Inside the Spectacle

Owl over Lovett

An owl flies toward the audience from the depths of Lovett Hall at the conclusion of the Centennial Spectacle. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

A year’s worth of under-the-radar planning went into Rice’s amazing light-and-sound show

Thorsten Bauer went straight for the heart, rather than the intellect, of Rice University. So when he saw the Spectacle writ large for the first time, even the German artist shed a tear.

“We wanted to make it an experience for the audience,” he said. “It’s not as much about teaching them as it is about touching them.”

As creative director and co-founder of URBANSCREEN, Bauer led the artists and technicians from Bremen, Germany, who designed the light and sound show that brought Lovett, Sewall and Herzstein Halls, the cornerstones of the university’s Academic Quadrangle, to stunning life for a series of performances during Rice’s Centennial Celebration.

Thousands experienced the awe-inspiring performance over three perfect autumn evenings inside the quad – and outside. One viewer tweeted about seeing a few seconds of the Spectacle from the air: “Even from 15,000 ft. we can tell we missed something special.”

The URBANSCREEN team flew to Rice, its first American client, charged with creating an event that would tell the story of the university’s first century to the extended community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors attending the extensive series of events the campus hosted during the Centennial Celebration.

The artists’ strategy was to let Rice’s distinctive architecture do the talking. “Our first question was, ‘Who is telling this story?’ We decided the architecture itself is the only living witness to the entire history,” Bauer said. “The images come from the inside of the building to the outside for a few seconds, and then go back.”

For the three-segment production, the team created a three-dimensional video keyed brick-by-brick to the buildings. “We think of a building as a diva, because it demands so many things,” said Till Botterweck, an URBANSCREEN art director, at a lecture for Rice architecture students the day after the final performance. “This one (Lovett Hall) was even more of a diva.”

With no white projection surfaces save for the covered Sallyport and several well-placed window screens, the ornate building presented many challenges. For one, Bauer said, the team’s original production drawings were based on architectural plans that go back to Rice’s beginnings. When they came to Rice for the show, they discovered Lovett Hall’s construction crew didn’t always adhere to the plan. “They were a few inches off here, a few inches there, but we were able to adjust,” he said.

From the beginning of the process, the owl served as inspiration. Bauer’s imitation of an owl as he described his ideas during his initial meeting at Rice convinced the Spectacle committee URBANSCREEN was right for the job, said Molly Hipp Hubbard, Rice’s art director and committee co-chair. “We fell in love with them at that moment, because we knew they got it. We knew they would be able to get Rice completely, and engage and integrate all the stories.”

At the start of the show, the sound of the owl’s flapping wings – ultimately, created with a wet towel waved in front of a microphone – grew out of a prairie soundscape. The owl circled and dropped a feather at the Sallyport, where the Rice Institute took root. A fanciful opening revelation of the architectural details served as a segue to the main segment, in which the artists bent the architecture to their will as the buildings revealed the university’s colorful history, with each decade in turn crackling to life.

“This is not like a PowerPoint presentation,” Bauer said of the art form his company refers to as “lumentecture.”

“There are often many things happening at the same time, bubbling up, falling to the surface and disappearing again,” he said. “We created the visuals to reflect the design principles of the decades they represent.” The surround soundscape enticed viewers to look this way and that, ensuring that one could not see everything in a single viewing, and probably not even multiple viewings.

Bauer and the URBANSCREEN team had been stealing in and out of Rice for a year to plan the nearly 20-minute show that not so much told the history of Rice to audience members as folded them inside it. The 270-degree projections were a first for the company that has wrapped a number of buildings in fanciful animations, most notably the Sydney Opera House earlier this year.

Because details of the performance were to remain a deep, dark secret until the premiere the night of the Centennial Gala, Bauer, Botterweck, art director Max Goergen and producer Manuel Engels often came to campus under aliases. Sometimes they posed as the German cousins of Rice School of Architecture Dean Sarah Whiting, co-chair of the Rice-side production committee, to conduct interviews for their “research project.”

“More than once, people came up and said, ‘Hey, I met your German cousins today!'” Whiting said, laughing.


Members of the URBANSCREEN team met with Rice School of Architecture students on Oct. 15 to describe the creative process behind the Spectacle. Click on the photo to watch their lecture. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The pressure to keep quiet was even greater on architecture senior Joshuah Howard, whom Whiting sent to intern with URBANSCREEN for a month last summer. “He couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing, even what town in Germany he was in,” Whiting said.

“We decided to play this game called ‘Secret Agent,'” Hubbard recalled. “We knew that it was for the greater good, so we would come up with these aliases. Sometimes they were photographers from a European magazine; other times they were Sarah’s cousins.”

Whiting noted the considerable challenge of “getting everyone excited about something we couldn’t talk about.”

The committee that also included Centennial Director Kathleen Boyd, Senior Project Manager Kathy Jones and Associate Vice President for Development Kevin Foyle set a baseline of historic events that had to be part of the performance, based on Public Affairs’ centennial banners that line the Inner Loop. Otherwise, Bauer said, “We collected tons of photos and tons of text, read all the books about the history of Rice and ended up with a huge amount of information that was far more than we could use.”

In fact, Bauer used an astounding 30,000 photos during the five shows and one unplanned encore. Hubbard said that after the final unadvertised performance for the Rice Design Alliance gala on Oct. 14, hundreds of people were still pouring into the quad. “One student came up to Thorsten and asked, ‘What time is the show?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re done. We just did the last show.’ And he said she burst into tears,” Hubbard said. “Ten minutes later they decided to run it one more time.”

Editing the images to fit the buildings’ facades took months, with tests viewed in the company’s computers and on a small mockup of the quad. With a projection that measured, in technical terms, 10,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels high, there was plenty of room for Bauer to maneuver as he oversaw the flow of artwork in two- and three-dimensions, matching it to the electronic score that was also composed and produced by the company.


The URBANSCREEN team, from left: Thorsten Bauer, Till Botterwick, Max Goergen and Manuel Engels, at the Rice School of Architecture, where they lectured about their work on the centennial Spectacle. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“It was the most challenging production for URBANSCREEN so far because of the amount of content, the number of effects, the ratio, the resolution and also because our partners here were very diverse,” he said. “There was no one art director from Rice confronting us; there were many cooks – intellectual cooks.

“But I liked it, because everybody gave their input, they put things on the table and then they took their hands away. They really trusted us,” he said.

The German crew traveled to Houston for centennial week with only data – 800 gigabytes’ worth – as their cargo. The rest of the gear was leased from Houston-based LD Systems, a lighting-and-sound production company started and still operated by Rice alumnus Rob McKinley ’81. The company built and installed the unique two-stage mask that occluded the Sallyport without blocking traffic, and also provided the 12 20,000-watt projectors and the immersive sound system.

Sound was most critical to what Bauer called the show’s epilog, when history had caught up to the present day. “Our decision was to swap the narration line from the visual in the 100-years part to the auditory,” he said of the segment that features the layered voices of dozens of Rice students coming from every direction. All the while, at first slowly and then in massive waves, bricks of light flow around and about the arches that support the three buildings.

Rather than a visual representation of buildings and plans, Bauer said the finale, representing the future, “is built out of the wishes, fears and hopes of the students of today.” He conducted 12 hours’ worth of interviews for the collage that concludes the show.

The segment was inspired by a comment President David Leebron made early in the process. “He said in one interview, ‘You know, Rice is one of the last refuges of people whose ambition is to change the world,'” Bauer recalled. “As I worked more and more with Rice, I saw this more clearly. This changed me. This kind of inspiration is the fire in this community, and I found that in every interview I did.”

The light may have faded, but the fire remains. “As I left the architecture lecture, I heard two students talking in the quad as the projection tower was coming down,” Hubbard said. “One of them looked at it and said, ‘I can’t believe that it’s gone. I’ll never be able to look at Lovett Hall the same way again.'”

Aerial view

An owl's-eye view of the Spectacle shows the roots of Rice growing from a single feather with the Houston skyline in the background. Photo by URBANSCREEN

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About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.