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Burbank's WET made the Bellagio Fountains and other water artworks you love

by Collin Friesen and Maya Sugarman | Off-Ramp®

A vacuum is on display inside the optics lab at WET, a water fountain and water feature design company based in Sun Valley, Calif. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

You probably haven't heard of the Burbank company WET, but if you've been to Vegas, you know their work. 

WATCH: Even the Bellagio Fountains have their own official trailer

Mark Fuller, the energetic, 63-year-old owner of WET, says the Bellagio Fountains “started as an icon for the hotel and became an icon for the city." These fountains, plus dozens of other fountains in hotels, shopping plazas, and other venues around the world were all designed and built by WET, which started in a church basement and now employs 375 engineers, metal workers, animators, carpenters, receptionists, computer programmers ... and one full time fitness instructor, because Hollywood.

Asked if he’s ever calculate the number of times WET's fountains have appeared on TV or the movies, Fuller responds “Only when it pops up on TV and my wife says, 'why don’t we get a royalty for that?' ... that number I know.” You also might have seen their spouting talent in Sochi at the Winter Olympics. While closer to home WET did the fountain at the Americana shopping mall in Glendale and Universal CityWalk.

The basic idea is always the same, instead of water running over a sculpture, the water is the sculpture. And thanks to any number of combinations of pumps, nozzles, lights and computers, they can make H2O do pretty much anything.

Fuller, a former theater nerd turned engineer, makes it sound almost philosophical: “People are drawn to water, it is both an antagonist, and protagonist… supreme.”

Heading into the chemistry room, there are large flypaper like strips on the floor to clean the dirt off the bottom of your shoes. There’s a drum kit and grand piano in the common area, a laser bench, a 3-D printer or two and a full time teacher who leads classes in Fluid Mechanics and Comedy Improv to improve employee communications skills.

Andrea Silva, a Senior Project designer at WET, says, “Five years into the job I was sitting in a pump room in Japan at 2AM. I was wondering what I had done to get here…” It’s like walking onto the set of what you think the perfect office might look like. But with the low-end fountain running a million dollars and the big jobs clocking in north of $200m, they can afford it.

Silva says part of the challenge is finding a way to make their foreign fountains culturally relevant. “Even with Dubai fountain…our choreographers are there, they come out and this is how you move to this piece of music, this is the dance you do, so we incorporate those specific… whether that’s a hand gesture, we incorporate that into the actual choreography.”

Outside on the lawn, we pass a squeaking underwater multi-axis robot, then enter what they call Area 9…which is where all the cool stuff is: Fuller designed a way to make water shoot like it’s encased in a clear plastic tube, without the tube. Something about having all the molecules moving at the same speed. There’s also fire that burns under a mushroom shaped ball of water and what they call water on fire, a column of water with a flame inside. (It’s a display you can stick your hand into if you’re careful, and the feeling is something other-worldly.)

Fuller says recent projects have included a solar power component that uses gray or undrinkable water and cleans it in the process. He likes the fact that anyone, rich or poor, can enjoy the work they do at WET. And as for his definition of what makes a successful project, this former Disney Imagineer says that’s pretty simple too.

“So we’ll take a lake or pond and treat it like a screen, a fantastic visual instrument on which we can create endless visual performances. If you and I were walking by a creation, and we didn’t stop in this interview and say hold that thought, then I would think we failed.”

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