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Eastern Promises - November 2016

Cutting-edge multimedia shows are exploding across Asia-Pacific

by Michael Switow

Rizhao, China: This coastal city on China’s eastern seaboard—known primarily for its port and as a summertime day trip destination for Chinese beach-goers—may seem an unlikely candidate to build one of the world’s most cutting-edge, high-tech multimedia productions. The port isn’t even one of China’s largest, ranking 69th globally and far below that of its larger provincial neighbor, Qingdao. But in late August, the municipality launched a US$22 million spectacle called “Eastern Sunrise” that seamlessly integrates animated projection across a variety of screens—water, concrete, even taut fishing nets—to tell an engaging love story steeped in Chinese folklore and accentuated by modern effects.

Rizhao officials see the show as a good investment to expand tourism and raise the profile of the city, which, more often than not, plays second fiddle to Qingdao, the provincial capital some 145 kilometers to the north. “With this show, tourists may stay here and Rizhao will become a tourist destination, not just a pass-by city,” explains Li Zhifeng, the deputy general manager of Rizhao City Construction Investment (RCCI), the state-owned company that has been tasked with developing new attractions. “As this show is international, it will also raise the image of the city.”

Li may as well be speaking for several cities and attractions across Asia-Pacific who are investing in these types of lavish productions.

‘Eastern Sunrise’

“Eastern Sunrise” uses a mix of storytelling and the latest technology to wow audiences. Eight massive all-white concrete slabs, stylized to resemble the sails of fishing boats and racing yachts, rise three to four stories above the water’s surface of Rizhao’s Olympic Water Park to provide screens and the backdrop for the show. Clustered in two groups of four, there’s space in between for a 50-meter-wide water screen, the largest of four such screens in the set.

After night falls and visitors filter in to fill the 2,000-seat amphitheater, a blue mist settles over the water and images reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings, jagged cliffs amidst flowers and clouds, fill the sails. Prehistoric drawings appear on the rocks, followed by stick men gracefully performing tai chi. A brilliant orange sun rises on the water screen between the sails, along with images of the fishermen who were presumably the area’s first settlers. As the tale is told, the story’s hero and heroine—an unlikely match of forbidden love between a fisherman and an underwater princess, whose father opposes their union—sing:

“When can we see each other again?

No matter how high is the mountain, no matter how vast is the sea We will be close to each other, and nobody can stop this.”

In addition to the impressive-looking water screens, which give the impression of 3-D animated characters floating in the air, there are 15 high-definition Christie projectors, high-pressure mist installations and geysers, seven laser projectors, a dozen 8-meter-high flame generators, nearly 40 speakers and subwoofers, hundreds of LED lights, a plethora of robotic water jets and pyrotechnics, plus two very taut fishing nets (which serve as additional projection screens, tilted just above the water).

“Eastern Sunrise,” which marks the first time RCCI has collaborated with a foreign partner, was designed and produced in collaboration with the French company ECA2. The show has an expected lifespan of 15 years and is part of a broader strategy for Rizhao that includes enhancing the boardwalk, creating a “historic” tourist town, and building an aquarium and Japanese garden. The boardwalk, which charges an entrance fee, opened earlier this year; the other new attractions are slated to launch in 2017. The attractions are all located within the vicinity of the Rizhao Olympic Water Park, which was built as a backup for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and has since been used for national and international sailing competitions.

‘The Power of Attracting and Retaining People’

The market for selling multimedia projects like “Eastern Sunrise”—which generally cost at least US$10 million to produce and can range upward of US$50 million—is ripe in Asia-Pacific. Following permanent installations in the mountain town of Wuyishan and inside OCT’s Happy Valley Shanghai, the show in Rizhao is ECA2’s third production to launch in China in less than 17 months. Shanghai Disneyland, Chimelong, and Wanda are all investing in multimedia shows in China, while the technology is proving popular across the region in themed attractions, at high-profile events, and even outside luxury shopping malls like Bangkok’s Emporium.

“Multimedia is becoming an integral part of whatever story needs to be told. It’s another tool storytellers are using to build an interesting destination attraction,” says Ken Wheatley, a director with Christie Digital, whose projectors are used in many of these shows.

“Let’s be clear: It’s about entertainment with a commercial point of view,” says ECA2 Chairman and CEO Jean-Christophe Canizares. “So, yes, [a show] is nice. It’s funny. It’s entertaining. But the purpose is to bring people in and to try to make them stick to a particular area. The point of interest on which we speak with our client is, first of all, the power of attracting and retaining people. Whether you are a theme park or a tourist place like here, our usual clients have a problem—not a problem, but have something to solve—how to keep people, how to retain people, how to have them spend more money.”

“It would be nice to have something like this in Vietnam to promote our unique culture to the world,” says Sun Group Design Director Hoang Vu Lan, who was in Rizhao to check out the opening of “Eastern Sunrise.” The Sun Group—which operates theme parks and family entertainment centers, in addition to a portfolio of luxury resorts—has previously entertained parkgoers at night with light and fountain shows. But it’s now looking for something more cutting edge and is considering adding a multimedia show to its Ocean Park attraction in Da Nang, which is currently under construction. A high-tech show with a good storyline, Lan says, would add value to the Sun Group’s attractions, -particularly since it would be the first of its kind in Vietnam.

Canizares estimates the return on investment for a multimedia show ranges from three to seven years, with private companies demanding the fastest returns. And while the goal for standalone shows is often measured by the impact on tourism arrivals, length of stay, and tourist spending, theme parks have different criteria.

“Multimedia shows allow for quite a bit more guest flow than coasters and other rides,” notes Wheatley, who cites Chimelong’s 1,000-seater 5-D Castle Theatre as a good example. “The place is gigantic. You know it allows them to cycle a huge amount of guests through there, yet all of them have the same fantastic experience.”

Creating attractions adults and children can enjoy together is particularly important in Asia-Pacific, where families prefer to stick together throughout the day. And in cases where theme parks create outdoor shows, the productions often become buzzed-about highlights of a day’s entertainment, absorbing large crowds every evening and extending the time visitors stay in the park.

Cutting-Edge Tech

Asian multimedia projects are constantly pushing the boundaries. At this year’s National Day Parade (NDP) in Singapore, a huge production held inside the new National Stadium that cost nearly US$30 million to organize, Hexogon Solution took 66 Christie Boxer projectors and integrated them with a motion-tracking system to map bright and vibrant visuals onto the surfaces of moving structures. A year earlier, at the 2015 South East Asian Games, also held in Singapore, Hexogon Solution broke a Guinness World Record for the greatest light output onto a single canvas (3.86 million lumens). The extra brightness enabled Hexogon to deliver higher-resolution images. While the NDP and the South East Asian Games are special events, what happens in the world of temporary shows is often seen as a precursor for permanent attractions.

ECA2’s Canizares is not surprised that Asian attractions are pushing the envelope. Asian clients have more of an appetite for multimedia shows, he finds: “They are more keen to put some money on these kinds of things. The audience likes it, but clients have more [guts] than other places. They are investing in this—in promenades, in theme parks, in restaurants, in places all over.”

“Hopefully there is one day I can have a pair of wings, to make my dream fly out of my heart,” the princess sings in “Eastern Sunrise.” Asia-Pacific’s multimedia shows are now enabling companies and spectators alike to visualize dreams in new ways. 

Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.