By Aaron Greenwood www.arabianbusiness.com
Last month’s pyrotechnics-rich gala launch of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, presented unique and unprecedented challenges to the production design team.
At 828 metres tall, the Burj Khalifa represents a triumph of human engineering and a riposte to Dubai’s recent band of critics.
The gala launch of the building, which was four years in the making, was spearheaded by Dubai-based event production firm Prisme International, with the showcase fireworks display sub-contracted to renowned French pyrotechnics outfit Groupe F.
Prisme International CEO Pierre Marcout described his company’s role in the launch as the realisation of a long-held ambition.
“For three years, I have been dreaming that I would design the inauguration of the Burj and now I have,” he says.
“We didn’t want to make the opening ceremony about any celebrities, as the celebrity is the Burj Khalifa tower. We wanted to magnify the 828m of the tower for all that is… as it is truly one-of-a-kind.”
With Prisme being awarded the contract in the third week of November and the launch planned for January 4, time was of the essence for Marcout and his production team.
The theme of the event took inspiration from natural elements, such as light and water, mixed with distinctly Arabian themes, such as the Hymenocalis desert flower, which in itself was an inspiration for the architectural design of the tower.
“I wanted the audience to hear about the story of the Burj Khalifa through different elements, such as light, water, fireworks and, of course, the projected images to support the narration of the story,” explains Marcout.
The height of the building wasn’t the only record breaker revealed on the night – a 72,000W light projector, the biggest ever used, illuminated the structure during the course of the opening ceremony.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!…
The Burj inauguration performance commenced with a short film which depicted the story of Dubai and the evolution of Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building. A precisely choreographed sound, light, water and fireworks display then followed.
First phase of ceremonial launch
The first act in the light & sound show, themed ‘From the Desert Flower to Burj Khalifa,’ was a coordinated water, light and firework display. The segment ended with a rhythmic water and fireworks show.
The second act, ‘Heart Beat,’ utilised 300 space cannon projectors to generate a shadow-like image of the tower. The presentation was designed to ‘recreate the effect of a beating heart’.
In the third act, ‘From Dubai and the UAE to the world,’ sky tracers and space canons enveloped the tower in a halo of white light before reproducing the sun beams of the Emaar corporate logo, providing a strong lead-in to the lighting of the building’s spire.
The fireworks presentation topped off the inauguration, lighting the entire 500-hectare Downtown Burj Khalifa precinct.
In addition, 320 space canon projectors – the most ever employed at a single event in the Middle East – created a shadow effect outlining the tower.
More than 860 high-powered ‘stroboscope’ lights were integrated into the Burj Khalifa’s facade and spire, with each being fired individually during the presentation.
Powerful strobe lights were fixed near the pinnacle of the tower, and six ‘narrow beam’ search lights were positioned 700 metres up the tower.
Music throughout the course of the event was composed exclusively by renowned French film soundtrack producer Mike Lanaro and recorded by the philharmonic orchestra ‘Opera de Paris’.
However, the crowning achievement of the launch was the fireworks display, conceived and implemented by Groupe F.
Established in 1990, Groupe F has developed a formidable reputation for designing elaborate fireworks displays for major events including the Millennium celebrations in Paris, the 2004 Athens Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, the inauguration of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and various New Year’s Eve events in London, Rio de Janeiro and Dubai.
The Burj Khalifa launch presented a host of serious logistical challenges to the Groupe F team – led by president and artistic director Christophe Berthonneau, project manager Cedric Moreau, high access workers manager Eric Fauroux and technical director Simon Ransom – not least of which was the sheer scale of the pyrotechnics installation.
While Berthonneau had harboured a similar long-held ambition as Marcout to be involved in the building’s gala launch, having conceived his initial design for the pyro display in 2007, the last-minute nature of the project presented a raft issues.
“I got the call from Pierre and it was all systems go. That was four weeks before the show,” Berthonneau explains. “I knew exactly the design that would best suit the launch. I had been studying the building during its construction and had come up with plans for a fireworks event incorporating the design that had been shelved a number of times previously.”
Berthonneau says the concept was “a mix of some of the best-known projects [Groupe F had] worked on and something purely conceived for the Burj”.
Perhaps the best known of these projects was the Millennium celebration staged at the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2000. Trainspotters familiar with the project would have recognised certain elements from the Eiffel Tower event in the Burj launch.
“We wanted to create something we felt was more organic [than the Eiffel Tower celebrations],” he says. “I never design the same way twice though. You can never test your designs because of the cost.”
The Groupe F team commenced work on the building façade on December 20 installing an initial run of inert materials. Ransom says active materials were put in place in the days prior to the launch.
“We installed fireworks on the building’s 27 terraces, while on the full length of the structure we installed three runs of 40 points, 18 metres apart, in addition to numerous effects,” he explains.
Sound as ever
While the fireworks display dominated the Burj Khalifa gala launch, time-synched audio played a significant role in the overall event production.
Prisme International contracted local pro audio production firm Delta Sound Dubai to manage the audio requirements for the Burj Khalifa event.
“This was the first time Prisme had specifically requested that we do the sound for an event like this, so it was definitely a feather in our cap,” says Delta Sound Dubai director Andy Jackson.
Adding to the challenge was the fact Delta had just 10 days to put together a professional audio package capable of accommodating the event.
“The lack of notice was not down to Prisme, we were all in the same situation,” Jackson stresses. “There couldn’t be any commitment to the creatives until the right person had the right piece of paper to say ‘Yes, definitely go ahead’.”
The audio system had to incorporate sound for a 100m-wide projection screen, sound reinforcement for the spectacular, Bellagio-style fountains – located between Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall as part of the project – and also a reveal system for the tower itself.
“We had to trigger the fountains for a specially commissioned version of the UAE national anthem and another commissioned piece of music for the reveal,” explains Jackson.
“This meant we had to provide timecode to interface with the fountain control room, which was located a kilometre away. We achieved this by using eight BSS Soundweb blu160s and a Soundweb blu800. Because of this, and the fact we needed to get the system comms up to the 157th floor of the tower, we used around four kilometres of fibre optic.”
This was just the start, however, as Delta’s timecode was also used to synchronise the firing of the pyro materials.
“We used an IZ Technology RADAR multitrack to trigger everything, as we have done on other shows,” says Jackson.
“Mixing the show was done on a Digidesign Profile, interfaced with a ProTools HD system.
“The composer worked with us, taking the original ProTools sessions he had recorded and remixing it to get the very best out of the system.”
Also in use was a 360 Systems Instant Replay server and a Yamaha LS9-16 console. The main PA system comprised 28 L’acoustics V-DOSCs, 24 dV-DOSCs, 18 SB218 subs and MTD 112 loudspeakers, all powered by LA48 amplifiers and equipped with XTA processors.
“With everything being pre-recorded, the actual running of the show was fairly straightforward,” says Jackson.
“The main challenge lay with the synchronisation and getting comms so far up the building.”
Utilising 32 Clear-Com 501 beltpacks, four EF701 interfaces, four MS232s and one MS704 main station, plus eight HME wireless kits, the communications system worked very well, says Jackson.
And, given that the previous world record for the greatest number of floors in a building was 110, by default Delta now lays claim to the record for the highest number of floors a temporary fibre optic communications system has ever reached, having gone 47 better.
“It was certainly a challenge, but everything went extremely smoothly and it was very gratifying to be part of such a unique event,” says Jackson.
“The fireworks material was imported specifically for the event, with the vast majority coming from Spain and the remainder from France.
“There was more than one tonne of active material installed in total. We fired from around 200 different positions, ranging from 80m to 828m.
“Because of the building’s location and its height, we had to use minimal fallout white projectiles. The show was predominantly white for a reason – white burns quickly and has minimal residue.
“We brought in 24 professional climbers from France to perform the rigging work, and 68 staff in total. Complicating matters was the fact we were committed to staging the fireworks display on behalf of the Jumeirah Group as part of the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Dubai, so it was a busy time to say the least.”
With the vast majority of pyrotechnics materials installed on the building and Groupe F in the final stages of preparation, good technical planning saw potential disaster averted four days prior to the launch when a lightning strike caused a series of fireworks to explode on the tower’s spire.
“The strike set off a static charge, which in turn transferred to one of our firing boxes which mustn’t have been isolated,” explains Ransom.
“The fireworks are set up in cues. Each cue takes a different voltage to safeguard against multiple firings. Two or three multi-shots were all that went off, so it looked more impressive than it actually was. We’d already laid out the effects on the pinnacle, which is only about 1.5m wide.The strike ignited eight or nine of 450 effects in total, so it was pretty well contained.
“The civil defence team, which included around 40 firemen and police, was there on the spot. My biggest challenge was ensuring no one rushed to the top straight after the strike.
“We had all of the effects in show position, so we had to ensure nothing else could go off if someone rushed up without the proper precautions being taken.”
Scaling the façade of the world’s tallest building is a challenge not for the faint-hearted. Here, the key players discuss their approach to tackling their fear of ascending the world’s tallest superstructure.
“I’m not afraid of heights but I’m not too bothered I didn’t get the chance to go up there too often. It’s an unbelievably imposing structure, particularly above the 124th floor (where the main viewing platform is located).”
Christophe Berthonneau, president and artistic director of Groupe F.
“Above the 160th floor it gets really challenging as that’s where the spire begins, which is all-steel. To get to the very top you have to climb a series of staircases and ladders hidden within the cylindrical structure. The final climb to the top is more than 200m, which to put in perspective, is like taking the staircase to the Eiffel Tower’s highest viewing platform at a base height of 600m. It wasn’t for me to be honest.”
Simon Ransom, technical director of Groupe F.
“I did go to the very top on a number of occasions during the lighting install. You have to get over your fear of heights pretty quickly when it’s part of the job. We did however have one guy during the build stage who took the [exposed] construction elevator to the 160th floor and had a bit of a moment when he got there. We thought we might have to helicopter him down, because he was too scared to get back in the lift!”
David Gray, architainment manager for principal lighting integrator Oasis Enterprises.
Ransom says the project also augured in a new era of cooperation between events organisers and the civil defence.
“We were really well supported by the Dubai Civil Defence,” he says. “This project marked the first time I had been invited into the police briefings, which is a significant step forward.”
Ransom says that one of Groupe F’s best attributes as an organisation is the number of altitude climbers it has on its books.
“These guys are all highly qualified pyrotechnicians, which makes these types of projects easier to plan for,” he says.
“They’re all hugely experienced climbers. We had to alter the make up of the rigging team at the last minute because one of the guys who was slated to work on the project got called back to France to take part in a cave rescue mission.
“He was only one of four guys available who had been trained in a certain rescue procedure required.”
The Burj Khalifa launch represented a landmark event for Dubai and, in the opinion of Berthonneau, a symbolic coming of age for a more recently maligned city.
“Our first project in Dubai was the Shopping Festival back in 1994, which in hindsight, was the beginning of this massive development phase which has put Dubai on the map internationally,” he says. “The opening of the Burj Khalifa seems the natural culmination of these efforts.”
For Ransom, the event marked the opportunity to work on a project the scale of which is unlikely to be emulated any time in the near future.
“The Burj Khalifa project had unique written all over it, and it’s not often we get to do something totally unique in this region,” he says. “It was definitely the most interesting assignment we’ve worked on as an organisation.
“It’s not every day you can say you’ve coordinated a team of 20 riggers who spent the majority of their time hanging off the side of an 800m tall building.”