Tradition And Cutting-Edge Technology Merge In Disney's Rivers Of Light

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.

“By merging Far-Eastern festival tradition with hidden modern technology, Rivers Of Light pays tribute to the animal kingdom in an epic, innovative, and ceremonious way,” says Michael Jung, creative director for the show. “Our story is inspired by the ancient belief that those who had true respect for all living creatures could bear witness to the Great Spirits dancing in the Northern sky. To view these magical, flowing rivers of light, or as we now know them, the Aurora Borealis, was a great honor. Our nighttime celebration of the world of animals pays homage to this ancient legend through an immersive festival of light. Ultimately, this nighttime experience is an empowering celebration of the kinship and interdependence of all beings that share the earth.”

Content includes never-before-seen footage from Disneynature, sweeping theatrical imagery, virtuosic live performances, a soaring original score, and innovative special effects. Martin Brinkerhoff, president and creative director of MBA, created additional projection content with video and projection systems coordinated by Erik Koehler, Disney’s senior video designer.

“As creative director, I had the unique honor of helping guide the ultimate vision of the project and to collaborate with the amazing talent on the creative, technical, production, and operating teams that bring this show to life nightly for our guests,” explains Jung. “The journey to launching the project was nearly four years from early conceptual development, through design and construction, and finally implementation in the field. A remarkable number of skill sets and expertise were put into place to create the marina and control center for the show, to build the viewing area, and to develop the actual show elements.”

Technical Challenges

“We are always looking for new technologies to support our storytelling. Rivers Of Light was no exception,” says Chuck Davis, principal technical director, who explains that the show barges are the basis for the spectacle. “Each of them is a floating work of moving art, covering very high-tech mechanical, drive, power, and effect systems. To achieve the look of the show, we had to develop low-profile barges with extremely powerful drive systems to allow the barges to move throughout the venue in a very controlled and elegant way. We leveraged the battery technology we use on our parade floats to power the four side-mounted thrusters, allowing each barge to move in any direction without turning or move in a specific path while spinning along the profile.” 

The barge movement in the lagoon provided a different challenge. “We needed to find a way to produce the show’s main water projection screens without the usual large center screen head at its base,” notes Davis. “The team worked to develop a ‘fire hose’ screen that uses a stream of water shot out from the sides of the venue in a large arc as the screen and paired it with Christie Boxer 4K 35,000-lumen projectors. The effect pops out of nowhere and delivers a crisp, translucent image.”

Production designer Michael Curry’s scenery is primarily translucent, with much of it revealed in backlight with mapped LED pixels via Green Hippo Amba media servers. “We worked with the Green Hippo team to augment their software to map the pixels with tools similar to the ones we use for building projection shows,” Davis says, adding that another challenge was the lack of a good Inherently Flame Retardant (IFR) resin on the market. “We had to work with Michael’s team to develop, test, certify, and bring to market a suitable product.”

Another challenge is that Rivers Of Light depends on the accurate remote control of the show barges. “Going in, we knew the system to control the barges was the key to the success of the show,” says Davis. “Rivers Of Light utilizes a Tait-provided Navigator system to control both the operation as well as the navigation of the barges; it also serves as the main cueing engine for the show. The central navigation system sends a profile to the specific barge, as a series of waypoints defined as GPS data. The barge uses a GPS-receiving system to drive itself along this prescribed path, returning its current position to the central navigation system, closing the loop, and allowing the system to monitor its path along with the ten other barges. The Rivers Of Light system is capable of accurately placing a barge in the show space within five centimeters and communicates with the barge every 20 milliseconds.”


Working with the local lagoon water for the barge-based fountain effects in Rivers Of Light provided additional challenges. “The lagoon is a natural body of water, so we had to ensure proper water quality for the fountain systems,” explains Davis. “A system to flash-treat the water using large UV reactors was developed and installed on each barge. This way, we can be sure the quality of the water being sprayed into the air is correct.”

Programming a show with so many moving parts was also daunting. “The team investigated existing pre-visualization systems but could not find one that could marry all the required disciplines with the accurate movement of the show barges,” Davis points out. “We leveraged the previz engine inside the d3 Technologies video server and worked with d3 to create special modules to allow for accurate barge movement that was bound by the specific physical limitations of each barge. Once the creative team approved the specific barge profile, the d3 data could be downloaded into the central navigation system, and the profile played out in the lagoon with the barge. This tool saved hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of programming time.”

Rivers Of Light uses a blending of computer-controlled and technician-operated technology, which allows the computers to perform repetitive tasks that require tight timing and leaves the key case-based reasoning tasks to the highly trained technicians. The barge operating tasks are divided between two technicians: one in view of the lagoon and the other monitoring the barges via cameras and telemetry from the control room located in the marina.

“All the venue show systems are operated by one technician from the marina control room,” says Davis. “Special effects are operated by a single technician from the venue control booth, with two spotters located within the seating area to ensure proper operation. The fire and water boats have technicians onboard to support the live performers on the boats. There are two chase boats with two technicians on each to provide support. Lastly, a stage manager calls the show from the venue booth, and a technician serves as dock master, leading all barge operations.”

Read more about the lighting design and scenic elements in Rivers Of Light.

For more, read the June 2017 issue of Live Design.

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