In yet another step toward hyperreality, it has been revealed that the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics were (partially) faked. If you watched the spectacle on television, you were probably amazed by the fireworks display. There was indeed a fireworks display during the ceremony but you weren’t watching it. Instead you were watching an animation of a fireworks display that took nearly a year to create. Apparently, the creator of the animation even added a little “camera shake” to the animation to enhance the impression of watching a real recording of what was happening in the stadium that night. The official explanation from Beijing about why this little deceit was necessary is that it was too dangerous to film the real fireworks display from a helicopter. Since when is that an acceptable justification for journalistic deception?
Some of the stories about the incident actually muddy the facts of the deception, saying that the controversy occurred because some portions of the show were “pre-recorded.” This statement implies that the deception involves “live” performance vs. “pre-recorded” performance. But actually, this particular deception is about something that never happened. What we television viewers saw was something that never happened. It was an animation that was created on a computer. As a viewer, I never thought I was watching something live. The opening ceremonies started at 8am EST on August 8 and were not broadcast on NBC until 7:30pm EST on August 8. So the whole ceremony was “pre-recorded.”
Although the animation was not created by NBC, they did show it without disclosing that it was not what was actually happening in the stadium. In fact, Matt Lauer said during the ceremony, “This is actually almost animation. A footstep a second, 29 in all, to signify the 29 Olympiads.” Bob Costas responded, “We said earlier that aspects of this Opening Ceremony are almost like cinema in real time. Well this is quite literally cinematic.” Does that sound like they were coming clean about this portion of the ceremony being an actual animation? Why were they being so coy?
Clearly, this is not the first time that images have been manipulated for dramatic effect. The most famous example of such manipulation is probably the OJ Simpson Time Magazine cover showing his mug shot after his arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. His skin on the cover was darkened to make him appear more menacing. And there are examples of manipulation all the way back to the beginnings of photography. The oldest example I could find was from the 1860s when Abraham Lincoln’s head was superimposed on the body of John Calhoun. So this is certainly nothing new. But the ease with which such manipulation can be accomplished now that digital is everywhere should give us all pause before we believe what we see in a photo or even in a video. Luckily, there is also a growing field called digital forensics, pioneered by Hany Farid, a faculty member in the very same Dartmouth College Computer Science Department where I got my undergraduate degree. He and his team are developing tools and techniques to allow us to discover manipulation of photos and videos. I think their work is increasingly necessary.