Certain protocols must be observed at any Olympics ceremony. Processions by an international elite of athletes, speeches by dignitaries, the lighting of the torch during the opening ceremony, and its extinguishing during the closing festivities are all part of the established program. What differs is how the host country chooses to portray itself during the segments that celebrate its art, history, and culture. For this February's competition, Italy, hosting the 20th Winter Olympics (and the country's first since 1956), chose to put forward the image of a three-ring circus…or, as the two billion estimated TV viewers of the February 10 and 26 ceremonies witnessed, a five-ring circus, with the Olympics symbols themselves at the center of the spectacle in Torino.

March brings the SIB International trade show in Rimini, and some of the Olympics elements suggested an SIB gone global (the bawdier side was, needless to say, cut). Reflecting Italian style, the performers at the Stadio Olimpico were an eclectic bunch, ranging from Luciano Pavarotti delivering his signature “Nessun Dorma” (from Puccini's opera, Turandot) at the opening, to Ricky Martin and his pop gyrations for the closing. Sophia Loren, Yoko Ono, and a bevy of supermodels put in cameos. Disco music was the offbeat accompaniment to the opening “Parade of Nations” as athletes from 80 countries marched into the stadium. The “show floor,” as it were, hosted novel and unusual sights, like the “Sparks of Passion,” the flame-draped in-skaters representing rhythm, passion, and speed, and the choreographed formation of a dove of peace, two motifs carried from the opening to the closing ceremonies. When an arsenal of moving lights, including a substantial number of locally produced Coemar units, exploded into action, the effect was not unlike the barrage of illumination at the exposition center — and quite fittingly so, as the closing ceremonies took as its theme costumes and revelry suggested by the 1972 film The Clowns, directed by Rimini's favorite son, Federico Fellini.

Athens, home of the Summer 2004 games, had scant homegrown entertainment technology and largely imported the talent and their tools. With large supplies of expertise and equipment readily available, the challenge for Italy was shaping its natural resources into an attractive Alpine showcase, one that could withstand winter weather in the outdoor venue. Richard Hartman, technical production consultant for the Athens and Barcelona (1992) summer games, made his winter debut at Torino. “The winter Olympics ceremonies tend to be smaller in scale,” he notes. “The Stadio Olimpico holds a crowd of 35,000; a summer venue like Athens can fit 80,000. And the budget is smaller, too, though it's hard to see that on television, as the bar always gets raised on what can be achieved.”

The Torino Organizing Committee for the XX Winter Games (TOROC) was the non-profit foundation, formed in late 1999, that organized the competitions and the ceremonies. The search was on for a production company that could set a new standard in Olympics ceremonial excellence. Production designer Mark Fisher was part of the winning bid, submitted by the K2006/FilmMaster Group, an entity with ties to local television, advertising, fashion, and multimedia. “There are a large number of international firms who always appear in these bids, like the Jack Morton Company, ECA2, and Don Mischer Productions,” Fisher says. “But none of them are Italian, and what the judging committee was looking for was something genuinely Italian. There were only three non-Italians in the bid — me and lighting designer Durham Marenghi, from England, and Ric Birch (the associate producer and coordinating director), from Australia.” The imported talent worked closely with the FilmMaster Group's executive producer and creative director, Marco Balich, and artistic director Lida Castelli, who in turn, received input from TOROC's image and events director, Andrea Varnier.

A total of 240 production personnel brought the underlying theme, “Passion Lives Here,” to life in Torino. Key design contributions were made by costumer Gabriella Pescucci, an Oscar winner for The Age of Innocence (and a 2005 nominee for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); special effects designer Vittorio Comi, who developed the fire-emitting propulsion system that set the “Sparks of Passion” alight; son et lumiere producer Studio Festi, which hatched the opening's “Birth of Venus” segment, recreating the Botticelli painting onstage; and, from France, Groupe F, which advised on some of the flame effects and supplied the spectacular fireworks displays for both ceremonies. “I am the parasite of Mark Fisher,” laughs Groupe F's artistic director Christophe Berthonneau of his frequent collaboration on stadium productions with the designer. “It's very easy to add fireworks to something he's designed.”

For Fisher, the opening and closing ceremonies were just part of a “rather savage February” that saw the Mark Fisher Studio bringing the ongoing Rolling Stones tour to Super Bowl XL in Detroit, handling the Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and overseeing the Brit Awards in London, in addition to consulting with clients in Las Vegas and meeting with UK pop star Robbie Williams. Work on the Olympics began in earnest two years ago, when it was decided that the Olympic rings themselves should act as a staging surface, providing the opening ceremony with one of its most memorable moments.

“My role in it was maintaining a stadium scale and adding the big rock-n-roll statements, the ones that, when people who know me saw them, said, ‘Those must be your bits,’” he laughs. (With so many inimitable designs under his belt, Fisher has become the Frank Gehry of concert touring architecture.) “The rings could simply have been illuminated, which would have been banal. The trick was to use them as an acrobatic surface first, then turn them into the rings as we know them.”

Getting the 40'-long rings, the largest ever constructed for an Olympics ceremony, up and running was a task that fell to Hartman. The material suppliers he wrangled first put together a 10'-high sample ring last May, as the performance concept came together. The actual units were built last summer, “as they had to go into rehearsal in late September. As they were being built, no one knew what was going to be done with them, so we figured we might have to redo or elaborate upon the design once we knew what the choreography would ask of them.” Stage One, StageCo., and In the Whirl all contributed to the rings, which were custom-fabricated by Brilliant Stages and Tomcat UK.

The acrobats performed on three of the rings, which were suspended on lattice columns on the opposite side of the stadium's stage. (The winches were repurposed from the Athens games.) When the performers finished their graceful routine, the two remaining rings were erected, and all five were flipped in mid-air, revealing the traditional Olympic rings. The rings were then bathed in the protocol Olympic colors (with white light substituted for black in the center ring) and the structure set off with fireworks.

Groupe F modeled its pyrotechnics in CAD, but the show lighting ran into an unexpected snag at Torino. “We had bad weather,” Fisher says. “Everyone had said that it didn't snow in Torino in the winter, but we had a blizzard 13 days before the opening ceremony, which knocked out an entire weekend. You need the volunteers — all 6,100 of them in Torino — there for rehearsals, but their time is limited to weekends, and that weekend would have been the first time for Durham and the volunteers to see the lighting in action. With that weekend cancelled, the whole next week, which was scheduled for lighting programming, was completely wasted. The lighting team had not seen where anyone was going to be and had no idea what to light. The first semi-dress rehearsal that was held was a complete train wreck; nobody knew if the lights were in the wrong place or not. It was a bit of a mess. Afterward, the lighting team had five days to plot everything out.”

But Marenghi and the staff at his lighting firm, Lumitect, were ready for whatever conditions the stadium imposed. “Weather protection was considered from the start,” he says, with the luminaires concealed in domes to protect against snow, rain, and ice, as the lighting system ran through its paces 12 to 20 hours a day for more than a month. “Technical troughs were created at the perimeter of the performance/parade area and positioned about 1.5m off the ground to place light near the performers as it could be very foggy in the stadium, thick enough to halt football games in the past.”

Fortunately for all concerned, both ceremonies unfolded under the clear night skies promised. But the sequences that unfolded on the 4,000m-square staging area were somewhat afflicted by the snowfall. “The worst thing is that the staging all had to be outside for such a long time,” says Fisher, who last worked in the freshly refurbished, 30s-era stadium in 1981, when it hosted the Stones. “We built the stage in November, and it was up until the Paralympics in March. But to be fair, I have to say the snow itself wasn't the problem; it was the cavalier action of the men shoveling it. There was a man with one of those mini-Bobcat snow removal machines who managed to do the most astonishing amount of damage to the stage. It was like something out of the Flintstones, just completely mad,” he laughs. “But we just went around saying, ‘Only in Italy could it be like this.’ Such a contrast to America — my studio had done the Super Bowl with the Stones the previous Sunday, and you couldn't find two more differing styles of production management. In America, you have long meetings where every conceivable form of failure and disaster is discussed, and every possible contingency plan is made. In Italy, people were walking around in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts saying, ‘Well, what's all this? It's snowing…maybe it would be a good idea to get shovels? It's not meant to be snowing.’ It was really sort of comic, but it all turned out right.”

Marenghi's main task was keeping the illumination consistent and coherent. “For the opening ceremony, I tried to keep most scenes based around no more than two colors for clarity of the filming of the event. The multiple cameras cut between different shots, and sometimes too many different looks at any one time can confuse the viewer into not knowing where he or she is. Using just one or two colors also gave the whole event some chromatic geography as we moved along our timeline.”

The LD worked in tandem with Fisher and Berthonneau “intimately from the design's inception,” he says. “We were unsure about the roof loading, as no one would tell us what it would be when built, so we established six major lighting tower positions for the main rig. These were internally lit as part of the architecture of Mark's design. And, as with the lighting of the London Eye for a New Year's Eve program, I worked closely with Christophe with regard to color, light levels, and effects for his sequences.”

Marenghi used a variety of luminaires to accent the program, mostly supplied by Agora as the main contractor. The workhorse units, from Italy's Coemar, were iSpot eXtremes, ProWash 250 LXs, and iWash 575 EBs. Robe ColorWash 1200 ATs, all from UK-based Robe Show Lighting, were placed in the technical troughs, the StageCo.-built stage roof (on four overhead trusses), and on a truss that downlit the ring structure. Forestage performers were lit with Martin MAC 2000 washes. Space Cannon searchlights, including the new Helyos units, completed the look. The ceremonies were programmed on four Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3s from High End Systems.

For all the glamour, many of the effects were simply achieved. The reveal of the dove of peace, enacted by 28 acrobats on a net erected on the main stage for the opening, was achieved with input from Fisher and Hartman, who have worked together since Pink Floyd shows in the mid-70s. “The dove was a bit of a struggle in the early days, to get everyone to believe that something so simple could be possible, but they made a very strong performance out of it,” Fisher says. “We said, ‘If this is what you're thinking about doing, get yourself a high space, a net, and some rigging, and try it out. Yes, it'll cost a lot of money, but it'll cost a lot less than not knowing how to do it when it's time to do it for real. Everyone groaned and then warmed up to it. Hartman, the key American on the team, rigged it. Each performer was on a counterweight on a rope with a steel weight that was just slightly lighter than them. If they climbed up the net, then jumped off, they went down very slowly and free-fell with the counterweights coming up offstage.” Likewise, the giant curtain (100' wide and 60' tall, with outside panels that were 20' wide) that opened to applause for Pavarotti's stage performance, which ended the opening ceremony, was retrofitted from an existing Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon touring curtain by UK-based Landrell Fabric Engineering.

The “Carnevale” theme of the closing ceremony, based on Fellini (and incorporating six of his film's original costumes) and Italy's winter carnival festivities, was directed by circus and Cirque du Soleil veteran Daniele Finzi Pasca. “There was lots more color there,” says Marenghi. “I hate the blue and white shows that LDs are often backed into by a creative direction team that doesn't want to take risks. I say, if you keep an eye on contrast ratios and color palettes for TV, you can do anything. You just have to exhibit a bit of taste.” The aerial ballet this time was facilitated by a wind machine, custom built by Aerodium Latvia, that blew the performers into the air.

The closing ceremony also marked the first use of video projection, when stage surface “ice,” provided by 16 high-power Barco units focused on a small portion of the stage area, was “cracked” by the performers in the Vancouver handover segment. Given how prevalent video is in high-end stadium shows, its absence from the ceremonies was noteworthy but fully in keeping with Olympic spirit. “We were, as a creative team, determined to do a show that didn't rely on video,” Fisher says. “It's a strong point to make that originated from our need to work within a tight budget. It would have taken a large chunk of it to have done more video. It was important that the show be about people, Italians doing what they do. It was all about people performing, so we felt video wouldn't add anything. It's such a cliché that people use video in shows.”

Asked for final thoughts on the experience, the designers couldn't really provide any, as this article was filed before the opening of the Paralympics, held March 10 at the Stadio Olimpico, which they were all involved in as well. (The Paralympics are held following the Olympics in the host country.) “It's like the third act of a three-act play,” says Hartman. Nonetheless, the feeling was that the show had gone over well up to its second intermission, thanks to the camaraderie of all involved. Says Marenghi, “It's fantastic to be involved in Olympic history, but any design is only as good as the crew that realizes it.”

New York-based entertainment writer Robert Cashill has entered the blogosphere at Between Productions (www.robertcashill.blogspot.com).

WINTER OLYMPICS CEREMONIES

Production/Design Team

Show Producer

K2006/FilmMaster Group

Executive Producer/Creative Director

Marco Balich

Associate Producer/Coordinating Director

Ric Birch

Toroc Image & Events Director

Andrea Varnier

Artistic Director

Lida Castelli

Production Designer

Mark Fisher

Technical Production Consultant

Richard Hartman

Lighting Designer

Durham Marenghi

Pyrotechnics Designer

Christophe Berthonneau, Groupe F

Costume Designer

Gabriella Pescucci

Special Effects

Vittorio Comi

Lighting Crew

Head Programmer:

Ross Williams

Programmers:

Mark Payne
Pryderi Baskerville
Emiliano Morgia

Programming Support:

Chris Ferrante
Jason Potterf
Frank Schotman

HDTV Consultant:

Christopher C. Bretnall

Lighting Coordinator:

Eneas Mackintosh

Production Managers:

Nick Jones
Dave Bartlett
Nicola Manuel Tallino

Spot Coordinator:

Gianluca Nuccio

PA:

Jennifer Marenghi

Lighting Suppliers

Agora Lighting and Sound, Robe Italia, Space Cannon

Staging Suppliers

Olympic Rings

StageCo., Stage One, Brilliant Stages, In the Whirl, Tomcat UK

Stage Roof: StageCo.

Curtain Fabrication

Landrell Fabric Engineering

LED Screen Manufacturer

Barco

PA Sound/LED Screens Supplier

Panasonic

Lighting Equipment

8 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3 (4 as backup)
348 Coemar iWash 575 EB with Rain Hood
124 Coemar iSpot eXtreme with Rain Hood
50 Coemar ProWash 250 LX
360 Space Cannon Luxor 1.2m RGB LED Strip, 6° Lens
298 Space Cannon Helyos RGB+A LED Luminaire, Clear Lens
284 Space Cannon Helyos RGB+A LED Luminaire with 12-row Lenticular Lens
36 Space Cannon Ireos Pro 8kW Xenon Searchlight
2 Space Cannon 3kW Multi-Beam
122 Robe ColorWash 1200E AT (Wide Angle Lens) with Rain Dome
110 Robe ColorWash 1200E AT with Rain Hood
130 Martin MAC 2000 Wash with RainMAC
8 Lycian 4kW Followspot
12 Lycian 2.5kW Followspot
46 Mole-Richardson 4-lamp Molefay PAR36 DWE with Barndoor
4 Mole-Richardson 8-lamp Molefay PAR36 DWE with Barndoor
16 Mole-Richardson 8-lamp Molefay PAR36 DWE with Gel Extender
6 Mole-Richardson 8-lamp Molefay PAR36 DWE with Barndoor & Floor Stand
24 2kW Fresnel with Barndoor
258 PAR64 1kW MFL
18 PAR64 1kW NSP
40m Blue LED Neon Tube
40m Red LED Neon Tube
40m Green LED Neon Tube
40m White LED Neon Tube
40m Yellow LED Neon Tube