Lighting the world’s tallest building for New Year’s Eve.
Text:/ Andy Ciddor
Okay, so Sydney may claim to be the world’s prettiest harbour and it may play host to one of the world’s most popular New Year’s Eve parties, with more than a billion television and internet viewers worldwide and 1.5 million punters braving the traffic mayhem and public transport congestion to see it live. But it’s not the only show on the telly that night and it’s certainly not the only one with Australian creative talent striving to amaze.
Across the world, seven hours after Sydney lit the blue touchpaper and retired to watch the Harbour Bridge cascade with its by-now-traditional pyrotechnic waterfall, the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates had its own visually impressive celebration for the arrival of the year 2013.
Although Dubai doesn’t have a spectacular harbour it does have the Burj Khalifa Lake, a 12ha (30-acre) man-made lake complete with the Dubai Fountain, a 275m-long array of around 10,000 robotic illuminated water, flame and fog jets from WET, the people who brought us the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. And while it may lack the majestic grandeur of the Harbour Bridge to light and rig with pyrotechnics, it makes up for it with the Burj Khalifa (aka the Khalifa Tower), on the edge of the lake. At 829.8m, the Burj Khalifa has been the world’s tallest man-made structure since late 2009.
Since the onset of the most recent world economy slowdown, the developers of the huge shopping and hotel precincts clustered in Dubai have been anxious to draw the attention of travellers to the wonders of their city, investing in raising its profile by staging progressively more spectacular events, most particularly their signature New Year’s celebrations.
The production team for the 2013 Downtown Dubai New Year’s Eve event included a small contingent from Sydney-based lighting and design house Mandylights, led by LD Richard Neville. “We heard about the Dubai project from our colleague Ryan Marginson who works with production company JK58 in the UAE,” explains Neville. “He was already working as the production manager for the bid being put together by the Dubai office of German creative agency Avantgarde. We came on board with that team in May 2012 to develop a skeleton lighting design and some rendered visualisations, so we were involved from day one in developing the lighting design concepts for what ultimately became the successful bid. We began the design development for the actual show in July.”
VISUALISING A CUBIC KM
For Neville, the great thing about the creative development process was that show director Andree Verleger of ABC Event Production was very open to taking creative input from all of the design team: “The whole concept of the show was that it featured pyrotechnics, lighting, video, fountains, audio and live performance, and that there would be moments when each area got to shine while at other times they blended back into the background.”
The most significant design challenge facing Neville was the decision that for this show, unlike previous events, no luminaires were to be located on the actual Burj Khalifa, so the full height of the tower had to be lit entirely from below. Despite that (serious) constraint, Neville was thrilled to be working on a project where he was given a completely free hand and a significant budget to design the lighting his own way, within the broad concept they sold to the client. As he put it: “It’s pretty unusual to be given the level of trust to be allowed to go off and do whatever you like to make it look cool. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had the privilege of working on.”
With the challenge of lighting the world’s tallest structure from ground-based luminaires, the Mandylights team started by building the best possible representation of the site in their modelling software. The roughly kilometre-square ground plan in combination with nearly a vertical kilometre of Burj Khalifa left their original computer system gasping for breath as it rendered a cubic kilometre.
BURJ’ING ON THE INCREDIBLE
For previous events the tower had been covered with Space Canon searchlights mounted at intervals up the building. These swept their beams around to light the building and create beam effects in the air. The Mandylights team chose an entirely different approach, using Alpha One Falcon Beam searchlights to lay in a wash of colour, then a constellation of Clay Paky’s amazingly bright 189W Sharpy beam lights to cover the top of the tower and overlay the building with patterns and textures. Despite what his visualiser software had been telling him, Neville was pleasantly surprised on the first night of camera tests to find the Sharpys’ coverage of the top of tower was reading so brightly that he had to pull them back to avoid it blowing out.
Neville was impressed that Eclipse Lighting, who won the tender to supply the lighting, already carried a substantial inventory of Clay Paky fixtures and was willing to augment that supply and even to acquire the two MA Lighting consoles that he wanted to run the show. The plan was to run two control surfaces in a single GrandMA session, allowing a pair of operators to split the programming duties.
The majority of the show was painstakingly pre-plotted in the visualiser over a three-week period running up to rehearsals, as there were only four nights of tech before the dress rehearsals. During those four days, Neville and fellow console operator and associate lighting designer Alex Grierson were ensconced in an apartment overlooking the lake, programming live on the rig from midnight to 6am each day. They’d grab a few hours of sleep and were back in the visualisation suite by midday, plotting until midnight when the public had gone to bed and they had access to the live rig again. Right up until New Year’s Eve, Neville and Grierson were refining the show in the visualisation suite. The final count was around 1200 cues per operator, all of it triggered from the timecode clock responsible for synching the whole show.
MERRY SHOPPING FESTIVAL TO ONE ’N’ ALL
With the rigging requirements for a month-long run, a very tall structure to light, and 15 similar but not-quite-identical stages in the water distributed around the perimeter of the lake, the lighting bump-in began in the first week of December. The only access to the water stages was via inflatable dinghy, which could only carry a couple of fixtures at a time. The simple act of changing out a lighting fixture entailed getting clearance to enter the lake, building a scaffold on the stage to access the fixture, then striking the scaffold and getting off the lake, a process that could take up to a couple of hours.
As an estimated 1.7 million visitors flocked to downtown Dubai and the shores of Burj Khalifa Lake for the show, the precinct was straining at the seams with metro passengers temporarily diverted from disembarking at the main downtown station because the surrounding area was already too packed. Neville describes it as the equivalent of cramming the entire Sydney audience for New Year’s Eve into an area barely three times the size of Darling Harbour. Press reports revealed that at Atmosphere restaurant on the 122nd floor (altitude 422m) of the Burj Khalifa, window tables cost in the vicinity of $4200 per seat (one would hope that included a bread roll and a choice of postmix soft drinks at the very least).
The event began at 11:20pm with a 20-minute ‘live’ introduction by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied by lighting, video and fountains. This was followed by the performance spectacular, which ran right up until the stroke of midnight at which point the attention was on a lighting, fireworks and fountains tour de force.
Internet streaming through YouTube ran for about 40 minutes and included both the live show and the fireworks, receiving some 2.2 billion media impressions (views). The satellite broadcast stream was fed to more than 1000 international channels, with an estimated television audience of more than two billion.
Because New Year was the start of the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival (an intriguing concept), the New Year’s Eve show, minus the pyrotechnics and some small elements of the stage show, and with only a recording of the Prague Philharmonic, ran twice each night for the whole of January: a further 62 performances.
Given the thoroughness of the entire production process it should come as no surprise that by mid-February, discussions were already underway for welcoming in 2014.
96 x Clay Paky Sharpy
60 x Martin Aura wash
48 x Clay Paky Alpha Spot 1500 HPE
48 x Clay Paky Alpha Wash 1500
30 x Clay Paky Alpha Beam 1500
66 x Martin Atomic strobe
24 x Martin Mac301 washlight
24 x Alpha One Falcon Beam 7kW CMY
48 x Chauvet colour battens
36 x Chauvet outdoor LED Pars
1 x GrandMA2 Full Size console
2 x GrandMA2 Light console
2 x GrandMA2 NPU
1 x GrandMA1 NSP