Alumna helps design Olympic effort

Alumna helps design Olympic effort

Ma’s vision becomes reality as the world watches

“It was immensely challenging and difficult because of the artistic standard we set for ourselves, to do something that had never been seen, and to see a side of China that had never been seen. It was a lofty goal for us to reach.”

The spectacular opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics wasn’t over yet, and the rave reviews already were pouring in.

“When it comes to opening ceremonies,” said NBC’s Bob Costas, “retire the trophy.”

The four-hour event, featuring more than 15,000 performers and amazing, first-of-their-kind production elements, received glowing praise from all over the world.

The Guardian, from Great Britain, said the ceremony “outdid all of its predecessors in numbers, colour, noise and expense.”

USA Today‘s review enthused about “the sheer, satisfying beauty of the best effects. Those incredibly well-ordered circles, the dancers flitting across a giant globe, the fireworks exploding, the paintings come to life.”

Legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg called the show “arguably the grandest spectacle of the new millennium.”

At the center of this magnificent production was OC alumna Jennifer Ma (93), a member of the core creative team that conceived, designed and executed the opening ceremony.

As the chief designer of visual and special effects, she and her team were directly responsible for all pyrotechnic and special effects, LED effects, screen projection and images, interactive elements and non-traditional stage design.

Three of the most talked-about highlights from the opening ceremony - the levitating Olympic rings, the pyrotechnic “footprints in the sky” and the lighting of the cauldron - were in her purview.

So, with all the rave reviews, how would this OC graduate rate the opening ceremony?

“Artistically, I’d give it a B-minus,” Jennifer said.

A B-minus? She’d give what may have been the greatest show in history a B-minus?

Well, of course, that is the remarkably high standard this team set for itself. And Jennifer is quick to point out that the team did an excellent job worthy of an A-plus.

But the artist in Jennifer, the product of an OC art and design program acclaimed for its quality and rigor, believes the production could have been even better.

“Even though what we accomplished was quite good, there are still things as artists we wish we could have pulled off, things we planned from the beginning that would have struck a chord on a different level that we wish we could have explored more and presented,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer and the core creative team, led by director Zhang Yimou, spent three years preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

The first one-and-a-half years were spent brainstorming, testing, and drawing. Then, from spring 2007 to April 2008, the team worked to finalize the production, literally going back to the drawing board as different ideas or logistical challenges caused the plans to change.

“Eighty percent of the work was brainstorming 10 to 12 hours a day for a year. Thinking back, it is kind of a miracle that it took place,” Jennifer said. “I learned a great deal in terms of working on a project and with people on a massive scale because of all the permissions you have to get and the logistics of the production. The process was painful for all of us. But the great value was the way the obstacles and pain helped to cultivate the mind and the spirit.”

As the Olympics approached, they staged three dress rehearsals in front of a stadium filled with 90,000 people. The rehearsals revealed problems and challenges, compounded by the fact that they couldn’t do a full public test run of many top-secret elements such as the footprint, the lighting of the cauldron and the presentation of the rings.

“So many things went wrong. I thought it was going to be a disaster and that we would lose face in front of the world,” Jennifer said.

But on the night of the ceremony, things went right…very right…on the world stage.

“We were totally on edge of our seats to see how it would come together. Everything came together so nicely. It went better than any rehearsal,” she said.

Along with praise from around the globe, the team members were hailed as heroes in China. With the controversies surrounding the country and the Games, the ceremony served as a rousing opening that highlighted the best of China’s history, culture, creativity and ability for millions of people around the world to see.

“Afterward, people would recognize us and say ‘thank you.’ That was very nice and made me feel proud,” Jennifer said. “It was immensely challenging and difficult because of the artistic standard we set for ourselves, to do something that had never been seen, and to see a side of China that had never been seen. It was a lofty goal for us to reach.”

Consider it done.

After the Olympics, Jennifer did some traveling and relaxing as a way of transitioning from this massive three-year project back into her “regular” life as an artist. But she didn’t rest long.

Two shows featuring her work opened this month in London - at Haunch of Venison gallery and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. She is spearheading several public art projects in Beijing, participating in an art Triennial in Japan, and doing a solo show and curatorial project in Washington, D.C. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao project features an ink-wash painting-video installation that she first conceived for the Olympics.

Even though Jennifer’s successful career has taken her to many of the world’s major contemporary art museums, she remains energized by the impact the Olympics had on her, both personally and professionally.

“As cliche as it sounds, it was a life-changing experience,” she said. “It’s affected me and changed me in so many ways - artistically speaking, as a person, as a Chinese national, as an artist, as a woman. It has had a profound effect on my relationship with China and the world.”

By Wes McKinzie