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Mike & Robots


The creative experimental laboratory within Cirque du Soleil.

Though C:LAB was established as a subsidiary of Cirque du Soleil in more recent times, the Cirque has always had an incredible group of people keen to experiment with new ideas and technologies. In 2014, Cirque du Soleil reorganized them into C:LAB today. Welby Altidor, Executive Creative Director of Creation at Cirque du Soleil, heads this group, and you'll find a number of creative minds within. C:LAB has produced a handful of projects so far, which you can learn about here.


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When household objects come to life onscreen (think candlesticks and teacups in Beauty and the Beast, books and brooms in Harry Potter, the cast of practically every Pixar film), it’s the result of careful animation or painstaking CGI. Done well, it’s magic. But computer-generated imagery doesn’t translate well into live theater, so researchers in Zurich have concocted an enchanting alternative: dancing drones. For the past five years, a team with ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) has studied the possibilities of “athletic quadcopters,” algorithmically-powered drones that can solve problems like a human might. Their work caught the attention of Cirque du Soleil, which you could say also is in the business of solving physical problems. The unlikely collaborators created SPARKED, a special-effects-free video starring a repairman and a troupe of dancing lampshades.


The lampshades are, of course, drones in costume. Verity Studios, an ETH offshoot, shot the four-minute film at the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zurich, which researcher Markus Hehn calls a “sophisticated test bed for autonomous flight … used for development, testing, and demonstration of flying machines.” Established at ETH Zurich in 2007, the Flying Machine Arena serves as a testbed for research in aerial vehicles. ETH Zurich researchers have explored quadrocopter control and state estimation, trajectory generation, increased autonomy, adaptation and learning, high-precision flight maneuvers, aerial construction, and cooperation between multiple vehicles.

Many of these research results have been fundamental to the realization of SPARKED. The seamless coordination of multiple vehicles, the design of suitable trajectories and choreographies, and the high reliability and robustness of the Flying Machine Arena infrastructure were key ingredients for the success of the film shoot. In the clip, they blow a fuse. His shop goes dark, then lights up as the lampshades come alive. When he waves his arms, the lights spin and twirl overhead.

The choreography is the result of algorithms that capture data from the robots and a motion capture system that acts like an indoor GPS. It’s all processed through a couple of standard desktop PCs loaded with software that can rapidly prototype the drones movement. Creating the illusion of a finely-tuned ballet meant the ETH team had to make the positioning algorithms even more precise than usual: “Operating several of them in close proximity makes their control more difficult, because the air pushed by one robot’s propellers will affect the motion of other robots nearby," says Henn. Algorithms used to control many robots must be robust to these effects.”

SPARKED showcases a fairly simple dance number. But you can imagine that as those algorithms become more robust, the robots will become more athletic, like the performers of Cirque du Soleil.

Behind the Scenes

For three days, the Flying Machine Arena became a film set: Three hardwood work benches, 50 lamps, and other props were standing in. During the shoot the space also hosted the researchers, creative team, producers, technicians, and film crew as well as 11 actors – one human and 10 machines. The Flying Machine Arena (FMA) is a portable space devoted to autonomous flight. Measuring up to 10 x 10 x 10 meters, it consists of a high-precision motion capture system, a wireless communication network, and custom software executing sophisticated algorithms for estimation and control.

The motion capture system can locate multiple objects in the space at rates exceeding 200 frames per second. While this may seem extremely fast, the objects in the space can move at speeds in excess of 10 m/s, resulting in displacements of over 5 cm between successive snapshots. This information is fused with other data and models of the system dynamics to predict the state of the objects into the future. The system uses this knowledge to determine what commands the vehicles should execute next to achieve their desired behavior, such as performing high-speed flips, balancing objects, building structures, or engaging in a game of paddle-ball. Then, via wireless links, the system sends the commands to the vehicles, which execute them with the aid of on-board computers and sensors such as rate gyros and accelerometers.

Although various objects can fly in the FMA, the machine of choice is the quadrocopter due to its agility, its mechanical simplicity and robustness, and its ability to hover. Furthermore, the quadrocopter is a great platform for research in adaptation and learning: it has well understood, low order first- principle models near hover, but is difficult to characterize when performing high-speed maneuvers due to complex aerodynamic effects. We cope with the difficult to model effects with algorithms that use first-principle models to roughly determine what a vehicle should do to perform a given task, and then learn and adapt based on flight data.


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Many people from ETH Zurich, Verity Studios, and Cirque du Soleil were involved in the realization of SPARKED: Welby Altidor, Federico Augugliaro, Simon Berger, Jean-Francois Bouchard, Dario Brescianini, Marc-Andre Corzillius, Rino Côté, Raffaello D'Andrea, Benjamin Dupont, Michael Egli, Bernard Fouché, Luca Gherardi, Martin Giguère, Daryl Hefti, Markus Hen, Bill Keays, Nicolas Leresche, Carlos Larrea, Martin Luchsinger, Sylvie McLaughlin, Mark W. Mueller, Francis Ouellet, Luce Pellerin, Philip Petersson, Robin Ritz, Neilson Vignola, Alain Vinet, Markus Waibel, Matthew Whelan, Alex Wilkinson, Evan Wilson.

Film Production Company:
Who's McQueen Picture Gmbh

Music by: Danny Elfman
"The Broom" from IRIS

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NEST is an immersive experiment initiated by C:LAB, a creative experimental laboratory within Cirque du Soleil. Originally designed as a sensory experience for the 2015 edition of the C2 Montreal conference (C2-MTL; a business meeting based on the concept of Commerce + Creativity - hence the C2 in the name - brings together thought-leaders from around the world to exchange ideas, share inspiration and re-kindle their creativity to fuel business success - the 2015 event took place from May 26 to 28th), visitors to the NEST were invited to venture inside, two strangers at a time, and participate in a mysterious ritual of choice and chance. Those brave enough to enter the NEST found themselves engaged in a curious and tactile exploration of intuition—that essential, yet elusive, element of any creative process.

The concept was designed by Melissa Thompson & Viviana De Loera, set designed by Anne-Séguin Poirier.

"The role of intuition in the choices that we make was something that we really wanted to explore," says Welby Altidor, Executive Creative Director of Creations at Cirque du Soleil about the NEST. "How could we use some of the exploration that we have in the nest for some of our own creative process; with our employees here in Montreal. How could some of the insight that we will get from, you know, the exploration in the nest could also be applied with our audiences?" Altidor was Director of Creation for Michael Jackson ONE, that is currently in residence at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, and he is one of the creators of C:LAB. The lab's first project is SPARKED, a short film that features 10 quadcopters and unites humans and flying machines in choreography. Previously, Altidor was Cirque du Soleil’s Director of Creation in the Images, Events, and Lifestyle division, where he led a number of large-scale creative projects. He was previously Director of Strategic Relations, Arts, Circus, and Sports. In this role, he developed strategic partnerships in more than a dozen countries, including an important alliance with the International Gymnastics Federation. His first position at Cirque was in the casting department as a talent scout, traveling the world and recruiting hundreds of artists for Cirque shows.

"If anything was possible, if any budget was possible, if any anti-gravity situation was possible, what would we do?" asked Melissa Thompson, one of the concept's creators. "We really wanted to create a situation in which this mysterious structure is there, and for the observers outside they see two people at a time enter this nest, but they seem to never see them come out." C:LAB used real tree branches to create the NEST, a hollow structure measuring 30 feet across and sitting 10 feet in the air. Participants were invited to climb a ladder into the nest where a moderator led them in a discussion. To leave the nest, attendees slid down a slide. "For people who volunteer to enter into the nest are brought into this kind of ritual performance that will reveal something about themselves, each to the other person."

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Mike & The Robots

On September 15, 2015, in partnership with Michel Courtemanche and Yves Sheriff (Casting & Performance Team) of Cirque du Soleil, Cirque explored the idea of designing a comic number with industrial robots. The actor and famous comedian, lent himself readily to the game and developed a skit where he plays the technician. A technician who thinks is in control of the two robots…

Cirque du Soleil and Fanuc Robotics explored the idea of designing a comic number with industrial robots. Michel Courtemanche, the actor and famous comedian, lent himself readily to the game and developed a skit where he plays the technician. A technician who thinks is in control of the two robots, but to his ignorance is being played. This exercise demonstrates the possible interactions between a human and robots, for entertainment purposes. All the movements – particularly comic timing – had to be programmed in advance, to give the illusion of improvised gestures. By combining live programming and remote control, we can imagine what will be possible with robots on stage, able to respond directly to the crowd, to everyone's delight.


On December 13, 2015, the GLASSBOX project was developed to test emergent screen and image technologies for the stage. GLASSBOX is able to combine streaming video and graphics on its external surface, as well as onto objects or performers placed within the box. It was custom-built through an assemblage of transparent LCD screens, programmed light and video projectors as well traditional LCD screens. GLASSBOX expands our toolkit, creating illusionary and immersive performance spaces located at the intersection of screens, performers and magic!

The Glassbox project stems from both a technical and creative research and development process. Produced by C:LAB (the creative laboratory of Cirque du Soleil), in cooperation with 4U2C and with the participation of Solotech, VOOdOO 5p311, Expérience GlassBox is an immersive, three-dimensional, multimedia performance that was presented during C2MTL Days in May 2016. This major event, which attracts over 5,000 participants each year, brings together the worlds of business and creativity to explore the major trends, opportunities, upheavals and changes looming on the horizon. Buoyed by this amazing platform, the team was able to share its vision of cultural exchange as a creative process.

Project Team: Yves Aucoin, Philippe Chiasson, Francis Corbeil, Bernard Fouché, Karl Gaudreau, Arthur Joron, Agnieszka Kubik, Rémi Lapointe, and Stéphane Mongeau.


1 clown + 2 robots = ROGA. As part of the LED talks on April 24, 2016, Steven Openheart was invited to present the ROGA. This is a type of yoga that he developed specifically to diminish the stress & sense of exclusion robots can feel when exercising. In this demonstration, Steven is accompanied by his two humanoid assistants Jennie & Peter. Namaste!

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