A nighttime spectacle and lantern festival, Rivers Of Light celebrates the majesty, diversity, and wonders of the animal kingdom in a magical and immersive experience. It is fitting, since Rivers Of Light combines music, water, projection, and light at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, in a 15-minute show performed up to three times nightly for an audience of 5,000 guests. Michael Jung is the creative director for the show. Read about the show's technical challenges according to principal technical director Chuck Davis.
“Rivers Of Light is a celebration of humanity’s interconnected relationship with the animal world, presented as an ancient and mystical lantern festival filled with drama, ceremony, and magic,” points out Ryan Gravilla, principal lighting designer. “We used some of the most up-to-date technology in innovative ways while keeping as much of that technology hidden from view for the guests watching the show. I even worked with a vendor to create custom, dome-shaped egg-crate louver covers for our moving light enclosures to help reduce the glare from the lens and to help camouflage them among the foliage during the day.”
For Gravilla, the task was to make sure that the lighting supported the magic of this story by having the needed flexibility to be subtle and intimate, as well as bold and epic when needed. “My goal was to make the guests walk away saying, ‘That was beautiful’ and asking, ‘How did they do that?’” says the LD.
The rig comprises a total of 34 moving lights placed around the lagoon, both behind the audience on poles and across the water at ground level. “I needed to be able to achieve beams in the air as well as light the natural environment surrounding the arena, so the fixtures I chose needed to have as much brightness as possible as well as features that would allow me to readily transform the area,” Gravilla explains. He uses Philips Vari-Lite VL3015LT fixtures for the shoreline and Robe BMFL Blades for the poles in the audience. There are also six Claypaky Supersharpys in the canopy of the Tree of Life for the finale of the show.
The show is run on multiple MA Lighting grandMA2 consoles networked together. “We output a total of 30 universes and 8,000 parameters of control between the land-based fixtures and the fixtures on our 11 show barges. We have a total of 1,535 fixtures patched and run 2,987 cues across multiple simultaneous cue lists,” notes Gravilla.
The main control room is located backstage at the marina, where the barges and support boats are typically docked, approximately 800' away from the venue. “The technicians who operate and maintain the show—and are an amazing group of talented people, by the way—are able to monitor everything from the marina out to the far side of the lagoon through a series of remote-controlled cameras,” Gravilla says, adding that the venue was purpose-built for this show, so all of the house lighting was designed by Walt Disney Imagineering. “While the guests enter the theatre, we keep the light levels fairly bright to ensure that everyone can get in and get seated safely, but once the show ramps up at show time, we slowly bring the house lighting down and blackout dramatically on the musical cue at the top of the show.”
Other than the moving lights, all of the other lighting is LED. Because the lights are on battery-powered barges, the LD was concerned with how much power would be utilized on a nightly basis. “My assistant, Hillary Rosen, spent many hours checking and rechecking power calculations to make absolutely sure that everything would be able to last for up to three shows in a night with little or no time to recharge in between,” Gravilla points out. “Since this show takes place on the water, using multiple fountains, and is located in Central Florida where we have high humidity and daily rainstorms in the summer, everything that can be made waterproof is. Some fixtures, that are not available with an outdoor rating, such as our moving lights, are in protective domes.”
Among Gravilla’s favorite show elements are the four animal lantern barges. “These larger-than-life Animal Spirit Guides are internally illuminated sculptures created by our production designer Michael Curry,” he notes. “Initially, the plan was for them to be beautifully painted and lit so that they would flicker, as though each was illuminated by flame. As we continued with the process of developing the show, we decided that these animals should have moments of magical transformation. To achieve that, we ended up using a grid of more than 42,000 LED pixels across all four barges, driven by a Green Hippo Amba media server inside each animal and painstakingly mapped to the curves and contours of its three-dimensional shape. This enabled us to create custom video content that ‘painted’ the surface of each animal sculpture. They enter the show in what we call their ‘hero’ look, flickering like a parchment lantern lit by flame, but as the show progresses, they come to life and are animated in time with the music.”
The performers that appear on the Fire and Water Lantern Boats provided Gravilla with one of the more challenging aspects of lighting the show. “Lighting people on a moving watercraft that can be seen from multiple angles at any given time so that they could be seen at hundreds of feet away made for challenging cueing,” he admits. “My programmer, Daniel Dickman, spent lots of time tweaking the levels of our LED footlights and pinspot specials to get the balance just right for each moment of the show.”