THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTION. Marco Balich is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Balich Wonder Studio. Born in 1962, initially he studied to be a lawyer, but in 1989 Balich organised the extraordinary Pink Floyd concert on a floating stage in his birthplace of Venice that was broadcast on TV to 100 million viewers worldwide. This was his beginning in the world of large-scale public events, and ceremonies. Today he is credited with directing and producing a record number of 14 Olympic Ceremonies and 12 Regional Games, as well as producing several other large-scale events all around the globe.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Marco Balich, how do you define yourself?
I still haven’t found a correct definition. I’m a curious producer and creator. I love to create big emotional statements that impact on hundreds of millions of people. I’ve always been fascinated by big events that create that sense of unison and emotion, the thrill and excitement that bonds people together. Even though I’m 60 I despise cynicism. I am absolutely in love with fresh energy and big and emotional goosebumps, whether they’re cultural or celebratory of a nation or of an anniversary.
How did you invent your job?
I’ve always been very curious, and in the 80s there was the boom of the big concert tours: U2, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones came back then, because before they were always disorganized. Except for Woodstock or other mythological happenings, the rest were not really produced as an industry. For me concerts were the first test of how a moment of pure joy can happen when you are there with a lot of people around you. That was a driving force to do what I did.
For a while after that you worked in television. Did you enjoy it?
I produced a lot of musical shows for Italian television, which is probably not the best face of Italian identity or culture, and the surreality of the fact that you need to have this serial of events didn’t allow me to create something very beautiful and special. But it was a beautiful experience for me, because almost every show that we do is televised and so to have the knowledge of what is good for television is important. But if you don’t have the emotion right there, right now, in an Olympic ceremony or whatever else, it doesn’t go through the cameras. For example, last Easter during COVID there was a mass by Pope Francis in an empty square. He was alone, but you could feel that it was so strong. It was emotional. It was a statement. An older guy just sitting on the throne and giving an Easter blessing was so powerful to me, and I’m not particularly religious. That is the perfect example of how you need to have something very special. That’s why sporting events are the only major things that the young generation follow on television, because whether it’s Formula 1 or football or Olympics, what you see is happening right there, right now, at that special moment in time.
“The goal is to make the host country very proud in that moment; to deliver big values, big symbols, in a very understandable way.”
2016 RIO Olympic Opening Ceremony
Marco Balich, in 2002 you created the opening and closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and then – very successfully – in Torino in 2006. Numerous other events followed, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Tokyo, in Kazakhstan, in Saudi Arabia, in Turkmenistan, and the World Expo 2015 in Milano….How did you start to create all these events?
I was in the junior national fencing team, so I always was in love with the Olympics. I missed Moscow 1980 because of their Afghanistan invasion and the boycott by many Western nations, but I had a series of experiences in big events. In the closing ceremony of Salt Lake City 2002 the next location was Torino 2006. The new mayor receives the flag from the previous mayor and it becomes officially the next Olympic City. I had proposed to do these 10 minutes for Torino, and it was at a very odd moment, right after 9/11. We couldn’t prepare anything because all the flights in the States were blocked until the end of October. Everything was really dramatic. I arrived with a very small team in a wounded nation who wanted to restart, and the Olympics was a moment of restart, so we had to create – and it was the first time it was introduced in an Olympic ceremony – those big projections on ice. At the time that was very innovative.
I realised that that’s what I wanted to do, because there were the best people doing the music and the best choreography and all the people that I admired were part of the Olympics. We won the bid for Torino 2006, but I was not a director so I asked all the famous Italian theatre and opera directors if they would like to be the director. They were all very skeptical, so I said, OK I’ll do it. It became the first Winter Olympics that was as important as the Summer Olympics in terms of the scale, the numbers of the cast, the nations broadcasted, the impact. It was really a big moment when Pavarotti gave his goodbye to the world singing Nessun Dorma! There was a red unbranded Ferrari that did the five rings on the ground. The dancer Roberto Bolle was there. It was a beautiful moment.
How long did Torino 2006 take you to prepare?
I fully dedicated myself for three years. Now I can do it in two. The first six months you create the idea and the creative team of the local nation; the second you budget and start to have all the approvals for that and start to compose the music, etc. The third six months you prototype costumes, special effects, start to do all the machinery, the scenic elements; and the last six months are rehearsals. In a way this is on the same trajectory as a big Hollywood movie.
How many people take part in an Olympic event?
In Rio we had about 900 people behind the scene, and in the front about 12,000 people participating actively as dancers or choreographers. Imagine the logistics involved to accommodate 12,000 people! Just for example: you have to produce 12,000 pairs of shoes, and so you have to open three factories that work for you for six months. My job does require a certain flexibility, because you have to deal with the difficult moment when a choreographer goes out of his mind and wants to leave the rehearsals; or the composer gets in a fight with the musical director; or deal with the head of a secret service – because you have a lot of heads of state in that location. The scale and range of the kind of people you meet is what makes it interesting. It is always an experience. In a year or two of your life you learn a new language, a new culture.
Working in places like Brazil or Sochi or Tokyo must be very different from working in Torino. Who commissions you?
Usually there is a local Olympic committee who issue bids for the construction of the stadium, for the outfit of the volunteers etc. etc., and also for the ceremonies. In a way, it’s like being an architecture firm; you propose your creative idea and the attached budget. It’s a big job, six months of teamwork of many, many people, assembling and creating something that has to be very important and relevant for the people of the host nation. It has to speak from their point of view, but at the same time be understandable around the world.
What you propose has to fit with the unique characteristics of the host country?
Absolutely. Every nation has to produce their own symbols. We hire the best choreographers, directors and costume designers in the nation, and then help them to develop grand scale events. The goal is to make the host country very proud in that moment; to deliver big values, big symbols, in a very understandable way.
“Emotion is the key to a beautiful experience, and emotions are a social moment. You cannot have a moment of pure joy by yourself.”
Marco Balich, millions of people watch the Olympic opening ceremonies. How can you conceive such huge events?
The Olympics – or now the FIFA – are in a number that is very difficult to translate to any other event. The difference between FIFA and the Olympics is that the family watches the Olympics but men watch FIFA. That’s already a big separation, but the goal is that whatever you create has to be understood by a 14 year old from Tanzania. If he doesn’t get it it doesn’t work.
The Olympic ceremonies are about three hours long. How do you keep people’s attention?
You change the pace every 5 minutes. You have to change completely, and the big transformation that you see in front of your eyes is what makes it. A big chunk of time, say 60%, is for the athlete parades, which is always considered the boring part but in fact every nation waits for it and wants to see their heroes and to know who is carrying the flag. The IOC tries to shorten the athlete parade, but it’s impossible because there are 203 nations, with an average attendance for each nation of 30 or 40 people. You have Tonga with three people, but Spain with five hundred. You have to prepare all of them: 12,000 people in line outside the stadium.
Do you work on that too?
Of course. You have to put them in line and be sure that they get the exact flag and placard. We know the flags of the first 100, but from 100 to 203 – Papua New Guinea, Montenegro, Macedonia…. They all have to be treated as equal. The contradictions in the Olympics fascinate me. It is beautiful that the rich and the poor country compete at the same level, are represented at the same level, and have the same rights.
You did the big Tree of Life for the 2015 Expo in Milano, and it’s still there. Is it now a symbol for the city of Milano, like La Tour Eiffel is in Paris?
What I learnt in all those big events is that emotion is the key to a beautiful experience, and emotions are a social moment. You cannot have a moment of pure joy by yourself. The first thing you do is pick up the phone and call your best friend or your wife or your partner. The language of emotion is what I treasure. In the Expo in Milan they were building all those pavilions but I told the organisers that they were missing an emotional symbol because, with all due respect, architects very seldom make emotional statements. They make rational thoughts and don’t go by instinct. Usually people then tend to go to contemporary artists like Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons to create a statue, and that then becomes a symbol. I told them they needed something that talked about Italy answering the theme of the Expo, which was feeding the planet. I told them that Italy could nurture from the roots and try to make a technological projection of what our rich culture taught us. It became this object scenography with music and sound, which had a profound emotional impact, and by the end every day 50,000 people were running to see the show. It was really beautiful, because people need to take a picture with a phone, they need a symbol that they relate to that reminds them of what their experience of something was.
Where is your next symbol?
We are doing the next symbol, or icon as we call it, in Doha, something incredible, an image that will travel the world. We are also working in Vietnam. We translate what we learn as a language of emotions to apply to destinations, and indeed every real estate development or theme park or theatre needs an identity. That’s the biggest quest. There is a business unit of my company which is now doing a lot of work in Saudi Arabia, and we just gave the idea for Real Madrid’s new stadium in Madrid.
Necessarily you work alongside architects. How does it go?
At the beginning they are very suspicious, but then they realise that we bring an emotional masterplan, as we call it, that complements their ideas very well. In the 70s very ideological leftist architects would try to build the perfect city, and it was a total failure because it lacked humanity. Even now the approach is often similar, and that’s where we come in. We sit next to them and work together to develop a place in a destination through entertainment, community, identity.
2016 RIO Olympic Closing Ceremony
2015 MILAN Tree of Life EXPO
2006 TURIN Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony
2019 LIMA Pan American Games Opening Ceremony
2018 ROME Giudizio Universale
2017 TURKMENISTAN Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games
“My Olympic career keeps going, and my company is now probably the most recognised Olympic event producer in the world.”
Marco Balich, you also had a novel approach to The Last Judgement of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel?
It was called Giudizio Universale and in 2018/9 was the biggest selling ticket in all Italy. Doing the Olympics you are exposed to the best technology and learn not to be afraid to make statements, and I wanted to celebrate Italian art by applying super high technology in an understandable way, so I convinced the Vatican to give me the rights of the Sistine Chapel. In collaboration with the Vatican Museum we developed this show which contained a serious and historically impeccable approach to the history of Sistine Chapel, but in the language of the technological generation. For example, we developed a 3D of Rome with the people from Assassin’s Creed – a very famous PlayStation game that all the young people play – together with the experts of the Vatican Museum. I have four children and with them I’ve seen at least eight versions of Spider-Man, but every time I asked them to come with me to see a museum they were always dragging their feet. So I said, I will show you that Michelangelo was a superhero.
How did you tell his extraordinary story?
Michelangelo arrived in Rome when he was 30 years old, a big diva from Florence, and Pope Giulio II appointed him and wanted to make the chapel which was there – St Peter’s was not built yet – very beautiful. There were already some interesting paintings inside but Michelangelo wanted to make the history of the Bible; and so he developed the first scaffolding structure, and for years he painted the Bible. He almost went blind because of the fresco material going into his eyes. Then he left, and after 30 years he came back aged 60 and painted The Last Judgement, this huge masterpiece. I told the story about his journey of coming to Rome and Giulio II, and then other popes after that, and then coming back to do the The Last Judgement. He was a tormented artist aged 60 plus, and in a moment of his life where he was questioning about faith, about existence. That painting was his final testament to the world.
Did you tell the story of the Sistine Chapel as the place where they elect the Pope?
I told this story in a very comprehensible way, about how the chimney, which was popping out in the middle of the audience, gave the black and the white smoke. All the bishops are locked in the Sistine Chapel to vote and they’re all dressed in red. When the pope is elected, the one elected goes into a small room next to the Sistine Chapel and has twenty minutes to decide if he wants to take on this monster job which is for life or not. If he decides to do so, he changes and takes off the red outfit and puts on a white one, comes out to say his papal name and then makes his first public appearance. I tried to tell this fantastic story because usually when you go into the Sistine Chapel you can only stay for five minutes, cannot talk, and have to look around in a big crowd and then leave.
Is this show still on?
No, it was cut off by COVID and we lost a lot of money, but that’s OK, it was a beautiful statement and an experience to learn all those things. A lot of people came to see it, including important directors for Cirque du Soleil and people from Las Vegas casinos, because they wanted to see how we projected on the ceiling and on the right hand side and on the left hand side. Rome was a trailer. Now there is a big Abba avatar metaverse show in the O2 in London which is sold out for a year, and to be surrounded is the new frontier of live entertainment. You don’t just watch in front, you watch up, you watch right and left, you move your head around and are immersed.
You participated in the Olympic handover from Beijing 2022 to Milano Cortina 2026. Will you do the opening ceremony of the Milano Cortina Winter Games in February 2026?
I certainly would love to be part of that experience, and I would try to encourage young directors to come forward and guide them from the back. It is three years from now, so pretty soon they will have to make the decision. I will be very happy if they choose us. My Olympic career keeps going, and my company is now probably the most recognised Olympic event producer in the world.
Do you have competitors?
We have four, and now a fifth one from France, because for Paris 2024 they chose a French company. Paris has a project to do the Olympic ceremony along the Seine in the open air – not in a stadium – which is courageous. It is going to be fantastic.
What do you think about the recent celebration of the Platinum Jubilee of the Queen of England?
Celebrating the birthday or the reign of a Queen goes back to the fact that people want to endorse their symbols in a positive way. They want to have something that they can relate to. The Queen is an essential part of British culture, and so even if all these celebrations could be a bit pompous in fact it is very effective, because they bring back this sense of identity which cannot coincide with Brexit. Brexit is political. This had to be higher, to try to celebrate humanity and the fact that together we are better, and we should not be afraid of our identity. Being strong in our identity we are not afraid of other identities interacting with us. A lot of the problems that we have in Europe, especially about migration, are that people fear: so if you reinforce your history it is valuable and when your roots are strong you don’t fear the new. Certain occasions like the Olympics or FIFA put a lot of people together, and it’s crucial that we don’t give up on any of these big events.
In essence, you want to give us joy and moments of togetherness?
Yes, we want to celebrate humanity. In the next Olympics in Paris you will see the Ukrainian team receive a huge welcome, and you will see the barefoot hero from Africa who will win a gold medal and you will see beautiful stories that put us together in a much better way than financial statements or political ideology. At the end of the day we have to look to what puts us together and not what separates us.
Thank you very much for being with me Marco Balich, and for telling me some of this great adventure which is your life.
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