Fake Fireworks

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What’s your reality standard these days?

It has been reported that some of the fireworks shown on television during the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics were computer-generated , then deftly slipped into the “live” TV coverage. 

Commentary can be summarized as follows:

“Those lying faking Chinese &@*%!!”
“You hateful Chinese basher!”
“So what?  It made a better show.”

There also seemed to be a sense of mild uneasiness by some, a vague sense that some sort of line had been crossed, but something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. 

First, let’s strip the identity of the creator from the discussion.  This is mostly a technical issue, perhaps an ethical one, but definitely not a political or national one. 

That being said, long before CGI, even before computers, the visual media has long aspired to either make reality better or create new “realities.”    The first heavy use of the “blue screen” in a movie was in 1940.  The first “photoshopping” occurred around 125 years before Photoshop .  It’s a little hard to condemn a little Chinese CGI-work on the news when the denouncer is seated behind a blue screen, and the next segment is a review of a CGI-laden movie where the fairly few real characters are
often “enhanced.” The desire to “enhance” reality is neither new nor only made in China.  All that has changed is that it has become easier to do, the results are better, and the possibilities are as enhanced as the results, in this case, inserting “lively” CG into a “live broadcast.”  

So where do we draw the line?  Is there even a line to be drawn?

After some thought, I would suggest the following, “Image manipulation is no good when it misleads an audience about a significant reality or accomplishment.” 

The reality is there are many situations in which reality really doesn’t matter to an audience because image literally is the only thing.  It doesn’t really matter if your favorite actor or model gets visually enhanced because your interest isn’t really in the person, but only the image that person presents.  On the other hand, if you go out on a date with someone you met on Match.com, and you find out that that person has photoshopped  fifteen years and fifty pounds away from his or her picture,  there is likely to be real consequences to that action.   

You don’t care whether there really are X thousands of soldiers standing around ready for battle in some war movie, so long as they look real, that’s good enough.   On the other hand, if you see a picture (and maybe some day soon video) of X thousands of soldiers getting ready to invade your country, you’re going to care very, very much whether or not they’re real.  

Sometimes, fake realities are more decoration than deception.  It really doesn’t matter if a reporter “reports” in front of a blue screen showing a symbolic building in the background; the point is the news.  It matters very much if the reporter is standing in front of a blue screen which makes him look like he’s in the middle of a flood or hurricane while conveying his harrowing “experiences.”    

Accomplishments can be faked, through image manipulation, too.  You used to be able to have your picture “taken” with the “President” in Washington, DC for a few dollars.  What you actually did was take your picture next to a life-sized photo cutout of the President.  Most did it as a joke, but I’m sure some tried to pass it off as real.  That’s sad, as would somebody doing the same thing with Photoshop today, but all would agree it’s nowhere near as bad as Photoshopping your name on a Harvard Medical School diploma and passing yourself off as a doctor.  

That said, it’s pretty easy to judge the Chinese fireworks event.  It was somewhat deceptive, but it wasn’t a significant deception in an event that in any case was meant to  be an entertainment spectacle.  You could say that it made the Chinese look better than they actually are, but better at what?  Fireworks timing technology?  Helicopter televising?  I really don’t think Bush is going to announce or McCain/Obama is going to demand a crash program in either.  

It may give some people in Vancouver and London some ideas, though.   

Ed

 

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