The brightest star in the West goes high-tech

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Nearly a century after arguably the nation’s greatest tribute to glitz and pageantry was established, the nucleus of Las Vegas, its vintage Fremont Street, has burgeoned into a testament to technological achievement. The term Las Vegas pluralizes “Vega,” which is defined as “a star of the first magnitude that is the brightest in the constellation Lyra.”

Now boasting the “Biggest Big Screen on the Planet,” The Fremont Street Experience was originated in 1995 as a seven-block, open-air pedestrian mall featuring live entertainment, casinos, restaurants and specialty shops. But on June 14 of this year, a 1,500-foot-long, 90-foot-high digital video screen comprising 12.5 million LED lamps and displaying more than 16.7 million colors made its spectacular debut. The high-tech canopy, called Viva Vision, which cost $17 million to produce, daily hosts an immersive audiovisual extravaganza beginning at dusk and running every hour.

“The Fremont Street Experience, itself, was a concept kind of out of necessity back in the early ‘90s, with all the phenomenal development at the strip,” explains Joseph Schillaci, president and chief executive officer of The Fremont Experience, LLC. “The owners of the different casinos and hotels here got together and, as they saw that a lot of the occupancy and revenues began to erode because of the strip development, said, ‘We really need to do something.’”

Live entertainment buzzes on Fremont Street.

Thus was the conception of ideas and, subsequently, the birth of a decidedly dramatic option.

“They looked at several different concepts,” Schillaci says. “One concept was to do a water theme, and they were going to do a series of canals to have an attraction. But they settled on closing the streets of pedestrian traffic, covering it with a canopy, creating kind of a ‘wow’ factor with a light and sound show on the canopy … that would represent the area in totality and actually be responsible for the show content: the entertainment and also the maintenance and security of the area. And that was the creation of The Fremont Street Experience.

Flashes of light bombard around the mammoth canopy during “The Drop.”

“It kind of stemmed the tide of erosion here, in terms of capturing a good percentage of the total visitors who come to Las Vegas coming down to our area,” Schillaci continues. “And about a year or so ago, after having the success of the old sound and light show, they were looking for alternatives to upgrade the technology, increase the ‘wow’ factor, have more capabilities in terms of different functionality with new technology and at the same time reduce operating expenses. And so the idea was to replace the incandescent lights with LED technology, which accomplished all of those objectives.”

Originally consisting of 1.9 million incandescent light bulbs, the old graphic display—showing 65,536 colors and having a resolution of 2,596 pixels by 184 pixels—paled in comparison to the new state-of-the-art unit. The 2004 version, manufactured by LG CNS, Co., Ltd., uses 72-86% less energy and is characterized by an 873% resolution enhancement. Picture quality is comparable to that of HDTV technology.

But all the facts and figures clearly are overwhelmed by the magnificence of the splendid first-hand audiovisual encounter. One of the six-minute shows, called “The Drop,” depicts a mystical, dreamy underwater world inspired by natural and mythological phenomena and created by Hollywood design agency Imaginary Forces. (The online QuickTime movie displays the show’s live debut as shot on video.)

“One of the [conceptual cornerstones] was ‘painting in motion,” says IF designer Grant Lau. “You’d think of it as this really huge canvas, and inspired by different artwork. Then we started building the story.”

Imaginary Forces assembled the glittering and unfolding array by combining such elements as mermaids, schools of fish, blossoming flowers, sharks, manta rays and cascading bubbles.

“Basically, it was just open-ended,” says Lau of the commission by Las Vegas promotional specialist the R&R Agency. “They said that we could pretty much do what we so desired. We started with the concept of ‘speed,’ and it kind of progressed to other things. … There really were no parameters.” “The Drop” spans six minutes.

As for the actual project development of “The Drop,” itself, it presented some unusual challenges.

“We’re used to working in kind of a standardized format,” says Lau, “but this [screen] was so shallow in vertical depth. And there were problems that you run up against when working on a project that you’ll be looking up at. It’s also domed. … Plus, it was four blocks long, so things that you thought were in perspective may not be, and you’re not going to know what someone else is looking at four blocks down.”

A view during the American Freedom Premiere, held on July 3.

A wide and shallow display, indeed. The project resolution measured 7,552 pixels wide by 552 pixels high—at 944/69, its aspect ratio being a far cry from those of television (4/3) and film (16/9). The “canopy” screen configuration also involves a domed curvature, which distorts perspective—particularly across such a wide expanse.

The two-minute sequence opens with a tumbling, snaking, watery blob that flattens into a pool and expels a single drop. The isolated drop explodes into masses of droplets that, in turn, become expanding pools and fade into shooting, bombarding overhead spears of light—something like watery fireworks. In addition, there is a horizontal arrangement of lights shooting from left to right around the watery dome’s curvature, sharks swimming amid bold colors and manta rays undulating above. Also appearing are slits of imagery—occupying about one-fifth of the screen depth—displaying scads of bubbles and sharks, silhouetted sharks flanked by lightning bolts, brightly colored schools of sharks and a painterly mermaid swimming through the array of 2D sharks. Painterly flowers also appear, along with miscellaneous shapes and honeycombs, a natural scene from the orient morphing into a monotone beach view, and more. Surfers ride the watery dome’s waves, Asian patterns unfold and a slippery mythical monster slithers across the screen.

It’s a dynamic, entrancing and diverse collage of spinning, twisting, firing and curving visuals, and it all ends with a final sequence being vacuumed into a spinning water drop that plummets into a pool. The pool ripples outward as the music quiets and the animation fades to black. The awesome sight-and-sound experience also uses a 550,000-watt sound system to deliver concert-quality audio via 220 remote amplifiers strategically located throughout the outdoor mall.

The sharks frolic in the presence of bursts on the canopy during “The Drop.”

As for the development of the project, which in total spanned about six weeks and finished in late April, Lau used MAXON Computer’s CINEMA 4D R8, on the Macintosh platform, to model 3D objects, texture and light them, and render to sequential Targa files.

“I used it to build a lot of elements,” says Lau of the 3D software best known for its ease of use and flexibility. “I used it for the surfer thing—to build all the little flowers in there. And we used it to cluster things, like a school of fish. We didn’t actually [model] a whole scene in there, because it would have been too crazy. We wanted to have the flexibility of actually having [flower] petals open and close. Then we brought it all back into another program and comped it all back together again.”

Lau also used CINEMA 4D’s powerful particle system to create emitter objects, such as the bubbles. After sequential-still importation into After Effects, Lau added post effects and re-output to Final Cut Pro. There, soundtracks were synched with the visuals.

“Just something that was progressive and fun,” says Lau of the audio used in the production. “We knew that they were going to play it day in and day out, so we needed something that people would not get bored with.”

Other project tasks involved the use of Photoshop and Illustrator, the former for storyboarding and texture creation, and the latter for storyboarding and sketching. Some of the animated objects appearing in the sequence, such as the mermaids, were hand-drawn in Illustrator.

The aliens make an appearance during the “Area 51” show.

Another six-minute show, “Area 51,” is a fantastical alien world created by The Fremont Street Experience’s own design team. “Area 51” shows extraterrestrial spacecraft flying overhead and performing diving maneuvers, extravagant explosions and green aliens communicating with the viewer.

The plans drawn up for Viva Vision included the increase of luminosity levels from 32 to 256—providing bolder, richer color through increased illumination intensity—and updated computing technology that expanded storage capacity from 360 gigabytes to 9,600. The old system used 32 PCs to run the apparatus, compared to the current 10.

“The control room is actually located in the parking garage where we do business. I would say the control room is about 250 to 300 feet away from the canopy for Viva Vision,” says Director of Show Operations Danny Murphy. “There are, I would say, thousands of feet of fiber optic cables that pipe out the data from the control room to the various locations atop the canopy.”

Development of Viva Vision began in June of 2003.

“It’s kind of difficult to pinpoint the exact starting time of the overall project, because it’s a combination of a lot of elements, from the computer systems that run the screen, to the controllers to, of course, the 12.5 million LED lights,” says John Taylor, vice president of Public Affairs and Communications for LG Electronics, USA, Inc. of Englewood Cliffs, NJ. (LGEUS is the North American subsidiary of LG Electronics.) “It’s taken the better part of a year for our sister company, LG CNS, to consult, design and construct the Viva Vision screen.”

As for the future of this mind-boggling technology?

“Well, LG CNS is looking at these large-format screens in other installations around the world,” says Taylor. “Another example of this kind of technology is in Manhattan, in Times Square, where there’s an enormous LG-branded billboard. … It’s the largest ‘high-definition TV’ in Times Square. That was actually launched in December of last year.

“From LG’s perspective, we are very proud to play a role in the development of this technology, and to give artists this enormous canvas with which to showcase their art,” continues Taylor. “And by using the combination of CINEMA 4D—and the flexibility that that gives to video artists—and this enormous LG canvas, it’s a tremendous viewing experience.

The Viva Vision screen literally lights up the entire night sky of Las Vegas, and the programming that you view on this enormous screen is hard to put into words; it’s breath-taking. And I think it’s a tribute to the vision that the business and government leaders in Las Vegas have to create this Viva Vision screen, and a tribute to many, many people—from MAXON to LG and every other partner that has made this a success.”

Funding for the development and implementation of the Viva Vision screen was provided by participating casinos and the local visitors and convention bureau.

The Viva Vision Technology team comprised LG CNS, Co., Ltd. and its parent company, LG Electronics, Inc. of Korea (technical design and development of digital video system), Newton Technologies, Inc. (component development and fabrication) and Casino Lighting & Sign (installation and maintenance).

Ed Scott is a freelance writer and computer graphics specialist residing in Missouri. He can be reached at

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Member Opinions:
By: Ladyhawk on 8/31/04
this is truely amazeing work of art, thank you for the info!! oh would I love to see some of the fractals from RR up on that screen, :0)very cool!!

By: Hythshade on 9/1/04
Living in Las Vegas, I can assure everyone that this truly achieves the wow factor. If you have to travel to Vegas, I reccomend stopping by for a look, it's definitely a marvel behold

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