As the Winter Olympics kick off today in Sochi, Russia, millions of eyes around the world will be on the spectacle that is the opening ceremony. Few, however, will be watching as closely as Mark Fuller.
Fuller is co-founder and CEO of WET, the Los Angeles-based water feature design firm that designed and engineered the massive Waters of Olympic Park fountain being featured in the opening ceremony. At 247 feet in diameter, it's nearly the size of a football field, and holds some 700,000 gallons of water, thousands of lights, and sophisticated jets that can shoot water hundreds of feet in the air. Though the fountain will feature prominently in the opening ceremony, it was designed to outlast the games and serve as a monument for decades to come.
Landing the multimillion-dollar contract, Fuller says, was relatively easy. After all, WET, a roughly $50 million company, designed the Dubai Fountain, the largest fountain in the world, as well as the famed Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas.
"I guess you could say we're the biggest fish in the world's smallest pond," says Fuller.
And yet, pulling a three-year project off in a matter of months took, well, Olympian effort on the part of Fuller and his staff. I recently spoke with Fuller about how he came to be the world's premier fountain expert and why his Made in America approach has been the secret to his success.
Before he was an entrepreneur, Fuller got his feet wet (pun intended) as a Disney Imagineer who was charged with designing a new fountain at the Epcot Center in Orlando back in the 1980s. "I said, 'I think it’d be so cool if we created characters purely out of water,'" Fuller says of his initial inspiration for the fountain. "They said, 'If you can get it open in time, and you don't exceed the $1 million we’ve got allotted for it, go for it.'"
The fountain became such a success that Fuller was flooded with calls from architectural firms begging to work with him. "It's not an area that's been saturated with innovation," says Fuller. "I turned to a couple of my friends, and I was like, 'We’ve done the first innovative thing in water fountains since the Romans quit building aqueducts.'"
Fuller, along with his co-founders Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson, resigned from Disney and launched WET in 1983. From the earliest days, Fuller was committed to completing every piece of every project in-house, from designing underwater robots that spray the water to writing the software that controls it to choreographing the water and light shows to music.
"It gives us tremendous flexibility," Fuller says, noting that many of his competitors manufacture components overseas, a process that takes up valuable design time. "Halfway through your year, you've got to stop being creative and start writing purchasing contracts and performance specifications. Our designers and engineers can be creating until the last moment, so we recover a huge percentage of that time that the outsourcing folks give up to their business model."
Landing the Olympics
This approach, along with a talented and eclectic staff of 240 employees--from choreographers and animators to optical engineers and architects--have enabled WET to land some of the biggest water design contracts in the world.
In 2002, WET landed its first contract for the Olympics, beating out a slew of competition to design the cauldron for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The theme that year was "the fire within," so WET designed a two-story cauldron that was completely transparent, using a novel transparent ceramic that wouldn't melt against the heat of the Olympic flame.
But it was another project WET completed for an amusement park in Amsterdam that inspired Stroi International, a prime contractor for the Olympics, to commission WET for the Sochi games. Stroi called WET in April of last year to offer Fuller and his team the gig. "That's a scary short time," says Fuller. "A project of this size is typically two to three years in length. This was a nail biter."
"There are a lot of fairly exotic things that have to come together to make this work," says Fuller. For starters, he says, are the underwater robots, which spray water in time with the music, which is intended to simulate a dance. "The whole darn robot has to live underwater without rusting out," says Fuller. "It’s a significant technology challenge made harder because you’re concerned about the grace of the movement."
Another major feat? This will be the first big fountain WET has completed that can be controlled entirely by iPad, rather than a massive industrial controller, as is the norm.
As difficult as it has been to engineer the fountain, Fuller says it's been equally challenging shipping everything to Sochi. Though WET doesn't have to worry about the actual construction of the fountain, it does have to ship hundreds of jets, thousands of lights, and more to a part of the world that is (albeit, for good reason) being especially attentive to national security. Both WET's work and its people have been detained at customs sometimes, for as long as four days.
And yet, Fuller says, having his company featured on one of the world's biggest stages has made it all worth it. "The idea is this is going to be an attraction for Sochi for years and decades to come," Fuller says. "We create things that have a real lasting value and draw people in. I think this will become the postcard image going forward."