Raymond St-Jean, image content designer for Zarkana, made his Cirque du Soleil debut with Zaia in Macau (2007-08), and began work on Zarkana two and a half years ago. “We knew had a huge 40’x90’ Panasonic LED video wall in-house at Radio City Music Hall, and the set was designed with that in mind,” he notes, pointing out that there are three arches, or portals, on the set, one of which is also LED to add to the big screen look in the back.
“With the LED portal added to our tool kit, the video encircles the acts as well as provides images behind them. The goal was to fill a huge place with images… and make the overall show one big integrated canvas.” There are also three Christie Roadster 20K projectors with ZAP VIP Dual Yokes, and one Christie M 10K for other images, such as the sand screen painter who opens the second act.
St-Jean notes that doing research, and working with Cirque du Soleil on Zarkana was “a long, very fruitful creative process. The director had the inspiration for doing a freak show… but it evolved from there to the story of a musician who meets all kinds of unusual creatures,” he explains. “Over a series of meetings, we built a visual world around the various acts, including a huge time machine, and I did some research into Steampunk.”
Fly Studio, a graphics studio in Montreal, worked with St-Jean, who called up images evoking everything from Coney Island to David Lynch, and a giant spider web: “It was an 18-month process to build the images after we designed the overall canvas, they did all the 2D and 3D After Effects, it was great teamwork, and we found our own aesthetic.”
St-Jean would bring concepts to Fly Studio, where the animators would start working with images and illustrations, going back and forth with ideas, creating drawings and getting a consensus from the director and other designers before finalizing an idea. “I worked closely with set designer, over the two years,” says St-Jean. “I started early in the process, working with set designer and director...the video is more a part of the set design. To make the video as intrinsic a part of the set as possible, a scrim in front of the LED wall helped make the sets lighting and video all work together as one. The director comes from opera and film, and he had a clear idea and vision for the show. The video is very organic and brings the set alive.”
St-Jean explains that is was essential to make sure the decisions in a big show like this are the right ones. “Sometimes are not reversible,” he notes. “So everybody was involved for a long time, it was a long, very integrated design process.” VYV Photon video servers are used to drive the video and the interactivity of the show, and integrate the images with lighting, audio and automation.
“With Alain Lortie, who is great lighting designer, we started with the whole set in an arena in Orlando, where the big creative push for the color palette was made,” St-Jean adds. “We spent long evenings playing with the wonderful toys we had at our disposal… the set created by Stephane Roy was made to be transformed by light and video… We played with images and colors, had a lot of fun, and went to NYC. The color palette was rough when we started at Radio City with what we had in Orlando and it evolved as we went along. We chose a certain color palette for each number, then in Orlando played with it…
“The 3D animations are hard to change once they are finished,” St-Jean adds. “But the basics were all set in brown golden tones, and the video servers could change colors as we went along with Alain and the director... it was an interesting two-way process, as we changed the palette from the lighting and or the video.”
For the ‘wheel of death’ scene, St-Jean designed a large machine with gears in the background, and as he explains, “The video is controlled by the wheel of death itself… there is the notion of interaction between the acrobatic apparatus and the video images,” he says. “There is live interaction with the video— as the wheel turns it makes the video go at the same speed…it is not pre-programmed. There is a decoder in the middle of the wheel of death, if it stops, the wheel stops, when the wheel goes forward it goes forward, etc.”
During the ‘hand balancing’ acrobatic act, the backdrop is a curtain of ropes, with a projection of the performer’s silhouette. “There is a camera filming him, done live, and we project a filmy silhouette onto the rope curtains and LED wall. It is a simple but beautiful moment,” adds St-Jean.
“In the high wire act, the idea was to how to use the video to direct the audience to the performer and not distract,” St-Jean continues. “There are snakes coming in to frame the act and look at the act, not take away the audience attention. The snakes react to what’s happening on stage…what’s great is the technology that works so seamlessly, not to make the effects too obvious… but very organic. If you have snakes they should react, but it’s a show, they don’t perform at the same speed every night. This is interactive to what’s happening with the act each night, it’s complex… and beautiful.”
As Zarkana comes to a close at the end of each show, the stage is flooded with images of red roses and white clowns, a visually magical moment that reflects the technical, as well as acrobatic artistry, achieved by Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall.