Rating the Olympics: Event Producers Give Opening Ceremony a 'B'

While the overall set design and direction received mixed reactions, producers mostly agreed the Olympic opening ceremony's pyrotechnics provided stunning visuals. According to one reviewer, 'we saw something totally new in terms of the integration of pyrotechnics, LED, lighting, automation, and a live performance.'
While the overall set design and direction received mixed reactions, producers mostly agreed the Olympic opening ceremony's pyrotechnics provided stunning visuals. According to one reviewer, "we saw something totally new in terms of the integration of pyrotechnics, LED, lighting, automation, and a live performance."
Photo: Morry Gash/IOPP Pool/Getty Images

The world's biggest sports competition, the Summer Olympic Games, kicked off its 2012 run in London on Friday night, with filmmaker Danny Boyle's opening ceremony that was titled "Isles of Wonder," a nod to Shakespeare's The Tempest. The live event at Olympic Stadium in Stratford with a cast of some 10,000, included live sheep in a countryside set, a flock of winged cyclists, a 100-foot-tall puppet of Harry Potter character Lord Voldemort, five flaming rings, and a performance of "Hey Jude" by Paul McCartney. We asked some of the country's top event producers to weigh in on their favorite (and least favorite) details of the show. Here's what they said:

Spencer Rice
What I Liked: "The music. No surprise there with Danny Boyle running the show. From the choirs representing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to Evelyn Glennie and her army of drummers to the mashup of four decades of Brit music to the performances by Dizzee Rascal, Arctic Monkeys, and even Paul McCartney’s 'Hey Jude' sing-along, I thought the music provided strong context and pace for the ceremony. For the most part, I enjoyed the filmed vignettes—the Olympics opener, narrated by Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, was solid, though it would have benefited from more Olympic history, particularly given the heritage of the games in London. And while the content of the James Bond piece felt like a tacky promotional video for British tourism, as a mechanism for setting up the entrance of the Queen, I thought it was brilliant. I enjoyed the first of the four themed performances. The transition of the sets from agrarian to industrial was remarkable—the highlight for me was the pouring of the molten iron and forging of the Olympic rings, great lighting and pyrotechnics. I really enjoyed the innovative use of stadium-wide LED lights throughout the show as well."
What I Would Have Done Differently: "Gone with Kate Winslet over Emily Blunt for the opening narration—her voice is more distinctive and recognizable. I thought the segment celebrating the National Health Service and British children’s literature was a big miss. I would have abbreviated/eliminated the healthcare tribute, or at least shifted it to a different part of the show. I liked J.K. Rowling’s reading of Peter Pan, but from there it went downhill. I think that segment could have benefited from a more upbeat children’s performance—more dancing, more music. During the Computer Age segment, I would have used a much larger canvas for the 3-D projection mapping sequence. It was a great place to integrate the technology, but the scale made the content nearly impossible to identify. And I know he’s a national treasure, but I probably could have done without Mr. Bean.
Letter Grade: B+ "Cool ceremony overall, a real feat to coordinate 10,000 volunteer performers into a relatively seamless show, and Danny Boyle did a great job. It's hard to compare to the spectacle that was Beijing, but a solid opener."

Rice is senior vice president and creative director at Civic Entertainment Group, a strategic marketing agency in New York that works on large-scale projects for brands such as HBO, the N.F.L., and CNN.

Chris Gasbarro
What I Liked: "Certainly the different approach of the torch lighting was one of my favorites. Leaving the celebrity at the dock (sorry David, huge fan!) and instead engaging the 'We' spirit of the Olympics and involving both a multitude of historic and future Olympians (teenagers with fire!) was a wonderful gesture and storyline. The torch sculpture of 204 copper petals was stunning and I loved the location of it in the center of the stadium. I felt the overarching show was a dead-on representation of the British contributions to the world, culture, and personality—with my other favorite moments going to the Mary Poppins aerial assault, the humorous inserts of James Bond and the Queen, and the cheeky 'Chariots of Fire' sequence of Rowan Atkinson. Cheers to Danny Boyle for a fantastic creative approach and execution!"
What I Would Have Done Differently: "Maybe it's that I feel like I've seen Paul McCartney everywhere lately—the Diamond Jubilee, the Grammys—but I would have assembled a one-time ultimate British band with David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Brian May (Queen), Pete Townsend, and Keith Richards on guitars, Ringo [Starr] on drums, Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) on bass, and [Mick] Jagger and Roger Daltry helping to front the band. That, and I would have tried to make the show come in at run time of two hours. This show shouldn't take longer than the longest timed event during the Olympics—the marathon takes about 2 hours and 26 minutes to complete."
Letter Grade: A-

Gasbarro is the chief creative officer of Creative Community Connections (C3), a Wakefield, Massachusetts-based planning, production, and design agency that counts Saucony, Monster Inc., and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies among its clients.

Kimberly Krouse
What I Liked: "Daniel Craig's Bond-esque theme entrance with the Queen. She seems to have a great sense of humor. I also liked the use of lights throughout the show. They did an amazing job here with colors and positioning. And David Beckham's entrance. I mean, enough said."
What I Would Have Done Differently: "Although I understand the significance of the performances I felt this was not the medium for it. The Olympics are a joyous global event, not a history lesson of the U.K. Education is important, I agree, but the opening ceremonies are supposed to spark excitement for the upcoming weeks of events. I didn't get the wow factor I was expecting with such a memorable occasion."
Letter Grade: C-

Krouse is the owner and C.E.O. of Toast, a production company with offices in Los Angeles and New York. Toast works on roughly 30 to 50 events per year, including large projects such as 
Rolling Stone's Super Bowl party, Bet Tzedek’s popular Justice Ball benefit and In Touch Weekly's "Icons and Idols" MTV Video Music Awards after-party.

Ira Levy
What I Liked: "If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be 'light' (which obviously makes me very happy). From a technical standpoint, I thought it was brilliant, a true homage to 'British timing.' Everything was choreographed brilliantly, all effects went off without a hitch and with split-second timing. I loved the LED panels at each seat, I've always wanted to create large-scale graphics out of arena seating arrangements. I enjoyed the fact that they didn't try to 'out tech' Beijing 2008. The way they used the cable systems was unparalleled."
What I Would Have Done Differently: "I thought that some of the visuals could have been better, which is simply a matter of taste, and it's always easy to criticize from the outside. The background palette—the LED screen created out of the seating—was so large and the subject matter was so broad, the potential for interesting imagery was limitless. In my opinion, the visuals on the seats could have had much more impact. In addition, there were times that I didn't agree with how some of the technology was used; this was mostly from the standpoint of content and story line."
Letter Grade: A "Anyone who can pull off such an involved production without any noticeable equipment failures, accidents, or miscues deserves an A!"

Levy is the president of New York lighting production and design company, Levy Lighting, working on projects for companies such as Dior, DKNY, and Burberry as well as opening ceremonies for the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers, and the New Jersey Devils.

Javier Velarde
What I Liked: "The Floating Rings. [There was a] great shot of the suspended rings with the dripping fire effects, even though floating rings were done at the last Olympics. Mr. Bean—they let loose for a bit and inserted humor. And the fireworks—well done and tightly choreographed."
What I Would Have Done Differently: "Producing the Olympic opening ceremonies is the ultimate event in degree of difficulty. That said, there are five basic rules a producer can follow to ensure success: Create goosebumps; open with a bang; be hip, be relevant, be bold; let the event tell the story; and create a grand finale. The intro/grand entrance/opening is the most important part of the show as it sets the tone for what’s to come. The countdown using “balloons” was a countdown to nothing, and not all of the balloons popped. There was nothing visually stunning about seeing a farm with live animals, dancing nurses, or smoking factory pipes with 'real factory-infused smell,' as Matt Lauer put it. All of the stories and talent used in the show were creepy, old, and dated (The Who, Mary Poppins, Pilgrims, giant babies). I would have looked for new and relevant angles of British culture that would create excitement. Choosing Sir Paul McCartney for the ending was an obvious choice, but the production quality did not match the moment. Paul’s performance at the 2005 Super Bowl halftime on top of an LED video floor was much more memorable than having him on a dark stage under a bell. I would have thrown everything into this grand finale. You come into the show strong and you finish strong."
Letter Grade: F "NBC asked the creative producer, Danny Boyle, what he was thinking taking on the Olympic project after the magnificent job China had done in 2008. His response was, 'What the Chinese did will never be topped' and that he was comfortable knowing he could just be himself. This was doomed from the beginning. He basically admitted to not wanting to top China."

Velarde is president and executive producer at Triton Productions, an event management, design, and production company headquartered in Miami. The company works on award shows, premieres, and live and televised events for brands such as HBO, Turner Broadcasting,
Vogue, and American Express Centurion.

Kelly Zilar
What I Liked: "The opening ceremonies were absolutely stunning. The level of detail and production that went into the event was impressive to say the least. They were able to capture the element of history, emotion, and excitement, which in the end made for a cohesive production. I especially loved the large number of performers and the varying genres of music performed. Overall I was very pleased with the opening ceremonies. It left me feeling overwhelmed and excited to see what is next in the Olympics!"
What I Would Have Done Differently: "I wouldn't have had as much commentary during the performances, I felt that it distracted me from what was going on. The show was also very lengthy, which could have resulted in the audience losing interest."
Letter Grade: A+

Zilar is an account executive with Boulder, Colorado-based Action Marketing Group, an agency that works on brand activations for clients such as Adidas, Ford, Veuve Clicquot, and Cartoon Network.

Tom Bussey & Jennifer Kurland
What Tom Liked: "I was thrilled to hear Danny Boyle's role in this and seeing how he would translate his craft into the live event space. I was blown away by the torch lighting and the climax of the ceremony. The rings and pyro were impressive and we saw something totally new in terms of the integration of pyrotechnics, LED, lighting, automation, and a live performance. The sequence with David Beckham in the boat and the use of pyro at the Tower Bridge read like a live action movie."
What Jennifer Would Have Done Differently: "To produce a show that is successful for both a live audience as well as a broadcast audience is always a challenge. The NBC broadcast was well done, but at times it felt too removed from this great happening. I would have liked to have seen more camera shots that gave context to how this story was being told to the live audience so that the at-home viewer really felt a part of it—ultimately to enhance a more unified experience for the global audience."
Letter Grade: A-

Bussey and Kurland are principals at Production Glue, a New York-based firm that handles live entertainment design, production, and technical direction for events such as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo launch in the Mojave Desert, Frieze Art Fair's U.S. debut, and the New York Giants' Super Bowl victory ceremony.

Joel Hock
What I Liked: "The flawless execution, first and foremost. Creative director Danny Boyle’s $47 million salute to the 2012 London Games was beautifully orchestrated on all fronts; I can only imagine how extraordinary it must have looked in person. Seamlessly, the program transitioned between segments with the aid of 10,000 volunteers. Most impressive was the grandiose homage to British heritage and the industrial revolution theme that ultimately culminated in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. With a running time of more than four hours, the show dragged slightly in its middle stages, but the proceedings kept an energetic pace for the most part. Other highlights included the Great Ormond Street Hospital tribute; the utilization of British icons including Sir Paul McCartney, James Bond, David Beckham, and Mr. Bean; and the testimonial to English children’s literature featuring J.K. Rowling. I am glad there was a comedic element, and that the overall spirit of the ceremony was festive.
What I Would Have Done Differently: "The lighting left a lot to be desired, but there I am slightly nitpicking. It was too long for my taste, a result of cramming one too many disparate elements into the itinerary. I would have condensed a handful of segments, or simply removed a portion or two. In keeping with opening ceremony tradition, the ritual largely ignored the Olympic events themselves. Personally, I would have appreciated a greater incorporation of sport in the production. This is an international sporting exhibition after all."
Letter Grade: A

Hock is president and C.E.O. of Solutions With Impact, an event management, promotional marketing, and PR firm based in Toronto that works with clients including Bell Canada and founded the celebrity scavenger hunt Rally for Kids With Cancer.

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