CHICAGO FIREWORKS: Millennium Park opens with an
unforgettable celebration

Officials of the City of Chicago had a big problem. After a chorus of criticism regarding cost overruns and delays, the $475 million Millennium Park-originally conceived as a turn-of-the-century gift to the citizens of Chicago-was ready for a long-overdue grand opening. Their task was threefold. Job 1: Celebrate the opening of this 24.5-acre park. Job 2: Market the project to the people of Chicago, who were skeptical and more than a little cranky about Millennium Park. And, because the park was a gift, Job 3: Assure that it was not going to be an ongoing tax burden to the city. It must be stressed that this is not your everyday municipal park. The amenities include the 1,500-seat Harris Theatre for Music and Dance; the central Promenade, which provides space for festivals, fairs, and exhibitions; the 50' Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa; the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink; Wrigley Square and Millennium Monument area; Exelon Pavilions for themed exhibits; the Lurie Garden, the 110-ton elliptical sculpture titled Cloud Gate, designed by Anish Kapoor, and the 11,000-capacity Pritzker Concert Pavilion. With the exuberant Frank Gehry designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion as a centerpiece, as well as massive artworks, fountains, promenades, great lawns, pavilions, and recreation areas, city officials knew they had an artistic winner on their hands, which would more than live up to the hype and the cost. They needed an opento-the-public launch to celebrate this new city landmark in grand style. And they needed to follow it up with a fundraising gala to ensure that the park would be funded in perpetuity. First, the city planned a much publicized three-day entertainment spectacular, complete with free concerts, a three-ring circus, music and dance pavilions, and even a sunrise tai-chi-and-yoga workout. An estimated 75,000 people gathered for the public grand opening on July 18th, kicked off with a world premiere concert by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. Principal conductor Carlos Kalmar gave the downbeat for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the fun began. Over three days, more than 300,000 people took advantage of this open invitation party. Jobs 1 and 2 were accomplished. The reaction was grand; the citizens of Chicago were ecstatic. Giddy with accomplishment, Chicagoans-and visitors from around the world-celebrated in style. The following weekend, the Millennium Park Committee pulled off Job 3; while excitement was at a fever pitch, they got those checkbooks opened.

Conceiving a fundraising Spectacular

How did they do it? First, they planned a lavish Wolfgang Puck catered dinner, followed by a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, complete with soloists Sarah Chang, Kristen Chenoweth (until recently, star of the Broadway musical Wicked) and Cook, Dixon and Young, better known as Three Mo' Tenors. After this concert, but before dessert back in the tent, a spectacular Cirque du Soleil type “Sky Ballet” was performed from the trellis of the Pritzker Pavilion, which preceded an outdoor extravaganza of lighting and fireworks. To produce the event, the Park Committee turned to JAM Productions, a group with a track record in outdoor extravaganzas to pull off a lavish-and very secret-finale. Exactly how does one go about the design and install-not to mention the rehearsal-of a surprise spectacular in the middle of a downtown metropolitan area? First, you pull together a trusted team of experts. JAM executive producer Donna Sue Van Cleaf-Fish and producer Matt McGinn picked the Chicago arm of Lightswitch for the lighting design, along with technical producer Floyd Dillman and technical director Jason Ribando. Melrose Pyrotechnics was added to the talent mix for the fireworks design and expertise. JAM Productions is known for skillfully assembling collaborative creative teams, bringing together like-minded designers, choreographers, event planners, and technical experts to plan immersive, engaging, but practical, events. It was clear that the Pritzker Pavilion was to be the focus for the celebration. At 120' high, with a billowing headdress of stainless steel ribbons to frame the proscenium opening, it is the most sophisticated outdoor concert venue of its kind in the States. The headdress crowning the amphitheatre is connected to a trellis of curved steel pipes covering the fixed seating for 4,000, with an additional capacity for 7,000 on the gently raked lawn. Matt McGinn comments, “We wanted to design a show that not only highlighted the park but also emphasized how it has transformed the city. Our design had the show begin in the park, with lighting and pyro effects close to and around the audience. From there, the show exploded beyond the boundaries of the park. We lit two long blocks of Michigan Avenue and the three big skyscrapers on Randolph Street. We launched fireworks from the roofs of seven buildings surrounding the park. The light and energy of the park appeared to illuminate the entire city. “As you can imagine, this was a difficult concept to sell to the client, let alone to the various authorities that were concerned with safety. We needed to give the clients a compelling reason to allocate a significant portion of their event's budget to what would ultimately be six minutes of lights and fireworks. Lightswitch produced a fantastic animated movie that illustrated how bold and exciting the show would be; that got the client on board in a big way.” Lightswitch's Matt Thobe painstakingly “photoshopped” multiple images of the park and its surroundings, adding virtual lighting and fireworks. This resulted in a movie that communicated the spectacle to the committee. The concept immediately gained acceptance and the animatic subsequently formed an invaluable reference as the project evolved. Lightswitch's John Featherstone, who acted as lighting designer, says, “To the best of my knowledge, nothing on this scale has been staged in Chicago, certainly not in the 18 years I've lived here. I was surprised by how open to our ideas everyone was, from the Gala Committee, to the Mayor's Office, even the FAA [more on that later]. This was
a remarkably long and detailed planning process-coordinating between the Chicago Symphony, the various city departments, the pyro company-and we were just one component of the whole gala.”

A one-time-only event

Because the committee wanted to keep the gala a visual surprise, and because of its size, there would be no full scale rehearsals with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or with fireworks. There was no way to have a rehearsal without it becoming public. The designers, and audience, saw it for the first time, as it happened. Because of this, the design was largely executed using pre-visualization techniques provided by Prelite. Tom Thompson of Prelite built a virtual model of the city surrounding Millennium Park, which was used not only for pre-programming but as a visual aid to communicate the intent of the lighting to the rest of the team, especially the fireworks crew. Featherstone says, “One challenge of a project like this is coordination with fireworks. We worked very closely with Matt Peterson, the designer from Melrose Pyrotechnics. For a production like this, we tightly integrate lighting and fireworks, which requires rigorous planning. The integration includes everything from matching colors between lighting and pyro to synching the timing of the lighting cues to the explosions-all with no tests and no dress rehearsals. There are many factors that we didn't know about until we did the show-and a big one was smoke. It is impractical-how about impossible-to 'haze' a square mile area outdoors, so we relied on the fireworks to produce smoke for our lighting beams. Melrose was terrific about locating devices to help us out. Then there were all of the weather factors-wind, humidity, rain-all of which would affect the look of the show and none of which we could control. So I didn't worry about the weather. There were enough things I could control to worry about without adding futilely to the list.” There were practical factors to consider, as well. While none of the firing sites for the pyro, nor any buildings that were scheduled to be illuminated, were located in residential areas, there is a high residential base nearby. It was important that Millennium Park-the big new kid on the block-be perceived as a good neighbor. For that matter, says technical producer Floyd Dillman, “All of our initial creative and logistical planning was based on a site that was ten months away from completion. We eventually received a great set of architectural plans, but we were constantly surprised by the number of new elements that would appear at each site visit-things changed by the week. Of course, some of the elements we counted on were 'value-engineered' out before being built, and others, such as shore power services for the dining tents, were pleasant surprises. All in all, it kept us on our toes. As the show approached, we received superb leadership from Rich Guidice, of the Mayor's Office, who made sure that all necessary city departments were working together to support the event, an especially important element in a new public facility that had never seen anything of this scope. Once we were onsite, our challenge became how to work safely and efficiently around the massive crowds drawn to the new park, and we adjusted many of our labor calls to avoid conflicts.” In addition to the crowds, there were other safety concerns. While the site is not on a direct commercial flight path, there is significant air traffic in the area. To ensure air safety, the team consulted with the FAA. While the agency was not concerned about commercial traffic, there were safety issues for pilots of “free-flying” craft, such as helicopters. As a result, the FAA requested that the use of aerial lighting be restricted as much as possible.

Big, bold, and celebratory lighting

With all of that in mind, the team tried to achieve a number of goals onsite by keeping the use of lighting to a minimum. The lighting approach was very simple, says Featherstone-”big, bold, and celebratory!” 62 Space Cannon 7kW automated fixtures were arrayed around the lawn of the Pavilion and ringed the park on the west and north sides. These fixtures enabled the lighting to match the scale of the five-city-block “canvas” as well as the fireworks. At 7kW, they also provided the punch to light the skyscrapers along Randolph Street, including the 1,100' tall Aon Center. The array of Space Cannons provided the core of the spectacle, but there were also numerous other areas that had to be lit, including two large tents where guests were served dinner, and the Pritzker Pavilion stage, where performances were held. Lighting gear for these areas included over 400 ETC Source Four units of various sizes, plus 60 Martin Professional Mac 2000 units and 44 Martin Mac 300s. Lighting gear for the event was supplied by Chicago-based Upstaging. The choice “made perfect sense,” says Featherstone, “since we needed a highly competent lighting company, that was familiar with the inner workings of the city, had a good rapport with the local IATSE, and would be our central nervous system for the entire event.” The lighting gear was allocated to several locations, which meant that five semis worth of equipment was spread over 1.5 million sq. ft. Upstaging crew chief Tyler Roach says, “It seemed impractical and unreliable to have miles of data cables running throughout the park and city streets to tie the system together.” Instead, Upstaging used a custom-designed wireless Ethernet/DMX network. The system was created to address concerns about transmission range, information security, lag time, and sustained reliability. “It worked the minute it was turned on,” says Featherstone. Approaching an event like this, there are always a number of variables that cannot be confronted until one is onsite. The first was the weather. Rare for a Chicago summer, the climate was chilly and dry. That meant a lack of atmosphere to provide an environment conducive to maximum beamage. But, while the team knew the impact could have been greater, attendees were overwhelmed by the spectacle. Next, there was the difficulty of matching the musical performance to the highly choreographed technology. During afternoon rehearsals, the symphony was as much as 25 seconds ahead of the technical elements. It was a testament to conductor James Conlon that all came together. With a reference track in one ear, and the Chicago Symphony in front of him, he knew a high degree of synchronicity-without the benefit of the actual technology deployed live-was required. To achieve it, he sequestered himself in his hotel room after the rehearsal, practicing to the reference tracks, until he was able to deliver a flawless performance that evening. The British-born Featherstone comments, “This was a testament to planning. From a technology standpoint, there were few on-site variables. In fact, in many ways, our time onsite was the easiest part of the project. The work of Tom Thompson at Prelite was invaluable; by using both pre-visualization prior to arriving at the gig, and using previz software at the site, we were able to program and execute with precision. It was a tremendous experience for all of us. With the US economy rebounding, big city spectaculars are coming into their own. Chicago is my adopted city-I was thrilled to work on something this grand in scale in my hometown.” It must have worked. With many generous financial contributions in the coffers, natives and visitors to Chicago will enjoy this park and all that it has to offer for a long time to come.