Lighting the Rio 2016 Opening and Closing Ceremonies
CAST Software October 22, 2016

Production credits:
Lighting Designer: Durham Marenghi
Lighting Team Manager: Jennie Marenghi
Associate LD: Joyce Drummond
TV Lighting Director: Nick Collier
Lead Lighting Programmer: Andy Voller
Lighting Programmer: Ross Williams
Lighting Programmer: Paulinho Lebrão
Follow spot Captain: Chris Henry
After the drama, excitement and theatre that was 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Durham Marenghi, lighting designer for the opening and closing ceremonies at Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and he looks back at the highlights and challenges during the design process and the industry itself.

Durham started his career at the tender age of 14 whilst playing Oberon, King of the Fairies at the amusement of technical staff. Rather than acting, he wanted to do lighting design.  During his first year at university he built a lighting desk for the local theatre, who he eventually joined, spent a bit of time on tour with the Sex Pistols. Having one of the most spectacular careers, he’s worked on previous Olympic ceremonies in Turin, Beijing and Sochi.

Durham Marenghi 1 on 1 interview


Describe the lighting design process (from concept to completion) for the Opening and Closing ceremonies
at Rio 2016.

After deciding that the opening ceremony was to be delicate and theatrical and the closing ceremony was all about partying Brazilian style, we were hired as the lighting designers in October 2015, leaving only 10 months before the games were due to start.

The creative team wanted a lot of projection, rather than the “big beam” event lighting that typically the opening ceremonies are associated with. We designed the whole system in wysiwyg, and then handed the drawings over to production for the bid process. The companies then came in to bid for it and we had to value engineer the rig to fit into a comparatively small budget – we only had a third of what we normally spend on these ceremonies.

We released the drawings and worked out which desks would control what fixtures, then we moved onto the programming session. There was an interesting symbiosis with lighting and projection, not only in the show but also technically.

Logistically, we had to negotiate who would work when because, obviously, when the sun came up not everyone could work. It was a very close combination of skills in terms of the design and also using night-time to its best advantage. wysiwyg played a massive part in us being able to continue to work either in daylight or when elements of the system weren’t up and running. There was a point about the cost of diesel for generators which sometimes imposed limits on running the lighting rig so wysiwyg stepped in whenever we didn’t have control of the real fixtures.

Which scenes stood out for you?
For both ceremonies, it was the Olympic cauldron. Usually when the cauldron is lit it emits a lot of light inside the stadium. Rio was a very ‘green’ and efficient event so we had a very small flame in the cauldron which didn’t burn up anywhere near as much gas as we normally do.

This gave me the opportunity to magnify the mirror effect on the sculpture behind the cauldron by having visible pin spot beams moving around the stadium. We could make them very theatrical and also save energy!

What were the challenges?
One challenge was the Box City set at the end of the stadium. A lot of performers were doing rehearsals and it was a very dangerous place to be because each box was up to 20 metres high. For the first week of the rehearsals I kept the area in working light for safety, then we slowly ‘weaned’ the performers onto our real production lighting.

Let the games begin. Team lunch on show day. From left: Nick Collier, Andy Voller, Chris Henry, Jennie Marenghi, Durham Marenghi, Ross Williams, Paulinho Lebrão and Joyce Drummond.
Let the games begin. Team lunch on show day.
From left: Nick Collier, Andy Voller, Chris Henry, Jennie Marenghi, Durham Marenghi, Ross Williams, Paulinho Lebrão and Joyce Drummond.

We were lighting the stadium not only for television but also for the live audience. The lighting levels we were reaching were around 200 Lux where normally we’d be up at 600 or 800 Lux, so the live Olympic stadium actually looked quite under lit. In order to keep the contrast ratios required for good broadcast pictures, the live event doesn’t look as bright as one might expect it to. We constantly asked the theatrical creatives not to look at the stage, but to close the curtains and look at the monitors because that’s what 3 billion people were going to see, not the 75,000 in the stadium. That decision has to be made at the beginning of the process.

One of the hardest challenges you have then is to negotiate with the International Olympic Committee and Olympic Broadcasting Services who expect to see a certain level of brightness on the important protocol elements; the flags, the athlete’s parade, etc. We had to demonstrate that to those viewing on TV it would look perfectly fine even though the stadium itself might look a little dim compared to what the VIPS might normally expect from a live show.

Because the venue was a football stadium for the soccer finals, as soon as the opening ceremony was finished, there was a big changeover to get all our set out in six days. Then they turfed it and it became the soccer finals stadium until the day before the closing ceremony. We had no set, no performers, no stage and no dress rehearsal, so that was an exercise in intuitive pre-programming with wysiwyg. We also got choreographic charts made up for mass cast formations of Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain and all those sequences we saw in the show with performers upon projection. We projected the charts onto four big panels of parachute silk which we dragged out onto the pitch every night and we created a projection on the sheets. That was a challenge, we got away with it and it worked well, thank god!

The most important thing for me spiritually and lighting wise is the Olympics athlete’s parade and, of course, we never get to see the athletes until the actual show night. During programming, I remember we lit the whole sequence with just two people walking the field rather than the 2,500-3,000 athletes that we had on show day, so that’s quite a challenge. Each of our systems had wysiwyg running and attached to it so the programmers could work independently, and also sometimes in these stadiums you cannot see the whole system from the control room anyway. It’s good to know what you’re doing by having it mirrored in wisiwyg.

What fixtures did you use and how did they work with the planning?
I wanted to do the cauldron justice with all the pin spots. I made sure that every fixture in the main rig was able to go down to a very sharp beam of light. We needed to combine great optics with high output, factor in that we weren’t allowed to hang much on the roof so it had to be lightweight, and then factor in the cost of diesel – especially for overnight programming – so it had to have low power consumption. So I went for the Clay Paky range with Sharpy washes, Mythos and the CP Alpha 1500 profile and 1500 Beam. We also had weather-proof SGM for architectural lighting as well as Robert Juliat followspots all supplied by Agora.

It’s great to have support from CAST for planning and programming. They supported us with a dongle or two and were always in close collaboration. If I need a fixture that doesn’t exist in the library then they will make one for me. We have a fantastic relationship with them and we try and pass them as much information, such as fly-throughs and demonstrations about what we’re doing when we are politically allowed to do so – in this case it’s after the event.

How is the lighting market in Brazil different from Asia, Europe and the US?
It’s very expensive to import things because of import duties. But I liked working with the local people and suppliers. I took on a Brazilian associate lighting designer called Joyce Drummond and I also insisted that one of the programmers we used was also Brazilian, Paulinho Lebrão.  I wanted to leave a legacy of skills and experience that isn’t normally left when the Olympic circus moves out of town.

Where did you start?
I discovered my calling at the age of 14. My mother was a director of amateur dramatics. Whilst playing Oberon, King of the Fairies, I saw two guys on the side of the stage having a great time laughing at my expense. I decided that rather than acting, I wanted to do whatever it was they did, it turned out that they were the lighting guys!

During my first year at university I built a lighting desk for the local theatre, who I eventually joined, created the first Northern Soul disco in the Midlands then went on tour with the Sex Pistols and did very little studying. I now have been fortunate to have enjoyed a spectacular career and have been lucky enough to work on previous Olympic ceremonies in Turin, Beijing and Sochi.

In your career, what or who has been your biggest influence?
UK lighting designer Andrew Bridge, who I worked with as a production electrician, taught me virtually everything I know about colour. And then Pasquale “Paky” Quadri, who was the founder of Clay Paky, an amazing innovator who had a very strong moral compass. When Vari~Lite brought out the first moving heads to compete with moving mirror fixtures he remained true to his word and didn’t compete in the market until the patent ran out to protect the IP of inventors, of which he was considerably one of the best!

What inspires you?
New products and therefore manufacturers who listen to designers for what they want, not what the rental companies want. And for thinking outside the box, I like watching other people’s work, especially if its got some twist that you haven’t thought of yourself and they are not just repeating their styles ad nauseam.

Durham Marenghi
Durham Marenghi and wife and business partner Jennie Marenghi with Christ the Redeemer!

I like to keep innovating, keep doing something different every time. I stay at the cutting edge of technology but not at the bleeding edge. For example, you’re not encouraged to use new things at the Olympics, they all must be tried and tested. Of course we’re always pushing boundaries so we’ve got to try and use new things on other shows to justify using it on the Olympic ceremonies without surprises!

When wysiwyg first came out, there was a desire to use pre-programming but not to rely on it because it was a real unknown. Nobody knew what you were talking about when you said ‘pre-programming’. At the time the only pre-programming we were able to do was at the 4to1 studio which Patrick Woodroofe owned which had 1 in 4 scale par cans (named as the ‘Birdie’ by Andy Bridge because they were ‘one under par’). I first pre-programmed for an Andrew Lloyd Webber concert attended by Prince Charles and Diana at World Expo in Seville 1992 for British Day. We had some Vari~lites as well which we could not pre-programme because we couldn’t get a quarter size working model of a Vari~Lite, for example. Unfortunately Patrick’s studio became a bit redundant with the advent of moving light technology.

So, we moved into the virtual world and didn’t look back. Today around 25% of our lighting design work utilises the virtual world of wysiwyg for presentation and pre-programming. We can provide our clients with animations, for example in the early days of wysiwyg there was a company who wanted to rent some very big tents for corporate Christmas events but they had no photographs to show because no one had ever done one in the tent. I created a fly-through in wysiwyg showing a bunch of people having a sit down dinner and a band on the far end of the tent. They used that as a tool, so we were earning money as lighting designers in the virtual world – that was back in 1991!

I’m also inspired by light in nature. I went cave diving in the Cenotes, Mexico, and the way the light came through holes in the cave roof and into the water was absolutely spectacular. And there are the inevitable sunrises and sunsets. They are particularly good in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. There’s no light pollution so you just see everything clearly.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Without a doubt, the closing ceremony at Rio.

I’ve also worked in China doing the London handover for 2012 where we had an hour to work before the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. I wanted to go in and do a bit of work on the work we had done previously for the closing ceremony of the able-bodied Olympics. When I got in there, the four Chinese programmers had ‘tidied up’ their desks and wiped out all the original work. The next day was a soccer final and so they wouldn’t let us switch off the stadium lights because they were preparing the pitch for soccer. If we took control of the 3,000 or so moving lights and moved the master fader up and down you couldn’t see any effect whatsoever on the pitch. That became an exercise in intuitive lighting as well, of course we were nervous as the cameras rolled but only nervous because we care!

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
For young designers who aspire to do big shows, I would say don’t lose touch of the smaller shows because they can be equally rewarding and fun, and not quite as stressful.

There are some very good lighting design courses around but you have to get practical experience wherever and whenever you can, and not just in lighting. For example, I’ve worked as a rigger, a flyman in the West End, a sound engineer as well as production electrician for designers. You can walk into a theatre environment and say, “I’d like to hang that there” knowing that is technically possible because nothing upsets a technical crew more than demanding the impossible.

Lighting design is one of the few industries where you start at the top of the ladder and you work your way down – you start up in the air focusing the lights, then you work your way down the ladder and stand on the stage waving your hands about. Inevitably be nice to people on your way up because you might meet them again on your way down.

Opening and Closing Ceremonies lighting plot

Always do your homework – I do more homework now than I ever did at school! Preparation with programmes such as wysiwyg is absolutely everything so you don’t get anything unexpected when you are on site and time is always of the essence.

One of the most important things that can be achieved with wysiwyg is that you can preview all the camera angles – we had over 30 cameras at Rio – we check the lenses out, move backgrounds around, see if there are infrastructure issues with speaker positions or anything like that, and we can then show the creative directors physically where things are and where they can go. For example, in the Turin Winter Olympics, the creatives aspired to four 12 metre diameter balloons that performers were to be suspended from, so we modelled everything in wysiwyg trying to find somewhere in the stadium to keep the inflatables when they weren’t being featured in the performance. We ended up with two 8 metre ones because they were the only size of object we could actually physically keep within the stadium, and that saved people a lot of money and a lot of hassle just putting it all in the virtual world.

What’s next for you?
Abu Dhabi National Day on 2nd December. It’s a big staging show and in terms of size it’s very similar to the Olympics opening ceremony, except instead of the athletes’ parade we’ve got a parade of tanks!

As for the Olympics we carefully design lighting and projection for the artistic sequences but at the end of the day the parade is what everyone is fundamentally there for so that has to be perfectly lit. Off with the projection!

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Contact: Katinka Allender
K-Communications & Associates