London Olympic Opening Ceremony

(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.

Overall Impression

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.

Pretty cool.

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.


Refining, Defining, Divining

Audience expectation is defined by, thus limited to, what audience members believe is possible.

As Creators of Experience the onus is on us, the responsibility is ours, to exceed such expectation and take our audience to unanticipated places, offer unforeseen experiences.

With that in mind, this means we need to be up on the most recently-developed or under-development techniques for projection, movement, sound, staging… We are dealing with new generations of audiences who are far more sophisticated in terms of “show” than most used to be. Between Google, all the entertainment channels, websites, platforms and feeds as well as the myriad other ways in which people absorb information; the understanding, appreciation and expectation of show and show effects has been raised simply in the course of daily life.

This is good; this pushes us to extend our own reach. What it also does is place the burden of surpassing expectation (though, it’s not a “burden,” or we wouldn’t be doing this stuff) back onto the Storytelling…where it should be.

In many cases, our audience will be just as savvy as to what is technologically possible as are we. No problem: we are Storytellers, Creators of Compelling Experience.

In immersive storytelling – experiential messaging – the key to Compelling isn’t the inclusion of technology and effects; rather, it is the nimble and creative use of such things to the point that they become invisible, and it is their contribution to the narrative that brings the gasp to the lips and the heart to the throat.

So…Create, already!

My own first step, as I’ve noted before, is in the exploration of what is wanted: to be communicated, to be seen, heard and experienced. What is the message or call to action; the fable, parable or simple lesson to be articulated and communicated?

What result do we seek?

Second – to choose and then physically immerse oneself in the theatre, stadium, harbor, park, auditorium, ballroom, hall, mountainside or whatever venue is to be the location for this experience being created. Many a time, ideas can spring from the architecture of a space; the placement of a balcony, rock or body of water. Once I’ve stood in that space and ingrained the features and personality of it into my mind, the concept percolation truly begins.

Moving forward; my approach is ignore budget during the first pass at concept development; letting ideas flow freely – in my own mind or in creative conversation – unhindered by any Reality. When working with a team of professional craftsbeings – technicians, artists, talent, musicians, designers – I begin with an Unlimited Blue Sky approach.

Were budget not an issue and we could do anything, what would we do…how best might we tell this story?

Through my own experience, I believe that a far better idea can come from an unrestrained process than might be realized by attempting to develop a concept and physically articulate narrative within a pre-defined “budget box.” Taking a magnificent, insightful storytelling concept and, through the alchemy of collaborative chiseling and massage, bringing it into alignment with one’s budget, can greatly heighten the quality and innovation that comes into play. Unleashed creativity in original concept, studied creativity in shrinking the magnitude while protecting the integrity of the concept.

I find there’s a lot more love and engagement on the part of the entire team and process when everything’s been expressed and explored and the Big Idea has been embraced. The risk of savage dogfights over resources is largely alleviated when the entire team is working to protect a big idea to which each has already contributed…invested. The net result is a more cohesive team and a powerful, compelling experience.

Be prepared for some surprises, though. Even better, prepare your Executives / Clients for this process before you begin sharing the step-by-step process of evaluating concepts coming out of that process.

I once neglected to fully prepare my Client Team for the possibility of ridiculously high numbers attached to concepts as the bid proposals arrived in for a project budgeted at $7 – 12million. When a bid concept priced at $37million hit the table, I thought we were about to lose one of the more fragile members in paroxysms of apoplexy!

Oops. Clue ‘em in. Early.

For some, this may seem a waste of time: I think different.

The net result of this process is that, at the other end, one has the best sense of the principals, ethos, creativity and perspective of the contributing contractors, vendors or teammates from and through the genesis. We end up with a better concept to whittle, and know a lot more about the potential members of the production team.

Eschew shyness and caution; this is an exhilarating tightrope, imagination your net. There is no falling.

We create better Experience from the limb than on the ground.


Time and Timing

So, let’s talk for a moment about Time.

It truly is of the essence, in every respect.

When putting an experience together, be it theatrical, spectacle, industrial or guerrilla, ‘tis important to remember that every moment communicates something. The key is to be sure that each and every moment that occurs between curtain up and end of show communicates what you want it to communicate.

Every. Moment.

When crafting an Experience, it is critical to be aware not only of the overall timing of each scene or component, but also the silences, the quiet, the transitions in-between action as well as each Scene and Act. As most creatives are aware; the space between successive speeches in a script can compellingly communicate mood, dynamic and tone; giving a sense of subtext and backstory, nuance.

Nuance. Makes or breaks an Experience.

My mantra in this context is, “No Dead Air.” Every moment is planned and foreseen.

Never make an audience wait; rather, make them anticipate. The difference is key; to wait is to be distracted, to leave the story arc or narrative, to exit the experience and wonder What and When… To anticipate, though, is about reaching for what’s next, being engaged, mentally percolating possibility and virtually reaching out to grasp The Next Thing…

Use any silence to communicate something; tension, time passing, surprise. Let nothing “just take as long as it takes;” rather, write the pauses and transitions into your show or Experience. Pay close attention to the pacing, then assiduously keep the integrity of that pace or rhythm. This sometimes means covering something as basic as a scene change with a voice-over, activity in another part of the space or even something as simple and basic as a lighting or sound effect. It’s gotta make sense, and it has to fit.

As Creators, we need to remain wary of what we might be accepting. Of course the set & scene needs to change; it may not, though, have to stop the action or impede the storytelling in order to do so…

Another facet of Time and Timing is Restraint. Holding back.

A major part of what I do is create and direct Ceremonies; sports, awards, acknowledgement, recognition. In this context, an historical parallel or ancestor might be the old-fashioned Variety Show, enhanced and augmented with a theme and through-line and purpose beyond simply entertaining.

The parallel that is reflected in these ceremonies is the “parade” of what is often a succession of talented individuals or small groups acknowledging or paying tribute to a person or institution through their talent.

Don’t allow the Talent to ru(i)n the show.

These people will always want to do more than might be envisioned, showcase themselves such that it may detract from the power of the overall Experience. F’rinstance, the Divas’ll want to do at least two numbers, the monologuists will want 5 – 7 minutes, the dancers’ll want to showcase their every signature move. As much as we may love each and every piece that is pitched to perform: we do NOT put them all onstage.

The Talent often sees only the individual contribution (Bless Their Hearts!), often giving lip service to the importance of timing in the overall production; but in their heart of hearts pretty much considering themselves the centerpiece.

This is where the person in charge of creation – the Producer, the Director, the Creative Director – must be brutally judicious. I learned, early on, that keeping segments almost uncomfortably short was more often than not a good barometer for the reception by the audience; that it was the right move and created the best overall effect. For, once a piece or segment has gone on, too long, it is virtually impossible to resurrect the energy that may have been lost.

Pick and hold to one song; keep the dance number short, minimize the monologues and speeches. So much can be communicated in a very short time and, in a marginal concession to the world in which we live, we need to create experiences that reach out and repeatedly capture and recapture attention.

Something else; don’t pack your show. One might have at one’s behest a number of powerful performers or speeches. Two, short and powerful speeches or Moments can be like a one-two punch: powerful, communicative, effective. Add just one more “short and powerful” speech and all three can immediately become, effectively, too long; losing the energy and losing your audience.

The cumulative power of the first two can very readily be completely dissipated by a third, and the sum total can take the energy out of your show.

Not everyone who “needs” to speak needs to speak. Be strong.

So, I’m saying, this week, Hold the Line on length, on transitions, on quietness; give people enough to engage them, not sate them.


Next week, we’ll talk about the inverse relationship between magnitude and effect, and the myriad interpretations of “magnitude.”


Experiential Messaging

I am currently immersed in the redesign of an annual, “destination” event for an iconic, California institution of national legacy and global presence. This is an opportunity to acutely focus these methodologies I espouse on refreshing a powerful Brand of Legacy, while articulating the actual, evolutionary metamorphoses under which this client institution is going…in leadership, in mission, in form and function.

A transformation is being completed, resulting in a more powerful, more effective and relevant organization; poised and prepared to make some resonant, sweeping expansion of and intensification in the level of engagement with the Communities served.

Big Job.

I live for this stuff.

Experiential Messaging

Connecting message at profound, emotional levels through Experience.

I talk about this, I teach workshops on this, I thrive on this. Finding the pathway, the words, the format, the rhythm the way past preconception, through the daily deluge of data descending on all of us and our audiences, day by day, and connecting.


I wish I could say more, at this juncture, about the specifics of the Experience we’re building; but, that would tip my hand to many who will appreciate and savor the surprise of this Experience as it unfolds on The Night.

You’ll just have to wait for post-show; or come!

Imagine, though, an experience that honors leadership, articulates vision, engages emotional and viscerally, incites passion in and connects with an audience…all without speeches. No speeches; everything communicated through Art in its myriad forms. Theatre, music, movement, imagery…

For this night, we have an audience a great part of whom have been involved in the work of the institution for years; decades, even. There is nothing new to say to them; they enter the space almost out of obligation; not expecting anything they have not previously experienced. Those preconceptions must be liberated and the individual impassioned anew.

We will do this.

Another part of the audience is fresh on the scene, not consciously connected to the legacy, though compassionate and committed to making a difference in the world being inherited. These men and women will exit this Experience at the end of the evening fired up; personally embracing the shared mission and seeking a place in it.

This, we can do.


What I can tell you is that we have thrown out all that has gone before, held a virtual open audition for new and effective ways of delivering message, and I believe we  have come up with an Immersive Experience for a new age and attitude.

Back in the Day, I began to refer to creation of an Immersive Experience to communicate message and connect audience to an institution, “Experiential Messaging.”

I thought I’d invented that term; it’s possible I heard it somewhere, 30 years ago, and adopted it. Either way, this term is bandied about, these days, by everyone from guerilla marketers, passing out energy drink samples on the street, to those who actually do create fully immersive, messaging experiences.

What makes it Experiential Messaging?

The message is delivered through the experience rather than at it or in it.

Through the Experience.

The integrity of this term is important to me; as I strongly believe in the power of the shared, personal experience. Power to motivate and inspire, power to challenge and engage, power to dissipate fatigue and familiarity and reawaken energy and vigor.

Sure, being handed a box of mints on the street is an experience; it is not, however, immersive nor is the messaging experiential. (Is this making sense?)

To be effective, the crucial pieces are:

  • Catching the audience off guard (Liberating Preconception)
  • Surprising without shocking, taking them a tad off balance (Comfortable Disorientation)

Then, in the case of what we are building for this night in San Francisco, creating the messaging experience such that it is artistic and stunning, clear and articulate, deeply emotionally connective … and brief.

Our audiences are such that, if they actually trust us that a bit of program is going to be brief and compelling, they will stay, watch, listen and hear. If we are trusted; then, when the lights dim for a piece of the program, the audience is inclined to give it a chance before reaching for the iPhone or running to the Lounge.

Y’gotta catch ‘em before they tweet. Then, they gotta tweet, or check-in, or pin, or Path or whatever the platform of the moment demands… Give ‘em a reason to hang in, reward ‘em with something to say or share.

The messaging must be quick, focused, pithy and relevant.

  • And the food’s gotta be great.
  • And there must be plenty of time to socialize throughout the experience.
  • And…the audience must know that the evening will end at a decent hour. There was a time when we wanted them assured they’d be home before Leno or Letterman. Now, they want to be home before “Real Housewives.”

It will be over before the audience is ready for it to be over (“Always leave ‘em wanting more” P.T. Barnum), and it will be a complete, accessible, complex Experience.

We can do this. We will do all of this.

I shared the specifics and particulars of the production and narrative with one of my most respected clients, a few months back, and he has asked to join my production team for the night. This is a powerful compliment from a Respectful Perfectionist, and I can’t wait to have him there.

Once completed, I look forward to sharing the details of this night as a Case Study on this site. I’m impassioned by the possibility of creating an Experience that connects with disparately experienced and diversely aged (er… Variously Matured) audiences; creating a completely new, revivified annual destination for those engaged in this institution.

Stay tuned. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.


P.S. A buddy and I did, actually, invent the Cosmo, back in 1980. You’re welcome!

P.P.S. Got a question? Ask it! I always have an opinion…