Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 5 p.m.
Under the landing path of Burbank, California’s Bob Hope Airport, two men putter in a parking lot around a makeshift water tower and what looks like a trash-bag-lined wading pool. In this neighborhood of repair shops and working-class bungalows, the average passerby might suspect these casual tinkerers are setting up for a backyard party. Actually, they’re prototyping a large-scale water feature destined for Dubai.
This is the headquarters of the company known simply as WET (Water Entertainment Technologies), perhaps the world’s least-publicized industry leader, and one of the most relentlessly forward-thinking muddlers of art and technology today. Behind the trash-bag pool is the secretive Design Garage; to one side, a stark, white, movie-set-sleek office loft, where architects, engineers and CAT designers work hand in hand; and a few blocks away, spaces for model-makers, printing presses and a Wonka-like machine shop where the company manufactures its own patent-protected hardware.
With some kind of presence in at least 37 major U.S. cities, nearly every Asian country and much of Europe and, increasingly, across the Arabian peninsula, the company truly has a global reach. But with the five new features at Las Vegas’ CityCenter, the world-renowned Fountains of Bellagio and the recently redesigned Mirage Volcano, WET has a more focused presence in Las Vegas than anywhere else in the world—one which has defined the landscape as much as vice versa.
“We create places that are experiences of magic,” says Nadine Schulbert, WET’s director of image and branding, speaking Vegas’ language. Their “experiences” control water in previously unthinkable ways: shooting up 40 stories in the air, forming into precise beams of color-changing light, rippling in patterns like a computer graphic. The Lisbon feature produces 10-foot bubbles; in Melbourne, spectators get 100-foot-high fireballs; and in the UAE, water mimics sparks off a welding torch. The once-hyperbolic quote architect Jon Jerde offered when Bellagio opened now seems more than true: “Water has been hanging around for centuries. Then WET Design showed up and reinvented it.”
Nearly 12 years since its debut, the perennial impact of Bellagio’s fountains isn’t hard to fathom—the display is still awe-inspiring, both in terms of its size and flexibility, choreographing just as well to operatic arias as to Sinatra or Strait. Anyone who’s seen it has a general idea of what the Bellagio fountains do. Yet spend a day watching its varied cycles, and you’ll see as much innovation as repetition.
Bellagio’s gee-whiz numbers are no secret, but still bear repeating: Originally said to cost in the $30 million range, the feature inside the 8.5 acre “Lake Como” includes more than 1,000 independently programmed nozzles, nearly 5,000 lights and 200-plus sound speakers, and employs 33 technicians every day. Using a proprietary software called VirtualWet, the designers can conceive new programs (often in collaboration with anyone from choreographer Kenny Ortega to actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and simulate how they’ll perform in various wind and weather conditions. But computers can’t do everything. “When you see the real water,” explains WET’s Mark Fuller, “you can watch the people laugh or cry, feel the spray on your face, tweak it, change it.”
Updated within the last few years, the shooters can now reach 490 feet into the air. “Everything above that is FAA territory,” WET’s Jason Baldwin says with a twinkle in his eye. “We can’t go higher than the building,” he adds, implying that legalities are the only limitation.
The rebuilt Mirage Volcano doesn’t threaten Bellagio in terms of size or budget (less than four acres of water, shooting “only” 120 feet up; a claimed budget near $25 mil), but it certainly provides a worthy contrast, with flame throwers so hot they make sidewalk spectators break a sweat, and a choreographed “story” (soundtracked by percussionists Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain) echoing the kind of projects Fuller helped create in his previous work at Disney Imagineering.
But both are blown away, in terms of achievement, by the five relatively compact features in CityCenter. Oddly sidelined during the complex’s grand-opening hoopla (particularly compared to the static art installations), they are arguably the most successful, probably the most sustainable and certainly the most current elements in the entire project. “Focus,” the semicircular pattern-changing waterfall at the southern Aria entrance, is a 240-foot-long mosaic of tiny hand-set slate cubes, which uses tiny, energy-efficient air balloons to push the water in varying patterns. Behind Aria’s north entrance, “Latisse” is a freestanding wall, effecting patterns with even more quiet precision. “Halo,” in Crystals, is a set of mesmerizing slanted tubes using the world’s first underwater HID lights to accent bending vortexes. “Glacia” (also in Crystals), the most innovative of the five, offers customizable pillars of ice which transmogrify by exposure to the air. And the most dramatic, “Lumia,” is a reinvention of WET’s original Axysymetric Laminar Flow arcs, infusing them with pure color (visible even in bright sunlight) and colliding them with unworldly precision. Simply put, WET’s features bring visions you’d only expect to see in movies into stark reality.
A few weeks after the opening, Fuller, whose business card dubs him Chief Excellence Officer, takes me on a personal tour of the features; the 50-something WET founder retains an enviable sense of boyish wonder, using phrases like “pretty neat” in reference to innovations. “There is so much physics going on in this,” Fuller says of “Halo,” “you could stand here and give lectures all day.” His mixture of pride and wonderment increases as he explains “Glacia”: “We put the ice here, we sculpt it, and then a lot of it changes its own form, depending on the humidity, the breezes blowing through … Moisture being drawn from the air forms in these patterns. Really wonderful surprises.”
Still he takes most satisfaction from the success of “Lumia.” “You’re seeing the only fountain in the world that is bright enough that it outshines the sun,” Fuller beams. “We’re looking at it in direct sunlight, and you can see the color in it. Just as we steer the water, we steer those lights by computer control, and we’re able to focus the intensity.” To get the laminar streams to collide precisely, WET also re-engineered them from scratch.
The previous spring, I’d gotten to see the third prototype of “Lumia” inside WET’s Design Garage, where lab chief Baldwin (due to confidentiality agreements) told me I was seeing something else. The darkened, gear-filled space was nothing like the sort of sleek secret lair you’d expect, but certainly the other prototypes defined “wondrous”: water umbrellas called “laminar bells” with natural-gas flames burning underneath; another that makes the water look as if it’s on fire, injecting propane in and around the water, but safe enough that you can put your hand through it. And there was a fire version of “Halo’s” vortexes, created with convection.
Baldwin tells me every project has to be unique to its locale. Technology that may work in one environment may not in another. Water quality must be tested for temperature, minerality and other issues that significantly affect performance (even though they “brominate” and “ozonate” water in their features; Bellagio’s is said to go through 50 different filters). Fire features will use natural gas, methane or propane, depending on the application.
WET claims 50 patents but has created “hundreds” of nozzles, says Baldwin—nanoshooters, microshooters, minishooters, pop jets and the more than man-size hypershooters that are the warhorses of Bellagio. All of them, Fuller explained at the Mirage Volcano dedication, are “powered by compressed air. Our computers change the air pressure in the bubble that lifts the water into the air. It uses only about 20 percent of the energy of big pumps that pump water into the air.
“Without sounding arrogant,” Fuller says—without sounding arrogant—“we’ve been kind of running ahead of the pack in terms of environmental impact. The fountains at Bellagio use a remarkably small amount of energy for what they do.”
With 200 employees today, including those in Dubai, Beijing and London satellite offices, WET has grown exponentially since Fuller founded the company in 1983, after writing a thesis at the University of Utah in 1976 on axisymmetric laminar water flow—“the water equivalent of a laser beam” in his words—then getting to test his theory with the “Leapfrog” feature at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT center (okay, he did get master’s degrees in engineering and product design from Stanford in between). A close relationship with Vegas seemed destined; among their earliest commissions was the ’80s stage spectacular Splash! (a kind of proto-O) at the Riviera.
Despite the love of aesthetics that MGM/Mirage execs like Jim Murren and Bobby Baldwin have expressed, nobody spends this kind of money in Vegas—even in flush times—without a quantifiable benefit for the balance sheet. While no one is saying at the moment what the CityCenter features cost (presumably more than the Volcano but less than Bellagio), says Bobby Baldwin (president and COO of CityCenter), “Visitors immediately connect [the Fountains of Bellagio and the Mirage Volcano] with the best of Las Vegas’ offerings and make visits to them among their first stops in town. We believe the water features at CityCenter will similarly attract visitors who will come to discover all that CityCenter has introduced to Las Vegas.”
But it may be WET’s working philosophy—powering imminent projects: on Beijing’s Finance Street, in Fuller’s hometown of Salt Lake City; in Seoul, Korea; in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi, soon-home to an intriguing watercraft-borne feature (“Imagine Bellagio on parade,” says Fuller)—that is potentially most valuable to our struggling city.
As Fuller puts it, “Sometimes we’ll work with someone from outside the firm and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s make a plan, get it all worked out, and then all we have to do is execute the plan.’ And I say, ‘That means you think we’re going to know everything we need to know about this project before we start, and we’re not going to learn anything along the way. How depressing a thought is that?’ I mean, if we’re not a lot smarter every week because we’ve worked through this, wanting to change and improve it, then shame on us.”