Cirque du Soleil = Amazing Technology

Yesterday we toured the Cirque du Soleil show KA and I was blown away by the spectacular technological innovations they have developed to create the spectacular world of KA.

I’ll have a full report with pictures later in the week, but frankly it’s going to be hard to find things here at CES to compare with what the amazing Cirque folks do on a daily basis to put on the KA show.

Of particular interest were the number of invisible safety features that keep performers safe even as they appear to defy gravity, a collision algorithm to avoid object catastrophes, and the world’s largest surface computing platform – hundreds of square feet of embedded sensors communicating the performer’s positions.     There are more people behind the scenes than there are performers on stage, making KA arguably the world’s most advanced technical theater  production.    Bravo!

Cirque du Soleil: Dramatic Technologies

Stay tuned for next week’s “behind the scenes” look at the amazing technology behind Cirque du Soleil.   Next week during our pre CES conference coverage.   We’ll be backstage at the KA theater at MGM with Cirque’s Technical Director to learn how they manage to make all the magic … without killing people.

Cirque du Soleil thrills audiences around the world with shows that use a remarkable collection of innovative theater technologies, some on a scale that is very hard to imagine.

Even for Cirque’s traveling shows – often set in massive tents that are erected at various sites – the technical demands are far beyond those of other theater productions.   CNET reports on some of the technical issues for the Cirque du Soleil, noting:

Under the giant blue and yellow tent in which “Corteo” performers leap, contort and clown, technology is everywhere, even if the audience hardly knows it …

Most of the show’s lighting, for example, is controlled using a protocol called Wireless DMX. The idea, Wilder explained, is that so much action goes on in midair–like the acrobats suspended from the chandeliers–that it would be impossible to use a wired system. Thus, technicians use computers that automatically send signals to hundreds of lights throughout the theater, both in the air and attached to beams or trusses, turning them on or off as needed.

Cirque du Soleil’sin Las Vegas may be the world’s most technologically advanced theater production.   Located permanently at a heavily engineered theater at the MGM Grand Hotel,  KÀ  features a sweeping set of engineering innovations designed to create a spectacular Egyptian-inspired acrobatic story:

For KÀ  there is no conventional stage.   Rather the audience faces an apparently bottomless void.    It is within and around this void that the Cirque du Soleil performers create their acrobatic magic.   The show featured two massive, hydraulically controlled decks and five stage lifts.

Sand Cliff Deck and Gantry Crane

The Sand Cliff Deck weighs in at *40 tons* and measures 25×50 feet with a six-foot depth.   It is supported and controlled by an inverted gantry crane attached to four 75-foot long hydraulic cylinders running along massive support columns.   Together the crane and deck weigh in at about *175 tons*!    The crane is powered using five pumps and about 3500 gallons of oil.    Vegetable oil is used as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Tatami Deck

The Tatami Deck  measures 30×30 feet and weighs over 37 tons, and can  slide forward almost 50 feet at full travel, like a giant drawer.

Five stage lifts move props and artists during the show, each raised or lowered by four to seven spiral lifts.

Scenic Elements are often controlled by artists in real time:

The Wheel of Death in the Slave Cage scene is comprised of two independent sets of circular “cages” that rotate around a common axle. The movement is completely controlled by the artists in the “cages”.    In the Battle scene, the artists walk on the Sand Cliff Deck at a perpendicular angle to the ground. This is achieved through individual high-speed winches for each of the 16 artists, who control their movements through wireless remotes built into their costumes.

KÀ has over 3,300 lighting fixtures.

Video including massive surface computing:
The video projections in KÀ mix computer and human input.   To create interactive projections artists are captured by an infrared-sensitive camera above the stage and their movements are tracked by a computer.

At the KÀ theater, the performance area is formatted into a huge touch-screen that knows the precise position of each artist and this information is used to “influence the mathematical parameters of any number of worlds that are then re-projected onto the space they occupy”.      [I’m not sure what that sentence means but it sounded too impressive to leave out!]

Sound at KÀ – over a half millon watts of power!

A whopping 4,774 loudspeaker drivers in 2,139 cabinets provide   524,150 total watts of amplifier power for the show.
The sound system weighs in at over *twenty one tons* and the main audio system covers almost two million cubic feet of air space.

KÀ Theatre seats have speakers built into the headrest – this allows sound effects to be targeted, manipulated and customized to any of 16 seating zones.

Special Effects Techology:    Fire and Fog

During the pre-show, approximately 120 fireballs are discharged during the pre-show.   They are about 30 feet in height and reach temperatures of 1200° Fahrenheit.

Many of the fog effects in KÀ are created using liquid nitrogen, which has a temperature of approximately -300° Fahrenheit and creates a “low fog” effect when mixed with hot water.     KÀ has a 13,000 gallon storage tank for the liquid nitrogen.

For the Forest scene, a mist curtain is created that is 60 feet wide and falls 75 feet. The mist system is softened water run through very fine nozzles at 2500 pounds per square inch.

For the Mountain Tribe scenes, snow machines and fans float very fine soap suds through the air to make a very convincing snowfall.
119 pyrotechnic devices are fired throughout the show.

Rigging for aerial acrobatics.

If you’ve been to a Cirque show you know the aerial acrobatics are simply amazing, often seeming to defy gravity and exceed human abilities.   There are more than 160 aerial harnesses of 21 types.  Each is hand-fitted to the individual artist and is inspected weekly, daily, before and during each show.    Acrobatic safety nets are used for artists falling less than 20 feet. For falls over 20 feet, air bags are used in addition to the safety nets.

18 winches used to pull two safety nets into the many different configurations needed for the show. Each winch rope (5/8” diameter) has a tensile strength of over 30,000 pounds.  The forest grid (truss, catwalk and track system that supports the scenic elements of the Forest scene) and its component parts weigh over 80,000 pounds.

Frankly, we’ve only scratched the surface here and I hope to do a follow up, because much of the Cirque technology relies on computer controls and programs that direct the sounds, music, and motion in these spectacular shows.   Although the humans are the most remarkable features of the Cirque performances, without the stunning technological innovations of the Cirque team things would not be nearly as amazing or spectacular.

Cirque is yet another example where humans and technology can work beautifully together to create something …. wonderful.

Thanks to Jessica at Cirque du Soleil for sending the technical specifications of the KÀ theater.

Cirque du Soleil  Website