LE MOULIN À IMAGES- Making history for Quebec city’s 400th

Andrew King, Assistant Editor of Professional Lighting & Production

The organizers of Quebec’s 400th anniversary celebrations (Société du 400e anniversaire de Québec) knew they wanted to do something “big” in honour of such a milestone — and deservedly so. They didn’t know what, where, or even when, but they did know who and why. With grandeur in mind and a blank canvas, the group approached Quebec-based artist Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina to create something special that would bring the city together and celebrate its rich culture and history.

Years of planning, a historical building, 27 projectors, 40,000,000 pixels, 25 km of optic fibre, 100 moving heads, and 300 loudspeakers later, le Moulin à images (The Image Mill) came to fruition. A collaboration between Lepage and Ex Machina, projection specialists ETC Paris, light and sound supplier Solotech, and a slew of additional help, The Image Mill ran over the course of the summer, drawing thousands of spectators a night to partake in the multimedia experience.

The initial seeds for The Image Mill were planted around four years ago when Lepage was approached to design something. Working mostly in theatre design, but also films, rock shows, and circus shows, Lepage is well-known around his stomping grounds. “His work is becoming better and better known,” says Ex Machina Producer Michel Bernatchez, “so it was kind of natural he’d be involved in such a project involving his home city.”

Lepage’s idea involved projecting images onto the city’s 81 Bunge grain silos — something he’d wanted to do for some time without opportune chance. “We approached [the organisers] with the proposal of projecting images on those silos, and they gave us carte blanche:” explains Bernatchez. “So once we negotiated our budget, we were free to move forward.”

Given a total of $6 million to play with ($5 million for the initially-proposed 40-night run, and the other million for the 20-day extension), Ex Machina decided to bring ETC Paris into the fold due to its experience in large-scale projections in Europe. Also, ETC designed the Qnlyview multi-screen video manipulation software that would be employed to control the projections. 

The show is 40 minutes long, and that means a lot of media content. One might think it’d be finding enough content to entertain for 40 minutes that would be the chore, but in reality, condensing 400 years of history in one lucid presentation was the challenge presented to Ex Machina. Luckily, the team had some help.

“We gathered people from the advertising and marketing world, historians, researchers, computer graphics designers, and projection specialists, and spent about a year-and-a-half trying to discover exactly what this would be about,” explains Bernatchez.

Adds Production Director Mario Brien: “We had to get some images from the archives — provincial archives, national archives — about Quebec’s history. Then we tried them on the model, which told us if they could feasibly be projected or not.”

To test the functionality of the projections during the development of the project, Ex Machina built a scale model. The Bunge silos run about 600 m across and 30 m high, and so the model ran about 30 ft. long and 2 ft. high. “We had to work for about two years with the scale model and five video projectors,” recalls Brien.

With the model in place, the show was built piece by piece, with various team members proposing sequences and ideas to Lepage. “Robert was the referee, so to speak:” laughs Bernatchez. “People would make constant pitches to Robert, who’d say, strike that one, keep that one.”

The images themselves span Quebec City’s four centuries of history, and with this framework, the production is presented like a concerto in four parts. This isn’t a documentary; there are no voiceovers. It is a story told through interconnected media. “We decided to start with engravings, and then slowly move to paintings, and then photography, and then to film, and then to computer graphics and more contemporary means of expression,” comments Bernarchez about the show’s development. In this sense, and in keeping with the eras being depicted, the video and tech-based elements of the presentation don’t come into play until the fourth segment.

“Obviously, more documents were available for the latest century, and so the fourth part is longer than the other three parts together,” Bernatchez explains. “But we still kept that structure, as it helps to have a frame to develop something so unusual. This is a strange piece, and there aren’t many precedents.”

Because of this, even the folks from ETC Paris were involved in the learning phase. While there have indeed been large-scale projections in the past, none have incorporated so many elements with the purpose of conveying information. Bernatchez discusses how other projection projects often resemble a series of screen savers being played sequentially. But in this case, he says: “We had a story to tell.”

“You can make a car drive by quickly on a 30 ft. model, and it looks okay, but when you make a 20 m bus move across 600 m of screen, you have to be careful,” explains Bernatchez. Putting the show together in pieces in the studio, the teams would secretly test the projections over the summers of 2006 and 2007 in preparation for 2008’s extended run. “At 3 a.m., we’d set the projectors on platforms and run tests” he remembers.

For the real projection, there are 27 Christie projectors set in 15 projection houses running along the front face of the silos. Each of the 15 projection houses, built on scaffolding and sitting around 10 m high, is climate-controlled to keep the equipment from overbearing. The placement of the projectors on such a large site was one of the first (of many) obstacles to be faced.

“From a technical point of view, the installation at the mill wasn’t easy,” says Patrice Bouqueniaux of ETC Parts, who crossed the pond as the company’s main projection liaison. Trees, poles, and buildings all needed to be avoided. “If you’d have made standard projection system, you’d have a bunch of shadows on the wall.” One key measure taken to distribute the projection as evenly as possible while avoiding obstacles was to flip each projector on its side. The vertical projection allows the units to sit closer with a narrower horizontal angle that can be more easily maneuvered.

Bouqueniaux spent around two months in total working on the projections with the Canadian team, making around 12 different trips during the few years of preplanning. “A lot of tests and a lot of experiments — it was a real work in progress,” he says. “Because of the work of Robert Lepage, we had to make the system as flexible as possible.”

Another snag was the cylindrical shape of the silos themselves. “We’re not working with flat surface:” explains Brien. “We have software to correct the focus of the projection — to make sure the deeper parts of the silos are just as focused as the front face.’’ Still, many images wouldn’t look realistic if projected onto the silos themselves even after software manipulation. “If we project vertical images — candles, bottles, logs — it works very well.”

Each projector has to manage a certain amount of pixels, and for images to flow properly, the projectors need to be tightly in sync. “If we have a train running across the screen, we have to make sure it doesn’t jerk when being passed from one projector to another,” says Brien, This is where ETC’s Onlyview software had the chance to shine. “With the software, it works just fine. ETC is used to these types of projects.”

When the images were being created with the graphic designers, they had to calculate exactly which projector and which amount of pixels would be used for specific sections in relation to others. Needless to say, the Onlyview package was pulling a lot of weight. “On some sections of the show, we have more than 900 layers playing at the same time,” comments Bouqueniaux, “and the software is able to process a lot of aesthetic decisions in close to real-time, with very little rendering.”

Because of the aforementioned obstacles, a few of which weren’t avoidable, a number of masks needed to be written into the show. “There’s one belt conveyor, for example, that we want to project onto sometimes, and at others, we don’t. So we can set and remove the mask,” reveals Brien.

Despite its capabilities, the software can only take so much abuse. “We had to keep on rationalizing our use of the software, because it wasn’t built for 40 minutes of information,” says Bernatchez. “Compressing files and proposing that Lepage began parallel sequences that would overlap, rather then starting at the same time, was normal.”

Despite the magnitude of The Image Mill’s projection element, the lighting set-up is nothing to sneer at. Lighting Designer Martin Gagnon, along with the technical team and Montreal’s Solotech had their work cut out for them indeed. “It’s s large-scale event, but built entirely with little pieces,” says Richard Lachance, VP of Rental and International Development at Solotech.

“We’ve been involved since the beginning,” he says. “The LD had multiple options, but of course there were the usual budgetary limitations.” Solotech brought in various pieces of equipment for resting to best fit the productions needs. The production features 110 SGM Genio moving heads. “They were looking for a low-consumption solution, so that’s why we went with the SGMs,” offers Lachance. “We bought them for this particular project. They gave the effect that was necessary, and were low-consuption LEDs, so they were green. We’re not pulling four-odd cables to give you 400 amps per phase to do this stuff.”

That desired effect was to add depth to the project, and enhance the viewers’ experience. “There’s a very important feeling of environment to this project,” explains Lachance. “There’s 5.1 sound, present low end, and a 3D design to the image, so the whole audio and lighting package adds depth to the show.” For those interested, the show’s sound set-up features over 300 loudspeakers and subs running along the viewing area. For spectators taking in the show from deeper in the city, or perhaps a hotel room, several radio stations are simultaneously broadcasting the show’s soundtrack.

Along with the Genios, there are 89 16’ strips of Color Kinetics Colorstrip to help extend the environment. Brien explains: “On top of each silo we have upper galleries, so Lepage decided to extend some of the images and have them leap off the screen. For example, we have a segment where each silo becomes a candle, and with the Colorflex, we make the flame.” With the moving heads, its also easy to project on the silos’ upper galleries, and on a cloudy night, even the sky.

Weatherproofing all of these units was another challenge the crew had to face, considering the three-month outdoor stint. “The gear had to be protected from the elements — and I mean all the elements,” says Lachance- about 2008’s strange summer. “We had the worst rain, the worst temperature, and a lot of bird droppings. Pigeons galore.” Some initial problems occurred when the ram met the Genius. “They’re supposed to be rated at IP-65, but at the beginning, some of them were full of water. We had to pour the water off the casing of the light, dry it, and set it back on the truss. But now it seems to be fine.”

The Genios, Colorstrips, as well as some CityColor and Studio Color fixtures, are all controlled through a grandMA console, which like the Onlyview software, was pushed to the brink in order to make the show come together. “The console works with NSPs, and each NSP I believe is able to manage eight DMX universes,” Brien says. “We have eight NSPs, and are running 36 DMX universes.” This presented a problem at first, as the grandMA couldn’t carry the load of universes.

“We had to go online and check some forums, and we found out we were using the maximum amount of NSPs. We were at the board’s limit. So we had to use some new tricks and cues to get the images that we wanted,” explains Brien. Another snag came from the Colorstrips, and the fact they’re made with a PSU working with video images, and so video images needed to be used to get desired colours from each LED.

“We had to convince Solotech to buy a DMX PSU, to be sure we’d be able to send colours from the graudMA without video images,” says Brien. He explains that Colorstrips are usually used as a curtain with images projected onto it. “For us,” he explains, “it wasn’t possible with the time we had to develop enough video images to make something interesting. So Solotech decided to buy some DMX power supplies, and then we were able to work through the grandMA directly.”

To get the lighting gear mounted, the lighting truss was assembled in 50 ft. sections on the ground, and then mounted by crane onto the top of the mill. This was done to ensure safety and save time. When everything was mounted on top, the connections were made and everything began to sync up.

Speaking of safety, another favourable quality of the Genios was the cooler working temperature offered by LEDs, considering the mill is a flammable environment. “The grain dust, when it’s suspended in the air, only needs a little spark before it goes up,” says Brien. The CityColors and Studio Colors are mounted atop the annex building (the main projection screen on the mill) since there were fewer safety concerns.

The Image Mill also incorporates 24 JEM fog machines for various effects, including bringing the destructive fire at the foot of the 20th century to life. “We had to build a steel racking to set the foggers inside and make them weatherproof,” remembers Brien. “When you send fog with the 24 machines together, it makes a pretty big puff.” Toronto’s Christie Lites supplied the foggers and truss, as the equipment wasn’t available in Quebec.

There’s also a giant Syncrolite atop the mill for a lighthouse effect, and even a snow machine that sprays out a thick mist for certain scenes. Having all the different components work together in sync was no easy task. “Everything had to be perfect,” states Lachance bluntly. “What wasn’t perfect was redone and done again.”

The last component of this giant puzzle is how it all comes together. The mill is located right along an extension of the St. Lawrence, so there’s a water pool that separates the mill and projectors from the sound system, light and sound booth, and spectators. With this huge sprawl of equipment comes a huge length of optic fibre — 25 km, to be exact — and so extensive power solution.

At the Port of Quebec is a big electrical station, which is where the primary power is connected for the projections. “We have some 6OO V,” begins Brien. “From there, we had to set over 20 electrical posts. On top of the posts, we have 6OO V crossing the whole area in front of the building. Then we have some step-down transformers to bring the power down to 208 V for the projectors.”

On these same posts, just under the power, is an insulated ground. Due to the dual-occupied projection booths, there needs to be separate grounds for projectors and coolers to avoid video noise. And since these towers are around 10 m high, there are lightning rods atop each to prevent surges.

“It was a big part of the project setting up all of the power and signals,” remembers Brien. “We have a steel cable crossing from each pole with the optical fibres sending video data to each projector.” With the projection control booth in a construction trailer in front of the building, there’s s giant spider going out of the building sending signals to the projectors; however, the light and sound control booth is on the side with the public, so there are fibres sent under the water to spread the signal. Add on the Internet fibres and the time code fibres linking the entire system through the water pool and back, and you’ve got your 25 km. “It’s s big network.”

The Image Mill is an experience based on the marriage of light, sound, and video, as well as the cooperation of a number of techs and designers. “The mixing between the soundtrack, the images, and the lighting creates something spectacular,” says Bouqueniaux in reflection. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The team has actually submitted the size of the projection for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records, and is expecting positive results. Everyone involved praises Lepage for his deep involvement with the project. His dedication is evident through the work, and is amplified considering he wasn’t paid a cent. “It was, so to speak, his gift to his home city for its 400th birthday,” says Bernatchez.

Bouqueniaux enjoyed his time in the city collaborating on the project, and says it was a perfect collaboration between the artist, paying homage to his city, and the entire technical team. “I’ve seen the show over 20 times,” he states. “I’ve been back with my children and my wife, and it’s something we’re all very proud of.”