An Olympian Task

Artem’s first Olympic project, following the tendering process, started with the task of building a giant scenic prop for the Industrial Revolution scene; a huge capstan and gear train driven by 6 horses!

Ultimately this fully-functioning mechanical was cut due to the amount of activity on stage, and lack of time available for the scene change. However the design and build allowed us to prove our abilities which helped us win subsequent work. The Capstan was drawn up on computer with 3D renders and animations to show it working, and allowed us to calculate the weights and forces involved. The Ceremonies' creative team, who inspected the finished article, made the comment that Artem not only had the technical expertise to make it work, but the artistic expertise to make it look right, painted and distressed as required, without being told. In addition, it was completed ahead of schedule.

This was the first project and, although it was verbally confirmed in late December, work was not able to start until early February 2012 when contracts were signed and invoicing allowed. In this intervening period, other projects were starting to come along. Meetings were a constant occurrence at Three Mills Studios where the Ceremonies' crew was based and tenders arrived by e-mail in a steady trickle which required many hours of dissecting and costing. Part of the tender process involved a series of reports on ‘sustainability’ covering the sourcing of materials (some being banned) and the recycling of most materials after the events. All de-rigging and recycling work had to be carried out under strict guidelines, and allowed for in the original quotes.

The team in Ceremonies was a particularly friendly and cooperative group of individuals. It is not possible to mention everyone but some deserve much praise. To start with, Danny Boyle and his Production Designer, Mark Tildsley, were great. It is a credit to them that their team worked so well together. The ideas were original, but they were very open to suggestions and it was a pleasure to come up with solutions to difficult problems. Ted Irwin was Head of Props, a huge task that he carried out with good humour at all times, never seeming to get flustered; I don’t know how he managed it. Piers Shepperd’s cool head as Technical Director, with Dan Shipton and Chris Vaughan feeding through information on details which made things practical, while Dave Williams held the logistics and scheduling together regarding staging and, by the end of the process, must have been an exhausted husk, but he was always on top of things. Lastly, Luke Mills, in charge of Special Effects, was a friendly, organised, sensible human being with some of the more dangerous items to tackle. It was through him that we first got involved in doing ‘practical stuff’ when we were asked to be involved in tests, which eventually took place at our premises in West London in December 2011, along with other companies being considered as suppliers. For this, we were asked to produce a scaled test of the molten metal pour effect from a crucible, and smoke effects for the giant chimneys. Tests by others included the amazing pyro waterfall effect from the central rings, and the internet ‘lightning’ effect set-off by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. This was the first opportunity to meet the Ceremonies team that we were going to get to know well in the months ahead.

As we delivered projects, confidence in Artem’s abilities obviously grew, and some of the more problematic projects came our way, the two main ones being the giant puppets that apparently had been going round the design office for a while without resolution, and the giant baby’s head for the end of the NHS scene. Voldemort is probably the puppet that everyone remembers, although there was also Captain Hook, the Red Queen, and Cruella de Vil, all iconic baddies from children’s fiction. Voldemort was over 20m high and had to emerge from a bed 4.5m x 2m! No small task.

Again, it all started on a computer, working out what was possible, and even if it was possible. With all projects there was a balancing act between budget, time, and supplier's materials. Some items were so esoteric that delivery was critical. We used four pneumatic radio masts upside-down for the bed legs on the Red Queen to allow the whole thing to rise into the air. These were specially made by suppliers who were used to working in months, not weeks, for delivery. There were worried looks on Artem technician Ken White’s face and some choice words as the supplier came up with excuses for late delivery.

As the Opening Ceremony prep was well under way, discussions started over other ceremonies. The main item here was the ‘Octobus’ for the Olympics Closing Ceremony. Es Devlin had designed a wonderful octopus for Kim Gavin, the director, which had to emerge from a fairly small period bus. The bus had to be designed and built from scratch and the sides of it needed to drop down to let the ever-increasingly-sized Octopus emerge.

When this project started, we had about two months to go. One Artem team, led by Colin Foster and Will Wyatt, dealt with the bus, its design (both mechanical and visual) and its construction. Another team, led by Josie Corben and Fiona Cazaly, tackled the 50m diameter octopus that had to inflate out of the bus. Alongside both teams, our electronics guru, Richard Hince, devised ways of getting 700m of colour changing LED’s sourced, installed, and powered (poor fellow!). This project had so little time, particularly due to changes, that the team were down at the rehearsal venue in the pouring rain trying to get everything finished, while during each rehearsal something would get torn apart and require fixing. The final straw occurred when the show workers were guiding the bus onto a low loader to get it to the stadium and the main drive gear was smashed as the vehicle was winched aboard, arriving at the stadium on the Sunday morning of the ceremony un-drivable!! There were a few nervous moments during the day as three possible solutions were put into play in case the main fix failed. The repair was finished at 1730 as the audience was entering the stadium!

The whole 2012 Olympic experience was a challenge from start to finish. An enjoyable challenge admittedly, but we were all relieved when it was over, and something like normal life could be resumed. It was however an event that everyone will remember. The roar in the stadium was superb, the atmosphere intense, the sound system unbelievable, the adrenalin was pumping and the world was watching, and we knew it!

Post script - the items Artem provided were:

Olympic Opening Ceremony:

  • Smoke effects from the small cottage, from under the grassy knoll tree, from the giant chimneys and beam engines. The huge chimneys needed a special unit built into the top, remotely controlled from under the stage.
  • Molten metal effects from the large crucible, and the pyrotechnics along the sides of the trough that “forged” the Olympic rings.
  • The impossibly tall Child Catcher carriage (built in our Glasgow workshops)
  • Trampoline beds round the stadium (some 5m x 3m) on which the children bounced.
  • Telescopic beds on stage that rose from the ground to be 8m high, with a child on each.
  • The giant puppets – Voldemort (who rose to 20m high), the Red Queen, Captain Hook and Cruella De Vil
  • The giant sleeping baby (head 10m x 6m)
  • The lightweight flown house, a full-size replica of a modern family home, from which Sir Tim Berners-Lee eventually appeared.
  • Rain from the cloud above it.
  • Wind for the main national and Olympic flags while they were being hoisted – for all ceremonies.
  • Pimping the powerboat that David Beckham steered to bring the Olympic torch up the Thames, adding jet engines, and a holder for the torch to prevent the flame being blown out.

For the Olympic Closing Ceremony:

The Octobus – an electrically powered period bus built from scratch, that drove on stage carrying Russell Brand, and from which inflated a 50m diameter giant transparent Octopus covered in 700metres of LED lights that changed colour with the music being pumped out by DJ Fat Boy Slim.

For the Paralympic Closing Ceremony:

  • Five petrol-driven wind machines that were then mounted on steampunk style motorbikes
  • Fire bikes. 2.7m high ‘wire’ figures on bikes that burst into flame on cue. (originally 50 were made for the Olympic Opening Ceremony)
  • Fireflies. Twenty-one aerial ballet units with clusters of oversized colour changing lightbulbs, that flew into the stadium with performing acrobats (built in our Glasgow workshops)