Thursday, August 14, 2008

China faked footprints of fire coverage in Olympics opening ceremony

Was it real? Was it faked? Does it matter? Chinese netizens are debating the computer simulated special effects used for one of high points of the Olympic opening ceremony, the footprints of fire that "stepped" from Tiananmen Square to the Bird's Nest stadium.

Although the procession of fireworks actually took place, it was deemed too difficult and dangerous to film, so billions of viewers were treated instead to a computer-generated film of what it might look like.

Many of those watching were unaware that the effect was expensively "faked" until the Beijing Times reported the following day that only the last of the 29 footprints was actually filmed during the live broadcast.

The newspaper revealed that Crystal Stone - a local production company - had spent almost a year creating the 55-second sequence for the other 28 steps, including efforts to capture the slight shake of a camera on a helicopter and the blurring effect of haze.

Olympic organisers said the decision was necessary for safety reasons, because a helicopter might have been vulnerable to all the fireworks let off that night and it would have been hard to capture the entire route from a single location.

Gao Xiaolong, the head of the visual effects team for the ceremony, told the paper that the final result was not perfect, but achieved the desired effect: "Most of the audience thought it was filmed live - so that was mission accomplished."

On the many online forums about the ceremony and its significance, most Chinese netizens defended the decision to use the simulated sequence. "Although the 3-D production has a different feeling from live filming, we should support the Olympics by taking the authorities at their word and not arguing," said a post by Xin Shuibin on a Baidu discussion site.

Others said it was disappointing but the decision to use computer-generated images was justifiable. "If it had been live, the helicopters would have been in great danger if they flow over the fireworks. They might have crashed," said a commentator who gave the name Waltzer.

Overall, the show was well received, although much of the online opinion on the mainland was more critical than that found among the mainstream media overseas. As has been the case for several of his recent films, the ceremony's director, Zhang Yimou, was lambasted by many for producing a show that was strong on style but weak on content.

Rather than demonstrate real antipathy, however, such criticism may reveal the huge expectations for the landmark event and the high standards to which its director is always held.

Independence Day may go with less of a bang after accident in China

Sparkles, fizzles and bangs at celebrations such as US Independence Day and Guy Fawkes Night are under threat from a spectacular explosion at a fireworks warehouse in China, which has raised concerns over safety and clogged exports.

China supplies three-quarters of the world's fireworks. But a massive blast destroyed 15,000 cartons of pyrotechnics in southern China in February, leaving US vendors struggling to get their hands on sufficient supplies for this year's July 4 celebrations.

Concerned about safety, the Chinese authorities limited the flow of professional-grade fireworks to a mere handful of ports. Compounding the shortage, an embargo on the movement of explosives before the Beijing Olympics has complicated Britain's efforts to stock up for this November's Bonfire Night.

"I do suspect there will be a shortage of display fireworks," said John Woodhead, chairman of the British Fireworks Association. He expects large-scale professional displays to be hit worse than everyday back-garden fireworks.

Difficulties date back to an explosion in the city of Foshan, near Guangzhou, causing a blaze that spread to 20 warehouses and continued for 30 hours in February. More than a thousand local residents had to be evacuated.

The accident, which left four people injured, came at a critical time for US customers who want fireworks for Independence Day. This has prompted the US government to make representations to its Chinese counterparts.

Bob Richard, deputy associate administrator at the US department of transportation, told the New York Times that his department was urging the use of more ports. Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, estimates that Chinese exports of consumer fireworks are down by 35% this year, while the supply of fireworks for professional displays has dropped by 40%. She said the close-knit industry was clubbing together to ensure that everybody has a share of supplies.

Andy Hubble, chairman of the British Pyrotechnists' Association, said the shortfall in the US would "most likely be mirrored" in Britain.

Shipping woes cut down Chinese fireworks exports to the U.S.

LIUYANG, China -- Chen Tiezhong will likely spend the Fourth of July -- America's Independence Day -
- worrying about the future of his sprawling fireworks factory. China, where fireworks were invented, is running short of ports from which to ship the dangerous cargoes abroad.
The day is a great occasion for fireworks across the U.S., and China's fireworks industry meets 98 percent of America's overall needs, and 80 percent of the pyrotechnics needed for professional displays. But the U.S. fireworks business stands to lose US$25 million to US$30 million this year because of lost orders, says Julie Heckman, executive director for the American Pyrotechnics Association.

A Missouri firm says it backed out of some shows because of the shortage. Meanwhile, some Chinese factories are being pushed close to bankruptcy.

"Our factory will be forced to close, whether we want it or not," said Chen Tiezhong at his sprawling 500-employee operation in Liuyang in central Hunan province.

His factory is one of 900 around this small city that is known as China's fireworks capital. A traffic circle features a massive metal sculpture of rockets soaring and bursting into flower-like shapes. The Chinese word for fireworks is "yanhua" or "smoke flowers."

Most of the factories are far from town, tucked safely away among the farms in surrounding hills and valleys.

Chen rattles off a litany of woes: micro-thin profit margins, rising labor costs and soaring prices for raw materials.

Now, the closure of some Chinese ports to fireworks may be the final straw.

In February, a blast at a fireworks warehouse led to a ban on fireworks shipments at the southern port of Sanshui, Guangdong province, which previously handled 20 percent of China's pyrotechnic exports.

Then, in late March, officials stopped fireworks shipments at Nanshan, another Guangdong port, after inspectors found explosives that had been declared as something else.

Guangdong may not allow fireworks shipments to resume, because the province is trying to shift its economy to more sophisticated goods.

Adding to the industry's woes, China has ordered major ports such as Shanghai and Hong Kong to suspend shipments of explosives as part of tightened security ahead of August's Beijing Olympics.

"It's been extremely difficult," Chen said. "There is simply no way out even if we're willing to pay 10,000 yuan (more than US$1,400) extra for each container."

In China, 30 to 40 percent of fireworks for overseas customers have not shipped, forcing many of the country's 7,000 factories to curtail or even stop taking overseas orders, said Liu Donghui, the secretary-general of China-based International Fireworks Association.

On the U.S. end, 10 percent to 15 percent of orders didn't show up, said Heckman.

China ordinarily sends 9,000 shipping containers of fireworks a year to the U.S., she said, and the shortfall "is by far the most difficult challenge the U.S. fireworks industry has had to face."