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Specials: Behind the Curtain

"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 ( 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 insanity."

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, , 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 correctly.

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 Bellagio.

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 (, 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."


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 under development.

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 ropes.


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."

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