We met Marco Balich in his creative workshop in the heart of Milan and were immediately captivated by the intensity of his approach to work and the quality of the professionals who surround him. Wanting to talk freely about the relationship between investments and major projects, it seemed an interesting idea to interview the creator of shows that have involved hundreds of creative professionals and billions of people every time. This is also a form of design for us and it is no coincidence that in the year just ended Balich won the Compasso d’Oro for the Olympic Games Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
Simona Finessi We start with the future and with the show that will open in a few days in Rome that represents yet another challenge to common places and generalist culture. Marco Balich The “Last Judgment. Michelangelo and the secrets of the Sistine Chapel” exhibition which will open in Rome on March 15th was a tremendous challenge and one into which we have compressed all the know-how we have acquired in over 20 Olympic Ceremonies. The Olympic Ceremony is the most complex and important live show in the world: the one opening in Rio was seen by more than 3 billion people. To give you a comparison, the football World Cup final has 1.7 billion spectators and the Oscars come in at 180 million and for these events we use the most amazing lights, projectors, the craziest technology in the world. In some cases we have been the first to test the latest hi-tech tools produced by some of the largest companies in the industry. This challenge has a name – Artainment. It’s the name of the company we founded to produce “Last Judgment” and also the name of a new live entertainment format in which art and entertainment come together in a new mix: we tell the story of the genesis of a masterpiece from the world of art using sophisticated techniques , immersive projections and live performances. Those who come to see the show will literally be at the centre of something unique: 270° projections at the highest available definition, choreography that goes beyond the stage, a powerful musical theme written by Sting … I’m the father of four children who live flitting from Superman to Batman and back, who belong to a generation that is difficult to surprise and who don’t get the stimuli to discover how exciting works of art like the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel can be. Therefore, our idea is to use languages and technologies able to excite younger generations but in the context of a masterpiece. It is something that we Italians can do very well, we are convinced of it. We would like to inaugurate a new form of art and really the last time we succeeded as Italians was with the Opera. If you think about it, even the high points of Italian cinema or theatre have never reached the peaks of Hollywood or the London West End. With our team we want to try something new and first of all we have to thank an important institution such as the Vatican Museums who had confidence in us, scientifically validating the contents of our show.
SF So this is the first event for which you are really completely responsible? MB Yes, for us it is a giant step and to do it we asked the best people we’ve come across in recent years to join us. Just to name a few: Luke Halls, a video designer who is able to work with both the Royal Opera House and Rihanna; the music is by John Metcalfe, producer of people like Coldplay and Morrissey and the sets are by Stufish Entertainment Architects, the studio that created the stage shows for the last U2 and Rolling Stones tours. The co-direction is by Lulu Helbek and the voice of Michelangelo is by Pierfrancesco Favino. We really believe in this project, so much so that we have invested more than € 9 million. It’s a big exciting gamble.
SF I find this transition from event creator for other people to producing an event of your own as editor very interesting. I also find it very important because it is a production in which not only are you risking more on an entrepreneurial level, but it also represents a personal step forward because you are in a different role. When you raise the bar you always want to exceed your limits plus the Artainment format has no precedents and opens a completely different world. MB It’s a huge challenge. We are really excited about this work on the Sistine Chapel and the collaboration with the Vatican Museums. And think how many other possibilities could be opened for a Artainment production model like this one: Pompeii, the Reggia di Caserta and other Italian sites. We need to find the right balance in order to combine respect for works of art and the fantastic immersive technologies that are now available. The only people today who use these technologies to the maximum are the vast American theme parks but they do it at a silly, infantile level. Our idea is to exploit them in a different context, combining them with important real content. We like to think that this could be the dawn of a new era. Recent controversies, such as whether or not it is right to celebrate weddings at the Reggia di Caserta seem to me to be completely sterile. I believe that art can and should be transformed into a show, an event – obviously with respect. I don’t like this dogmatic attitude with which many intellectuals filter the general approach to culture, as if we necessarily have to be educated or have studied to get closer to the beauty of art. The Olympic Ceremonies have taught me that you can also bring beauty to the most remote village in Uganda through a battered old TV set and so I try to apply this lesson to everything I do. You don’t necessarily need to have studied art to understand and feel emotions in the face of beauty, you just have to be curious and never cynical.
LM This is a view of how the world of entertainment is changing. We are in a very interesting moment and your work is dealing with something powerfully contemporary, namely emotions. The world is changing radically and one way or another emotions express this profound transformation. Excitement, fear, anger, joy, desire to be together or alone. With your work you are one of those people with their finger on the pulse of these emotions, somehow you are able to trigger them, focus them and turn them into something that everyone can understand and for which there are no explanations. How is people’s desire for emotions changing? MB As you say, this code of emotions is what is most typical of what we do. Right from the start our innate Italian ability to draw on emotions has been the element that has made us loved by and gradually famous for throughout the rest of the world. Generally speaking, before us the world of big events was dominated by the English and Americans for 40 years. Our arrival was a complete game changer. We know how to listen to the client’s needs, but we keep our emotional filter. There is never any cynicism in the things we do, when we are at one of our shows or ceremonies we have to be the first to get excited. If it doesn’t happen it means that something isn’t working. Recently we organized the opening and closing of the Aimag Games in Turkmenistan, a very difficult country that quite exceptionally opened its social networks during our ceremonies: it was overwhelming to see the wave of emotion that emanated from the Ashgabat Olympic stadium. At the beginning of January we did our first show in China and even in a country that is culturally so distant from us, we could clearly see that the code of emotion is a universal language.
LM In these stories what is interesting is the degree of universality. When a story works, it goes everywhere, beyond cultural filters, ways of thinking, religions or race. There is something that affects everyone. Just saying “emotion” is too easy because there are so many different elements, taboos, my emotions are not those of an Arab, a Chinese or an African. When designing something like this, it means trying to give a visible shape to this universality, doing something that 3 and a half billion people see and which moves and excites people completely without filters. MB First of all, it is never just a one man job. In Rio where I was Executive Producer with CC2016 for the Olympic Ceremonies I got Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas and other leading exponents of Brazilian culture involved. They pointed out some important themes and approaches regarding their culture and I was able to express them in a spectacular way.
LM On the other hand, the frescoes of our churches were created for the illiterate, to teach the stories of the Bible to anyone. The principle is the same, it has to strike you inside and directly, with nothing in the way. Platform is a magazine that deals with contemporary design, we are very secular, transversal, pop, we have a lot of fun. This edition is called MONEY, which is one of the necessary conditions; without capital there is no design at any level. For the cover we thought of you because your projects are made possible by the fact that there is a very conscious, precise, instrumental and well-defined financial dimension. What is the relationship between design and money? MB That’s quite true, we put on the most expensive shows in the world. The Olympic show is the most watched in the world, the one with the biggest cast and also the most expensive. Where else can you have a budget of 50-60 million to put on two shows in one stadium? It’s a great privilege but also an enormous responsibility which you have to want and know how to take. During Turin 2006 I went to speak to all the important Italian opera, theatre and television directors and they all said “Whoa, hold on, the Olympics? It might all go wrong …” and I said “But when did you ever have a budget like that to put on a show like this?” and at a certain point since nobody else wanted to do it, I decided to do it myself. And I put together a team. I called Doug Jack, the man who invented mass choreography and we created a great skier with 1,000 people doing the legs and 2,000 people who made up the upper body. Then I called Mark Fisher, who had been my hero when I was working in concerts: he designed all the sets for Pink Floyd, then Ric Birch who had worked at the Barcelona, Sydney and Los Angeles ceremonies, he’s retired now but he was my mentor. It was a crazy experience. I was the youngest of them all and I had to lead them but I also had to listen to them, to learn from their experience. If you want to create such a huge thing there’s no space for grandstanding or attention seeking. I don’t believe in one-man-bands, I’m a firm believer in “us”. After Torino 2006 I was top dog in Italy but that’s not me. I wanted to start again, to go beyond national borders. Between the comfort of being the first in a Second division championship and the risk of being last in the First division I have never had doubts, I choose the risk every time. The Rio ceremonies had a budget of less than €70 million. It was down from the €160m for London and €280m for Beijing but we still had to maintain a very high quality standard. It was a grind, but we did it. I know, lots of people say “With all that money anyone can be good and anyway wouldn’t it be better to spend it on schools or hospitals?” I always reply with a story. When I did the celebrations for the Mexico Bicentennials in 2010, we had a budget of $55 million. At the same time the Mexican state had bought 30-40 tanks costing $3-4 million each so at the cost of 10 tanks we celebrated the identity of the country, which meant filling the younger generations with pride, helping them look at the future in a different way. Money is very important, you can’t be snobbish or stand-offish about it. If you are a creative professional, you also have to be a bit of a businessman, a bit of a visionary, a bit of a boss, a bit of a motivator, you have to be able to keep everything together.
LM The design of emotions is interesting for us. In a big event, like in a show, you play all your cards almost all at once. In an event like yours it’s maybe a few minutes, in an exhibition it’s maybe three months but the principle is the same. Time is a variable and you are dealing with this sense of impermanence, this fact that you do something precisely because it disappears. In the end it’s a marathon, not a 100-metre run and in your case you have rethought a job, you have reinvented a trade. This phenomenon has many variations, including a number of previous versions but you have really altered it, you have changed it. So what does it mean to design a phenomenon of this kind? MB I look at fantastic stories like the birth of Pixar and as points of reference I think of those great masters who have that “flash of intuition” like George Lucas. I like people who perceive and are aware of something interesting happening around them and who work at developing that something, keeping the rudder steady as they go in the direction of the goal they want to reach. I trust “happy intuitions” and work hard to achieve them, thanks to a solid and highly talented team beginning with Gianmaria Serra and Simone Merico, the two partners with whom Balich Worldwide Shows was created along with WS Corp, the holding company which owns six companies specialized in live entertainment. Teamwork is very important for me, I avoid the pitfall of narcissism like the plague.
LM In actual fact you are a small industry, so how does your studio machine operate? MB There are 150 people in the whole group which will go up to more than 200 by the summer. In 2017, WS Corp had a turnover of €100 million and we are in a phase of accelerated evolution. We have just put on our first show in China and we are working to carve out a space in the world of permanent shows. After the debut of “Last Judgment” in Rome with Artainment Worldwide Shows, we hope to soon be able to announce a long-lasting production in Asia by Balich Worldwide Shows. We also want to play in other leagues and the first arena we want to enter is that of permanent shows which will be the challenge for the next 4 years. Once more and as before we are the last to arrive and this is the fun part. In the world of great events and important ceremonies we have reached the heights. We are among the top players.
SF But then do you play on the concept or the economic aspect? MB A tender for the production of an Olympic ceremony is a very long and complex process, it takes two years and an enormous number of factors are taken into consideration. The Olympic Committee evaluates your organization, your history, your first creative idea. Then it gets down to understanding in more detail how you are going to spend the budget, which topics you aim to deal with, what plot are you planning to build, which team will you put together for your project. You go through different selection stages until the final choice. By the summer we will know if together with an important Japanese partner, it will be us looking after the Tokyo 2020 ceremonies. Once you win the tender, you fire up a highly creative and organizational machine that grows exponentially from month to month. In Rio, we were a real squadron: 970 people of all nationalities. Imagine how complicated the logistics, transport and catering are, just to give some examples. It is essential to build an extremely efficient organizational structure.
LM We Italians have a tradition of extraordinary craftsmanship. Every time I think of the thrill of creating, I think of the salt cellar that Benvenuto Cellini made for the Emperor of Austria, just 35 cm wide, it took 15 years to do it and even now people still talk about it. We produce emotions on every scale but they are all designed, all highly scientific. The idea that emotions do not have a design is stupid. The Italian strength lies in the ability to transform states of mind into a project with millimetric quality and precision. The true artisans are those who then get angry if the result does not come up to scratch. The obsession with precision is what makes a project great. MB When I was appointed Artistic Director of the Italian Pavilion at Expo 2015, I met Renzo Piano, who told me something very enlightening. We were talking about Italy and he said “Because of how it is geographically positioned, Italy is a rotisserie, a kind of kebab that turns and absorbs the smells of Germany, the Levant, France, the Mediterranean and mixes them, keeping them all together”. I was very impressed by this image, and it was from it that I got the idea of putting a model of the world in the pavilion in which there was no Italy, it was a provocation to show what a huge gap the absence of our country would leave.