Spotlight : December 1996

by Owen Hammer

With "'net" (as in internet), "video" (as in music video), and "cyberspace" (as in whatever the media is calling it this week) appearing in dictionaries, you'd think that the visual effects term "photorealism" would be appearing in dictionaries by now. "Photo-" as a suffix (having to do with photography) and "realism" (usually three or so different definitions) are standard, so I suppose the dictionary publishers assume that this fulfills their responsibility.

I have little information regarding the etymology of the word, but I'd imagine it evolved from the need for effects houses to advertise using an intuitively graspable word differentiating them from the low end companies.

"Yes, we're doing a commercial, and I saw on the Discovery Channel that visual effects are hot. Can your company provide me with some?"

"Of course we can, we here at Flooblevision pride ourselves on the highest quality visual effects."

"But are they photorealistic?"

"Er, uh, well I mean uh, . . . no."

"Then I will take my business elsewhere."

"Curse you advertising agency executive, you're too smart for me."

Apparently photorealism is the highest quality of effects work. A taxonomy might look like this:

-- George
-- "Land of the Lost"
-- "Star Trek" (1960's)
-- "V: The Mini-Series"
-- "V: The Series"
-- "Star Trek" (1990's)
-- Photorealism

I have yet to see "Flooblevision gives you images better than photorealistic."

But I still need a defition for photorealism -- Something like:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The highest level of quality of a graphic such that it is identical to a photograph.

This explains the 'photo-' prefix, but there's a major flaw in this definition. We never have a photograph of the event, so we don't know for sure. After all, if you could actually photograph the event, 99% of the time, you would do that. Conversely, 99% of the scenarios in effects shots are things you could never realistically photograph.

Look at Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. People would say that the shot of Cruise flying out of the helicopter, and onto the train looks real. They might even mention that it looked real the first seventeen times in the trailer, and still looks real the eighteenth time they saw it in the actual film. Anyway, having never witnessed such a thing, how can we say that it looks real? What we mean to say is that we can find no flaw in the effect such that it gives itself away as an effect (as opposed to actual film of Cruise flying off of an exploding helicopter, which would last for a short period of time, as Cruise's body goes up in flames). So my definiton has to encapsulate these assumptions:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The highest level of quality of a visual effect such that no evidence of its artificiality is visible.

In other words, "realism," is synonymous with "non-artificiality." The good thing about this definition is that it avoids having to define what reality is, which is not my goal. The bad thing about it is that "evidence of artificiality" is an equally nebulous concept.

Take a look at SPEED. When the bus drives right of off the ramp, and onto the other side, it looks real; but how is that possible when it has just broken two of Newton's laws of motion (even if the bus was traveling at light speed, it couldn't do that). In a 'photorealistic' shot, the bus would crash into the lip of ramp, and the rest of the movie would be seventy minutes of Dennis Hopper laughing. I suppose an accurate definition would be:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The highest level of quality of a visual effect such that no evidence of its contradiction of the laws of physics are visible, when no such contradictions exist in the narrative.

Now the definiton is becoming too unweildy. Furthermore it's still not comprehensive. What about DRAGONHEART? Surely there can be no such thing as a photorealistic dragon. No photos exist of dragons, because no such thing exists. There's no good frame of reference either. In JURASSIC PARK, Dennis Muren had fossil records and paleontological evidence, as well as the behavior of modern day lizards from which to extrapolate a model of a real (hence photorealistic) dinosaur. There's no such thing as a winged, quadruped with scales, and thus no one model for a Dragon. The creature is an amalgam of the artists knowledge of various animals.

Draco the Dragon does look very convincing, though, for exactly that reason. The little bobbing and fluttering of him flying reminds us of our knowledge of birds, his walking reminds us of quadrupeds, and his talking and hand gestures remind us of humans. Everything else is an educated guess. So why can't we say:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The highest level of quality of a visual effect such that all physical phenomonae conform to the audience's frame of reference for similar or identical phenomona.

Well it's certainly a broad definition, but it is accurate. Look at The THE FRIGHTENERS. Everybody has their own concept of Heaven, Hell, and ghosts. But the ghosts sometimes obey our laws of physics, when the stand on the ground, but disobey them when they walk through walls. We accept this, because it conforms to our understanding of semi-transparent refractive substances, light, fluids, rigid objects, colloids, human motion, and thus looks 'real' shifting between them even though no such thing could happen. When people think about the concept of a human being intangible, they think about walking through walls. Nobody thinks about just sinking into the ground, or flying off into space when gravity and inertia no longer have any control over you.

Effects are built around our own understanding of the physical world. Like all art, they deal with the subjective -- with idioms. Often they are effective because they demonstrate to us how broad our understanding is. We are excited at our own ability to understand these things, even though our rational mind tells us that they are not true. So when we say "that looked real," we mean "I previously did not know that my comprehension of existence was so encompassing as to understand the inherent successes and flaws of that partial representation of the physical world."

So to avoid continued verbosity:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The highest level of quality of a visual effect wherein the audience's concept of reality is never contradicted.

Unfortunately, this definition falls short as well. In the late 1980's, In Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries a series of interchangably unoriginal actions films were made. These films all involved the most hated man in the Muslim world: Salman Rushdie. In the movies, Rushdie would live in luxurious palace and torture Arabs for sport. The main characters would be an elite group of government authorized Arab mercenaries who would hunt him down. In the end, the mercenaries corner him, but through trickery, Rushdie defeats them. Then, before the leader is killed, the heavens open and bursts of holy energy crackle and incinerate Rushdie.

Okay, I unfortunately have no GIFs of any of the four films I have heard of where this ending occurs, but I have seen them, and I believe that the effect was simple scratches on the negative -- fingernails scratched on the emulsion on the film. Now is this 'photorealistic?' Well according the definition I have drawn up, it is! After all the audiences this film was designed for believe in divine retribution, but no one had a photograph of it, so anyone's attempt at 'photorealism' was as good as anyone elses. The scratches don't look like lightning, but who said we're talking about lightning, it's some previously unidentified form of energy, it looks fake and the audience's concept of reality was never contradicted.

The effect is not photorealistic, so logically I must discard that definition as well as any definition which tries to take into account cultural standards.

I thus find myself with:

Photorealism: FOE'TO-REE'UH-LIZ'UHM (n) The unquantified highest level of quality of a visual effect.

Anyone with a better guess is encouraged to e-mail me.

Owen Hammer

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