We started with this idea that the attraction is not just a question of making fun things for people to enjoy,” says Yves Pépin. “It’s about creating a place that represents the life of its people.”
A cornerstone of the attractions industry for more than 45 years, Pépin is a creator of multimedia shows and large-scale events such as the Eiffel Tower Millennium Show – a spectacle seen by an estimated one million people in person and four billion viewers on television worldwide. He’s also responsible for the opening ceremony of the 1998 FIFA World Cup and worked on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Starting in 1974, his journey started alongside Yves Devraine and Thierry Arnaud, when the trio founded design and production company ECA2. While working there, he would take the traditional concept of theatre and apply it on an incredibly grand scale.
“Our ambition at the start was to create a company designing spaces,” he says.
“In every project, we try to make our shows and attractions represent real life and not be something totally alien.
“In public spaces and for big events, that was our main direction of work, which was really to involve the attractions and shows. One of our first ever shows was in La Défense, Paris. It was in 1989 and we were celebrating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. We needed to tell that story while trying to find out what would be the animation of this place and how it could come to life. We wanted to make a show that gave the people a different relationship with the district, to make a link with the people and the places we are working.”
Ringing in the new year
The Eiffel Tower show was produced with Christophe Berthonneau. As the world started to celebrate the new millennium, each major city, in turn, would try and pull out the most lavish celebration of the last 1,000 years. Pépin’s creation topped everything and is still talked about nearly two decades on.
To mark the occasion, ECA2 and Groupe F designed a grand pyrotechnic display. Starting at three minutes to midnight, the show included a combination of lights and 20,0000 fireworks.
“At the time we were working with models to test what we were doing,” said Pepin. “What we decided to do was very new in the field of fireworks and it had to be absolutely secure in every way – from a technical, safety, installation and operation perspective.”
The show, celebrated around the world, changed industry perspectives about what you can do with an existing structure to put on a special display. For Pépin, safety and security were key.
“The main challenge is that with such a grand project you cannot fail,” he says. “Spectacular means astounding and amazing your guests, making them feel things they’ve never felt before. At the same time, you must assess all risk, which is often in conflict with the spectacular. We want creativity, originality and something new in terms of concept and technology.”
In Beijing, Pépin worked alongside renowned Chinese film director Zhang Yimou; Ric Birch, producer of the ceremonies at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney; and iconic director Steven Spielberg. Together, they would create the opening ceremony for the Olympic games.
The ceremony comprised two parts titled “Brilliant Civilization” and “Glorious Era”. Seen by 91,000 people in person and billions more worldwide, the first part of the celebration highlighted the Chinese civilisation and the second part exhibited “modern China and its dream of harmony between the people of the world”.
Featuring 15,000 performers, the ceremony lasted over four hours and cost a reported US$100m to produce. The event was described as spectacular and spellbinding, with much of the international press declaring it “the greatest ever opening ceremony in the history of Olympics”.
“It was a four-year total process, says Pépin. “The Chinese authorities asked different teams from across the world come up with individual projects. Following this process, they told four teams that they had been selected to do the Olympics but as a collective. This means you have to forget what you thought about and come together with a new project. We put our own concept aside and started together with these four teams tocreate the final project.”
In the worlld of attractions, Pépin helped to creat one of France’s most celebrated and iconic attractions – the Cinescénie at Puy du Fou, which has been running continuously since 1978.
Telling the story of the Vendée region of France between the fourteenth century and World War II, the show involves 2,400 actors on an outdoor ‘stage’ spread over 230,000sq m (2.47 million sq ft) with 28,000 costumes. Lasting for 1 hour and 40 minutes, the Cinescénie includes a number of constantly evolving performances.
In recent years, the show has reached a new level, with innovations such as lighting effects, 3D projection and new sets.
Puy du Fou welcomes two million visitors a year, making it the second-most popular park in France behind Disneyland. More than 11 million people have taken in the show.
“Puy du Fou started with the Cinéscénie,” says Pépin. “Every year it gets an upgrade and refresh with new elements and new scenes.
“It’s like constructing a building. Each year another stone is being added or replacing another one and the structure is becoming larger, better and more beautiful. It’s the same construction in the same place with the same scene but by adding more stones to this house, it eventually has become a palace.
“For visitors, they can come every few years and experience something new. This is the only example of this kind of a show which is building on itself in this manner. It’s a constantly evolving project.”
The waterscreen is probably Pépin’s most significant contribution to themed entertainment. The technique combines water jets and projection technology to create a moving image, which appears seemingly out of nowhere. The first such use of the waterscreen was installed at La Défense for the show in 1989.
The fountain show projected images celebrating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. It was such a success, that the technology has subsequently been adopted by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, among many.
“We created it as an experiment and it took off from there,” he says. “If it’s well used, it’s like the image appears somewhere where there was nothing before. It was revolutionary in the sense that during shows you could have characters appear in a place like a lake or an open area. To have that appearing and moving and speaking is astounding.”
When creating a show on the scale of Pépin’s spectaculars, there are multiple factors to consider. A primary idea is that the story being told must go beyond language, with an international audience needing to be able to take in the narrative that has been created.
“No matter what culture or walk of life you’re from, we all have something in common,” he says. “We try to conceive stories and characters which share common values with all of these people and this is where we must place our story and our expression.
“We must find something which people can recognise themselves and with their culture. It must speak to them and speak to their neighbours. It’s quite challenging because we need to be understood by everyone and at the same time we need to make them feel that we’re telling them something specific.
“The story we’re telling in our shows need to be as deep as possible so that we can connect emotionally with our audience. I believe a lot in the power of the emotion. It’s what links the people and what must be understood by everyone.”
After decades upon decades of success, Pépin continues to create and work in projects all over the world. He no longer heads ECA2, the production company he founded in 1974 and left in 2008, but continues to create spectacle and wonder as an independent consultant.
“Working for myself, I can really choose and do the things that I want to,” he says. “I’m working on projects in India and I’m also doing theme park consultancy work. I’ve got some larger, long term projects, which are very interesting too but those are currently under wraps.”
No matter the size of the project, Pépin believes that audience engagement is the key to long-term success: “If there’s no engagement or sincerity for what you are doing, it will feel like something is missing. Engagement means a connection with the audience. If you can recognise that then you’re onto a real winner. Experience without sincerity is really a pity.”
Looking to the future, Pépin sees ever-changing advancements in technology as the way forward to creating an even grander spectacle, with an array of new advancements offering exciting ways to create audience engagement.
“I wouldn’t say that the next step will be, for example, VR,” he says, “We shouldn’t think this way. We should think about how this new technology connects and what it means for the overall experience.
“VR and 3D are already in existence but there are still tools to invent. There will be a way of communication to bring people together and to invent. The next step will be discovering new ways to link people and to bring them together.”
Pearls of wisdom
For someone wanting to replicate Pépin’s success, what advice would he give?
“I’ve worked in this field for a long time, primarily on outdoor attractions and shows. I’d tell people to be ambitious and never being satisfied with anything. Have that level of ambition for the audience. Always think if you can do more or do better. Can you get deeply into the heart of the people? This is what must drive you.”