Behind the scenes at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

The technical director of the Opening Ceremony, Piers Shepperd, said last night's event was the best yet and proof the UK leads the world in staging such extravaganzas.

A number of technologies were used for the first time and a range of British companies helped deliver the audacious showpieces.

Fireworks begin at the end of the ceremony
Fireworks begin at the end of the ceremony Credit: Press Association

It was extremely complex... A lot of ceremonies around the world are led by companies from the UK. A lot of the teams worked in Sydney, Athens and Vancouver so it was very nice to do a show back in London.

– Piers Shepperd, Technical Director

Shepperd revealed some of the secrets behind a ceremony which wowed thousands of spectators inside the Olympic stadium and billions of TV viewers around the world.

Britain's industrial age at the Opening Ceremony
Britain's industrial age at the Opening Ceremony Credit: Press Association

One of the most breathtaking sights came when the green and pleasant fields were subsumed by Britain's industrial age as seven huge smoking chimneys appeared to rocket up from deep below the earth.

They were actually inflatable chimneys... We had a winch which lifted them up and a winch that held them down to create the effect and hold them in place. That stopped them looking like bouncy castles.

– Piers Shepperd, Technical Director

When deflated, the chimneys, which were hidden in pits below the stage, sat at only three and a half metres. Within moments, they were rapidly inflated to a towering 30 metres.

The winches that lifted them from above were attached to a huge bicycle wheel network of high tensile strength cables spanning the stadium.

Mary Poppin's characters descend from the roof as a large puppet of Lord Voldemort is raised in the centre of the arena
Mary Poppin's characters descend from the roof as a large puppet of Lord Voldemort is raised in the centre of the arena Credit: Press Association

This "flying system" was also used to levitate the five 1.8 tonne flaming Olympic rings and the squadron of soaring Mary Poppins.

All of that was computerised. So we could control and vary the positions through the night.

– Piers Shepperd, Technical Director

Collectively, the wire network could hoist up to 25 tonnes - the weight of five elephants.

A parachutist doubling for the Queen at the Olympic Stadium
A parachutist doubling for the Queen at the Olympic Stadium Credit: Press Association

High above the wires, the most talked about moment of the ceremony saw a helicopter arrive with two stunt doubles pretending to be the Queen and James Bond parachuting out.

Mr Shepperd said the organisers worked closely with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure the helicopter was able to arrive at the exact time.

The two parachutists veered off to the right on descent and actually landed on a bridge outside the venue - behind where the Queen made her entrance into the stadium.

Back on ground level, 15,000 square metres of staging were used in the show - the equivalent of 12 Olympic sized swimming pools.

A total of 500 speakers and 50 tonnes of sound equipment made the million-watt PA system - double the amount of speakers on the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival.

Lights around the stadium read 'This is for Everyone' in relation to Sir Tim Berners-Lee invention, the world wide web
Lights around the stadium read 'This is for Everyone' in relation to Sir Tim Berners-Lee invention, the world wide web Credit: Press Association

The show telling the story of Britain did rely on some assistance from beyond the UK's shores.

Chinese digital media company Crystal CG International provided the technology that saw computer-generated images blanket the seats of the stadium at points through the show.

This effect was achieved with the use of 70,000 digital "paddles", each with nine lights, which combined into a wave of colour crashing around the stadium, controlled by a central computer.

But for all the innovation, a show is nothing without the actors:

  • There were 7,500 cast members in total
  • In the long hours of rehearsals and for the show itself, they donned 57,000 garments
  • Around 40,000 recycled plastic water bottles and 10,000 recycled plastic bags were incorporated into the costumes
  • The whole thing was filmed by independent production company Done and Dusted
  • The opening ceremony lasted just over three hours

Clearly, this was the best ceremony... But I would say that, wouldn't I.

– Piers Shepperd, Technical Director