Tuesday, 12 August 2008

There Will be Fireworks

I'm not going to blog about the Olympics. This is not the place, and aside from the badminton, I'm not really gripped by the Games. What I saw of the opening ceremony (did anyone watch all four hours?) was truly spectacular, especially the giant globe with acrobats running all around its surface, in clear breach of the laws of gravity.

There was also a spectacular aerial fly-by shot of Beijing with overhead views of fireworks making the shapes of footprints in the sky striding across the city. Wow. And wow again. So, it was kind of a disappointment, but a bit less of a surprise, to learn that the fireworks were not detonated "live", but were pre-prepared using computer-generated effects and inserted into the live feed for the ceremony broadcast around the world. Does that spoil things? The one in the picture below was apparently real, but the fireworks in the flyby were added digitally. They even corrected the animation to simulate the look of Beijing's famous smog.

We shouldn't be surprised to learn that such a capability exists, but is it cheating? Does it break a contract of trust with the viewers that what we see represents the skilfull marshalling of talent in the arena rather than the editing suite? It is telling that the man chosen to direct the ceremony was Zhang Yimou, the film-maker who has recently discovered a wearisome interest in serried ranks of CGI warriors and similarly synthetic renderings of Chinese history. It is tempting to see in this manipulation of the ceremony's global reception a summation of China's willingness to favour the image over the reality, of perception over actuality. CGI fireworks won't go off out of synch. They will only behave as planned, with no embarrassing varables to make you lose face in the eyes of the world. Just like the little girl who was not cute enough to be seen singing a song at the ceremony, but whose voice was commandeered by another kid, this was a telling replacement of actuality with image. How cute.

P.S. Check out Bob Rehak at Graphic Engine's intelligent response to the CGI "scandal" at the Olympics. Mitchell Whitelaw's blog entry is also fascinating.


tuesy said...

I can't believe my skybox did not record it! I would happily sit for 4 hours to watch the ceremony!

Michael D. said...

Hi Dan...

To my knowledge, on the American broadcast, the commentators very succinctly alluded to the fact that this moment was in fact a "cinematic re-construction," in so many words... While the exact terminology that they used escape me, in my estimation they were making it pretty clear that this particular moment was indeed "fabricated" -- although (sorry, I don't mean this arrogantly, but I'm sure it sounds that way) I could basically tell it was CGI anyway. Even now, very few talents can make it truly blend in with live action settings completely seamlessly, while, yes, Yimou has been known incorporate it heavily lately...

Didn't know about the lip-sync girl, though!

Best -- (your future Chicago panel chair)

Puppetmister said...

Hi, Michael.

I think the American broadcast was not live. Am I right in thinking they held it back for about ten hours to maximise the audience?

My excuse for not detecting the illusion was that I saw it on a tiny screen in a hotel room while I was away hiking in Cornwall. I was tired and didn't have my glasses on... oh, the excuses just keep piling up!

There's certainly a long history of this kind of trickery, and in the early cinema period, actuality and reconstruction were pretty much interchangeable - the accuracy of the reporting (though let's not forget the ideological distortions that always affect notions of "accuracy") and the communication of the information seemed to trump a sense of presence at the unfolding events.

But I'm old-fashioned. I want to believe in a chivalrous contract between broadcaster and viewer that a live report from an event was recorded by cameras and not constructed for them. There's probably a miscommunication here - perhaps I was naive to forget that the show was addressed to distinct audiences in the stadium and on the global TV feed. But I thought we were sharing in the same spectacle at the same time. The broadcast was compensation for not being there, rather than an impressionistic depiction of the city. If it turned out that one of those big co-ordinated dances had been "cinematically re-constructed" on a laptop, it might still look beautiful with its pleasing patterns of colour and symmetry, but the focus would shift away from an appreciation of human skill towards another kind of machine-tooled achievement that provokes different kinds of appreciation.

Actually, it raised a wry smile on my face when I found out. It didn't annoy me. The unintended effect is not to validate the reality of the "faked" footage, but to undermine the status of the pro-filmic stuff. These knocks and disappointments can only serve to remind us not to be complacent viewers.

Bob's blog post on this is very brilliant. Maybe I'll jump over there and comment a bit later on.

good to hear from you

Puppetmister said...

Tuesy, I'm sure you'd be the only one staying awake through the endless flag parades. Well, I guess Sebastian Coe would be watching through his fingers, wondering how the hell he's going to top it in 2012.

I suggest that the London Olympics should go with its most widely recognised cultural icon and put on a spectacular show. That's right - the new Olympic stadium will be filled with awed spectators as a giant inflatable Benny Hill chases a trio of busty nurses around a tree.

Can I be on the Olympic Committee now?

Bob Rehak said...

And now Gail Collins (one of my favorite columnists at the New York Times) has chimed in on the issue, echoing -- unintentionally, I'm sure -- several of the points bouncing around the blogosphere ...


Bob Rehak said...

Whoops, looks like the link didn't paste very well. Sorry my HTML skills aren't up to the task of hyperlinking within a comment!

Here's a TinyUrl workaround: