Trolling International Relations via VFX
This is the story of a great hoax no matter what the true story is: after the German media has made a fuss about a 2013 video of the Greek treasury secretary Varoufakis flipping the finger, a small TV show has claimed that the video is fake and that they have doctored it (enable English subtitles). At the end of my post I’ll demonstrate why I think they are making this up.
A bit of context:
German’s biggest yellow press newspaper has been spewing tirades and stirring hatred towards Greece for years now. By now, viewing Greeks as lazy thieves of hard-earned German monies is basically ingrained in our national narrative of Europe; as shameful as it is.
The team of a small late night show claims to have trolled the media by inserting the obscene gesture and seeding the video to Youtube. But did they? They might have doctored the video the other way around for their show to remove the gesture of Varoufakis and make a point about the current German mindset.
From a technical point of view, either theory is plausible. I’ve done VFX to replace body parts myself and that section of the Nuke comp that they’re showing makes some sense (except for the motion blurred grid they used as a making-of effect). It would certainly possible to make Varoufakis raise his middle finger for a few frames.
But it would be an equal amount of work to remove the gesture: retime, freeze and matchmove his torso to postpone the upwards motion of his arm by a few frames, then transition back to the original footage.
To those who are amazed by what you can do with technology these days: that stuff has not only been possible for 20+ years (see Jurassic Park’s stunt double face swap which was still a bit rough around the edges). It has been done seamlessly on all kinds of motion pictures for quite a while.
So can we find out which clip is real just by comparing both versions? Yes. I think the finger is real (side note: and I couldn’t care less…) and here’s why:
Let’s start with the obvious. The idea that you would fake this by employing an actor who looks like Varoufakis and making him wear a green full-body suit except for his hand and collar is ridiculous.
It’s playing with the general public’s idea of how green-screen photography works and it has been spoofed a lot of times already, for example by MADtv years ago and anotherGerman TV show more recently.
But let’s look at the hard facts of the footage at hand. Here’s a frame-by-frame comparison of both clips next to each other. No matter which version is real, they did a great job.
To fake the left version (the flipped finger), they would have had to replace the right side of his torso to get rid of the lowered arm and during (what would in this case be) the arm’s real upwards motion. That’s much more than just pasting a new hand on top of Varoufakis as they make us believe during the making-of. That’s a great comp job (if it were true).
By the way: the nature of the shirt he’s wearing might make doctoring this footage easier. Wrinkles pop up and vanish due to the tiniest motions of his body so you can hide masks and transitions better than you might think.
If the right version – without the middle finger – was fake, they would have had to freeze, replace and/or morph a large part of Varoufaki’s torso and parts of his collar to get rid of the raised hand for an extended period of time, all while Varoufaki’s face keeps moving/talking. That’s great comp job in this case as well.
But here’s the real deal: They would also have to mess with the other hand that is holding the microphone! And they did.
Here’s how to spot the fake:
You can see in the left shot (the one that I think is genuine) that there’s a shadow running over the mic while Varoufakis raises his hand. On the left side (the one that I think is fake) the whole hand and microphone area is excibiting a weird wobbling motion that starts as soon as they had to retime/freeze his torso and stops as soon as he lowers his arm.
To me, this is a sign of doctoring. A side effect of the warping they had to do to match a non-shadowed microphone on top of the real footage.
And then there’s the artifact which is the ultimate clue in my opinion.
Right after his hand has moved down, they transition from their fake clean plate back to the real microphone. But the cable has been twisted ever so slightly while Varoufakis was flipping the finger that you can see the blending of two versions of the cable.
The finger is real. The VFX artist(s) did a great job to undo this gesture and the show is (successfully) trolling the media by making them think they fell for a doctored video. ZDF neo and its host Jan Böhmermann are successful in making the general public question the way they get enraged by unimportant videos that were taken out of context.
Further reading: The Ems Dispatch, a purposefully edited document that played a part in starting the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.