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More Live Events Innovating With Sophisticated Water Screen Displays

Three-dimensional Grammys go for a spin on a parallel 20ft. water screen at a recent Grammy party at the New York Sheraton (photo courtesy Mirage Water Works).

After two days of coordinated setup, Roy Zartman, CEO at Buena Park, Calif.-based See Factory paused to watch Hollywood's beautiful people cavort around Sony's new PlayStation 2 videogame platform. Demi Moore, Kelly Osbourne, Leonardo DiCaprio, and dozens of others were at the event to participate in “Playa del PlayStation” — Sony's launch event in May for the new product in the parking lot of the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, during the E3 Convention.

What separated the experience of the celebrities that day from others who will be using PlayStation 2 wasn't the videogames, however — it was the screen displaying the virtual battles to the assembled throng. Rather than following the action on plasma monitors, the crowd got to see it projected with amazing clarity on a 30ft.-wide water screen provided by Zartman's team.

See Factory brought its WaterScrim to the party — a water-screen technology now gaining rapid acceptance in the live-event industry. Created by Anaheim's Mirage Water Works, the system offers staging designers and event organizers an interesting alternative for high-resolution projection and display.

Invented by Mirage president Scott Ritt and his brother, Ben Ritt, the system utilizes a combined water collection trough and nozzle system to create the water screen that can display high-resolution projected imagery. Water is recycled via pumps from the ground-level trough to an extruded aluminum box section “nozzle,” through which the water drops under little or no pressure from a series of small holes in the nozzle's bottom surface.

Mirage is not the only manufacturer that provides water-screen systems and expertise. LCI UK, AquaMax Laser Display of Illinois, ECA2 of France (see sidebar), and several A/V companies around the world have created systems and water displays for events and facilities over the years. Mirage's system, however, is considered by industry experts to be among the most widely used and sophisticated systems used in the United States by the staging and rental industry for live events. SRO offers readers a detailed look at how the technology works, different kinds of applications, and expert tips from Ritt and Zartman about key issues to consider when working with water.


Scott Ritt, who studied mechanical engineering and later worked for Union Oil Research, became interested in laser electro-optics in the mid-1980s. After several years working with brother Ben at Southern California-based Laser Media, the two decided to start their own company in 1990 — Mirage Laser Productions, which later became Mirage Water Works.

In 1995, after years of doing laser shows for everything from raves to Pink Floyd tours, Ritt observed an interesting phenomenon one day while doing a laser run at the Riviera Las Vegas Splash Show. “We were programming a new installation there in the middle of the night, and somebody accidentally turned on a water curtain they had there,” recalls Scott. “We saw the laser sparkle in the water, and it gave us an idea.”

The Ritts took advantage of the engineering facilities in their shop, and over the next several years began developing the WaterScrim system. During that process, Scott Ritt used his experience at Union Oil, where he had designed devices for dynamic light scattering.

WaterScrim display wall set up in a pool at the Las Vegas MGM Grand for a VH1 Divas event

“If you smack a droplet with coherent light, the droplet will scatter the light at exact angles, depending on what the liquid is,” he explains. “This explains why the WaterScrim is a rear-projection system.”

That's because light beams projected from the rear of the screen scatter off and through each droplet. Ritt notes that water does not, however, provide much back-scatter, which is what constitutes a front-projected image. This lack of back-scatter from a water surface therefore dictates that water screens utilize rear projection.

“We realized right off that it was the light scattering off the droplets that was creating the image plane, and not the light that passes through each droplet, [otherwise the image would appear upside down and backwards],” Ritt continues. “What we are really doing is reconstituting a virtual image using an array of hundreds of thousands of tiny point sources. This unique projection surface also gives the illusion that the image is floating in mid-air. It's actually a very high-resolution playback system. There are 1,700 jets per every 10ft. section of screen. To scale, then, there are actually more ‘pixels’ than in a high-resolution monitor.”

The droplets in the system are produced by a Linear Laminar Array Nozzle — the previously mentioned, 8in.-wide aluminum box section. The nozzles come in 10-ft. sections, which can be bolted together to make screens of any desired length. The bottom surface of the nozzle section contains several rows of small holes through which the water passes to create droplets.

“They're actually tubes, since the length is more than four times its diameter,” says Ritt. The rows are staggered so that when operating, there are essentially no gaps between the rows of falling water.

A WaterScrim in action at that event (photos courtesy See Factory)

Ritt emphasizes that the water droplets are emitted from the nozzle under little or no pressure. “We did a lot of tests,” he explained. “We had our lateral density, but we had to get the droplets spaced vertically as closely as we could, as well. There is a little bit of pressure on there, but we really don't push the water out.”

Increased pressure, he says, can increase the vertical density, but can also create spray or mist, something to be avoided, particularly in an indoor installation. “Any prevailing wind from air conditioning or breeze will separate the mist and carry it out,” he says, causing an eventual water loss in the system and possible damage to the surrounding area.

One of the ways pressure is controlled in the nozzle — the fifth iteration of the nozzle is called the “V5” — is through a plenum area located in the upper portion of the nozzle's cross section. The plenum is used as part of a patented Anti-Drip System (ADS).

“It's great to have a waterfall dumping 200 to 300 gallons per minute from the ceiling, but you've got to be able to stop it in a tenth of a second,” explains Ritt. “And then it can't drip — not a single drop.”

The ADS instantaneously applies a vacuum, holding the residual water in the plenum until it can be released at the end of the program.


One live-event application of the WaterScrim and its associated ADS is at corporate functions where executives wish to make a dramatic entrance. A 30-ft. water curtain can be created, say, by seamlessly linking three 10-ft. nozzle sections together, each with its own pump supplying water. When operating together, the water appears to fall as a single uniform water curtain. One nozzle, however (the center one, for example), can be shut off independently, revealing a product or person behind, while the water continues to fall on either side of him.

Laser projection of stars onto a water screen (photo courtesy Mirage Water Works)

“You can imagine the CEO or keynote speaker walking out on stage, and as he passes under the nozzle — splash, a big drop lands right on him,” says Ritt of one unwanted scenario. “That's why we came up with the idea of putting the whole system under vacuum.”

A more recent advance on the ADS system is Mirage's Rapid Cycling System (RCS). This system is used in cases where water flow must be turned on-and-off in rapid succession. That effect is accomplished with a combination of vacuum, compressors, and valves.

“We do pressurize the flow in this case,” says Ritt. “If it's under one or two seconds per cycle, then it's acceptable.”

Mirage has put the RCS to good test in a tour currently underway in Japan for the popular singer Yuming Matsutoya, aka Yumi. For this tour, Mirage built what Ritt says is the world's largest indoor water screen ever created. Comprised of seven 10ft. V3 nozzle sections hung 50ft. above the stage (the larger V3 nozzle is used for high “trim” situations for water drops above 25ft. or 30ft.), the curtain spans 70ft. across the stage.

While the center 30ft. section (consisting of three center nozzle sections) can be turned off to reveal the singer, even more spectacular is the coordination of screens and 13 trapeze artists who alternately swing through the water curtain during Yumi's show. As each performer passes through the curtain, his or her water screen section is cycled off, and back on again after the performer returns to the behind-curtain portion of their swing. That process then repeats for each performer.

Japanese singer Yumi dances as a rear-lit water screen creates a silhouette effect. Photo courtesy: ECA2.

“It was difficult to cycle that much water on-and-off and deal with those types of dynamics without a drop in-between,” says Ritt. “That's why we developed the RCS.”

In a situation like Yumi's show, the pumps can be controlled by the lighting director through standard DMX control, or for more basic applications, by simply throwing a breaker.

As mentioned, the water is collected in fiberglass/carbon fiber troughs, each approximately two square feet in cross section. Each 10ft. trough section holds about 80 gallons of water, filled easily in about 15 minutes with a garden hose.

Submerged in the troughs are 3-horsepower, industrial-grade, deep well-style pumps, usually one per each 10ft. nozzle section. (Five horsepower pumps are used for the larger V3 systems.) The pumps are connected to the nozzles via 2in. diameter agricultural hoses, running up the support truss to the nozzles.

To control noise, Mirage places a layer of “pig's hair” baffling material on top of the troughs dampers. “It actually dampens the sound by a good 30db or 40dB,” notes Zartman.

High-trim installations, such as the previously described application, can create a sizable downdraft as the water makes its 50ft. drop. “The downdraft created by this thing will blow your hair back, literally,” says Ritt.

Besides wind, the draft also stirs up a good deal of mist — both of which are controlled by scuppers created by Mirage. The curved scuppers attach to each side of the collection trough and channel the air downward, while recycling the stirred-up mist back into the trough.

Britney Spears and her dancers emerge through a 50ft. waterfall upon which video images are projected.

Sometimes the trough can be embedded into the stage floor, creating a hidden trough covered by a metal grating through which the falling water passes to the trough below. Such an arrangement was used by Mirage for Chrysler at the unveiling of its new Sebring models during the 2000 New York International Auto Show at a converted bank building called Cipriani's on 42nd Street. A group of performers at that event danced in front of a 40ft.-wide water screen holding umbrellas à la Singin' in the Rain, after which a video was rear-projected onto the water. That video presentation showed the new Sebring model driving down windy, rainy roads, and as it approached the camera, the real Sebring vehicles were driven through the water screen.

An interesting facet of the light-scattering quality of water droplets, as described earlier, was put to use at a 2003 Grammy Awards party at the Grand Ballroom of the New York Sheraton. For that setup, See Factory created a “layered” projection by placing two 20-ft. water screens in parallel, about 16-feet apart. Video projectors aimed at the outside surfaces landed their images on the first screen surface (viewable when passing through the walkway between the screens, since it was a rear-projected image), of course, but the droplets also passed that same image onto the other water screen beyond, viewable on that screen's outside surface.

“I was a little bit concerned about some scattering going on,” Ritt recalls about that event, “but it really looks just as good as it does when it hits the first screen.”

As with any mixed media presentation, coordination between disciplines is imperative, particularly during setup, when incorporating a water screen. Staging contractors are provided support requirements in advance, allowing for both the weight of the nozzle and hoses, as well as the weight of the water, usually about 140lbs. to 150lbs. per 10ft. nozzle section. Nozzles are typically suspended from lighting trusses, preferably hung, according to Ritt, from the center (as opposed to the edge) of the truss. This prevents rolling/torquing the truss when the system is powered up and water adds a sudden weight to the system, which might otherwise throw both the nozzles and lighting out of alignment.

Still, like other complex staging effects, some jobs can be a challenge to all crafts involved — the video, lighting, and staging teams, not to mention Mirage's crew. For the 2002 Britney Spears tour, Mirage worked closely with staging designer Michael Tait of Tait Towers to develop an eye-catching finale.

A hexagonal-shaped arrangement of 10-foot V3 nozzles ringed with pyro was set up to provide a cylindrical projection surface for an image of Spears several stories tall. As the image quickly shrank down to life-size, Spears herself came up on an elevator lift through the center of the water ring, replacing her video image. She and her singers/dancers were then carried out through the water on a fly rail “barge” to complete their performance.

“Because she had to crawl under into the center of the cylinder and come up on an elevator, we couldn't really use the standard troughs,” explains Ritt. Tate therefore developed a special recovery catch-pan system, to work in association with Mirage's specially made pair of 800-gallon composite holding tanks.


Usually, Mirage rents the system to third-party rental companies, such as See Factory, which install and operate the systems. Usually, Mirage rents the system to third-party rental companies, such as Zartman's See Factory, which install and operate the system themselves. Zartman began his career as a front-of-house sound engineer and laser showman, often buying laser equipment from Mirage, which is how See Factory became involved with the system. Today, the majority of See Factory's work involves the WaterScrim because “the demand for the water screen is so high, we just put all of our resources into that,” Zartman says.

Thus far, Mirage has offered the system to eight rental companies around the country. Mirage provides them with training at its own facility and onsite of major shows until the rental staff is sufficiently trained. After those initial training jobs, Mirage will also offer discounts to its reps, since it eventually can stop sending its own crew to their events. This arrangement supplying its system to these companies is convenient to the dealers, lowers user costs, and also helps the manufacturer keep its costs under control by permitting it to warehouse equipment locally around the country, rather than having to ship everything from Anaheim for each job.

For different applications, Mirage is now trying to expand the technology beyond its core system. Ritt says the company recently began using several new, related products, and is developing others for introduction to the marketplace in the coming months. For short, high-energy introductions at business sessions, for example, the company has come up with a smaller 5ft. nozzle section, which it calls a “doorway nozzle,” for quick cycling of small panels of water.

“We had so many CEOs that wanted to walk through it, we needed to develop a small section which we could cycle on-and-off to introduce several people in a row,” says Ritt. “It's really just a 5-ft. long nozzle with extra ADS ports on it.”

At press time, Mirage was developing a device called a “channel archway,” also geared toward dramatic entrances. “It's like a waterfall diverter, which sits under the water screen at ground level and creates a passageway through the screen which people can walk right through,” says Ritt. “It doesn't require turning that particular nozzle on-and-off — it just diverts the water. It's great, because they can feel the air move and actually reach out and touch the water, but they don't get sprayed.”

In the dynamic range, Mirage is introducing what Ritt claims is the world's most powerful outdoor peacock tail-type screen, called a Hydropulse system. He says the Hydropulse will produce a large, 100ft.-plus peacock tail display, which can pulse to music as waves pass out from the display's center in a radial fashion. A new indoor dancing water system, which is incorporated into the standard WaterScrim catch trough, is also in the works. It places eight individual long nozzles with varying patterns on them within the trough, cycling on-and-off as desired, or working in conjunction with a conventional water screen.

Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer who covers music, film, television, and the live-event industry for a wide range of publications.



In addition to the WaterScrim, there is a growing number of other water screen systems being used around the world. One of the most well known is the Aquascan system from French multimedia experts ECA2 — a company known for their impressive Millennium fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower and the opening and closing ceremonies of the soccer World Cup event in 1998.

70mm image of a woman projected onto a water screen for the “Sylphy” exhibit at the Ocean Dome at Japan’s Seagaia Resort.

ECA2 actually has several water systems, but Aquascan is its most popular. The system utilizes three 75kW pumps to create a 59ft.-high by 131.2ft.-wide screen. In this case, the water is sprayed under high pressure from a nozzle located at the water's surface, rather than dropping from above.

Until recently, the system only worked with specially-processed 70mm film projection. But since the advent of high-definition video, 70mm film is no longer required, and HD is now the standard for ECA2's Aquascan work, particularly when projected with a Barco 18k projector. Using film or video projection, however, screens can be arranged in any number of configurations, such as at the permanent water display at the Miyazaki Ocean Dome in Japan. That facility uses three water screens (still relying on three 70mm film projectors in combination with video projectors) to make a 246ft.-wide image. Earlier, ECA2 created a six-screen presentation back in 1992 for the Seville Universal Expo, which included a 360-degree projection (using 70mm film projectors).

The company developed the Aquascan system in 1989 — it was created by the company's former president and creative department chief, Yves Pépin.

“As you can imagine, water is the worst screen surface possible,” says Jean-Michel Louis, ECA2's development director. Maintaining the water surface's stability and thickness are therefore imperative for the projection's success. “When you have good control over the water and a special way to shoot the images, you can have something very special,” he adds.

Louis notes the company's emphasis on “multimedia spectaculars,” featuring not only cinematic image projection, but also combining the imagery with other water features, lasers, and special lighting. Last year, the company opened a nighttime presentation called Magical Sentosa on the Sentosa Island resort, near Singapore. That show involved eight air-shoot geysers, explosions, 17 flame devices, and a dense water mist. The resort's mascot, Kiki the Monkey, a CGI animation, was projected onto a water screen during the event.

The company is also in charge of developing a large, permanent water spectacular located in an urban development in the heart of the ancient Chinese city of Nanjing. That display is set to open on Oct. 1 of this year.



Officials from Mirage Water Works and See Factory offer SRO readers a series of tips for working with Mirage's WaterScrim system and water screens in general:

  • Plan on rear projection. The physics of the refraction of light through water droplets being what it is, this system, and any water-screen system, requires rear projection. “We've given up gigs for very upscale clients, just because they didn't realize they had to rear-project,” says Scott Ritt. “It's just not going to do what they think it will.”

  • Use projectors with recommended power. Mirage and some of its affiliated rental companies can supply projectors themselves if required, but usually projection hardware is supplied by a display vendor. Ritt and Zartman note that the system can work with just about any quality rear-projection system, but add that it is important for producers to make sure the display vendor and Mirage or rental companies using Mirage's system have detailed consultations long before setup for the event. For smaller screens (10ft. to 20ft.), Mirage recommends at least a 2000 to 2500 ANSI lumen projector. For 30ft. screens, use 4K to 5K projectors. For 40ft. screens, 10K to 13K projectors are recommended. On occasion, Mirage will introduce a white dye into the water to add additional opaqueness. “We'll do this when a client shows up with a projector that's too wimpy for what we've recommended,” explains Ritt. Roy Zartman notes that ultraviolet responsive dyes are occasionally used as well, creating a fairly striking display.

  • Project with recommended aspect ratio. Mirage recommends a minimum aspect ratio of 1.2:1. Short throw or wide angle lenses (less than 1.2:1 aspect ratio) are not recommended. Wider ratios may work, but tend to increase the angle at which light hits the water droplets, and again, given the physics of light scattering, the image intensity may fall off toward the edges.

  • Keep the area behind the water screen dark — avoid lighting the area behind the screen. Interestingly, the screen can be placed in a well-lit room without affecting image quality, as long as the lighting setup is placed in front of the screen. Also, as Ritt notes, “It truly is a scrim, so if there's anything you want to have seen behind the screen, then appropriate lighting will make a great effect for that object or person.” Thus, do not plan on using the water screen for projection in outdoor daytime locations.

  • Avoid use in windy locations. Wind, and even a slight but constant breeze, can cause havoc with a water screen system. It will not only cause misting, which can damage surrounding areas, but the water loss can also damage pumps. While Mirage does have methods and devices it has developed for dealing with windy situations, such situations usually require a larger “recovery” area around the trough. “We do shows and displays outdoors on a regular basis, and these outdoor displays just require a little more attention to production details,” Ritt says. Some of the limiting factors for outdoor displays are wind speed and direction, trim height of the nozzles, space allowed for the recovery/trough area, and length of time the screen will be operating.

  • Similarly, it's important to watch for leaks. “We'll lay plastic out before we do anything,” says Zartman. “If you get a little drip, it just turns into a big puddle.” Adds Ritt, “As a precaution, we also place catch pans below any hose connections or joints. We make it a priority to keep any water from getting to the floor.”

  • Don't be afraid to put the screen close to the audience. “We've designed and manufactured these systems so that you can put them in close proximity to people or tables or products and not get them wet,” says Ritt.

  • Try unusual applications and arrangements. Water screens don't have to be at one end of a room, for instance. Try placing them in the center, and in interesting configurations, such as L-shapes, corners, circles, and semicircles.

  • Try lots of different content. “Projections of every kind look great, from lasers to video to slide projectors,” Ritt says. “The newer intelligent lighting, with gobo patterns, abstract patterns, just looks beautiful on it. So don't be afraid to include content that you might initially think wouldn't look good on water. Also, don't be afraid to mix media on the screen. Some shows, for example, will superimpose laser graphics or gobo patterns over video projections. It really looks dynamite.”