Olympics opening ceremony: What is it like to put on a show for the biggest audience on Earth?

Tomorrow night, Danny Boyle will join an elite band of directors.
  • @susborne

Judging by the number of reported mishaps that have dogged preparations for tomorrow'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, the Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director, Danny Boyle, rests on the success or otherwise of the £27m extravaganza at the Olympic stadium, which is due to feature more than 25,000 performers and athletes, as well as three cows, 10 chickens, and 70 sheep.

Boyle has had to reassure animal-rights 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 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 awarded with prestigious Emmys. Failure would open the gates to the sort of writing some critics will have been waiting weeks to unleash.

It hasn't been easy. It emerged last week that Boyle had fought with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the International Olympic Committee's television arm, over the right to direct the neutral TV coverage of the event. OBS always recruits YLE, Finland's public service broadcaster and athletics specialists, 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 (LA), to ignite a cauldron in water (Sydney), or 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 Los Angeles Games, 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, Turin in 2006 (for the Winter Games) 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 President 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's happy to hand over to Boyle and his team, who include 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's show may yet offer greater scale than can be achieved with a chicken; the director has gone to great lengths to keep details of the two-and-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 Beijing ceremony helped to propel its artistic director, Zhang Yimou, the renowned Chinese film director, on to a more 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, but has worked mainly in Greece since. Boyle is perhaps the best known artistic director of an Olympics ceremony, and, if nothing else, can expect more interest in his less well-known work as a theatre director.

But first, London, and 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 who 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: "I was writing a script for the announcer to say, 'show finished, let the Games begin', then suddenly it got moving."

Lois Jacobs is a British former events producer who staged the 2004 Athens opening ceremony. It included a giant, 20-tonne mask sculpture that rose from a pool before fragmenting to reveal three further sculptures, all of which hung on invisible cables. "If the wires had tangled, it would have jeopardised the whole ceremony," says Jacobs, who now runs Fitch, a design consultancy.

"We'd rehearsed it about 24 times and it had worked twice, and not the last two times. When it worked on the night, I was standing on the gantry just screaming with joy. It was the biggest TV audience in the world and we had one shot at it. There's nothing like it."