Progressing the World Expo '88 Vision
- A non-government not-for-profit entity celebrating Brisbane's World Expo '88 -
The Expo '88 Lasers and Fireworks Department
Back in January 1988, I was contacted by the head of the World Expo 88 Laser and Fireworks Department, asking me if I wanted to work as an animator for them. At that time, I knew only a little about lasers, but I agreed and I am very glad that I did, for the next 11 months or so proved to be one of the most interesting and exciting times of my life.
At that time, the Expo site was in a state of uproar as it was still very much under construction. I spent the first few weeks working in The Studio, one section of the complex of buildings Expo had on Cordelia Street. This was the time when we were having a lot of rain and the roof leaked! It wasn't uncommon to come in, in the morning, and find the ceiling dripping water into buckets and everything damp to the touch. It wasn't much of a problem for me, but I believe the laser technicians found it a nightmare for the humidity sensitive equipment.
Anyway it was here where I and two other local animators were introduced to the wonders and dangers of laser animation. I say dangers, because the lasers were real industrial-strength lasers - the many scorch marks on the wall in The Studio and burn holes in the technician's clothes were proof of that! We were warned to never look directly into a laser beam, as it could blind you in an instant, or to stand too long in front of one, as it could burn you. I will say now that during the entire Expo period, the laser team were extremely careful about the safety hazards involved. To my knowledge, no one, at any time, was in any danger.
Having been given the Lasers 101 lesson, I got to work. The lasers systems were to be set up at three sites. The first and foremost was as part of the Laserfire Spectaculars - the nightly laser and fireworks show at the Riverstage. There were also to be the nightly "hands on" Laser Electric experience and "video clip" shows at the Amphitheatre and a laser billboard was to continually run at night on the side of the QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Complex) building.
I will admit now that a lot of the animation sequences had already been done overseas - particularly the "video clips" shown at the Laser Electric shows at the Amphitheatre. Our team was to produce sequences more specific to Expo 88 and of Australian topics - such as the Expo Oz (the expo's platypus mascot) sequences and any of the Australian sports and wildlife stuff. The Animation team consisted of myself, another animator who ended up doing most of the digitizing, and a third animator who worked part-time, as he was a student at the Queensland College of Art. Actually, myself and the other animator were both graduates of the QCA's Animation Department.
The boss wanted me to start with a creating series of short sequences of Australian birds and animals. I soon found that animating for lasers was rather different than animating for film.
Lasers aren't like film where, basically, a series of photographs are lit from behind and projected onto a screen. A laser creates a single point of light on a screen. When it isn't moving, that is all you see - a single dot of light shining on a surface (unless there is something like smoke in the air to reveal the actual beam - but that is another story.) Some smart person, in the past, had cottoned onto the idea of using mirrors to move the laser beam around, so that the dot, which is just the end point of the beam, is also moved around. If the laser beam is made to move fast enough, something called "persistence of vision" makes the moving dot appear to turn into a line. (Actually, you can recreate a simple version of this yourself with a laser pointer. Shine it on a wall and move it around quickly and you'll get the idea.)
To make the line form a recognisable pattern, such as a flower or Expo Oz, the laser beam has to be directed by a computer, controlling the bank of mirrors, to a series of points which outline the desired shape. The computer has to be given the coordinates of these points and the order in which they are to be approached by the lasers. In short, the computer-controlled laser creates a "join the dots" kind of picture. If the laser is moving quickly between the dots and there are enough dots, you see a smooth, linear image. All that effort creates a single, still picture! If a number of still pictures, all slightly different, are created by the lasers rapidly one after another, the images seems to move. This is animation!
The actual animation images were produced traditionally - that is, the drawings were done in pencil on paper on a lightbox. Due to the nature of the final laser pictures, each image I designed had to have simple, bold, clean lines. Texture, shading and fill colour were elements foreign to the laser environment. Each drawing I did was then taken and digitized by another of the animation team, who traced out key points along the drawings using a special digitizing pen and tablet connected to a computer. This created the XY co-ordinates needed for the dots of each single laser image. Early on, I had a few goes at digitizing. It was a wonderful experience to spend a couple of hours carefully clicking away and then, finally, have the technicians turn on the lasers and run the computer program. I'll never forget the first time I saw my own work in laser light. I had drawn a sequence of a cockatoo flying. Suddenly, there, glowing in red laser light on the wall, was my cockatoo flapping its wings and flying!
Another thing that I found different in animating for lasers was that the field I had to draw within was a perfect square, not a rectangle as is used for film or television. From an overall design point of view, I found this a little awkward and limiting at first, but I eventually got used to it.
Enough of the technical stuff! There is a lot more I could say, but I won't bore you any more with that. I said that I began working in The Studio on Cordelia Street. Some weeks later, I was moved into one of the Laser Department's two rooms in Media House on the Expo Site. I had to wear a hard hat, coming and going, for a while as construction was still going on at a furious pace. Eventually, the construction stopped, Expo opened, and another phase of my Expo 88 experience began.
Much of this time was spent indoors, working over a lightbox in the corner of a windowless room in the middle of Media House. I still remember hearing the regular rumble of the monorail going past. (The monorail used to disturb my radio's reception.) The laser shows had begun and this meant that most of the laser staff now didn't arrive until late in the afternoon. There is one down side to working outdoors with lasers - most of the work can only be done at night! This meant that I was alone in the office for much of the day, as the other animator had to work in the Control Booth at the Amphitheatre, where the digitizing gear was set up. (She has some amusing Amphitheatre stories to tell!) The office I was in actually belonged to the Laser Department's, I suppose you'd call him secretary, but he was also responsible for the music side of the laser/fireworks shows and he was often off site, working in dubbing studios around town.
My duties soon grew to answering telephones. I'll always remember the first international telephone call I took. Our boss and two of the technicians were from the USA, so they were in frequent contact with the states about various things. Early on, one afternoon, I answered the phone and it was someone calling from the US. I can remember thinking at the time that these Americans must be awfully slow, as it took the bloke a few seconds to respond to anything I said. You can imagine my embarrassment when I mentioned it to someone later and they, grinning broadly, explained to me about a little thing called satellite delay! I sometimes felt a little cut off from the grand excitement going on outside each day, so I made it a point, most mornings, to stand in the boss's office - which had a window - and watch the mad rush of people entering at opening time. Being near the Melbourne Street Gate, we had a good view. I also tried to get out as much as possible to experience the rest of Expo 88. This was usually during my half-hour lunch break and after working hours. Many of my fondest memories of Expo are of at night.
At times, the excitement came into Media House. I remember, one day, one of the ladies from another department rushing in. "He's here! He's here! John Farnham's here!" Media House had a Green Room where many of the guest performers came to have a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet John Farnham, as I was busy at the time. I did get to see Expo Oz a lot, though. He was usually in a headless state, when the heavily scented performer was in the building having a break. One day, there was a loud clang and I had to jump aside as a metal rod had fallen from the costume and nearly hit my foot. I think the rod helped support the headpiece.
Like many other workers, I had a special pass which allowed me entry to the site at all times of the day or night. I could even go backstage or up the Riverstage tower, if I wanted to. One night, a couple of us decided to watch the Laserfire show from the actual Riverstage - behind the scenes, of course. The fireworks people had invited us to do so. I'm not sure it was such a good idea, but it is an experience I'll always remember. We were at the back of the Riverstage, facing one of the firework barges on the river when the main fireworks part of the show went off. It was VERY noisy and exciting and hot bits of exploded firework rained down on us. We were also engulfed in the smoke. I never did that again - once was enough! I also, like many other workers, used the advantage of my pass to be first in line to see the pavilions. Thus, I had no waiting to see the New Zealand Pavilion, unlike others who literally had to wait hours. I got there a few minutes before opening time and was just about first in the queue. I did this for a few of the "harder to see" pavilions.
Speaking of the pavilions, one of my fondest memories of working at Expo was having to visit each of the international pavilions to ask how they wrote the word "welcome" and "goodbye" in their own language. We needed to have the lasers write the words out as part of the shows. I remember someone, a cleaner, I think, from the Greek pavilion scribbling it on a scrap of paper for us. Most of the other pavilions were just as informal. The Russian Pavilion, however, was another thing. At the time, I was with one of the other animators - the one responsible for digitizing the images. We approached the entrance to the Russian Pavilion and were met by a stern-faced guard. After explaining what we wanted, we were surprised when the man, who was obviously a Russian, didn't help us himself as most of our first contacts at the other pavilions had. Instead, we were taken politely inside and eventually shown around to the top official's office! The gentleman was very friendly and actually typed out the words for us on his typewriter. This way, he explained, we wouldn't have any trouble with reading handwriting and possibly making any embarrassing mistakes.
I mentioned before, that working with lasers outdoors meant that the technicians did most of their hours at night. Sometimes, I also had to burn the midnight oil and I remember having some very long days. (8am to 2am!) Work didn't mean just running the various shows for the audiences, there was also maintenance of the equipment and the development of the new shows. These other duties had to be done after hours - that is, after Expo had closed its gates for the night.
There was something wonderful about walking around the Expo site late at night, when the crowds were gone. There were still people about - cleaners and security - but at times, you could feel that you were alone. It was quiet. Peaceful. Even though some of the major display lights would be switched off, the Expo site was still a magical place.
Yes, after all these years, I am still glad that I took that job!