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Beijing Olympics' Gold-Medal Effort at Manipulating Reality

By Renay San Miguel
Aug 11, 2008 1:38 PM PT

I certainly don't want to give the impression that I'm too old-school for this new-media, all-digital, high-definition world. Like every other red-blooded American male, I loves me some special effects; the more explosions, computer-generated graphics and visual fireworks the better, as long as they don't completely obliterate character and story.

Beijing Olympics' Gold-Medal Effort at Manipulating Reality

But I'm talking about my summer movie viewing habits. When it comes to watching news events, such as last Friday's opening ceremonies at the Beijing Summer Olympics, I generally like my reality unmanipulated by microprocessors and software. So imagine my disappointment regarding revelations that Olympic broadcasting officials used computer graphics to fake the procession of firework "footprints" across the Beijing skies. The enhanced images were then inserted into the actual coverage.

Olympics organizers admitted the deception to the Beijing Times, saying there were safety concerns about using a helicopter to capture the footage from above with all those explosives going off around it. They spent the better part of a year, and no doubt lots of Chinese yuan, using computer-generated imagery (CGI) to recreate the shots of the 29 "footprints" marching in the sky from Tienanmen Square to the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium. They even used digital magic to simulate not only Beijing pollution but also the camera-shaking that occurs when filming from a helicopter.

We Have the Technology

The technological aspects of the fakery -- even on a truly Olympic scale, with an estimated audience of 3 billion -- don't seem to be all that challenging.

"It would be fairly straightforward to create that shot. It wouldn't be that difficult," Scott Thomas, director of engineering at Seattle's Victory Studio production house, told me when I asked about the necessary logistics. "If somebody came to us and said, 'we need to create this scene for a movie,' I'd say, 'Sure, we can do that.' From creating it to making sure that it was seamless enough that you couldn't tell it was faked -- sure."

Thomas, whose resume includes live sporting event production for network broadcasts, didn't want to talk about the ethics of what the Olympics officials had done. For that I checked in with Ed Bark, who spent 26 years as the TV critic for the Dallas Morning News before starting his own Web site. I was curious as to whether NBC, which carried the Beijing Olympic broadcast feed to its viewers, let its audience know that what it was watching was not real.

Bark checked his transcripts and said Matt Lauer used the phrase, "Call it a cinematic device," and later added, "This is actually about animation." Co-host Bob Costas chimed in with, "This quite literally is cinema."

"I think they did make reference to it," Bark told me. "Whether anybody really caught this and thought, 'Oh you mean this is on tape or on film,' I don't know if anybody made that connection. They didn't beat people over the head with the information or go out of their way to say what you are seeing is fake. That tells me they had an idea what was going on and probably thought no big deal one way or the other."

I called NBC and asked whether the network had prior knowledge of Beijing's digital insertion. I had not received a response as of press time.

A Slippery (Digital) Slope?

Bark is willing to give NBC a pass. "I don't think anybody is going to chastize them. There are worse things than that, and it doesn't seem to be hurting them so far." Indeed, the ratings for the opening ceremonies were the best ever for a non-domestic Olympics. NBC's gamble of not broadcasting the ceremonies live so it could air them in advertising-rich prime-time paid off, even if it had to dam up Internet leakage of ceremony video.

All of this is making me feel a little like Grandpa Simpson railing at the clouds. Okay, I realize that fireworks in the shape of footprints did actually go off over the Beijing skies, and that that deception was simply done to enhance the television viewing experience by providing a better camera angle. It was just 55 seconds out of a visually stunning, breathtaking 2-hour-plus opening ceremony that only comes around every few years. Nobody seems to be clamoring for any apologies, and it certainly shouldn't overshadow what Michael Phelps is trying to accomplish at these Games.

Yet it will probably provide someone in the future with a powerful precedent. If it's all about the TV image, what's to stop more digital manipulation of other major events, taped or live? It may not be on the scale of the type of deception depicted in the movie, "Wag The Dog," where news footage is doctored to sell a war, but as ratings become even more important with the proliferation of entertainment/news alternatives, don't put it past some broadcast types to envision other ways of enhancing reality.

And no, these are not the ravings of a closet conspiracy theorist. I do indeed believe that man landed on the moon.

I'm just wondering why Beijing's organizers couldn't have had more faith in the kind of special effect that lifted the final torch carrier, Li Ning, up 225 feet in the air to run along the edge of the stadium roof before lighting the Olympic cauldron.

It was all done with wires. Now that's old-school.


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