New Orleans Jazz

DRESSING UP MARDI GRAS WITH THE LATEST IN ILLUMINATION A veteran celebration now enjoys contemporary illumination. To the cries of "Throw me something, mister," throngs of euphoric Mardi Gras attendees revel in bright, animated lighting courtesy of fiber optics, DMX-controlled illuminators, and the latest control technology. Leading the charge to the new is Kenner, LA-based Imagination Illumination, which this year and last lit the Krewe of Endymion floats, for the largest of the Mardi Gras parades.

"When we started, all we had was a sketch from [float builders] Kern Studios, and a vague idea of how the float would be constructed. But we had to do something that would add pizzazz to the mostly static and boring lighting often used in past floats," says Scott Wexler, Imagination Illumination's chief operations officer. The answer: fiber optics, ideal for many reasons, and immune to the rigors of a nine-mile parade route, unlike neon.

Endymion, consistently ranked as the flashiest of all Mardi Gras parades, uses a mix of highly customized floats and more conventional carnival-style ones, each broadcasting the year's theme via scenic elements and signage. (New Orleans prohibits self-propelled floats, so all are pulled by tractors or large trucks; electrified floats usually have a generator towed behind the float.) The parade boasts the world's biggest float, the 200'-long (61m) Captain Eddie's SS Endymion, which holds 200 riders on two levels; it is joined by 27 other two-level floats, 12 of them tandem units.

The parade is fronted by the Title and Captain's floats, the latter led by Krewe captain Edmund Muniz, a chief proponent of adding fiber to the floats. Last year marked the Krewe's 32nd anniversary, and Muniz wanted to celebrate that, and the Mardi Gras theme ("At Home in the Dome," a salute to the 25th anniversary of the Louisiana Superdome) in grand style. Wexler decided to incorporate signage into the design for the Krewe-owned Title float, which consists of three sections, each 36' long (11m), with a 75kW generator bringing up the rear.

THE ABCs OF FIBER The B section is where most of the fiber optics, supporting the signage, is found. The designer had great flexibility, but limited time and budget. Since the theme changes every year, he decided to use a conventional, backlit pre-manufactured sign, approximately 24'x3'. The sign is illuminated by eight loops of Ultratec 1/2" solid-core fiber placed inside the signbox, which was first covered with Mirrorflex from Rosco Laboratories. The reflective surface helped direct the light towards the front panel.

Two Remote Source Lighting International (RSLI) 150MH illuminators with the four-port option light each side, with custom Mardi Gras colors (purple for royalty, green for faith, gold for power) and pastels comprising the color wheel. DMX linked the two illuminators so that the colors would be in sync and complementary to nearby fiber used for outlining float details. The sign panel can be changed yearly and the illumination is done effectively without the cost and problems associated with fluorescent or neon units.

Also on the B section are large letters spelling "Endymion" made of hard shell foam that are immediately below the riders and cover the sides of the float. After the design of the float was complete, Wexler chose to illuminate each sign with end-point fibers, cut to within a 1/2" of the painted foam letters that range from 3.5' to 5' high and up to 2' wide. In consultation with Danny Haydt of California-based Visual Lighting Technologies, a design aesthetic and installation technique was developed.

First, artists from Kern Studios created two of each letter (one for each side). Haydt fabricated custom fiber harnesses for each letter, ranging from 710 to 1,000 fibers per letter ("M" and "N" use the most); the fiber was bundled into packets of 50 strands and numbered. This was done to allow design flexibility with the DMX-controlled color wheels.

The lengths of the harnesses were specified by Wexler based on the letter type and the location of its illuminator. In addition, each harness was custom-configured for each letter, and a spare packet was routed to the letter and coiled behind to allow for pre-installed fiber spares. The fibers were inserted into the foam letters through pre-drilled holes and sealed with glue. While the number of fibers per letter is not uniform, the light output is very close, due in part to the variable number of fibers being used per letter. Each individual end-point fiber was trimmed using a special hot knife, to ensure the proper light scattering properties and high brightness.

Other decorative scenic elements and symbols were reviewed for possible fiber placement. Following the mandate from the Endymion board of directors to generate attention, Wexler also incorporated fiber into the A and C sections of the Title float. The large laurel leaves were sculpted from foam, with channels for the "veins" that were filled with Fiberstars BK 12 side-emitting fiber as a method of bringing color and life into the piece through a coordinated wash from bottom to top. All the illuminators were daisy-chained with TMB Associates-manufactured DMX cables.

BEHIND THE MASKS For placement at the front and back of the Title float, Kern artists developed comedy and tragedy masks which they report as the largest single-piece prop units ever used on a parade float, each about 12' high and 8' wide. Individual foam blocks were glued together, carved into shapes, then hard-coated and painted. Then most of the foam was chipped out and the resulting hollow mask was attached to holders fabricated from 1.5"x1.5" steel stock. Each section of the mask was covered with fiber in a manner similar to the Endymion letters, and facial pieces - eyes, eyebrows, lips, and mouth - were covered with end-point fiber and routed to separate illuminators. Each part of the mask had its own custom fiber harness utilizing CK30 (.75mm) Mitsubishi ESKA fiber. The illuminators were placed behind the masks on shelves attached to the steel frame, and connected to the DMX network.

Forty-five days is not much time to install systems as complex as this and to design a light show, but Wexler knew that adding animation was important and creating a unified color scheme would help achieve this goal. DMX-controlled illuminators were specified as a time- and cost-effective method to achieve these looks. Besides conventional 120VAC 20A circuits, emanating from circuit breaker panels located on each float section, DMX cable was routed to, and through, the three sections of the float. Special provisions were made for a Toshiba laptop, bearing the Rosco/ET Horizon program, to ride in a cradle of foam inside the comedy mask.

The day before the debut of the new float, Dave Daugherty, a systems integrator for Barbizon Chicago, arrived for a marathon programming session. After installing Horizon on the laptop, adding the special interface and its connection to the DMX network, Daugherty set up a tech table 100' away (30m) from the float to begin visual programming. Since each RSLI illuminator had a selectable address, the concept of coordinated effects was easily accomplished. The illuminators provided for lamp on/off, color selection, and speed of color changing. He notes, "The careful planning and coordination during the installation allowed the programming to go smoothly."

Coordinating the colors from the different illuminators was simple, though tedious. Daugherty programmed the first illuminator to appear purple at the top section of letter "E," which would travel through the entire letter, then start at the top of the next letter "N," while chasing away the gold color from the previous look. After all letters were one color, they would change to white for an instant, then the next color would start. Meanwhile, on the masks, the eyes would blink, the lips would smile, and the eyebrows would lift. The side-emitting fiber would turn to a Mardi Gras color, lights would flash, and the process repeat in a different color. Says Daugherty, "Even I was amazed at how completely different the float looked outside of the Dome and at night. Remember, the first thing you see is this giant face smiling and winking at you in the night sky. Then you realize how nice and bright it is, while throngs of people are screaming and fighting for beads."

To ensure a high success rate for the installation, all illuminators were on separate surge protectors and large fans helped exchange air for each unit. Additional "muffin" fans were used to direct air into illuminators that were located inside recessed niches or scenic elements. The laptop had a new and fully charged battery and was on a separate AC circuit protected by a small UPS system. It was programmed to ride with the lid closed, and all components were tie-wrapped to a shelf or support. Wexler notes that of the 36 DMX-controlled illuminators on the Title float, only one failed and that was due to an open fuse caused by a surge from the generator. The organization expects to use generators with internal power regulation for future parades.

FIT FOR A KING The Captain's float, which in each parade is a key part of the Mardi Gras mythology, was also due for an upgrade. Rather than decorate every scenic element, Wexler chose to focus on simplicity and brightness. Through early collaboration with headpiece designers Anthony and Shirley Columbo, this large element (almost 7' tall and about 4' wide, weighing approximately 70lb) is lit with hundreds of end-point fibers and framed with side-emitting stranded fiber. A metal cradle located behind the captain supports the entire headpiece.

There are four fleur de lis, the symbol of New Orleans, on both sections of the two-piece float. Two smaller insignia (2' wide) are lit with 600 end-point fibers. A larger unit (4' wide) is lit with 1,000 fibers; the giant symbol, about 7' tall, has 1,800 Mitsubishi CK30 fibers and two illuminators. Decorative elements are located on the "A" unit, directly behind the captain, and all are treated similarly to the Title float letters and masks.

Two Super Vision illuminators used in conjunction with TPR spotlights are focused to provide frontlighting on the captain - by using fiber, there is no need for glass or electrical wiring that could be a hazard as thousands of trinkets, cups, and beads are being thrown. Two Martin Professional Pro 400 illuminators with automatic color changing and special lenses provide a general color wash. Other fiber elements include Lumenyte solid-core LEF fiber used with RSLI illuminators, all under the DMX control of a compact six-channel controller developed by Artistic Licence (UK). Wide Loyal Industries manufactured the custom-specified rope lighting with the three Mardi Gras colors and unique lamp spacing and circuiting. Special controllers from Wide Loyal complement the rope lighting and allow for sequenced effects (see "Wrangling rope light," page 91, for more on how to use this technology).

SNEAK PREVIEW Imagination Illumination is finishing installation work on another Endymion float for its 2001 parade, scheduled for February 24. Since a basic single-unit float (without lighting and other extras) for a top-ranked krewe like Endymion can cost $200,000 and frequently more, retrofit and rejuvenation are as important to keeping a parade fresh as is developing an engaging theme.

Its "Welcome to the Mardi Gras" float is 110' long (34) and has A and B sections that are being rebuilt and updated. All of the sides below the riders are being outfitted in new decorative elements, with liberal use of fiber throughout. A large sign reading "Endymion Welcomes You to Mardi Gras" is 5' long and 3' high and fits between the hands of a jester as the decorative frontpiece. Wexler says more than 9,000 fibers are being inserted to form the jester and nine illuminators will provide the light (the sign only requires four illuminators). Hundreds of thousands of feet of end-point fiber will also bring this float to life, and more than 60 illuminators have been specified for this project.

Imagination Illumination, as a subcontractor to Kern Studios in New Orleans, also designed and installed fiber on two floats that were part of the recent Orange Bowl parade. Laissez les bons temps rouler - or in this case, let the parade roll on.

While low-tech, and sometimes overused as a decorative element, rope light still has its place, even on Mardi Gras floats, says Scott Wexler. "I use it to add to the energy and excitement of a moving mythical structure, with 100 riders throwing beads and trinkets with both hands. The chases heighten the effect, especially when the float is barely moving and the crowd has been standing for hours. Also, I use custom-manufactured rope light in the three Mardi Gras colors, purple, green, and gold, for added visual interest."

Here are 10 installation "threads" on rope light by Wexler and Imagination Illumination technicians:

1. Always test the section of rope light prior to installation.

2. Make sure that the rope light has acclimated to the ambient temperature before handling. Also, ensure that the temperature is not too cold to install the linear lighting.

3. If installation is to occur in cold weather, plug in the rope light so it will be more flexible and less prone to filament/conductor damage.

4. Never step on or place heavy objects on a section of rope light - conductors are delicate and easily damaged.

5. Always ensure that all connectors and electrical hardware are dry prior to installation.

6. Waterproof all electrical connections for longevity and safety. Wexler uses GE Silicone II caulking for secure attachment of end caps and connector fittings.

7. Always use UL-approved hardware - inspectors and clients look for the labels on electrical equipment that is accessible or visible to the public.

8. Follow manufacturers' recommendations - there are limitations to length and the number of Y cords that can be used.

9. Use stainless steel hardware for exterior applications; this prevents rusting, and unsightly and stained installations.

10. Use appropriate installation procedures, e.g. P-clips or manufacturer-supplied channels. Plan routing of rope light prior to fabrication of foam or scenery pieces.