By Brooke Sever
World-class celebrities weren’t the only show-stoppers at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. A custom-built, open air theatre, built by Al Laith Event Services, proved a spectacular centre-piece for the event and represented a mammoth effort - logistically and technically.
Dubai-based Al Laith Event Services completed the imposing 2000-capacity Open Air Theatre - and main hub - for the 2010 Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) on the esplanade at Katara, Doha last month.
The impressive architecture of the temporary structure, designed by Jeremy Thom, production designer for the DTFF event, featured 14 huge steel arches - the largest at 85 metres wide and 26 metres high - and boasted an overall weight loading capacity of approximately 100 tonnes.
In addition to the seating tribunes (also supplied by Al Laith), it also housed the 23 metre wide screen, a full orchestra stage, several technical areas for sound, lighting and projection and backstage facilities like dressing and green rooms.
Project managed by Al Laith’s Jo Marshall, the complex and demanding brief for the structure required it to be capable of hosting a world premier screening; to accommodate the 88 piece Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra which played a live soundtrack composed by Nitin Sawhney to the 1929 classic silent movie, ‘A Throw of Dice’, and to stage multiple live performances and film screenings as well as the finale concert.
The arches were constructed from Serious Stages’ Space Truss, of which Al Laith has large quantities in stock in its yard in Dubai. The Space Trusses are just one of the products offered by the event services division of the company, launched in March 2010 as part of a long term triumvirate trading agreement between Al Laith, Serious Stages and Atlantic Enterprises from the UK.
The equipment to build the Katara Open Air Theatre - totalling about 1200 tonnes - was road freighted from Dubai in 62 trucks via Saudi Arabia. The basic structure itself took two weeks to erect, and the whole project was delivered from conception to completion in just two months.
The high profile DTFF event is administered and organised by a cultural partnership between the Doha Film Institute and Tribeca Enterprises, founders of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It celebrates the best of contemporary Arabic film making and also runs an extensive educational programme and competitions for young and would-be film makers.
When the DTFF event’s director Michael Petrovitch -one of the Tribeca team - learned that they were short of a venue back in August and there were no other suitable alternative buildings, an inventive solution was needed in a very short timescale to create a space large and flexible enough to meet all the criteria.
The Katara location was effectively a completely “brown field site” adjacent to the beach - requiring all the basic resources and facilities like power and water to be installed. Critical to the whole project was that the building featured impressive aesthetics and was harmonious to the surrounding environment, including the new Katara Cultural Village development, which is just nearing completion.
When New York based Jeremy Thom first looked at the site, the curves and confluences of the space of Katara struck him, which are also related to the shape of the esplanade itself, so a curved structure immediately jumped into his head. “I wanted it to be fluid and have an organic feel, so squares, sharp angles and anything harsh or insensitive was out,” he explains.
Thom and Michael Petrovitch had not worked with Al Laith before, but they were aware of the company and the scope of its work. Al Laith also ticked all the boxes in terms of being a regional supplier. As with all major cultural events in Qatar, the requirement is increasingly to first look locally and regionally for the skills and resources, before going ‘overseas’.
The venue design was already evolving when Thom visited Al Laith’s substantial facility in Dubai, discussed his ideas with Jo Marshall and looked at the available materials.
When he saw the Space Truss, he realised that he could construct 90 per cent of the Open Air Theatre from the off the shelf product range offered by Al Laith, and that with the addition of a fixed length joiner bar to one rail of the lengths of Space Trussing, he could also turn the main arches into ellipses - something he has never been able to do with other trussing and staging elements. “This is absolutely unique to the Serious Space trusses,” he says.
The fact that Al Laith could also mobilise the operation immediately was a key factor and at this point, the ball started rolling very fast. The design was finalised and signed off and Thom collaborated closely with Al Laith/Serious structural expert Dragan Kuzmanov to finalise the engineering and bespoke elements needing fabrication.
“These are the type of challenging projects in which Al Laith Event Services can really engage and excel, and it’s been an amazing experience, from which everyone has learned. The atmosphere and camaraderie on site was incredible, and everyone is very proud to have been involved in creating a distinctive and beautiful structure for this landmark event,” says Marshall.
The 50 crew supplied by Al Laith comprised 35 from Dubai, and 15 Serious/Atlantic riggers from the UK. The Dubai crew have all been trained to work on these roofing and staging systems, another integral idea behind the setting up Al Laith Event Services to have more of these specialised skills available in the Middle East. John Wilson was the project manager for Serious Stages and Jeremy Mosdell the roofing co-ordinator.
The first 2 arches (nearest the sea wall) of the Open Air Theatre were 45 metre wide semi circles 4.5 metres apart, in which the projection platform was housed in a completely independent free standing structure to avoid all vibrations. This area also held audio and lighting control stations and an elevator to service the projection/control booth.
The screen was housed in a 40 metre wide by 20 metre high arch, with 35 millimetre digital projection was supplied by Boston Light & Sound, a Tribeca Film Festival production partner.
The audience section of the structure – including 300 VIP seats - was in the open air under the stars, with no roof skins over the arches. Moving around the structure from all angles, the geometry of and interplay between the arches added to the magic of the design.
Many cosmetic finishing touches included dressing, cladding, branding and the application of graphics, for instance, was overseen by Antoine van de Wiele and the team from ArScene Evolutions based in Cannes, France.
The Open Air Theatre production manager was John Adkins, and lighting was designed by Adam Bassett, who ensured that the intimate feel of the venue was preserved and the structure had an additional and different presence at night.
Bassett approached lighting the building ‘’As a piece of architecture, celebrating its shape and enormity’’. Each individual arch was illuminated with 130 PAR cans, supplemented with a V*L3500 Wash luminaire at its base.
The arches also provided lighting positions for a comprehensive audience and stage lighting system comprising over 120 moving lights - supplied by PRG, along with most of the rest of the lighting equipment. The decision was made to dead hang each fixture individually on the arches to preserve the integrity and enhance the shape of each.
Rigging large quantities of heavy units at height in the baking heat of the Doha sun wasn’t the quickest or most practical approach, but the massive effort paid huge dividends in terms of appearance and was fully embraced by the crew undertaking the task.
Doha based CCG provided some lighting and two distinct PAs for audio which were housed in the structure. One was a Dolby 7.1 system supporting films that met both Dolby and SMPTE specifications for theatre/film soundtrack, plus a separate system for all the musical and live performances.
The atmosphere on site during the build was extraordinary, and remarked upon by everyone involved. “It’s been a great experience working with a world class group of people on this. Everyone has just got on with what they have had to do, and morale was really high from Day one,” says Adkins.
Michael Petrovitch agrees. “It was hugely ambitious to design, engineer and build this in two months - and the amazing teamwork that resulted was truly inspirational. Our client in reality was the people of Qatar – and that was our big picture – bringing something to Qatar that could engage and appeal to everyone.”