0
Select Articles

Engineering for the Spectacle PUBLIC ACCESS

Technology on the Stage Keeps Reaching Higher

[+] Author Notes

Robert Boehm is distinguished professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas

Brackley Frayer isassociate professor and lighting designer in the UNLV Department of Theater

Joe Aldridge is associate professor and technical director in the Department of Theater.

Mechanical Engineering 127(01), 42-44 (Jan 01, 2005) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2005-JAN-5

This article reviews a design revolution that is taking place in entertainment, and technology is playing a major role. Just as computer graphics have enhanced movies and video games, live entertainment, too, is showcasing spectacles requiring evermore sophisticated technical effects. Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in Las Vegas, the live-entertainment capital of the world. In its work, Sceneing Solutions involved engineering collaboration with theater people to perform a number of analyses. Included were finite element calculations of the structural function, and input on the manufacturability of the various scenery elements. All of the aspects were developed with the assistance of CAD drawings. The last two decades have seen a rapid increase in the technical sophistication of live entertainment. Nowhere is there more spectacle than in Las Vegas, as each new hotel casino tries to offer more excitement to draw customers. To service this growing demand, there is a new technical business for theatrical engineers, who can both design and realize the high technology of stagecraft.

A design revolution is taking place in entertainment, and technology is playing a major role.

Just as computer graphics have enhanced movies and video games, live entertainment, too, is showcasing spectacles requiring evermore-sophisticated technical effects. Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in Las Vegas, the live-entertainment capital of the world.

While the casino hotels look to gaming to furnish a significant part of their income, they realize that more is required to get the customer in the door. The major casino hotels vie to furnish special entertainment experiences. Treasure Island has the "Sirens of the TI" pirate ship battle on Buccaneer Bay. The Mirage is known for a volcano that sports a piiia colada aroma. The Sahara has its very fast induction-driven roller coaster. The Lagoon Show at the Bellagio, where the fountains perform almost unbelievable gyrations and the jets reach extreme heights, is world-famous. Mandalay Bay has a high-tech aquarium in its Shark Reef. Cirque du Soleil's "0" show at the Bellagio and the Celine Dion show at Caesars are characterized by special technical support and computer control.

Underneath the illusion: This automated machine developed for a live show can manipulate a platform with six degrees of freedom.

Grahic Jump LocationUnderneath the illusion: This automated machine developed for a live show can manipulate a platform with six degrees of freedom.

The hometown emphasis on high-tech entertainment has led the University of N evada at Las Vegas to create aninterdisciplinary course that combines theatrical arts and engineering science, Those of us involved in teaching the course see the trend only getting stronger, and we expect that the entertainment world will need the services of technologically trained, creative . people for some time to come.

No one can say when the trend started. Perhaps it was in 1973, when the Ziegfeld showroom opened at Bally's. It was the precursor to most of the technology found in today's La~ Vegas showrooms. Then came the design of the touring version of the Siegfried and Roy show in the late 1980s. Technological inventiveness was definitely a staple of entertainment when the many new hotels opened on the Las Vegas Strip in the early 1990s.

Historically, live entertainment venues have been conceived and operated by people from a technical theater background. Over the years, the increased technological scope of some of these projects has gone beyond typical theatrical experience. Operational aspects of these shows are a stretch for the traditionally trained theater person, and technical design beyond the conception stage can be extremely complex.

One of the shows developed on the Las Vegas Strip several years ago involved the use of a fire-breathing robotic dragon. Some problems not understood by its theatrical handlers were encountered with the control strategy. At unpredictable times, the dragon would start wagging his head violently from side to side. Most times, the wagging would ultimately stop and the show would go on. One night, the control instability became so intense that the dragon's h ead broke off and rolled into the front row of the audience. It was then that the crew sought the expertise of a controls person.

Computer control of nearly all live shows has grown considerably over the years. It is not unusual for a particular show to have dozens of computers that monitor and control lighting, sound, movement of scenery, safety systems, cueing, and a variety of other things. In recent years, some of the bigger and more complex shows have added to their staff technical people well versed in automation.

All of this development has made Las Vegas home for many firms involved in the application of technology to entertainment.

One of th em , Scenei ng Solutions, is owned and operated by Pete Mensching, a fourth-generation member of a family connected with entertainment design. However, where earlier generations stayed mostlyon Broadway, he has branched out. Work on the Buccaneer Bay attraction at the Treasure Island brought him to Las Vegas, where he established his company.

More recently, his company was at work with the design and realization of several scenic elements that adorn the interior of the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.Technical issues included the design and construction of large, artistically designed trees that serve as structural members to support theme elements in the casino area. The canopies of these trees are massive arrays of delicate beadwork developed according to computer layout.

In its work, Sceneing Solutions involved engineering collaboration withtheater people to pel{orm a number of analyses. Included were finite element calculations of the structural function, and input on the manufacturability of the various scenery elements. All of the aspects were developed with the assistance of CAD drawings.

The company designs and constructs all elements in its North Las Vegas plant, then disassembles them for transport and installation at their new home. The company also has been involved with the "Borg Invasion 4D" attraction of "Star Trek: The Experience," operated by Paramount Parks at the Las Vegas Hilton. The show combines live actors, special effects, and a 3-D movie.

Another group involved in the design and application of technical effects in entertainment is Foy Inventerprises and its Flying by Foy division, which specializes in theatrical flying, the lifting and moving of humans using thin cables. While flying humans have been around since early Greek theater, they are reaching a higher technical level today. Peter Foy, who founded the company and is still active in its Las Vegas operation, flew Mary Martin in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan in the early 1950s. Over the years, the technology of the variable-length pendulum needed to produce this effect has been advanced. Originally manually activated, stage flight can be fully automated now.

Fire works: A mall attraction, "Fall of Atlantis," required cooperation of engineers and public safety authorities in Las Vegas.

Grahic Jump LocationFire works: A mall attraction, "Fall of Atlantis," required cooperation of engineers and public safety authorities in Las Vegas.

Major customers of Fisher Technical Services of Las Vegas include Cirque du Soleil; Experience the Music, a large facility developed in Seattle by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft; and the new Wynn Las Vegas resort, which is set to open next year. Scott Fisher, the chief executive officer, is an engineer who has spent his entire professional career in engineering for entertainl1l.ent. The company has dealt with a number of automation proj ects for Disney (one of its recent projects was designing and engineering the flying carpet for the Aladdin experience), for major casinos, and for a variety oflarge consumer shows.

Another company that services the entertainment venues is Entertainment Engineering of Bur bank, Calif. It is headed by engineer Kent Bingham, who is assisted by a number of people from both the arts and engineering. Many of them are former Disney employees. The company's initial focus was on the stru ctural aspects of en te rtainment venues. It provided key elements in the design of the regular sinking (and resUl{acing) of the man-o'-war in the pirate ship fight at the Treasure Island resort. The company has moved into the design of transportation systems for entertainment venues.

Use of fire in live productions has developed greatly over the years in Las Vegas. In 1979, before a volcano erupted at the Mirage, the production "Jubilee" opened at Bally's. Pyrotechnics figured in a Sampson and Delilah musical number and in a boiler room sequence about the sinking of the Titanic. Besides the Mirage, another showy use of fire is in the Buccaneer Bay attraction.

John Rogers and his fire-effects company, V-J Ltd. of Marina Del R ey, Calif., have been instrumental in many of these developments. Rogers is a mechanical engineer who has spent a large portion of his professional life designing systems for entertainment. Many of the planned applications of fire in Las Vegas shows ran counter to many of the fire codes existing at the time. The design of the "Fall of Atlantis" show in the Caesars Forum Shops is an example of this.

Here, fire was designed into a show at the closed end of a shopping mall, where large numbers of spectators would stand just out of arm's reach of flames. The design of this attraction, as was the case with all of the others that used pyrotechnics, was developed in close collaboration with inspectors from the Clark County Fire Department. Focus was on redundant and functional safeguards rather than on the typical prescriptive solutions. The behind-the-scenes equipment room for this one attraction is mind-boggling.

These companies and others like them have several common characteristics. Most of them are small, some with only a few employees and almost all with fewer than 50 people. Only a small fraction of the overall entertainment engineering and design is currently done by the large companies, which often outsource to the smaller companies to perform the desired services, finding this to be more efficient and cost effective.

Another characteristic shared by the companies in this field is the need to respond to concepts that are not sharply defined, with time frames that would frustrate many traditional engineering firms. Further complicating the general operation of these firms is that many of their customers make major changes in the design part way through the process, and still require the same completion date. As in other industries, these companies face periods of either feast or famine in business. A giant lull was encountered in the business, for instance, following 9/11.

Most of the small companies build on an area of specialization. It is not typical that a company have a large range of technical expertise represented in-house. This doesn't stop them from adapting a wide range of concepts in their projects. They generally hire additional services from other suppliers in the business.

The overarching thread that ties together many of these companies is the focus on design. Usually, this is carried out by a multifaceted team comprising engineers and designers trained in the arts.

At UNL V, we are developing a program to serve this special market with both education and research. Defining the program is no simple task, since there are few precedents.

One source of insights is Rick Gray, an active worker in this field of merging engineering with theater. He is now the director of entertainment for the Wynn Resorts- Las Vegas hotel casino that is currently under construction. He was proj ect manager for the design and installation of the "0" show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. He has been involved in te chnical education in theater departments at Purchase College of the State University of New York and at the Pennsylvania State University.

Gray recently pointed out, in a lecture at UNLV, that theater technology has been around for a long time. Examples can be cited of exciting theatrical technical design well before the birth of Christ. In the Middle Ages, Passion plays often incorporated amazing technology for their time. With the increasing needs and demands of Las Vegas in the last 15 years, engineering technology in live entertainment is firmly in place.

Show business or theme park? A superfast induction-driven roller coaster is part of the show at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, as hotels vie to present special entertainment experiences.

Grahic Jump LocationShow business or theme park? A superfast induction-driven roller coaster is part of the show at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, as hotels vie to present special entertainment experiences.

An amalgamation of the arts (particularly the fine and performing arts) with engineering is the cornerstone of the effort at the University of N evada at Las Vegas. The university has offered courses in this area for over four years now, and instituted a degree minor in entertainment engineering this past fall. Students from a number of fields will be able to pursue this option.

The curriculum will require students from a technical background to take some additional courses in the fine arts, particularly related to production. Students from the fine arts will be required to take some special courses in technology related to entertainment applications. An overarching requirement of all courses is an emphasis on design. Furthermore, it is stressed that this design function be performed by multidisciplinary groups of students. A significant practicum is required of all students. Some components of business are also involved.

A new science, engineering, and technology building will have dedicated space to this genera~ area ofinterdisciplinary work.

To fund the program, the university has developed liaisons with development companies and venues. Adapting new technology will continue to be of value to these types of entertainment venues. Seldom, if ever, will it resultin multimillion-dollar grants, but it could be a support mechanism for student assistants.

We are planning to establish an outreach and coordination office to communicate with the program's many stakeholders. A membership program for design concept development is being considered.

It is natural that UNLV be involved in a program that combines technology and entertainment. Many institutions try to assist local industry.

The last two decades have seen a rapid increase in the technical sophistication of live entertainment. Nowhere is there more spectacle than in Las Vegas, as each new hotel casino tries to offer more excitement to draw customers. To service this growing demand, there is a new technical business for theatrical engineers, who can both design and realize the high technology of stagecraft .

Copyright © 2016 by ASME
Topics: Design , Engineers
View article in PDF format.

References

Figures

Tables

Errata

Discussions

Some tools below are only available to our subscribers or users with an online account.

Related Content

Customize your page view by dragging and repositioning the boxes below.

Related Journal Articles
Related eBook Content
Topic Collections

Sorry! You do not have access to this content. For assistance or to subscribe, please contact us:

  • TELEPHONE: 1-800-843-2763 (Toll-free in the USA)
  • EMAIL: asmedigitalcollection@asme.org
Sign In