Five thousand years of Chinese history and culture culminated on Friday, August 8, 2008 at the opening ceremony for the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing. It's as if all those crouching tigers and hidden dragons were waiting in the wings to pounce with force and ferocity as soon as they knew the entire world was watching. And watch they did, with 91,000 spectators in the Bird's Nest — China's new national sports stadium — and perhaps a billion more watching on television worldwide. All eyes were on more than 15,000 performers (including 9,000 military) who executed their tasks with such precision that it was mind-boggling to imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create and rehearse this visually exceptional event.

Massive fireworks punctuated the performance, with a reminder that the Chinese invented gunpowder. Okay, so some of the fireworks were prerecorded or CGI-rendered for television (reportedly including the giant pyrotechnic footprints that traveled along the central axis of Beijing from Tiananmen Square and exploded over the Bird's Nest, showering sparks into the stadium to ignite the LED display of Olympic rings) in case of bad weather or potentially dangerous conditions. However, with award-winning Chinese film director Zhang Yimou at the helm of a primarily Chinese production/design team, why not make the broadcast version as virtually perfect as possible?

The hour-long performance segment of the four-hour total opening ceremony was divided into sections to celebrate Chinese accomplishments throughout the centuries, from calligraphy, ritual music, and opera, to The Silk Route, The Great Wall, and martial arts with an extraordinary display of Tai Chi. Dancers, drummers, acrobats, marionettes, and children; temples, traditional silk costumes, and embroidered robes — the wealth of China laid forth for the world to see — were accompanied by a massive LED screen on the ground, automated scenery including a giant globe on a telescoping mast, a huge lighting and video rig, hundreds of performers in fluorescent suits illuminated with self-controlled LEDs, 15,000 costumes, and stage lifts capable of carrying a total load of 595 tons.

Setting The Scene

In 2005, British architect/event designer Mark Fisher was part of a Chinese team submitting a proposal to produce the opening ceremony. To make a long story short, none of the proposals were accepted. At one point, three Western wise men were brought in to consult: Steven Spielberg, Yves Pepin, and Rick Birch, the latter two having worked on prior Olympics ceremonies. Segue to 2006, when film director Zhang Yimou was finally hired to be producer and artistic director for the ceremony, assisted by two deputy artistic directors, Zhang Jigang and Chen Weiya. They invited Fisher to work with them on the design of the ceremony.

“From the start of the project, Yimou had a clear vision of the sort of show he wanted to create — a poetic show that used wit and intelligence to challenge the scale of the stadium, a modern show that exploited current multimedia techniques, a mass choreography show that delivered intimacy and emotion,” says Fisher. By May 2007, the creative team had reshaped the show into two parts. The first half, “Splendid Civilization” would present 5,000 years of Chinese culture. The second half, “Extraordinary Times,” would summarize the achievements of the present and look to the future.

“Yimou wanted to find a single theme that could form a unifying thread throughout the show,” Fisher continues. “He chose paper, because it not only holds an important position in the development of Chinese art, but it also became — from the time of its invention in China in 100AD up until the 20th century — the primary means of global communication.” The result was a huge sheet of “paper,” made of a polyester resin honeycomb sandwich measuring 36'-wide by 65'-long that would be used as both a painting ground and a sculptural element.

“It would be painted on, danced on, and projected on, and it would fly like a bird, sail like a ship, and float like a magic carpet above the desert,” explains Fisher. Beneath the paper, Yimou proposed that the entire infield of the stadium floor be a giant LED screen that was eventually created by China's own GLUX and measured 590' long by 85' wide and ran north/south on the long axis of the stadium. The LEDs were covered by molded acrylic tiles with a texture of 1“ squares grooved and raised to make them non-slip in the rain.

Going Global

The Olympic theme of “One World, One Dream” translated into a large globe, one of the kingpins of Fisher's designs. He chose the globe as a powerful symbol of the unity of mankind. It appeared toward the end of the performance segment, prior to the parade of athletes, rising from beneath the field, with acrobats flying on harnesses, as if weightless around the exterior, as an example of athletic prowess. Chinese singer Liu Huan and British singer Sarah Brightman stood at the globe's north pole for the Olympic theme song.

The globe was 60' in diameter with latitudinal rings on a steel frame covered by silicon-rubber strips that created an elastic webbing — the acrobats “vanished” through the strips at the end of their performance — that served as a projection surface. Projections included the Earth's continents and athletes, as the globe itself glowed in different colors, and performers on the ground had umbrellas that created a sea of human faces. The globe had also Plexiglas® panels imprinted with the same design as on the Olympic torch.

The globe was positioned on a steel telescoping mast that rose to a height of 80' from the lift area, an opening in the center of the field/LED floor measuring 118' by 85' wide. “There were two sliding lids that exposed the hole in the field,” says Fisher, noting that the lids moved along the north/south axis. Compressed, the globe and its mast rose through a circular hole in the lift that was removed by hand. The acrobats assumed their positions, and as the globe rose up toward the sky, it became fully spherical. “The base and lift came up to fill in the floor,” Fisher points out, noting that the sliding lids and lift deck were also covered with LED screen to create one blended surface. “The sphere and the mast weighed 18 tons.” A full-size prototype of the globe allowed the shape to be refined and gave the performers a site-specific rehearsal opportunity.

The lifts descended a little over 15' below the field to a loading position for people and scenery, including the 900 or so human-animated printing blocks that created a sensational effect during the show. To do the heavy lifting, 62 Serapid LinkLift-100 freestanding columns elevated the 11,625sq-ft. stage area, divided into ten platforms, with a lifting height up to 23'. All ten platforms together were capable of carrying a total load of 595 tons. Serapid reports that stability for the lifts was accomplished by a triple-scissor mechanism that ensured a minimal lateral drift up to only 5mm at the full height of 23'.

Brush Strokes

“Traditional Chinese brush paintings are mounted in silk scrolls that allow the separate sheets to be joined together into documents of great length,” says Fisher. “In parallel with the idea of the sheet of paper, Yimou developed the idea of a giant scroll on the floor of the stadium.”

The surface of the scroll was the LED screen with cylinders at each end, mounted on a carriage so they could roll back and forth to evoke the opening of a scroll. The cylinders — also made of GLUX LEDs with images pixel-mapped to look as if the LED screen/scroll was unrolling — came out of the lift and were set into their rails, then pulled along mechanically. The engineering design work was done by Beijing Special Equipment Design Institute, and Beijing Special High-Tech Stage Equipment & Engineering Co. Ltd did the technical construction work for the stage automation, rigging, globe, and LED floor.

A Vast Video Landscape

German video designer Andree Verleger worked on some of the video content for almost a year. “In the beginning, I had to develop an overall view of the storyline,” he says. “My task was to create ideas concerning the existing materials and to discuss them with Zhang Yimou, who simply said, ‘We have 2,008 drummers. Think of something.’ I seem to have the best ideas after I've had my morning shower, and this is precisely when an idea for the drum number hit me. Pictures were created out of tiny pixels that were primarily formed through quick information that turned lights on and off, composing a structure or shape. The idea was to create human pixels, one man as one pixel — a human pixel countdown — simple and, visually speaking, very effective.”

Verleger was also responsible for the construction of the projection frame for the Tai-Chi ring and the technical details concerning the position of projectors around the VIP ring in the Bird's Nest, where special positions were established and focal lengths considered due to the unique oval shape of the stadium. “Because of the positions, there was a distance of 50 to 60 meters between the projectors,” he notes. “The Tai-Chi ring on the field had a diameter of 73 meters. The production for the projection was a very special task, since all films were 7,000 to 26,000 pixels wide and all in HD. This created an upload time of 14 to 20 hours for one film sequence. The programmer for the media servers was Dennis Gardner. I had permanent contact with him to discuss upload time with the server. This was necessary since upload during rehearsals was impossible. We had to constantly establish a certain timeframe for the course of production, post production, and 3D production.” Content production companies included Congaz (Germany), Spinifex (Australia), and Crystal (China).

In what may have been the biggest AV event ever, the video rig boasted 147 Christie Digital projectors. A total of 84 Roadster S+ 20K projectors with High End Systems Orbital Head Systems were provided by Wincom Technology Development Company in China, while 63 CP2000-ZX digital cinema projectors were provided by Beijing Time Antaeus Media Tech. Co. The 63 CP2000s were triple-stacked, side-by-side with the images fired across the stadium for a total of 21 overlapping images.

“The Roadsters were divided into two groups. Fifty-four were hung above the second tier of seating and 30 in the ceiling area above center field,” says Gary Fuller, vice president for business products at Christie Digital. The CP2000s were used to illuminate the 45'-tall by 1,600'-long panel that runs permanently around the top of the stadium — a tensile structure made of steel and highly stretched Teflon-covered membrane — where torchbearer Li Ning did his now-famous flight to light the giant Olympic torch in the venue, following the parade of athletes from 204 nations, to conclude the ceremony.

“All images were warped and edge-blended by Christie's support team onsite,” Fuller notes, adding that the orbital heads on the Roadsters were intended to create effects throughout the stadium in places impossible to reach otherwise, as well as on the field and on the globe. Engineers from Christie worked closely with High End Systems to work out the challenges of such a large rig and created special software for the event including a program to tell all 147 projectors to dowse at the same time. “In terms of content,” says Fuller, “we knew we could deal with whatever they threw at us.”

A series of 110 High End Systems Axon media servers were networked using the network media synchronization in High End's current v1.4.0 software and controlled by three High End Systems Wholehog 3 consoles with 37 universes of DMX. “The system was installed by Leifull Light & Sound in China who are High End distributors,” says programmer Gardner, a freelancer based in London and Spain who started on the project last April with assistant Steve Kellaway. “I made some changes to the control side of the system, changing it to run on one Wholehog network instead of three, as originally planned. This meant that both Steve and I could program on the same part of the show at the same time on different sides of the stadium.”

Gardner cites a number of big challenges, including cultural differences and work habits. “Some of the set pieces we would only see for about an hour, like the globe, so work had to be very fast,” he says. “Sometimes, we would do a 40-projection lineup in one hour. And the torch sequence was only finished the night before, and we could not run it because of secrecy, so on the day of the ceremony, we were on edge until it happened.” Additional video content came from the Chinese production center and from HES footage.

Creative Technology Shanghai, a division of Creative Technology Group (CT), provided the HD content management and playback system for the massive 4,000sq-m. LED screen on the field, with six Pronto HD hard disk video player/recorders, manufactured by DVS of Germany, feeding the six main sections of the screen, with additional channels feeding the legacy screens within the stadium, as well as the video star field that covered the entire field of play. In all, 22 channels of HD playback were utilized.

Medialon Manager controlled the entire system and the interface for incoming audio timecode and lighting DMX that provided cues for various sections of the show. CT's system also employed multiple channels of Barco Encore to provide a source dimming facility, so the lighting department could dim the screen when required. This was done using DMX and Medialon to convert DMX to Barco protocol. A Vista Spyder 12×4 system provided a multi-source DVI preview. The entire system was fully redundant, with immediate switchover in the event of a component failure.

From The Lighting Bridge

Australian LD Paul Collison makes it clear he was not the lighting designer for the opening ceremony; that honor went to Chinese LD Sha Xiao Lan. Collison did, however, have a bird's eye view of the lighting, as he was brought in to work on the centralized control system for the large rig and handle the broadcast lighting for this hugely popular televised event. One of the challenges of his job was that the Chinese lighting crew basically didn't speak English, and he admits to not speaking Chinese. “You learn to read body language,” he says.

“Fortunately, the design of the Bird's Nest caters to rigging points in many locations,” Collison continues. “We had six rings of trusses with each ring holding somewhere between 16 to 24 trusses, between 12 to 14 meters long. Each ring catered to different areas of the performance space and audience. There were also lighting positions in the balconies with custom-built brackets that allowed a ring of fixtures to sit on their bases for audience, roof, and field positions.”

Other positions included areas inside “the pit” and spaces on the ground level. There were also 204 Chinese-made Pure Light City Color color-changing fixtures that lit the membrane of the Bird's Nest. One of the cool lighting effects was actually fairly simple, technically speaking: the Olympic rings that rose into the air were LEDs on black netting flown by the highly complex automation system in the ceiling of the Bird's Nest. These were added especially to its steel structure for the Olympics.

Luckily for the LDs, the Bird's Nest had a multitude of lighting positions, as the rig comprised more than 2,300 DMX-controlled fixtures, all controlled by three MA Lighting grandMA consoles (with three more as backup), two grandMA light consoles, and 46 MA NSPs.

“The Martin 2000 Wash fixtures are real workhorses for events like these,” says Collison, who notes that these fixtures were used primarily to light the audience and provide the bulk of the stage wash looks. “They were always doing something,” he adds. To achieve intimacy for some of the scenes, in spite of the grandiose setting, Vari-Lite VL3500 spots allowed for isolation of certain performers or areas on the field, such as the Chinese operatic puppets and solo singers.

For the broadcast lighting, Collison found that one of the challenges was the range of color temperatures in the automated luminaires, the LEDs, and HD projectors. “You have to carefully look at the screen, see what the camera picks up, and see what needs to happen in terms of contrast,” he says.

In the end, this was one of the largest-scale productions ever done for the Olympics opening ceremony, and the whole event was extremely well produced. “It was a remarkable, synchronized performance,” concludes Fisher, who remained in Beijing for the closing ceremony on August 24, which he also designed, along with the handover ceremony to London for the XXX Olympiad in 2012. “The event was strongly visual, yet they chose strong, simple themes that were easy to communicate to a vast international audience with broad strokes in a way that was not banal, but interesting and intelligent — as much as you can do in this kind of ceremony.”

See additional coverage of the Opening Ceremony show control:
Fully Redundant Medialon System Controlled The Olympic Opening Ceremony In Beijing

And additional coverage of Opening Ceremony the audio:
Gary Hardesty’s Massive Olympic Sound System

CREATIVE TEAM

Producer and Director: Zhang Yimou

Executive Artistic Director: Zhang Jigang

Executive Artistic Director: Chen Weiya

Director of Technical Team: Yu Jianping

Production Director: Lu Jiankang

Chief Stage Designer: Mark Fisher

Art Director: Chen Yan

Director of Lighting Design: Sha Xiao Lan

Director of Costume Design: Eiko Ishioka

Director of Special Visual Effects: Guo-qiang Cai

Director of Video Images: Yang Qingsheng

Video Content Designer: Andree Verleger

Director of Makeup: Xu Jiahua

Director of Aerial Performance: Cheng Xiaodong

Director of Music: Chen Qigang

SELECTED CREW

Lighting Designer: Sha Xiao Lan

Programmers: Feng Bin, Wu Guoquing, Huang Tao

Control System and Broadcast Lighting: Paul Collison

Followspots: Xiao Lihe

Lighting Assistants: Quan Xiaojie, Zhang Wei, Wang Zhiyi, Wang Tong, Ma Jiebo

Lighting Production Companies: CCTV - Central China Television

In conjunction with: Quan Jiang, Shang Hai Television, Gong Ti, Bei Ao, Feng Shang Shi Ji

Projection Production Company: Leifull Light & Sound Technology, Co., Ltd.

Projection Operators: Dennis Gardner, Stephen Kellaway

Assistants: Zhang Shi Qian, Steven Cai, Zach Peletz

SELECTED LIGHTING GEAR

980 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

162 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash XB

112 Clay Paky Alpha Wash

308 Vari-Lite VL3500 Spot

316 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot

180 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash

12 High End Systems Showgun

20 Ushio 2kW Xenon Followspot

16 Kupo Super Sol 3kW Xenon Followspot

204 PureLight City Color

32 FineArt LED PAR Can

46 Sliver Star LED Bank

3 MA Lighting grandMA Consoles

2 MA Lighting grandMA light Consoles

PROJECTION

84 Christie Digital Roadster S+ 20K Projectors with High End Systems Orbital Head

63 Christie Digital CP2000-ZX Digital Cinema Projectors

110 High End Systems Axon Media Servers

High End Wholehog 3 Control System

3D VISUALIZATION

Software: ESP Vision, MA Lighting MA3D

Hardware: MA Lighting Media PC, NVIDIA GeForce 8800GTX

MA Video System

Three graphic input cards to overlay the displays from each session into one.