Nestled in the province of Fujan, China, is the small town of Wuyishan, famous for tea, mushrooms and the stunning scenery of its UNESCO world heritage site.
Blooloop was lucky enough to join French showmakers ECA2 on the debut of their new multimedia show – Fountain of Dreams – on April 10th 2015. Inspired by the beautiful landscape, stone peaks worn smooth by clear flowing waterfalls and rivers, the show combines state-of-the-art technology with inspired artistry to create one of ECA2’s trademark spectacular shows.
We spoke to CEO, Jean Christophe Canizares about the latest ECA2 creation.
A Land of Water, Tea and Mountains
In 2014, Wuyishan attracted 9.3 million tourists (mainly Chinese) – a leap of 2 million from the previous year due to marketing and promotion as well as the increase in the car owning population in China. A new high speed rail link opening on June 30th will link Wuyishan to the Chinese high speed rail network at Fuzhou, reducing journey times to Beijing to seven hours and Shanghai to 3 hours 20 minutes.
Bars, restaurants, malls and infrastructure are under construction, ready for the influx of tourists, estimated to be over one million per annum. Tianhong Polar Ocean Park Aquarium is being built across the road from the Fountain of Dreams site and the river promenade to the back of the show has been beautifully landscaped with luxury villas under construction on the banks.
Wuyishan Tourism Culture Group first approached ECA2 with the idea of a signature multimedia show in the town in 2012, after the region’s Governor had seen ECA2’s Mangrove Groove show at OCTBAY Shenzhen. The French company has developed a reputation for delivering turnkey award winning night time shows for such high profile clients as Sentosa (Wings of Time – below), OCT, Futuroscope as well as world expos and the Olympics.
The town already has a successful night time show – Impression Dahongpao – created by Chinese film director Zhang Yimu, who directed the Beijing Olympic Ceremony. This $29 million extravaganza features a 2, 000 capacity seating area that revolves through 360 degrees during the 70 minute show about the tea of the region. The show opened in 2010 and last year had attendance of 530, 000, generating tax revenues of 8 million RMB.
Canizares says, “They [Wuyishan] saw what a night show could bring to the region so we conceived Fountain of Dreams based on custom technology – they had the experience based on the Impression show which is very much based on cast (hundreds of cast and thousands of costumes) so they wanted to have kind of the same but with a different mood. ECA2 has a reputation for more technological shows so we made a compromise with a technological show plus cast. Also we were interested in bringing a different flavour – the Zhang Yimu show is a bit more classical – so our offer is broader and appeals to families.”
Fountain of Dreams has a capacity of around 2, 500 people and is currently operating at one showing a day, although this will be increased if the demand warrants it. Ticket prices start at around 200 RMB.
One of Eight Attractions
With tourism in this region of China driven by tour operators, Wuyishan is keen to present a coherent offering that can be marketed to attract visitors for a longer stay. Wuyishan Tourism Culture Group hope that adding another show will increase the number of nights spent in the town and the Fountain of Dreams show is one element of eight attractions that are being developed as part of the region's tourism strategy. The overall aim is to develop local towns where they have the potential to become tourist attractions, for example WuFu has many acres of lotus flowers and XiaMei is a historic tea town with architecture from the Song dynasty.
Whereas in the past visitors would spend just one or two days in the town, now that has been extended to two to three days and for people coming from farther away, usually Hong Kong, they may stay from three to five days.
Canizares says, “Well it’s amazingly big for such a tiny place. And we are bringing the opportunity of giving more value to the package with a show about the tales and legends of the region.”
Where Every Rock has a Story
As far as the inspiration for the show is concerned Canizares says that the ideas came quite easily: “We had quite a free hand concerning the show but the client wanted to anchor it to the heritage of the region. So it’s about the tea and the river and the water – here the client speaks about the waters of Wuyishan even more than the tea – the clear water, the good water of Wuyishan.
“There is also this nine bend river and every rock has a story or legend – so we were quite easily inspired. We have the local flavour but bringing in a modern international vision that links these elements together. This is how we came up with first the stage design reflecting the rocks and waterfalls of Wuyishan.”
The location of the theatre is next to the river itself with the mountains providing a stunning natural backdrop to the show.
“We had a choice of two or three locations. Here we have this mountain typical of the region shaped by the water at the back. When the people are seated they can see it and during the show if it’s not too foggy we can use it for some effects and project some elements. And the river is at the back so there is a kind of natural link.”
Guarding Against Cliches
In terms of the challenges, aside from simply the length of time taken from the initial discussion to completion – almost three years – Canizares says that it is important when creating a show which is culturally linked to the region to guard against resorting to clichés. ECA2 has significant experience in working in Asia and has built up a multi-cultural team which helped in the process.
“Bringing our way of doing things, our modernity, and combining it to make something which shouldn’t look folkloric – we’re doing this in China and so it’s red! We tried to keep away from clichés and still reflect their culture.
“We have team which is a mix of foreigners and Chinese, for example the choreographers are Chinese. So it’s not the point to say ‘How can we do something in China we're not Chinese?’ The team is mixed with many cultures but the first challenge was to integrate without looking too cartoonish.”
Look, No Pillars!
Construction of the site was also challenging in terms of the remote location of Wuyishan and also the innovative cantilever roof design.
Canizares explains, “We built the site from scratch. A lot of times we do a show in a theme park where they have a lagoon, or in an expo or a big stadium. But this we had to build with the client from the ground and it was quite complex and the distance to reach Wuyishan is a challenge in itself.”
The elegant cantilever roof design allows a full field of vision of all the effects for the entire audience with a sweeping design without any supporting columns at the front. In order to achieve an immersive effect for the audience in the story of the waters of Wuyishan, the roof contains not just lighting but also pipework for water columns. The client was understandably nervous about the innovative design and needed considerable reassurance.
“The cantilever roof is technically advanced. The design and engineering team brought the plans to the client and they looked at at it and said, ‘Isn’t there something missing in the roof – there is no pillar you have not finished your design!’”
Ideas of Dragons
Canizares says that this was not a language issue, as ECA2 have Chinese speakers in the design team. Being subject to lengthy and complex validation processes, the design had to go through many hierarchical levels to be approved. In the end a compromise was reached by adding a larger safety margin to the design specification.
“We faced a delay rather than a problem. They made it bigger than necessary to feel more comfortable so now it could resist almost anything!”
Generally Canizares says that the client has been “quite good in doing their work and letting us do ours. We had a quite a smooth ongoing discussion about the content of the show and their comments were normal for any kind of client – ‘I prefer this and this, or imagine it could be this way’. Or comments like, ‘A dragon in china is not a dragon spitting flames. This is you foreigners coming with your ideas of dragons.’ (The dragon in China is more of a nice, quiet character.) So it worked quite well.”
The show is entirely in Chinese. Artistic Director Thierry Nutchey wrote the show in French. It was then translated into English and then Chinese. English versions may follow as more international tourists discover the region.
In addition to the roof design, the show presented many technical challenges for the ECA2 team. The water screen itself is the world’s largest at 30 metres; launching fireworks from a water drenched stage; creating the sharp narrow jets of water which leap from the stage up the rivers set into the auditorium; achieving a sharp blended image for the video mapping on the uneven stage structure and incorporating water effects into the roof whilst protecting other equipment.
And here's the Finale. Again
The Fountain of Dreams show requires a flow of up to 10, 000 mᵌ of water an hour, perfectly controlled by the 160 pumps to protect the surrounding equipment. The set includes three pools – a geyser, a front pool and a rear pool that can accommodate all the water from the set to allow for full maintenance without draining. The water system is enclosed in a double skin to prevent leakage. Water is drawn from the local town supply and supplemented by ground water and is a closed system with filtration. The system has only been filled once so with small top ups to allow for losses through mist sprays and evaporation.
One of the major technical challenges for ECA2 was how to incorporate water effects in the audience area to create a more immersive experience. There is a huge waterfall effect over the mountain, fountains and robotic jets, but as well as this there are pools and rivers within the seating area. At one moment in the show thin jets of water leap from the front pool up the rivers in the auditorium. Columns of water also pour 17 metres down from the roof and waterfalls rush down the walls, enclosing the audience.
In a sign of the times and culture, the client asked ECA2 to recreate this moment after the finale so that the audience have the chance to capture the effect on their mobiles as they leave the auditorium.
Lighting and Show Control
The use of LED lighting is common within the industry and technology advances but the projection onto the water screen is really stunning in terms of range of colour. The projection mapping is also incredibly sharp and detailed. [Christie Digital projectors have been used.]
Canizares says that, “We are going more and more to LED lighting. For the fountains until a few years back LED and water was giving a strange result but here we have used prototypes of new lighting fixtures which are powerful enough to bring the power and nice colours.
“When diode lasers started in the industry first it was green, then blue, then red but now we have 5 or 6 diodes in each laser and the combination is perfect so we can even choose a laser with the set of diodes we want in it. Before it was a 300kg tube with one colour and not a nice beam – now we have a small box which you can almost carry in luggage with a full range of nice bright colours.”
Technically, show control is always the most important element says Canizares. The show uses a Medialon controller which has been heavily customised to incorporate the many complex elements that make up an ECA2 show.
“Until a few years ago we used a custom made system but now Medialon have added things to an industrial product we can use it which helps a lot. Then our programmers change almost everything – we have a kind of structure and principal of show control which is unique anyway.”
ECA2’s experience that has been built up creating complex multimedia shows allows them to build new shows based on existing structures, for example Wings of Time was the basis for Fountain of Dreams in terms of the structure of the programming.
All the key control elements are displayed on one screen in the control room allowing operators to control and trouble shoot. A myriad of sensors monitor humidity, temperature, pressure on each element to quickly identify any issues. Fibre optics connect the whole system for robustness and every system has a redundant back up.
“It is incredibly complicated but this is the only way to have simplicity in the operation and maintenance and follow up from a single screen. You know if a room is over temperature or humidity or if you have the right pressure for mist. Flames, water, moving water, mist, lasers, light, video, fireworks … all of this has to be perfectly synchronised. The show is totally automated, cast or no cast the show is running and it has to be repeatable and with good safety. So we have lot of interactions and a lot of pieces of software are written on our request because we want to be able to play the show and have direct modification during the show to be able to say switch some flames off during the show – you have screen and a button – or perhaps it’s a bit windy so maybe we should lower the jet effect so we have a slider. It looks like a toy but in fact behind it is complicated.”
As the show opens ECA2 are in the process of handing over the operation to the local client team.
“We hand it over completely with training and training and training. We write operating manuals – not as complicated as an airplane but almost! First we write the books and do the training, then we do some more training on failure points and in a day or two when everything is settled we will try to do some trouble shooting.”
Whilst ECA2 will revisit their shows for big maintenance milestones, or operate shows which run for six to eight months themselves, for example expos, Canizares says, “For permanent shows it’s not our core business. We choose the best equipment and reliable technology and do the best training. The Wuyishan client has hired six to eight technicians who have been with us for three to four months – through the final installation and testing – and now they are running the show and will do the regular maintenance.”
EAC2 – projects
Scheduling a team around the large projects can sometimes be tricky. ECA2 try to work on just two to three projects at once, with only one at time in the final completion phase.
“Planning is a nightmare in this industry – not just China. The mix of entertainment and construction means that the planning has to be elastic quite often and we have to be flexible.
In Wuyishan they are still building restaurants, hotels and the road all around but the show is ready! In Shenzhen the site was a combination of the show, restaurants, hotels, a mall and parking – we were the first ready. We opened the show before they had parking! So our planning is elastic but we can’t afford to have ongoing teams concentrated on delayed projects.
Sometimes we have up to five projects but we always try to have this phase of two or three months final installation where the whole team is here – we left 2 people in the office but everyone else is here. We can’t afford to have the same phase at another place otherwise we would have to hire people and that’s not what we want to do. We have our own team and with the experience we carry.”
Like a Big Rollercoaster
Future projects for ECA2 include work in the Middle East and China. So are ECA2 comfortable to be known as China specialists?
Canizares says that the concentration of ECA2's work in Asia is due to the type of development rather than a cultural inclination towards this type of spectacular night time show.
“Our clients are theme parks, regions, governments, tourism areas that are developing and blooming. The investment is not huge – a show costs about the same as a rollercoaster. Our big shows are like a big rollercoaster and our small shows are like a small rollercoaster, so we’re not speaking about Cirque du Soleil type of investment. But in Europe we have around 20 theme parks and in China around 80 to 100, with one opening every month or two. China is so much bigger than Europe – it’s not like we specialising in China, it’s just that’s where the business is.”
“And they are willing to invest and believe in it. In Wuyishan there are only 250, 000 people – a small town in China is 1 million people – and they are investing €25million in the whole development around the show – marketing renovation marketing construction. So it’s not huge – a rollercoaster is about €22 million.
“We have many more potential clients here. We have three to five projects ongoing every year and do one in Europe in one in 3 years. So we go towards Asia. North America is for North Americans – the market is over protected and they don’t do this kind of development. South America they don’t have money yet.
“The Middle East is starting up again. They were hit by the crisis in 2008/9 and now it’s like Las Vegas in less than 4 years so this region is a potential client to us too.”
Cast, Technique and Technology
So what element of this project is Canizares most pleased with?
“The integration cast and technique is never easy but here we find that we really have many moments when the cast and technique work together and are complimentary. So not like having cast and with a supporting technique – in this show it is more blended and that’s very satisfactory.
ECA2 have had some feedback already. They requested that the client provide some audiences for rehearsals and have been playing to a full capacity ever since. “We asked that we could have some people to test – the next day we would have 2000 people pushing at the doors!”
“We were concerned about the show duration because its 48 minutes 30 seconds [longer at the client’s request] and we don’t like endless shows – we are more used to a format of 20 to 25 minutes show with techniques and a fast pace and very technically oriented. But this show has cast and technique with quieter moments to give more theatrical and poetry elements. It’s nice and it makes the show breathe in a different rhythm. We are satisfied and the client too.”