Fountain Show Choreography

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By Chris Roy, Director of Design — OTL

One of the highlights of our creative process at OTL is storytelling, whether that’s done through the design and detailing of a themed environment, a series or architectural fountains forming a narrative across a project site, or through the choreographic movement of water dancing in a show fountain. The latter item is a special task indeed and, when done right, leads to spectacular results that bring joy to crowds of all ages.

Creating a musical show fountain is a huge endeavor involving a large group of engineers and talented construction tradespeople, but the task really begins and ends with artists – creative designers that can visualize jet layouts and make aesthetic nozzle selections which will allow the future fountain to dance to a wide variety of musical selections, and then to choreograph and program the shows once the fountain is completed.
Chris Roy, Director of Creative Design for OTL.

Equipment selection and layout are key to creating a successful show fountain. We think of the fountain in terms of an orchestra, and just like a musical masterpiece, the final result should be rich and robust. The different fountain effects we choose from are like the instruments of the orchestra (or “voices” in a synthesizer for those who are more digitally-inclined).

Moving robotic jets are great at capturing the lyrical and melodic movements of a song, while staccato vertical jets support tempo and highlight exciting sequences. Arranging the jets in arcs and rings are also important in putting together a visually rich display to enhance the experience of the musical performance.

Once the design is completed, the programming begins. Due to the timeframe involved – often a week or more per three-minute song – the programming for a new fountain is done while the fountain itself is being constructed. OTL uses a system called Syncronorm for show fountain programming.

This software works really well for our projects and clients for a number of reasons:

  • The software has visualization and DMX output capabilities, making it a very efficient tool for communicating concepts and for running the fountain show.
    Before Syncronorm came along, visualization and programming were two completely separate scope items. Artists would create a 3D model of the fountain and create the show as a 3D computer animation in a program like 3D StudioMax or Maya, which was then shared with the architects and developers to greenlight the project. Then, programming the actual fountain required either coding the show with text-based and numeric commands or setting scenes on a theatrical lighting control board. Syncronorm’s program outputs to both the visualizer and the fountain show, so programming is only done once and you get both a visualization and the show programming together, every time.
  • The system outputs industry-standard DMX signals.
    Unlike some control systems that are proprietary to specific equipment manufacturers, this software works with all equipment, allowing our engineers to pick-and-choose equipment from a variety of manufacturers and select equipment for specific effects when needed to maximize the unique character of an individual fountain.
  • The shows are programmed with a visual, timeline-based approach.
    There is no longer a need to type in command-line style prompts (which are creativity-killers) or lug around heavy lighting control boards to project sites. Our show programmers create palettes of effects unique for each project and compose them to match the musical arrangements for each show. The software includes strong tools allowing for great transitions and blending of effects, ensuring continuity and smoothness in the show. One of the hallmarks of older fountain show programming systems was the disjointed appearance of disparate pre-programmed sequences strung together.

The visual, timeline-based approach is much more suited for programming by artistically-inclined individuals, and this is where OTL really excels: fountain show choreography. When putting a fountain show together, our designers constantly pause and replay segments of songs, listening to the timing and the details for inspiration to create beautiful sequences in water and light.

Practicing restraint is paramount – it’s all too easy to throw everything together in a bid to add excitement, though the ensuing cacophony of water and light is seldom lyrical. Our designers focus on building elements and weaving a narrative of water and light to support the underlying rhythm, movement, and emotion of the music. Allison Long programs the bulk of OTL’s fountain shows, and shared some of her favorite things about the creative process.

“Bringing music to life is truly a remarkable experience. You listen and distinguish the various components of a piece, and then translate those sounds into a visual effect. You can create an infinite amount of shapes and effects when sculpting with water. The possibilities are endless, and when you achieve the perfect effect for that one beat in the song, you feel a very real sense of accomplishment and excitement,” says Long.

When asked about the biggest challenge she’s confronted with during show programming, Long described her approach to overcoming tough projects.

“Some songs are more difficult to program to, as you can imagine,” she says. “When I receive those challenging songs, I have to remind myself to start small. I dissect the music and find the components I want to use to direct the choreography. I use the movement of the music to direct the water, and oftentimes those ‘difficult’ songs become some of my favorite pieces for the fountain.”

Programming a show fountain (once you’ve learned the software) is fun, and it’s really a special experience – there aren’t a whole lot of people who get to do this, and we’re glad to have the privilege. It’s a great feeling to design these fountains and put the shows together knowing so many people will enjoy watching them for years to come.


Chris Roy is the Director of Creative Design for Outside the Lines, Inc. In this role, he leads the company’s design efforts, working with developers, architects, and landscape architects, as well as engineers and vendors. Contact him at