ETC Lighting Rocks

The Experience Music Project, a new interactive museum devoted to rock ‘n’ roll’s successes and excesses, opened this summer in Seattle. Like a giant abstract sculpture with hundreds of people inside, the EMP structure physically tackles the sense-bending question “what would rock music look like?” The provocative 140,000 square-foot complex is world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry’s shock-rocking answer. And that sophisticated design required equally sophisticated building control systems.

Like virtually all of the engineering and design solutions at EMP, the lighting solutions had to be flexible and pioneering. According to Tim Guion, Associate Regional Manager for ETC West, “From the beginning we knew this was going to be some sort of three-processor networked system. We knew that a structure like EMP would require some sort of building-wide control, which is typical for large architectural systems that have more dimmers than one processor can handle, So we prepared a system with network-ready components.” And installed it for coairl.org

One major lighting challenge at EMP involved the museum’s unique interactive sculpture “Roots and Branches,” a large ‘tree’ made of guitars, organs and other instruments. Users interact with the information kiosks scattered around the sculpture that play videos or soundbytes of information about various guitars. Lights pick out and isolate individual instruments as users activate the kiosk controls. Guion explains the ETC system’s complexity: “The control system running the video needs to be able to tell the lighting system, ‘Make it purple now; make it green now; make it red; change the colour according to the video.’ Fortunately we already had the infrastructure in place for them. We had the correct ETC Unison Processor that would accept the RS232 or the serial port (because we had decided the system needed network-ready processors that gave them a serial port). What we wound up with is a system that has three levels of control. First is a direct user interface, where you can go plug in a portable LCD station and turn on lights in a given area. Second, Unison that can call up presets on a timeclock basis. And the third is the Roots and Branches sculpture that is behaving as its own sub-lighting system. We have many facets of control, which would be unusual for a traditional museum…but this is no traditional museum.”

Music 2ETC lighting creativity is evident throughout EMP. Says Guion, “We have chases built in so that the control system is actually morphing the lights with the music in certain galleries, so that somebody can walk into one of the galleries, and the lights are changing colour.” Unison runs the morphing presets that control colour LEDs by Color Kinetics. “This is not just a simple lights-on, lights-off proposition.”

The radically sculptural architecture of EMP dictates radical lighting control. A massive structure with very few windows in its design, EMP cannot harness the benefits of natural light. Every light in the structure is controlled by one of the lighting control panels. This goes far beyond the traditional tracklights-over-the-exhibit design employed by many museums. According to Guion, “In a sense, we are responsible for everything being seen. That means, more dimmers, more processors and more reliability in networking. If you are able to see an object on display, it’s because the system is functioning.”

These networked systems also offer the unique integration of architectural and theatrical lighting systems. Under ordinary daily circumstances the lighting control in the EMP Café’s performance space is run by the ETC Unison architectural system. The Unison system plays presets, and the lights perform scheduled functions. At anytime however, an Express console or any kind of DMX console can be directly plugged into the wall to instantly take control over the lights in that area, allowing EMP to do performance-style lighting in the café and the lobby of the place. That would include control over the HID spotlights that illuminate the space. The café uses the new architecturally-minded spotllights to gain theatrical lighting punch with the longevity-minded long-life HID lamp. The sleek aluminized (custom silver-coloured) Source Four HID’s save EMP personnel time on lamp changing and maintenance. And In EMP’s high, contorted sculptural spaces, the less time spent getting up on lifts to change out lamps the better.

Besides building-wide lighting control, there are standalone systems in other units of EMP, one of them in the SkyChurch, EMP’s soaring 85-foot high secular rock cathedral, featuring — instead of stained glass windows, perhaps — the world’s largest video screen (40 feet by 70 feet). The lighting installation there was done by Candela Controls and Bill Ellis, using all ETC dimming with Unison architectural control and ETC Expression Lighting Playback Controllers (LPCs) for special events control. ETC dimming also serves the lighting on interactive, multimedia ride “The Artists Journey.”

The lighting solutions provided to EMP follow in growing line of systems done with a similar specially developed topology: Disney Quest (Orlando and California), Legoland, Carlsbad, California; the MGM Conference Center, The Venetian, and The Paris, in Las Vegas.

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