Olympic opening sequence posed technical staging and video challenges of epic proportions

About 72,000 spectators in a giant stadium and millions of TV viewers around the world watch spellbound as a living centaur launches a spear into a 57ft.-tall Cycladic head, while that head suddenly rises out of a glimmering pool of water. The head breaks apart, revealing yet another statue, as the Cycladic pieces gently float on the pool of water around the stadium. The center statue then disassembles itself to reveal yet a third statue, while the Cycladic chunks receive video images depicting the evolution of man.

That was just one portion of the spectacular Allegory sequence of the Opening Ceremonies from this year's Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, performed live and broadcast around the world. The concept for “Allegory” was the brainchild of Dimitri Papaioannou, the artistic director for the Opening Ceremonies. But it fell to Stage One Creative Services, of Tockwith, England, to stage Papaioannou's complicated concept.

So what did officials from Stage One think when officials from production company Jack Morton Worldwide, planning the Opening Ceremonies on behalf of the Athens Olympic Committee (ATHOC), first proposed the idea?

“To be honest, we thought it was the craziest idea any of us had ever seen,” says Stage One technical director Jim Tinsley. Still, Stage One signed on for the gig, joining a large team working for producers from Jack Morton Worldwide to make the spectacular concept a reality. As you may have seen on television, they succeeded.

But how? First, the technical team had to wrap their minds around what Papaioannou was trying to accomplish creatively.

“Dimitri wanted to show the history of modern man, using the symbolism of three stages of mankind,” explains Tinsley. The Cycladic figure, with its large, simple head, represented early man from 2700 B.C. The second figure, a symmetrical Kouros sculpture from 6th century B.C., was followed by the smaller, central, classical figure from 5th century B.C., representing the breakthrough to modern man. The 9-ft. tall pieces of the larger Cycladic figure were designed to receive video projection at points during the sequence when the pieces would temporarily park.

“When the job began, they wanted the Cycladic figure to separate into 16 pieces, the Kouros into 12, and the Classical into six,” according to Tinsley. “We told them, ‘No, you're mad.’”

Thus, the sequence was scaled back to a more manageable eight, six, and four pieces, respectively.

Flying Art

At the beginning of the sequence, the figure appears to be lifted through the large water pool in the stadium field's center. The statue, which weighed nearly 20 tons when assembled, was hoisted through a 33ft. diameter opening with a 99,000lb. scenery lift. The opening was covered with a reflective film material that gave the appearance of water during the sequence. Pieces of the material then separated to reveal the object as it rose, to make it appear the piece was rising through the water pool. Three 110kW lifting motors drove the elevator stage.

Now, that's when things got complicated. The three statues encased inside each other had to separate, one at a time, into individual pieces. The statue segments were held together by sets of hydraulic clasps, operated by radio control equipment. Each clamp was operated by an accumulator — a pressure-charged vessel located within each scenery piece that, when triggered by the remote control system, released the clamp.

“There was no umbilical, no electrical connection, no physical connection,” says Tinsley. “Just a lot of batteries.”

The radio control system, built by Norway-based Micro Controls A.S., a company that supplies similar equipment for military applications, had to be carefully designed to avoid interference with any of the countless other radio frequencies being used throughout the Olympic venue.

The hydraulic clamp system was initially supposed to only be used on the Cycladic and Kouros segments, which weighed 3300lbs. and 1980lbs. respectively. “We tried using an electro-magnetic system for the smaller Classical statue pieces, which only weighed 880lbs., but the magnets wouldn't hold,” explains Tinsley. The company then reverted to using the hydraulic clamps for that statue's pieces, as well.

To make the set pieces move about the stadium, Stage One designed a complicated cable net aerial flying system, using an impressive 34 miles of wire rope. The cable net featured a center hub, suspended 120ft. above the stadium floor. Attached to that were 24 wire ropes which spanned radially outward to anchorages placed at points along the top of the stadium. Only 18 of those 24 ropes were used for moving set pieces — the remaining six were included simply for load symmetry.

Each statue segment was pulled radially from the center start position along its cable by a pair of trolleys, which rode along the cable. The trolleys were each pulled along the line by a pair of 1/4-in. or 3/8-in. (depending on object weight) wire ropes, running alongside the support cable, looped to pulley sheaves located at the center hub. The trolley ropes were pulled by a pair of hoist machines (one per trolley), either 22kW or 30kW depending on load, located at the outer anchorage points, and those hoist machines each had 5ft. grooved drums, running at speeds of 6ft. per second.

A pair of winches was also located at each anchor point, pulling another pair of wire ropes leading to the set piece being suspended at the trolleys. One cable was attached to the top of the piece, while the other was attached to its bottom. Combinations of operation of both the trolleys and the pair of winched support ropes allowed for carefully choreographed movements of each set piece, as planned by the show's designer.

The motion of the set pieces and cable net system was controlled by a system called Qmotion — a technology developed by Stage One over the last 15 years by engineer Carl Gromitch.

“We were running at 2MW of power on a fully-automated system, setting off 72 hoists/winches simultaneously. It was astounding,” says Tinsley.

The show was programmed at Stage One's London offices, initially using full-scale prediction calculations for a single wire line.

“The data we got off that, beyond mechanically, in terms of automation, didn't really tell us much,” Tinsley admits. “We decided instead to go with a 3D simulation using 3ds max, an AutoCAD-derived product from Discreet for three-dimensional modeling.”

During the simulation process, Stage One artists animated the entire Allegory program, creating the movement for each statue segment. Data was then extracted to a Microsoft Excel file from that simulation and imported into the QMotion system.

“If we'd tried to program using conventional automation, with the scale of this project and with the time allotted, we would have needed five additional weeks,” says Tinsley. “The 3D animation enabled us to extract reliable data much more easily.”

Adding Video

Prior to the live performance, Allegory was rehearsed on site with two technical rehearsals, a pre-dress rehearsal, and a dress rehearsal — each with audiences. Due to the complicated nature of the cabling and hydraulic clamp arrangements, the system took an astounding 36 hours to reset before each run-through.

As if breaking a huge, three-layered statue into 18 individual pieces dancing through the sky wasn't enough, each of the eight Cycladic pieces also served as video projection surfaces. For those projections, ATHOC video creative designer, Athina Tsangari, created a mixture of images depicting the physicality of human beings, from blood vessels and fingerprints to eyes and faces.

“The idea was that the sculpture would come alive with imagery of man and the physical achievements of man, which were the images we needed to project on them,” explains video consultant Andrew Hawker. Hawker joined forces with the London office of Creative Technology (CT) to implement the complex projection program.

Each of the 9-ft. tall statue segments received its own video program once it reached its parked destination location during the Allegory sequence.

“At each location, we had to have projectors aimed at that bit of space, focused up, and ready to project video footage onto the object, which had been designed for it to convey the appropriate feel and mood,” Hawker explains. “It was quite ambitious in what it was trying to evoke.”

An initial concern revolved around making certain the projected images would be bright enough. Not only did the imagery have to be bright enough for the stadium audience to see clearly (most audience members in the stadium could view two or three of the objects, as spread about the stadium, at any one time), but it also had to meet the minimum brightness standards set by AOB, the Olympic broadcasting organization, for global broadcast.

“They wanted a brightness of 600lux on those rocks, which translated to something in the region of 25,000ANSI lumens, all at a predetermined f-stop,” says Hawker. “They didn't want to be racking cameras in the middle of the scene.”

He adds that the fiberglass-coated objects were painted to appear grayish in color in daylight, and were fairly reflective, at about 80 percent.

During the project's development phase, the video team considered projectors that could meet the desired criteria. The chosen projector would need to meet not only the 25,000 brightness criteria, at a throw of between 40-60ft., but also make good use of the light output.

“The problem was that these objects were not square — they're very tall and thin,” explains Hawker. “A projector with a square aspect ratio wouldn't make very good use of the light output and the projector's resolution. We needed to get most of the 25,000 actually on the rock, not masked off or spilling around the side of it. What was required was a tall, thin projector that could project 25,000ANSI lumens.”

Hawker says the project considered three companies that were developing 20,000-plus ANSI lumen HD projectors at the time the project was ramping up — Christie Digital, Digital Projection, and Barco.

“It didn't appear that Christie Digital's would be available in time for us, and the projector from Digital Projection appeared to provide only about 18,000ANSI lumens, which wouldn't meet AOB's 600lux criteria,” he says. “So that left Barco's (technology). The Barco XLM H25 had more than 25,000ANSI lumens, and it had a long, wide image.”

Normally, though, that long, wide image is projected as a horizontal widescreen image by the Barco projector — not as a vertical one.

“The first thing we checked out with Barco was whether they thought we could turn the projector on its side,” Hawker recalls. “We actually got a hold of one of its early prototypes back in February/March of this year to make sure it could run for several hours on its side, which it did. So we were able to get the image to fit the shape of the rock.”

“The first 12 of those projectors that came off the production line were all in Greece at the Olympics,” Hawker relates. “So if there was a lynchpin for this show, I think it had to be that projector.”

The images projected with the Barco projectors ended up being, essentially, imagery of a resolution somewhere between high definition and standard definition. “The problem was that Athina Tsangari wanted to get high-def projection out of a standard-definition budget,” Hawker explains.

To meet the designer's needs, the team utilized a Watchout image server system, manufactured by Dataton of Sweden. The PC-based system features a host/controller PC, which operates a group of slave PCs that playback stored media.

Surmounting Obstacles

“The original images were shot on 35mm film, telecined at 2000 resolution, and then composited at that resolution in (Discreet's 2D effects and compositing system called Inferno),” explains Hawker. “The images were rendered to 1280×720 uncompressed images on a Mac. These images were then sent to site, where they were encoded to a high bit rate as 1280×720 MPEG files, which were then put on the Watchout PCs. These were then projected at that resolution, which is sort of a medium-res HD. Because it's a PC-based system, the hardware cost is quite low, but we were still able to provide higher than standard-definition resolution.”

Another advantage of using a PC-based system was the simplicity of creating masking for the projected images. Because of the odd shapes of each of the eight Cycladic statue pieces, unique projection masks had to be created for each projected image to assure that most of the 25,000ANSI lumens image light actually landed on the objects, without spilling around the edges.

“If we were using conventional video servers, the masks would have been based on the original simulation animation, which might not have been totally accurate,” Hawker explains. “If, during rehearsals, it was determined that the mask wasn't quite right, they'd have to go back into Inferno, and then come back two days later, after the reset and try it again.”

Instead, Hawker and his team used Adobe Photoshop to create the masking effect.

“On the first night, we just went around with a digital camera and took shots of the eight rocks, and loaded them into Photoshop,” he says. “Then, just by clicking a mouse, we could draw a mask on the outline of the rock shape, create an opaque background, and load that into Watchout as a mask for the video. Then, if it was slightly off, we could make a slight adjustment on site, and two or three minutes later, you could see the new mask.”

Another design concern was an environmental one — wind. Though the Olympic Stadium had been constructed originally in 1982, a new, open-edged roof had been added for the 2004 Summer Games. It was initially somewhat unclear how that would impact the Allegory presentation.

“These statue pieces were like huge sails — they're 30ft. high, 17ft. wide, and 7ft. deep,” notes Jim Tinsley. “There were two camps: one group that felt the shape of the roof would prevent any wind from developing, and another that was concerned that eddy currents would creep in and cause these things to flop about.”

As it turned out, wind was not a problem, but the video team didn't know that going in, and, therefore, had to be prepared.

The concern was that once the projectors had been aimed and focused for a set piece parked at a particular location, wind or other environmental forces might move the set piece off the aligned projector axis, requiring readjustment of the projector. To counteract this, the team attached Catalyst Orbital heads from High End Systems to the projectors.

The Catalyst head, which attaches to the front of a video projector, operates like a periscope, with one mirror directing the light path at 90 degrees from the lens axis, passing through a tube, and against another mirror to direct it another direction (or even rotated in a circle, for example), effectively allowing video projection in the manner of a moving light. The system normally is used with an Apple G4-based server, provided by High End, which digitally compensates for rotation of the image as the head turns, to keep the image upright, if desired.

“We needed a device that could just swing the video from side to side, if needed, in case any wind caused the objects to sway,” says Hawker. “We eventually decided against using the Catalyst server, because people didn't think it added very much, and because the heads are designed as the video equivalent of a moving light, they could be controlled by DMX (using) a Whole Hog desk.”

Because Catalyst servers weren't used for playback, however, Stage One technicians created a device called an Interceptor, which, essentially, created DMX commands to send to the heads. Any movement required was simply controlled using a trackball device.

Though they didn't end up being needed for wind compensation, the Catalyst heads, mounted on each of the eight projectors, did allow the projectors to be positioned flat, instead of standing on their side as initially planned, by rotating the image 90 degrees. In addition, the projector, which is fairly large, could be positioned perpendicular to the desired projection axis, saving limited space available on the balcony-like gantries used for projectors and lighting equipment in the stadium.

Other concerns that didn't turn out to be major issues included sag of the balconies under load, which may have caused the projectors to drop to a position lower than that set when the image was focused, and sag of the cable net system, depending on time of day and, therefore, the cable's temperature on hot, summer days.

“The conclusion was that the best way to set the projector positions was to record the positions that we ended up with during the dress rehearsals, and mark those as correct,” explains Hawker. “At that time of day, we were at the right time of evening (just after the sun had gone down, when the day's still pretty hot), and with a loaded stadium.”

For safety, the entire control and image system was double-redundant, with the exception of the projectors, for space reasons.

“We had a complete second set of Watchout PC computers, running in tandem, all switched through an Extron Electronics Cross Point 1616 HV router, which is a 15-pin D, 16×16 RGBHV matrix,” Hawker says. Small CCTV cameras were set at the projector positions, allowing the technical director to view what the projectors were showing, offering any correction, if needed, to projectionists seated at projector locations.

Video signals were distributed through a fiber optic network, provided by Optelecom Europe.

“If we had run 1800ft. of copper, we would have had a mess of interference at the projector end,” says Hawker. “There was also a 100MB Ethernet system, alongside the fiber, which was used for projector control. The projectors each had an IP address, and there was an application written by Barco that allowed us to monitor all of the critical temperatures and voltages, as well as do file loading to the projectors.”

Hawker credits the successful translation of the complex concept for the sequence into reality to both Stage One's and Creative Technology's skill and creativity, as well as the availability of well-crafted tools.

“You look at a problem, and you look around the industry and find the tools that you can adapt to put together something that looks a bit daft at first sight,” concludes Hawker.

Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer and regular SRO contributor who covers music, film, television, and the live-event industry for a wide range of publications.