Ultra South Africa celebrates its fifth anniversary with a record-breaking production


Record numbers of electronic music fans flocked to the Expo Centre at Nasrec and the Cape Town Stadium on 9 and 10 February to enjoy the annual electronic music extravaganza, Ultra South Africa, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this year.  

The Ultra brand of live electric dance music festivals was founded in 1997 in Miami by executive producer and CEO, Russell Faibisch, with the inaugural Ultra Music Festival held in 1999 on the sands of Miami Beach. Focused on a love for music, artists and fans alike, Ultra and Ultra Worldwide represent one of the largest and most successful independent electronic music festival brands in the world. Event organisers continue to transport the unrivalled experience from the Miami flagship festival to an ever-growing number of destinations and ‘Ultranauts’ all over the globe. 

Ultra SA was the fourth country to represent the Ultra Worldwide brand, which is now in 26 countries across six continents. Since its inaugural festival, Ultra SA has continued to grow both in popularity and scope to become the largest electric dance music festival of its kind in the country and an undisputed annual highlight for those in the live entertainment industry. 

The Ultra experience in SA

Electronic dance music (EDM) festivals have evolved considerably since those first underground rave parties of the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, the international EDM festival circuit has developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry that delivers fully immersive experiences to millions of festival-goers the world over. Festivals such as Ultra Worldwide, Belgium’s Tomorrowland, and US-based TomorrowWorld, among others, are characterised by large-scale events that feature multiple music genres spread across various stages, with elaborate stage design and thematic schemes delivered through meticulously engineered lighting shows, visual displays, laser shows, and pyrotechnics. Ultra SA is no exception, and delivers on all of the iconic aspects of an EDM festival, with world-class rigging, lighting, audio and LED displays for both the Johannesburg and Cape Town renditions of the show.

On 9 February, the Cape Town Stadium saw 15 000 fans stream through the gates to enjoy the sounds of Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Axwell Λ Ingrosso, Carnage, Hardwell and Malaa. Black Coffee, Dubfire and Eats Everything commandeered the RESISTANCE stage in the stadium basement, which heaved with house and techno fans throughout the 12 hours of uninterrupted music at the event. The Johannesburg show at the Expo Centre at Nasrec welcomed a record-breaking 32 000 festival-goers on 10 February, for what was the largest and most successful Ultra SA in Johannesburg to date.

Gearing up for success

Speaking to Pro-Systems Africa News in a recent interview, Showtime Management co-owner, Tony Feldman, states that the event would not be possible without the support of leading technical supplier to the live event industry in South Africa, Gearhouse Group. 

“We work closely with Ultra Miami in the design of the stage,” explains Feldman. “Ultra Worldwide employs the world’s best stage designers to design a stage based on the host country’s technical inventory. They try to keep a similar look and feel across all the countries that host Ultra festivals throughout the year. Once the stage design comes through, Gearhouse works closely with Ultra Worldwide’s international stage designers, utilising the local inventory available to bring the stage design to life.”

Senior project manager for Ultra SA, Gearhouse’s Eyal Yehezkely, points out that scale is one of the defining aspects of Ultra SA, and indeed of Ultra Worldwide festivals across the globe. “Ultra festival is intentionally done on a phenomenally large scale. It is the defining characteristic of Ultra Worldwide events, and identifies Ultra SA as an urban-based EDM festival to rival any in the world.” 

Gearhouse is uniquely equipped to deliver on projects of this scale, as Gearhouse branch operations manager for Johannesburg, Stuart Andrews explains. “While the sheer magnitude of the rig for Ultra SA may seem intimidating for some, Gearhouse is, in fact, more comfortable working on projects of this scale. As a company, we have extensive experience in delivering project planning, management, and implementation on a grand scale for live events across the country for local and international clients. As such, we enjoy playing on the bigger stages; although its only around 20% of what we do.” 

While this may sound somewhat self-assured, it is beyond dispute that Gearhouse delivered a truly awe-inspiring rig for Ultra SA 2018 – a fact that has been lauded by fans across social media in the days and weeks following the festival.  Feldman concurs, commenting on Gearhouse’s’ involvement: “I don’t believe there is another technical services company that can deliver the Ultra SA main stage production in South Africa.”

Delivering the magic

Gearhouse Group were responsible for delivering full technical for the main stage, RESISTANCE stage, and VIP area around the main stage in Johannesburg and Main stage and VIP area in the Cape Town renditions of Ultra SA. According to Yehezkely, planning for the deployment of the rig for Ultra SA started in November last year. The Ultra Worldwide stage design team briefed both Showtime Management and Gearhouse on the design for the 2018 stage, which included a record number of LED screens that would be used to present custom-designed content produced by some of the world’s leading video jockeys. 

“The stage design and thematics, which is developed for Ultra Miami and then replicated for global Ultra events, is engineered to work with the capacity of the host venue,” Andrews explains. “As a result, the main stage for Nasrec took advantage of the Expo Ground’s width, while we had to work on a slightly smaller scale to fit into the Cape Town Stadium.” 

As a result, Johannesburg festival goers were treated to a gargantuan 72-metre wide main stage that positively sizzled with lights, hypnotic designs and a breath-taking pyrotechnics display. For Cape Town, a slightly smaller 54-meter wide main stage was no less visually spectacular. Despite the variance in size, both Johannesburg and Cape Town shows made use of a staggering inventory of gear, which included a record number of LED screens, supplied by Gearhouse subsidiary LED Vision. 

“Unlike a conventional music concert featuring a band with multiple artists on stage, an EDM festival relies on the staging to bridge the gap between the action in the DJ box and the crowd,” Andrews points out. “As a result of this unique feature of DJ-driven performances, Ultra Worldwide employs the world’s best video jockeys to develop content that works in perfect unison with the lighting design and pyrotechnics to punctuate the music and involve the audience,” he concludes.

Graeme Baker of LED Vision was instrumental in deploying the approximately 1,200m2~ of LED panels that were incorporated into the stage design this years’ production. “We made use of a range of LED products on both shows, with 7mm and 18mm LED screens used on the Johannesburg stage and 8mm and 16mm for Cape Town,” Baker explains. “However, due to the high-quality of control used to manage the lighting and LED displays, the brightness and colour balance were perfectly matched so that it was impossible to tell which screen was which,” he states. 

The lighting design for the show, specified by Ultra Worldwide’s top-notch team of designers, included a spectacular display made possible with more than 400 lighting fixtures, controlled using GrandMA lighting consoles. In addition, pyrotechnics specialist company Fireworks for Africa (FFA) designed, supplied and executed a pyrotechnics and Special FX display for Ultra SA, which punctuated the main stage performances to create truly unforgettable moments throughout the event.

Defeating the elements

Every major event has its own unique set of challenges, some within the control of event planners and some that are best described as acts of God. Based on the events of the past five years, Joburg’s Ultranauts concur that Ultra is, traditionally, a rainy affair. 

Reflecting on last years’ event, Andrews explains that on the afternoon prior to the opening of Ultra SA 2017, a storm blew up over the Nasrec grounds that could best be described as a “mini tornado”. While the internationally certified rigging used by Gearhouse withstood the harsh conditions, many of the lighting fixtures, as well as some of the cabling and audio equipment sustained water damage – despite being designed for outdoor use. “Gearhouse prides itself on ensuring that we are prepared for any eventuality, and with workshops established onsite, our technicians were able to effect the necessary repairs in time. Despite the trying conditions, the show opened on schedule, and there was little or no impact on the production,” Andrews explains. 

Unfortunately, a large number of moving-head LED fixtures developed electrical faults following the heavy downpours at Ultra SA 2017. In response, the Gearhouse management team decided to investigate waterproofing solutions for their lighting fixtures ahead of the 2018 production of Ultra SA. “We worked closely with our distributors to source the best possible solution for weatherproofing lighting fixtures for outdoor events,” explains Andrews. “Following extensive consultation, we made a significant investment in a product from the Netherlands, called SelbyGuard, which is the international standard used by some of the best in the business – including the Rolling Stones – for all outdoor events.” 

SelbyGuard manufactures highly specialised bases with removable rainproof covers that are designed to fit between the rig and a light fixture. Gearhouse used 128 SelbyGuard rainproof covers and bases, along with 12 SelbyGuard Air Domes on the lighting rig for Ultra Johannesburg. “The covers proved to be extremely efficient,” states Andrews, “they are very easy to mount and do not compromise the quality of the light show at all.” Yehezkely concurs, stating that: “under cover of night, the rain covers disappear completely. It was fantastic to watch the light show continue unabated through the rain that poured down over Johannesburg.” The use of SelbyGuard proved highly successful, with Andrews and his team confirming that they did not have a single lighting fixture fail during the show, despite incessant rain.

The main stage production and performances delivered at Nasrec and Cape Town stunned crowds with a phenomenal 48 hours of Ultra SA. “Ultra SA brings new surprises each year and this year was no exception. It also brings new magic each time we produce the show, and 2018 was the most magical yet. Speaking on behalf of the full ULTRA SA team and sponsors, we are blown away by the support of the fans and industry and cannot wait to see what 2019 brings,” concludes Shaun Duvet, a partner in ULTRA South Africa.

Story reprinted courtesy ProSystems News

Photo from UltraFest

May 16, 2018

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