Automated excellence at the Puy du Fou

Reece Webb takes a trip to the Puy du Fou to see how a new attraction brings silent cinema to the stage.

All the world’s a stage,' said William Shakespeare, and for the Puy du Fou theme park, all of history itself becomes a stage to delight and entertain audiences from around the world.

Located in Les Espesses, France, the Puy du Fou is a historical theme park that receives more than 2.5 million visitors every year, taking visitors on a journey through time- from the heyday of imperial Rome all the way up to the First World War and beyond.

With castle sieges, chariot racing and Viking raids, this theme park has it all, but a new spectacle at the Puy du Fou puts technology front and centre of the experience like no other attraction at the park.

Enter Le Mime et l’Etoile (TheMime and the Star), a new attraction at the Puy du Fou theme park that brings the magic of the silent, silver screen to audiences in the flesh.

Celebrating the silver age of early, silent cinema, this groundbreaking show tells the story of a mime artist, Mimosa, that falls in love with a silver-screen actress amidst the backdrop of the First World War, delivering a phenomenal experience for visitors that stuns, surprises and delights audiences through creative visuals, sensational choreography and ingenious usage of props and pyrotechnics.The objective was simple, yet daunting – to create an experience where AV technologies bring the wonders of early cinema to life right in front of the audience, using AV as an enabler to enhance a show of unrivalled complexity.

This show is unparalleled in its scope: a story brought to life onstage in innovative greyscale, incorporating AV and lighting technologies to bring the world of silent cinema to life with the instantly recognisable traits of the silent cinema era. Almost every prop, every backdrop, every costume and character are presented to audiences in black-and-white, making clever use of colour and sound in homage to th eold masters of this entrepreneurial age of early cinema.

What does it take to bring a show of this scale and sophistication to life? Puy du Fou’s audiovisual team was tasked with delivering a project of immense technical precision to complement an on-stage performance like no other. Twenty million Euros was invested into this project, the largest budget invested in a performing arts show in Europe to date.

This investment was no small feat– located within a new 4,000 sq m theatre, this exciting new show offers 2,000 seats for visitors, with more than 120 characters on stage. This show brings the early 20th century to life with rolling cars, biplanes flying over the audience’s heads and no shortage of pyrotechnics, quirky quick changes and a unique twist.

"This system is extremely complex; the actors come on to the stage very quickly, so if we had to do all of this manually, it would be exhausting." - Martin de Gaillard, Puy du Fou 

Telling the story of the classic era of early cinema required a unique approach to both the set and the AV technology – The Puy du Fou team had to turn the world, its characters and props into black-and-white before the audience’s very eyes. With 140 tons of black and white décor and 18 months of work to bring the show to life, AV technology was instrumental to bringing this tech-driven show to life.

The Puy du Fou team aimed to immerse the audience into one giant tracking shot, like that of a movie camera. In front of the director's camera, everything from people to houses starts to move, rolling along like a tracking shot in a film. The facades of the houses and storefronts of a typical turn-of-the-century street parade transition and evolve before the audience’s very eyes, as the 120 characters of the story evolve through time on a moving floor, reinforcing the illusion of a travelling shot of nearly two kilometres in length.

A part of the system are four Digital Projection Satellite MLS Insight 4K projectors, discreetly hidden at the back of the auditorium. These projectors are the lifeblood of the project, delivering ever-evolving visuals onto the moving set seamlessly, from flags fluttering in the wind, to shadowy figures moving behind the window panes of the real-world set, all this and more is delivered within the artistic boundaries of the grey-scale world that these projections help to create.

These projectors are the key to bringing the set-pieces and props to life, turning a static backdrop into a dynamic, breathing centrepiece of the show. Despite playing a central role, the projectors remain discreet and unobtrusive to the audience, combining crystal-clear content, clever placement within the venue and a running volume quiet enough to be indistinguishable from onlookers as they are immersed into this fantastical world.

This is achieved by the characteristics of Digital Projection's Satellite MLS product that separates the projector heads from the laser light engine, allowing all noisy and bulky parts to be remotely connected via fibre optics, improving the experience for visitors.

“The projectors are used very heavily,” explains Martin de Gaillard, project manager for automation, Puy du Fou. “Due to the thousands of people coming in, there is a lot of dust, [the projectors] are quiet and these projectors can stand up to that, they are resistant to dust, they don’t run too hot, and the laser source is protected. This helps to keep them protected and lasting longer.”

In a technically-led production of this scale, content is critical. As a fast-paced show with 120 characters, a rapidly evolving set and numerous characters delivering dialogue, getting audio cues and the correct projection mapping content on time was make or break for the show. The world of silent cinema was famous for its on-screen dialogue, which is joyously recreated through projection, recreating the famous ‘text cards’ by projecting directly on to the set as the characters below continue to act out the scenes below. This innovative approach authentically recreates the feeling of silent cinema without compromising on the action and pace of the show.

To achieve this seamless projection mapping effect, the Puy du Fou selected a Modulo Pi Kinetic system, consisting of a Kinetic Designer workstation, alongside a spare, as well as two Kinetic V-Node servers equipped with two 4K outputs.

The real beating heart of the system comes from Naostage’s K tracking system. This system is fully automated, recognising the fast-paced, ever-changing conditions on stage as characters enter, leave and change position as the set pieces roll past at pace. A show of this complexity could not simply rely on staff to manually handle the tracking; Instead, the Puy du Fou required a fully automated tracking system that would be able to handle the complexity that Le Mime et l’Etoile show demands.

"Immersive audio helps to bring spectators into this world." - Martin de Gaillard, Puy du Fou 

The tracking system works hand-in-hand with sending information to the GrandMA console and Modulo Pi systems to track the actors like a follow spot to synchronise the video effects with the staging.

De Gaillard says: “This show plays several times a day and we can’t afford to have technicians on hand to track manually, so we used the Naostage K system for its precision. Naostage helps us to know that we have a character on stage. As they are coming in and out, Eliko beacons help us to identify and re-identify automatically which character is coming on and offstage. It’s entirely automated. When the main characters come on, they have tags which the system recognises, and everything can be automated for them.

This enables the tracking points for the lights, for the sound system and for the video. “The show control also brings back information to the Naostage system, for example to stop tracking a main character but keeping the light on them. The whole AV and lighting system is talking to itself all of the time.

“This system is extremely complex; the actors come on to the stage very quickly, so if we had to do all of this manually, it would be exhausting.” explains de Gaillard.“ The camera is tracking the whole stage, but the tracking system, coupled with beacons around the stage, allows us to track actors both on and off stage, so that we know when they are coming out and exactly where they are coming from, as there may be delays. Having the tracking outside of the stage set helps us to automatically retrack and get [everything ready]. The tracking allows the actors to be free in their movements, they don’t have to be on a precise place on the stage, they have more freedom to act.

Directional audio plays a key part in the experience. With up to 2,000 guests at a time filling the auditorium, creating an immersive sound experience was key to creating a suspense of disbelief, drawing the visitors into the world around them.

De Gaillard explains: “We are working with an L-Acoustics L-ISA system. Immersive audio helps to bring the spectators into this world. The direction of audio is absolutely key, this spatialised sound allows us to put a lot of detail into the sounds  and so that we can place them wherever we want to.”

All of the speakers are hidden discreetly, blending seamlessly into the set. This is key to Puy du Fou’s design approach, minimalising the visibility of technical equipment in its spaces to maintain the illusion of the show. Even the lighting system, a mixture of Clay Paky and Chauvet lighting fixtures, is integrated with the Naostage tracking system to create a fully automated operation.

De Gaillard closes: “The whole technical programme team is in house, so we are used to creating big shows like this, but there are always challenges. The largest challenge was, of course, the tracking; we had nothing like this in the park before. We are still improving the tracking system, and we will continue to refine it.

“This new show at the Puy du Fou is very different from our others, because the actors are clearly expressing themselves, and thanks to the brands that we have used, we have really pushed the technologies to work together in a spectacular way, everything is completely automated and it is great to see this working together, playing eight times a day for eight months without any technical issues. We plan to add more tracking elements and we want this show to be perfect. If you are coming out of this show with mesmerised eyes, then our job is done.

Kit list

Chauvet lighting fixtures

Clay Paky lighting fixtures

Digital Projection Satellite MLS Insight 4K projectors

L-Acoustics L-ISA audio system

Modulo Pi Kinetic media server

Naostage K tracking system

7thSense Medialon Show Control

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