At the start of my second week at Cirque du Soleil, I was eager to get onto the new laser cutter – a machine that uses a high-powered laser to cut 2D material at a fast rate. One of the tasks that I have been set by Cirque, is to demonstrate the power of this laser cutter and to show what it is capable of doing. I wanted to try a whole lot of materials out and within no time at all, I was in the zone. This machine is a much newer model to what I am used to using. Only the latest machines have these new features including automatic detection of your materials, auto level to the correct focal point height for the laser, and a secondary self contained machine that filters the carcinogenic fumes down to virtually zero. It all saves setup time, as well as your lungs. It’s a great (and expensive) piece of equipment! I felt like I’d been given the keys to a Lamborghini and told I can do what I like with it.

Soon enough I started to explain to the staff near me how the laser cutter worked and what we could do with it. Instantly, prop designers were gathering around to ask me to test on different materials. I tried out foams, fabrics, woods, metals, plastics, carbon fibre etc. I was able to replicate the work of a prop designer, that had taken at least three hours to make by hand. I reproduced it physically within four and a half minutes, including the file design, setup, print and cut. This also includes the step of documenting the production files a crucial step at Cirque – the process of organising your files into The Cloud, in case anyone else at Cirque needs to reproduce the same parts. Normally, working by hand you must first make the part, and then go through explaining HOW to make the part step by step. Instead, by creating the 3D file once, it is also instantly documented for production at the same time. Two birds with one stone.

I’ve noticed a common response to this kind of technology; there seems to be a false notion that machinery will replace people. What isn’t understood is the opportunity this technology provides for creative people, to produce the same results more efficiently, which ultimately gives us more time and resources. It’s just another tool in the shed and people with long term experience can up-skill and have the best of both worlds: the knowledge and the new tools.

Later that day, I was taken on a tour through the storeroom. This place is like the everything warehouse, because everything is stored there. It works like this – if you want to design something, you go to the materials sample room first. You can select any materials that you want, and they have anything and everything under the sun that you could ever fathom! Once you have made your choice, you take down its code and request the quantity you desire. To make a request, you cite your project and ID number, which is kind of like spending money on the projects allocated budget. It feels a bit like Monopoly money or an in-house credit card. You can spend what you need to get things done and everything is accounted for. Cirque has a team of what seems like 20 staff, who collate your request of materials together and they are always busy, as there are many departments to cater to.

The following day I got to work on my wall sculpture project.  We called a meeting so I could explain my design to a team of five people. This is my kind of team! Veronique specialises in electronics, Eric in Arduino programming, Karine in 3d printing and Rino will offer guidance in ordering and negotiating materials.  Together we were like design Power Rangers. Or like the five from Captain Planet. We were given a budget, an outline of the intended goals and an ideal deadline. The team heard me out with how I wanted to go about creating the artwork. We blocked out how to focus our time and energy. My team members had many other shows to work on so it was important for me to do most of the project.

I have never had an opportunity like this before – a team of highly skilled professionals who work in the areas that I enjoy, ready to roll. I’ll be honest, I loved it so much. I enjoyed the dialogue and the different thinking and personality of every team member.  I usually work alone and forgot how much I enjoy the shared mind space. When I asked if we had certain electronics and the team’s response was always a pleasant, YES, or if not, we can find a way! I’ve always wanted to work on a project like this, but I’ve always been limited by either money, time, manpower or access to materials. These are not issues here. It was at this point that I fell in love with Cirque du Soleil. I could bring my radical ideas into reality with this team of five. They were powerful – imagine 350 costume designers behind you! WOW.

Because of other projects coming up at Cirque, there was only two weeks available to spend on the artwork. Fortunately, Cirque allowed me to design the project to completion knowing that we might not physically produce it all within the two weeks and they can complete it after I leave. This is good too, because it means that I get the challenge of producing all the necessary documents and files for anyone else to be able to pickup and complete with ease. This process is imperative at Cirque – ease of repetition without reinventing the wheel.

For this project, the goal was to make an artwork that is compositionally stunning, interactive with electronics, but also has the intent to inspire new thinking of what is possible with the new machinery. I decided to produce a modular panel system that would merge from the wall onto the ceiling to encapsulate the viewer as they explored it. Although we wanted to show a variety of materials and techniques that are possible to use with the digital machinery, I didn’t want the final piece to turn into a Frankenstein of random visual mess. I was relieved when the team agreed to use only three materials.

I started by taking photos of the space, and drawing over the top of this on my Wacom Companion tablet. After approval of the drawing and adaptation of the design, I made a 3D model of the physical space that we chose to do the installation. I added 3D scans of people into the model for a sense of scale, so that I knew what I was working with. Anything I created after this point would be mostly fit for final production.

As a design process, I like to make the prototype also the final product. This is a mix between 3D design and modern business philosophy merged together. It saves a lot of time cost and material. You make low risk 3D iterations – such as a small section of the 3D design, and market validate – get approval or changes in design from directors. Once approved, the small section is now a final 3D part. This may sound a bit unoriginal or a typical design process, but it is slightly different. Think of it as live design instead of multiple physical iteration developments. You make the customer design the product, not you. I learnt this approach from courses I took about ‘The Lean Business Startup’ model. There is also a book by Eric Ries called The Lean Startup. I recommend it as it describes a new way of thinking in todays world. In fact, its not exactly a new book, but I found it especially useful for my design process.  If you have a creative mind, you can find ways to apply the benefits of a business mind set into your design workflow.

At the end of the day, Denise and Valerie introduced me to some important people at Cirque du Soleil. I have found that everyone is warm and friendly at all levels of the company. It was great! Then my mind was blown (once again), when I attended one of Cirque’s annual staff meetings. One of their biggest studios is transformed and all staff are invited. It was like two or three times the size of a Cinema with a huge screen and sound system for presentations.

What amazed me most was that I was provided with a wireless headset, and they had a translator sitting in a booth live translating from French to English. I found it amazing. Often, I would laugh at jokes about half a second later than everyone else. This made other people around me laugh all over again. It was a surreal experience – it reminded me of the news, and seeing people at the United Nations meetings with their translators. I was honoured that I got to go, as it outlined all of Cirque’s future goals. And let me tell you, THEY ARE BIG GOALS! But they are confidential for the time being. 

The next day I walked past the same studio, and it was like nothing ever happened. Instead, my team got invited in to the studio where they were prototyping a new idea. I can’t say what it was, but what they were doing is completely rare and modern. I often walk around Cirque du Soleil in absolute disbelief at what I see. With a big fat grin! I have discovered a fire inside me that has sparked since being at Cirque du Soleil.