London Olympics: Opening Ceremony to Star Cows, Sheep

Director Danny Boyle has unveiled his vision for the London Olympics opening ceremony—he plans to recreate the British countryside, complete with farm animals, inside the Olympic Arena.

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Dave Poultney / LOCOG via Getty Images

Artistic director Danny Boyle poses with volunteers next to a model of the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony on June 12, 2012 in London, England.

Well aware it would be a tough slog to match Beijing in terms of glitz and sheer spectacle, filmmaker Danny Boyle has decided to keep it real during the London Olympic opening ceremony. Boyle, the creative director for the event, has cast real farmyard animals—including two goats, three cows, 10 chickens, 10 ducks and 70 sheep—in a bid to recreate Britain’s “green and pleasant land” inside the Olympic stadium. Unveiling a replica of the set this morning, the Slumdog Millionaire director described the British countryside as “something that still exists, and something that cries out to all of us like a childhood memory.”

The $42 million extravaganza, entitled “Isles of Wonder,” will see a cast of thousands dance on top of the simulated landscape, which will come replete with real soil, real grass, a village cricket team and ploughs. “[There] will be real clouds that will be hanging over the stadium,” he told reporters. “Work that out if you can. We know we’re an island culture and an island climate. One of these clouds will provide rain on the evening, just in case it doesn’t rain.”

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A giant “river”—represented in Boyle’s model by sparkly paper—will surround the countryside, allowing athletes to walk on water as they enter the Olympic Arena. A massive replica of Glastonbury Tor—a pagan hill in southwest England—has already been erected at one end of the stadium and hundreds of members of the public will crowd before it during the ceremony in a mosh pit. On the other end of the stadium, revelers will fill a second mosh pit which, bizarrely, will be “more like the last night of the proms”—Britain’s classical music festival which is staged every summer. “We hope the two mosh pits will do battle with each other,” Boyle said.

The latter mosh pit will be situated near the biggest harmonically tuned bell in the world. “The 1948 games brought to London nations that had been at war,” Boyle said. “The bells weren’t rung during the war. They rang to announce the peace. So we will begin our ceremony with a symbol of peace.”

Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid has already protested that the mock-up of the stadium looks like a set from the children’s program the Teletubbies. But Boyle maintains the set will help give the ceremony a moving narrative arch. He previously disclosed that lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest inspired him. “Be not afeared,” read the lines from the play. “The isle is of full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

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Sources involved with the opening ceremony have told TIME that the show will carry a heavy environmental theme. Dancers will mime the various ways in which urban sprawl threatens the British countryside, for instance, by pretending to drive cars and opening their trunks. The lush countryside will also transform into a black and dreary landscape at one point, apparently aided by the 500 LED fixtures and 1,100 automated lamps on tap. It all fits with some of the comments Boyle made on Tuesday morning: “This is a festival of celebration of an Olympic ideal. But it’s not a naïve show,” he said. “We’re trying to show the best of us but we’re also trying to show many different things about our country. The growth of cities is an extraordinary phenomenon that is clearly linked to the growth of the Olympic Games.”

Suttirat Larlarb, the sought-after costume designer who worked with Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire, has teamed up with him again for the event. She spoke with TIME ahead of Tuesday’s unveiling and emphasized that Boyle is keeping the 80,000 stadium spectators in mind—not merely the billions watching on television. “We don’t want to rob the stadium audience of anything because we’re only thinking about the television audience,” she says. “What happened in Beijing was a completely massive, spectacular, overwhelmingly beautiful television experience. And yet some people will say that when they were in the stadium they didn’t feel connected to it at all because it was devised for the television.”

Given the fact that most of the 10,000 people involved in the London ceremony are volunteers, the costume fittings and practice sessions are taking place at nights and on weekends. So far, there have been 157 rehearsals and, for Larlab, around two years of prep work. “It’s quite a ride, and every week we accomplish more and see things coming together,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so many spine-tingling moments just looking at a prototype of something.”

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