Another Olympic Achievement

In essence, the Sydney 2000 production was highly labor-intensive, with large crowds of designers, technicians, production crews and performers filling an entire stadium while the television audience looked on.
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After the opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, many people in the entertainment industry said that this lavish theatrical spectacular, with its hundreds of set pieces and thousands of dancers, singers, musicians, fireeaters, acrobats and horsemen, would not, and was unlikely to ever be outdone.

Not surprisingly, four years later, the opening ceremony for the Athens Summer Olympics took a dramatically different approach.

The Sydney production was a wildly exuberant extravaganza, conceived, designed, choreographed and staged for an audience of 80,000 in the stadium. The worldwide audience of some 3 billion was treated to a television version of the show at the hands of Director Peter Faiman, who before he directed the movie "Crocodile Dundee," spent a few decades mastering the art of live variety television.

In Athens, the production was very compact and clearly intended for television transmission, with few concessions appearing to have been made for the stadium audience. The function of this audience, as with many television productions, seems to have been to provide color, atmosphere, an applause track and a handy supply of cutaway shots.

AUDIENCE AS EXTRAS

In essence, the Sydney 2000 production was highly labor-intensive, with large crowds of designers, technicians, production crews and performers filling an entire stadium while the television audience looked on. The broadcast audience was treated to a few extra close-ups that the live audience saw only on the large monitor screens. By contrast, the Athens production was technology-intensive,

being based around the world's most sophisticated temporary stage, the world's most advanced motorized flying system, and what must be very close to the world's largest pyrotechnic control system.

The lake stage, with its embedded light sources, 60-foot-diameter scenic trap with hydraulic lift, submerged gas jets for the flaming Olympic Rings, submerged water mist screen and a drainage system that allowed it to empty its half-a-million gallons in less than three minutes was the kind of facility envied by every opera house and casino showroom in the world.

The 72-winch computer-controlled flying system enabled 35 "runners" to moonwalk through the air, and 18 scenic units totaling more than 20 tons, to dance in a graceful aerial ballet.

Virtually all the thousands of choreographed pyrotechnic shots were located on and above the roof structure of the stadium. Yet the full impact of these spectacular images and effects was only apparent either to aerial cameras above the arena or cameras located far enough away from the stadium to be able to take in the entire structure from an elevated viewpoint.

Most of the scenic elements and choreography, particularly on the 11 wagon stages that formed the magnificent "Clepsydra" procession, were crafted at a level of detail that would be invisible even to those in the very front rows of the stadium seating.

Only the 3 billion television viewers were able to appreciate the subtle design and clever movement of the figures in these tableaux. So carefully were these scenes designed and built, that the majority of coverage was from a single, precisely placed, locked-off camera. My guess is that this shot coincided exactly with the viewpoint used in the designer's renderings of these scenes.

WIDE-SHOT DEPRIVATION

It seems that the lighting for this sequence may well have been concentrated in a well-lit pool, directly in front of our locked-off viewpoint; thus, we were given no clue as to the look of the rest of the stadium. This might have passed unnoticed, except that it became increasingly obvious as the procession continued that we were never going to be granted the essential wide shot that would give us a sense of the scale of 1,000 feet of rolling stages.

The only lighting effect seen in the entire "Clepsydra" sequence was a couple of yards of festoon bulbs strung across the back of the "Modern Greece" scene. Considering the capabilities of the

control system, the luminaires and the lighting design team, I was disappointed in what they were allowed to achieve. Despite a dozen auxiliary generators, 1,700-plus moving lights and hundreds of conventional fixtures used in this production, much of the time there was a sense that the lighting

was only there to provide an exposure for the cameras. I am proud to be a minimalist when it comes to the number of colors and sources that I like in a scene.

Nevertheless, I was surprised when lighting designers, Bob Dickinson and Eletheria Deko, hardly used any discernable broad color or texture in the production. I had the distinct impression that much of what may have been possible was constrained by a notion that the purity of the vision of the set

and costume designs was not to be compromised by the application of sympathetic or creative lighting. Although color washes were applied to both the audience and the arena structure, I was able to make out a mostly white coverage on the critical elements of the production.

A gentle blue wash was used as an overlay on the water sequences and some amber was used to enhanc the fiery rings. A major exception was the striking red on the figure of the centaur in the lake. That red seemed to be boosted by some of the 26 followspots that were also the primary tool for kicking up exposure on dignitaries and soloists.

While I may have some misgiving about the creative use of lighting in the theatrical parts of this production, and I may also have a strong feeling that most of the camera shots we saw were straight off the designer's original storyboards, none of this takes away from the technical achievements of this production.

The aerial and flying work were astounding in their complexity and breathtaking in their beauty. The projections onto the water mist and the 19 set pieces were indeed beautifull constructed and executed. The tricks built into that central stage (which was dismantled and removed immediately after the opening ceremony) were spectacular and seemed to go off without a hitch.

Still, I came away from watching this broadcast with the distinct feeling that it was a superbly clever T show with a studio audience of 75,000 who had no idea what was actually going on. Maybe that's wha tthe Athens organizing committee and the broadcast rights-holders wanted, but I was left wondering if the studio audience wasn't shortchanged for the price of very expensive tickets. Maybe it's just my theatrical roots showing.