March 2008 Issue
Inside Theatre

Lighting Grinch-Themed Ice Sculptures

Scenic designer Michael Hotopp and his creative partner/scenic designer Bill Hoffman have worked together for two decades on myriad productions — touring theatre shows, trade shows, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular — but nothing could have prepared them for working during the last eight years on ice sculpture installations as part of the Ice series for the Gaylord Hotels. Working on Christmas-based themes, they have created walk-through attractions that depict famous holiday characters and events, but this past year they got a real treat — designing the Ice! How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


Hotopp and Grinch senior project designer Hoffman apply their imaginations and extensive theatrical backgrounds to a special endeavor, one that recreates Whoville and the magic of Dr. Seuss’ Yuletide classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Hoffman has illustration skills that help him bring their ideas to life, and then deliver them to a talented team of sculptors to carve lively, colorful figures in ice. Hoffman and fellow scenic designer Garry Wichansky draft these sculptures as if they were being done for the theatre.

The Challenge of the Canvas
“I literally hand-draw most of the figurative items,” says Hoffman, “and as part of the book for the sculptors they have a front elevation of each piece, a top view, and a side view, so they’re working in a three-dimensional medium here at all times. I spend about 75 percent of my year just creating these drawings that they work from.” The design team actually compiles a 200 to 250 page, 11- by 17-inch book with specifications for each venue.

    The ice sculpture shows generate their own set of challenges that are far removed from the more easily controlled environments of Broadway shows. “The artists have a very limited time to work on this, and it all has to be worked out within an inch of its life,” says Hoffman. “There are ways of fudging some things in the theatre. You can always kick a piece of scenery six inches to the left or pull out a chainsaw and cut it down a little bit and stretch the fabric. There are ways of cheating. With ice, it’s a whole new ball game. The sheer volume of it ... once it’s down and in place, you can’t decide, ‘Oh, I think it’ll look better three feet to the left.’ The clock is ticking, and the cost of breaking the ice down and starting again is a huge factor. We have to be buttoned up so tightly with our approach to the design in order to make this work.”

    The ice carvers come from China, specifically the Harbin region, which hosts the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. “It’s outdoors, and the one group we worked with first on this project had over 300 acres, and over 3,000 carvers spent a month putting their particular project together,” Hotopp says. “One of the things that surprised me is where in the world do they have this much acreage in this small town of Harbin, and it turned out we were on the river, and it was frozen. They had 15 to 20 story replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, and they built giant slides on hillsides that went up 12 to 14 stories,” not to mention massive reproductions of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. “It’s phenomenal.”

The Big Ice Experience
    Hotopp and Hoffman wanted to bring that sense of grandeur to Americans, but with a holiday theme familiar to our culture and which could fit into a smaller space. The Gaylord Hotels chain has afforded them the forums they need to create their annual ice extravaganzas. For the first three years they were solely in Nashville, then expanded to a location in Orlando, then two years later one in Grapevine, TX. A fourth location in Washington, D.C. will be unveiled in Nov. 2008.

    “In conjunction with this hotel chain, we create a big ice experience that they sell as part of their holiday package to bring people into the area and into the hotel,” explains Hoffman. “All of these venues that we do are large, refrigerated venues. In Nashville, it is actually an old theatre that’s been gutted, painted black, and then it’s refrigerated. They bring in huge air coolers and bring the temperature down to nine degrees. In the other two venues, in Florida and Texas, the Gaylord people have purchased large tents, and we refrigerate the tents and create this huge holiday ice environment within the tent. These experiences are only holiday-related. The carving process begins about four weeks before Thanksgiving, and they roughly open these up to the public around Thanksgiving and run through the first of the year.”

Ice Sculpting 101
Hotopp reports that the spaces for their ice exhibitions are between 15,000 and 18,000 square feet. “Close to two million pounds of ice is carved in 35 days by the carvers from China,” he says. “It’s a gated attraction that runs approximately 45 days. It’s incredible.” It also features music in the background. And it’s a lot of work. “There are no ‘Ice 101’ courses being taught in any universities anywhere as far as design is concerned,” says Hotopp.

    All of the sculptures are cut from cubes that are each roughly four-feet by two-feet by one-foot. “Everything is stacked, and then it becomes a subtractive process,” says Hoffman. “We’ll have large, seamless blocks of ice, but everything is built from a basis of a block that is roughly four by two by one. Sometimes we stack it vertically, sometimes we stack it horizontally, depending upon the shape, quality, and feel of the piece. In Harbin they carve from very large blocks that are literally pulled out of the frozen river that they’re working from, and we don’t have that luxury.”

    The duo explains that the Ice! show includes seven to eight areas that feature chronological vignettes from How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. The trail leads people through the Grinch’s large igloo cave through to Whoville center to scenes in the house, on the mountaintop, and ultimately back in the village, with characters like the Grinch, Max, and the Whos included among the scenery. There are even ice slides for people to glide down. Most of the exhibit is carved out of ice.

Putting on a Good Face
    The ice is colored from a twelve different possibilities — clear, white, and a palette of ten other colors. “Within that we do add a few selected props that we design here and have built by a scene shop,” Hoffman says. “We add that to the ice as a supplementary visual. We always work very hard to keep the focus on the ice, and 75 percent or more is ice.”

    For the Ice!, the duo used a fair number of non-ice items. “There’s no way that you can architecturally and engineering-wise do some of the poses,” states Hotopp. “Bill came up with a great solution that all those figures live on a clear, round cylinder, and the legs are shaped to it. But the arms are non-ice as well as the headpieces and some of the props of food. There’s no way we could do them effectively in the ice, and the sublimation over the 45 days, maintaining all that detail, is just a massive job.”

    Hoffman says that one of their biggest hurdles is to present intricately carved faces and figures to the public, but coping with the fact that every day the attraction is open to the public, it sublimates. “It evaporates, so as a rule we have to work with very large shapes, and yet keep them as interesting as possible in the hopes that they hold up well throughout the run of the show,” he says. “There’s a team of sculptors left behind that does touch up work throughout the run of the show, but that’s a challenge.”

Heatless Light
    When it comes to lighting ice sculptures, heat and cold certainly make for a volatile combination. “We have internal lighting in the ice,” says Hoffman. “There are channels cut in the ice and fluorescents and now some LED bulbs are placed inside them, and all of that is designed as part of the sculpture. Now when we have opaque ice we can’t light it internally, so we light it theatrically.”

    “Ideally someday it will all be LED,” adds Hotopp, “but for now a lot of is conventional. It has to be very, very carefully placed in its design, and we’ve got to watch the levels of intensity. We’ve learned a lot over the years about melting things unintentionally with lighting, but as we move forward, and the Gaylord group has their in-house lighting, we’re encouraging them and they’re planning to buy more and more LED equipment for its lack of heat, which is really crucial to this process.”

    As far as conventional lights, Hotopp says they utilize everything from Lekos to PARs, but they have not installed any moving fixtures because the room is kept at a freezing nine degrees, which leads to some difficulties with motors. They have used some mirror balls and rotating gobos. “We’ve had projection in the spaces before, but those all wind up in little, suspended hot boxes to keep them going,” he says. “It’s a real trial and error process. In Whoville this year we managed to get smoke to come from the chimneys, but that was not without a great deal of difficulty.”

    Wichansky solved their smoke dilemma with the TD on site. “They worked for several weeks and tried several different things, and ended up buying a very small fogger from Radio Shack at a local mall,” Hoffman says. “They figured out a way to run it through the ice through a system of plastic piping, and the heat would not radiate into the ice. To make a complicated story short, there were channels cut that were large enough but not visible to the audience, and the fogger ran through the ice and worked effectively.”

    “They had to have the fogger [working] on the outside,” Hotopp says. “There is a perimeter of warmth or semi-warmth, and the problems they kept having were in terms of its intensity and its volume because we wanted wispy little trails. We didn’t want to have a continuous smoke machine.”

    “It also had to evaporate very shortly after it hit the air because any kind of floating precipitation would coat the ice and create an entirely a different set of problems,” Hoffman says. “It would fog the color, the clear ice would become cloudy, and the white [ice] would build up layers, so it had to evaporate very quickly also.”

The Design Triumvirate

    Solving such problems comes naturally to this team, of which Wichansky has been on board for the last five years. “For the first couple of years Michael and I would conceive it ourselves, and I would draw it all,” says Hoffman. “I was on-site director for the first three or four years, and as we began to get so big, Garry, who is a wonderful designer, joined our team. Garry and I have taken it over and made it all happen with Michael’s years of expertise in dealing with the corporate structure, the clients, and helping us bring our collective ideas to life.”

    Working on these ice shows is certainly challenging, but this designing triumvirate is up to the task. Hoffman believes they bring a lot to the work with their theatrical background. “As beautiful as the stuff is in China, it’s very architectural and presentational,” he says.

    “It’s not emotional,” adds Hotopp. “There’s no emotional connection with the stuff in China, other than just the awe of its scale. Over the years, as we’ve developed themes, especially with the Grinch, which is the first licensed idea, and many ideas from Santa’s Workshop in the North Pole and Mr. and Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, as you go through and see these elements and walk through gardens and over bridges, there are a lot of things that you really do connect to emotionally. That’s a big difference, and also the detail and the amount of work that goes into the development of these wonderful characters and animals is in itself a wonderful, whimsical kind of style for the carvers. Even the Chinese acknowledge that this is so unique for them because it is so different from what they’re used to doing.”

    “From year one we’ve worked very hard to try to give a sense of movement to ice,” says Hoffman. “Ice lends itself to being very staid, very heavy, and very blocky, and we’ve always pushed it to dance, if that makes sense. To make it visually move, to bring it alive.”
“He’s talking about a skating polar bear that was on one leg,” laughs Hotopp. “We do a lot of things like that,” says Hoffman. “Everybody’s seen a swan or fish in ice, but not moving, not with a sense of life about it.” With their colorful characters and luminous landscapes, Hotopp and Hoffman hope to make the Grinch-iest visitor smile with delight.


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