The Image Mill Part I-Overview

I have long been a fan of Robert Lepage; I think he is probably the most brilliant creative force working in the performing arts today. Not only is his work always engaging, but he is one of the few creative folks in the world who also really "gets" technology.  He's definitely an artist and not a technician or engineer, but he sees technology's potential and uses it to amplify and enhance a personal connection to the art—the technology in his projects never gets in the way. I see Mr. Lepage’s work whenever I can, dating back to 1997 when I saw his amazing Elsinore at BAM (I sat in the audience next to Joe Jackson), and his staging work for Peter Gabriel’s Growing Up tour in 2002, The Far Side of the Moon at ART in 2005 and of course Cirque du Soleil’s .  So, when I heard that Mr. Lepage was the creative force behind a new, and massive son et lumière celebrating Quebec’s 400th birthday, I had to go see it.  My friend Napy had a couple days off from his Met Opera/NY Philharmonic tour (which I did myself for 10 years) and so we decided to take a road trip up and see it. And, even despite a bout with food poisoning, the trip was well worth it, as Le Moulin à Images (The Image Mill) was stunning, beautifully, and incredible, and the scale was simply mind-boggling. This will be a bit long, so I’m going to break it up into several posts, with this one kicking off with an overview, and then I’ll talk about some of the technical details.

The original plan was to stop in Vermont Sunday night (June 26) to break up the trip since I had already been out camping for a couple days (kayaking on eastern Long Island), head up to Quebec on the 27th, see the show that night, then take a tour of Lepage’s creative headquarters the next morning, and then head over to Montreal to meet friends for the Jazz festival.  Unfortunately, though my food poisoning meant I was running a fever all day Monday on the drive up, we got a slow start, and my trip to a medical clinic ($60 flat fee, only a few minutes wait) meant that it would be tough to make it to the show site in time, especially since they were celebrating Canada Day in Quebec.  But Napy and I managed to get to a hill on the walls of old Quebec city, and got to see the show from a distance.  It was still amazing even at that distance, and we decided to cancel the Montreal part of the trip and stay in Quebec another night, which turned out to be a great decision.  

Before I left home, I had contacted Mr. Lepage’s creative organization Ex Machina to see if I might be able to take a look backstage at The Image Mill, and connected up with Tobie Horswill, whose title is “Technical Designer – Research and Development”.  Tobie met with Napy and I for quite a while, and graciously toured us around “La Caserne” (the barracks), Lepage’s "Center of Creation", housed in an old converted fire house.  Lepage has a staff of about 20 that he keeps employed full time in Ex Machina, and they have work booked through something like 2015.  Tobie patiently answered the million questions Mark and I had, as he showed us around.  La Cascerne is a very cool building, not just a beautiful work environment that houses Lepage’s office, etc, but also a full studio and rehearsal spaces for the development of Lepage’s work.  Apparently on most of his shows, Lepage includes Ex Machina in the contract, and then brings artists to Quebec where they go through their extensive creative process. 

After letting Tobie get back to work, Napy and I toured around Quebec city and hung out at a pool a bit, and then at 7:30 we met Mario Brien, the Director of Production for the Image Mill.  Mario generously gave Napy and I an extensive tour of the site,  and we ended up staying after the show and having a beer with the crew.  The scale of this project is simply immense, and the technical challenges they had to overcome would take 10,000 words to describe, so I’m going to have to focus here just on some highlights.  First, though, let’s take a bit of an overview. 

The show, which opened June 20th, is a massive video projection that takes place on a working grain mill owned by the Bunge corporation in the old harbor area of Quebec city.  The massive projection surface is 600 meters (almost 2000') across, and 30 meters (about 100') high. Ex Machina says this is the equivalent of 25 IMAX screens, and they are checking to see if this is a Guiness world record. The projected resolution across this surface is 64,000 x 1,080 pixels. The Image Mill took more than two years to create, with a (surprisingly small) budget of $4.5million Canadian.  Mr. Brien oversaw the creation process which took place over several years in La Cascerne with dozens of designers working while projecting on a scale model of the massive mill. In the next entry, I'll cover more details on the video and projection system (all photos and videos in this series by Mark Napoletano).

This series has three more installments, click here for part II.