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Jim Doyle leaps into the ballet scene with fog effects for 'Azimuth'

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It's a typically dry afternoon in Sun Valley, in an industrial area near the Burbank airport where the pavement is scorched and the air is speckled with construction dust.

Tucked behind a 12-foot-high ficus hedge, however, inside a Willy Wonka-like facility teeming with invention, Jim Doyle is making it rain.

A sheet of water cascades from the ceiling with a thunderous roar inside a dark, garage-like space called Area 9. Water rushes out of wide-mouthed hoses on the cement floor, flooded with half an inch. The cinder block walls, painted black, are coated with mist and a damp, acrid scent conjuring wet laundry hangs in the air. An inflatable shark dangles from the ceiling.

This is the demonstration and testing lab at the L.A. headquarters of WET, a design firm where Doyle, who just finished a new fog effect for an upcoming Los Angeles ballet, has helped create some of the most ambitious and lavish water displays in the world.

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The Bellagio fountain and the Mirage volcano in Las Vegas were both designed by WET, as were fountains at Los Angeles' Music Center, the Grove and Americana at Brand, as well as the 2002 Olympic-flame caldron in Salt Lake City.

Doyle was head engineer on the Olympics project. Designed to look like an icicle, the glass caldron was lighted with fire from within; small jets bathed the caldron from the outside, cooling it, which also made it appear to be melting.

"Water, fire, fog, smoke, ice, I do it all," Doyle says. "Who doesn't love those things?"

Doyle spent nearly 20 years as a special effects designer for films — he created Freddy Krueger's iconic, razor-sharp glove in "A Nightmare on Elm Street." He also invented liquid-nitrogen fog, initially used during musical numbers in children's television shows to replace dry ice, which, he says, can be toxic over long exposures.

"I got the idea on 'Thriller,' the graveyard scene," Doyle says of his work on Michael Jackson's groundbreaking video. "We were going through liquid nitrogen like crazy. I thought: 'There's gotta be a better way of doing this.'"

His design and use of the so-called dry fogger won him an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 1992.

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Feeling that he'd hit an industry peak after his Oscar, Doyle began searching for new opportunities. WET founder Mark Fuller had worked with Doyle at what is now Walt Disney Imagineering and brought him into WET. Doyle's now been with the company for 17 of its 27 years.

His newest creation — technically a freelance project he worked on during nights and weekends at WET, a practice Fuller encourages — is a fog effect for the ballet piece "Azimuth."

As part of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center's 10th-anniversary season, the San Francisco-based Alonzo King LINES Ballet is collaborating with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago on the Los Angeles premiere of "Azimuth." Created by King, the piece combines classical ballet and contemporary dance.

The first of "Azimuth's" nine sections leads with Doyle's cone-shaped fog effect, which rises with the curtain as the dancers twirl in its midst.

The effect is ethereal, says Doyle, who thinks of fog almost as a paintbrush. Working with King as well as "Azimuth" lighting designer Axel Morgenthaler, it took Doyle about four weeks to create the effect, including the parts that were discarded.

"It's very clean, very short," Doyle says, and "isn't at all intrusive" to the dance.

King says the fog effect was particularly in sync with "Azimuth," which is something of a three-dimensional meditation on transcendence.

"Azimuth is a maritime measure in a spherical coordinate system," King says. "Its origin sprang from people reacting to working with liquid and the need to navigate through liquid, which can obscure sight. So without meaning to be literal, fog had all the correct qualities for the piece."

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The "Azimuth" fog machine is tucked in storage at the moment, readying for its stage debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this week, but other Doyle creations are all around the work space.

The aforementioned rain wall is just a portion of a 30-foot-long "droplet curtain" comprising 93 digitally programmable jets, each of which can be controlled separately. Doyle created it for a previous King collaboration, "Meyer," with double-bassist/composer Edgar Meyer. It premiered in April as part of LINES' 30th-anniversary celebration in San Francisco.

So subtle and yet so strikingly luminescent was the effect, many people thought they were looking at CGI video instead of real water during the performance, Doyle says. The droplet curtain has been partly reerected in Area 9 for research and inspiration purposes while Doyle's team works on a new top-secret water project.

Suddenly, the jets on the droplet curtain fizzle out and it's quiet but for the hum of a distant motor. Doyle, a 6-foot-tall big kid in a Hawaiian shirt and thick rubber-soled shoes, sloshes around Area 9.

"Uh-oh, we have a crimped hose," he says. "A fate worse than death." He scrunches his eyes and tugs at his beard.

No matter. The water architect moves on to show off another creation. This one is a wide "water bell" he created with a team at WET; it houses a ball of natural gas and spits fire at its center. It was originally created for a show at the Indian casino Viejas near San Diego.

Doyle sticks his hand into the flaming epicenter. "See? You can't burn yourself because you're all wet," he says proudly. "I was trying to do something else, and this happened; so we kept it."

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With hair flowing loose down his back, a shaggy beard and deep, gravelly voice, the 58-year-old Doyle seems more laid-back Dead Head than refined ballet fan — former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart is, in fact, a friend. But Doyle has been a ballet lover for more than 30 years, as an arts patron and a designer.

While at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Doyle says, the theater department was entwined with the dance department; Doyle went on to study scene design in graduate school at USC. Watching ballet dancers work, he developed an appreciation for the rigor and discipline professional ballet required.

Designing staged effects for live ballet presents a host of particular challenges, but that's part of what keeps Doyle interested.

His water effects have to be quiet enough for the dancers to hear the music and warm enough so that the dancers' muscles don't freeze up on the rare occasions they pass though it. Also, ballet pointe shoes are lined with cardboard at the tip, which can become damaged in water. And placement, to avoid slipping, is an issue for the effects.

"Their form is very specific," Doyle says of dancers. "They have needs that have to be met for them to be able to dance as they're intending. I can't get in the way of that."

"Azimuth" opens at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on June 21, where it runs for three nights. It's one of three pieces in the evening's program — the other two are King's "Scheherazade," performed by LINES, and a Hubbard Street performance of "Little mortal jump" by the company's resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.

Doyle hopes his fog effect, though somewhat fleeting, will connect with both the audience and the dancers.

"At the end of the day," Doyle says, "we want to create a painting — a movable painting."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Hubbard Street + LINES Ballet

The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

7:30 p.m. June 21 and 22, 2 p.m. June 23

Tickets: $28 to $110

Information: (213) 972-8555 or http://www.musiccenter.org

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