June 2002

It's now four months after the closing ceremonies for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and the production team still speaks to each other as if we were all on an episode of Survivor. The usual post-production gripes of “not enough money, time, and space” paled in the face of snow, ice, sleet, and rain, and the largely Californian production team learned a new expression: “It's too cold to snow.”

This project began nearly three years ago, when Don Mischer Productions was awarded the contract to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Games by the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee (SLOC). Mischer assembled a production team of experienced and enthusiastic people, all of whom were acutely aware that this project was more than a job. It was this attitude by production, union crews, volunteers, vendors, and performers that made these events not only possible but also successful.

The contact binder was 2" thick and the hundreds of names of individuals, companies, and committees required an index from animal wrangler to Zamboni operator. Each listing was a key component in creativity and supply. The core creative staff reads like a who's who of television and live event production: Don Mischer the producer; Kenny Ortega, the director; Sarah Kawahara, the ice choreographer; Peter Minshall, the creative consultant; Steve Boyd, a designer who had worked with Don Mischer on the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta (and our expert on the history of the Olympics); Michael Curry, the puppet designer; Pete Menefee, the costume designer; Bob Dickinson, the lighting designer; myself, Jeremy Railton, production designer; and Richard Schreiber, principal art director.

Photo courtesy Entertainment Design Corp.

This group, among other consultants, started meeting in 1999 to construct the creative aspects of the opening and closing ceremonies. We did this in adherence to distinct guidelines outlined by the Olympic Committee. It was decided early on that the most exciting way to present the ceremonies of the winter games would be on ice, so Willy Bietack was hired as the ice consultant.

February 2001

On February 8, a year to the day prior to the opening ceremonies, we conducted tests in the Rice Eccles Stadium, the University of Utah's football stadium in Salt Lake City. Forty sq. ft. of ice were laid onto the field. Projection, fiber optics, paint, pyrotechnics, and lights were tested on a freezing night with light snow falling. Apart from the fact a 40' × 40' square of ice looked like a pocket handkerchief laid out on this massive field, the tests went well and inspired us to move forward with most of the plans.

I had called Technifex and asked Rock Hall if he would come onboard as technical and effects support. We were already discussing the use of fiber optics, ice cars, ice bridges, and fog machines, and Technifex had the technology not only to design the systems, but also to produce a tough, all-weather product.

Scott Givens, the managing director, creative group, had been engaged earlier by the SLOC to be responsible for the look of the games. The Medals Plaza, all the Olympic venues, and the appearance of the stadium itself fell under his watchful eye. Christa Bartels and John Sadler were engaged to build and design the props and costume structures. As the months passed, their scope grew to encompass organizing the volunteers, running rehearsal schedules, and supervising the show flow backstage. By the time Wet Designs was awarded the contract by the SLOC to design the cauldron, the design team was in place.

August 2001

Richard Schreiber had completed the drafting of the stadium, Bob Dickinson had finished the lighting plot, and Pete Menefee had designed most of the costumes. Beautiful costume sketches for the opening number, “The Fire Within,” began arriving from Peter Minsall in Trinidad. Peter is well known for his brilliantly conceived and constructed works on huge carnival structures, and now three Olympic ceremonies.

As a production designer, I am always asked about the challenges of the design process, the inspirations and the intent. I am usually at a loss, as the initial stages for me are intuition, experience, emotions and the ability to be able to thrust myself forward to the moments of performance in a sort of 3D mind's-eye CGI. That is the easy part. The difficult part is the manifestation. It all begins with a dream that turns into a script, which then evolves into a sketch, which then transforms into a plan; that becomes a reality to support the performers, providing them with the ultimate place to shine.

November 2001

The producers and their production staff moved to Salt Lake City, followed closely by EDC's Richard Schreiber, for the initial laying of the ice and installation of the stage.

The field at Rice Eccles Stadium was leveled, and the trenches for power, glycol, and liquid nitrogen were cut into the field. Asphalt was laid over the entire area. An early 2" of snow fell before Thanksgiving, giving everyone a taste of things to come — shoveling snow before you can get to work. The ice borders were laid and filled with sand, the glycol pipes were laid in the sand and frozen. Next, the fiber-optic cables were laid in and frozen with water. After that, the ice was painted with opaque paint as a base for the final ice coating.

December 2001

The stages and the ice surround arrived. The surround (arriving from Los Angeles in 20 semi trailers) was built by Global Entertainment Industries and supervised by Global's owner, Chris Hyde. The staging was engineered to accommodate lighting, fog and pyrotechnics, housed within. It was engineered by Global in such a way that the installation could be completed in five days. Measuring 30,000 sq. ft., we think this is one of the largest continuous stages ever built (any challengers?).

The bleachers and main stage for the athletes, orchestra, and choir were installed by SGA Production Staging with many engineering iterations. The challenge was to accommodate enough room for an as-yet-undisclosed number of athletes, to support the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and to provide enough elbow room for the Utah Symphony Orchestra, while also allowing the maximum amount of circulation space beneath and enough room to store band risers and props during the show. All engineering was created to withstand 70mph winds.

By the time I moved to Salt Lake City on December 14, the stadium was ready for rehearsals, both on ice and land. It was snowing regularly by this time, so snow shoveling in the morning replaced the Stairmaster. Rehearsals for 1,000 children, 500 skaters, and 800 dancers were the order of the day. Field work, ice making, and continued installation of the set was done in the mornings. Since most of the ensemble was still in school, rehearsals started after school and went on into the night. The California crew quickly learned of the value of hand and foot warmers.

Near the end of December, the beautiful ice puppets (buffalo, deer, elk, rattlesnakes, and all other animals appearing in “The Land of Enchantment”) arrived. Designed by Michael Curry, the puppets were built and tested in his studio located in St. Helens, OR. Also, the last of Peter's costumes for “The Fire Within” — wind, trees, ice shards, and ice warriors — arrived from Trinidad.

By Christmas, we were working sometimes 20-hour days, seven days a week, and had learned four important lessons: paint does not dry under 30°, linoleum snaps at freezing point, anything dark left on the ice absorbs the heat and melts the ice, creating potholes, and screw heads in plywood make little studs of ice. Through it all, Rosemary Schreiber, Richard's wife, who was in charge of production catering, was making 130 gallons of hot chocolate per day.

January 2002

The arrival of the new also brought the arrival of the cauldron, built by a Utah-based company, Arrow Development, with a special heat-resistant glass made by Technical Glass Products of Seattle. It arrived in three pieces, and the 75'-tall tower took five days to erect and test. Not only did it have a propane fire system, but because the cauldron itself was made of glass, it needed a water cooling system and a means of keeping the glass clear so audiences could witness the “fire within.”

There were also unanticipated challenges. The moment the cauldron was up, pigeons landed on it, thinking it a fine vantage point. Of all the pressures Wet Design's Jim Dole had to face, this one was not anticipated. He hurriedly devised a screen to stop the bird droppings from polluting the water system, a problem we all noted would not exist after the cauldron was lit. Roasted squab, anyone?

Kish Rigging arrived to hang and mount the scaffold for lighting in mid-January. Ed Kish had been a consultant from the very beginning and had been through many exercises in trying to devise flying systems and overhead cables to support lighting instruments over the field. The riggers ringed the outside perimeter of the stadium with trusses.

Bob Dickinson arrived with his team headed by Dan Reed. The predominantly Vari*Lite rig included Vari*Lite® VL2416 wash luminaires, 238 VL5Arc lights, VL5 wash luminaires, and 54 VL6, 52 VL6C, and 126 VL7 spot luminaires. There were two Virtuoso consoles, one run by Laura Frank to concentrate on the VL2416s, and the other run by Christian Hibbard, to cover the rest. Additional equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase and Xenotech.

Each light was then covered with a plastic bag for weather protection until it was used. The problems of theatrically lighting a stadium are as big as the stadium itself. Every vantage point must be utilized without blocking sightlines. It is theatre in the round, and key lights are 300' away. [For more on Dickinson's lighting, see the May issue of Lighting Dimensions.]

Audio also loaded in about this time; the stacks were placed in their pre-appointed positions and the final audio mix by studio audio designer Patrick Baltzell could only be done when an audience filled the seats for the first time, four days before showtime.

Meanwhile, the moveable fire drum platforms for the five Native American tribes had arrived. Constructed by Technifex, they lived up to all of our expectations. A limit switch had to be installed to keep the speed down on the circular all-terrain vehicles that housed batteries and pyrotechnics — not to mention the poor cold driver, who had 180° visibility through aluminum bars and gray Textaline. These platforms were able to carry, with ease, a circle of Native American drummers; they worked so well that we repurposed them for the closing ceremonies.

The two bridges that the athletes used to cross the ice and make their way around the ice to their seats were huge and heavy, and proved to be troublesome. The north stage bridge was retrofitted by Technifex, which had a huge task. A change in the temperature altered the ice level. Along with this hindrance, the wheels were not riding on the ice; we think the frame was bent by its own weight as it was forklifted from the truck.

Rehearsals had started to become the focus of everyone's attention, and the technical staff took a back seat vying for the ice and crew time. The days seemed too long, yet not long enough. Still, a work rhythm had been established, and the arrival of the stage managers helped all of the departments. During this period, I was able to start designing the scenic elements for closing ceremonies. I hung at Kenny Ortega's side, doing sketches and renderings as each performer was signed or each act was put in place.

A late addition to the opening ceremonies was a huge 120' circular quilt made of Poly Sheer. George & Goldberg, a well-known Southland scenic shop that had already delivered the trains for the hoedown, took on the task of such last-minute additions.

Sketch courtesy Entertainment Design Corp.

Steve Boyd had designed the lantern of “The Fire Within” and supervised its production. Now, his hands were full designing the placards and card stunts, assembling and editing the program, and kindly doing any other design production jobs, from logos to laminates for anyone (including myself) who could use his talents. In week or two, his life would revolve around seating charts, counting and numbering all the seats, as well as designing, packaging, and organizing the audience kit bags. He personally supervised 700 volunteers and the placement of every bag, which took five weeks to fulfill. One wrong package or one misplaced kit would ruin the card stunt.

The prop department was flying. Somehow, everything had landed in their court. In the course of a day, Christa and John were responsible for rehearsal preparation, running all the props and scenery, repairing any damages and designing/creating new props as fresh ideas evolved (Richard Schreiber and I never made a final decision on materials until we had consulted either Christa or John). They organized all of the prop volunteers who painted, carried, pushed, packed, and manipulated. For example, it took 100 people to operate the trains, and 11 people just to man the buffalo. Their volunteers were easily in the hundreds every day.

Every department I turned to was strong, creative, hardworking, and positive. I was in heaven. Don Mischer's choices for his team were perfect. There were no weak links.

As January 2002 came to a close, 30 cameras arrived (covered in plastic) and a pop-up camera was placed in the deck for the Olympic flag. Ron de Moreas was to be the director of the world feed. He would call every shot, both of narrative and spectacle, which would translate the ceremony, drama, and experience to the rest of the world. Only 60,000 people would see it live.

February 2002

All the conversations overheard among the staff revolved around numbers. A cast of 5,000…crews of volunteers of 3,000…10,000 sandwiches…20 pages of revisions…hundreds of thousands of dollars…10,000 lights…20,000 costumes… ⅔ of the planet…EIGHT DAYS LEFT!

The stage was starting to look shabby after two months of use. Steel wagon wheels, ice skates, cloggers, snow shovels, and horse and oxen urine and manure made it very clear that the stage had to be painted. We were going through freezing nights of 2° and days of 10°.

Paint froze and never dried. We found an epoxy-based paint that needed chemistry to harden, rather than heat. At ten o'clock one Saturday night, Richard Schreiber and I found ourselves with a team of 20 volunteers spreading paint that had the consistency of grease. All the volunteers were tireless and amazing, a credit to the Salt Lake City community.

Photo courtesy Entertainment Design Corp.

The eight days before the show were devoted to run-throughs and put-togethers. Land performers, ice performers, pyrotechnics props and costumes, cannon shots, wagon trains, the choir, and the orchestra were all assembled. Lighting could only be programmed at night after they had seen the run-throughs. They would work all night until the show day. Each night would develop more color separation, definition, and subtlety of hue, and, of course, new light cues.

The rush was on. People would show up with bandaged ankles and crutches — wrists and arms bandaged in slings as a result of injuries from falling on the ice. I was rushing around, not paying close attention and cut my head on a camera arm. The stage had officially been anointed by blood, sweat, and tears.

Security had become very tight. Even the sandwich truck that brought 3,000 sandwiches for every meal had a federal marshal escort. No one was particularly sad when a certain product that comes in a Mylar package was banned because the scanners couldn't read the contents.

At a dress rehearsal, the wind picked up and as the buffalo left the ice, a strong gust took the buffalo's head and twisted the steel support. The 15'-tall masterpiece slowly fell forward, looking exactly like a dying buffalo. Luckily, the prop department had it repaired and working perfectly in one day (and night).

Photo courtesy Entertainment Design Corp.

Balloons provided by Zimmer Industries Zero G were to be one of the secret surprise elements for the opening ceremonies. Helium inflated five 25'-tall giants that could lift a man into the air for as high as the tether would allow. The balloons were to rise and daredevil athletes, representing winter sports, would perform a surprise drop from a specially constructed gondola. The balloons were extremely wind-sensitive and required many late-night rehearsals. Three nights before opening, a wind storm dashed the balloons against a chain-link fence, severely damaging three of them. They would have to be repaired and, somehow, worked into the closing ceremonies.

Finally, on February 8, the opening ceremonies officially heralded the 2002 Winter Games. The show was a success, the weather held, and there were no disasters. My favorite moment was a unique camera shot that had been prepared by NBC. It was the view of earth from space, which moved in one continuous shot to the ice in the stadium, pinpointing one particular event on the planet that was a clear example of what humans can do when brought together in the spirit of creativity, stamina, and love.

But our work was only half done. The next day we were all back at work for the closing ceremonies. Rehearsals, pre-records, new props, new costumes, and the new costume designer, David Cardona, who was designing in Los Angeles, and being fed sizes, numbers, and concepts via phone and fax.

The balloons returned, fully repaired. The weather had cleared and we were able to repaint the stage with the original textured paint. The drum platforms were pushed into the parking lot to be redressed for the American musical number, each one representing a specific genre of music. These scenic elements were constructed by Technifex and skinned with a new holographic technique developed by Trevor Goss of Light Emitting Designs. I found myself sweating in the sunlight, attaching resin icicles to the handrails. The irony never escaped me.

We tested the blacklight paint and ordered 100 gallons to be thrown, sprayed, and poured on the ice for the finale. As the athletes were to be invited onto the field, their safety was important. At first, we were going to throw walnut shells, which are usually sold as a texture in paint to provide a non-slip surface, but the ice makers told us that the shells would stain the ice. As the ice had to last for the Para Olympics in March, we took no chances. Silicone sand was tested and laid out by hand during the show, just before the athletes walked on the ice.

The two dinosaur heads arrived from Curry Designs. These must be the biggest puppets ever made, weighing in at only 120lbs, 18' long, made of cast neoprene. They fit over the cab of a man lift. The puppeteers were inside the head as the machine operator, Michael Curry, once again proved himself a master designer by delivering a beautiful and practical product.

The Michael Curry-designed dinosaur puppets.

Before we knew it, it was February 24. The closing ceremonies went off without a hitch, our work was done, and it was still very, very cold. We all wanted to see the green grass of spring.

June 2002

I have two enduring memories of this experience. My worst memory was the first night we saw the stage on camera with partially focused light. Every shot of the stage revealed a dirty, untidy pattern of plywood joints. The stage had just been painted, so that was not the problem. During the day, everything looked fine. The next night we discovered the problem: the steel support underneath the wood was acting as a speedy conductor. It would freeze before the plywood and highlight the joints with a 2"-wide band of ice as the stage warmed up. The steel would warm up faster, creating a band of water on a frosted deck. The solution was to stop the deck from ever freezing by applying a saline solution. This acted as a wet down and eventually improved the look of the stage by reflecting all the edge lights, adding a magical look we had never planned.

One of my favorite memories came from that Saturday night before the opening ceremony, when we repainted the stage. Half of the volunteers were women and the whole crew was painting with the efficiency of scenic artist professionals. As I was painting, I turned toward an attractive 35-year-old and jokingly asked her if she had a life. She was married with three kids, aged three to 14, she had a job as a medical assistant, and just wanted the experience of participating in the Winter Games. At that point, all thoughts and gripes about grand production designers painting stage floors on Sunday morning in 5° weather went flying from my head. The job was finally completed at 2am, and the volunteers asked if they could do anything else.

Information regarding this article can be reached by contacting Entertainment Design Corporation at (310) 578-7470 or jocelynr@entdesign.com

2002 Winter Games Production Team

Don Mischer: donmischer@aol.com
Kenny Ortega: Ortega@aol.com
Sarah Kawahara: kawas8@cs.com
Steve Boyd: Boyda4e@earthlink.net
Michael Curry: michael@michaelcurrydesign.com
Bob Dickinson: fullfloods@aol.com
Richard Schreiber: Richards@entdesign.com
Willie Bietak: wbietak@att.net
Rock Hall: rock@technifex.com
Christa Bartels and John Sadler: giraffe2u@aol.com
Wet Designs: wetd@wetdesign.com
Ed Kish: kishrig@aol.com
Dan Reed: danreed@earthlink.net
Zimmer Industries Zero G: akapi@msn.com