Spectacular Risks: Managing Eye-Catching Displays


They’re 100 feet tall, graceful and madly in love. Singapore’s elaborate steel dancing cranes, inspired by the folklore of many cultures, symbolize longevity, abundance and luck. At Resorts World Sentosa, the world’s largest dancing animatronic sculptures enthrall visitors with their daily performance.

The sophisticated installation (shown on pg. 20), involving huge hydraulic machinery and LED screens, “required a certain look, because it shoots fire and sprays water all over itself,” said Bill Gorlin, vice president of the entertainment division at the West Nyack, New York-based McLaren Engineering Group.

Spectacular displays such as this can draw attention, enhance a company’s image, and attract clients and customers. Entertainment engineers specialize in creating their inner workings—the mechanical and structural systems for scenic and entertainment staging, device and effects. They use their expertise to wow onlookers at theaters, theme parks, resorts, special events, performances and cutting-edge promotional displays. Gorlin’s award-winning entertainment engineering department has conceived and developed projects including Super Bowl halftime extravaganzas, the Twister ride at Universal Studios in Florida and a Toys “R” Us Tyrannosaurus rex display in Times Square. The company has also created stages and sets for the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner, the Black Eyed Peas and the Blue Man Group.

The Human Element
The entertainment business has a vital human aspect, stresses Gorlin, who is concerned with the skills of those behind the scenes. And the scenes McLaren creates are often dramatic. At the Switch Steakhouse in Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, the walls and ceiling move during dinner, changing the room’s entire form. Mastro’s Ocean Club restaurant in Crystals at CityCenter in Las Vegas is housed inside a dramatic 80-foot sculptured “Treehouse” (see above). In the Wynn Macao atrium, the floor opens, a tree grows and the ceiling opens to reveal a giant LED screen and a shape-changing crystal chandelier. “It’s like Get Smart,” Gorlin quipped.

All moving elements, including stage equipment, require safeguards. These can range from edge protection for a stage lift to automatic stopping devices. Amusement rides often need rider restraints (belts, harnesses, etc.) and rider comfort features, like handholds. “We make things as safe and as ergonomically comfortable as possible,” said Gorlin. His designs also address protection against falls for the public and workers.

For a live event that lasts a short time, the stage is generally not as robust as a building intended to last a lifetime. Sometimes performers face legitimate dilemmas; a band may hesitate to play because they are uncomfortable with the weather conditions. Yet while the star is saying, “I’m not going out in the rain,” the show still must go on. “It’s essential to have a decision-making tree in place ahead of time—in which safety of all persons takes precedence over other [factors]—so the producers aren’t stuck at the last minute figuring out how to make a safety-related decision,” said Gorlin.

Conveying the Message
Nestlé Waters celebrated the launch of its Resource 100% Natural Spring Water last May with an interactive three-day outdoor waterfall installation at Los Angeles’ Grove shopping center. Replies to live questions from audience members were written in cascading sheets of water. Although the technology has been available for several decades, this “Fountain of Electrolytenment” was the world’s first interactive waterfall that could answer questions in real time. The 25-foot-by-20-foot spectacle was designed, built and executed by Framestore, a London-based global content marketing agency specializing in visual effects.

After a visitor asked a question, “The voice went through a ball that acts like a portal,” said Mike Woods, Framestore’s chief creative technologist. “A hidden microphone transmitted each question to someone sitting out of sight nearby, who answered immediately.” Initially, inquiries were as prosaic as, “What time is it?” or “What should I have for dinner tonight?” But a ripple effect through the audience soon generated livelier queries, like “Should I propose to my girlfriend?” “The responder was very good at coming up with comments that would promote [dialogue],” said Woods.

During planning for a spectacular display, the hardest part can be communicating to the client “exactly what they’re buying, how it will work and behave,” he said. “It’s difficult to get someone to buy something if they can’t see it. We have to find a way to transmit the information.”

“It’s almost a leap of faith to get people to [understand] what it could look like,” said Jon Collins, Framestore’s president of integrated advertising worldwide. Although the Fountain of Electrolytenment was a visual presentation, “it’s in a context they’ve never imagined.” To help the client visualize what the installation might look like, Framestore built a small, three-dimensional version of the fountain.

“The effects were very dependent on angles of light,” said Woods. “We had to work out shadows, light and where the sun would rise or be at different times of day. To the untrained eye, it’s all smoke and mirrors, but it’s actually very complicated.”
Developing the project required ample trial and error. “There was no model, so things could trip you up,” he said. “The question was how quickly we could deal with different problems we faced.”

Collins understands these challenges. “Doing something that hasn’t been done before means having nothing to fall back on, so you need an element of true collaboration with the other people involved,” said Collins. Framestore works with numerous outside firms, including designers, architects, structural engineers, electrical suppliers and special effects providers. Sometimes a patent issue is involved and its resolution can slow the process. In terms of budget (well into six figures for the fountain), much of the cost is for project management and outside suppliers.

Fear of Flying
A great display’s innovations and eye-catching features are instantly apparent. Far less obvious are some of the risk factors. One McLaren project, the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying car for a Broadway show, was in a category that raises particular concerns.

“For a flying performer, the equipment can be great, but the operator and the operational system has to be great, too,” said Gorlin. “You must have in place a rescue plan that you’ve practiced. A performer has to be confident and emotionally comfortable in the equipment, or it may not be safe to fly.” The famous aerialist, Phillipe Petit, told Gorlin that he chooses the most secure equipment available, so he’ll feel like he’s on firm footing for his crowd-thrilling tightrope walks.

For all tours involving flying, “We need a dedicated technician to check the performer’s harness attachment, and often the performer herself or a second person to double-check for safe clipping,” he said. “The star is focused on her singing and less focused on special effects, so the technician needs to focus on the safety issues.”

Any performer flying over an audience (something that Gorlin’s team prefers not to happen) presents a risk. The state of New York’s Department of Labor doesn’t even allow flying over an audience without a variance. If it grants one, the flying performer is required to be 15 feet above floor level when there is an audience.

Gorlin is not aware of any problem ever occurring on a McLaren project involving a flying performance. But they do happen, which is why he stresses that there must be a pre-established rescue plan for the performer that considers “contingencies for scenario A or B.” He says that “a flown performer is different than a prop” that gets stuck in the air and that “rescue becomes risky if it takes too long to complete” while the artist is stuck in a harness.

“The owner of a venue or producer of a show may not be familiar with the risk of flying,” he said, adding that his job is to “educate them about it.”

Client Education
Educating the client, in fact, is a crucial, if unseen, component of most spectacle projects, especially because they are often unique.

“We have to persuade the clients that better machinery is energy-efficient, quieter and easier to service,” said Gorlin. “It’s vital to be able to get non-engineers to appreciate design issues that may not be obvious to them.”

Often, a client desires the least expensive approach in terms of initial cost—which is understandable when budgets for spectacular displays can range from $50,000 to tens of millions. “But sometimes the least expensive costs to get it built may not be the least expensive over the life of the structure,” said Gorlin. “That initial cost may not be related to maintenance costs over 10 years, so it could make sense to spend more up-front.”

The connections between human interaction and technical elements are too often overlooked, he finds. For a touring event or concert, people may not be sufficiently aware of some risk factors, especially weather-related ones. Lightning and winds that can damage the structure are significant concerns. McLaren advises clients on how to mitigate the weather while maintaining the desired show effects. For example, live events have successfully used fabric walls that can be rapidly and reliably removed in the event of high wind.

“As engineers, we have to follow applicable codes and standards, performing our work to a professional standard of care,” said Gorlin. “Especially for short-term structures, an owner may be averse to spending money for features they feel are not needed. Helping our client understand the hazards and appreciate the risk mitigation helps them [recognize] the possibilities to achieve a safe and successful event.”

McLaren consults with owners, specialty contractors and production companies, whose viewpoints vary with their role in the specific project. “We bring the engineering perspective, making sure they know the relevant engineering factors, including the decision-making process related to severe weather,” said Gorlin. “Often, it’s unclear who decides. We insist that any decisions related to safety be made by someone who’s involved with technical aspects. A tech person who understands the limitations of the structure needs to determine unsafe versus merely uncomfortable.”

Pointing out invisible risk factors is important. The dancing cranes at Resorts World Sentosa are on a structure out in the harbor, clearly far enough from each show’s audience to remove any danger of injury. However, everyone on the maintenance crew who goes out to service them has to be aware of all the essential special precautions.
The Nestlé fountain had subtle safety issues, too. “These are standard any time you have electricity and water,” said Wood. “How are those getting there? Part of the risk comes from building a structure that big in a public place very quickly. We had only 12 hours, overnight, to install the entire fountain. That meant we had to build and test the workings elsewhere, then put it back together at the Grove. Structural engineers had to figure out all the workings, like is the core structure strong enough to hold the fountain up?”

Return on Investment
Is a spectacular display worth all the time, planning, money and effort? Successful presentations often generate a strong, positive impression.
When visitors to the high-end retail complex Crystals at CityCenter spot the Treehouse, for example, “most people don’t realize that it’s a restaurant up there,” said Yvette Monet, spokesperson for MGM Resorts International, a joint owner of the complex. “They’re pretty impressed once they find out. Many say that it’s an elegant, unique concept. Several guests have said that it is an architectural masterpiece.”

Along with consumer appeal also comes industry recognition. The Crane Dance won the 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, and the 2011 Excellence Award from the Structural Engineering Association of New York. Each 10-minute performance draws up to 800 spectators, intrigued by LED displays, digital art, light and water effects, fireworks, and those unique, 80-ton robotic birds.

Nestlé’s Fountain of Electrolytenment also brought tangible ROI. In three days, over 30,000 people came to see it; 17,000 lined up to ask a question. “It exceeded all our expectations. Everyone was blown away,” said Woods, pleased that the fountain won an award at the 2013 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. “It was a classic model of a product launch, of brand awareness and instant response people can take away.”

In today’s overcrowded marketplace, it seems like the bigger risk is not doing anything spectacular enough to stand out from the crowd. “Increasingly, companies are looking for new ways to do things, and they’re often event-based,” said Collins. “The fountain was phenomenally successful and true to the brand. We got just what Nestlé wanted to create: TV and other media coverage, people talking to their friends and a huge buzz.”

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