Gillian Serisier: What was Mandylights’ role?

Tom Wightwick: Mandylights was engaged to design and supply the lighting for ‘Our Connected City’ this year – a high-energy, synchronised light show above Sydney Harbour, encompassing over 150 searchlights and 3 kilometres of LED tubes across both sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 16 buildings in the CBD joined in to create a uniform ribbon of light running across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, through the Rocks, Circular Quay, and extending all the way around to the Sydney Opera House. 

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: As a lighting designer, what was your role?

TW: I worked alongside our projects and production team in the pre-production phase, attending numerous site visits, creating detailed CAD plans, and ensuring that all the installations were complete as per the design. We then worked with composer and producer Tim Commandeur to create the soundtrack for the show before heading into programming, where I was responsible for programming the entire show, from creating the video content to be played across the Harbour Bridge to focusing the positions of every searchlight in the sky, making sure everything was perfectly in sync to the soundtrack that was broadcast through an app on your phone.

GS: How have you interpreted this year’s theme?

TW: I linked the light show to the ‘Vivid Sydney, Naturally’ theme through the soundtrack, as Tim had incorporated a bunch of folly to create some more atmosphere – things like birdsong, waves crashing, or a heartbeat. In short, the show was broken up into four themed sections through different visual motifs. I created imagery of waves crashing over the Harbour Bridge, flowers blooming across the city, and energy pulsing from one side of the city to another.

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: As a primary element within Vivid, how does the bridge shape the experience? 

TW: The lighting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is an integral part of the Vivid experience. As one of the major landmarks of Sydney, I think it forms a huge part of the festival’s image and identity, making Vivid Sydney instantly recognisable to people all over the world. 

One of my favourite aspects of lighting the bridge during Vivid is being able to synchronise its programming to that of the 16 buildings through the CBD, creating cohesive, powerful, and colourful looks throughout the night. 

Related: AKIN wins Barangaroo Harbour Park competition

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: What role does the bridge play in Vivid’s ability to reach more of Sydney – not just the Opera House side of the harbour?

TW: The bridge is, by far, the most visible Sydney landmark during the festival. The show lights up in thousands of Sydneysiders’ windows each night and is viewable on every boat that passes through the harbour. This year was the second time ever that both the east and west sides of the bridge have been lit. It extends the festival’s reach to the suburbs out west that usually never get to experience the landmark lit up like this. With the light walk extending around the harbour to Central Station, the illumination of the west side of the bridge also helps connect installations situated in Walsh Bay, Barangaroo, and beyond to the festival. 

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: How do you balance the ‘wow’ moments with the long night? I’m thinking specifically about the comparison between a light show and increasing length of fireworks displays with their perpetually postponed climaxes…

TW: We programmed the show to an upbeat soundtrack that loops every ten minutes. One of the best parts about using the cityscape as the canvas was that the show looks quite different depending on where you watch from, whether you’re at the Opera House, Circular Quay, Dawes Point, or Milsons Point across the harbour. I tried to keep a lot of movement in the programming, with only a few slower, static, and more photogenic moments where people could capture pictures of the perfectly lit city. A lot of the impactful moments came from the movement of the searchlights and dynamic bridge content, so making sure that no two looks are alike was the key to creating a varied and engaging show. 

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: As an architectural form, rather than a flat surface, what strategies are used for lighting the bridge? Are there any problems?

TW: The lighting on the bridge is a temporary installation, which gets put up and taken down for the festival. It takes our crew roughly six weeks to install everything on the bridge, from the kilometres of fibre-optic cable to the thousands of tubes and hundreds of custom rigging brackets and fixtures. One of the biggest challenges we have to work around is the constant maintenance and painting work on the structure. We work closely with all parties involved to construct our load-in schedule in a way that minimises the impact on these works.

GS: What new technologies are being used and how do their attributes manifest? 

TW: We control every fixture in the city using our proprietary mNode 4G control system, which allows for two-way communication with all sites in real-time. During the programming sessions, I could walk into the city with an iPad and be able to position searchlights or light up buildings at the touch of a button – with no latency and without the need for an operator at the console. 

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

GS: How do you see these new technologies shaping future projects?  

TW: After rolling out our mNode 4G control system at Vivid in 2022, we’ve since used it countless times on other city-wide lighting projects, such as when we lit up the east side of the CBD for Sydney World Pride, or to control various difficult-to-access areas down at Floriade NightFest in Canberra. It’s an incredibly reliable and useful tool that helps drastically reduce the amount of control cable we need to run around sites, further reducing the installation period. 

GS: What are you working on now?

TW: Currently, a project in Moama, on the Murray River, called Moama Lights. It’s an immersive light trail that Mandylights have been doing for the past three years with great success. This year it features a high-powered laser installation, multiple 2.5m high LED campfires, and a field of giant, inflatable flowers. It runs for four weeks from the 30th June and helps to promote Moama as a tourist destination in rural NSW. 

Our team is also currently running our immersive experience ‘Dark Spectrum’ in the Wynyard tunnels until the 16th July, as well as installing a large-scale lighting activation for the Festival of W in Wagga Wagga, amongst other projects. 

Vivid Sydney
vividsydney.com

Mandylights
mandylights.com

Photography
Courtesy of Destination NSW

From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023
From birdsong to crashing waves: The sound and vision of Vivid Sydney 2023

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