Qu'bec City, Canada

Even as a young playwright, Québec City’s Robert Lepage, the prolific artistic director responsible for such productions as Cirque du Soleil’s Kà in Las Vegas and the upcoming staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, wanted to make his mark on the Bunge. The massive grain-storage terminal blocks city views to the Saint Lawrence River, and Lepage has been staring at the 1,968-foot-long building since 1997, when he moved his production company, Ex Machina, into a converted firehouse facing its 81 silos. In 2008 he began to realize his vision.

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis
Photos © Michel Loiselle

Working with longtime collaborator Martin Gagnon, principal of Ambiances Lighting & Visual Design, Lepage created The Image Mill, a series of video images condensing Québec City’s 400-year history into 40 minutes, which he displayed around two outer walls of the structure using 27 freestanding Christie projectors. During its first season, the projection — presented by the City of Québec, with the Bunge of Canada and the Port of Québec, to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary — attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers.

This prompted the municipality to extend it for five summers — and to commission the designers to devise a new spectacle to add on to the work.

The resulting Aurora Borealis is a light installation that washes the Bunge with a re-creation of the northern lights via 574 LED luminaires integrated into the landmark. According to Gagnon, “Producing an impression of the northern lights is a project we’ve had in our pocket for a long time.” Aurora Borealis follows presentations of The Image Mill in the summer but is also shown during the rest of the year, from dusk until 11:30 p.m.

To produce this show, the project team installed custom brackets at the top and bottom of each silo that hold Iluminarc Ilumipod 48 IP luminaires. Three-armed aluminum-tube brackets grace the 16-foot-wide silos, while five-armed versions are mounted to the 24-foot-wide concrete cylinders at the east end of the Bunge. The armatures bolt directly onto the structure or to pre-existing steel decking on top of it. The tubing also conceals the DMX and fiber-optic cables required to carry the signals from the control consoles located in a construction trailer next to the Bunge and at the Ex Machina headquarters. “Because most people view the Bunge from a minimum distance of 500 feet, you don’t really notice all the systems in place,” Gagnon says. “The integration had to be as slick and slim as possible.”

Each fixture includes 48 RGBW LEDs directed at a 15-degree opening. “We had to get a beam spread narrow enough so we could isolate each silo, but without having voids. That allowed us to create smooth transitions through the programming,” Gagnon explains, referring to the grandMA consoles that control the complex color schemes.

Besides passing tests for Québec City’s moisture levels and temperature extremes, the equipment has an International Protection rating of IP66, because, as production manager Mario Brien explains, “There is a lot of grain dust in suspension, and the rating ensures that the instruments don’t pose a danger to this explosive condition.”

One of five color sequences runs for 25- to 35-minute loops each evening. Gagnon and Lepage watched hours of video to replicate nature’s color transitions. Yet the man-made version of the northern lights is more intense than the real thing, Gagnon notes, with higher illumination levels compensating for citywide light pollution.

Currently, 1,000 puck-size discs containing three white LEDs and mounted on aluminum tubing in the folds between silos are being tested for durability. These will be programmed to mimic the stars and punctuate the washes of color throughout the Aurora Borealis displays. Come summer 2011, Lepage and Gagnon will put this new infrastructure into service to make the world’s largest lighting projection even more dazzling.