Planting the Herons’ Tree
The mechanical fantasies of Les Machines de l’Île
Strange and wonderful things are taking shape in an old industrial building in the French seaport of Nantes. Once used for constructing ships, the space is now bustling with workers building vessels for the imagination—ready to set sail to a dreamlike world filled with massive mechanized beasts, sprawling networks of metallic vines, and other spectacles that feel ripped from the pages of Jules Verne, the pioneering science fiction writer who once called Nantes home.
This is the workshop of Les Machines de l’île, the art collective founded by François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice in 2003 to pursue their shared passions for mechanical tinkering and grand theatrical experiences. Since then, they have assembled a team of engineers, builders, artisans, and performers to help realize their larger-than-life visions.
Their ever-growing mechanical menagerie includes a giant elephant capable of carrying forty-nine people, a multi-story carousel composed of thirty-five sea creatures, and a colony of rideable robot insects. Though the scale and complexity of these creations test the limits of transportability, the Les Machines team has taken them all over the world, performing in the streets of Liverpool, Ottawa, Yokohama, Beijing, and other cities and wowing crowds at festivals like Burning Man and Maker Faire.
The creators of Les Machines de l’île are now embarking on their most ambitious project to date: The Herons’ Tree, a permanent public installation that will transform a granite quarry on the banks of the Loire river into a towering steel tree with hanging gardens and mechanical birds soaring overhead. After years of planning and prototyping, they’ve come to Kickstarter to invite the public to get involved. The response has been overwhelming, with more than 4,000 people — so far — stepping up to support the project.
As the campaign draws to a close, we asked Delarozière and Orefice to tell us more about their process, their inspiration, and the logistics of moving fifty-ton mechanical sculptures across several continents.
— Nick Yulman
Can you tell us about your creative process? Do your pieces generally begin with a concept or technical experimentation?
Pierre Orefice: François and I have been working together for over thirty years. We’re very different and at the same time very complementary. We have learned to tell stories together. Les Machines de l’île is primarily the result of a desire to invent and build together. Given our shared experience in the performing arts, we felt like we could create a special universe here in Nantes.
We didn’t want amusement parks such as Disney or Parc Astérix to dominate the world of imagination. We wanted to offer a different type of interaction, to establish a language that would be accessible to all types of audiences and all age groups.
The idea of building a great collection of mechanical beasts emerged from our experience making theater machinery. The contrast between mechanical and living beings is at the center of our universe. We come up with an image or an idea and then we build on it, or abandon it. It starts with preliminary research, followed by a shared intuition. François has a magical ability to start with a drawing and work towards a fully-fledged design and visual representation of the final machine.
Many of your creations are mechanical animals. What interests you about biomimicry and the relationship between nature and technology?
PO: At the core of our work is an observation: a machine, through its own movements, may express something and generate emotions, going so far as to look alive. The natural world (plants, minerals, animals) is our main source of inspiration. However, our machines are not an attempt to imitate nature. Observing nature inspires us and feeds our imagination. We use technology to create the most expressive forms of movement and the most powerful theatrical effects.
Our research isn’t truly focused on biomimicry. Digital technology, mechanisms, structures, and sculpture are merely tools for artistic expression. We hide nothing in our machines. Everything is visible: materials, chassis, motor, structures, even the people manipulating them — it’s all there. We rely exclusively on materials such as wood, steel, and leather, as well as handcrafting techniques, choosing to bare the mechanics in order to capture the viewer’s attention and magnify the creatures’ movements. In today’s world, we aren’t able to see how things work, take things apart, or inspect objects from the inside. Our toys can’t be taken apart, our cars can’t be repaired, our computers are sealed. Every day, our visitors become fascinated with the movements and mechanics of an object. We see it in their eyes.
You’re currently working on The Herons’ Tree, a massive floating garden with mechanical animals in Nantes, France, intended to last for generations to come. How did the site and the city itself inspire this idea, and what new creative or technical problems will you have to solve to realize it?
François Delarozière: We have been thinking about The Herons’ Tree since the early days of Les Machines. It’s the largest project we’ve ever done — a flying city of plants and animals supported by an extraordinary metal sculpture and inhabited by visitors.
The Herons’ Tree is located in an incredible garden that grows in a black granite quarry facing the Loire river, with the most beautiful view of the city. It is a dream that floats between the sky and the earth. The flight of the herons, the tree’s mechanical beasts, and the intertwining plants offer infinite dazzling possibilities and welcome visitors to our universe, one branch at a time.
This project comes with many challenges. For example: how are we going to put twenty people on the back and under the wings of a giant heron with a wingspan of fifteen meters, weighing several tons, knowing that it must fly at an altitude of forty-five meters over the audience? These types of challenges are pushing us to explore the latest industrial innovations and new technologies. It feels like we are inventing the world of tomorrow while remaining in touch with the world of today.
The complexity of its design and construction make it an artistic, technical, industrial, and financial gamble. We have decided to tell the story of this adventure exclusively to the thousands of backers who have joined us on Kickstarter.
What are the different skills required to build your projects, and how have you assembled a team with this diverse array of capabilities?
FD: Thirty years of working together has allowed us to create a talented team of enthusiasts. From the first draft to the finishing touches, there are a considerable number of steps. The draft is just the starting point of the creative process — a foundation that serves as a reference point for the teams of builders who work on different parts of the project. At each step, the builders influence and enrich the work with their expertise and experience.
We work with hydraulic engineers, wood carvers, electricians, boilermakers, automation engineers, colorists, decorators, architects, illustrators, carpenters, woodworkers, and welders. Over thirty-five trades are involved in the construction phases. And we don’t stop at contributing our skill or specialty. Our builders become designers and, in the end, they take to the stage to operate the machines they constructed.
You’ve taken your massive machines all over the world for performances and festivals. What are some of the practical considerations of making this happen?
PO: When we build a new machine, we start with packing and transportation requirements. We need to be able to take it apart completely, put it into a container, and load it onto a boat. We have to consider its weight. Machines that are over twelve meters tall can weigh north of fifty tons. These dimensions almost reach the limit of what is allowed in public spaces. When our machines travel to their shows, we often ask local authorities to confirm the load-bearing capacity of any structures (a bridge, for example) or underground parking lots along the way.
We also present calculation notes on stability and resistance to wind, acceleration, and inclines. Machines loaded with flammable substances such as gas may be subject to additional requirements, based on the standards of each country.
Then there is audience management, crowd movement, and overall safety considerations. We collaborate closely with local authorities — they know their city best. We bring our expertise together to find the right solutions and ensure public safety without degrading the artistic quality of the show, which takes place in the street.
What do you dream of creating that isn’t technically possible yet?
FD: One of my dreams is to create a teleportation center or to invent a consumer-grade drone for individual transport. I’d also like to explore the possibility of long-distance dialogue without the use of a machine.