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Fri 1 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Secret of the desert

Boasting a raft of technical innovations and regional industry firsts, Jumana - Secret of the Desert is one of the most complex live productions ever staged in the Middle East.

An initiative of Dubai Heritage Vision (DHV),
Jumana - Secret of the Desert

is a theatrical celebration of Arabian culture and heritage, which in true Dubai-style, is augmented by one of the largest pyrotechnic, water and laser effects presentations ever seen in the Middle East.

A technological tour de force,
Jumana

is also the first production to be staged at Dubai's new desert amphitheatre contained within the Al Sahra Desert Resort, which is located in the emerging Dubailand precinct.

When the wind is in our favour, the combination of [high definition] video projection, lasers and lighting effects is truly spectacular.

The production incorporates various laser, pyrotechnic and large-scale water effects, including three massive water screens that are used to project stunning high definition-quality digital video and stills, and a tub-thumping sound system that produces an output of 110dB to 120dB at any point in the amphitheatre.

While a cast of 52 dancers and acrobats - not to mention camels and horses - bring the show to life five nights per week, a crew of 17 permanent technicians supply the real magic, with the multimedia spectacle forming the lynchpin of the production.

Coordinating this team is technical director Simon Ransom, who was recruited during pre-production to manage the various technical aspects of the show.

That was two years ago, and Ransom, by his own admission, says that even he couldn't envisage then how the show would develop in the ensuing period.

"The creative concept for the show existed long before the technology did," he explains. "The original concept, which was developed around four years ago, didn't call for the inclusion of video projection. However, the development of 25,000 lumens projectors made it feasible to produce really impressive high definition quality images that would form a cornerstone of the production."

Ransom concedes even he was sceptical when the idea of projecting these images on to massive water screens was first proposed.

"At first I had serious doubts about the plan, because water screens are not a perfect medium when it comes to projection," he says. "But again, the proof is there to see."

The high definition visual installation, which includes animation sequences, was created specifically for the show by Frenchman Pierre Marco and his team at Paris-based Prism International.

Three Christie Roadie 25K projectors - each running HD-SDI input full-frame HD and positioned at the rear of the water basin - are used to project these images on to a 100 metre-wide display consisting of three separate water screens.

Ransom and his team employ a variety of effects throughout the water basin to enhance the image presentation, including forward-projected PG images that provide added texture, 14 oscillating water jets positioned front of stage and Octopus and Ballerina water effects to the rear of the stage.

"We actually employ four water layers at different stages throughout the show," Ransom explains. "We have the main water screen, water jets to the front and rear of this and mist on the stage. When the wind is in our favour, the combination of HD video projection, lasers and lighting effects is truly spectacular."

Both the Christie 25K video and PG 7,000 watt slide projection systems are first-of-their kind installations in the Middle East and one of the first permanent installations of both technologies anywhere in the world.

Ransom is understandably proud of this fact, as he is with the sound quality provided by the L-Acoustics sound system, which provides a pseudo-surround-sound experience for audience members, which can number up to 1,200 at any given show.

"We run the audio off an ADAC-enhanced 24-track hard disk player," says Ransom. "We employ 14 audio tracks, which are mixed down to the various locations, and two or three timecode tracks, which we use as back-ups and to drive the other technologies used throughout the production.


"The show itself runs on timecode, with the exception of the stage lifts, the flying cable and the follow spotlights. In every discipline, we have a technician monitoring the systems in place."

The PA system consists primarily of L-Acoustics products, including 115XTs, 108Ps, and Kudos SP-218 sub-bass speakers, which are each driven by L-Acoustics amplifiers. Sound control is provided by a Yamaha O2R digital mixer, supported by Sonifex Red Box digital interface systems and Ashley delay units.

It’s not an ideal environment to be exposing this technology to...[but] most of the equipment has proven remarkably resilient.

DHV recruited world-renowned pyrotechnics designer Francois Montel of Groupe F to develop the fireworks presentation, which ranges from small Bengal effects to 150mm shells, and 18 flame projectors positioned at various points on the stage.

Montel is best known for developing the pyrotechnics presentations at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics, and for his elaborate fireworks design that lit up the Eiffel Tower during the millennium eve celebrations in Paris.

A Dubai Civil Defence-approved private storage facility is located on-site that typically holds four weeks' inventory of fireworks supplies. DHV also employs two full-time pyrotechnicians on-site.

In terms of lighting, the production primarily employs DMX-controlled, Coemar fixed-focus profile spots that have colour mixing, shutters and zoom capabilities. Coemar i-flex spots are also used in various locations.

Ransom says that while Coemar "was not at the top of [his] list" of preferred suppliers prior to working on the production of
Jumana

, he has been suitably impressed with the performance of the spotlights since their installation.

"The lighting designer convinced me they were up to the task and I have to admit they've performed impressively to date," he says.

In addition to the spotlights positioned in the six towers surrounding the amphitheatre, the production employs Robert Juliet 2Ks positioned on top of the control room towers, 40 250w Coemar panorama washlights that are positioned at the front of the seating block, and a variety of Thomas pixel bricks and Coemar MKIIs scattered across the stage.

Behind the sand dune to the rear of the stage, one dozen Philips Arena 1800w floodlights are positioned to provide silhouette effects during the show.

Lighting control is provided by Coemar digi-factor dimmers and two Spark 4D desks, one of which operates as a back-up support system.

"The lighting desk also controls stage blitz lasers that are positioned on the stage, which are very versatile devices," says Ransom, who explains that Coemar developed much of the equipment specifically for DHV to cope with the rigours of the local environment.

"All the products supplied by Coemar are branded ‘desert' specification, and are designed to withstand the extreme climatic conditions that affect the site," says Ransom. "We eliminated any unnecessary features to ensure each lighting fixture was ‘desert compatible'."

Indeed, the desert environment presents one of the greatest ongoing challenges to DHV and the
Jumana

production team.

"Of course, it's not an ideal environment to be exposing this type of technology to, but we have twice-weekly maintenance schedules where everything is thoroughly cleaned," explains Ransom. "It's also partly the reason why we have a full-time technical team on-site that looks after the equipment."


He adds that key technologies, such as the Christie projectors and Yamaha audio console, are housed in air-conditioned rooms to safeguard their operation.

"Most of the lighting fixtures are shuttered away between shows, which provides a degree of protection from the environment," he says. "The lights in the towers either side of the stage have suffered the most as a result of them not being protected by shutters. However, overall most of the equipment has proven remarkably resilient."

Ransom says from a logistical perspective, one of the biggest challenges he and his team faced emerged towards the end of the installation period.

[Al Sahra was] literally created from nothing. Just two years ago, the site was a dunescape. [Now] it’s one of the most sophisticated venues of its type in this region.

"We had to install the stage lifts after the water basin had already been completed, which proved a considerable challenge," he explains.

"We contracted a local crane company to lift five individual five tonne pieces over a 70 metre stretch into the pit. It was an interesting scenario to say the least, given the wind factor and the fact we were pushing the limits of the crane's reach capabilities."

The stage itself measures 35 metres by 25 metres and in addition to these four hydraulic lifts, also supports a suspended cable that runs the length of the stage and is capable of supporting a load of 500 kilograms.

The flying cable is used to perform various aerial stunts during the show.

While
Jumana

is a technical marvel in its own right, perhaps DHV's most impressive achievement is the construction of the Al Sahra Desert Resort itself.

As Johan Viljoen, general manager of DHV explains, the Desert Resort venue was "literally created from nothing".

"Just two years ago, the site was a dunescape," he says, adding that DHV's primary investor, Dubai-based construction giant Dutco Group, has committed more than US$120 million to developing the site, which includes a souk and is set to boast a five-star boutique hotel.

"The investment required to create a venue such as Al Sahra is significant and the amphitheatre itself is one of the most sophisticated venues of its type in this region," Viljoen claims. "The advantage we have here is that the technology employed in the production of
Jumana

is non-exclusive in that it can be used by clients who hire out the venue."

Indeed, in addition to
Jumana

, Al Sahra has already hosted a number of high-profile corporate events, including the recent Dubai One free-to-air television channel launch and the official GCC unveiling of the Porsche Cayenne range.

"In both instances, we hired out the venue and made all of the technology and infrastructure available to third-party production companies," says Ransom.

Al Sahra also partnered with Dubai-based promoter Patrick Jarjour to stage the first Full Moon Dance Party held in the Middle East last month (see page 12), which followed on from successful events in Goa, Ibiza and Thailand.

In addition to DJ performances, the event featured many of the technologies showcased in
Jumana

, including laser and water effects.

As for
Jumana

, Ransom and Viljoen agree that the show has the potential to become a permanent fixture at Al Sahra for many years to come.

"
Jumana

definitely has a good few years in it, mainly because the technology is so leading-edge," says Ransom. "And the tourists love it."

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