SHIFT: What we can learn from China's fake Olympic fireworks (hint: it's not what you think)

When we reported last week about how high-tech this year's Olympic broadcasting would be, we didn't imagine that a Chinese newspaper would uncover the fact that some of the fireworks in the opening ceremonies were actually CGI animation. A series of 29 footprint-shaped fireworks really did "march" across Beijing last Friday night (which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics' website), but the television audience only saw a few of them. Instead, they watched 55 seconds of a prerecorded rendering of what the fireworks "would have looked like" if a helicopter had been following them across the sky filming them on a clear night.

NBC commentators indicated that there was something "cinematic" about the fireworks, without coming out and saying that the home audience might has well have been watching Gandalf's fireworks in The Lord of the Rings, since both sequences were probably prepared in similar ways. Millions of people around the world watched the coverage in "real" time, without that commentary.

We love CGI, though not necessarily in a presentation narrated by news anchors. Of course, after the truth about the fireworks footage came out, we learned that one of the cute little singers in the opening ceremonies was lip-syncing the voice of a less attractive little girl. Soon we'll probably discover that the impressive Bird's Nest stadium is three feet high and being filmed on a sound stage in Taiwan. Or will we? Click Continue to read why the faked firework footage matters, and more importantly, why it doesn't.

Nationalism's Equivalent of Doping
China knew that without CGI footage, the footprint fireworks it was planning wouldn't look nearly as good. The planners could have done a few things: scrap the footprint plan altogether because it would be a logistical nightmare to film, or stage the footprints for the live audience in China without worrying about what they would look like on TV. Instead of taking either of these routes, the planners decided to cheat.

I believe that a similar train of thought goes through athletes' heads when they decide to use drugs ("I could decide not to compete because I'm not really good enough," or "I could try really, really hard knowing that there's a good chance I could lose without doping"). Cheating is the third choice that many take when faced with two unappealing possibilities, and it happens often, whether we're talking about memoirs that are full of lies or the four athletes booted from this year's Tour de France.

China is trying to show its best possible face to the world this summer. Some of what it's done (amazing architecture, cleaning up the city's air) has been fantastic, while in other areas the country has cut corners (besides the fireworks, did anybody really believe that all of the female Chinese gymnasts were over 16?). The problem is that the attempts to mislead international viewers undercut all of the legitimate efforts that the country has made. Just as a few dopers can bring down the reputation of an entire sport, China's use of CGI undermines a legitimately impressive spectacle.

Discouraging Future Fakers
Some might argue that the revelation that CGI was inserted seamlessly into TV footage viewed around the world opens doors for conspiracy theorists. Will anyone ever be able to believe television again? If this CGI fakery is possible, why believe in any televised fireworks? Why, for that matter, should we believe that NASA sent men to the moon?

Anything can be faked in photos and on film now. The evidence that realistic trickery is possible is in pretty much every blockbuster movie from the past decade. The evidence that governments try to convince others with faked images is also rampant, with Iran's notorious missile-test Photoshopping being Exhibit A.

But even if you can't be sure that what you're seeing is true in the moment you're watching it, the recent Chinese debacles show that however well faked the presentation, the truth will come out. In the case of the fireworks, the programmer behind them spoke to the press because he was proud of his work. After all, no one noticed! It was great animation that took nearly a year to perfect. And this happened under an authoritarian government — he may even face consequences for speaking out. If that sort of secret can't be kept in China, where almost anything can be classified as a state secret, can you imagine anyone keeping a secret about faked footage in the U.S.?

You Can't Fool Some People All the Time
Though the technology for creating fake television footage gets better all the time, the means for detecting it have gotten better as well. If the Beijing Times hadn't broken the footprint firework story, somebody else would have, probably within days of the event. China spent millions of dollars on its Olympic opening ceremony. The people behind it must be disappointed that its presentation is now embroiled in petty controversies, thought they brought it on themselves by trying to deliberately mislead people. If there were any plans to do something similar for the closing ceremonies, you can bet the CGI footage is now on the cutting-room floor.