"Secrets of the «O» Curtain"
Text by: Keith Johnson | Jan/Feb 2008
Fascination! Newsletter, Issue #57
Few moments in theater have the power to suck you in as completely as
the opening of Cirque du Soleil’s "O". From the moment the luscious
red velvet curtain "whoosh’s" away one is immediately startled and
transported into a wonderful watery world. And if you’re like us you
might take a second to wonder, "How did they do that?" before the next
visual treat commands your attention.
Fisher Technical Services of Las Vegas, Nevada
(www.fishertechnical.com) built the apparatus that whisks the curtain
away. The "Fisher" is Scott Fisher, a former Technical Manager for
Ziegfried & Roy who formed his own company which designs and maintains
automation equipment for the entertainment industry, specializing in
winches and flying rigs.
A kind source, whom we’ll call "Mr. E" or just "E," was involved with
the construction of the "O" theater. He started his career with the
Ziegfried & Roy show. This included a relationship with one of the
biggest props in the show, the dragon. "When I first saw the plans
for it, it was absolutely the most incredible piece of lights and
stage automation I’d ever seen in my life. It’s 20 axis of total
The Ziegfried and Roy magic production show at Steve Wynn’s
groundbreaking Mirage was the first big production-type show to turn
an incredible profit for a casino in both ticket and ancillary revenue.
(Prior to Z&R, the "showroom" of a casino was considered a loss leader
as shows were cheaply priced so as to bring in gamblers.) When the
show originally opened tickets were USD$65.00, which at the time was
thought to be very expensive. But high demand spurred tickets to $80,
$90 and then $100 with no ceasing of demand. It was the success of
The Mirage, and the gambling industry discovering that revenue could
be realized from shows, food, and hotel rooms as well as gambling that
spurred the building of the current crop of "mega resorts" (and the
creation of more Cirque productions!).
Fisher Technical won the contract to create the "O" Curtain winch and
"Comet" and "Aurora" flying winches, which were some of Fishers first
projects. During that time they also supplied water tube/sculptures
for Blue Man Group for its show at the Luxor. (Fisher’s website,
www.fishertechnical.com , has several cool galleries in their "Past
Projects" section and videos in their "Media" section of their
installations, its worth checking out.)
Part of why Fisher got Cirque’s business had as much to do with the
quality of their winches as their ability to help Cirque communicate
their technical needs. Owner Scott Fisher is not only a very good
technical designer, but also a very good technical writer, which
requires a specific set of writing skills to specify equipment
Consider that an order for a winch might only consist of, "We need 25
winches that go five feet per second and lift 700 pounds." That’s
fine for an initial conversation, but how do you translate that into
language you can then send to contractors so they know exactly what
you want and bid the job correctly? To create a technical
specification much more information is needed. As Mr. E. explained,
you have to be specific. VERY specific. "The shafts have to be this
weight, and have to abide by this standard, and they can’t be made out
of this material, and they can only be so noisy, and they can’t leak,
and they have to have this type of service factor. There are a whole
slew of technical issues related to how you specify that equipment.
And since all of it is prototype and custom manufactured, you have to
write out the specs every time." And in this Scott Fisher excelled,
which was a talent Cirque needed.
By the time Bellagio was announced, Cirque had already established
itself as a force on the Las Vegas scene with "Mystère" at the
Treasure Island. "The first room that was as close to a theater as
Vegas has ever had is Mystère," says Mr. E. "The only thing that
prevents it from absolutely being a "theater" with a Capital "T" is
cup holders. My training says theaters don’t have cup holders."
(Even that theater had its own set of challenges as it had to have the
control side of its automation system rebuilt when the original turned
out to be a failure.) So it was a foregone conclusion that Cirque du
Soleil would be involved in some way with Steve Wynn and his dream
And Cirque was thinking big; their original plans were for a Bellagio
theater twice as costly as the theater that exists today. The stage
was twice as big as what eventually got built - you would need four
current stage footprints placed together to equal the original planned
stage size. "It was absolutely, unbelievably huge." The original
capacity of the theater was estimated to be somewhere between 2,000-
2,500 patrons (a bit more than the 1,800 it ended up with).
Those lofty dreams need to be considered in context. Original hotel
plans suggested the resort would sit on a man-made island, with one
huge curved hotel tower and all the back-of-house functions
(housekeeping, kitchens) underground. That plan ran aground, so to
speak, with the same problem many strip hotels face, the Las Vegas
water table. Vegas’ water table (the distance below the topsoil where
water resides) is very shallow. And just underneath the water table
is very hard bleached rock, called Calishe, which is costly to dig
through. This explains why so many hotels (including the Bellagio)
have a three-wing structure; it’s easier to support on the ground.
(Wynn was later able to achieve his dream of one curved hotel tower at
his Wynn Las Vegas - evidently resolving the soil issue.)
After the initial hotel plans fell back to Earth everything went
through a re-design, including the Cirque theater. Other than losing
the huge stage, however, theater plans stayed close to their original
design. There was a natural tension between Cirque, who had their
eyes on their creation, and Mirage resorts, who had eyes on what was
practical for the bottom line. "I think that those negotiations were
workable with Steve [Wynn] because Steve has a pretty good vision and
is willing to take that bet," suggests Mr. E.
For the Bellagio project, Cirque would first discuss plans with the
theater consultants, Scéno Plus (www.sceno-plus.com, former Cirque set
designer Michel Crete’s group). They would come up with blueprints,
drawings and specifications, which would then go to Mirage Resorts.
Mirage would then give them to the general contractor to build the
theater and supply the automation, rigging, lights, sound, and so on.
"The biggest challenge with the Bellagio theater was simply having to
deal with contractors who are in the theater business [but] who are
not theater people. They do not understand the creative vision. They
are not willing to do whatever it takes to try and reach the goal.
You’re dealing with people who will sell you crap if you let them get
away with it. And there’s an awful lot of that that comes in the door
that you just have to deal with."
Though he did not have a lot of interface directly with Cirque staff,
what contact E. had was pleasant. "They’re always professional.
Theater people are theater people. [Their main goal is] trying to do
what they need to do to meet the designer and director - the creative
teams’ - vision. Everybody at Cirque that I’ve interfaced with,
that’s always the goal."
A goal with a few quirks. "I’ve sat in meetings [with Cirque] where
people start talking and they’ll be some guy who will say, in French,
"Why are we speaking English?" And he’s obviously upset that a
meeting has been started in English." (This would be because Mr. E
and his colleagues don’t speak French.) "[After being told this]
he’ll be like, "Oh."
An "O" viewer’s first exposure to the winches provided by Fisher
Technical comes during pre-show animation. The winches that drop
Guifà’s object of desire ("Aurora") from the ceiling of the theater
are Fisher creations. They also built the winches that the Comets use
while "flying" from one point on stage to another.
Cirque’s use of winches to propel artists through the air can be
traced back to earlier "flying man" rigs. As Mr. E. commented, "I
think the genesis for [Cirque’s use of winches] was the old Vladimir
strap act." Vladimir Kehkaial left "Nouvélle Experience" for a more
lucrative offer from the Stardust Casino, and moved into a starring
role in their production show, "Into the Night". But adapting the act
from the Chapiteau (where he flew over the audience suspended from a
point high at the top of the tent) to the constraining 13-foot limit
of the "Into the Night" showroom ceiling was an insurmountable
challenge. "It was horrible. It was a stupid idea to begin with."
"Vladimir, and some of the other guys that followed, had these winches
they built without safety devices and other things like that. And
Scott [Fisher was one] of the only people who had experience with
higher levels of automation and could build winches that had all the
appropriate kind of safety mechanisms and could perform in a way that
Cirque needed them to. And that’s been an ongoing process."
The winch requisition process was a fairly straightforward
conversation. "They’d say, ‘We need three flying winches.’ ‘OK, how
much weight do you want to pick up?’ ‘250 pounds, 1 person.’ ‘How
fast?’ ‘14 feet per second.’ ‘OK!’ And you go do the engineering
and you tell them, ‘This is how much it will cost.’ And they go, ‘Oh
my God! OK we’ll pay it.’ And then you go build it."
BUILDING THE "O" CURTAIN
Cirque’s publicity machine often recounts the difficulties they had
working with water while creating "O." The opening curtain presented
challenges as well. The first curtains were made from expensive china
silk, which only lasted about a week. As Mr. E. explains, "There was
a lot of testing done. That curtain shredded many, many times. [It]
would catch on anything." And in a humorous aside he adds, "There’s
some law of physics that says that if a piece of silk or nylon is
moving faster than a couple of feet per second, it will then be
attracted to any sort of snag-able object." Each time they would test
the effect the curtain would snag or shred and "the costumers would
roll out with their sewing machines and stitch it up."
Trying to get the curtain effect to work, they turned to Fisher
Technical. "The curtain was really [Cirque saying], ‘Here’s what we
want.’ That was then followed by several very good riggers pounding
their heads against it for several months as the show was loaded in,
until it was what you now see."
The custom-built winch that pulls the curtain resides high in the grid
rigging over the stage. Weighing around 500 pounds and about 5 ½ feet
in height, its 8-foot winding drum (with high sides to take up the
curtain) acts as a big sewing spool, powered by a 20-horsepower SEW
EuroDrive induction motor mounted vertically. Once activated by a
technician holding a joystick touch screen, over its six seconds of
"cycle time" (the time it takes the winch to pull the curtain) it
pulls at 15 feet per second.
The curtain itself is nylon, approximately 50 feet high by 100 feet
wide, and light in weight. To the casual observer’s eye, however, it
looks like luxurious velvet because "it’s lit exquisitely." Two ropes
from the winch attach to the curtain (which is really two pieces) at
the center. When the signal is given the winch starts pulling, the
hooks at the top of the stage release, and the curtain (and audience)
is swept away. The frequent winching does hurt the curtain and it
occasionally needs to be replaced, but not as often as while it was
The curtain that appears out of the basket at the end of the show is a
different curtain from the one at the beginning. This, too, presented
challenges, says Mr. E. "You can see all the ropes it’s attached to,
it was just insane. If it’s screwed up, it’s like mis-packing your
parachute, it’s a total write-off. If you don’t get it right, it
doesn’t work. You can’t just say ‘Stop!’ and work it all out." So a
special device, called a "Kabuki Release System" was developed for the
curtain to allow it to unroll uniformly and not get tangled in its
FINDING THE "MAGIC SPARK"
Mr. E’s approach toward the creative process of "O" gave him his most
satisfying Cirque moment. "I worked on the hell that is getting [the
theater] ready to begin rehearsal. And [I stuck around for] just a
bit of the rehearsal process, (starting around May of 1998) making
sure everything was sorted out. Once everything that the hotel was
required to do to give them the gear was done, and they had all their
people brought in, I just very quietly drifted off. Unless I was
needed, I intentionally did not go back into that theater for the rest
of that summer. I really had no idea what they were going to do [with
the equipment]. I knew what it would do, from the standpoint of
speeds and loads and that sort of stuff, but that doesn’t speak to
what the show might be. And then I was able to go to opening night
and see the show. And it was absolutely amazing, absolutely
spectacular, to see what they had done with all of that equipment.
And that was the most gratifying experience I had with Cirque."
When Mirage Resorts was bought by MGM a different set of relationships
with vendors and suppliers of equipment came into play, so Fisher
Technical wasn’t involved in Cirque shows post-"O". Fisher expanded
to new clients and new challenges, many of which are detailed on their
website. It is they and other suppliers of theatrical technical
equipment that help bring the "magic spark" of creative vision to life
on the stage. But no amount of equipment can create a magical show
like "O" without that special "magic spark."
We asked Mr. E. what provides his greatest challenge. "Not being able
to provide equipment that is a real paintbrush for the director. We
have yet to achieve that mode of allowing the director to just be free
to be spontaneous with the technology. The technology still holds us
back. And so the biggest challenge is really trying to get to that
point. And with anything you do there are always mis-steps and mis-
directions. You have to come back and try again and keep going down
that path. Whether or not we’ll get to that before my natural life is
over I don’t know."
What provides his greatest satisfaction? Working on effects that
create that "magic spark." "Remember the illusion of the lady who
transformed into a tiger during the Ziegfried and Roy show? What’s
your reaction to that? It’s quick and it’s a charge in that
environment. And it’s the same with ["O"’s] opening curtain. It
absolutely sucks you in to what’s going on. It’s that experience, as
well as watching that experience in others, that I first encountered
when I was doing plays in high school. [It’s a] melding between show
and audience. When that happens - what the Grateful Dead used to call
"walking the wolf," when a mysterious wolf ‘walks’ through the
audience and through the stage, when there’s a connection there that
happens - that’s the theater thing. And that’s what drives me."