LONDON (AP) -- The assignment was to follow the costliest, most spellbinding pageant in Olympic history.
Stepping out of Beijing's vast shadow, Danny Boyle didn't flinch in rising to the challenge in London.
For the Oscar-winning director, Beijing's opening ceremony raised the bar so high for Olympic extravaganzas that he saw no point for London to try to rise above the Chinese display of power four years ago.
Operating with a meager budget by comparison, Boyle felt liberated and stamped his own mark on the London Olympics - projecting both Britain's rich industrial history and its eccentricities, relying on creativity and cunning over hard cash.
Whereas Beijing had 2,008 pounding drummers, London's ceremony started with 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese in a quirky farmyard scene.
"There has to be a modesty," Boyle said. "You can't get grandiose with this job because you are following Beijing."
While China invested $40 billion in the Olympics, Britain had less than $15 billion, with around $40 million set aside, in austere times, for the opening ceremony.
"Beijing is something that in a way was great to follow because up to Beijing you can look back and clearly there was an escalation - the shows get bigger and bigger and bigger," Boyle said. "And you can't get bigger than Beijing. That in a way kind of liberated us.
"We thought, 'Great, good, we'll try and do something different. We'll try to use our resources in a different way.' We don't have as many resources and that's fine."
Whereas 5,000 years of Chinese history were distilled into the Beijing ceremony under the direction of Zhang Yimou, Boyle chose to hone in on the last two centuries of Britain's progress. And decline.
The Slumdog Millionaire Academy Award winner had no orders to cut out scenes depicting all that's gritty and grim in the nation despite Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt calling it "the biggest single advert for Britain in our history" and previous hosts using the ceremony purely as a glossy marketing tool.
"The danger is ... you feel the pressure of people who have a stake in it and want something out of it - governments," Boyle said. "We started under a Labour government, now a Conservative (led) government. Seb (Coe, the head of the games) has protected us from any kind of interference. We have been allowed to express ourselves."
London's opening ceremony charted how, from being the engine room of the world, a nation in decline after the industrial revolution has tried to reposition itself as technological innovators.
"We are learning our place in the world," Boyle said. "A hundred years ago, we were everything. Obviously the industrial revolution has partly bred that. But there is a change, so I hope there is an innate modesty (in the ceremony) about it as well.
"It's not unspectacular and unambitious. Quite the reverse. But there's a sense of modesty about it. You have to learn your place in the world."
Marco Balich, who created the opening and closing ceremonies to the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, said the mission for such events is to convey a simple message while not being superficial and still providing a spectacle.
"Beyond the money, every nation expresses his own soul, while producing the ceremony," Balich told The Associated Press. "Beijing wanted to show what a rich, modern and contemporary empire they are ... Britain has expressed its beautiful heritage and cultural history.
"They did in their own way - original, eccentric, different. You don't necessarily need to match anything. You need to look at yourselves and express what you think you are as a nation to the world."
And there is no bigger stage than the Olympics with more than a billion people watching the opening ceremony.
"There is no other thing that can even come close in terms of responsibility of representing a moment, a nation, an era," Balich said.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris