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Apr 16, 2012 11:30 AM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Integrating Iris by Cirque du Soleil

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While Ellison and Germain work to establish and measure the acoustic baseline, we’re getting a good response demo from the cleaner on the first mezzanine. Constellation system off: The sound of the mop in the bucket is shallow and dry, and localized just over my right shoulder. System on: The bucket is a little bigger, a little farther away, a little warmer, and more resonant. The difference is unmistakable and a little eerie to hear. It was like being in a postproduction suite A/Bing sweetening options—except it was happening live in real life, in an opera house that was literally toggling on and off on command from a 1.3-second reverb to about 2 seconds. It’s not hard to extrapolate what that will do to the energy of 2,500 spectators.

Commissioning is tedious work and I’m just a spectator, so I look around the theater and my mind wanders over what the technical director of operations Kevin Kiley had told me a few days before: Every year, Cirque will have to move out for the Oscars—this year was the first time. So although Iris is essentially a permanent show, the elaborate AV systems are designed to be complete portable. Backstage, it looks like a touring show, with collections of racks huddled into various clusters and workspaces. The banks of Meyer D-mitri processors (and now Constellation processors) are ganged in big horizontal flight case-style racks that seem to have been dropped haphazardly in a hallway. There is nothing haphazard about the system design; but that’s a story for another time. I have seen hundreds of sound systems including in world-class theme parks and museums, and this is one of the most creative designs I’ve ever seen. Kiley estimates the strike took six days—it all has to go, all the audio systems, projection and capture systems, lighting, rigging, automation, lifts, plus a vast unidentified collection of stuff that the performers accumulate. Putting it all back? That takes twice as long. It seems like it should take longer, since Kiley’s team is not just recommissioning AV systems; they are making rigging systems safe for human life, and dealing with a 40ft.-deep basement packed with lifts and automation.

While the sound guys work, head of projections Tom Juliano grabs a seat and we scratch the surface of the projection techniques that are the magic act behind the Iris visuals. As a history of cinema, the show is both about projection and integrated with it. Many of the illusions are based on an ingenious system of IR tracking—it’s something like a motion-capture system. The 20 Christie projectors are basically just light machines—the story is in the software—which comes via Montreal-based Vyv and its Photon media server. To oversimplify greatly, the show is making its own footage in realtime—live cameras track and capture the performers, play the footage back from cached memory (like the way slow-mo replay works) with delays and other aesthetic processing. The performers, in turn, interact with the projected images that they have just made, like movie actors hitting their marks, while doing precision acrobatics and pratfalls.

And just as Brisebois will mix aspects of the acoustics in realtime, the video operator mixes aspects of the projector focus live. Here’s why: The huge screens that fly in throughout the show are not what you would imagine—they’re not on rigid frames, they are giant sails, rippling stage left to stage right and being sucked upstage and down stage on the Z axis (“They were here when I got here,” Juliano sighs). So: As part of the software processing system, a tech can sit on a little Behringer MIDI box watching the show, turning pots, and tuning the projector focus on all three axes.

Just as the cleaner leaves, the violinist Sandy Cameron slips down a side aisle headed for the exit. She stayed late to practice and her colleagues now rope her into the process. She helpfully stands center stage, a small figure in an enormous box full of rigging and worklights, riffing on her priceless violin on loan from the Stradivari Society. She’s warmed up and sounds amazing. Meanwhile, Germain and Ellison patrol the four acoustic zones, listening for consistent response; they brought anechoic recordings to do this with, of course, but the live and beautiful music makes me wish the L.A. Times critic was here right now to give the room a second chance.

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