The Immortal World Tour
Honouring the undisputed King of Pop through a true hybrid of circus performances, rock ‘n’ roll ethics and world class production, Cirque du Soleil’s magnificent acrobats perform the life and soul of a 21st Century legend. The icon’s memory and work is told through a dance spectacular written and directed by Jamie King. As a life-long fan of the late pop star, TPi’s Kelly Murray visited Toronto, Canada, to see the show ahead of its European debut with the brand new Meyer Sound LEO in tow. The outcome was technically outstanding.
When TPi meets with the Cirque du Soleil technical crew at the Toronto production of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, there is just two weeks left in North America before a six-month European schedule starts and continues throughout Japan and Asia until December 2013. It’s the second time that the production has been to the city, and the demand for seats is still rife. As Production Manager, Andy ‘Andy O’ Omilianowski, told us: “We go wherever Michael Jackson is popular... so the world basically!
“Unfortunately, this is now the closest you’ll ever get to Michael Jackson due to his passing. But his family had a lot to do with the show and what goes on, from production values to images, they had an input. For example, you’re going to hear, when you see the show, Michael’s voice pre-recorded and the band even has a couple of members who played with him when he toured. This is unlike any other Cirque show that’s ever been; it’s a lot more dance orientated than acrobatic but we still do have a lot of the flying elements and performers.”
In total there are 210 people working on this one production, but the success of Cirque du Soleil means that around 850 personnel will be working on productions worldwide at any one time. The technical staff in this case travel in busses like a normal rock ‘n’ roll show, and if the trip is over four hours long, the dancers will get a charter plane.
Andy O coordinates a 10-hour set up which starts at 6am.“We take care of people very well out here, and we have the best technicians in the world, we all work for a gentleman named Jake Berry. He’s like the Godfather of production managing. Jake has the techniques and he’s taught us well. Sometimes, it’s all about the load out and he has the know-how in his head.
“He knows how to move big entities like this quickly, cost effectively, so that’s why Cirque brought him in as a Consultant,” continued the PM. “There are bigger Cirque tours volume wise, but they sit in a room for weeks or months, where as this moves a lot; we’re in two or three cities a week.”
After U2’s 360° tour, which Berry production managed, he then brought in a whopping 40 of his crew to work on Immortal. “We always check in with each other,” said Andy O. “He’s only a phone call away if I ever need anything. Jake and Opie [Dale ‘Opie’ Skjerseth] are my mentors and I’m fortunate and blessed enough to get to work with both of them, as an up-and-coming Production Manager. We all have a good attitude and strive to make the show 100% right for the people who paid to come and see it,” he enthused.
THE DESIGN PROCESS
Before Andy O was involved on the touring side of the production as a PM, there is an in-house one from Cirque du Soleil who worked on the creation. Then it is inherited and made to function on a very technical level.
The design process for the tour started a few weeks after Michael Jackson passed away yet the concept had been well underway for years as Martine Gauthier, the tour’s Technical Stage Manager, explained. “Michael was a big fan of Cirque du Soleil, he’d seen almost every production. He came to visit our facilities in Montreal in 2006 because for Michael, it was so important for him to meet the people in person. In his mind, he had this incredible desire to create something amazing with us,” noted Gauthier. The creative aspects had been in planning way in advance of the King Of Pop’s untimely death. “We have five or six shows out in one year and it takes two years of planning a show before you even think about fabrication. We already had a huge team working on the creation and it was two days after the sad news broke that a phone call came from Michael’s mother giving the go ahead for the tour because this is what he wanted. We started the process a few weeks after he passed away. Jamie King [Director and Choreographer] danced with Michael when he was younger so it was a great feeling to get him working on this too,” he added.
Mark Fisher [Madonna, Batman Live] was the Show Designer. “When we saw the first drawings, we were blown away,” said Gauthier. A show this big, carrying the name of Michael Jackson was a gigantic and ambitious notion. “We wanted pryo, and to use a lot of lights. And Michael won’t be jealous,” joked Gauthier. “He’s looking down on us, happy because he wanted this, he is with us all the way. Everything we do is ‘Michael Jackson standard’ – big, creative and the very best.”
“And that’s just the creation element,” added Andy O. “Then it goes into the production side when all the ideas come together and we have to find the manufacturers to physically build the stages and such. It was a lot larger than this before we started touring it, so it would only fit into a select few venues, now it’s downsized so it can be moved easily.”
In fact, the massive weight was successfully decreased from 200,000 to 130,000 lbs of hanging technical kit in time for its world premier in Montreal last October. Andy O continued: “We’ve had the record for the most trucks coming into an arena, so it’s good to know that we’re doing something right!”
There was significant family approval upon seeing the show come together too. Gauthier revealed, “Some of Michael’s brothers were with us during the rehearsal process, so we had this incredible opportunity to have Tito there. And we were getting some notes from Grandma, the affectionate name given to Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine.”
As Cirque du Soleil IS primarily famous for producing tent shows, once it started to branch out into arena touring the possibilities to evolve became apparent. The design of Immortal sees a load-in, a show take place on the first night, and then a load-out and travel schedule overnight, in essence, a rock ‘n’ roll mentality in a circus environment.
To literally get the show on the road, there was a huge team effort from several suppliers, but variety is key to success for Cirque du Soleil. “Throughout the tour, we have an excellent relationship with our suppliers. Every supplier has their own speciality, so we get the best out here, for our needs, and make sure it can withstand the tour. We have to know we won’t have to fix things everyday,” said Gauthier.
“At Cirque du Soleil, there is not one special supplier who will constantly work with us, and it’s important that we establish a relationship with suppliers from around the world. Solotech are based in Montreal, they started in 1976 and Cirque was then born in June 84 and now has HQs in both Montreal and Las Vegas.”
Cirque du Soleil asked Solotech to provide a world-class system for sound, lighting, video and rigging. A total of 24 of Solotech’s best specialist technicians install, operate and maintain night after night this state-of-the art equipment.
Andy O shared the sentiment: “Suppliers are decided on at the end by the right quotes and the quality of services they can provide. These are the type of companies who just help each other out, which is great for a PM and Technical Stage Manager. It was my first time working with Solotech so I went to their facility and it was just immaculate. I’m very happy to have them out here, they’re a huge benefit to this show, and any show they vendor for. Richard Lechance is Vice President, Touring and my ‘go-to’ guy at Solotech. He is who I call for crew, logistics, anything.”
Jake Berry Productions has also specified vendors including Wi Creations for video staging, Brilliant Stages and Tait for staging, Pyrotek Special Effects Inc and Laser Design Production Inc for pyro and special FX, Senators Coaches, Truck N Roll!, Latitude 45 Catering, Cat Entertainment for power, Cube Services for passes and itineraries are via Smart Art.
On a demanding and physical show such as this, health is also vital to the longevity of the tour. “We carry our own catering crew with us. Nutritional values and specialty food for religious reasons, keeping the kids in good shape is important.” commented Andy O.
Wesley Tischoff, Catering Crew Chief from Latitude 45 (which is run by Chelsea and Chris Mitchell) explained how the whole environment of touring with this particular production has been a real career highlight. “As far as catering gigs go, this has been one of the most enjoyable of my 10 year career as a tour caterer. This is directly attributed to the pleasant and kind-hearted nature of the entire cast, crew and management. These people are simply the best!” he said.
“As far as the green element of the tour, the Cirque corporation is extremely environmentally conscious, and we are proud to say that we have successfully reduced the carbon footprint of the tour through the use of water dispensers, recycling bins, and bio degradables for all to-go wares. A tour this size has been known to consume up to 65 cases of bottled water daily, and we’ve got it down to a mere seven,” noted Tischoff.
“The crew are also fantastic eaters, which, from a catering standpoint, is a great bonus. The daily lunch menus range from your classic ‘roadie comfort food’ such as gratinéed mac and cheese and bacon cheeseburgers to a wide range of super healthy, high energy, low fat athlete food including lentils, brown rice, quinoa and fresh broiled fish with lemon.
“Our pastry chef makes a massive array of homemade desserts daily, which do include vegan and gluten free options. Fresh fruits, and a vegetable juicer are also available around the clock. Let me tell you; those juicers have clocked up more mileage than my ‘88 Honda Civic!” he joked.
“Overall, it’s really nice to have clients that are interested in food, flavour and good health, it really brings out our passion for food as a catering team. Beyond food, what we also really enjoy is the opportunity to get to know the people who are eating our food. Most people in the food industry experience a greater degree of social separation between the food service staff and the customers. This is one of the things I cherish most about being a tour caterer,” Tischoff concluded. “Thanks to everyone on this tour, Cirque has been the most rewarding 11 months of my life and I would do it again in a heartbeat!”
THE PUBLIC RESPONSE
Cirque du Soleil’s Laura Silverman explained the impact this tour has had on the public: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive! We’ve been fortunate to sell out most shows and people have really responded well - telling us how much they love the show, the acts, the music, and how much they miss Michael. But more importantly, Michael’s family saw the show and shared with us that this is a show that he would’ve really loved, which is all that we can ask for.
“We are here to celebrate the legacy of Michael Jackson - his music, voice, artistry, messages - and all that he left behind. This is a true celebration of whom he was as an artist, which is an easy thing to embrace.
“This is extremely different than any other Cirque du Soleil show. Immortal is Cirque du Soleil meets a rock / pop concert. Audiences will see all the acrobatics that they are used to seeing in a Cirque du Soleil show paired with high energy dance moves, stellar costumes [of which there is 250!], and of course, Michael Jackson’s music. It is really something special, bringing together two powerful entities that thrive on creating groundbreaking art and pushing the limits!” Silverman told TPi.
INTRODUCING THE LEO
Immortal’s Sound Designer, Frankie Desjardins, explained the concept behind creating the sound for the tour: “For the MJ tour, we were looking for a high power system that can be as light as possible. At that time, the conventional way to power the PA (amplifiers on the ground, away from the speakers) seemed to be the right solution for this application, since the conventionally powered speakers are lighter.
“However, I did not want to have the amplifiers 100m away from the loudspeakers. So I called Meyer Sound and checked if they had a solution. They had one that was almost ready... With the help of Solotech, we participated in the final stages of the development of Meyer Sound’s new product, the LEO,” he explained.
The standard flown configuration for the tour, which was rigged this way in Toronto comprised 28 cabinets of the pre-release version of the LEO-M loudspeaker and four MICA - main left and right - 16 700-HP flown subs left and right. There was also 12 of the LEO-M model and eight MICA per side.
Desjardins furthered: “With this configuration, we are able to address pretty much any size venue. For front fills we use a selection of UPA-1Ps and UPJ-1Ps. In the drive, we use a multiple of Galileo 616’s to drive the entire system.
“In the design process, I had a few ideas about what kind of processing we should use, but this had to be discussed with the main mixer. After all, he is the one using it everyday... When I sat down with Tim Colvard - the original mixer - he laid down an interesting line up of vintage gear to use on the project. We pretty much kept his original concept and I think the mix of old technology with state of the art equipment gives a great result.”
There is a retrofit taking place in September for the European production leg of the tour. But, the original sound design concept should remain intact except for the upgrade of the under stage subs to the new Meyer Sound 1100-LFCs and the upgrade to the new Callisto processors in the drive system.
“I think the end result is amazing: we reached our goal in almost every aspect of the design. We have great, uniform coverage of the audience and we have great flexibility from the electronics so the creative process was not limited by the hardware.” Desjardins concluded.
A PARTNERSHIP MADE FOR THE ROAD
Meyer Sound Laboratories recently announced the appointment of Luke Jenks to the position of Product Manager for Loudspeakers, previously Director of European Technical Support. Based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Jenks now provides Technical Support and Design Services to Meyer Sound customers in Europe, and works directly with Meyer Sound’s engineering, education, and marketing personnel to provide both dealers and end users with expertise on the operation and performance of new Meyer Sound loudspeakers.
In the UK and Europe, as stated, a full Meyer Sound LEO linear large-scale sound reinforcement system will be used on the tour. Designed for today’s large-scale live productions, the LEO system comprises LEO-M main line array loudspeakers, 1100-LFC low-frequency control element, and the Galileo Callisto loudspeaker management system. The tour requires extensive video and lighting equipment, leaving significantly less weight allowance for the loudspeaker setup than before. The brand new LEO system directly tackles these key challenges, including weight limitations and headroom requirements for the smaller UK and European venues. Other concerns that are addressed include HF horn accuracy, the size of the touring package, setup and teardown time, consistency, and reliability.
Jenks told TPi: “LEO is a complete system solution that covers the entire audio chain starting from the output of a console through to the listener. Solotech and Meyer Sound have been working together since the 1980’s and Solotech has about 2,000 Meyer Sound loudspeakers in its rental stock. Tours that Solotech has supported using Meyer Sound equipment include Cirque du Soleil shows, Celine Dion, Michael Buble, Leonard Cohen, Andre Rieu and the Montreal Jazz Festival.”
Meyer Sound designed this system and worked closely with Solotech leading up to system deployment for the tour. And the Meyer Sound team is available for support as and when required. “This tour presents a incredible opportunity to work with Frankie, Solotech, Cirque and the music of Michael Jackson on our new system,” said Jenks. “The process leading up to the tour and the tour itself have been tremendously helpful for the Meyer Sound product team. The LEO system has performed beyond our expectations, filling all the arenas that Immortal visited without the need for a delay system.
“Most importantly, LEO is delivering a new level of sound reinforcement to the audience regardless of the limitations in modern touring. The combination of Frankie’s system design, Solotech’s professionalism and the LEO system allow for the hard work of so many talented performers, musicians and designers to shine through to the audience like never before,” added Jenks.
John Meyer, CEO, Meyer Sound described the company’s relationship with the vendor and the tour: “Solotech presented us with a challenge that we couldn’t pass up: how do you provide extremely long-throw clarity and headroom for an arena touring package in which every single ounce counts? This project targets these very requirements that are paramount in today’s sophisticated live spectacles. We’re thrilled with the opportunity to collaborate with Solotech and push the performance boundaries of large-scale sound reinforcement.”
FOH AND MONITOR WORLD
When it comes to the tour’s desks, Sound Designer Desjardins highlighted: “When it was time to put this show on the road, we needed a console that can manage around 160 inputs. Since this show is supposed to go on the road for years, I wanted a platform that will clock a higher rate (96k) and that will not be obsolete in a few months. So, the obvious choice at the time was the DiGiCo SD7.”
Following eight years at Solotech, Quebec city based System & PA Tech, Martin ‘Rocker’ Pare, is using the SD7 and stated: “I have worked on Cirque shows twice before. I didn’t spec the console but it’s perfect; it sounds great, and it’s ideal for this application.
“This show is different, usually a Cirque show is quieter with a focus on the acrobatics, but this one has an emphasise on the music. For audio, we have to see this as a concert rather than a circus show, its less dB than a pop or rock concert, but only just,” said Rocker.
Indeed, the main removed obstacle when working with sound levels is that Immortal is an arena tour, not a show designed to be seen in a tent environment; a regular Cirque show might run at 90dB, but this one runs at 105dB.
Rocker says of the SD7 on this tour, “It’s less about features and more about the quality of the sound coming out. When I started working with digital boards, it was difficult to see all the screens, a lot of designs were on sub menus and you scroll and scroll. With DiGiCo, you know exactly what you see is what you get; everything is in front of you as it should be. The interface is great.”
Like many of the audiences who watch the show, for Rocker, being a part of the Michael Jackson experience is something very special. “We have the live band but then all Michael’s own voice, so it has a lot of emotion in it from the recordings, so you’ll hear him breathe, or playing a harmonica, and his foot tapping, things you pick up on like that. The sound is so clear, I can hear things in his voice that I’d never heard before, and it’s amazing. When I was told I was going to be doing this show for the first time I was like ‘Oh my god!’ it was such an honour,” he smiled.
“This show is crazy to mix, everything has been remixed by Kevin Antunes [the show’s Musical Designer], and the big challenge has been that the vocals are pre-reverb. But Kevin has done a great job, and I like having this challenge every night.”
Over in monitor world, Rey Petruzzielo told TPi, “I previously worked on another Cirque du Soleil arena tour called Delirium [mixing FOH] for Solotech.
“The Project Manager from Solotech for this tour suggested me for a back-up monitor position. I wasn’t the first monitor mixer but another engineer, Alastair MacMillan, [Bono / U2] was there to start the tour. After a while he decided to prioritise his family life, so he left the tour and I got the job. Frankie chose the system and I helped to put it together,” said Petruzzielo.
“We are running the SD7 with seven digital racks, around 130 inputs at 96Khz resolution, all connected with Optocore. This adds up to an amazing sound. The preamps just sound fantastic, detailed, and clean,” he thought.
On stage, four MSL-4 (two per side) were used for side fill. These were mainly positioned for the dancers. A total of 11 stereo mixes are then created for the band. “We are using Sennheiser SR2050 transmitters and EK2000 Receiver packs. The band’s ear molds are a mix of JH Audio J-16 and Ultimate Ears UE-18 and Capitol Reference monitors,” said Petruzzielo.
For much of the tour, Petruzzielo mainly makes sure that the instrument levels are consistent from show to show and monitors the vocals, which change in levels fairly often. “I’m also there for any requests the band may have and to reassure them that someone is keeping an eye on them,” he concluded.
Charles Déziel also previously worked on Delirium. “I’ve worked with Solotech for a long time. On this occasion, I look after the radio frequency coordination and communication systems,” said Déziel. “There are many pre-rigged in the stage so it’s no more than a few hours to get it up and running.”
More than 60 channels of RF are necessary, and each person is on their own channel. All wireless mics are Sennheiser with an additional a mix of Neumann, Audio-Technica and DPA. Déziel cites the frequencies difficult to manage in North America as being New York and LA. “The biggest challenge was to learn the communication system used here, which is Riedel Artists System,” confessed Déziel. “It was my first time with it, but I’ve adapted to it well. Other than that, I’ve been doing this for many years now that it’s become second nature.”
MICS ON STAGE
Saxophonist Mike Phillips clipped on Harman’s AKG C519ML microphone to his instrument, while monitoring the show through AKG’s IVM4500 IEM in-ear monitoring system for the current second-largest grossing world tour. “This show is loud, a lot is going on musically and visually, so it’s important to ensure all aspects of the music are picked up and heard clearly,” stated Phillips. “When I signed on to the Immortal tour, I told my producers I could only use AKG; I needed that reliability and quality to ensure the great Michael Jackson’s music was held to a level of precision that would make him, his family and fans proud.”
The visual show saw Phillips move all around the set, which has multiple pieces from the actual set of the tragically cancelled This Is It tour. Utilising AKG’s WMS4500 wireless system, his mic provided a clear sound from his WMS body transmitter anywhere on stage. “We’re not stationary in any aspect,” Phillips continued. “Throughout the show, I am on the sides of the stage, on top of the sets running around constantly. The AKG WMS system is very reliable and doesn’t cut out when I’m moving. It’s one less worry while performing.”
During the three-continent tour, the band will record a live album. According to Phillips, the AKG C519ML mic does a great job picking up his saxophone, preventing bleeding from the other instruments in the band.
On off-nights, Phillips books smaller jazz shows in the cities where he performs. With three solo albums, all of which debuted in the top five on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Charts, Phillips has sold more than 500,000 albums. With his own separate, personal arsenal of AKG, including an additional C519ML and IVM4500 monitoring set, he can easily drop into jazz clubs across the world, plug in and play.
“The reliability, durability and quality of AKG is apparent whether I’m performing solo or with the Immortal tour,” Phillips said. “AKG is my go-to system and I couldn’t imagine my sound the way it is with another mic or wireless combination.”
LIGHTING THE LEGACY
“I’m using an MA Lighting grandMA2 console, and a lot of Cirque shows use this desk because they like to have the familiarity. The shows are often long, so it’s easier if someone falls sick or has to leave, that the replacement will know how to use the exact same lighting console,” explained Eric Belanger, Lighting Board Op and touring Lighting Director.
“I like the time code feature on this desk, and I’ve been working with the MA2 a lot over the last two years.” The road director cites this and High End Systems Wholehogs as his favourite consoles to work with. The whole show is systematically saved on scenes, and Belanger has an incredible 6200 cues, 300 of which are manually lead and the rest programmed,
“The original idea, [by Lighting Designer Martin Labrecque] had his first creative meeting at Neverland - Michael Jackson’s funfair style home - so all the ideas and the concepts of having the show in Neverland happened there.”
During the show, the gate seen on stage is a replica of the gate at the Neverland ranch. There are a lot of scenic elements in terms of the stage looking like Neverland and so the lighting design is different than if there was a solo pop star to light. Belanger continued: “Here we have over 50 people on the stage, so I have to make sure that everybody can be seen and get through all the theatrical aspects of the show first. Then we add the icing on the cake!”
The main priority lighting direction wise was maintaining the integrity of the lights and upgrading any necessities. “It’s always an evolving show,” said Belanger. “So we still tweak and therefore it’s constantly moving and improving.”
There is an active grandMA2 and a backup desk on site, plus an impressive 419 fixtures. The lighting fixtures comprise 24 Philips Vari-Lite 3500 Washes FX, 48 VLX LEDs, 74 VL880’s, 10 VLX 3’s [the smaller version], 31 Martin Professional Atomic Strobe 3000’s, 195 Color Block’s and 10 i-Pix BB7 Blinders.
Belanger said: “They decided to go with Vari-Lite because those fixtures are lighter, the rig was so massive already. The 3500 Wash FX on the back helps to create the really big looks, the Vari-Lite fixtures are top of the line. I also tend to use Martin Professional gear a lot, its great.
“And it’s been a fun ride. It was quite challenging at first, but after six weeks of rehearsals and the re-design after the weight loss, there’s a lot of Michael’s essence on the stage,” concluded Belanger. Rehearsals took place in Ottawa at the Scotiabank Place, then two weeks in Montreal at the Bell Centre and a further two weeks in Quebec City at the Pepsi Colors Inn.
Leading LED video screen manufacturer Lighthouse’s new product, VideoBlades, is the main video element in Immortal which unfolds Michael Jackson’s artistry before the eyes of the audience. Aimed at lifelong fans as well as those experiencing MJ’s creative genius for the first time, the show captures the essence, soul and inspiration of the King of Pop, celebrating a legacy that continues to transcend generations.
VideoBlades, a result of an alliance between Lighthouse and Pix2o, is a revolutionary large-scale LED video display technology that straddles the worlds of video and lighting in the entertainment, events and architectural markets. VideoBlades 12 provides a 12.5mm pixel pitch, modular LED video screen that delivers superb image quality both indoors and outdoors, with a literal twist...
VideoBlades 12 comes in two formats, SkyRoll and GroundRoll, which can be deployed by rolling up or down from its patented rotating structure. The modular format allows for the seamless formation of large-scale screens limited in size only by a customer’s needs. VideoBlades 12 was selected as the best new video product at LDI 2010.
For Cirque du Soleil’s Immortal, over 2,500 VideoBlades create the nearly 200 square meters of LED Video display that is the show’s main display surface. For the show, the VideoBlades are deployed in three main ways:
1) Six GroundRolls seam together in pairs to build the massive up-stage screen that presents music videos from the Michael Jackson’s past, as well as other vivid content.
2) The set’s main stage is made of thin transparent plexiglass that covers the surface of 42 square meters (560 VideoBlades). While the LED video plays, dancers perform and set pieces move on top of the main stage. At select moments, the entire main stage hinges up to wow the audience with even more video surface.
3) The final piece of the set employing versatile VideoBlades is a column that splits into two separate pieces, exposing another 260 VideoBlades.
In total, Immortal uses eight GroundRolls and 10 Stage Segments. Roughly 3.6 Million LEDs are used to create the various stage surfaces, but it requires only one video technician and a few stagehands to rig and assemble the VideoBlades portions of the set. There is also 25mm of Barco stealth LED utilised on the upstage walls.
Solotech’s Jean-Francis Marin, the Video Crew Chief who is now on his third Cirque du Soleil tour, told us: “Solotech is a rental company so there is a lot of choice on what we do and when this came up last year, I wanted to do it because it was so different. It’s show 169 today and the six giant video screens still roll and go up really fast, which is great for the video crew!”
Around the B-stage there is four 18,000 lumen HD Christie video projectors installed on a VIP dual yoke (made by Zap Technology) for the downstage screen. Two 10000 lumen HD Christie video projectors have been installed on VIP yokes and a further three 10000 lumen Christie projectors are required.
Marin continued, “The video requires a lot of maintenance but it’s worth it for the look of the show. There are cameras and a screen comes down and has four projectors (a quarter of the screen each). What’s really nice about these Christie projectors is that they’re on a moving yolk, which makes them perfect.”
VIDEO CONTENT CREATION
Matthieu Gourd, a Production Manager at Cirque du Soleil explained that two different designers created the video content, Olivier Goulet for Geodezik, a Montreal based video company, and Dago Gonzalez from Veneno inc. (based in LA).
“Both designers had worked with Director, Jamie King and the estate which represents Michael’s family was periodically informed of the show development, but not specifically about the video content, so there was an element of creativity involved with the tour’s visuals,” said Gourd.
“Dago had his first experience with CDS on Immortal, but he had done many other projects with the Director of the show. Geodezik had been part of other CDS projects,” he added.
For the final design of graphics, it took around 12 weeks to perfect. Gourd noted: ”Some modifications were still being made during the first year of the tour, especially during the first two months and now some others are planned before the show moves into Europe.”
MICHAEL JACKSON STANDARD PYRO
Pyrotek’s Angelica Larocca became involved with the tour following a pre-existing relationship with Jake Berry. Ronald Bleggi and Raymond Seymour were out on the road for the North American tour and once the tour moves into Europe, it will just be Raymond Setmour on pyro duties.
Cirque du Soleil is known for creating and showcasing some of the most mesmerising and jaw dropping productions in the world, and once again with Immortal, Cirque has put together an awe inspiring spectacle with the assistance of pyrotechnics from Pyrotek Special Effects inc.
The show was written and directed by long time choreographer Jamie King. Showcasing Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, the show incorporates everything you’d expect from a Cirque production from flying acrobatics to fast paced dancing to massive sets even including a 2.4 metre long pair of dancing black penny loafers with white socks (see our cover image!).
Cirque approached Pyrotek Special Effects to add more magic to the imagery of the massive production in early 2011. The vision was to bring to life everything Jackson loved to see on a Cirque stage, and what he would want to include into a show with his extensive catalogue of music. Pyrotek Designers Doug Adams and Lorenzo Cornacchia worked closely with the show’s creators to produce effects for 24 astonishing scenes within the part rock concert, part dance show, and part circus!
The Immortal opening was designed in true Michael Jackson fashion with 21 Silver Gerbs, and a 19 comet chase to set the stage ablaze. A total of 26 Cryo Jets were used during the Jam and Dangerous sequences, and low lying fog throughout many scenes including the iconic Thriller and Will You Be There.
Pyrotechnicians John Arrowsmith and Ray Seymour had the task of operating the show that includes a spectacular finale, which is designed to celebrate the achievements of Michael Jackson. It includes an astounding 13 different effects including 27 Gerb fountains, 46 multicolored Airbursts, 44 Comets and 37 Mines shooting 30 feet in height. Adams’ goal for Immortal was to come as close to what Michael used during his live shows, but with the Cirque du Soleil flare.
Larocca noted, “The pyro design did not change throughout the tour or production period. Though now that the tour is going to Europe they will not be using any Pyro, only C02. So far the reactions have been great! It is a wonderful show and an excellent tribute to a legend.”
ACROBATIC RIGGING AND AUTOMATION
TOMCAT designed an extra strong truss, as it needed to be of a very high standard for this tour. During the creation phase, Craig Reid, Head of Acrobatic Rigging was the Assistant Rigging Designer, who designed the A & B grid using the TOMCAT truss. Reid has been with Cirque du Soleil for 11 years and has now worked on a resident production, nine arena tours and four tent shows.
Reid told us: “The grids are unique because the house Stage Technologies winches which were specified because they wanted the winches to be physically in the truss for a 55ft span without any motors in between [there is a round scoreboard built into the roof which is used for hockey games during the venue’s winter season] so that it can hold the versatile acts the production offers. Often performers will be 35ft away from the nearest motor, which is all made possible due to TOMCAT.”
Riggers from U2 and Shakira’s previous tours are now working on this production, they had to bring the pop, rock ‘n’ roll and circus worlds together. It takes three to four hours to get all of the motors up. There are three production riggers hanging the show, and local riggers can be anywhere between an extra 12 and 24 people. In the acrobatic rigging department, there are five riggers plus Reid and a harness technician working daily.
Of all the kit he’s using, the 19 Stage Technologies drum winches are a highlight for Reid, “These handle the show a lot better than we thought it would. Traditionally, Stage Technologies are not a touring company, they do installations or one off big events, like the Olympics. Although you see them in theatre houses, they’re not typically seen on rock ‘n’ roll tours. This is the first time these wInches have been used for a Cirque show, but we really like them. Mechanically, these wInches are great. The cables for the winches are XLT4’s, which is unconventionally compared to what we’d use in theatre or rock ‘n’ roll, and it allows flexibility and resilience. We’ve only changed four cables in almost a year because they can handle so much.”
Technical Stage Manager Martin Gauthier added: “Two trussing grids were specially designed for the acrobatic motors. The winches we are using for acrobatic flight needs to be directly on the target, so we give our riggers a lot of challenges every morning. Marking out the floor with chalk each morning is a very crucial part of the day. If it’s not in the right place, it can really affect the performance, and some acts we couldn’t even do. So we have to check this accurately before we start building any trussing.”
Heading up the Automation crew is Englishman Chris Davis. An LD by trade, Davis is based in the UK, and also previously worked for PRG on U2’s 360° tour. Following a good run, Jake Berry asked him to work on this - his first Cirque show - and to try something new, switching from lighting to automation. “I’ve learnt everything on the job here,” he enthused.
A Kinesys system was running all the stage lifts (A & B-stages), conveyor belts, a Stage Technologies system was running off a Nomad console and four one-tonne motors are used for performer flying. “Stage Technologies are the best for flying stuff, for tech support, Stage Technologies and Kinesys are brilliant. Kinesys had a good relationship with Cirque and Wi Creations, a Belgium company, also did the video screens for U2. They custom built a video wall, which moves and runs from a Kinesys system. A Fisher Navigator was brought in a little after and all the automation systems work well together. It separates the whole show nicely too, so the engineers can concentrate on moving the lifts or the people up and down, so it splits naturally,” said Davis. “We’ve got to a really nice point now where it’s all really good, everyone is adapting to each other. We don’t step on the artistic toes, and they don’t step on ours. There’s a nice harmony. I did a lot of theatre when I was younger, so it’s nice to get back into it! The people here are lovely. It’s good fun, a great experience and it’s a massively different production. The biggest change for me is the human aspect, operating these winches; the artists have to trust you and you have to trust them. There’s a lot of safety systems in place, all around the stages,” he added.
STAGING THE SHOW
The staging elements of Immortal were built by England based Brilliant Stages, Wi Creations of Belgium and the Pennsylvania HQ of Tait Towers. With 65 artists, running, jumping and dancing in troupe’s, it’s different from a typical band set up, so the stage has to be sturdy, and the huge show has a lot of moving parts. Brian Levine, Project Manager, Tait elaborated: “We are re-building the lift [for European downsize], so that it can be easily ramped or forked out of a truck, have variable speed control and limits, as well as good leveling capabilities. This means at every venue they can just level it off and be good to go.
“The largest element is the B-stage. The B-stage has an elevator that goes from the concrete to about two ft above the stage surface, so it’s a pretty complicated mechanism. Control-wise, they use Navigator to link that lift up with a pole rotate in the stage to a dance pole gag.”
The pole in question is a platform for an exquisite solo performance; a show of this stature naturally attracts performers at the top of their game, like Felix Cane - the world-renowned pole performer and two-time world champion in acrobatic pole dancing.
Levine continued: “As well as a chain motor in the air that lifts the pole into place and drops it, the dance pole rotates so the dance pole chain motor and the B stage all have to be linked together in the control system. It will lift up the pole and raise the lift at the same speed, all while landing it properly and tensioning it. Running it through Navigator allows us to write cues, make presets and it allows the operator to be right underneath the stage running off of a laptop.”
The main challenge with the B-stage is that there’s a lot of very large spans. “Because of the size of the props that need to fit under there - you can’t have a lot of legs. We’re going to build something that takes up the same amount of space but is going to be double capacity and twice as strong as they have now,” Levine explained.
Tait’s had around six weeks to build the 36 moving part stage masterpiece: “The advantage being that we were able to see what already existed on site. We had concepts in place that already existed from our original bid. The way it packages now, it’ll be easier to handle, build a lot faster and package a lot tighter.
“What Cirque has now is a bunch of unique pieces that are somewhat difficult to pin together. Everything that we do will come right off the cart and into place, so the pieces themselves will be more manageable in size.
“We’re also rebuilding the runway; they’ll have a 30 ft long and a 20 ft long version. Finally, we’re rebuilding all the light shelves around the whole runway and the B-stage,” Levine concluded.
SECURING THE CIRCUS
The daily responsibilities for the tour’s Security Director, Tony Robinson of MPB Companies is to initially put up signs to secure artist and audience pathways for the large arenas, converse with the in-house venue security, assign security to the dressing room areas, around the tour busses and to conduct searches for the crowds.
Robinson stated: “This is very different to working with rock ‘n’ roll stars - I’ve worked with a lot of those - and in comparison, this is easy! With the single artist, you only have one person to deal with, out here I have 65, and it’s less chaotic actually! My job is to primarily get them in from the busses to the venue and the dressing rooms to the stage without any problems or concerns. The other big task is getting family backstage to see the performers.
“The audiences so far have been wonderful. It’s more relaxed than a rock show, it’s very family orientated so there’s no mosh pits or body surfing in here!” he laughed.
THE LEGEND LIVES ON
Besides his back catalogue which will continue to define generations of fans, the legacy of everything that Michael Jackson embodied as an artist is able to have new life breathed into it by the incredibly talented folks who take this production on the road and around the world. The Cirque du Soleil family is completed by Finn Taylor, Senior Vice President, Touring Shows, Jack Kenn, Vice president - Arena Shows, Pierre Guillotte, Senior Production Manager, Tanya Sarrazin, Production Coordinator, Arena shows and Luc Tremblay, Senior Artistic Director.
Production Manager on the road, Andy O, ended TPi’s interviews with clear sentiment of just how special and homely this show has become to him. “I’m very proud to be a part of this organisation, can’t stress how much I’m thankful to Jake and Opie for taking me under their wings all those years ago. The show is about to go overseas and I rely on the crew to handle that. I’m not the type of Production Manager to ‘micro manage’ people. You won’t find me stood over them, barking about how to do their own jobs; this crew is the best in the world.”
Official Show Photos: OSA Images
Costumes: Zaldy Goco
©2012 Cirque-Jackson I.P., LLC
Additional photos: Charlotte Steer,
Kelly Murray, and Elizabeth Sattelberger.
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