Inside Illuminations

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Sparky LD returns with another behind the scenes look into the Walt Disney World theme parks. This time he reveals the inner-workings and amazing technology that brings Illuminations: Reflections of Earth to life every night at Epcot.        Video screens shaped like the continents wrap around a 400,000lb earth globe that floats onto the lagoon at Epcot.  This 200 ton piece of hardware is surrounded by flames exploding from an inferno barge and a spectacular fireworks display as IllumNations: Reflections of Earth lights up the skies above Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. Produced by Steve Zimmerman, with John Haupt as Senior Show Producer, this spectacular nighttime show, which has an original score by Gavin Greenaway. Directed by Don Dorsey, with lighting by David Shepherd, Reflections of Earth presented some unusual technical challenges for the design team.  The earth barge itself is a one-of-a-kind item designed by Jerold Kaplan, senior project engineer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and his team.  Measuring 40′ (12m) above the water and 28′ (8.5m) in diameter, this massive globe is on a self-propelled barge with four jet motors (and is the only barge in the show with a driver aboard).  It rotates at the speed of 3rpm.

        The video images were mapped specifically to fit the 15,600 flashcube-sized pixels that create the oddly-shaped LED screens provided by HiTech in Clearwater, FL.  The screens are designed to have 360 columns for the longitude lines and 128 rows like latitudes.  Century 3, a postproduction house, spooled the video onto a disk for playback via computers that travel aboard the earth barge. “To the best of my knowledge no screen has ever been produced to wrap 360 degrees around a sphere” said Kaplan. “As a result, a lot of the technology we had to come up with to accommodate the images and the mounting of the pixels themselves was new to us.  The spacing of the pixels changes, as they converge at the poles and expand at the equator.  The spacing is much tighter at the ends and wider at the middle as if the pixels were mounted along on orange slice.  We don’t think this has ever been done before.”

        The presentation poses other challenges.  “The LEDs are run at almost full brightness (their brightness can be controlled by the voltage they receive) due to all the smoke and flames.   This does not change during the show.  Any Changes in color temperature comes from the video itself,” Kaplan adds. The steel structure of the globe eventually opens via hydraulic control into six petals with a gas torch rising in the center.  The barge is lit with 11 High End Systems EC-1 â„¢ architectural luminaries: two on each of the four corners of the barge for uplight; and three on the top of every other petal.  When the petals open, these lights tilt via DMX-controlled stepper motors to light the torch (the instruments were modified by Disney to meet the requirements of the show). There are also a total of 48 Thomas Outdoor PARs, eight on each petal.  24 of these have GE4559 ACL lamps (aircraft landing lights) to create bright shafts of light coming from the barge.  The other 24 have medium flood PAR lamps with Wybron CXI color changers adapted to fit Aquaram frames.  There are also three 2kW Pitchel fixtures on the barge that were retrofitted from the old lagoon show.  These also tilt using a linear actuator controlled by DMX.

        Scattered around the outside of the steal petals are 258 Flash-Works mini strobes (43 per petal) in six different colors (red, blue, green, orange, yellow and lavender) plus clear. These are individually triggered via DMX “Our goal “says Stephens, “was to outline the latitude and longitude lines, and create a glittery star field as the strobes chase around the globe.” Also out on the lagoon are eight barges with fireworks and four fountain barges carrying both water displays and addional pyro.  The pyrotechnic portion of the show was designed by Eric Tucker of Performance Pyrotechnic Associates (PPA) in Dittmer, MO; the pyrotechnic manager is Bernie Durgin.  The pyro is run by a PyroDigital system with controllers on each fountain barge, with the pyro only barges slaved to these systems.  The control system uses SMPTE time code tied to the audio track.  For additional color, the fountain barges are lit with 500W Stonco PAR 64 fixtures, 127 in all, with glass filters in red, blue, green, amber, clear and highway yellow. The catamaran-style inferno barge is moored in the center of the lagoon at the beginning of the show.  It uses 400 gallons of liquid propane per show for massive flame effects, with special nozzles creating custom patterns. The flame effects were programmed by Dorsey, who played the valves like the keys of a piano.  “It was played real time via MIDI in time to the music.  Then we used a sequencer to record the effects that are run by DMX.  The goal was to spew flames in any direction and change the way fire creates its own movement,” notes Dorsey. “We called the barge Don D’s Inferno.”

        For the national pavilions surrounding the lagoon, Stephens used a verity of existing fixtures including 1.5kW architectural floods, 1kW PARs, 4kW adapted LTM HMIs MR-16 striplights, and 7kW Syncrolite automated luminaries with scrollers and dousers placed on rooftops.  Many of these instruments were re-gelled with Rosco 79 Bright Blue and Lee 126 Mauve. “The fixtures vary from pavilion,” notes Stephens. Most of the pavilions (except Norway and Mexico) are outlined with Tivoli Industries Outdoor Tapelight with 0.7W lamps on 1′ centers.  Diversitronic strobes on the top edges of the buildings and in the windows have red, blue, green, and yellow filters. “These are random, with a clear set of strobes triggered to accent the musical beats.” says Stephens.  The show was programmed using a Rosco/Entertainment Technology Horizon system with 6 universes of DMX; three for the pavilion lighting, two for the earth barge, and one for the fountain barges.  The Inferno barge shares one of the DMX runs reserved for the earth barge.

        The show is run via a Alcorn McBride LightCue show control system, with multiple units; three in the control room above the Mexico pavilion, one on each fountain barge, one on the inferno barge (in a air conditioned stainless steel cabinet to resist head and water damage), and two on the earth barge. The cues from the Horizon were recorded onto the Alcorn McBride flash memory system which remembers the DMX levels and SMPTE time codes needed to run the show.  David Hynds, Disney’s in-house show control design director, was the architect of the show control system.  The Horizon will stay in the control booth as backup for the Alcorn McBride system, and for any programming changes. “Because we use existing cables runs, the DMX is sourced from the booth above Mexico with long runs to Engineering Central, which is located near Spaceship Earth on the other side of Epcot,” Hynds explains. “Then the DMX runs stretch back to the pavilions to run the lighting (longest run is close to ¾ of mile), with Doug Fleenor DMX splitters and amplifiers along the way.”

        The show opened with Interactive Technologies RadioDMX wireless distribution system, until the final version was set in stone.  Once all the cues were finalized they were recorded on to the Alcorn McBride system for permanent control. “We also have wireless Ethernet from all the barges coming back to the control booth,” says Hynds.  “This is used to feed the WonderWare software that provides the monitoring for 3,000 I/0 points on the barges and throughout the park.  This provides error logging and graphic feedback to the control booth personnel. An example of this might be the oil pressure of a generator on a barge or a systems problem.” Allen Bradley SLC505 programmable logic controllers (one on each barge) are used for safety. “Anything that can harm people or cause problems is monitored and run by this,” Hynds says.  “This includes everything from flames to the mechanical effects of the earth barge opening and closing.” “The overall lighting for this show was designed to make sure the video on the earth barge was the brightest thing out there,” says Stephens.  “The lighting follows the story with colors to match the video and imitate the fireworks.  From a lighting standpoint, we helped convey the message of the story of the creation of the earth, and give it all an extra oomph.”

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About the author

Tom Corless

Tom has been regularly visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort from the time he was 4 months old. While he has made countless visits in the last 28 years, he did not become a truly active member in the Disney fan community until the summer of 2007, when he decided to launch the WDW News Today website and podcast. Tom has since become an Orlando-local and is a published author on Walt Disney World.
Contact Tom at [email protected]

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