Monday, August 11, 2008

Shock and Awe in Beijing

The biggest television event of the year took over our screens on Friday night and the Beijing opening ceremony was pretty much as we expected.

  • We were expecting masses of performers and we got 15,000 of them.
  • We were expecting history, and we got 5,000 years of it.
  • We were expecting fireworks, and we got them to excess.
  • We were expecting to be wowed and we were not disappointed.

However the opening section (and a number of the other massed sections) looked like it could have been created in CGI. The technology and military precision seemed to drain the human element from the production and it certainly lacked any sense of spontaneity, as it was choreographed to the enth degree.

Indeed the most human moment came when the tops of the moveable type boxes popped open to reveal the smiling human operators inside.

Looking back at the history of Olympics openings one is inclined to make some comparisons. It was in Moscow, 1980 that we first saw what spectacle could be achieved with masses of people arranged in synchronised patterns and we haven’t seen such masses since then.

The influence of Barcelona and Athens was evident as Beijing is another city with a great history to draw on.

We also see the influence of Athens, in terms of the technology and its further development. And I would venture to say that we also saw the influence of Los Angeles in that the music to this opening ceremony was like one continuous film score.

What was also evident on the technical side was that as far as I could see every performer was wearing earphones so they could keep time, and keep to their very complex cues – no messy foldback wedges here. And I would suggest that the entire performance was pre-recorded. I would doubt that we heard very much live sound at all.

There is certainly a lot of talk about the technology involved in this production, well; one expected the technology to be cutting edge and it was certainly evident but it didn’t produce a wow moment to match the incredible technological fleet that was achieved in Athens with the Cycladic head rising out of the arena then splitting into many pieces to float off around the arena.

The technology in Beijing was certainly there when you look for it, but it was primarily there in a supporting role and let's face it that's what theatre is all about.

So what about the WOW moments…

  • The drummers – 2008 of them totally in unison – certainly a spectacle
  • The young girl flying over the heads of the performers – out-Nickied our Webster.
  • The moment when the tops of the movable type modules popped open to reveal all the operators inside. I was watching that quite closely and really thought that it was being done by pneumatics.
  • The globe – not so much the globe itself but the performers running around it, some of them upside down.
  • The construction of the birdcage inside the birdcage, and the costumes that those performers were wearing with the remote controlled LEDs in them.

The most anticipated wow moment in any opening ceremony since Barcelona is the lighting of the cauldron. Well the Beijing producers certainly pulled a mega-wow moment with this one.

But to me the most memorable moment is probably for all the wrong reasons – it was the moment when the children in the traditional costumes of the tribes of China who bore the Chinese national flag across the arena then handed it to the goosestepping flag party who raised the flag in true fascist style - an absolute reality check and the most jarring moment of the night.

Also interesting to ponder the whole significance of all the eights in the date of the opening. Eight PM on the eight day of the eight month of the year 2008 AD of the Gregorian calendar. So we have an officially atheist country celebrating via a Christian calendar – go figure.

The TV commentary

At least this time round Channel 7 managed to employ commentators who had some idea about what was going on without just referring to prompt sheets. Ric Birch has a history of involvement in previous opening ceremonies, while Sonia Kruger has a background as a performer.

The audio mix was a little surprising. Firstly, it may have been broadcast in HD widescreen, but the audio was only in stereo, one would have expected that with that technological marvel around them that the sound would have been delivered in 5.1

During the commentary Sonia Kruger commented on the deafening sound of the drums coming from the arena but it certainly wasn’t deafening coming through the TV set. In fact, the commentary was much louder than the sound from the arena, which was somewhat flat. Fortunately we lost audio from the commentary for a while and so we could enjoy the sights and sounds without the often unnecessary comments.

I did enjoy Sonia Kruger telling us that the soldiers were playing 1000-year-old drums. Yea right, all 2008 of them, identical too and all with remotely controlled lights in them... I bet Sonia will be picking up a few “genuine” Rolexes while she is over there too.

Now's this is China were talking about, you want 2008 copies of a thousand-year-old drum, no problem, how about a few spares as well.

Channel 7 has reportedly gained some of the highest viewing figures on record. But I bet those viewing figures dropped off considerably once the athletes started parading out. Unfortunately, although the show is supposed to be all about the athletes, the interest wanes considerably once this interminable parade starts and you can bet

Channel 7 had that figured because although they had ad breaks every 15 minutes during the entertainment part of the ceremony they didn't bother once the parade of athletes got under way.

Also intriguing that immediately before the cut to the ad breaks the vision cut to the same footage of the fireworks footprints – I didn’t pick this up properly until I watched my recording of the event. Something odd about that that I just can’t put my finger on.