Beijing Olympic Footprint "Fakes"

The Intarwebz are abuzz with the shocking revelation that China "faked" the stunning "walking footprints" fireworks sequence of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1043370/Giant-footprin...
http://gadgets.boingboing.net/2008/08/11/china-digitally-fake.html
http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/258447
http://www.clusterflock.org/2008/08/some-olympic-opening-ceremony-firewo...
http://www.informationweek.com/news/personal_tech/TV_theater/showArticle...
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26139005/
http://www.thrfeed.com/2008/08/nbc-fake-olympi.html

(photo from Olympic broadcast via The Daily Mail article cited above, used without permission under Fair Use for purposes of criticism and comment)

While digital manipulation by and of the media is a hot topic and a pet interest of mine, let's take a closer look at this and decide if it's really a big deal.

First, what was the degree of deception in the "fake"?

The digital animation produced and shown to the television audience was an expensive and complex re-creation of a flight across the city of Beijing at night while fireworks are fired off below the viewer. It is a photorealistic re-creation as close as possible (from the digitaljournal.com article, "creating the hazy effects of smog in Beijing at night and special attention to details such as imitating the shaking effect of being filmed from a helicopter"). So, it is a pretty sophisticated job with great attention paid to portraying the event as accurately as possible, even lamenting after the fact that "Seeing how it worked out, it was still a bit too bright compared to the actual fireworks" according to Gao Xiaolong, head of the effects team that did the work.

Second, what was the intent of the "fake"? Was there intent to deceive or misrepresent facts?

According to the Daily Mail article "organisers feared they would not be able to fully capture them from the air during live filming" (dailymail.co.uk), "it would have been too difficult to position a helicopter at the right angle to capture the first 28 "footprints" during the fireworks show" (digitaljournal.com) and "It would have been prohibitive to have tried to film it live. We could not put the helicopter pilot at risk by making him try to follow the firework route" (informationweek.com). I'm willing to accept the rationale that this re-creation was done in order to improve the visual experience of the TV audience and reduce the risk to the production personnel. Flying a helicopter is one thing, flying one at night over a packed city is another, all that plus trying to execute a critical flight motion path complicates things and throw in large fireworks blasting in your face?

Was there any intent to deceive or misrepresent? I'm going to say a qualified no. According to all accounts and verified by third-party photos (see the Charles Frith photo via digitaljournal.com story) there WERE real fireworks. There may have been a slight CYA factor here -- when playing a pre-rendered animation you're sure that (playback glitches aside) you aren't going to have any technical failures. Pre-rendered fireworks always go off reliably, real ones could misfire. Did the real fireworks misfire and we didn't know about it? It's possible that a footstep could have failed to fire and we probably wouldn't know about it. No one on-site could see enough of the "step" locations to really be able to tell where one should have been, had it failed to fire. But, I kind of doubt there were any misfires, I'm just pointing out the possibility, and that the motivation could have been a slight CYA deception in case of pyro failure. (And effects do go wrong, witness the amusing Blue Screen Of Death caught on one of the video displays during the ceremony.)

Third, was there misrepresentation of what was being displayed?

The American NBC broadcast (which I saw) had Matt Lauer's voice-over stating "You’re looking at a cinematic device employed by Zhang Yimou here, this is actually almost animation. A footstep a second, 29 in all, to signify the 29 Olympiads." Other broadcasts may not have had this disclosure, which could be the fault of the broadcasters. Certainly it appears that the Chinese Olympic media provided the info about the animation to the foreign media and weren't trying to hide it maliciously. I think they were kind of proud of the job they'd done, and as a 3D animator myself, they should be. It was a great job, and beautiful. You can quibble about Lauer's "almost" weasel word -- this was an animation for sure, but I would bet that Lauer himself may have not exactly grasped the distinction about how much was computer generated and how much wasn't. He may have believed that it was actual night-time city flyover footage with only the fireworks themselves added, hence the "almost" qualifier.

What about those in the Bird's Nest stadium? I don't believe any disclosure was made to them. But in the larger picture, they were consensually part of a huge "enhanced reality" spectacle -- the opening ceremony itself. There were lots of tricks and sleight of hand in the ceremony, and there wasn't anyone out there telling everyone "these boxes aren't actually moving up and down by themselves, there are people inside them" and "this person isn't actually flying through the air, there are hidden wires". Similar productions go on every day at Disney theme parks mixing real and sleight of hand effects. It's part of the show, people. If this were an Olympic competition event and someone was playing fast and loose with the video, that's a different thing. But here the purpose isn't a forensically defensible representation of reality and physics, it's to go WOW. And I'd say they did that.

Addendum: One has to reflect on the motivation of the event. Why would the Chinese Olympic producers want to fake this? Would the "real" footage have looked better or worse? It might have been slightly "more realistic" -- by their own admission they made the fireworks too bright, but I doubt real footage would have been better or worse in any significant way. Would it have been cheaper to do it for real versus by CGI (Computer Generated Imagery)? I would bet my experience as a 3D artist that it would have been a LOT cheaper to film it for real, safety issues aside. That was a fantastically complex animation done by a large number of digital artists over a long period of time. Contrast that with a few helos and cameras, and doing it as a "practical" (ie, real world cameras and events) effect would have been a lot cheaper. So, the final criteria is, would it have been safer? Here, definitely the CGI method wins out. If anyone can come up with a better (and more sinister) motive for the Chinese to have done this as a seamless CGI effect, I'd love to hear it, but in a world of murky motivations, I think they really had everybody's best interests at heart. They were trying to show an amazing event as best as possible, while still doing it safely. And they probably spent a lot more money doing so than if they'd just risked some production staff's lives and done it in-camera.

In the end, I take issue with the word "fake" being applied to this. You can't really justify the connotations of the word "fake". It's an "effect", done to provide superior visual enjoyment to the audience in an environment where it is implicitly accepted that entertainment is a more important criteria than factual representation of physics. Save the word "fake" for incidents where there is a deliberate mismatch between reality and depiction, as well as intent to deceive. Let's not cry wolf over fake fakes, there are plenty of real deceits out there to uncover.