Saturday, 9 August 2008

Giving Birth to the Concept for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics


On the night of August 8, 2008, the sound of heavy footsteps thundered across the "Bird's Nest" as colossal burning "footprints" marched in the sky along Beijing's central axis all the way through the Olympic Green to the National Stadium.

As the last "footprint" lit up the sky above the National Stadium, spectators all over the world began a virtual tour of Chinese culture; what they saw was ancient China and young China, a nation wishing to build a harmonious home together with friends from all parts of the world.

More than 20,000 performers from all parts of China including Hong Kong, Macao and Chinese Taipei, regaled audience members with martial arts performances and artistic story telling through song and dance. On the ever-changing backdrop and accompanied by amazingly complex displays of fireworks, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games was launched, literally, with a bang.

The creative team

BOCOG (Beijing Organising Committee for Olympic Games) started soliciting programs worldwide for the Opening Ceremony in 2005. In 2006, 13 winning proposals started on their second round of competition. Based on the final results, a five-member directors' group was appointed from the three best teams.

Zhang Yimou was chosen as artistic director and Zhang Jigang and Chen Weiya were selected as deputy artistic directors. Yu Jianping became director of the technology group and Lu Jiankang was made production director of the Opening Ceremony.

Creating artistic harmony

The creative team found that none of the 13 project proposals could be directly adopted for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. It would take time and effort to put a unique show together.

Chinese elements that are already well-known in the world, such as Peking opera, martial arts, the Great Wall, terracotta warriors, the Silk Road and Zheng He's ocean voyages, were applied in almost all the proposals, but how should they be integrated?

The concept of a "painting scroll" emerged and most of the original program ideas unfolded around it, forming the artistic concept of "displaying the world on a small square," demonstrating the progress of blending Chinese culture with world culture.

Early drafts

In an early version of the program, complete with four chapters, the creative team used the ideas of paper, Chinese characters, the Earth and Chinese ink and brush painting as favored tools to express the themes of "civilization" and "harmony" in a liberal style. Leading officials also approved portrayals of the Silk Road and Zheng He's ocean voyages.

All members of the creative team believed that the Earth should appear in the Opening Ceremony, which thus conformed to the slogan "One World One Dream." Chinese painting was also one of the elements that the creative team emphasized. The concept of paper could combine perfectly with Chinese paintings and thus become the master link that ran through the performances of the Opening Ceremony.

In the summer of 2006, although a series of thoughts swarmed in the heads of the creative team members, they were having trouble harmonizing the themes in a final, cohesive manner.

Two parts to make the whole

By the end of April 2007, the creative team finally decided to divide the artistic performances into two parts: the first half, "Brilliant Civilization," would highlight the past 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, and the second half, "Glorious Era," would exhibit the great achievements and the new look of modern China, portraying the Chinese nation's dream of building harmoniously with the people of the world.

With this in mind, the final version of the project developed into the basic framework of a unique Chinese scroll, on which performers would expressively show the development of Chinese culture through time.

On this stage, "moveable type printing," "Confucius' 3,000 disciples," "The Analects of Confucius," "Zheng He's ocean voyages" and "Chinese ritual music" would all be showcased, depicting a weighty painting of the flow of Chinese civilization.

The long scroll would also incorporate China's more recent achievements, including the "Bird's Nest."

Gun-powder expert Cai Guo-Qiang's works of art soon caught the attention of the creative team. Cai was best at "fireworks painting" -- drawing the outline of a picture with gun-powder and then igniting it, creating a three-fold painting effect ("original painting," "fireworks painting" and "ash painting").

The original idea of "fireworks painting" was finally blended into a draft of the project. The team selected Picasso's Guernica, an oil painting condemning war atrocities, to test out the idea. Performers stepped into a huge remake of the frame, poured gun-powder along the lines of the painting it enclosed, and thus turned it into a line drawing of Guernica. A corner of the painting began to light up, and the fire soon spread to the entire piece, burning an outline of the artwork into the land, and leaving behind beautiful ashes in the same shape.

However, the IOC had a different opinion. Picasso's Guernica might remind the spectators of sad memories of World War II. Meanwhile, the creative team did not have adequate confidence in its reliability and safety. Therefore, after continuing for half a year, the concept was finally put away.

Instead, the creative team worked out a design that combined a display of the Olympic rings with "footprints of fireworks." 29 colossal "footprints," representing the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, would make their way into the stadium with the last "footprint" exploding in the air over the Bird's Nest. Thousands of sparks resembling clusters of stars would then float down slowly onto the ground to gather and form five shining rings. At this point, flying "fairies" would descend to slowly lift up the five rings, allowing them to hover in mid-air amid soft music right before the eyes of spectators, filling the stadium with a dreamy, romantic air.

Unprecedented involvement

In Opening Ceremonies of past Olympic Games, there have not been any action or artistic work that involved all of the athletes. The final version of this year's project came into being in April 2008. On the exposed painting scroll which initially served as the background of the artistic performances, performers would draw an ink painting of a landscape, with the lower half of the "paper" left blank. The idea was that during the parade of athletes, the Olympic competitors would walk over the blank space of the painting, leaving behind their colorful footprints with the help of a sort of dye mat. Their footprints on the paper would then make the shape of natural land, dotted with colorful, blooming flowers, to complete the painting.

This is the first Olympic Games in which athletes would become an actual part of the Opening Ceremony performance. An IOC official praised it as the largest action art in Olympic Movement history.

In addition, BOCOG invited five music bands from five continents to play the music for the parade of athletes.

Release of pigeons

The protocol that must be observed at the Opening Ceremony of any Games is the symbolic release of pigeons. The creative team worked out a bold romantic concept that turned the idea into a more abstract design. As the Opening Ceremony performances drew to a close, a hundred girls in white would lead the spectators and athletes in waving their hands to resemble the movement of real pigeons. The bowl arc edge of the Bird's Nest would be turned into wide screens on which pictures of people of different backgrounds would be projected, waving "pigeons" in their hands. The design blends "communication," "beauty," and "solemn ritual" into one, thus becoming an important highlight of the ceremony.

From creation to production

After the final version of the project was worked out, the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games began to move from project creation to production.

Highly skilled performers had to work through aches and pains to fulfill the requirements of dancing on the abstract backgrounds; this is especially true for the 60 artists that were chosen to surround the model Earth. During training, they were required to run, jump and somersault with their bodies leaning in fantastically different angles.

In lighting, acoustic design and large-scale engineering projects, the Beijing Games Opening Ceremony adopted state-of-the-art technology and introduced scientific elements into producing stage properties.

The Opening Ceremony performances have introduced the most sophisticated digital multimedia projectors to help transform the entire Bird's Nest into the largest multimedia screen in the world.

Without a doubt, the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will leave behind a solid memory for all Olympic fans.

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