How the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony audience became a giant TV screen

Part of the immense spectacle of the Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony was seeing 70,800 people in the audience become a massive TV screen displaying animations designed by the London arm of Chinese animation powerhouse Crystal CG.

If you watched the show live (or, unfortunately on time delay if you're in the US), you might have wondered how the audience didn't look like an audience at all. Instead, they resembled what seemed to be the largest TV screen ever, projecting light patterns that even portrayed the Queen and Michelle Obama.


Organizers pulled it off by providing each member of the audience with a ten-inch electronic paddle wired to a central computer and outfitted with nine full-colour LCD squares.

Not only did audience members participate in broadcasting images of a '60s go-go dancer, a train in London's Underground, and a representation of the birth of the Internet, they also danced with the paddles to create a twinkling effect that put to shame the old-school practice of holding up lighters during a performance.

Behind the scenes of the show, workers had laid hundreds of miles of cables behind stadium seats to connect the waterproof paddles, which were attached to a recyclable plastic holder on the back of each seat. In addition, during the show technicians had hundreds of backup paddles on hand in case any used by the audience burned out or malfunctioned.

Turn Audience into Screen

The genesis of the new technology came in 2010 when Frederic Opsomer, CEO of Tait Technologies – the company that made the LCD paddles – told LOCOG he could put a screen anywhere. Later the opening ceremony team, led by British film director and producer Danny Boyle, asked Opsomer if he could turn the audience into a screen.

Tait Technologies now calls the technology "landscape video" and says each of its handheld video tablets can be individually programmed and viewed at 180 degrees both horizontally and vertically.

In 14 weeks, 50 designers from digital media company Crystal GG created the animated images for the show, working at a secret London office where they used extra air conditioners to cool computer processors. More than 70 minutes of animations were all custom designed for the concave, bowl shape of the 360? screen. Crystal says it received requests for additional content until the last minute before the show.

“The audience literally became part of the action. No longer limited by large flat screens, we were presented with the challenge of creating animations to bring the stage and the spectators together,” said Will Case, creative director at Crystal. “We delivered. The live audience and those watching at home were drawn into the action. We are witnessing the end of the traditional video screen – this will transform the way event content is presented in future, becoming a more immersive experience.”

The first tests were performed in the Olympic Stadium on 10th July and final test run at the dress rehearsals last week.

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