Yves Pépin, artist of the spectacular
by Judith Rubin
ABOVE: Eiffel Tower Millennium fireworks show. Photo courtesy Groupe F
Yves Pépin is one of the great innovators and artists of themed entertainment. His work defined the modern genre of the nighttime multimedia spectacular with a blend of art, technology and storytelling, integrating projection, water, lasers, live performance, robots, music and pyrotechnics.
Pépin created a modern genre of spectacle that has traditional origins in theater, performing arts and entertainment on a grand scale. The stories that unfold in these shows are simple, human stories and fables, but the production scale itself is colossal and the platform is the world stage.
Over the years, Yves Pépin’s spectacles have punctuated some of the biggest international events and tourist destinations in the world, including world expos, international sporting events, major theme parks and national celebrations. He has collaborated with the likes of Yang Zhimou, Steven Spielberg, the Totonaque Indians and a Hinduist sect.
The world belonged to Paris
His most famous show ever was the Eiffel Tower Millennium pyrotechnics display in 2000, produced with Christophe Berthonneau (it can be viewed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/qczq5jBORBo). The turn of the century was lavishly celebrated around the globe, and fireworks were prevalent, yet this celebration stood out among many. Daniel Milikow wrote for CBS, “At midnight, the world belonged to Paris. The City of Light earned its name. The Eiffel Tower lit up like a giant firecracker, shooting sparks in every direction and illuminating the night like high noon.” PBS Nova reported, “A television audience of 4,000,000,000 around the globe watched as the Eiffel Tower was transformed into a gigantic Roman candle.” From BBC News: “…the base of the Eiffel Tower burst into a blaze of light, as if it were a spaceship taking off. A dancing mass of white stars crept up it and the tower was transformed into a column of light and shape and color in a breathtaking show that lasted in all seven minutes.”
Within the global attractions industry, his influence is far-reaching. “The Eiffel Tower show totally changed everyone’s perspective about what you can do with a building, fireworks and nighttime. It was a most spectacular thing from a master of the spectacular,” said Pat MacKay, a specialist and publisher in theater, lighting design and themed entertainment. “Yves didn’t just set the bar, he reinvented the whole idea of what you could do for audiences in the evening – whether the projection surface was a building or perhaps a waterscreen – with showmanship and flair that are an Yves Pépin trademark. He is uniquely creative with a level of execution comparable to anything that would come out of the big companies that have adopted and adapted his stuff – really big events using any and all of the tech bells and whistles currently invented to create a great guest experience. He didn’t invent projection mapping, but his techniques led to where we are.”
“Yves created the very first ephemeral and permanent shows involving so many elements – technological and human – and all in perfect symbiosis, despite huge technical challenges,” said laser designer and longtime Pépin collaborator Claude Lifante of ProfilProduction. Lifante credited his experience with Pépin as helping found a career that has included contributing to major shows for Disney.
“Yves has always been an innovator of things we take for granted now, such as the way he used large format projection,” said George Wiktor, a veteran producer in the attractions industry, most recently engaged on a project for Universal Studios Japan. “His work was a precursor of today’s 4D experiences and other multimedia presentation techniques. The level of execution and design is always world-class. His level of artistry and craftsmanship and innovation have always stood out. Basically his work just stood out.”
“Yves Pépin is an international treasure when it comes to stature, influence, creativity and mentorship within the themed entertainment industry,” said Monty Lunde, president of special effects company Technifex. Lunde is founder of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) the global organization that presented Pépin with a Thea Award for lifetime achievement in 2006. “From his development of waterscreens for large scale projections, to the many international multimedia spectaculars he has produced and directed, and more, Yves is in a class of his own.”
The concept and technique of waterscreen projection is likely his most influential individual contribution to the world of entertainment. It has been adopted and adapted far and wide. “Yves Pépin made the benchmark for water projection shows – amongst other things. He created a genre,” said Jeremy Railton, founder of Entertainment Design Corp. and a fellow creator of unique international spectacle.
“Innovating and discovering new ways of expression are very important to me,” said Pépin. “The waterscreen format was born when I first combined water and image projection for a show, in the La Defense district of Paris in 1989, celebrating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. The fountain show I created was to my knowledge the first show with images projected through the air onto a screen consisting only of water spray.” Waterscreen projection was subsequently adopted by Disney, SeaWorld, Universal and many others.
World Expos and artistry
Pépin’s work was in high demand in the 1990s for shows at world expos in Europe and Asia. George Wiktor commented, “At Taejon Expo 93 and Lisbon Expo 98, his work combined huge mechanical structures, big things moving, lighting, projection, music. He took waterscreen projection in multiple directions; he used inflatables as screen surfaces; he created environments that rose out of the water.”
“His Lisbon ‘98 show was one of the most dramatic things I’ve seen; an overwhelming mix of media, visuals, fountains, lasers, effects and surprises,” said Keith James, president of JRA, a leading experience design and master planning firm.
Pépin remains an artist to the core, and his work has been his business. “Yves’ work combines the heart of a poet laureate, the mastery of a fine artist and the mischievous imagination of an unsupervised child,” said Bob Rogers, founder of BRC Imagination Arts, a leading design firm in attractions and branded experiences. “Deep philosophical thought, rigorous technique, technical brilliance and creative daring empower Yves’ creations and yet his work is experienced as pure joy and spontaneity, achieved effortlessly.”
“In the midst of all his spectacle, he always saw himself as an artist, however commercial the work was,” said Wiktor.
“Yves is highly creative, and yet he is pragmatic,” said longtime industry colleague Michel Linet-Frion, Creative & Innovation Director of Pierre & Vacances Développement. “He ends up with the right solution and there’s a whole thinking process behind it; he has the intuition and the experience. You know he’s going to find the right answer, that he’ll get there – that the end result will be powerful yet feasible, and each show will be unique, and it will create emotions. Considering the scale of his work, this is particularly impressive. His shows are huge and very technical, yet they touch people deeply and simply, they evoke emotion. Yves understands what the audience is experiencing and communicates to them. In a lifetime you only meet a few people like Yves, with this kind of deep understanding and vision.”
Large international audiences
Creating shows for international crowds requires the story supersede language barriers. “The story must be able to be understood by anyone, whether the audience is mostly local, such as ‘BraviSeamo,’ which I wrote and staged for Tokyo DisneySea Resort, or international, such as for Lisbon Expo 98 or ‘Songs of the Sea’ for Resorts World Sentosa,” said Pépin. “Told through visuals, music and effects, through action, characters and gestures, the story speaks by itself. The flow of the music – the feeling the music is giving to the audience – is a kind of narration.”
“Yves’ shows are always upbeat, with a popular accessibility and a brightness and lightness – like a circus or parade – awe inspiring and happy, easily accessible to a large demographic,” said Wiktor.
Pépin refers to “BraviSeamo” as a “nocturnal fairytale” while also saying “There was no need to explain to the audience in words.” A giant, animated structure in the form of a fire breathing dragon emerges from the depths to encounter the water spirit, an aquatic sculpture floating across the lake. The show achieved cult status at DisneySea and ran every night for six years (2004-2010). “If a show does have dialog, it must be easy to understand,” said Pépin, “not just in terms of the language but in how it is said; not too heavy. Language can be a powerful element, like stones marking a path.”
“There’s something in the way Yves tells a story,” said Railton. “He is totally sincere and serious about what he does; he’s also incredibly generous and inclusive.”
Music, lasers and pyro
Pépin makes the most of music in storytelling. “Music and soundtrack are key elements, and there are great musical artists who have worked with me for years to help realize my vision, such as Philippe Villar and Pascal Lengagne,” he said. “They first became a team when I brought them together to work with me on the soundtrack of the 1998 Football World Cup event.”
“Where other directors would have chosen composers known for such events, Yves chose to trust our new duo that he had only just created!” said Villar. “It was our first big production with Yves. We subsequently composed 90% of his shows. With Pascal, we are now working on many French and international productions. Thank you, Yves for making us meet!”
“Between Philippe’s rock and pop background and Pascal’s more traditional background, they developed a unique way of expressing the situations, the actions and the characters of my shows through themes, rhythms and melodies,” said Pépin.
“To dare to bring us together for our differences was daring to create new colors in the music, a successful musical laboratory for Yves’ innovative shows,” said Villar. Shows on which he and Lengagne collaborated with Pépin have been honored with some 15 awards, including seven Thea Awards. The duo also create music for other clients in theme parks, cinema and advertising. “Yves is passionate about music – as a young man, he was a brilliant classical violinist,” said Villar. “It’s a pleasure to work with him. It is very rare to work with a director who so perfectly understands composition and musical terms!”
“I have also had the honor to work with Christophe Mangou, Conductor and Music Director,” Pépin said. “Together with the internationally famous Jeff Mills (who composed the musical piece), we created the project ‘Lost in Space’ in Toulouse in spring 2018, also featuring the brilliant tabla player Prabhu Edouard and the renowned Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse (60 musicians conducted by Christophe). Christophe is also a top-level conductor and plays with the best orchestras in the world. He is a mentor and an inspiration, especially with his own musical group Amalgammes, for which I am honored to have been chosen as parrain [English translation: ‘godfather’ or ‘spiritual sponsor’].”
“Music gives everything a heart, tells the story and pulls your heartstrings,” said James. “Everyone can get the big effects – but story is at the heart of everything Yves does.”
Pyrotechnics and lasers are frequent tools of storytelling and spectacle for Yves Pépin productions, and Claude Lifante (laser designer) and Christophe Berthonneau (pyro designer and producer) have often been on his team. “Yves is my favorite storyteller, and he sees the laser as a full-fledged media element,” said Lifante, who began collaborating with Pépin in 1977. “His sense of staging, and the dynamics and dramaturgy of the shows correspond to my own sensibilities. Yves knew how to channel my energy, and how to integrate lasers effectively into the shows.”
“Claude flew an aircraft for the first time with me, when in 1977, he was junior laser designer on my first show in Hong Kong (an international fashion show for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council). He went on to become one of the best laser designers in the world, working internationally in music concerts (with Jean Michel Jarre tours, for example), also with Disney parks. He conducted all the laser design in my shows and took a central role in our 2018 ‘Lost in Space’ in Toulouse.”
“Yves’ artistic direction did much to bring out the potential of lasers as an artistic, theatrical and storytelling medium, and I thank him greatly every day,” said Lifante. “We continue to create together – shows that are particularly close to my heart because of their spiritual universality, such as our work with the Akshardham community in India. These shows are small jewels of artistic expression.”
In the late 1990s, Christophe Berthonneau was a pioneer of using a computer to program fireworks. “The Eiffel Tower Millennium show owes the major part of its success to him,” said Pépin. Earlier collaborations were on the show for Lisbon Expo 98, and the football World Cup. “Christophe is the best pyro master in the world, and much more than that,” said Pepin. [See Eiffel Tower sidebar on p. 44.]
Always start fresh
Building upon decades of award-winning international successes and creative collaborations, today Yves Pépin continues to actively seek new challenges, although he no longer heads a large production firm (he founded ECA2 in 1974 and departed in 2008, and the company continues to flourish and create spectacles in the same style).
“I’m still consulting on big projects for big international organizations, and supporting projects with music as the key ingredient,” he said. And creativity is still foremost. “It’s important to always start fresh. Forgetting is the condition for reinvention. Don’t be too full of what happened in the past if you want to be free and to go further.”
Advances in technology have greatly simplified the process, but these also open the way to fresh innovation and challenges. “I know the effort that was necessary to do what we did in the past, said Pépin.” Today it is like nothing. Technology has evolved. Audience expectations have evolved. Don’t say, ‘look what we did before, it’s so great.’ Build upon it, improve! That is the culture. Forget everything and start fresh.”
“Yves has always been ahead of things, invented things that over time were adopted by many others, and he is certainly still doing that right now,” said Linet-Frion.
“Yves Pépin is an icon in the industry, and everything he does has been iconic since the first,” said James. “Kudos to the man!”
“Yves expanded the possible, leaving a much larger playground for those who try to follow his lead,” said Bob Rogers. “The rest of us would imitate him, if only we could.” • • •
Milestone Yves Pépin projects
• 1998 Football World Cup, Paris: “A new type of Opening Ceremony spectacular (and at the end France wins the competition!)”
• Lisbon Expo 98 night show, with a combination of animated metallic structures, 360° giant image projection and the biggest inflated body ever achieved to date
• 2000 Eiffel Tower Millennium show, Paris: First pyrotechnic display installed directly on an historic monument and launched from it, designed for maximum impact in TV screen format, broadcast and acclaimed around the world
• Tokyo Disney Sea “BraviSeamo,” mixing water and fire with a spectacular mechanical animated character emerging out of the water
• Toyota Pavilion, Aichi 2005 World Expo, pioneering use of autonomous-driven vehicles choreographed with live dancers
• Beijing 2008 Olympics Ceremonies (Artistic Director), considered as the biggest show in the world to the present day
“Spirituality meets spectacular”
• El Tajin (Mexico) 2002/2004: Research and enactment of the early Totonaque civilization, presented at a spectacular archeological site
• New Delhi, current since 2014: Akshardham Temple Show: Enactment of an ancient Vedic story at a spectacular Hinduist site
Employing gigantic cinematic images projected onto the sides of buildings and other structures, and onto sheets of water or mist, enhanced by lasers, lighting, special effects and sound, Yves Pépin and his team created shows that transformed outdoor environments and transported audiences and defined the nighttime spectacular.
Looking at his body of work, you might imagine Yves Pépin studied choreography, performing arts, and stage design along with mythology and history – then perhaps became a filmmaker. In fact, Pépin applied himself to economics and politics, then Arabic studies – then worked as a journalist. But all along that academic path he kept his hand in the arts – painting, music, theater. “Art was a way of life in my family,” he said. His father, an engineer by trade, was a violinist and painter. His mother, a homemaker, also painted. Six-year-old Yves took up the violin, intending to be a concert performer. But in adolescence, “I realized I was not good enough.” He switched to guitar and “started to play rock ‘n’ roll like a normal teenager. It opened up my mind.”
Journalism took Yves to work in radio, television and communications, acquiring the “tools of expression” he eventually put to work in his shows. •
Yves Pépin is based in Paris and his website is https://www.yves-Pépin.com.
Seven minutes of spectacle and a new century:
Yves Pépin and Christophe Berthonneau
on the Eiffel Tower Millennium fireworks show
“I met Yves around 1996 or ’97 and was doing a lot of theater and events,” said pyrotechnic artist Christophe Berthonneau, of Groupe F. “We established a good relationship – he was very professional, an artist who was clever and efficient in business. He can manage very big and complex stories.”
A few years later, Berthonneau was recruited to produce the Eiffel Tower Millennium fireworks show, which would be broadcast live – a global television event as well as a live spectacle. “I brought Yves onto the project, and we built the event together.”
Pépin said, “The story concept was challenging. For me, the Eiffel Tower, for this unique celebration, might dance, then take off, as a rocket going up into the sky, made fantastic with fireworks.”
Berthonneau said, “ I felt that the best conclusion to the show was to end with darkness at midnight, the moment the year 2000 began. Ultimately, we told both stories at the same time, with the same object!”
“Christophe’s goal for the finale,” said Pépin, “was that it have such a powerful light that it would appear as a big, bright flash, burning the image on camera. He achieved this perfectly with a huge amount of magnesium, so one TV director was sure that we had blown up the Eiffel Tower!”
Berthonneau said, “Working with Yves over the years, we took a lot of risks, but at the end of the day were always able to deliver something very special.”
Pépin said, “Christophe is a totally inspired artist, taking fireworks to new levels of expression, creating characters, stories and new experiences based on light and fire.”
“In the production of multimedia events, Yves is a master,” said Berthonneau. “He knew how to mix video and light and water and fire. It is tremendously difficult to integrate all that together to make something elegant, and he was there at the beginning, inventing the process and always creating beauty, telling an authentic story, making it real.” •