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The Fremont Street Experience--No Glitz, No Glory!

Las Vegas' Freemont Street Experience boasts of the world's largest electric sign and Jane Baer explains to Frankie Kowalski how one does animation for a 5 screen panel that is almost 1,400 feet long.

When one visits Las Vegas for the first time, it seems like this big shiny oasis in the middle of a desert. As you arrive by plane, you can see the lights of the famous Strip miles away. And when you land, an air of excitement rushes through your veins while walking through the airport amidst an army of one arm bandits. But that's not all Las Vegas is about.

Jane Baer, Principal of Baer Animation Company and her dog Millie.

For instance, Fremont Street, or Glitter Gulch, has not been as glamorous for visitors and locals, yet it is still an important part of the local scene. Of late, the area has been rejuvenated with the construction of a new pedestrian mall, built in the hope of complementing the extravaganza of hotels and casinos on the more illustrious Strip. The result is a mall in the classic Vegas style, highlighted by the glitz of the Fremont Street Experience, which had its gala opening December 14, 1995.

The Experience was put together by the efforts of the Fremont Street Experience Company (made up of a collection of hotel and casino operators), the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, who collectively invested $70 million to transform Fremont Street into an urban "people place." The highlight is the huge Space Frame, which features dazzling computer-animated light and sound shows every night produced by such studios as The Baer Animation Company and See3.

A Sense of Scale.

The Space Frame itself arches to a height of 90 feet above street level and stretches almost 1,400 feet along Fremont Street, from Main Street to Fourth Street; its interior surface covers more than 175,700 square feet, an area equal to slightly more than four acres. The frame is 5 feet deep and has a curved radius of 44 feet Set into the inner surface of the frame are nearly 2.1 million lights and is unofficially considered to be the world's largest graphics display system. Las Vegas obviously never abandons its sense of scale!

According to Steve Weeks, assistant division manager with Young Electric Sign Company, "This is the biggest project our company has ever worked on in its 75-year history." Within the frame are 208 speakers capable of producing 540,000 watts of "concert quality music" and 121 computers containing a combined 100 gigabytes of storage which can generate the animated images and sound.

Scene from Rodeo the Fremont Street Experience produced by Baer Animation. © The Fremont Street Experience Company.

So, how was the animation created for this mammouth Space Frame? I decided to drop in and see Jane Baer, principal of Baer Animation, the first studio to do animation for the Freemont Street Experience. "Like everything we try at Baer," she said, "working on this project was new adventure for us. I thought is was a fabulous idea from the beginning, lighting up four city blocks while entertaining passersby." Timed to country western favorites, dazzled spectators see and hear animated dancing cowboys, stampeding buffalos, TNT barrels exploding, collages of card decks snapping, starry constellations, and honky tonk fiddles playing in a seven minute film originally entitled Rodeo (now Americana) created at the launch of the project.

Jane Baer, who received her initial training in animation at Disney's under the tutelage of the "Nine Old Men," began her company in 1984. Since then it has created animation for a wide range of productions, ranging from features to commercials. The studio is housed in a quaint Spanish-style house in Studio City, California, with beam ceilings and garden patio, with Jane's canine companion, Millie as unofficial greeter. The company is best known their work on the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit, being responsible for the "Toon Town" and "Benny the Cab" sequences. In addition to doing the animation for key sequences in a number of other major animated features, the studio has done commercials for such products as Coca Cola, Rice Krispies, Pampers, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, and (Charlie the) Starkist Tuna. So, selecting Baer Animation for the first Space Frame animation was the perfect fit for Jane Baer and the Fremont Street Experience Company.

Fascinated With Disney

The Fremont Street Experience was the brainchild of Steve Wynns, of Mirage Resorts, and Kenny Wynns, of Atlandia Design, a subsidiary of Mirage Resorts, who provided expertise in design and construction. Jane was introduced to them by a long-time friend, Roland Fargo Krump. One of the reasons she hit it off so well with the Wynns,who were fascinated with Walt Disney and that Steve Wynn had a visual sense much like Disney.

Jane says that all she and director Russell Calibrisi had to go on when they started working on the project was the eight country western songs that were to be used as the soundtrack. Then they and their crew storyboarded, created the color design and produced the animation in just two months. Baer explained that, "We were working in a short amount of time with a brand new technology It was something that had never been done before. One of the challenges we faced was choosing the best color palette. Transferring animation into light limited our color range, because certain colors, like greens and yellows, went flat. And some colors turned to white light!"

Each animation cycle was programmed using a complex math equation to traverse the five bays that encompass the Space Frame, each of which had different dimensions. And due to both the scale and the technology involved, Jane commented that, "the subtly we are accustomed to in animation just didn't work. We were lucky to get it right the first time because we tried to tell too much of a story. We learned from our experience to use much broader elements in our design."

Scenes from the Fremont Street Experience. © The Fremont Street Experience Company.

Rodeo features large blocked images of legendary cowboy heroes crisscross across the arc of the Space Frame and ends with a beautiful array of constellations streaming across the screen. Some of the eight animated cycles display the words to the song as in the old Fleischer sing-a-longs. "People at the show really get involved, singing and dancing along. It was exciting to watch first hand," Jane remarked. Her favorite part, though, is the opening, which is animated to Willie Nelson's "Don't Let Your Sons Grow Up to be Cowboys."

The Fremont Street Experience has had some success in attracting traffic downtown, with gaming revenues alone having increasing almost 16% since March, the biggest month-to-month increase in 4 years. It is not often that animation can both pioneer a new technique and bring a new vitality to a major urban landscape. We shouldn't expect any less from the glimmering lights and minds of Las Vegas.

Frankie Kowalski is Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine and is currently on ASIFA-Hollywood's Board of Directors. She was a recent contributor to Daily Variety's Special Animation Issue.