They say walls have ears. But those of Old Montreal also have a memory… and it’s a long one. Blank and bare by day, the walls of the old city come alive and tell fascinating stories at night. Under cover of darkness, they reveal candidly what they’ve seen and heard over thelast few centuries, with the impunity nightfall seems to provide.
As dusk descends on Old Montreal, figures and events that marked the history of Montreal come to life on a canvas of bricks, stones and woodwork.
On one wall, a giant-sized tableau of the legendary Maurice Richard flying up the ice.
On another, Jackie Robinson, the first professional African-Americanbaseball player, waves to onlookers, on the heels of the scene depicting the tragic figure of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, a black slave who was hung in 1734 for, it was said, “setting a fire that destroyed 46 houses on Saint-Paul Street.”
Further on, a facade portrays the arrival of about a thousand orphaned Jewish children, all Nazi concentration camps survivors, who were later adopted by Montrealers.
As you make your way along the circuit, down the sloping Saint-Dizier alleyway, you’ll see a tableau that explores an Algonquin-inspired story of creation. A few steps in, the side street morphs into a bubbling brook that then transforms into a grassy marsh.
The burning of Parliament in Montreal in 1849; the perplexing story of a soldier condemned to become Montreal’s first executioner in 1648 because he had committed the “crime of being gay”; and the moving funeral of Joe Beef in 1889, an Irish tavern keeper known for his legendary generosity, are just some of the stories that talk to us from the walls of Old Montreal.
In all, there are 23 tableaux, over 50 points of interest and 14 augmented reality segments dispersed throughout Old Montreal. They bring to life in words, music, stories, action, and with real historical figures, memorable moments in Montreal’s past.
This briefly sums up Cité Mémoire, a highly original tribute delivered via a unique multimedia experience, and accessible to everyone free of charge.
Making the walls of Old Montreal talk was no easy task
The Lemieux-Pilon duo is known for their special talent of flirting with the fourth dimension. Their genius has already contributed to the success of numerous productions, including Torukand Delirium (Cirque du Soleil), Anima, Starmania, La Belle et la Bête, Orféoand Icare, and has earned their company, Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, a solid reputation in major cities around the world.
This time, the challenge issued by Montréal en Histoireswas of a very different nature: shine the light on Montreal; pay tribute to its past and its present.
“It wasn’t so simple,” remembers Michel Lemieux. “Victor and I didn’t have a clue as to what we could do. So we started to walk around the streets of Old Montreal, and when we saw all these beautiful facades, all these windowless, blind walls, that’s when we got the idea to create a circuit with virtual projections.”
The Lemieux-Pilon team immediately got playwright and scriptwriter Michel Marc Bouchard on board. His most pressing task would be to draw up a list of forgotten events and people. The operation was mammoth in scope and required weeks and weeks of research. Not only did they have to retrace these historical moments, but they also had to recreate the period, the setting, the fashions of the day, etc.
The next step was to find actors, extras and props, and plan the filming.
“We spent over two months in Mels production studio, filming more than 40 days for a final content of four and a half hours,” said Lemieux.
At the same time, another team was keeping busy locating surfaces in Old Montreal that would lend themselves to the projections without too many problems. “That wasn’t easy,” explained Michel Lemieux. “We needed to find 20 on which to project the tableaux and another 20 close to the locations we had chosen to hide our projectors and to place cameras that would relay the images on the walls back to the control centre.”
“When we found a wall that could serve as a canvas and a building where we could conceal the projector, we then had to get permission from the owners, as we would have to not only occupy the space for the projector but also work out the logistics for our heating and cooling systems, which would be in place for several years.” It took a whole year for the producers to obtain all the permissions they needed. “Condos were especially tricky, because all the owners were required to sign the authorization,” said the director.
Then they arrived at the testing stage, and this was as complex as any other that preceded it. The shape, size, colour, texture and relief of the walls all affect the quality of the image. “And then you have to take into account that when it rains, the colour of the walls changes,” added Michel Lemieux. Testing for optimal quality took two months.
And finally, they had to set up a control centre where all the Cité Mémoire tableaux would be relayed back to be viewed on screens. A technical director now monitors the projections of each scene. If there’s a hitch, a technical crew will immediately be dispatched to the site.
After six years of work, the incredible Cité Mémoire project is a reality. Need we say how proud the three creative geniuses and everyone who took part in the work are? The creators wanted something truly unique, a tribute befitting Montreal, and they delivered Cité Mémoire!
Michel Lemieux muses, “I think we can say ‘mission accomplished.’”