H2-Oh!

California-based WET Design creates some of the world’s most elaborate fountain displays, including those at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Vision takes a tour of the company’s Los Angeles facility to learn about the science behind the magic

The Dubai Fountain is the largest display of its kind anywhere in the world. The most powerful of its nearly 1,500 nozzles project water a soaring 140m into the air above the Burj Khalifa Lake, at the foot of the world’s tallest tower.

The fountain coordinates the deployment of these nozzles – which produce a variety of dazzling water effects – with 6,600 lights and 25 projectors to generate extravagant water shows, choreographed to music ranging from traditional Arabic songs to Western pop. And so, despite being in the shadow of the world’s tallest tower, this fountain is perhaps the most awe-inspiring public display on earth – and one in which water itself is the show.

“In the broadest sense of the word, we entertain people,” says Mark Fuller, Chairman and CEO of WET Design, the Los Angeles-based firm responsible for the creation of The Dubai Fountain and others around the world.

The Fountains of Bellagio, in Las Vegas, which Fuller and his team at WET (or Water Entertainment Technologies) completed in 1998, cost approximately US$50m to produce. This display remained the largest fountain in the world until the completion of the roughly US$220m Dubai Fountain in 2009. These projects, and the rest of WET’s more than 200 fountains around the globe, are a result of Fuller’s tendency to dream big.

Before founding WET Design in 1983, Fuller worked at Disney Imagineering, where he oversaw the creation of the LeapFrog fountains at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park in Florida. Drawing from the skills and knowledge cultivated while acquiring his Masters degree in Engineering and Product Design from Stanford University, Fuller employed theories of laminar flow (when a fluid flows in parallel layers) to produce smooth streams of water that leap over walkways.

“That was the first fountain in the world where the jets come out of small holes in the fountain, which was a radical concept at the time [the early 1980s]. The fountain genre then was more architectural, more classical with things like reflecting pools and simple water spouts,” says Fuller. “I had this idea to make a park with interactive fountains using laminar streams. It ended up being a huge hit and one of the major talking points of Epcot. Now, you see interactive fountains all over the place.”

Located a few miles north of the famous film studios in Universal City, California, WET’s headquarters places computer illustrators, who use the same software as animated film studios to help them imagine water displays, in close proximity to designers and engineers. The latter group of individuals is charged with tasks ranging from conceiving fountains for a variety of public and private spaces, to creating the mechanisms that project and control the water streams.

WET’s facility also houses all the machinery necessary to produce these complicated devices, though WET is not actually responsible for final construction. But the firm does produce all the technologies and devices that enable the elaborate, unimaginable water features (or “water expressions” as Fuller calls them) that occur in its displays.

These expressions include technology that allows the water to shoot in synchronized bursts, as well as directional water streams, the flow of which is dictated by automated underwater robotic mechanisms. Combining elements such as these with unique fountain designs gives WET’s Executive Designer and Head of Choreography, Peter Kopik, and his team the opportunity to truly amaze.

For The Dubai Fountain, WET’s design team originally conceived three different alternatives. The developer of Burj Khalifa eventually chose the option that was decidedly more organic in form than the symmetrical design of the Bellagio fountains. The chosen design uses a nozzle distribution layout that includes five circles connected by a curvaceous line. The WET designers intended this arrangement to enable smaller displays that make up the overall performance, and allows for greater versatility in the choreography.

“We wanted to create smaller events within the fountain,” says Kopik, who is an architect by education, “because the fountain can be viewed from so many different angles.”

The location within the massive 30-acre (12-hectare) Burj Khalifa Lake was only one of the challenges that the designers and choreographers faced. The other was crafting a water performance that would be an accurate reflection of Arabic culture. “They have a completely different punctuation of tempo that you don’t see in Western music,” notes Kopik. “I have to admit that, after seeing the very first choreography that I did, one of the local gentlemen questioned whether or not I had ever seen an Arabic woman dance.”

In spite of such challenges, the final product and subsequent choreographed sequences appeal to Arabic sensitivities and have proven wildly successful. And while there is undoubtedly a great deal of technology involved, Fuller will be the first to say that it’s not the dazzling array of equipment that makes the WET fountains so iconic.

“It’s like making a movie,” he says. “You could use all the same elements that Steven Spielberg does, but if he doesn’t direct it, it’s never going to be a Spielberg film. For us, it isn’t the technology; it’s the experience. That’s the gift we have, that’s the magic – it’s being able to create an experience that touches people.”