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April 15
2024

ISSUE

Spring 2024

LAS VEGAS’ SPHERE: WORLD’S LARGEST HIGH-RES LED SCREEN FOR LIVE ACTION AND VFX

By CHRIS McGOWAN

The newestaddition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

The newest addition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

On the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip, a 366-foot-tall eyeball gazes out at the urban landscape. The traffic-stopping orb, simply named Sphere, has an exosphere of 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into the moon, an immense pumpkin, vast fireworks and much more.

While the exterior of Sphere is now an imposing part of the Greater Vegas skyline, its interior is an immersive, scaled-up entertainment destination with seats for 17,600+. Films, concerts and events are displayed on the largest high-resolution LED screen in the world, an arena-sized canvas for live action and visual effects.

The wraparound 16K x 16K resolution interior display is 240 feet tall, covers 160,000 square feet and is comprised of 64,000 LED tiles manufactured by Montreal-based SACO Technologies. The audio system, powered by Berlin’s Holoplot, uses 3D audio beam-forming technology and wave-field synthesis. Sphere Entertainment’s $2.3 billion project was designed by global architectural design firm Populous.

Sphere Entertainment developed bespoke technology for the outsized format, including its Big Sky 18K x 18K, 120 fps camera system. The Sphere Studios division’s main Burbank campus is dedicated to production and post-production of visuals and mixing of immersive audio for Sphere and houses Big Dome, a 28,000-square-foot, 100-foot-high geodesic dome that is a quarter-sized version of Sphere, for content screening.

The rock band U2 inaugurated Sphere with a five-month-plus residency for “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere,” and showed off the venue’s vast creative possibilities for live shows. Director Darren Aronofsky’s immersive 50-minute film Postcard from Earth, which debuted soon after U2’s launch, tells the story of our planet seen from the future. Postcard used the Big Sky camera as well as Sphere’s 4D technologies, including an infrasound haptic system to simulate the rumbles of thunder or a rocket launch and sensory effects like breezes and scents.

Nevada’s most endangered species crowd Sphere’s interior in Es Devlin’s “Nevada Ark” for U2’s show. (Photo: Es Devlin. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

Nevada’s most endangered species crowd Sphere’s interior in Es Devlin’s “Nevada Ark” for U2’s show. (Photo: Es Devlin. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

“At its best, cinema is an immersive medium that transports the audience out of their regular life, whether that’s into fantasy and escapism, another place and time or another person’s subjective experience. The Sphere is an attempt to dial up that immersion,” Aronofsky wrote in a press release.

Soon after Sphere’s opening, Autodesk and Marvel Studios teamed up to create an ad celebrating the former’s software and The Marvels film for an Autodesk customer event in Las Vegas. The Mill helped with the VFX, utilizing the Autodesk tools Maya and Arnold. The segment featured a gigantic Goose the flerken (a cat-like creature that transforms into a monstrous alien) on the exterior of Sphere, another massive visual certain to draw attention for miles around.

7thSense provides Sphere’s in-house media servers, processing and distribution systems utilized fully on Postcard from Earth. They are the venue’s main playback system. For “U2:UV,” the visuals were coordinated by Treatment Studio and powered at Sphere by a disguise playback system.

U2 AT SPHERE

Brandon Kraemer served as a Technical Director for Treatment Studio on the “U2:UV” residency at Sphere. He comments, “The unique thing that Sphere brings to the concert experience is a sense of immersion. Given that it’s a spherical image format and covers much of your field of view – and it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty on the inside – means it becomes an instant spectacle, and if you leverage that for all its uniqueness, you can’t help but blow audiences’ minds.”

Kraemer recalls, “Willie Williams [U2 Creative Director and Co-Founder of London-based Treatment Studio] contacted me in September of 2022 about the project. That was very early on in the process. Early creative was being discussed then, but just as importantly we started to embark on just how we were going to technically pull this off.”

Kraemer continues, “The majority of the visuals were designed by the artists at Treatment under the creative direction of Williams and Producer Lizzie Pocock. However, there were other collaborators on key pieces as well. Khatsho Orfali, David Isetta and their team from Industrial Light & Magic created an amazing cityscape that deconstructs itself for U2’s new song ‘Atomic City.’ And, he adds, “Marco Brambilla and his team at The Mill in Paris created a unique world for ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing,’ a dense psychedelic collage.”

The newest addition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

The newest addition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

The newestaddition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

The newest addition to the Greater Las Vegas skyline is the 366-foot-tall Sphere. Its exosphere, the exterior shell of Sphere, has 580,000 square feet of LED panels that morph into all types of images. Sphere’s images range from a giant eyeball and leaf-like color bursts to an architectural lattice and a vivid moon. The Rockettes’ kicking and dancing also fill the Sphere and seem particularly well-suited to light up a Las Vegas night. (Photos courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

To capture large-scale, ultra-high-resolution imagery, Sphere Entertainment’s Burbank-based unit, Sphere Studios, developed the 18K x 18K, 120fps Big Sky camera system, used in spectacular fashion by Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

To capture large-scale, ultra-high-resolution imagery, Sphere Entertainment’s Burbank-based unit, Sphere Studios, developed the 18K x 18K, 120fps Big Sky camera system, used in spectacular fashion by Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth.(Photo courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

To capture large-scale, ultra-high-resolution imagery, Sphere Entertainment’s Burbank-based unit, Sphere Studios, developed the 18K x 18K, 120fps Big Sky camera system, used in spectacular fashion by Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

A massive cross of light is a simple but powerful visual at this scale, part of the band’s “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” residency. (Photo Kevin Mazur. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

A massive cross of light is a simple but powerful visual at this scale, part of the band’s “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” residency. (Photo Kevin Mazur. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

There were numerous technical challenges and quite a few diplomatic challenges as well, and these two areas often overlapped. Kraemer explains, “Opening a building and working in a construction site while stepping through rehearsal programming is quite a feat. My hats off to U2’s legendary Production Manager, Jake Berry, for keeping the whole operation moving forward in the face of what were, at times, some serious headwinds. Getting content rendered on that screen has lots of challenges along the way, and we were also very fortunate to have the support of disguise and their [GX 3] servers as the backbone of the playback system. We couldn’t have produced the show we did without their support.” In addition, the show utilized a custom stage, based on a turntable design by Brian Eno, and covered by Yes Tech and ROE panels.

U2’s reaction was very positive, according to Kraemer. “The band put a lot of trust in the teams that Willie Williams put together, and they were pretty blown away by it all.”

DISGUISE

Peter Kirkup, disguise’s Solutions and Innovation Director, recalls, “We first became involved in Sphere through [U2’s Technical Director and Video Director] Stefaan ‘Smasher’ Desmedt. Together with Smasher, disguise has been working on U2 shows for decades, so it was a perfect fit.”

Kirkup adds, “Disguise’s software and hardware powered the visuals that were displayed on Sphere’s wraparound LED screen during the U2 show. First, our Designer software was used to help previsualize and edit the visual content – all brought together by the creative minds at Treatment Studio, including Brandon Kraemer and Lizzie Pocock as well as Willie Williams.”

Disguise’s Designer software allowed the creative team to previs their visuals on a computer with the help of a 3D digital twin of the Sphere stage. “This real-time 3D stage simulator meant ideas could be communicated more clearly and quickly to get everyone on the same page,” Kirkup notes. “Designer also helped the team to sequence the visuals into a timeline of beats and bars – and import audio to lock visuals to the beat. This helped create snappy, rhythmic edits and some extra looping segments that could be pulled in on the fly in case the band decided to do an extra riff on the day of the show.”

Kirkup continues, “Once the visuals were complete, our software split and distributed the 16K video into sections. We were working with one contiguous LED screen but still needed to split the video into sections because of the sheer volume of content involved. We were playing real-time Notch effects and pre-rendered NotchLC content at 60fps across the Sphere’s 256,000,000 pixel, 16K x 16K interior canvas.

“Finally, our GX 3 media servers enabled all individual pieces to be perfectly in sync throughout the show,” Kirkup says. “This technology also allowed us to composite layers of video together in real time. For example, the video feed of the band that cinematic cameras were capturing during the show could be composited into our LED visuals from the Designer software. Each server was also upgraded with a 30-terabyte hard drive, so we had local storage machines for playout and 100GB networking back to the content store for file transfers and media management.”

Kirkup adds, “We furthered our Single Large Canvas workflows, which enable content to be broken up into pieces and distributed across a cluster of machines – essential work to make a project like this come to life. We also introduced some custom color pipeline work for Sphere, adapting our standard color pipeline to match the unique characteristics of the in-house LED system.” Adds Kirkup. “A big challenge was handling such a large volume of content across 256,000,000 pixels – in real time. There were 18,000 people watching the show, and they all had their camera phones ready to broadcast to even more people, so we really had to make sure the show went well.”

Kirkup remarks, “Bono mentioned this during the show, but I believe the most important thing about Sphere is that for the first time, a venue of this scale is being created with musicians in mind. In the past, musicians needed to squeeze into sporting arenas or stadiums that weren’t created for music – they may have had tiny screens or the wrong acoustics. With Sphere, that’s all changed. For real-time graphics and VFX artists, that’s a big trend to watch for in 2024 and beyond. I expect to see more venues designed specifically to highlight 3D visuals. With that, more VFX artists and studios will be pulled in to develop not only movie and TV effects – but incredible visuals for live events, too. The two industries will start to blur.”

7THSENSE

7thSense – a creative software and technology company based in Sussex, England – put together the Sphere in-house playback system and provides hardware for media serving, pixel processing and show control. “Building a first-of-its-kind venue like Sphere brought with it a significant number of challenges that the 7thSense team was keen to dig their collective fingers into,” explains Richard Brown, CTO of 7thSense.

Brown notes, “Managing exceptionally large canvases of playback, generative and live media as a single harmonious system is of utmost importance in a venue of this scale, and it is a workflow and underpinning technology we have been working on for quite some time. With a 16K x 16K canvas size, Sphere placed a priority on accelerating the development of the tools for media playback, multi-node rendering of generative assets and live compositing from multiple ST 2110 streams, as well as for pre-visualizing the show without having access to the full system. Because time in the venue is an incredibly rare commodity, anything that can be done ‘offline’ helps to make the time in the venue more productive.”

The visuals for U2’s “Atomic City,” with VFX work by ILM, includes a stunning deconstruction of Las Vegas going back in time. (Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The visuals for U2’s “Atomic City,” with VFX work by ILM, includes a stunning deconstruction of Las Vegas going back in time. (Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The desert landscape around Las Vegas became a backdrop for U2’s “Atomic City.” (Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The desert landscape around Las Vegas became a backdrop for U2’s “Atomic City.” (Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

Marco Brambilla’s dense psychedelic collage “King Size,” put together with the help of the Mill in Paris, is an ode to Elvis Presley that accompanies the U2 song “Even Better than the Real Thing.”(Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

Marco Brambilla’s dense psychedelic collage “King Size,” put together with the help of the Mill in Paris, is an ode to Elvis Presley that accompanies the U2 song “Even Better than the Real Thing.” (Photo: Rich Fury. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The interior display of Sphere is 240 feet tall and covers 160,000 square feet with LED panels from SACO Technologies. (Photo: Rich Fury/Ross Andrew Stewart. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The interior display of Sphere is 240 feet tall and covers 160,000 square feet with LED panels from SACO Technologies. (Photo: Rich Fury/Ross Andrew Stewart. Courtesy of disguise and U2)

The interior display of Sphere can create huge individual displays for any performer, and the venue uses 3D audio beam-forming technology and wave field synthesis for an appropriately big and precise sound.(Photo courtesy of disguise and U2)

The interior display of Sphere can create huge individual displays for any performer, and the venue uses 3D audio beam-forming technology and wave field synthesis for an appropriately big and precise sound. (Photo courtesy of disguise and U2)

The huge $2.3 billion Sphere has altered the Greater Las Vegas skyline and become an entertainment destination, celebrating its launch in September 2023 with the “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” residency. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

The huge $2.3 billion Sphere has altered the Greater Las Vegas skyline and become an entertainment destination, celebrating its launch in September 2023 with the “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” residency. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Entertainment)

Brown adds, “High-speed streaming of uncompressed media from Network Attached Storage (NAS) is something we have been wanting to do for a long time, but the technology was not sufficiently advanced to support the bandwidth and timely delivery of data until very recently. Fortunately, the use case for this technology aligned very much with the desired workflow at Sphere, giving us the chance to really dig into what could be an industry-changing technology for media production and presentation systems.”

Brown continues, “Managing synchronized media playback across dozens of servers is one thing, but making it straightforward for a show programmer to build the show that spans dozens of servers is quite another. 7thSense developed an Asset Logistics workflow that simplifies what actual movie frames each server streams from the NAS based on representative meta-media used for programming the show timeline.”

Brown explains, “Each server is configured with what section of the dome it is responsible for playing back, and this information, coupled with the name of the movie from the timeline, is used to determine the file path on the NAS that each media server uses to access the appropriate movie frames. This workflow reduces user error and makes timeline programming significantly faster than managing individual movies per server.”

Brown comments that Sphere is the first entertainment venue of its kind when it comes to the size and resolution of the media being presented to an audience. He says, “It is imperative that all media players, generative engines and pixel processors are working in absolute synchronization, or the illusion of immersion is lost for the audience. Worse than that, image tearing or jitter, could cause the audience to become ill because of the immersive nature of the media plane. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by the media.”

In addition, Brown notes, “Not only is it our first major application of ST 2110, it just happens to be the largest ST 2110 network in an entertainment venue on the planet!” 7thSense has been in the world of immersive presentations in planetaria, domed theaters, museums and theme park attractions since going into business nearly 20 years ago. But what has been created at Sphere is something new, a destination live-event venue, and the technology far surpasses what has been built to date. This hybrid type of entertainment has the potential to create its own category of immersive live show experience. It’s exciting to be part of the team building it from the ground up.”

“I think it’s an experience like no other,” Treatment Studio’s Kraemer says about Sphere. “It was a thrilling experience to be part of the first creative team to produce an amazing show there.

I think ‘U2:UV’ will be a very tough act to follow, but I think there is a tremendous opportunity to give an audience something that is impossible in a stadium or arena show, and I look forward to seeing how this all evolves.”



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