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An instantly iconic addition to Las Vegas’ skyline, Sphere is not only the world’s largest spherical structure but also a technological marvel whose innovations could offer a glimpse of entertainment’s future. The venue near The Venetian will make its long-anticipated debut Sept. 29 with a U2 residency, closely followed by the launch of the first movie designed for its all-encompassing screen, Postcard From Earth, helmed by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.
The $2.3 billion structure contains the world’s largest interior and exterior wraparound LED displays. Outside, the LED-coated globe lights up the city at night with ever-shifting imagery. Inside, the viewer is immersed in a jaw-dropping phantasmagoria.
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Sphere’s sound system even enables audience members to have different sonic experiences in different parts of the venue, which can accommodate 20,000. As Hollywood explores the potential of LED displays as an alternative to digital cinema projection, sound has remained a stubborn obstacle. Designed by Berlin-based Holoplot, Sphere’s system could well prove an approach to address that technical challenge.
The production of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere includes custom 16K-resolution content that was specially produced and mastered to be displayed during the concert, as well as unique concert lighting and a mobile stage. Meanwhile, the globe-trotting Postcard — which Aronofsky describes as a “sci-fi journey deep into our future as our descendants reflect on our shared home” — was filmed on every continent and contains both narrative and documentary elements. “It’s a learning process because the technology is new,” says the director. “Delivering a half-petabyte movie — that’s 500,000 gigabytes
— that utilizes more than 160,000 speakers is mind-boggling.”
With such bleeding-edge technology, it may not come as a surprise that since the 2018 groundbreaking, Sphere’s construction budget ballooned.
“I will confess that we did not anticipate spending $2.3 billion,” James Dolan — the cable TV and Madison Square Garden mogul who conceptualized the project — said on the inaugural earnings call for Sphere Entertainment Co. Aug. 22. “We also didn’t anticipate COVID,” which dramatically increased the cost and build time on the project. “But I think we’re still in good shape.”
Dolan initially unveiled the plans for Sphere in a high-tech presentation at Radio City Music Hall (another Dolan-controlled property) in February 2018. A musician himself (he is the frontman for the band JD & The Straight Shot), Dolan touted the Sphere as a venue that would “revolutionize the way artists and audiences connect.”
Dolan would go on to restructure his holdings in support of the project, combining the Sphere with MSG Networks, splitting it from MSG Entertainment (which includes the namesake New York arena, Radio City, the Beacon Theatre and the Rockettes), and MSG Sports, which owns the New York Knicks NBA team, and the New York Rangers NHL team.
The mogul has positioned Sphere as the future of experiential entertainment, mixing live concerts (like the inaugural U2 residency) with programming like Aronofsky’s film that can run on days when no live events are booked. In time, the hope is to accommodate multiple shows in a single day.
To adapt bespoke content for the massive curved screen, Sphere Entertainment established Sphere Studios, a quarter-size version of the Las Vegas Sphere in Burbank, with R&D and production facilities. It also turned to Hollywood pros for their expertise, like Robert Settlemire (Avatar: The Way of Water), who helped design underwater housing for filming aquatic scenes with the 316-megapixel Big Sky camera, designed to capture 18K-by-18K images at up to 120 frames per second.
Dolan told the Wall Street analysts that Aronofsky’s film was “capital intensive,” but that future projects would be able to be produced at a lower price tag.
“He’s a very talented director, but we have new cameras that are used for capture. He had to learn how to use those cameras, we had to learn how to use those cameras,” Dolan said. “We went all over the world with those cameras, capturing content from all parts of the globe.”
Sphere is poised to play a visible role at November’s Formula One race in Las Vegas. “Turn six and the beginning of turns seven on the track are going to run through Sphere’s parking lot,” says Sphere’s executive vp and COO Rich Claffey. “And then they’ll use our whole infield for their staging area, their musical artists, their activation area. We’ll probably have 27,000 maybe 30,000 people on our property at any given time.” Additional plans call for Formula One content to be displayed on the exosphere during the race, while an afterparty for the drivers will be held at Sphere.
Meanwhile, the company continues to present the Sphere to potential partners. “I think we’re doing 20 tours a week with athletes, celebrities, rock stars, producers, promoters, business people,” says Claffey. “Everybody’s come through here, they’re all interested in seeing Sphere.”
And while this summer has seen many Hollywood creators rail against artificial intelligence, Vegas has no such qualms about the future: Visitors to the venue will be greeted by five humanoid, AI-enabled robots named Aura, which will recount the history of humanity and innovation, culminating with — what else? — Sphere.
1. Sphere houses a record 160,000-square-foot wraparound LED display on the interior, while the exterior is coated with a record 580,000-square-foot LED display. Both are fully programmable and accommodate 16K-by-16K picture resolution.
2. Sphere is poised to play a visible role at November’s inaugural Formula 1 race in Las Vegas. “Turn six and the beginning of turn seven on the track are going to run through Sphere’s parking lot,” says Sphere executive vp and COO Rich Claffey.
3. With the unique display and sound system, content must be bespoke, specially mixed and mastered by the filmmakers for the venue. Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard From Earth is the first film designed specifically for its immersive-experience screen.
4. The venue can accommodate up to 20,000 standing spectators or 17,500 seated guests. Its spatial audio system uses an estimated 160,000 speakers that can simultaneously send different audio content (including different languages) to different seating sections.
5. Visitors entering through Sphere’s grand atrium will encounter five lifelike, AI-equipped humanoid robots, all named Aura, which will converse with guests and introduce them to the wonders of Sphere — as a flesh-and-blood technical adviser stands by.
6. At 336 feet tall and 516 feet wide, the venue is believed to be the largest spherical structure in the world, outdoing such globes as Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth, Montreal’s Biosphere and Stockholm’s Avicii Arena.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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