Welcome aboard the luxurious Queen Mary 2, to date the largest, most sophisticated ocean liner to travel the North Atlantic seas. As Cunard Lines first new vessel in over thirty years, the QM2 was conceived to emulate the legendary golden age of cruising while offering amenities befitting the 21st century. Further, the ship features a number of state-of-the-art integrated technologies that range from individually tailored guest ID cards (for some 2,600 passengers) and interactive TV in staterooms to more than forty separate venues, each with its own entertainment system.
Perhaps the most striking, and hi-tech, of the venues is the 500-seat Illuminations auditorium designed to host multiple events: theater for high-quality film or video projection, concert hall for live music performances, auditorium to support lectures and corpor-ate meetings, even a broadcast studio. But the star attraction of this versatile space is a full-scale 155-seat planetarium — a first at sea — with a retractable dome that is unquestionably the centerpiece of the room.
The inspiration for the planetarium came from Gerry Ellis, Cunard’s director of new building, whose goal was to recreate the mood of the earlier “queens” while enticing transatlantic passengers with a new and unique onboard experience. “The planetarium system quickly became the feature around which the room would be designed,” recalls Bill Havens, project manager for Nautilus Entertainment Design (NED), the design and consulting firm responsible for virtually all of the ship’s audio, video, and lighting systems.
Creating a planetarium within the framework of the auditorium required some innovative solutions. The project team – which also included naval architects from Cunard’s parent company, Carnival Corporation, and interior architects from Designteam – decided on a dome design with a fixed upper section, about 35 feet in diameter, and a slightly larger movable lower section. The two parts are joined into place with a series of interlocking flaps to form a shell “enclosing” a portion of the auditorium seating. During a planetarium show, seating under the dome area reclines so that its audience can become fully immersed in the experience. When the dome is retracted, the room returns to theater mode, and its ambience is one of refinement and elegance.
One of the guiding principles for the interior architects, led by Designteam’s Frank Symeou, was that the Illuminations décor generate an exciting first impression and provide an elegant, sophisticated ambience. “Our aim was to capture the romance of the great liners of bygone days,” he says. “While we understood that the space needs to be modern in its technology, we also felt it should be somewhat traditional in dress.” The space carries an Art Deco theme and is furnished in a mix of rich gold and red fabrics, marble, bronze, and warm veneers, and alabaster feature lighting.
A second guiding principle, notes Havens, was the intent to hide the various entertainment systems wherever possible and integrate them into the décor. NED video and lighting design consultant Michael Lindauer, video and broadcast constultant Matthew Hodkinson, and audio design consultant Alan Edwards worked closely with Havens on the effort. Consequently, house speakers, stage lights, and video projectors are concealed in catwalks and coves. Projection surfaces, four in all, remain out of view when not in use. In addition to a large permanent screen on the upstage wall used primarily for cinema, a second mid-size screen can be rolled down at the left of the stage to support lectures or presentations.
Near the front of the auditorium, two angled false walls were created to improve sitelines to these screens and provide a location for mounting some of the audio system speakers. The walls feature two large artwork friezes with speakers for the cinema sound systems integrated within the design, plus the mechanics for two additional drop-down projection screens. “It was essential to get the aesthetics right,” states Havens.
As an auditorium, Illuminations relies on a series of projection systems designed for multiple functions and includes a 35mm film projector and four Christie DLP video projectors of varying intensities (12,000 lumens, 10,000 lumens, two at 6,000 lumens). “The 35mm projector must be positioned in the center of the control booth window when in use, but that location is valuable real estate which also needs to be available for spotlights and other video projectors depending on the activity,” explains Lindauer. “As a result, the 35mm projection system was designed on a set of rails, allowing it to be pulled to the back of the control booth and stored out of the way when not in use.” The rest of the projectors are fixed, he adds, either in the booth or within front-of-house catwalks.
The planetarium, however, relies on its own full-dome projection system, engineered by planetarium specialists Sky-Skan. The system uses six floor-mounted Barco DLP projectors to blanket the dome with a single seamless high-resolution video image, resulting in high-quality color and brightness even in ambient lighting conditions. Because this equipment could not be hidden easily, the architectural team decided to feature the dome projectors and make their technology visible to the audience by housing them under clear canopies. Normally, planetarium shows are run from the control booth by a technician. But if a program or event is planned around an astronomy lecture, let’s say, the system can be controlled by the lecturer through a single laptop that plugs into a jack towards the front of the venue.
“Initially we were considering only traditional star shows,” Havens recalls, “but in the planning process we realized that evolving technology offered the option for full-color video and that the dome could be used for much more than originally thought.” Remarks Sky-Skan president Steven Savage, “We’re now able to play large-format cinema-like ‘movies’ all over the dome. Unlike a movie, though, the imagery is made for the dome – and that’s what impresses people. All the eye cues are correct; the imagery really is above, behind, and to the side for a truly immersive experience.”
Furthermore, he adds, the new digital systems permit real-time astronomy – “the audience can see the sky as it is in the moment” – without the requirement for expensive equipment. Because the planetarium sits low in the vessel towards the prow, there was some concern about the effects of vibration and movement in heavy seas on image alignment and focus, but the DLP projectors have performed excellently.
The multipurpose nature of the room also dictated the audio systems. What began as a basic sound reinforcement system for live performances and events expanded to encompass speaker arrangements to support cinema and planetarium shows. For cinema, Edwards designed a full-range high-definition surround system in the auditorium ceiling, with 12 speakers positioned so that nearly everyone in the audience would sit within the direct sound field. Planetarium shows benefit from a cluster of five speakers positioned directly above the fixed dome. “The dome is perforated to allow the audio to penetrate,” he says. He also selected a digital house-mixing console with the ability to recall scenes that have been preset for various venues, thereby freeing the audio engineer to concentrate on adjusting the sound.
The control booth occupies a narrow strip at the rear of the auditorium and was designed to operate in a number of different modes. For live musical performances, the audio console is moved forward into the venue on a mechanical platform, allowing the engineer to operate his systems from within the space itself and hear sound from the audience’s perspective. When the room is used for cinema, the audio console is retracted and the booth window closed to contain the mechanical noises generated by the film projectors.
Adjacent to the booth, the broadcast center plays an important role in QM2 activities, not only when events are broadcast live from the auditorium or another venue, but also for extensive onboard programming. The center acts as the main distribution system for standard TV channels for all staterooms, crew areas, and public spaces; it also contains a full editing suite and supplies the background music system (and music channels) for all areas.
“A large network of cameras ties around the ship, including the penthouse, in addition to 12 robotic cameras in key locations, all feed into the state-of-the-art production switcher, allowing technicians to do live productions from virtually any location,” says Hodkinson. Productions can be broadcast live to individual rooms or sent to the studio for recording and distribution on the ship’s TV network. He adds, “The system is very flexible and has been designed around a large cabling and matrix infrastructure to operate for a 30-year future.”
Although Queen Mary 2 offers her passengers several “marquee” venues, including the Main Lounge and the Queen’s Room, it is Illuminations that entertains guests with a truly stellar experience, technically and visually. “People have no idea how much technology is present when they enter the space,” Havens observes. “The initial reaction might be ‘Wow, what a great-looking movie theater,’ or ‘What an impressive meeting room.’ But when the planetarium dome is lowered and the show begins, there’s an extra ‘Wow!’ from the audience.”
Havens speaks for everyone on the NED team when he concludes, “We think it turned out very well.”
– Christina Nelson
the designteam limited
nautilus entertainment design