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Cruise Control - EYE Q Takes Immersive Production Out To Sea

Posted By Chris Milliken, Monday, April 16, 2018

Ready for an excursion out at sea on an exciting ocean cruise? Then get onboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship, JOY! It’s leaving Shanghai in five minutes! There’ll be plenty of sea breeze, fresh air, sunshine and sweeping views of the ocean blue. What else would you even want on a cruise? For starters, how about immersive stage shows with dancers and aerialists, including high-tech backdrops that span 180°? Or while you’re in the middle of the ocean, how about a virtual trip through Paris? Right now, the Norwegian JOY is the only boat sporting these amenities, thanks to the creative and technical team at Eye Q Productions.

Eye Q is a boutique production company based out of Agoura Hills, specializing in immersive entertainment, projection design, 3D mapping and creative video design. Headed by PGA member Jenni Ogden, who has been working alongside creative director Jeff Klein since 2003, the Eye Q team includes technologists, 3D animators, production designers and more. Before founding Eye Q, Ogden worked in the music industry, where she produced live events; she also has a background as an entrepreneur, having founded a record label. Today she sits on the PGA’s New Media Council Board of Delegates.

  Eye Q President and Executive Producer Jenni Ogden

The shows on JOY were a natural fit for Ogden and her team, building off of similar elements and projects they had previously created. Before working on the JOY’s shows, Ogden and Eye Q had produced nine theater shows for Disney, as well as five projection mapping spectaculars and numerous projection shows for Universal Studios. Moreover, the JOY project was not even their first time at sea—Eye Q had worked on immersive shows for Disney Cruise Lines as well. One of these productions connected them with Richard Ambrose, then Disney Cruises’ VP of Entertainment, who subsequently moved to Norwegian Cruise Lines. At Norwegian, Ambrose was looking to push the boundaries of immersive onboard entertainment. Naturally he knew just the producer for the job.

Ogden observes that Eye Q has been fortunate in that most of the company’s projects have been through word-of-mouth or repeat work with the same clients.

But what exactly is immersive entertainment and what exactly are the shows onboard like? In the theater space on JOY, an audience of about 1,000 is treated to hour-long “Vegas-style” stage shows that feature dancers, aerialists and other stage artists who perform in tandem with immersive projection backdrops that span eye to eye (180°) around the theater. The projections enhance the show’s story by adding visual backdrops, locations or reactionary elements to the performances on stage.

The two shows onboard JOY are conceptually different but offer similar immersive high-tech elements. Elements is inspired by the four elements: earth, air, water, fire. Paradis is a is a virtual trip through Paris, which begins at street level, before whisking the audience off the ground through the city center. Both shows incorporate music and are constructed for the immersive backdrops to match the performers on stage down to the second.

In creating the shows, Eye Q was responsible for creating the content on the projection screen and other technical elements while they collaborated alongside Broadway choreographer and the shows’ creative director Patty Wilcox (Motown the Musical). While Wilcox had created earlier versions of Elements and Paradis for previous shows on Norwegian Cruise Lines, the addition of Eye Q’s immersive environments has transformed the material, turning it from a performance into a must-see multimedia experience.

When putting together early versions of the shows, Eye Q looked to create unique entertainment, creatively speaking. For Paradis, the process involved creating a 5-mile digital recreation of Paris, constructed from scratch. Conceptually, Wilcox and Ogden’s team worked to create a journey through the city that was not simply a “greatest hits” landmark-oriented tour. Instead, they conceived of a more abstract representation of Paris that included a peek inside a speakeasy and a flight past the Eiffel Tower and d’Orsay Theater. They drew additional inspiration from famed trapeze artist and tightrope walker Philippe Petit.

Ogden explains the great creative opportunity that came with working alongside a renowned practitioner from another discipline—a choreographer—to mesh dance and performance with technologically immersive projection elements. The collaborative give and take in the effort to make them work in tandem was among the highlights of the process. As Ogden puts it, everyone—choreographers, performers and technologists– “was rowing in the same direction.”

The 3,000-passenger Norwegian JOY was built specifically for the Chinese market, which comes with large demands for impressive high-tech experiences. On a cruise ship that also features everything from virtual reality experiences to high-tech go-carts, Ogden and her team knew that the bar was set high. Ogden laughs, recalling the original request from Norwegian: to put together “a show on steroids.”

But as exciting as producing high-tech entertainment and setting up two immersive shows on the JOY was, it didn’t happen without a variety of unique challenges. For one, setting up the shows involved working on the ship while it was still under construction at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. Before fine-tuning the shows prior to the maiden voyage, Eye Q had to load show-specific equipment—involving the show’s programming, data and backups—onto the docked cruise ship and into the previously unseen theater space. When the team finally saw the performance space, they swiftly realized that some elements needed to be reprogrammed to work with the colors of the room and to utilize the space appropriately.

Once set up in the theater, producing the the shows required a six-week stint onboard the ship for rehearsals, while JOY got its bearings at sea. While the JOY was conducting listing and turning maneuvers out on the water and testing alarms to ensure the ship was safe and ocean-ready, the crew from Eye Q worked with the creative director and performers to enhance and adjust the show’s overall presentation and the technical setups.

The changes were both creative and practical. Since projections were used in tandem with traditional stage lighting, Eye Q needed to adjust lighting of their 180° panels to work in concert with the stage lights. This required close collaboration between projectionists and stage technicians, to ensure the lighting and visual focus worked cohesively and directed the audience’s attention to the right places at the right times.

 A classic Paris speakeasy, as rendered by Eye Q for the Paradis show on board Norwegian's JOY.

The rehearsals at sea also introduced the challenges of working on a moving ship. This meant adjusting projection equipment and visual elements and working with live performers who were themselves getting used to performing on a sometimes moving stage. It wasn’t only the dancers who had to adjust; these bumpy rehearsals out at sea required minor adjustments like replacing rolling chairs in the ship’s tech booth. (Too much sliding!)

Finally, knowing the entire show would need to be operated by Norwegian’s own technicians, Ogden’s team faced the challenge of producing a show that would be highly automated. With Norwegian crews operating the show for six-month stints, Eye Q had to engineer a “locked” presentation that could essentially run start to finish with just the touch a button. To ensure it runs smoothly, every six months an Eye Q technologist goes to train Norwegian staff on how to conduct the show and make necessary adjustments.

While Elements and Paradis are undoubtedly very high-tech shows, Eye Q confirms that cruise lines are continuing to up the ante on high-tech entertainment. Ogden is confident her team is up for the challenge and expects to work again on Norwegian’s next cruise ship.

But as exciting and novel as working on a cruise ship is, Ogden and the team at Eye Q are simultaneously working on plenty of other projects that incorporate a variety of formats. From new immersive experiences to features and television to live projection experiences and virtual reality, it’s the passion for creating entertainment that embraces different formats that really makes Eye Q tick. As Ogden says, “Telling stories across multiple formats is something I really love to do.”

*Set images by Decker LaDoucer
*Portrait of Jenni by Sam Roseman

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