Masters of ceremonies

Tomorrow, Danny Boyle joins an elite band of directors who have orchestrated the opening of an Olympics. So what's it like putting on a show for the biggest audience on Earth? Simon Usborne finds out

Judging by the number of reported mishaps that have dogged preparations for tomorrow night's Olympics opening ceremony, it will be a wonder if it passes off without facing a) global ridicule or b) an incident, possibly dung-related, involving one or more of its farmyard participants. The reputation of the man behind the vision, Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, rests on the success or otherwise of the £27m extravaganza at the Olympic stadium, which will feature more than 25,000 performers and athletes, as well as three cows, 10 chickens and 70 sheep.

Boyle, 55, has had to reassure campaigners that the animals will live happily after the Games, while also deflecting criticism about axed cycling sequences, a symphony orchestra forced to mime because of sound complications, and suits for the athletes' parade that one Team GB member said made him look like "something out of an Elvis tribute band".

If the film-maker and latter-day shepherd pulls it off, the plaudits ought to dwarf those he received after winning an Oscar for Slumdog in 2009. Love them or loathe them, opening ceremonies are big business. The best are rewarded with Emmys.

It hasn't been easy. It emerged last week that Boyle fought with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the television arm of the International Olympic Committee, over the right to direct the neutral TV coverage of the event. OBS always recruits YLE, Finland's public service broadcaster and an athletics specialist, to film opening ceremonies. But Boyle and his team won the fight, leaving YLE to direct the athlete's parade and the speeches.

As the director bites his nails in a claustrophobic control room tomorrow, he will become one of the more visible faces of a peculiar and occasionally secretive industry of artists, producers and technicians. They are the people you call if you need a man with a jetpack (Los Angeles), one to ignite a cauldron in water (Sydney) or one to manage 2,008 drummers playing in terrific unison (Beijing).

Ric Birch is perhaps the grand master of ceremonies. He was in charge at the 1984 Games in LA, when an injection of Hollywood turned perfunctory parades into the greatest (or most pompous) show on Earth. He hired the rocket man who flew across the LA Coliseum to start the ceremony, while a tanker of volatile rocket fuel idled outside. "It was the same mixture they used in the Atlas rockets," Birch recalls from his home in Shanghai. "The cops were very nervous."

Birch was involved in ceremonies at Barcelona in 1992, Sydney in 2000, the Turin Winter Games in 2006 and Beijing in 2008. He is chief among the names you've never heard of who realise the artistic vision of people such as Boyle. They include Peter Minshall, a Trinidad-born costume designer, Yves Pépin, a projection specialist, and Don Mischer, a producer and director who also staged Barack Obama's inauguration celebrations in 2009. Now 67, Birch will sit out London but his global events firm, Spectak International, will soon start work on the Rio 2016 ceremony. He says he is happy to hand over to Boyle and his team, which includes the Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry and Mark Fisher, who has staged every Rolling Stones show since 1989. He has doubts, however, about Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" vision, inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.

"Danny is obviously seeing things through a film director's viewfinder," Birch says. "The way I and most producers would approach it is to create an event that is of sufficient scale to be seen from the back. It needs to be larger than life."

Boyle has gone to great lengths to keep details of the two-and-a-half-hour show secret, pleading with 60,000 volunteers who saw a dress rehearsal on Monday night to "save the surprise" for the hundreds of millions expected to watch on television.

If the show is a triumph, where will it leave Boyle? The 2008 ceremony in Beijing helped to propel its artistic director, Zhang Yimou, the renowned Chinese film-maker, on to the international stage, and his budgets rose accordingly (from £30m for Curse Of The Golden Flower in 2006 to £60m for The Flowers Of War in 2011).

Others win only short-term praise. Dimitris Papaioannou, a Greek stage director and choreographer, was celebrated for conceiving the Athens ceremony in 2004, but has worked mainly in his home country since then. Boyle is perhaps the best-known artistic director of any Olympics ceremony and, if nothing else, can expect more interest in his less well-known work as a theatre director.

But first, all eyes turn to London amid hopes that the show will go without a hitch. The lore of the opening ceremony is filled with stories of mishaps and near-misses (remember the doves that flew fatally close to the cauldron in Seoul?). Birch recalls watching in horror as the cauldron at Sydney seized up three minutes before the 2000 Games began. He recalls: "I was writing a script for the announcer to say, 'show finished, let the Games begin', then suddenly it got moving."