(Please, as though you weren’t already wondering what I’d thought of it.)
Well done, I’d say; very well done.
My experience of the London Opening Ceremonies is, of course, limited to what I was able to glean through the NBC Broadcast in the US; interrupted as it was by countless commercial breaks and the (imho) distracting and inane prattling of the on-camera hosts during the broadcast. Regrettably, at one point NBC cut away from any reference to and the entire performance of the reverential and moving Tribute to Terror Victims for an interview of US Swimmer Michael Phelps. “They” didn’t think it was appropriate for American Audiences. Is this news coverage of a world event or “Entertainment Tonight”?
Okay, back to the subject at hand…
These, then, are my impressions from having just finished watching the ceremonies, all the way through; knowing only what I saw and heard, via television, and before debriefing with my dear friend and Arbiter of British Taste, in London, who attended.
The implied mandate or challenge, of course, was to somehow beat the unbeatable. “How are they going to beat Beijing?” That four-year conversation found common ground in conjecture that London would “have to go in a different direction,” and in a different direction Danny Boyle did go!
Compared to Beijing’s Awesome Spectacle, I found the London Ceremonial Experience to be Magnificently Personal… While in Beijing’s Production, we experienced one jaw-dropping moment after another; virtually incredible displays of technology with massive, choreographed stunts and effects performed with precision by thousands of essentially “invisible” performers. [By “invisible,” I mean either covered or clad in technology or inside the mechanisms.]
Time and again, four years ago, one’s mind would be asking “HOW did they do THAT?” It was truly awesome; what the producers were able to accomplish. The production was slick, timed to the millisecond, massive, heavy with technology and it projected an aggressive pride in accomplishment for the PRC…and rightly so.
In Friday’s Ceremony in London, on the other hand, one could see every single, individual performer; nothing was hidden, it was all there. The magic was in … here it comes … the Subliminal Engagement of the audience in offering them the opportunity to personally involve themselves in the creation of their own Experience.
What was slick and clean and impressively sterile in Beijing was, on Friday, broad and expansive and a little cluttered and almost (almost!) messy…and very, deeply human.
What I Liked
The drums. From the beginning, Boyle filled that stadium with percussion. Drums: the first, most primitive of musical instruments and the one that shakes people right to their primal bones. Drums. GREAT call. They showed up in many forms and different contexts and kept the audience resonating, thus open to the stories that were being told on a subconscious level. Primal.
The intense experience of percussion actually stimulates the most primal part of the brain and our ancestral wiring. There is no thinking at all involved in appreciating percussion, as we communicated with drums even before there was fire. Opening the show with and interweaving throughout with drums keeps the right brain actively alive and open to more.
The L.E.D. Beds and Bedsheets. Just a cool effect; I want to use it, somewhere.
The Doves. I thought the doves were brilliant. Combining the symbol of Peace so evocatively with the art, discipline and craft of cycling, something so intrinsically British, had to have brought a gasp to the throats of the audience in the stadium. From their entrance until the final, “ET”-esque flight into the sky, these Doves brought a magic into the space that was ethereal…something to make the audience reach…
Again, an excellent example of Subliminal Engagement, much as I’ve cited Julie Taymor’s drawing-on-the-ancient costume design for “The Lion King,” the audience can see and appreciate all the pieces, then their imaginations kick-in and take them beyond what is before them. Wonderful.
The Set. To me, it seemed a little Middle Earth-like, at first. Though as it became populated, I began to appreciate what we were being given. Again, spectacle on a human scale. As the set evolved – through, I might note, transition technology that was primarily of the lowest tech possible: actual human beings – it became more and more familiar and impressive.
It was theatrical. Essentially, the entire production was presented theatrically, and it worked.
The Flame Entering the Stadium. From the moment Steven Redgrave took the flame from David Beckham and the pyro fountains went off, behind him; I was moved. The dark run to the stadium, the honor guard of 500 construction workers, the youthful representatives of the future of Sport in the UK…face to face, generation to generation. This was powerful imagery.
The Flame Circling the Stadium. Watching those kids run the track, beatific smiles on their faces as they appreciated where they were (well, as much as one so young can appreciate anything so magnificent in the context of one’s life: not only do these kids have no lines on their faces, their brains are barely scored, yet), had me close to weeping, openly. This is why I watch these things in private.
More so, though; the fluid ease with which they handed-off the torch from one to the other with successive legs of the circuit as, for me, symbolic of a teamsmanship, a camaraderie that can exist in sport that I’d like to think is more predominant in the next few generations than I may have seen in my own. It was powerful, for me.
The Lighting and The Cauldron. Inspired. Inspired. Inspired.
A little Successive Revelation combined with Liberating Preconception and a touch of OMG as we were able to realize that those things we saw being carried-in with the athletes were part of something bigger…such as, the biggest part of the Ceremony.
There have been bigger and more awesome Cauldron Lightings. For me, Barcelona will ever remain the most authentic, human achievement in this context. The aim of Antonio Rebollo had to be perfect and true; there was no second shot. It was a breathtaking moment. Beyond that, the lightings of several, more recent ceremonies have been spectacular, with pyrotechnics coming from everywhere; leaving the audience agape with the sheer charge and energy. Wonderful, big, impressive…
But London 2012 did something viscerally metaphorical. This happened gently and slowly, paced almost organically, for us to realize, piece by piece, as the shells came alight, that there may be more before us than meets the eye. Moving slowly, much as might the coming together of Nations and People, the shells rose on their pylons to gather on high and take the shape of the Olympic Cauldron – reflecting the gathering of nations for one purpose that is the Olympics.
And, rather than being high above the field, towering over the city; it is at the heart of the field of play, in the center of the stadium. Embraced by the surrounding competitors and nations.
The Hands-free Lighting Stunts. What a gift to the audience to relieve them of physical duties during the show; instead, placing led screens at each seat to do that work for them. The effect, on television, was exceptional; reflecting or magnifying what was taking place on the field. I’ve no idea how it felt to be sitting among that; whether it was or wasn’t distracting. But it sure looked good for the show.
What I’m Not So Sure About
All that intricate choreography on a field, so far away. From the Industrial Revolution, onward, there was some pretty intimate storytelling going on, all over that field. Did that read? Was it necessary to have Image Magnification in order to fully appreciate what was taking place on the field? Were that the case, would that not split focus between field and screen? Dunno. Once I know the answer to that, I’ll know what I think.
My own practice is to keep cameras off the field, never allow them between audience and Experience.
Length of each segment. From where I sat, they went on a bit long for my taste. That being said, there was so much going on, on the field, that perhaps the dance numbers had to go on a bit for the audience to take it all in. I suppose one had to be there.
Parade of Nations. Didn’t this used to be a tad more formal; perhaps a bit regimented? All ceremonial-like with people in lines and rows and all pomp and circumstance-y? It seems that only a few, small, African nations treat this Moment with deep respect and reverence; while the Caucasians are all about the Spotlight and just a little self-absorbed. It’s as though the athletes used to be moved and thrilled to be marching into the stadium, and now they are thrilled and pleased to be marching into the stadium “…so that everyone can see ME!”
Or, am I just a curmudgeon?
I like ceremony, and I’m a tad disappointed to see this degeneration of formality. At the same time, they sure do look happy.
But it’s still TOO LONG! I know from experience that one can get 11,000 athletes onto a field in 45 minutes with singular and specific recognition being given to every team. I have shared this format with a world-class Producer of Spectacle with a number of Olympic Ceremonies under his belt and likely many more in his future. If you’re reading this, and you know who you are, I plead with you to use that approach in a future Olympic Opening and blow the minds of the world; enjoying undying gratitude of the multitudes. You will shorten not only the Parade, you will also cut huge amounts of drivel from the clueless commentators.
Of course, this would also cut at least an hour of high-revenue advertising time. Thus, probably never happen.
Camera Work. It seemed that a lot depended on camera work; close ups and cutaways and, during the child and adolescent segments, on-screen close-ups and pop-ups. Ironically, this worked great, on television, but I can’t imagine it working in the stadium without people having to look at the iMag screens. [Unless…that was a function of the at-seat screens in the stadium. While that would still split the focus; it might minimize the dissonance.]
Rowan Atkinson and the London Philharmonic. Didn’t get that one, at all. But then, I am not British. I know the guy’s loved. On the other hand; I kept thinking, during that segment, what a bunch of sports must be the London Philharmonic: to be playing at the Olympic Ceremonies and be completely upstaged by a comic and a film clip. So, hey: I guess it worked!
Am I missing something? When the teen girl lost her phone and the teen boy found it and called her to tell her he’d done so, what device did she answer?
All in all, where I was wowed and awed by the spectacle of Beijing; the net effect was of being impressed by technological and logistical prowess. With London, I am moved and touched by the humanity and intimacy, the personal-ness of what was delivered. It evoked feelings and made us embrace them in order to appreciate what we were seeing; it engaged the audience with the familiar, then took us further. Very well done.
…and, the British are, by all I know and can see, very good sports about themselves.