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Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Iris’


Oscar-nominated composer and musician Danny Elfman is best known for his complex scores to nearly every film by director and longtime friend Tim Burton; titles have included Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hollow and Batman. The one-time leader of the new-wave band Oingo Boingo has also written scores for many other disparate films, such as Spider-Man, Milk, The Wolfman, Terminator Salvation and the upcoming Men in Black III, and is responsible for the themes of TV shows ranging from The Simpsons to Desperate Housewives.

Composer Danny Elfman on-site at the Kodak Theatre

Photo: Hanna Sanders

Last year, Elfman unveiled his intricate score for Cirque Du Soleil’s latest live show, Iris—A Journey Through the World of Cinema, currently playing at the 3,330-seat Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. The show is scheduled for a 10-year residency that will be interrupted only for the annual Academy Awards ceremony each February. Total production costs for Iris are reported to be close to $100 million, of which some $30 million was spent on converting and outfitting the Kodak Theatre with new amenities, including a multichannel sound system.

“I was first approached by Cirque du Soleil almost three years ago,” Elfman recalls, “but for two of those years there was nothing to see—no overall themes nor set designs. Working off very preliminary sketches supplied by [writer/director/choreographer] Philippe Decouflé, I started to work on small pieces of music that I thought would be suitable for the show. Iris is about the early world of cinema—the silent era, in which abstract imagery was highly expressive. My music, like a traditional film score, was intended to capture the rhythm of that highly formative era and form a continuity between the various acrobatic sequences and the larger dance-based sequences, while supporting the show’s love story. Early on, Philippe wanted me to keep the score very abstract, and in support of the moving images we see on the stage. His influences included works by the painter Francis Bacon and [French cinema pioneers] Louis and Auguste Lumière and Georges Méliès.”

As the show gradually took form, Elfman focused on a dozen pieces. “I then traveled to Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters in Montreal,” he says, “where I saw the in-progress show, with looped two-minute pieces of my early music. It became a highly iterative process, with my rewriting pieces to better match the final staged sequences. Each ensemble had different needs, in terms of pace and dimensionality. There are a number of performance styles within Iris, ranging from acrobats and tumblers to trampoline and trapeze acts; I needed to cover a wide gamut of motion and theatricality.”

Scoring engineer Dennis Sands

Eight months before the Iris premiere in mid-2011, Elfman received details of the show’s final running order with its 12 discrete sections. “Unlike previous Cirque shows, there is no pit band for Iris,” he notes. “Instead the plan was to pre-record the orchestral score, apart from the live performances of eight soloists that would play their parts live each night, as the music director triggered each [pre-recorded] cue to accurately follow each performance, to accommodate timing differences night-to-night and the looping that is necessary as performers re-stage a particular sequence. In other words, the score needed to be divided up into a large number of sections to follow the performance, which would be slightly different each night. It became a mind-bogglingly complicated process!”

The scoring project began in Elfman’s personal recording studio and composing room and then moved to the Fox Scoring Stage in West L.A., where he was joined by his first-call scoring engineer, Dennis Sands. “We had three days of stage time to record 70-plus minutes of the music needed for Iris,” the composer recalls. “We broke down the scoring dates into nine sessions—three per day—to record the various orchestral performances for the 80-piece orchestra.

“Because we were planning to remix the elements at the Kodak Theatre, and determine the various output assignments for the left, center and right [Meyer Sound speaker arrays] and the multiple surround channels, we broke down the recording into separate sessions,” he continues. “We recorded large strings with 45-plus players; medium strings with 25 players; smaller strings with a dozen or so players; separate sessions for orchestral woodwinds and another for a big band with saxophones; plus brass in orchestral and big-band passes, percussion and choir. I had already recorded a number of guitar, organ, accordion, synthesizer and live percussion tracks at my home studio, where I have a large collection of tympani, percussion and a range of drums—my signature sound, if you will. We also tracked a number of ethereal pads, plus the sounds of pots and pans.”

In addition to Sands, the production crew included orchestrator Steve Bartek (Elfman’s musical partner dating back to his Oingo Boingo days) and conductor Pete Anthony; Tom Steel served as technical stage hand at Fox Scoring, while Adam Olmsted was Pro Tools operator. “I use Adam on all my projects to record and manage the session files,” Sands states.

“We used a different close-miking setup for the big-band section,” Elfman continues, “to give us a Nelson Riddle type of sound with less room ambience. With all the stops and starts needed for the various segments, it was a very demanding session for the orchestral players. The different cues also meant further divisions, and because of the need to loop some of the sections during live performances of Iris, the dynamics within each cue needed to be carefully controlled.”

“I used Millennia HV3D preamplifiers for the orchestral tracks, [which were] miked with a Decca Tree array of three Neumann M50 microphones,” Sands explains, “with Brauner VM1 tube mics as left- and right-wide pickups. Other spot microphones included DPA 4011s on violins, Neumann U87s on celli, Flea 47s on bass and Neumann M49s as bass-section overalls. For close trumpet miking, I used a Royer SF-1A ribbon, an AEA R44 ribbon on other brass, and an AEA R88 stereo ribbon as overall pickup; I also used AEA ribbon preamplifiers on the brass mics.

“Most of the orchestral mics were connected directly to the Pro Tools rig through Genex GXA8 A-to-D converters, which are my first-call units. To achieve a closer, less reverberant sound for the sax sessions, we used the large isolation booth at Fox Scoring with an overall stereo mic array made up of Lautner Audio Torch mics, as well as individual close mics: AKG C-12A, Sony C500 and Neumann U47, plus brass and horns in the big room with close mics to provide a tighter sound with enhanced separation.” The Fox Scoring Stage is based around a Neve 88R multichannel analog console.

“We then took the 24-bit/96kHz Pro Tools HD sessions to my Point One Studios in Santa Barbara,” Sands continues, “where Danny and I premixed the tracks for 12 days to create the material needed for the mix sessions at the Kodak Theatre. I also had a separate Pro Tools rig that contained the tracks we had prerecorded at Danny’s home studio. Our aim was to provide stereo elements for each cue, plus key solo instruments that could be panned into the various surround locations. We ended up with around 100 Pro Tools HD tracks recorded to a third rig that contained elements destined for the 26 discrete P.A. channels available at the Kodak.” Sands’ facility features a 96-input Euphonix CS3000 console.

“Because of time crunches,” Sands adds, “some of the premixing was handled by [fellow scoring mixer] Alan Meyerson, working in his own studio at Remote Control in Santa Monica.”

Dennis Sands’ Point One Studios, which is based around a Euphonix CS 3000 console

The live solos for Iris were assigned to a string quartet of violin, viola, cello and bass (the last player doubling on electric bass), plus woodwinds (clarinet and saxophone), brass and two percussionists. The musical director and assistant musical director handled keyboard, sampled-sound and synthesizer parts.

“Then we moved to the Kodak Theatre for a month of final mix sessions with Vikram [Kirby, from Thinkwell Design & Production], who helped me set up the various automated mixes and channel assignments,” Elfman says. “The first shock there came when I realized that, because we weren’t running timecode, we could not use Pro Tools automation, with which I am very familiar. Instead, the show is made up from a series of prerecorded cues replayed from a large Ableton Live system,” which also provided stop/start timing cues to the various lighting systems and video playback servers. “So, instead of having a continuous timeline, with events synchronized at timecode points, we had to mix in [snapshot-based] sections with level and panning changes being triggered as scene transitions that occur at those prescribed cues. To say that it was a complicated mix would be major understatement.”

Front-of-house mixing of Iris is handled by a Meyer Sound D-Mitri system offering a total of 264 inputs, 76 main outputs and 68 aux channels. A series of networked D-Mitri LCS CueConsole2 control surfaces are divided between a large console (at the rear of the house beneath the first balcony) to handle overall level control and automated routing, and a small 32-fader panel used for final level adjustments during each live performance. A separate D-Mitri system with CueConsole2 is located backstage as a dedicated monitor mix for the live musicians and onstage performers. The D-Mitri DSP engine handles all EQ, mixing and routing implemented by CueConsole2 control surfaces.

While all of the technical systems were designed by Cirque du Soleil, then engineered and integrated by Montreal/Las Vegas-based Solotech, Thinkwell Design & Production conceived, designed and engineered the audio and communication systems. (Iris sound designer Francois Bergeron is also a partner in Burbank, Calif.-based Thinkwell.) The wireless system, designed by James Stoffo, includes 18 channels of Lectrosonics Venue Receivers with VRT modules and 18 transmitters from the SMQV Series.

“There was an audience present for three of our four weeks of mixing,” Elfman says, “including a week with an invited audience and two weeks of previews. Vikram helped me map the sounds across the main LCR arrays and the near left/right and far left/right loudspeakers, as well as the surround and delay channels. I want to achieve a sense of both ethereal sound within the auditorium, as well as a more ‘present’ sound for certain cues.

“For some set pieces, I elected to spread the music more widely, whereas for others—where the action is more intimate and centered within the stage areas—I added more brass, woodwinds and strings as necessary to achieve the result I was after. After a week of initial mixes, I was joined by [Iris head of audio, Sylvain] ‘Sly’ Brisebois, who helped make the transition to the smaller bank of faders as we refined the sound balances.”

According to Brisebois, who currently mixes the show each night from the 32-fader CueConsole2 controller located in the center of the right-hand audience section, “The modular system let us assemble a compact system in the audience where I can hear exactly what they are hearing. Iris is a very dynamic mix that changes from night to night. I have access to the full live mix stored within the D-Mitri system, and can recall pre-programmed VCA subgroups to fine-tune the overall balance during the show and match audience reactions to the onstage performance.”

“The interaction with a live audience is exhilarating,” Elfman concludes, “with that opening-night feeling every day. I come from a live theater background; that palpable fear that the show may—or may not—run tonight. I will admit that during the first week at the Kodak, I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off—I was feeling doomed. But we did pull it off, and I enjoyed the experience despite the hiccups. The process was very unlike anything I’ve done in my 26 years of film scoring, and almost two decades performing with OingoBoingo. In reality, Iris is a culmination of my early days with Le Grand Magic Circus when I was 18 and living in Paris; I have come full circle.”

Mel Lambert is principal of Media&Marketing, an L.A.-based consulting service for the professional audio industry. He can be reached at