When he was tasked with focusing on infrastructure for Chester Zoo’s Islands project, little did Martin King know that he would be using miles of copper and fibre ducting to weave stories.
But. this groundbreaking project inspired him and his team to go way beyond their original remit. The resulting soundscape is an impressive yet subtle underpinning of the project’s ambition to establish a series of authentic South East Asian environments in the Cheshire landscape.
Islands is the largest development in the history of UK zoos – a £40 million immersive experience that allows visitors to encounter critically-endangered animals in their recreated native habitats.
Blooloop spoke with Martin King (left), Head of IT at Chester Zoo, Tim Willrich, (Freelance Director, Producer and Content Creator), and Dave Lascaut, (Show Systems Programmer & Consultant), about the creativity and technical know-how that have made Islands such a success.
Assembling the team
“From a technical point of view we brought Dave (Lascaut) in to help with the set-up and configuration of the environment for the soundscape and also for the projection system in the schoolhouse, ” explains King. “We brought Tim (Willrich) in to capture the footage and audio, which then went to Sounding Sweet to be polished and perfected, and then, essentially, it’s been my on-site IT support team doing the installation of the speakers and the amplifiers.”
King has been at Chester Zoo for nearly fourteen years, and his original remit on the project was initially to look at infrastructure, fibre cabling, and copper cabling.
“Then, three or four years ago when we started looking into the communications and interpretation, I was asked to come along to one of the planning meetings with Kieran (Kieran Stanley, CEO of the project’s architects, dan pearlman). There were plans in the dan pearlman prospectus to roll out sounds and a soundscape.“
With a background in sound – and as an enthusiast – King offered to take on responsibility for soundscape.
Creating the network-controlled audio soundscape
He started looking into network-based sound and audio and, in hunting for a contractor to help deliver it, found Dave Lascaut.
“The initial brief I gave to Dave was that I wanted a network-controlled audio soundscape across the site to be managed centrally, so the duty manager on the day could walk around with a tablet computer, and change sounds or increase or decrease sound levels at the touch of a button, all of it playing over the network from a server based somewhere on site.
“We started exploring how we would do it and looking at different audio-based network protocols, before settling with Dante Audio. We bought in all of the equipment we needed through some of our suppliers, and then started configuring it.”
“Originally when I met up with Martin one year before opening, his plan was to have 30+ individual local audio playback devices and speakers, ” says Lescaut. “With Martin heading up the IT department, I had a solution in mind which was much more versatile and easy to maintain, and would use his already planned IT infrastructure to send the audio signals over Ethernet. One audio server from Richmond Sound Design provides 64 channels of audio distributed throughout Islands using the Dante protocol. In future this can be expanded to many hundreds if required.”
The system has been designed with an easy-to-use interface accessible from anywhere in the Zoo through a website that allows the user to change the system to suit their particular needs. This includes changes to the schedule, the uploading of new or deletion of old audio files, the manual stop and start of tracks, the adjustment of volume levels, the monitoring of amplifier statuses around the site and the provision of logging and email alerts to duty support staff.
Medialon’s adaptable interface allowed for last-minute reprogramming
“This interface is provided using Medialon Manager, a windows based software which, in combination with Richmond Sound Design’s SoundMan-Server, provides a solution which is hugely scalable and adaptable to any future needs of the zoo, ” says Lescaut.
“Tim Willrich, along with the guys at Sounding Sweet, came up with the brilliant idea of having a soundscape that changes throughout the day as it would do in the real islands and rainforests of South East Asia. This could have been very time consuming for me as the system was already programmed and ready to go, but thanks to the combination of SoundMan-Server and Medialon Manager, it took no longer than one hour to re-programme the system to accommodate the multiple audio files that are now played during the course of the day.”
All solutions provided were software-based and housed in hardware sourced by Chester Zoo’s IT department. This meant that the AV elements that might have appeared foreign to an IT department, seemed very familiar and gave them a head start in any troubleshooting required in the future.
The entire system was designed to be scalable in order to accommodate future needs, a benefit that has already been tapped into with the addition of 2 more zones of the park, plus the facility for security personnel to activate emergency announcements around the park.
40 speakers and 34km of fibre optic cabling
Martin King pointed out that one of the biggest challenges from his perspective was the sheer amount of fibre optic cabling on site, and the number of ducts.
It quickly became clear that ten speakers weren’t going to be sufficient.
“We’ve got forty speakers covering the path – we also have them set back in the flower-beds; we have them hanging up in trees; we have them hidden behind rockwork.”
Getting the ducting underground and the cabling to the speakers was particularly onerous, especially as King was also doing the duct work for the zoo’s phones, PCs and the CCTV system.
“I needed to ensure the infrastructure was perfect for what we needed. In total we’ve got thirty-four kilometres of fibre-optic cable across the site.”
While the soundscape was perhaps the most time-consuming part of the project from a technical perspective, the team also wanted to incorporate scents within the Monsoon Forest, a controlled environment, so that visitors entering would be greeted with a rainforest smell.
Getting the sounds, and the smells, just right
“I was walking round shoving scent sticks up people’s noses, saying: ‘Does it smell like a rainforest to you?’ But a smell that works in an office block is very different from a smell that needs to work in a rainforest.
“Visitors walk in and smell the scent and say ‘Well, I can’t smell anything.’ It feels so natural people don’t notice.”
The Monsoon Forest also features a thunder and lightning soundscape : “…two big sub-woofers and lots of small speakers which distribute the sound. Again, all played over our Dante network-based audio system.
“When I was looking around at the different speakers to deliver this project, I got in touch with Gareth Coleman, sales director at (OHM) UK – he is also a member of the zoo – about what speakers he could bring to the party, in terms of what sound quality they would give us. We ended up going to him with a bit of a wish-list and got a great deal with OHM and managed to get the speakers – around fifty – that we needed.”
At the centre of the Islands development – in the village on Sumba Island – is a schoolhouse for which the zoo received a grant from the Wolfson Foundation. The grant covered the entire building including a sum of £40, 000 for technology.
The schoolhouse projections
“What I decided to do was put in a 360° HD projection system. Dave helped me establish how we were going to do it, then I spoke to Tim and we commissioned him to take some videos for us in Sumatra, ” says King.
Lascaut: “In the School Room, the 360 degree projection surface uses eight Optoma EH503 projectors and their Ultra Short Throw lenses. During a normal day it shows 360 degree content that Tim recorded himself in the jungle, but at a press of the button from the Education Department it can be turned into a presentation space with multiple shows that can be re-called to suit the lesson of the day.
This multilple purpose projection space is possible thanks to Dataton’s Watchout software, which also allows for live inputs from Power Point presentations, DVD players and Apple TV.”
As well as capturing 360 degree video, Willrich collected the audio necessary for the ambient sound across the Islands site. According to King, at least 80% of the audio that can be heard throughout the whole experience is actually from Sumatra, augmented with some additional sounds.
Changing the sounds to reflect the time of day
Having stripped away the audio for the soundscape, King and team went to the Sounding Sweet recording studio in Stratford on Avon, where the whole soundscape was produced and mixed:
“We noticed there was a really distinct difference between the soundtrack in the morning, the afternoon and the evening. In the rainforest, the sounds are completely different according to the time of day, and that was the one thing that as soon as you could hear it at that sort of quality, you noticed straight away. So, what I asked Sounding Sweet to do was to create three different sound files for each location; a morning, afternoon and evening file.
Dave Lascaut set the Medialon system that controls it all to schedule a mix automatically at eleven o’clock and three o’clock, so the whole soundscape changes three times a day to account for the differences and subtleties in the soundscape.”
Meticulous care has gone into hiding assets
“One of the most important things was that a duct shouldn’t come in two feet away from the path. It should be ten feet behind the path so that people can’t see it. And then we need to make sure that the bark covers all the cabling and that you can’t see any of the cabling to the speaker. And then the speaker (itself) is hidden behind a bush or out of the way – we used OHM’s IP-rated speakers to make sure we could put them out in the open and they weren’t going to get broken.”
The brief given to those working on the project was that the sound needed to be on the edge of perception so that it augments the experience without being registered.
“Subtlety was the biggest challenge of all.”
The schoolroom was a formidable challenge. It was difficult doing a 360 degree projection in a square room, and accuracy, King explained, had to be within an eighth of an inch “to ensure we had all of our edge-blends.”
He says, “We’ve got three videos on a loop in there at the moment. When Tim was choosing locations for filming we gave him quite a strict brief. We wanted a boat ride; we wanted a waterfall, and a time-lapse, from dawn to dusk, showing what it’s like to live in the rainforest for 24 hours.”
Willrich: “My involvement came to be primarily because they were using Dataton Watchout as a platform to run the schoolroom from, utilising the edge blending, geometry and external video inputs. I know Dave through various people and the TEA and he kindly recommended for me to come and get involved in the project.
“After speaking with Martin it was clear that for what he wanted to achieve we were going to have to create a rig and shoot our own bespoke content.
Creating a ‘warts and all’ jungle experience
“Our brief was to give visitors of the zoo a realistic experience of the jungle ‘warts and all’. Trying to illustrate what an interesting varied and wild environment it is. The main things we wanted to achieve were to film a day in the life of the rainforest as a time-lapse, giving people a real sense of what it’s like to be in the middle of it throughout the day; the change in the light and sounds.
“Also required was a realistic interpretation of travelling through the rainforest. And after some discussion we decided a canoe ride down the river through the jungle would work.
“Choosing Sumatra as our destination was down to utilising the knowledge of some of the conservation workers who work closely with the zoo and our local fixer Masrur Jamaluddin. So that we could make sure we could get all the footage that we wanted without travelling too far, we settled on Bukit Lawang in the Gunung Leuser National Park. Heath (the cameraman) and I only had 7 days out in the jungle so we really wanted to make sure we were utilising the time filming as opposed to travelling crazy distances!
“We had to build our own camera rig especially for this job.
“Each wall of the school room is effectively (almost) at 4k resolution in width so to make sure we could maintain the best picture quality all the way around the room without several extra cameras we decided to use the Panasonic GH4 DSLR cameras which natively shoot at 4K. This meant we only needed four cameras, each with an extremely wide lens on them to cover our entire 360 degree view.
“We had to be as light as possible kit-wise as we were trekking on foot a lot, and clambering up and down hills and through rivers was hard enough without anything on your back! So that was another benefit of 4 smaller cameras as opposed to more of them / bigger ones!
“We had some great guides with us, but it was quite difficult to make them understand we didn’t just want a nice picturesque photo opportunity looking in one direction. It had to be all 4! So we spent a lot of the first 2 days scouting out places where we could film what we had in mind. It was worth it though as we did find some great places.
“For the time-lapse, we had to start hiking at 3am to get into the jungle for sunrise and stay there for 11 hours until the sunset. Our first attempt we had to abort though because we got chased off by a very territorial Orang-utan: we’d been briefed that there was one nearby but didn’t think we’d have to actually run away from it.
“We also had to hide far enough away from the camera equipment so not to be seen, but close enough to chase off any inquisitive monkeys.
“It was a genuinely amazing experience – bucket list stuff! And, such a great project to be part of.”
King agrees, “It has been an amazing project, though not without its battles, purely down to the sheer size of the project. In terms of the build project, it was a case of me being on site on a daily basis, checking where things were going, making sure the cables were going in the ground correctly, and being able to pull things together and make things work.”
Clearly, King and his team have done far more than ‘make things work.’ They have delighted in taking their involvement to a level way beyond the purely technical.
“We even made a replica camera trap, ” says King, “a tiger camera trap which sits in Sumatra, we designed and commissioned that through Dave. And, at the school house we deliberately left the speaker grilles outside for weeks to get rusted, just so they didn’t jar with the theming!
“The key, really, has been the fact that it’s not something we would ordinarily have got to play with.”