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Live From Beijing: Computer-Enhanced Fireworks

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August 12, 2008

NBC's coverage of the opening ceremonies for this summer's Beijing Olympics drew record ratings for any games held outside the U.S., as an estimated 69.9 million American viewers tuned in.

But during at least one sequence, viewers who thought they were seeing real fireworks burst across the nighttime sky Friday were watching computer generated graphics.

NBC didn't create them — the footage was provided and controlled by Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, a Chinese company. A Chinese Olympics official told The Daily Telegraph of London that it would have been too expensive and too dangerous to tape the actual fireworks — though there were actual fireworks set off that night.

The Chinese officials did not mention the fear that the much-publicized smog hanging over the capital city might dim the fireworks' visibility for a global television audience.

Very Special Effects

So, the vivid fireworks on the broadcast were really computer graphics created by a team of hundreds of Chinese visual effects specialists who worked for nearly a year to pull it off.

The local Beijing Times, which first revealed it, said there was even slight camera shake introduced to make it seem as though the footage came from a real helicopter flying above.

Critics carped that viewers were deceived, but NBC Sports spokesman Adam Freifeld shrugged it off.

"It's not our production," Freifeld told NPR from Beijing. "Our guys are very clear that this was animation."

"Our guys" being Matt Lauer of NBC News' Today Show, and Bob Costas of NBC Sports, who were announcing the ceremonies.

In one sequence, the network showed tape-delayed videotape of fireworks shaped in the outlines of feet bursting into the night sky:

"You're looking now at the footsteps of history — quite literally — coming from the old center of Beijing near Tiananmen Square," Lauer told viewers — though, of course, they weren't literally looking at those footsteps at all.

But a few moments later, Lauer did hint that to see was not entirely to believe. "You're looking at a cinematic device employed by (Chinese filmmaker) Zhang Yimou here. This is actually almost animation."

Who Was That Little Singer?

It was actual animation — a fact not quite shared with viewers. But onto the next revelation of sleight of hand at the opening ceremonies: Chinese officials now acknowledge the winsome 9-year-old girl who sang a patriotic anthem at the opening events was only lip synching.

The Telegraph reports that an influential Chinese political figure determined the actual winner of the contest to sing the anthem was not telegenic enough. The decision was, according to the ceremony's musical designer, "in the national interest."

 
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The crowded streets of Varanasi. Credit: Kainaz Amaria for NPR

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