Welcome to La Machine, eh
August 1, 2017 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Compagnie La Machine is a French street theater company based in Nantes (previously, previouslier, also previouslier) famous for building and operating large-scale mechanical creatures. In their North American debut, they brought a 45-ton mythical dragon-horse and a 40 ton giant spider to battle in the streets of Ottawa as part of Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations. It was, to put it mildly, a roaring success. posted by soren_lorensen (36 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Also, true to my word, I did go to Ottawa with my family to see this. I tried to make my post dispassionate and informative, but really all I want to do is keyboard mash because zomg it was amazing!!!
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

Oooh, I love these guys! I happened to be in London some years ago when they had an event -- it had an enormous boy and an elephant and a spaceship. It was marvelous.
posted by suelac at 8:16 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

It was breathtaking to watch in person - a giant robotic spider walking in front of your country's historic government house. The music (played live for the spider) was also magnificent. Also we remarked if that was someone's PhD robotics project way back when that it's got to be one of the cooler real-world applications of it.

That said - twice now in a month I think Ottawa has dodged a massive bullet having events that were way, way bigger than the infrastructure or emergency plan could hold. Saturday afternoon Byward Market could not have evacuated for an individual or group emergency - there was no clear route posted (it was available online, but the route also filled with people who were cleared just prior to the robots moving through), and thus huge groups of people were pushing and shoving each other. We tried to get away from the crowd and kept running into other impassable crowds.

I've done huge music festivals and now greatly appreciated how having specifically cordoned areas for entry/exit are vital to avoiding claustrophobia. Two of our friends with the mildest of crowd fear had to bolt 15 minutes in.
posted by notorious medium at 8:18 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I see your zomg and raise to incoherent kermit flail.

I also went to Ottawa to see this and it was so much more than I expected.

Rewatching all the videos (including the ones we took) really highlights how different it is to fully experience something in person vs a photo/amateur video. It's similar to me when trying to watch opera on tv (spoiler: I can't, even though I love opera). Human eyes and ears are wonderous.

But back to La Machine - I'm awed by this production and all the details that went into it. The music could be heard even far into the crowd and helped set the mood. The creatures moved with such grace. And when the dragon Long Ma looks your way, it felt like it could actually see you. It was a completely engrossing experience.
posted by A hidden well at 8:18 AM on August 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I turned out to be somewhat of a La Machine whisperer because over and over I was able to pick a spot to bystand in that turned out to be the locale of a major spectacle. I was feet away from the first battle at the National Gallery, was right across the canal when they went at it overtop the MacKenzie King Bridge, and then was standing across from CTV Ottawa in Byward Market when they came and very obviously were putting on a show for the purposes of being filmed (apparently a DVD is being made). During the latter, Kumo had to round the corner right in front of us and we were standing there literally looking straight up into all her pistons and tubes and her operators' feet as she hovered over us, limbs twitching, trying not to hit the traffic light we were standing under. I will never ever forget that.

It really is hard to convey if you weren't there, though. I keep wanting to stop people on the street and be like GIANT FRENCH MECHA AKDFALKFJA and everyone I show the pictures and videos to is just like... huh. But everyone I went with (my parents were there, too) can't stop talking about it.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:33 AM on August 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I visited La Machine in Nantes when I was there a few years ago. They are a phenomenal and unique art group operating at a remarkable scale. I've been curious how they were funded; at least in the early days, it was largely financed from the city of Nantes itself. I'm sure there was some financial grant to stage this event in Ottawa but I can't imagine it's like a profitable circus troupe or something. Who pays for it all?
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have been talking this up to everyone I know since last week and desperately wishing I could have been there to see it in person. Alas.
posted by quaking fajita at 8:50 AM on August 1, 2017

All my family members went to see this; I'm grateful to my in-laws for taking my older son. I sympathy-stayed-home and skipped it because my wife wanted to see it too but her anxiety could not cope with those crowds. Those crowds! There is really not a better reason for it to be slow downtown than giant robots though.
posted by Naib at 8:51 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

We were in Montréal in May and were fortunate to see Les Géants (1, 2). Surreal and beautiful and made everyone freak out at how cool they were. These are amazing, too. Thanks for this.
posted by rtha at 8:55 AM on August 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nelson, the CTV News article says it cost the city $3.5M as part of the "Ottawa 2017" budget and took about a year to organize. That doesn't quite answer your question about who pays for the troupe on an ongoing basis but there you go.
posted by quaking fajita at 9:01 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

That's all very well but where are the exploding locomotive boilers?
posted by flabdablet at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


Beauty post title, too.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:36 AM on August 1, 2017

Also got to see this live this past weekend, and like everyone says, it was absolutely stunning. But also it was clear that the city didn't expect to draw the crowds it got. So. Many. People!
posted by aclevername at 9:55 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Spider has 12 operators and an on-board driver

12? Whatever happened to having it piloted by a single Japanese teenager?
posted by happyroach at 10:01 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

My husband's key takeaway from the experience is that multiple pilots is the more realistic approach to the mecha genre (score one for Pacific Rim).

(The woman who rode at the top of Kumo looked badass.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:11 AM on August 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

(The woman who rode at the top of Kumo looked badass.)

For sure. We had an 8-year-old daughter of a friend with us and when Kumo went by, she pointed and said to us "I want to be her" and my wife and I combined to say something to the effect of "you are her, you just need a spider."

I look forward to our friend having to satisfy "giant robotic spider" on this year's Christmas list.
posted by notorious medium at 11:11 AM on August 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

I was wondering if this would make it here! It was so, so cool. Definitely worth the hour of waiting (to see the snoring dragon up close and to stake out a good spot) and braving the crowds (which were... impressive, and a little scary in their lack of control as they swarmed to follow the dragon).

We were at the front of the crowd waiting for it to pass by and the dragon stretched his head directly over us and roared. Everyone jumped, including the adults! The dragon "drool" dripping on us was a great touch. That and the steam "breathing" really made it seem alive.
posted by randomnity at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I drove down from Toronto for the weekend to see it and it was great but I took too many pictures and have no idea when I'll be able to actually go through all of them.

On Saturday morning I was following Long Ma around and I thought it was pretty fun when Long Ma would interact with the musicians at the rooftop cafes. It wasn't until later on when I was following Kumo and saw the same musicians accompanying her that I realized that they weren't regular musicians but part of La Machine as well and the earlier interactions weren't as random as I had thought.

It was pretty clear that no one was expecting so many people to come. On Saturday afternoon when I was waiting for Kumo to wake up a group beside me was wondering if it would be worth the cost and how many people actually came to see this from the suburbs or out of Ottawa entirely. I usually don't insert myself into conversations but they asked a couple of people and the best they could get was some people from the suburbs so then I had to tell them that I drove down just to see it. I met up with some Ottawan friends for late lunch/dinner and Sparks Street was packed. The restaurant we ate at clearly hadn't anticipated the crowds and the one (!) server was overwhelmed but doing his best.

When I was renting my hotel room last week I had asked my brother if any of his kids wanted to come (ages 8, 10 and 13) and after taking days to get back to me he said they wouldn't be able to make it. I'm pretty sure the kids regret missing out and I will be rubbing it in when I see them this weekend.

My big regret was not walking around Byward market when I got in early Saturday morning. Driving in all I saw were people in line for clubs, which didn't appeal to me so I just went to sleep. But when I woke up in the morning and went out Long Ma was right outside the hotel and would have been there all night.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I talked to an Ottawan family while we were waiting around Byward Market Saturday morning. I told them we'd flown in from Pittsburgh for the event and they were shocked. We probably never would have considered taking a summer vacation to Ottawa otherwise, but I have to say, it's a really beautiful city and we had a great time even when not in pursuit of giant robots. We may very well be back. (Shout out to Level One gaming cafe--we had so much fun, we went back twice!)

$3.5 million honestly doesn't seem like that much in the grand scheme, for an event that packed the urban core for three straight days and will no doubt provide fodder for Ottawa tourism advertising for years to come. But I guarantee no city in the U.S. will ever be able to host these guys because people would FREAK OUT over that amount of public money (and effort) being spent on free art.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:38 AM on August 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

I share the video with a friend and we agreed:

I think the world would be a better place if we had more semi-spontaneous mecha-kaiju street battles.

posted by Samizdata at 11:48 AM on August 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

I took the kids to Ottawa last weekend and got a hotel room downtown. We ended up watching the Long Ma "wake up" on Saturday night, and then took some back streets to see it move toward the Supreme Court. It was spectacular, and a lot of fun to see everyone running through the streets. The crowds were too dense for us to stay and watch the Saturday night battle. I had one woman get very snippy with me as I worked to get the kids out of the "current" of people surging down the road, but I just didn't feel safe being swept any further along. On the way back to the hotel we met a local family who had given up because of the crowds/safety. They unfortunately hadn't seen much of anything.

I love these large scale, public events, and they are something that Montreal (see the Giants, above) usually handles very well. It was great to see such a success in Ottawa, but the city needs to strategize better in terms of staging and safety. The Supreme Court location was far too small, and more streets in the area around the Houses of Parliament should have been closed to traffic.

The storyline behind the performance was a lot of fun and my two kids were very interested in this element. My 11 yo is still upset that we didn't get to see Long Ma break out the fire. Oh well, maybe next year!
posted by Cuke at 11:49 AM on August 1, 2017

soren_lorenson, I am so glad you went! Thank you for posting all this.

My wife and I are big fans of La Machine / Royal de Luxe and we went to their workshops in Nantes some years ago. It was stunning and *really* fun, but it lacked the mystery & street-threater aspects of what they do when they put on a performance in public. Like, you walk around a corner and suddenly there’s a smoking hole in the pavement with a Jules Verne-y spaceship sticking out it, or cars that have been affixed to the ground by a petulant & powerful giant.

I've been curious how they were funded
My understanding is that they won’t accept any corporate sponsorship, that the funding for their spectacles needs to be from arts councils & cities themselves & the like, and that that’s why we’ll probably never see them here in the US. I hope I get a chance to see them closer than Nantes (was really hoping I could go to Ottawa this year but couldn’t swing it).
posted by miles per flower at 12:04 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

In Toronto there was an outcry over the city spending $200,000 to bring a giant rubber duck for Canada Day weekend. But there too it got a better response than people had expected. It's Canada's 150th birthday, if we can't throw some parties now when can we?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:04 PM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

In Toronto there was an outcry over the city spending $200,000 to bring a giant rubber duck for Canada Day weekend

My first thought on reading that was "well, what did they expect"?

Then I read it again and realized that that was a u, not an i.

Gotta stop cleaning these reading glasses with hamburger patty. Specially after reading mathowie's blogs.
posted by flabdablet at 12:11 PM on August 1, 2017

La Machine is not Royal de Luxe though both are from Nantes and both put on crazy fantastic gigantic marionette shows ... (anyone else think of "Being John Malkovitch" - just a little?)

That aside, they are amazing! And could I have been in Ottawa I would have totally done it... you're all lucky to have seen it. (Saw Royal de Luxe in Berlin and was blowwwwwwn away.)
posted by From Bklyn at 2:13 PM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

We cut our week up at the family cottage a day early to catch The last day of La Machine. Fantastic! I loved the spider! I wish I had known about the Montreal show, as I would have made the drive down. The crowds were definitely insane.
posted by fimbulvetr at 3:15 PM on August 1, 2017

My husband's key takeaway from the experience is that multiple pilots is the more realistic approach to the mecha genre (score one for Pacific Rim).

I am pretty sure they could have eliminated Kumo's leg operators in favour of cameras and AI (watching Kumo navigate past traffic lights and trees was both amusing and frustrating) but I like the fact that the robots were so overstaffed because to me it fits their whole steampunk vibe. I'm imagining Kumo as made by Boston Dynamics and I would not want to see one of those moving through the streets of a city.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:53 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

We were very lucky and managed to see both machines in the Byward Market on Saturday and then on Wellington Street on Sunday without being overwhelmed by crowds. The music was the highlight for me. I only wish La Machine had been woven into a Canada 150 year long event and traveled all over the country.
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 5:42 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I went with my sister's family and saw the dragon and spider on WellingtonStreet. I regret not getting closer to the action. Up close, as some of the videos showed, it would have been more of a sight. But can't complain! It was worth it. They say that some of the restaurants ran out of food because of the crowds.

Thanks for bringing this to the blue, soren!
posted by storybored at 6:47 PM on August 1, 2017

I am pretty sure they could have eliminated Kumo's leg operators in favour of cameras and AI (watching Kumo navigate past traffic lights and trees was both amusing and frustrating)

I dunno - there seems to be a whole lot of human intervention that's needed owing to the very tight space and heaving sea of human bodies nearby - seems like there needs to be a set of eyes and hands at the controls on every leg at all times.

Also - for example, at 1:09, these guys rushing in to move a side wheel thing in as Kumo's going to be going around a corner. Seems like they have to free a bunch of bolts manually and fold it underneath.

There's so much going on!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:28 PM on August 1, 2017

There was so much about this that I loved. The machines were more beautiful and amazing than I expected. The live music on Fury Road-ish moving stands was great.

My 10 year old daughter has firmly decided to become an engineer so she can build blueprints for giant robots.

And it really felt transformative of the space. It was interesting seeing the otherworldly spectacle stomp through Ottawa's landmarks and architecture. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it was wonderful. (I wish we could have regular invasions of giant robots.)
posted by ~ at 6:09 AM on August 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I spend a lot of time in Nantes and La Machine is amazing. I will never tire of seeing the elephant, and I make sure all my guests see it when they visit. It is possibly my favourite thing.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:50 PM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ottawa archbishop surprised by negative reaction to robotic spider on cathedral.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said he was surprised by the negative reaction to an artistic initiative after critics called the spider’s placement “sacrilegious,” “demonic,” and “disrespectful” of a sacred space.
I'm 95% sure this is not parody.
posted by Nelson at 4:23 PM on August 2, 2017

I live in Ottawa and we had booked a weekend in Toronto way before this was scheduled, but managed to make it back on the train just in time to see Kumo and Long Ma head down to the War Museum for their last fight. It was incredible and I'm glad we got back in time for it, since I'd spent the weekend watching pretty much everyone enthralled by it on Twitter. I'd also biked the scenic route to work on the Thursday before it opened and checked out Long Ma at City Hall and Kumo on Notre Dame. SO fun.

We also were already planning a trip in October that included Nantes before we really knew much about La Machine and after this weekend I gleefully booked a ticket to ride an elephant and the carousel at their atelier and I CANNOT WAIT OMG.

My understanding is that they won’t accept any corporate sponsorship, that the funding for their spectacles needs to be from arts councils & cities themselves & the like

I'd bet that the funding they got WAS from the city's Ottawa2017 fund, but that this was essentially laundered corporate funding, since that celebration is pretty well sponsored.
posted by urbanlenny at 5:40 PM on August 2, 2017

Oh and also I was totally in love with the orchestra that followed Kumo through the streets. Such a sight. This is probably the best thing that has ever happened to Ottawa and I hope it effects change on the city and the way we approach fun (we normally like our fun very strict and regimented and not really that fun at all)
posted by urbanlenny at 5:42 PM on August 2, 2017

Interview with a member of La Machine.

"All the people who make Long Ma move, like me, or the legs, we are also technicians and we put the parts together, there is not another team. The manipulation team is the technician team for Long Ma and for the spider its the same.”
I am just super impressed with all of these people. This guy is a roboticist who got out of research because... well, why research when you can build a giant spider?

I think the laundering of the corporate money is the important bit because what they clearly do not want is branding or anything from our mundane world invading the world they are creating. They do not want "La Machine, brought to you by Telus!" It didn't even occur to me until I got home that there were no souvenirs, no t-shirts, nothing like that. My mom's birthday is coming up and she absolutely fell in love with Long Ma so I wanted to get her something as a keepsake. I wound up having to order a print from La Machine's website and have it shipped here from France (cha-ching, but mom is gonna flip). But looking back that approach was incredibly effective.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:13 PM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

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