More than two miles long and 1,142 feet tall, Uluru, the red sandstone rock formation in Australia’s Northern Territory, wows travelers during the day. But now, a new night spectacle Wintjiri Wiru illuminates the darkness adjacent to the monolith in a way that reveals Indigenous culture while dazzling with high-tech sound and lights.
“Humans are drawn to light—just think of how compelling sunsets are,” says Melbourne light artist Bruce Ramus, who designed the work in collaboration with the local Anangu people and Voyages Indigenous Tourism.
Wintjiri Wiru is just the latest offering—and newest technology—in the tradition of son et lumière (sound and light) shows, grand public spectacles projected on to (or close to) historic buildings and natural wonders. These mash-ups of pageantry, culture, and art are experiencing a boom fueled by digital advances and tourist sites looking to attract visitors after dark.
Here’s where to see the latest shows, plus why visitors love these “virtual campfires.”
How did sound and light shows start?
Paul Robert-Houdin created the first sound and light show in 1952 at France’s Château de Chambord. Music and narration played while slide projectors splashed colored lights on the 16th-century palace. “We had the feeling that a new way of discovering and understanding monumental heritage was perhaps being born,” one observer wrote in Le Figaro newspaper.
The concept was a hit. “Standing in the dark and being immersed in sounds and images creates a sense of enchantment,” says Jane Lovell, a professor of tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.
In the following decades, other storied sites harnessed that magic, such as the Red Fort in Delhi, India, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “There were captive audiences for these attractions, so the efforts were minimal—just light up these beautiful things that already existed,” says California light show producer Ryan Miziker.
Early technology was expensive and bulky: sofa-sized slide carousels, finicky stereo speakers that malfunctioned in bad weather. The storytelling, if mostly historically accurate, could be clunky and lecturing. At Egypt’s Pyramids at Giza, the still-running circa-1961 show features the Sphinx “narrating” a lofty spiel about ancient life as murky colored lights wash over the monuments.
How tech took over light shows
“Son et lumieres started out as pretty rudimentary things—a castle would be lit up and a soundtrack would say, ‘this tower was built in 1592,’” says Ross Ashton of London’s Projection Studio, which designs extravaganzas for attractions from Welsh castles to Indian fortresses.
But by the 1990s, innovations in video, lasers, and audio meant creators could screen riveting, mind-bending shows. “Digital video changed everything,” says Miziker. “We had software to do 3-D mapping, which takes a round object like a globe and flattens it, or wraps any structure in overlapping, blending geometry.”
Sound evolved, too. “Bells, spoken voices from different directions, or a fireball rolling, you can layer sound up, so it feels like a tapestry,” says Projection Studio’s sound artist Karen Monid.
Today’s sound and light shows are like mini action movies screened on historic buildings or natural wonders. San Antonio’s The Saga wraps the 18th-century San Fernando Cathedral in sound effects (mariachi ballads, cannon blasts) and painterly images (folk dancers, renderings of the Alamo) to tell the story of the Texas city. In Jerusalem, Israel, the ancient Tower of David has two night shows, one on city history and the other about the biblical shepherd-turned-ruler that gave the site its name.
Wintjiri Wiru harnesses LED lights, lasers, sound, and 1,100 drones to recount a legend from the Anangu, who consider Uluru sacred. The show depicts mala (wallaby-rabbit) beings battling a gigantic devil dog spirit. “Combine light with sound—in this case Anangu songs and other effects—and it’s like the desert is speaking,” says Ramus.
Other projects are more abstract, such as the new Aura Invalides show at Les Invalides in Paris, which fills the grand interiors of the historic military monument with surreal rays of colored light and outlines architectural elements in laser graffiti. “People move around within the building, making it more like a 360-degree immersion than something didactical,” says Manon McHugh, a spokesperson for Moment Factory, the studio that created the show.
Why travelers love spectacles
Experts think people are drawn to these shows for their sense of wonder and spectacle. “Sound and light shows are like fireworks—it’s impossible to look away,” says Miziker. Since audiences are sitting in the dark, “there’s cognitive dissonance, with the atmosphere almost becoming its own entity,” says Lovell.
Plus, in this age of Instagram, sound and light spectacles make ideal selfie backdrops or video ops. “When Moment Factory started doing shows, we didn’t want people to have their phones out,” says McHugh. Now it and other digital production studios build in elements like photo booths to encourage participants to share their experiences.
How sound and light shows help tourist sites
Sound and light shows can be expensive and time-consuming to design. (Wintjiri Wiru was developed over several years and cost $10 million.) But many tourist attractions and cities are willing to shell out. “They produce new income streams,” says Ashton. “People normally go home at night, but if you sell them a ticket to an illumination, they’ll come back.”
Many sound and light experiences in public, urban spaces—outside cathedrals, on city halls, across skyscrapers—are free, but paid for by cities to give visitors an excuse to stay an extra night.
“We used to think of tourism as a daytime activity, but there has been this tourist-ification of the night,” says Andrew Smith, a professor of urban experiences at England’s University of Westminster. “Now cities want to attract people and keep them in town. It’s a commodification of the night, a way to extend economic and cultural activity.”
Studies indicate that these shows might even make city downtowns feel safer. “It starts to dematerialize the buildings,” says Ramus. “You just see the lights, and our cities become transparent. They feel gentler.”
TOP SOUND AND LIGHT SHOWS
Notre Dame Cathedral, Montreal, Canada. Hometown production studio Moment Factory uses 3-D mapping and cutting-edge lasers to create an audio and visual spectacle inside the city’s historic cathedral.
Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada. Through September 23, 2023, a multimedia show delves into Canadian history on this iconic Victorian government edifice.
Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt. Sound and light shows are popular in Egypt—you’ll also find them at the pyramids and temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel. But the island setting of this temple to Isis makes the after-dark spectacle here especially atmospheric.
Red Fort, Delhi, India. Live actors and dancers perform amid the historic, patriotic sound and light show, Jai Hind, which launched in 2022 at this 16th-century red sandstone stronghold of the Mughal empire.