Candy college: A crash course in themed lighting at the M&M's Academy


Visitors to the M&M's Academy receive a rare and clandestine opportunity to explore the inner sanctum of spokescandies Red and Yellow, located in the heart of Las Vegas at the Ethel M Chocolates superstore. Created by Ethel M Chocolates and Landmark Entertainment, the Academy appeals to an audience of all ages and features a colorful assortment of special effects, show action equipment, audio and video, and a 3D film developed by animation pioneer Will Vinton Studios.

"In creating an M&M's retail attraction," says former Ethel M president Mary Foster, "we wanted to communicate what the M&M's brand is all about: colorful chocolate fun that is entertaining and engaging. It has a specific visual look, simple but bold, and very dramatic graphically. We came up with the idea of an Academy, or school, as a fantasy version of what it takes to become M&M's, told from the perspective of the characters." The narrative was completed by a team consisting of Foster, project manager Eileen Madden, Landmark, and BBDO Advertising. Lighting design services were provided by City Design Group, the California-based consulting practice that I established in 1986. We became involved in the project, which opened last November, in the summer of 1997.

Three years ago, Lighting Dimensions asked me to consider writing a feature for the magazine in which I describe our process of designing themed illumination for one of our projects. A challenging proposition, especially since the very definition of themed lighting, much less any specific process, is subject todifferent interpretations even within the lighting community. The whimsical style and character of the M&M's Academy suggested that it would be an ideal choice as the subject for this story.

I tend to define themed lighting design as a creative marriage of theatrical technique and architectural tools to arrive at a design that is both imaginative and functional.

The first of three steps in this long and often winding path toward completing the project is typically conceptual and schematic design (SD).

We usually begin by researching the production design. One of our initial ideas was to imitate the scale, and rounded shapes, of the M&M's characters wherever possible, while simultaneously achieving a high level of both light quality and color value. In the lobby, for example, we specified 4" half-round Murano glass pendants in multiple colors to provide a crisp, white halogen light that mirrors the oval-shaped terrazzo floor and introduces color into the space. Another decision was the consistent use of MR-11, MR-16, and AR-111 halogen sources throughout the attraction for their longevity, round shapes, and small size.

By its very nature, the intended effect of the final lighting design is an aesthetic one and is often difficult to convey to the client in the early stages of a project. "From the client/owner perspective," says Foster, "it is important to us that a lighting designer not talk in techno-speak, but rather be able to clearly describe the lighting approach in layman's terms how they will be able to deliver on the concept." One of the tools we use to convey the lighting approach to our client is an image board, compiled from photographs and visual art, usually linked to a written concept narrative that walks the client through the design.

Equally important in the schematic design is to define facility demands such as gross electrical loads, access for maintenance, emergency lighting, and applicable electrical and energy codes. In permanent facilities, local code authorities often closely monitor the use of theatrical and effects lighting products and usually require third-party testing by an independent laboratory such as UL or ETL. Our use of specialty lighting such as low-voltage fixtures, fiber optics, ultraviolet floodlights, strobes, and automated lighting in Las Vegas often necessitates the installation of conduit entry points, safety cables, or secondary breakers to comply with Clark County codes.

The second step in the process is commonly referred to as the design development (DD) and construction drawing (CD) phase. As the design of the facility evolves, we begin to develop lighting plans, write fixture specifications, and establish equipment budgets. Proper documentation of the themed lighting plans at this stage can often mitigate the potential for future installation and maintenance problems. Unlike most typical architectural products, specialty and theatrical lighting fixtures often feature a wide range of lamp, color, focus, control, and accessory options that all should be tracked individually to record their specific use in the completed design.

The selection of fixture finishes, lens colors, and pattern templates establishes the character of the lighting and adds theatrical style to the design. We specified art glass, dichroic filters, and other long-life color products on the Academy project to reduce maintenance problems and maintain the durability of the lighting design. Color is one of the defining attributes of the M&M's characters; consequently, the selection process was a relentless one, particularly since everyone in the office (myself especially) kept eating our color swatches.

The creative use of commercial architectural lighting products is frequently an essential tool in themed lighting design. In the Chocolate Production area, for example, we specified inexpensive 10" round industrial pendants with wire guards to reinforce the concept of being inside a fantasy factory and to help conceal the track lighting above, which was used to accent the scenic elements on either sideof the guests. Heavy-duty rotating beacons typically made for use in power plants, mining, and manufacturing facilities were used in the pre-show and show corridor to add color, movement, and a sense of urgency to the action.

With the use of certain lighting and special effects technologies, we always ask the supplier for a scale mockup prior to the purchase and installation of the equipment. This step is often invaluable in identifying potential flaws in a design approach that could either delay the project or reduce the effectiveness of the end result. In the Drying area, we tested several different types of solid-core, stranded, and semi-opaque fiber-optic cable in combination with halogen and metal-halide illuminators to best replicate the effect of oversized "heating coils." Variables such as color, fiber diameter, coil radius, and the location of the illuminators all proved to have a perceptible impact on the quality of the overall effect during our testing.

In selecting a control scheme for themed lighting projects such as the M&M's Academy, we try to evaluate how the facility will operate and what other systems must interface with the lighting controls. Installation of dimmer cabinets and low-voltage switching panels not only provide programming flexibility, they also translate into significant reductions in energy, maintenance labor, and lamp costs, savings which are often understated to the client during design. The Academy features a DMX-controlled system that combines low-voltage relays for the switched loads such as metal-halide or neon and dimming modules for the incandescent sources.

In the 3D Theater, a rack-mounted DMX generator receives RS232 commands from the show control system to play back pre-recorded cues while a second, separately controlled device executes a series of lighting cues throughout the rest of the attraction. We isolated the two systems so the in-theatre lighting effects could stay in sync with the film and remain independent of the other show areas.

Accuracy in specifying both the lighting fixtures and control systems can prevent many costly mistakes during the installation phase of the project. Often as many as five or six different layers of handling occur in a construction project and an error at the design stage can easily be missed. During the preparation of the cost estimate, we typically provide each manufacturer with our specifications and ask them to certify that the part numbers match the written description of the fixtures.

In the third and final step of the process, construction administration (CA) begins and the project starts to take physical shape. Our role usually becomes advisory at this stage as we perform administrative tasks such as reviewing contractor submittals and answering installation questions. It is not uncommon to make several trips to the job site to field-locate equipment and monitor the installation process.

An example of this practice is in the production areas (Color Coating, Drying, and Polishing), in which we used a mixture of focusing ultraviolet floodlights and halogen accent lighting. All of the fixtures in these areas were identified only as electrical junction boxes on the construction drawings so that we could work around ceiling obstructions, leaping fountain jets, and changes in the orientation of the scenery. Many of the exact lighting positions were determined only after the major show elements were installed, but with the conduit and wire already in place installing the fixtures was made relatively simple.

Focus and programming is perhaps the single most theatrical aspect of themed lighting and the completion of this effort typically brings the design to life. We usually work in tandem with the audio, video, and show action equipment programmers to best understand the show timing and sequence of events. Of course, sometimes even the best intentions can be problematic in execution, as proved to be the case with the 3D Theater. Although it was our original intention to record the lighting cues in real time using a theatrical console, several long sessions of programming led us to decide that executing cues manually was simply not accurate enough. To resolve the problem, the A/V designers installed a secondary DMX controller which could be timed in sync with the film to trigger the theatre lighting.

We usually complete our work with maintenance and training sessions for the management team who will operate the facility. Providing the facility with updated dimmer and lamp schedules, vendor contact information, and operations manuals will greatly improve the probability that the themed lighting design will be maintained after opening.

"Creating the Academy was like designing a house for a specific personality," says Foster, "and to be true to that, we had to ask what kind of house Red and Yellow would want to live in." And, after all, if more than 100 designers and craftsmen built you a house, wouldn't you want to keep the place up?

Principal of Los Angeles-based City Design Group, Ted Ferreira is a lighting and show systems consultant specializing in themed facilities. His assistants on the M&M's Academy were Teresa Enroth and Kevin Saunders.

Owner Ethel M Chocolates Inc.

Architect Cuningham Group

Electrical Engineer G&W Consulting Engineers

Project Designer Landmark Entertainment Group

3D Film Design and Production Will Vinton Studios

Lighting Consultant City Design Group

Audio, Video, and Show Control Consultant Edwards Technologies

Pepper's Ghost Effects Consultant Conceptual Realities

General Contractor Whiting-Turner Construction

Scenic/Special Effects Contractor Piper Productions

Ultraviolet Scenic Artists UV/FX Scenic Productions

Electrical Contractor Bombard Electric

Lighting Equipment Supplier Hiett Designs

Signage Contractor Mikohn

Additional thanks Lumenyte International, Remote Source Lighting International, Cinema Services, Doug White & Associates, ETC, Nevada Sales, ALSCO, Litehouse, New Horizons, and Tim Van Wormer Productions

Equipment List (40) CSL MR-11 35W adjustable downlights (12) CSL MR-16 50W adjustable downlights (10) Fiberlux 150W metal-halide fiber-optic illuminators (5) Fiberlux 250W halogen fiber-optic illuminators (250') Lumenyte Sta-flex 5mm end-lit fiber optics (120') Fiberstars 13mm side-lit stranded fiber optics (48) Light Projects 35W Murano glass pendants (6) CSL MR-11 35W gooseneck spotlights (12) CSL MR-11 35W gooseneck spotlights with irises (4) American 60W industrial pendants with wireguard (12) Ardee ClikStrip MR-16 100W low-voltage tracks (14) Light Projects 35W gooseneck spotlights (19) 100W industrial vaportight fixtures (16) 20W semi-recessed pucklights (14) Cole 40W steplights with grille (4) Hiett Designs custom MR-16 20x20W stadium lights (6) Federal Signal rotating beacons (10) Wildfire112 250W mercury vapor blacklight projectors (6) Wildfire 250W metal-halide blacklight floodlights (1) Wildfire 400W metal-halide blacklight floodlight (15) Hiett Designs custom strobe packs (6) Hiett Designs custom strobe tubes with controllers (1) American DJ Supply spinning F/X globe (20) SLD/Times Square MR-16 75W framing projectors (track) (21) SLD/Times Square MR-16 50W cubelights with barndoors (track) (8) SLD/Times Square MR-16 75W framing projectors (monopoint) (9) SLD/Times Square MR-11 35W framing projectors (monopoint) (6) Translite MR-16 50W adjustable spotlights and twin rail track (14) Translite AR-111 50W adjustable spotlights and twin rail track (6) Translite MR-16 50W telescoping spotlights and twin rail track (9) Altman MR-16 50W cubelights with barndoors (monopoint) (20') Hiett Designs 15mm bromo blue neon (200) High End Systems dichroic color filters (16) Special F/X Permacolor lenses (40) Rosco MR-11 templates (1) Intelligent Lighting Controls Quanta 1000-DMX relay panel (1) ETC Sensor 96 digital dimmer rack (1) Alcorn McBride Lightcue DMX Real Time Recorder (1) Alcorn McBride V16 DMX playback unit