Modern Lighting Technologies and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Modern Lighting Technologies and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

I found the televised opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic games in London thoroughly engrossing and a spectacle for the eyes. No small part of the visual effect was the incorporation of modern lighting techniques into the performance. No longer satisfied with direct spotlights and pyrotechnic explosions, we have entered a new era where the technological advents in lighting play a central role in celebrating the opening of the games to the world.

The show the Chinese put on in Beijing in 2008 was a hard act to follow, especially when the UK budget of $42 million was less than half of what the Chinese spent on their opening ceremony. Credit the Chinese with incorporating LEDs and image projection into the panache and flash of these memorable presentations. They showed the world what could be done with imagination and innovation in lighting effects.

For the London ceremony, the design vision of director Danny Boyle was witnessed by an estimated 62,000 in the Olympic Stadium and a billion people worldwide via the television (that is a technical accomplishment in itself). Each seat in the audience was equipped with a 10-inch square electronic paddle fitted with nine full-color LCD squares, each controlled by a central computer. These devices broadcasted flashing visual effects that wrapped around the circumference of the tiers of the Stadium, including images of a 1960s Go-go dancer, a train in the London Underground, and a representation of the birth of the internet (where the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee spelled out “ This is for everyone ” in 40 foot tall characters). The audience also danced with the paddles to create a waving, twinkling effect. Truly the largest interactive Electronic Message Center that the world has ever seen (the animations were designed by the London arm of Chinese animation company Crystal CG).
Another striking use of LEDs was in the “casting” of the Olympic rings, offering the illusion of molten steel pouring down a trough and into the rings, complemented by erupting sparks and hissing steam. The shots from overhead were indeed magnificent. Of course, the usual spot accent lighting was used throughout, but the sources were so discreet that the result seemed quite natural.

My interest was further aroused during the tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, when they wheeled out what must’ve been a hundred hospital beds, complete with children and nurses. It took me only a short while to realize that light was coming from the bed covers; an internally illuminated comforter. This accomplished an illusion of warmth for the kids and when viewed far from overhead, a moving canvas of lights as the beds were wheeled around the enormous floor of the Stadium. I don’t know how they did it, but someone really took an imaginative step in design and engineering. Heck, the kids even bounced on their bright white beds.
I mustn’t forget to mention the enormous EMC screens placed at each end of the Stadium, allowing the director to inject filmed and live images to compliment the celebration (perhaps the most amusing being James Bond and the Queen skydiving into the stadium). While not necessarily a new technology, the size, clarity and purpose demonstrated how far the medium has evolved.

The last overwhelming perception of light had to be the Olympic Stadium itself, brought into our living rooms with towering shots from aloft. It seemed to shift and morph in color and intensity, changing character with each phase of the story being told, another golden ring cast in the shimmering lights of London.
Sure, there were spotlights and there were plenty of exploding, cascading, sizzling fireworks to retain the familiar. But the true glory, especially to an old sign guy, belonged to the modern lighting technologies and the way they were presented. I can close my eyes now and see the glimmer, the fanfare and the hope of the world gathered on one stage.

Skip Moore, President
Bill Moore & Associates Graphics Inc.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lost Landmarks

In the late 50’s, as a child riding in the backseat of the family station wagon, the grandson and son to sign shop owners, I would marvel at the large roadside sign displays. The colorful moving lights represented a magical world just beyond the window.  I would mark our progress to our destination by their presence, a sign kid traveling through paradise. Sure, I was a biased audience, but what I’ve learned is that many others not so closely associated with the industry share similar perceptions.

So when Peter Hartlaub, contributing reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, ran a feature in the April 22nd Sunday Datebook, “Lost Landmarks of San Francisco”, it triggered a flood of memories. What intrigued me was the overriding majority of the missing landmarks were signs, the very signs that were marvels of creation in my young mind.

Listed in the article were the spectacular factory and corporate facility signs:  Planters Peanuts atop their plant in S.F. with a 25 ft. tall Mr. Peanut, 

the Hills Brothers Coffee sign south of downtown (I remember the smell of roasting coffee as we approached the city that smelled to me like burned toast), 

the nearby Union 76 tower visible halfway across the Bay Bridge, the Hamm’s Beer brewery sign with a 13 ft. tall goblet that would magically fill to the top with amber and white lights, 

and the enormous Sherwin Williams Paints sign in Emeryville that had paint spilling out of a tipping can to Cover the Earth in dripping lines of ruby red neon.

Listed but not gone; the C and H Pure Cane Sugar sign at the south end of the Carquinez Bridge and the Tribune letters mounted on their ornate, 300 foot tall tower in downtown Oakland.

Also included were places of entertainment; the Circle Star Theater along the Bayshore Freeway in San Carlos with its gold, three-dimensional star nestled in a circle 40 feet in the air, the wonderful 52 ft. high x 72 ft. wide Grand Lake Theater sign in Oakland (its 2,800 bulbs still light the Oakland sky each Friday and Saturday night),

even Carol Doda’s sign at the Condor Club on Broadway. Not forgotten were the iconic Doggie Diner heads scattered across 30 Bay Area locations, 

and the Milk Farm sign off of I-80 in Dixon, with a neon and sheet metal cow rocking over the yellow moon. Left out, but not forgotten in my mind would be the Admiral TV animated spectacular at the foot of the eastern end of the Bay Bridge and the Orinda Theater sign shining brightly in the darkness of the wooded, well-to-do suburbs.

What I find remarkable with Mr. Hartlaub’s observations, and those that left pages of comments on the online posting ( ) is how important signs are in the memory of the general populace. Chronicle readers suggested many of the landmark signs listed above. Their remembrances are filled with sentimental affection and lamentations regarding the loss of these displays. In all, there were no disparaging references to these signs.

Indeed, signs are a vital part of our communities, heralding to those passing by the vitality of commerce and quality of life to be found there. Even a child recognizes this. So why is it that communities today have a stated mission to reduce and eradicate signs, replacing yesterday’s spectaculars with a bland and featureless urban landscape? Those that govern most of our communities in America promulgate the homogenization of the visible aspects of commerce when they should be embracing the visible personification of its vitality.

Signs, the spectacular displays of yesteryear, and the void they leave behind once they are removed, is still on everyone’s mind.

Skip Moore, President
Bill Moore & Associates Graphics Inc.