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Tuesday, 12 August 2008 04:16

CGI faked-fireworks feature in Olympics opening ceremony footage

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Around 1 billion people around the globe are estimated to have tuned in to watch the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I wonder how many of them realised that some of those fantastic fireworks they were watching had been created by a computer visual effects team?

The eyes of the world, it seems, were on Beijing last Friday for the opening of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. It was without doubt a truly stunning extravaganza.

It could be nothing else. What with more than 15,000 performers and nearly 11,000 athletes taking part on the night. Or the estimated $300 million cost for that matter.

But what most people remember about any Olympics opening ceremony is the fireworks display. In the case of Beijing, that meant some 30,000 fireworks. It's just a shame not all of them were real.

According to The Beijing Times, a key 55 second fireworks sequence was actually digitally created many months in advance of the Games. Even if you were actually there, right there in the Bird's Nest National Stadium, you still would have been watching fake fireworks.

The problem, we are told, as with the giant firework footsteps that walked their way from Tiananmen Square to the stadium itself. Each footprint turned into falling stars and then Olympic rings.

The sequence of 29 feet was, without any doubt, truly something to behold. For all but a lucky few it was also truly faked and the Internet has not let that small fact slip past quietly.

An advisor to the Beijing Olympic Committee told the Beijing Times that "we could not put the helicopter pilot at risk by asking him try to follow the firework route" so the decision was made well in advance of the games to use digitally created footage, excuse the pun, instead.

So while the giant feet were actually formed by real fireworks on the night, what the world saw was not.

To be fair, the quality of the CGI fireworks was such that it is hard to feel cheated in an way, shape or form. Everything, right down to their insertion in the broadcast stream at exactly the right moment, was executed to perfection.

So what went wrong, how did the fake fireworks story get out and does it really matter? Find out on page 2...

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Perhaps that was the problem, the firework feet were a little too perfect. Only the very last footprint visible from inside the Bird's Nest was the real deal.

The Telegraph quotes Gao Xiaolong who was the head of the visual effects team responsible for the footage, as saying it took nearly a year to produce the 55 second sequence.

"Seeing how it worked out, it was still a bit too bright compared to the actual fireworks," he said. "But most of the audience thought it was filmed live - so that was mission accomplished" Xiaolong says.

You would be hard pressed to notice, not least because the CGI team even had an advisor from the Beijing Meteorological Office on hand to ensure that the Beijing night smog was recreated to perfection. Combine this with an artificial camera shake designed to emulate helicopter filming and no wonder they pulled it off.

Almost, that is. With 1 billion people watching, you just had to know there would be one or two obsessive fireworks geeks in the audience who would spot the fakes.

The Beijing Times had the guts to admit what had happened, and know the world knows. Does it really make any difference? No, of course not. If anything it just proves how good the Chinese are at both fireworks and CGI...

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