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Expo 2020 water feature | exploring Surreal with WET & Christie – blooloop

With fire elements, stunning projections, and a score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, this is a fountain like no other
Words:  Charlotte Coates
Expo 2020 Dubai took place from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, welcoming the world to the UAE. The six-month event explored a range of new ideas and innovations under the theme of Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, as well as celebrating culture, arts, and food from the UAE and from around the world. Expo 2020 Dubai also featured a unique and spectacular water feature at the centre of the site called Surreal, where water defies gravity.
Situated between Al Wasl Plaza and Jubilee Park, the attraction’s centrepiece is a circle of fire. It is accompanied by an orchestral score by Ramin Djawadi, who also composed the theme for the popular TV series Game of Thrones.
The water feature was created by WET, a California-based company that uses supercomputers and state-of-the-art technology to create iconic fountains and water features. Its previous projects include the HSBC Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport and the Fountains of Bellagio. The project also uses cutting-edge projection and media servers powered by Christie, the global visual technology company and Expo 2020 Dubai’s Official Projection and Display Partner.
If you missed seeing Surreal during Expo 2020 Dubai, fear not. The Expo 2020 site has an exciting future, which will soon be announced to the world, and Surreal will remain as a part of it.
Following the end of Expo 2022 Dubai, we take a closer look at the magic behind the stunning water feature, speaking with Ahmed Al Khatib, Chief Development and Delivery Officer for Expo 2020 Dubai, Mark Fuller, CEO of WET and Joel St-Denis, Director of Product Management at Christie.
The water feature’s 153 individual waves range from “glistening sheets to bursts of water that literally leap from the walls”, according to a statement from Expo 2020 Dubai. The waves also reverse themselves, flowing upwards at night. This results in a gravity-defying spectacle as they flow in the opposite direction.
In addition, there are also huge bursts of flame. In line with Expo 2020’s theme of sustainability, these are pure hydrogen and produce no carbon.
The Expo 2020 team always planned to have a water feature within the Expo site, says Ahmed Al Khatib:
“We also knew we wanted it to be near Al Wasl Plaza. Al Wasl is the old name for Dubai and there is a strong connection between the city and water. Like most successful cities around the world, it is located on the coast. Water is the most important element in the world. No one can live without it.”
The aim was to have a place within the Expo site where guests could enjoy some relaxation time. 
“We wanted a space of meditation for the brain and body,” says Al Khatib. “Beyond the obvious purpose of drinking, water also gives energy. People walk into the fountain and then have a different mindset by the time they exit. They are laughing, taking a lot of pictures, and enjoying this essential element of life. They see the water in a different form, and this changes their mood. People come in and take their shoes off and can interact with water differently.”
Speaking about the design process, Fuller adds:
“We started with very traditional ideas but then we thought, let’s engage with the real elements.”
“Water is such an exciting fundamental element of life. We all love and enjoy it and, indeed, fear it. It has an emotional connection on both sides. So, we work with the real elements, in this case, fire, in addition to water, to let people see that they can reconnect with nature and, it turns out, with their inner self in the process.”
The fountain is “an absolutely magical thing”, says Al Khatib.
“We built what is, essentially, a colosseum, or a cathedral with the sky itself as the ceiling,” explains Fuller. “All around this huge circumference, we release volumes of water rhythmically. It is a bit like a circular piano with someone playing the keys and each one releases a wave of water that falls down.”
The Expo 2020 Dubai logo took inspiration from a gold ring found at the Saruq Al Hadid archaeological site. But the 4000-year-old artefact also inspired Fuller and his team:
“We created a bit of a myth of our own. Fire usually likes being an antagonist to water. But we said, ‘Well, who knows what life was like back then. Maybe fire and water didn’t fight. Maybe they played together, maybe humankind was a bit gentler in those days.’
“We built a big ring, and we allow people to enter it and walk through it. Within this ring, fire and water do play together, and people from all different countries and cultures laugh and enjoy each other.”
“Here, fire ignores the usual rules. Water flows down in these monumental waves and then it freezes. It appears to defy all laws of nature, flowing in reverse. We’ve named this feature Surreal because we think it goes one step beyond the reality that we’re so accustomed to in daily life.”
Part of the spectacle of this unique water feature is the score. For this, an original nine-track album was created by the Emmy-winning composer Ramin Djawadi. The score, which was partially recorded live by the London Symphony Orchestra, can be heard evenly throughout the space, no matter where visitors are standing, and plays on a loop all day.
The process of creating the score was unique for this project, as Fuller explains:
“It was this dual development, which is completely different from the way we usually work. Typically, a film composer is given a scene and asked to set music to it. Or, in our business, we start with a fixed piece of music, and we must work to that.
“Ramin and I thought, what a wonderful breakthrough opportunity to co-create both the visual stimulus for the music and the music itself. When you stand here and see them played together, you’ll realise that it could not have happened in any other way.”
WET uses 21 Christie Crimson WU25 projectors to enhance the fountain’s visual spectacle with a show that makes Surreal come alive at night, as they paint the water in vibrant colours. The Crimson WU25 3DLP laser projector has 25,000 lumens and Christie BoldColor technology. The result is big bright images, as well as enhanced colour performance and saturation.
“The rugged Crimson WU25 is an amazing product. With its dust-sealed, solid-state laser light source, it’s reliable and virtually maintenance-free. These are all ideal characteristics for a spectacle that takes place night after night for several months,” says St-Denis.
“The Crimson projectors were chosen for their high brightness as well as their colour capabilities. They are very good at emulating all the colours required to really make the water pop, adding colour and texture to it.”
After working with Christie to light up the spectacular Al Wasl dome at Expo 2020 Dubai, Al Khatib says the team knew Christie’s technology was the right choice for the water feature project too:
“The relationship with Christie has always been great. As well as the products, they provide technical advice on how we can enhance and improve things. Working with them on the Al Wasl dome was a great experience and a true partnership. So, we wanted to continue with them to create another amazing experience together.”
Expo 2020 Dubai had three key subthemes: sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. While there was a specific pavilion devoted to sustainability, the concept also underpinned everything that took place on-site, including the fountain.
According to Al Khatib, the team looked carefully at the amount of water used by the fountain. Plus, the water is recycled back into the feature, forming a continuous circle. 
In addition, careful consideration was given to the fire element:
“In the middle of the water feature is this monumental centrepiece. It releases on cue huge balls of flaming colour,” says Fuller. “But we don’t burn a carbon fuel. We burn pure hydrogen. This means we add nothing to the carbon content of the atmosphere in doing this project. 
“There is an interesting sort of circularity to that. When hydrogen burns, it combines with the oxygen in the air, and you get water. So, we’re creating water, which is the substance that the main feature is made of, as a by-product of the fire. Plus, hydrogen fire burns clearly. This is because there is no carbon to create that yellow glow, which allows us to introduce these fantastic colours.”
The Christie technology also contributes to the sustainability of the Expo 2020 Dubai water feature project. This is thanks to its proven reliability, and the long life and solid-state (lamp-free) design of the projectors.
“The projectors are incredibly reliable,” says St-Denis. “Plus, due to the brightness and the colour that they can expend, it squeezes every inch out of the content that’s created by WET.”
The project features cutting-edge technology. However, it was important to ensure that this did not take centre stage.
“Technology is wonderful, but it should not be the start, it should be the support,” says Fuller. “We believe in working till you have a simple, pure concept, and then doing it strongly.”
St-Denis adds:
“The biggest way the audience is going to see that there’s technology involved is if the technology just doesn’t work. Christie is truly one of the most reliable choices out there. The Crimson projectors can operate fully in challenging conditions.
“As a partner to WET, we helped facilitate the design idea of how to put the projectors in such a way so that they are not as visible. When you’re looking around, you don’t see a big projector just sitting on top of the wall projecting an image. It’s a little more magical for the experience of the end-user in that way.”
The Christie team was on hand to help WET make their ideas a reality, meaning they not only met the brief from Expo 2020 Dubai but also created a truly ground-breaking water feature.
“In projects such as this, early on we always help with design requests and research. Our team looks at the project’s specs, for instance, things like the throw distance and the projection surface, whether it is projecting on water, or a black surface or a white surface,” says St-Denis. 
“We then choose the resolution and brightness of the projector required and get the correct lenses to make sure we fit the surfaces that we need to fit.”
Christie did a pre-programming week with WET at their demo facility, and WET built a section of a wall to emulate what would be in Dubai, at their headquarters. The Christie team went there and helped to test it and to get the system set up and aligned. This allowed WET to easily drop in content to see what works and what doesn’t. 
In the final installation, Christie went to Dubai and helped initialise the system, aligning all of the projectors and doing the initial round of warping. This ensured that the projected images adhered to the wall properly and displayed the image as WET requested.
“We’ve always found Christie to be a great partner,” says Fuller. “Every time we’ve worked with Christie, we feel like it is a true partnership. They’re offering suggestions and helping us, we’re brainstorming together. And of course, they offer state of the art technology. They’ve been on hand for support throughout.”
This involves troubleshooting too, says St-Denis:
“For example, we had some splash issues where the water that came off the wall would flash back up into the projector shooting the other wall, so you could see a sparkle. So, we did some work with them to figure out options and solved the problem together.
“We like to work hand in hand with our clients. Companies like WET go into projects with their own knowledge. But they also know that Christie is a leading expert in projection and projection systems. They ask us to partner hand in hand with them to come up with the best possible solution for what the end-user wants.”
During Expo 2020, visitors from around the world could enjoy the water feature, as well as everything else the spectacular six-month-long event had to offer. And now, the magic will live on elsewhere.
“This was a fantastic Expo,” says Fuller. “It was beyond belief. We’ve worked on several Expos and this particular one touched not just on the future of technology, but it also had some foundational principles of sustainability and mobility. It got people excited and engaged in the good things in life.” 
“The potential that the water feature has is amazing,” says Al Khatib. “It has viewing platforms as well as Spanish-style steps going down to the centre. We held functions and events in the middle of the water feature. For example, yoga classes were held there early in the morning. I don’t want to call it a venue. It’s more of a waterfall urban theatre. It’s also a place where you can enjoy the surroundings without having any shows in the middle.
“The water feature echoes the fact that the entire expo site was all about creativity, new technologies, and innovation. And, when reborn as District 2020, the site will continue to be the testing hub and laboratory for new ideas and technologies that can enhance urban designs and urban planning in the future.”
“Once the music starts, it’s amazing to see how people interact with the water. It was one of the highest attraction points in the Expo, with an incredible six million visitors. To see families laughing, having a great time within that water feature is amazing. Everybody loved it.”
Top image: Children visit Surreal, the water feature, Expo 2020 Dubai. (Photo by Suneesh Sudhakaran/Expo 2020 Dubai)
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