Welcome to Glasgow. Looking back
On the evening of the July 23rd 2014 at around 9pm the Glasgow Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony began with a live stadium performance welcoming the world to Scotland. This was then followed by ‘Welcome to Glasgow’- the film I directed featuring Amy McDonald and a cast of 500 Glaswegians. The film was screened inside Celtic Park stadium on Europe’s largest LED screen (100 metres long, 11 metres high weighing a colossal 38 tonnes) to a stadium crowd in excess of 40,000 and to an international broadcast audience of around a billion.
Let’s rewind a bit, about 7 months. My very first meeting about the job took place in Glasgow in late December 2013. It was early days so there was only a basic concept on the table. In fact it wasn’t even a concept, no music had been selected and no artists were involved – it was merely a seed of an idea. What was very clear is that the organisers were thinking big and wanted a film for the Opening Ceremony that featured the general public and showcased the city of Glasgow.
When I was formally offered the job in early 2014 there were still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the concept and the exact form the film would take. I was warned that the project would be subject to constant change, with lots of moving parts and several departments involved in the production. This is actually nothing new to me but the film was also part of a much bigger live broadcast event– and this was a world I had not encountered before. This was a slightly unnerving position to be in, especially when you’re considering investing a lot of yourself and time into a project, but in the end I decided to take a big leap of faith and do it.
After a lot of discussions the song eventually selected for the film was a specially rewritten version of the Rod Stewart song ‘Rhythm of my Heart’. I’ll be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of the song choice, not because I didn’t like it – it was definitely in keeping with the spirit of the event, but there were several creative and technical reasons why it didn’t work for me – but I’ll talk more about that later on.
At around the same time a basic storyline for the film started to emerge…
“We start with an opening establishing shot of a busy George Square. There are hundreds of people populating the Square going about their daily business. We see Amy McDonald walking though the Square with a guitar case in hand. She sets up her pitch and begins playing and singing – as if she were busking. (A Glaswegian covering a classic song on the streets of Glasgow) At this stage the audience might be thinking is this a film only about her? But then… after just a few lines, our first cast member enters to ‘steal’ the song leaving Amy behind. He then passes it to someone else who in turn passes it to a larger group of people. The song continues to spread around the square like a karaoke tag match – office workers, police, gardeners all begin to join and sing – and so it continues until it grows into a mass cast filling the Square reaching anthemic proportions. Amy then rejoins the cast for the penultimate chorus before leading the crowd into the Stadium (we transition through to LIVE TV) where she continues to perform live in the stadium with some member of the video cast. Then, at the end of the mid-eight, Amy answers what we’ve all been thinking and she calls out: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome on stage…Rod Stewart”…The crowd will go wild at his entrance! Rod is the very special guest who now ‘takes back’ ownership of his own classic song – He’s surrounded by hundreds of Glaswegians singing with him like soccer fans surrounding a club hero.The video will feature hundreds of ‘real’ Glaswegians and will reflect the energy of the people of Glasgow: grounded, cheeky, principled, audacious, welcoming, confident (in-keeping with ‘People Make Glasgow’ is the current marketing hook for the city) We want to be both audacious and authentic in everything we do. These will be real people, not actors faking it. Their singing will be heartfelt and confident. In relation to the original lyric, if the city of Glasgow is my heart, the rhythm is the life of its people.”
So this was the brief and the man responsible for throwing down this ‘Creative gauntlet’ was David Zolkwer – Head of Ceremonies and the Artistic and Creative director of the entire show. Under David’s creative direction it was my responsibility to take this concept and develop it for the screen. My initial thoughts revolved around the prospect of handling a very large, amateur cast in a busy city centre space. The other thing was the thought of embarking on a job that would inevitably (and unfairly) be compared to the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic games – and by sheer weird coincidence was also directed by a Mr. Boyle – the Oscar winning director Danny Boyle! Unlike Danny I wasn’t creatively responsible for the whole Opening ceremony, (this was David Zolkwer’s job) but I was directing a significant part of it and a huge global audience would be watching, (all 1 Billion of them) – and I was constantly reminded of this fact. The scale and prestige of the event brought with it a certain amount of pressure to deliver but fortunately filmmaking is a collaborative medium and I had a team of talented folks in my corner to help me face this challenge; Meredith Power the Producer, Emily Jane Boyle our Choreographer (another Boyle! – no relation!) and Nekhat Patel our project manager – who were my closest collaborators.
So we had a brief and a song, now we needed a cast! The Events casting team held open auditions for both the opening and closing ceremonies – this was a massive operation that ran for several weeks. Anybody interested could simply register, turn up and give it a go – which was a great opportunity for us to have a look at people in a more relaxed environment. The initial sessions were designed to accommodate large groups of people who were tested/put through their paces on their basic co-ordination and rhythm.
Amongst the hundreds, even thousands who attended the auditions – we saw people of all skills and aptitudes, some were great movers and could really dance -some couldn’t but showed great enthusiasm, which was equally as important. Ultimately we weren’t looking for superstars but people who represented all walks of life, believable personalities who would bring an authenticity to the film – we didn’t want professional performers we wanted real, passionate Glaswegians. It was from these sessions that we were able to make our initial selections for the next round of call-backs.
Before the call-backs our Choreographer EJ organised two days of dance workshops at the Royal Conservatoire with some performing arts students. The purpose of these sessions was to allow us to experiment and test some choreography and ideas with some trained performers before we tried it out with complete amateurs. This was invaluable as it gave us some creative freedom and because we were working with performing arts students they could work very fast.
The 2nd Round Callbacks we’re held at the famous Arches club and it was from these sessions we had to start deciding upon our final cast and who would make it through to the final rehearsal stage. (It all felt a little bit X-Factor at times) The callbacks needed to ask much more of the cast – we put them through more dancing and co-ordination exercises and start applying some of the routines and movements we had devised in the student workshops, we also needed to hear their singing voices. We simply tried to encourage everyone to have fun with it. Some people would really embrace this and belt it out a verse confidently, others would shirk away from the spotlight and become very self-conscious, but to be frank, this is exactly what we needed to see. My feeling was that if you couldn’t perform at this level then they would most certainly struggle once in front of camera on the day – so it proved to be a very valuable exercise.
After several torturous days of reviewing casting tapes and going over our audition notes – we arrived with our selections for the final cast. We had a primary cast of around 170 people and a secondary group of 300-background cast to layer into every shot – so altogether around 500 people.
While all of this was going on my own Director’s prep was raging on in the background. When I first looked at George Square I was little perplexed because despite its History and impressive surroundings, from a practical, filmmaking point of view it really is just a big, flat empty public space in the city centre. Apart from a few statues, lawns and well-kept flowerbeds there’s not really much to it. Ideally it would have been nice to have steps on different levels, fountains and other interesting features where we could stage some the action – but we didn’t – so this forced me to think very hard about the design, layout and geography of the film.
The solution was very straightforward (but very effective) and simply consisted of introducing a central seating area in the middle of the square. This did a few things; firstly it added more life and activity to an otherwise empty space by creating an area where people would believably converge, secondly it condensed the space, making George Square slightly smaller bringing everything and everyone nearer to each other – which really helped when it came to designing scenes for the film.
Alongside the script, when it came to designing the film’s sequences I needed to work out a way in which we could break it down and create a structure or physical framework where the action and choreography could live within. The solution I arrived at was to create a system that essentially divided George Square down into three separate zones – with each zone representing a verse and chorus of the song – so it worked out that we Shot a Zone per day over the 3-Day shoot. This also made the staging and the logistics of the shoot more manageable.
Establishing the Film’s Geography within the ‘Zone’ system was a good starting point, the next stage was to start dissecting the track – because this dictated everything. Alongside the choreography (that was also evolving all of the time) the track’s arrangement, instrumentation, lyrics and timings all heavily influenced the performances and in turn, my shot design.The aim was to create a sense of movement or ‘a journey’ around George Square motivated by each performer as they handed the song on to someone else. I also wanted to create a sense of spontaneity – almost as if this musical had just broken out on the square with the camera constantly moving and reacting to the performers throughout the film.
At one point I did toy with the idea of shooting the film as one single continuous shot – but that wasn’t logistically feasible. So instead I found a middle ground by designing a series of sequences and shots that would utilise some very long handheld takes combined with some a more, standard ‘commercial’ style. This approach gave me the level of control I needed and helped to preserve the strong sense of movement and screen direction needed to steer the dance action around George Square.
The music was always challenging because it didn’t quite have enough energy for me – it had a plodding, conversational pace that dithered along – which is not what you want for motivating a musical sequence. The only place where it really came to life was during the chorus, so the real creative hurdle was to try and counteract this and find other ways in which we could inject more dynamism. Obviously the performance and choreography would bring energy into the film but the movement of the camera also had an important job to do.
One of my closest collaborators was EJ our Choreographer and there was always a constant dialogue about how the choreography and performances were evolving. I had an extremely precise (to the second) plan of how the performers would move around the square and where they needed to be at each point in the song. What EJ did amazingly well was offer up ways in which they could move and dance, as well as layering in lots of individual performances and details throughout each scene.
Our approach to the Choreography was to always aim for something that didn’t look overly choreographed or polished. We didn’t want to make it into something tight and technically perfect that you’re used to seeing in a typical musical so it gave the impression of professional dancers dressed up as members of the public – we were not asking them to take on characters or pretend to be anything that they weren’t. Nor were they required to learn dance steps so that they were all moving perfectly in unison with each other and that was the whole point – they were selected because we liked them for who they were. We strived for something more natural, uninhibited and spontaneous so when they burst into song it’s quite obvious that they’re not professional performers, just real people belting it out, unselfconsciously and unashamedly whether they have the vocal/dancing skills or not.
This middle ground between staging carefully blocked out Choreographed moves and maintaining a sense of naturalism and authenticity was a very hard balance to strike. It worked well in some areas, in others it didn’t. So during the rehearsals we would heighten some areas and in others parts we would tone down – until we stuck the right balance. Maintaining this naturalistic and seemingly spontaneous tone throughout was difficult because every performance element and movement still needed to be precisely blocked out and choreographed in conjunction with some very tight timings and some big and complex camera moves.Ultimately we wanted the film to unfold like one big, Glaswegian street party where the musical baton was passed around freely and the song spreads as it moves between each individual and group around George Square.
After these Dance workshops I returned to London to thrash out a more precise shooting storyboard. I left this quite late in the process because I wanted to include all of the new discoveries and adapt the film’s sequences to include everything that had emerged from workshops and auditions. All of the new movements, choreography and performance notes went on to inform my final shot design and sequences. I spent two very long days with Storyboard artist Simon Hogg who drew up a shooting board that worked as a solid guide as to where the film was progressing. The challenge now was taking our final ideas and making it work with hundreds of amateur volunteers in the final rehearsals….
The final rehearsals took place at the legendary Barrowland Ballroom – an amazing venue and the perfect space to accommodate our large cast. For about a week leading up to the shoot our job was to get this large amateur cast ready, briefed, ready for their roles in the film and comfortable with us – the crew. The Barrowland rehearsals were also a good opportunity to work through some of the more complex camera moves with the camera department; DOP Paul Herley and Operator Simon August attended some of the last sessions before the shoot to see the choreography and performance in action.
Even at this late stage I was still tweaking some of the sequences, designing new shots to accommodate the revised routines and movement that were emerging from the final rehearsals. It was one big monster, always moving around and changing shape. So a constant process of refinement and re-calculating was the only way it would work and at times it really pushed me out of my comfort zone – which can only be a good thing.
On many levels we were taking a huge leap of faith with the volunteers. Anyone of them had the power to undermine or screw up the project. They could leak details of the Opening ceremony (Like everyone working on it they were all sworn to secrecy), they could be late, fail to turn up on the shoot day or generally just mess about or be disruptive – all of these little things that could potentially compromise the rehearsal process or the shoot. We relied on them so much, we were at their mercy – but without them we had no film. We decided that the best approach was to simply treat them like fellow professionals and hope that they would rise to the occasion and embrace this unique opportunity. I’m pleased to say they did not disappoint us, they were fully committed and by the end of the week they all knew their routine for their part of the film. Furthermore they were bonding – and it was great to see them supporting each other and having a few laughs along the way. This is exactly what we hoped would happen – but the big question remained; would they be able to carry across this energy and enthusiasm to the shoot itself? Would they be able to focus on the shoot days in George Square in front of the cameras and hit their marks when it really mattered?
The film was shot over the May Bank Holiday weekend in Glasgow’s George Square, it went well but it wasn’t without its challenges. We shot out of sequence; (Day 1: Zone 2, Day 2: Zone 3, Day 3: Zone 1) – this was dictated by Amy’s availability and a few other logistics. On Day 1 we lost a few hours to rain (Glasgow is not known for its constant sunshine!) and this was a frustrating start to the shoot – but for the most part it was dry and overcast. We were very lucky with the weather because it could have been much worse. We shot with 2 Cameras (2 x F-55 @ 4K RAW) I love shooting this way, but it was also essential given the nature of job as it allowed us to cover some of the bigger scenes with the mass cast.
As with all shoots you’re up against the clock but we managed to work through the majority of my shot list. My 1st AD Justin Travers did an absolutely outstanding job in helping to control the cast and the hordes of background. EJ was on hand to keep an eye on the choreography while Meredith and Nekhat battled away in the background. The camera department led by DOP Paul Herley and operator Simon August worked tirelessly in some challenging conditions. I should also mention the invaluable event, health & safety and casting teams who worked behind the scenes to take care of the huge cast. The cast were amazing and truly rose to the occasion, their commitment never waned and their spirits were always high.
The film’s post-production took place back in London, our editor Andy Phillips (from the Chophouse) did a fine job of the cut and all additional post (Flame work and Grade) was carried out at The Mill. As you’d expect the Opening Ceremony had its fair share of critics but overall our film was very well received and taken with the celebratory spirit and humour of the event. “Rich in humour, jollity and self-deprecation” – as one critic put it. The public reaction was strong and even Amy McDonald herself tweeted her approval, which was nice.
Looking back this was a big, professional challenge that brought with it many firsts and I learnt a great deal from doing it. It’s not everyday you have the chance to direct a Musical for a huge global sporting event so overall I feel privileged to have been part of it, but as the saying goes “it’s the people that make the place” and it was the people of Glasgow that really made this experience worthwhile. Big Love X