China’s $100-million Olympics opening ceremony wowed its global TV audience with a lavish spectacle and pizazz that tried to present a perfect image of China to the world, right down to the perfect teeth of the little girl who took center-stage and sang an ode to the motherland.
Except the voice was not hers. It was recorded and belonged to another girl, with better pipes but crooked baby teeth and a chubby face.
Nor was all quite what it seemed with the dazzling fireworks sequence watched by a billion or more television viewers. Worried about the difficulty of cameras capturing 29 sequential explosions from Tiananmen Square to the Olympic Village, the Chinese visual effects team re-created all but one of the big bangs in an animation studio, and inserted the 55-second clip into the live TV coverage.
Perfection, it seems, must sometimes be faked.
The revelations of dubbed voices and phony pyrotechnics renditions at the opening ceremony have lighted up the Chinese Internet, with many online users condemning the apparent bait and switch at the government’s big show.
“Fake singing for national honor? What kind of lessons are we giving such a small child?” asked an anonymous posting on 163.com, a news portal. “Is this national honor or national shame?”
The child in question was 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, who was seen belting out “Ode to the Motherland” as the Chinese flag entered the National Stadium. She became an instant celebrity and was quickly christened a “smiling angel.” The image of her in a pretty red dress appeared around the world.
But it wasn’t Miaoke who was singing. Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s music director, told state broadcaster Beijing Radio that the voice heard around the world belonged to 7-year-old Yang Peiyi.
Peiyi had the voice and was supposed to perform, but was yanked at the last minute because her looks were deemed not suitable by a senior Communist Party official, Chen said.
“It was for the national interest,” Chen told Beijing Radio. “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.”
The other sleight of hand involved the massive fireworks display at the culmination of the ceremony showing 29 pyrotechnic “footprints” a second apart in recognition of the 29 Summer Games, as if the past Olympics were walking toward the stadium.
All of the footprints were at least partially detonated that night. Those on the scene saw them. But what TV viewers saw was an animated three-dimensional studio re-creation, Gao Xiaolong, visual-effects team leader at the Crystal Stone animation company, told the Beijing Times.
Only the last “footprint” closest to the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, was seen by viewers and locals in real time.
“Most viewers thought these were live shots, so our work achieved its effect,” Gao said.
His studio spent nearly a year crafting the clip. To make it as visually seamless as possible, Crystal Stone consulted with the weather bureau to re-create Beijing haze at night, and the shot included a slight shaking to simulate shooting from a helicopter.
Olympic broadcaster NBC -- the network on which the live entertainment show “Saturday Night Live” was infamously exposed for allowing singer Ashlee Simpson to lip-sync a vocal performance in 2004 -- said it had been candid with viewers that the fireworks they were watching were, in fact, pre-produced in a studio.
“We said earlier that aspects of this opening ceremony are almost like cinema in real time,” announcer Bob Costas told his audience. “Well this is quite literally cinematic.”
The vast majority of Chinese, many of whom have no Internet access and live in rural areas, were pleased and impressed by the result of the opening extravaganza, produced by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, which they saw as a moment of national glory.
“There are too many things to be taken care of; it’s understandable that errors will occur,” said an anonymous posting on 163.com.
But other Internet postings complained about the show’s expense, its aesthetics, and organizers apparently misrepresenting some elements to the public in their quest for perfection.
China’s propaganda ministry moved in Tuesday, deleting many online discussion entries and blocking access to video links showing Miaoke’s lip-syncing.
The Beijing organizers weren’t the first to use lip-syncing for an Olympic performance. The late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, in great pain from pancreatic cancer, did so at the Turin Winter Games in 2006, although the voice that was heard was his own.
But China has suffered a string of recent scandals involving fake news stories, bogus photos of a rare South China tiger and a sham TV report that vendors filled dumplings with cardboard. Social experts bemoan the lack of morality or trust among government agencies, companies and individuals.
Kang Xiaoguang, a social science researcher with the Chinese Academy of Science, welcomed the online debate over the government’s big show, saying it was a sign the society is maturing. But he added that the singing and fireworks misrepresentations are disconcerting.
“Society also needs basic trust and justice,” he said.
There was also online grousing this week about the opening ceremony’s aesthetics. The three-hour extravaganza presented an idealized vision of Chinese history and culture, with Confucius heavily represented and Chairman Mao noticeably absent. But some found it pompous and lacking heart.
“It was nationalist clothing over authoritarian underwear,” said Sichuan province-based writer and blogger Ran Yunfei.
Zhang, director of well-received feature films “Raise the Red Lantern” and “House of Flying Daggers,” said he was pleased with the outcome.
“This kind of three-dimensional performance is a first for the world,” he told a news conference. “If London also wants to do it this way, I estimate they won’t surpass us in a short time,” he added, referring to the host city of the 2012 Games.
Ai Weiwei, an avant-garde artist, said the ceremony focused primarily on giving “face” to the government.
“They tried so hard and wasted so much money,” he said, adding that the oversized torch atop the Bird’s Nest, which he helped design, resembled an ice cream cone.
“The ceremony was stupid, a real wasted opportunity,” he said.