Why Fireworks Matter

Looking back on the opening ceremonies

Last week, it was reported that during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing games, broadcasters used footage of fireworks that was not only pre-recorded but also digitally animated.

The sequence lasts about 30 seconds. (You can watch here, about eleven minutes into the clip.) An aerial shot sweeps over Beijing as twenty-nine bursts of fireworks explode in the clear night.

Matt Lauer and Bob Costas were the commentators for the event and this is how they describe what’s happening on the screen.

LAUER: 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.

COSTAS: We said earlier that aspects of this Opening Ceremony are almost like cinema in real time. Well this is quite literally cinematic.

What the heck does that literally mean?

Well, it turns out that the “cinematic device” is actually “an animated three-dimensional studio re-creation,” according to Gao Xiaolong, visual-effects team leader at the Crystal Stone animation company, who spoke with the Beijing Times as the Los Angeles Times reports.

The L.A. Times wrote that Xiaolong’s “studio spent nearly a year crafting the clip. To make it as visually seamless as possible, Crystal Stone consulted with the weather bureau to re-create Beijing haze at night, and the shot included a slight shaking to simulate shooting from a helicopter.”

The AP reported a slightly different version of the story: “Because of the poor visibility of the night, some previously recorded footage may have been used.”

Before we get riled up, a little background: According to NBC spokesman Greg Hughes, the network, like the rest of the world’s broadcasters, did not shoot “the overwhelming majority” of the opening ceremonies. Except for supplementary shots of American athletes and dignitaries, NBC used the world feed of the event, which included the digital rendering of the fireworks. NBC was aware of the animation ahead of time and warned Costas and Lauer, who noted it during the transmission.

Does that let them off the hook? Well, for one, Costas’ and Lauer’s descriptions of the effect fall short of clearly communicating the nature of the images to the viewers. “Cinematic device” and “quite literally cinematic” are the two phrases that the anchors chose, and they’re not technologically inaccurate. Films nowadays do often use CGI and other digital rendering to create effects. But those imaging technologies are ways to augment and expand the realm of cinematic capability, not the default, unless you’re Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay.

And, that’s not how the language comes across: Lots of things are “cinematic devices,” including a fly-over shot from a helicopter, which is what the digital footage was made to look like. The word “cinematic” might much more obviously mean, “it’s so beautiful it could be a movie,” as opposed to the more logically demanding: “it employs a technology that films also employ when the limitations of film need to be overcome.”

Describing the footage as “almost animation” is even more confusing. According to Hughes, the NBC spokesman, Costas and Lauer stand by their words, but why weren’t they more clear in the first place?

Digital rendering. Computer animation. Those phrases would accurately describe what the viewers were seeing. The Chinese crew wanted everyone to believe that the footage was genuine. In the L.A. Times story, the Chinese visual-effects guru said that “Most viewers thought these were live shots, so our work achieved its effect.” They even added subtle shaking to simulate a helicopter! But why wouldn’t the NBC anchors dispel that illusion?

The network’s spokesperson told me that “You can’t describe much of [the opening ceremony] as news. This was a preexisting event that was staged to open the games of the 29th olympiad.”

But does the fact that NBC categorized the ceremony as entertainment rather than news excuse their dishonesty? For the rest of the evening, Lauer and Costas were very engaged with the technology of how the visual effects were created—including a large LED screen—why not the fireworks sequence?

For the Chinese, the fireworks sequence was important. It would not only demonstrate their pyromania, but also to showcase the air quality in Beijing. But because of the digital image, we’ll never know what the sky looked like that night.

And for the viewing public, the fireworks matter, too. It was a chance for NBC to show that they would bring transparency to a host country known for secrecy and obfuscation. And that omission raises questions about what else NBC didn’t tell us.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.