Learning how to provide Vegas' circus maximus

Jon Marcus meets the engineers specially trained to create Cirque du Soleil's astonishing special effects

September 20, 2012

Oliver Sangalang has a bird's-eye view of the impossible twice every night. Beneath him at 7.30pm and again at 10pm, horses fly, a pool of water becomes solid before turning to fire, a house floats and acrobats dive from incredible heights.

One of the first graduates of a new programme in entertainment engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Mr Sangalang holds a coveted internship with the people who control the ropes and harnesses in the rigging department for Cirque du Soleil's blockbuster show O.

What has amazed Mr Sangalang as much as the performances has been learning how much engineering, including computer coding, goes into all the illusions.

"It's not so much about making the calculations but also understanding how they decide on the configurations they use," he said, adding that the special effects need to look as seamless as they appear incredible.

Audiences accustomed to special effects on film want to be amazed by live performances - and they're willing to pay top prices, fuelling ever bigger and more technically complex productions.

That, in turn, is propelling new academic programmes in entertainment engineering, a field that combines technology with art and has previously focused mainly on movies and computer gaming.

Cirque du Soleil works with 13 universities that produce specialists in various aspects of live mega-showmanship, from costumiers at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and riggers at Pennsylvania State University to audio engineers at the University of California, Irvine.

"We cannot produce these phenomenal special effects if we don't also produce the generation that will be able to take this forward," said Kim Scott, Cirque du Soleil's director of technical show support.

Few programmes have a laboratory like Las Vegas, where the live entertainment has become as big a draw as the casinos.

From their stools in the machine shop, students enrolled on UNLV's entertainment engineering programme can see the Vegas Strip blazing with light just two miles away.

There, sell-out crowds fill the 1,100-seat custom-built theatre at the Bellagio hotel and casino twice a night to see O, one of seven Cirque du Soleil shows currently in town, paying up to $175 (£110) per ticket.

That has helped to make entertainment engineering a lucrative job that is drawing students away from what they consider more mundane forms of engineering.

"Up to a few years ago, the entertainment industry was not recognised as an industry where you could make a living and raise a family," Ms Scott said.

Mr Sangalang studied mechanical engineering for three years before switching to entertainment engineering when the programme at UNLV was given degree status. Demand is such that he is almost assured of a full-time job.

But that's not the only reason that he made the switch. What he didn't like about mechanical engineering, he said, "was that I could go through all four years and never pick up a single tool".

Now he helps acrobats to fly, divers to climb and dancers to breathe underwater, all the while dreaming of the engineering he might someday adapt for audiences.

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