,” said ECA2’s Director of Operations, Julie Cugurno.
A nighttime show for the region
“It is a city where people stop by for a few days for business and then they go back home. So they wanted to keep people entertained after the sun goes down. This is one of the reasons why they asked us to create a nighttime show,” said Cugurno.
The Legend of Pan Gu was officially opened to the public on 28 September 2019 after being in development for about 30 months and involving 200 of ECA2’s staff. It is the company’s 9th permanent show and its 5th in China. The 26-minute show takes place twice per night and can host an audience of 1450 people per performance.
The Legend of Pan Gu
This story has been designed specifically for a Chinese audience. The Legend of Pan Gu unfolds through the ancient Chinese tradition of storytelling, with a grandfather talking to his grandson. Standing on the banks of the Yellow River, the grandson asks about the cave frescos in the mountains, and his grandfather describes how the universe was created by a god named Pan Gu.
According to the legend, the universe was like a big egg, floating in nothingness. Pan Gu was formed by the merging of the essential strengths of the universe, Yin and Yang. For 18,000 years he developed within the egg, before cracking open the shell with an axe.
The splitting of the egg resulted in the separation of the transparent and light parts which floated to become the sky, from the heavy and opaque parts, which sank to form the earth. However, this task was difficult and Pan Gu could not do it on his own.
The ultimate sacrifice
The story tells how Pan Gu had help from two of the four holy beasts, the phoenix and the dragon. Only then, he was able to accomplish his task. It took Pan Gu another 18,000 years to separate the sky from the earth and bring balance to the universe. Once he had finished, Pan Gu laid down and every fibre of his being became a part of the universe.
Taking inspiration from the local regions
Creative and Artistic Director, Olivier Ferracci and Executive Stage Director, Nora Matthey de l’Endroit were also asked by the client, Gansu Xirong Cultural Tourism Development, to feature more of the Gansu Region when creating the storyline.
“This multimedia show is part of a full tourism project that includes a reconstruction of an old town, and several other elements. This means that when tour operators go there, they’ll have a full offer regarding the region. We were asked to include some of those elements so that we are connected to the whole project,” said Ferracci.
To bring this legend to life, the ECA2 team had to conduct intensive research. Ferracci and Matthey de l’Endroit travelled and learned more about the region. They went to the Mogao Caves and Crescent Lake in the desert of Dunhuang. They also visited all the museums in Lanzhou and Dunhuang and studied books and drawings to gain inspiration for The Legend of Pan Gu.
Research to fine-tune details
In addition, Matthey de l’Endroit says that estampe, a form of engraving print technique, was used as a way of including the frescos found in the caves.
The team also conducted at least three months of separate research, with another three months for music research. They were engaged in discussions with the client about the review of each detail. This provided ECA2 with the knowledge of where each element comes from. It also allowed them to be really specific with the design of the show.
Making small adjustments
While The Legend of Pan Gu is grounded in research, Ferracci and Matthey de l’Endroit were able to add some tweaks to the original myth.
First, through the Chinese tradition of storytelling, they created two main characters, a grandfather and his grandson. The grandfather mentions a fact that people are unaware of. Namely, that Pan Gu was not able to create the universe on his own. The audience sees how he needed the help of two holy beasts, the Phoenix and the Dragon before he could finally succeed in separating the earth and the sky.
The second tweak made was to incorporate imagery of the creation of China, the Silk Road, the Gansu region and the Hekou Village where the show is located. During the moment where Pan Gu’s breath becomes the wind and clouds, China is created, and audiences will get a closer look at the Silk Road.
The birth of the Yellow River
Following that, the scene returns to Pan Gu’s sacrifice. Here audiences will see that his blood became the Yellow River.
Then as the scenes change to Pan Gu’s muscles, the directors were able to showcase the people of the region as well as the Hekou Village. And finally, we get to Pan Gu’s bones, where the frescos of the Mogao Caves are illustrated.
This is in reference to the first scene where the grandson asks about the frescos he had seen in the caves. “The first scene and the last scene are connected. Because it’s the moment where we’re now moving inside the fresco knowing all that has come before,” said Ferracci.
The show concludes with the underlying message to take care of the earth. However, it also reveals a possible avenue for a sequel with the four holy beasts – the Phoenix, the Dragon, the Tiger, and the Tortoise.
Finding the right balance while ‘Thinking Spectacular’
In terms of challenges, Ferracci said it was “finding the right balance between the effects and ECA2’s signature – ‘Think Spectacular’, while being meaningful in everything that we’re showcasing”.
The creative and artistic team worked closely with the chief architect, Chengcheng Chi, in order to develop a unique feeling of being inside and outside at the same time.
“We are able to display a more storyline-driven show as we integrate atmospheric projections and all the effects into the video content. This blend of culture, roots, history, legend and technology achieves something which we believe is quite interesting,” said Ferracci.
“We’re used to implementing a lot of backstories and we do research to ensure that what we display is historically and culturally-speaking accurate, as well as interesting,” he said.
“But in this case, we felt that we needed to go further because we were asked by the client. It helped us to improve and to be really careful about each element that we were displaying in the show.
“That was quite challenging and interesting because we had to dig more deeply into the substance of the story. If you are from the region, and you look carefully into the content, you will find many clues and elements that will help you to understand what we are showing. So it’s a completely content-driven show,” said Ferracci.
A fresco storytelling
Compared to other projects by ECA2 in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Rizhao and Singapore, The Legend of Pan Gu is considered to be more of an indoor production. This, according to Chairman & CEO Jean-Christophe Canizares, is something new for ECA2:
“Usually we have a universal story, which can be understood without words, without speaking or speeches, or without someone guiding you through. Here the choice was made to bring in a narrative element. Like when you gather around a campfire for a story. This is what we tried to achieve here.
“It’s a story which has a lot of dialogue, but not between people. And you have this experience along with the rest of the audience. In this way, it’s different from any shows we have done,” said Canizares.
In order to create the theatre that best supports the storyline of the show, Chi took inspiration from the Pan Gu legend as well as the local traditional architecture.
“From the beginning of the design, it is inspired by this history of Pan Gu. The legend tells about the creation of the world, the origin of the universe. He is viewed as a god in Chinese traditional history. For us, it’s a little bit dramatic and that’s why the building is not a classical architecture. The walls are not straight, it’s not rectangular at all, and everything is curved,” said Chi.
Creating a cohesive experience
The design ensures a cohesive experience between the storyline and the theatre. Chi said, “Between the roof and the ground, you can see that the show pool is a reflection of the roof. This could be imagined as the sky and the ground. And in the history, Pan Gu created the sky with the ground. So everything is linked.
“As you see, there’s also a huge hole in the stage roof. In history, it can be interpreted as the sun and the moon. It’s quite an abstract design. You can imagine a lot of things and be inspired yourself by the architecture.”
In addition, the audience area of the theatre allows for a close-up experience of the show. Unlike other ECA2 projects, where the audience area is clearly separated from the performance, here they are surrounded by the building.
Birds of a feather, tile together
From the outside, the building reflects the unique shape and colour of roof tiles found in the nearby Hekou Village. However, it also resembles the folded wings and feathers of a bird.
Elaborating further on this concept, Chi said, “Birds’ wings have several levels and lengths. All of these were my references. The two rooves are just like two wings. It’s like a huge bird which is sleeping and is about to fly into the sky.
“There is also a relationship with the original universe; where before Pan Gu created the world, it was a sleeping giant. The blue-grey colour of the tiles is inspired by the local traditional houses.”
Double curved challenge
As a result of the shape of the building, one of the biggest challenges faced by Chi was finding a way to bring together the 40-metre long double-curved water cascade screen and the double-curved roof.
“Because everything is double-curved, these surfaces cannot be developed. This means that it’s not like paper, it can never be flat. It was the biggest challenge for the water cascade on the stage roof.
“This was the first time we did this effect. It was really difficult because it’s very long. And all the water should still fall down vertically, but the equipment is on a double-curved line. If there are any minor errors of construction, the water cascade would not work. But finally, we made it.”
Precision and accuracy
“This effect has to be fixed onto the main structure of the roof, which is also double curved but not in the same way. So, there’s really an interface between the architecture and ECA2’s equipment. Everything is very precise and correct,” said Chi.
The building has the world’s largest projection surface on a permanent and single water screen of 960 sqm. In addition, the double-curved background provides a video projection surface of 2,800 sqm, as well as an overall projection surface of 4,460 sqm on both water and physical surfaces.
Sound is a critical aspect of the design
Described as a semi-indoor, semi-outdoor theatre, the space did not fall within normal building regulations. The design of this theatre as a hybrid venue that blended both indoor and outdoor effects is a world’s first for ECA2.
This meant that the team was faced with certain technological challenges in terms of acoustics and projection. They had to leverage their expertise to create innovative technological solutions.
“It is not a closed theatre, and not fully opened either. Sound was a critical aspect in the beginning because we were really worried about the echo and the sound effect. So we did a lot of study with our French engineers and also a research of the material that we could use,” said Chi.
Finding the right acoustic fabric
However as the theatre is semi-open air, it needs to be weather-proof and fire-proof. “That’s why you see the inner ceiling is composed of several layers. First of all, there are perforated metallic panels which have a matte finishing for the protection,” said Chi.
“Then, behind these panels, we have an acoustic fabric. Lastly, you have this space inside the roof with all the catwalks and technical equipment to provide for technical access.
Acoustic engineers from Australian company PEUTZ assisted Technical Director Clément Rabréaud and his team to ensure that the sounds accompanying the show would be perfect.
“Both domes are made with perforated panels which make the sound go through them. And just after, there is acoustic treatment. We use the G8, an Australian fabric. It is fire-resistant, waterproof, and also absorbs the sounds,” he said.
“In addition to this, we have these mobile panels to hide all the glass surfaces that are not used for the video projection. So every single square meter of glass that is not useful for the show, has a mobile panel in front of it so there is no sound reflection. For a venue shaped like this, the sound is really, really, incredible.” said Rabréaud.
A Magic Screen and the hole in the roof
With such a unique building design, ECA2 faced another challenge of “closing” the hole in the roof. And in order to do so, they created a Magic Screen.
“We called it the Magic Screen at the beginning as a joke. We have a hole on the roof, and how could we close it? Because sometimes Olivier (Ferracci) wants an entire image on the dome, so he asked us to close the hole. And I said we need some magic to close it.
“Finally, we found the Magic Screen and kept its name for this effect. It’s actually a water screen upside down with a motor to move and rotate. Upside down you’ll see that the form of the water screen can ‘close’ the hole perfectly. Then we can have images projected on it from behind the building,” said Chi.
New technological innovations
ECA2 also created a brand new effect: Jet Fog. This innovation can blend mist and smoke to form an intensified density for laser, light and video effects. It can also provide another medium to project onto. The Jet Fog is embedded into the roof and releases very thin water elements from tiny holes. These water elements are even drinkable!
“These bring a sharpness in the image. And more brightness can be achieved with a laser video projector and you keep the quality throughout the years,” said Canizares.
“There is also power consumption. Laser video projectors consume less power. Maybe 30% of the power consumed by a normal video projector.” said Canizares.
- Twenty 30K Christie Boxer
- Eight 25K Christie Crimson Laser
- Two 14K Christie Roadster
Show Control – the heart & brain of The Legend of Pan Gu
The show control room for The Legend of Pan Gu represents both the heart and the brain of the show. The show control system has redundant control, touch screens and feedback information from all show elements and likewise facility information, all in real-time and online via a web interface.
“This is where we start the show from the Medialon, which is the central controller of the full system. It’s from here that we control all the effects. Such as the sound, the lights, the laser, the pyro and the water effects,” said Technical Director Rabréaud.
ECA2 developed and built a customised show control system using the Medialon Manager V6. This is a software that can control any audiovisual equipment through protocol and network. The temperature in the room stays between 20 to 26 degrees celsius. This ensures that the equipment does not overheat.
Backups for the backup
ECA2 also has many backups in place to ensure the smooth execution of each performance.
“We can afford to actually lose half the equipment and still run the show. It’s very important the show always runs. We have to make sure it works every day,” said Lawrence Ryan, ECA2’s Technical Director/Manager.
In terms of the people running the show, ECA2 has hired recent graduates locally from Lanzhou. The training process took two to three weeks. The ECA2 team taught them every single aspect of the equipment, including how to start and maintain it.
Working with the locals
ECA2 and Gansu Xirong collaborated very closely to ensure that this multimedia production is relatable for their target audience. Nevertheless, it was inevitable that cultural differences, government regulations and working styles would pose certain challenges.
Canizares says they faced the same frustration for their Fountain of Dreams project in Wuyishan. With that project, they had to work with a state-owned construction company.
“The company has to respect central government standards. It has to respect things which are not in our knowledge, like local regulations. So when it comes to such a complicated building, we had to visit almost every three weeks.”
“We would prepare the plans with this regulation, with this code and present them to the client and to the Design Institute (DI) for approval. The DI would then reinterpret our design into Chinese standards. And after, the DI would give the plans to the construction company. And depending on the construction company, the final drawings would be different again.”
Adapting to the situation
Pride in the Lanzhou project
On the official opening night of The Legend of Pan Gu, there was a buzz of excitement in the air. It was clear that the people who had come to watch the show were amazed by the entire production.
“This certainly is the most complex and advanced project we have made. And this is our best pride in a way. Because the working was complex, we achieved it. The building is complex, we achieved it. The concept of the story was complex, and we achieved it. And it’s working for the Chinese audience.
“So all in all, we made a very challenging project, and we put our heart and our energy in it. Seeing it working, seeing it now, makes us very, very proud,” said Canizares.
The wow moment
Creative and Artistic Director, Olivier Ferracci said his pride in the project was in the blending and coming together of the show and effects. “It’s the fact that from time to time, you don’t know where the protection is coming from. Is it the dome? Is it the water screen? Are you using video? Are you using a laser? It’s the combination, it’s the blend.
“That’s why we have the grand finale in the end. It’s so blended that when you’re just looking at it, you don’t even realise that you are seeing so many things. They are not there only to impress you, they are there because they are telling you information. For me, that’s what I like, the fact that you’re travelling for effect, without even noticing.”
For Chief Architect, Chengcheng Chi, it was the reality of seeing her design come to life. “It feels really real for me. Because it’s so big and I can still remember the schemes I made on pen and paper. I’m really touched.”
Next steps for ECA2
Now that the project has come to a close, ECA2 will be able to focus on their upcoming projects.
“We won’t open another show before maybe two years from now. We are in the early stages of negotiations with several projects, in China, Vietnam, and Macau. Negotiations mean at one point you have to sign a contract.
“Between presenting a project and its approval, sometimes it can take six months to a year in discussions. And it’s quite often because the scale of the projects are big. We have been very busy with this project here. So now we are concentrating on the other projects,” said Canizares.
ECA2’s legacy in China
When asked about taking on future projects in China, Canizares was confident that ECA2 would continue to extend its legacy in the country.
“We have nine permanent shows, of which five are in China. We are very happy to be in China.”
Images kind courtesy of Julien Panie, ECA2.