Image now: it is not cinema, or animation, or visual effects

(The following text is adapted from my next book Software Takes Command, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic in 2013)

Psyop - panosonic anthem 2012 - montage 2x2
Panosonic anthem commercial by Psyop, 2012.

TV commercials, television and film titles, and many feature films produced since 2000 feature a highly stylized visual aesthetics supported by animation and compositing software. Many layers of live footage, 3D and 2D animated elements, particle effects, and other media elements are blended to create a seamless whole. This result has the crucial codes of realism (perspective foreshortening, atmospheric perspective, correct combination of lights and shadows), but at the same time it enhances visible reality. (I can’t call this aesthetics “hyperreal” since the hybrid images assembled from many layers and types of media look quite different from the works of the hyperrealist artists such as Denis Peterson that visually look like standard color photographs.) Strong gray scale contrast, high color saturation, tiny waves of particles emulating from moving objects, extreme close-ups of textured surfaces (water drops, food products, human skin, finishes of consumer electronics devices, etc.), the contrasts between the natural uneven textured surfaces and smooth 3D renderings and 2D gradients, the rapidly changing composition and camera position and direction, and other devices heighten our perception. (For good examples of all these strategies, you can, for example, look at the commercials made by Psyop.)

We can say that they create a “map” which is bigger than the territory being mapped, because they show you more details and texture spatially, and at the same time compress time, moving through information more rapidly. We can also make another comparison with the Earth observation satellites which circle the planet, capturing its whole surface in detail impossible for any human observer to see – just as a human being can’t simultaneously see the extreme close-up of the surfaces and details of the movements of objects presented in the fictional space of a commercial.

None of the 20th century terms we inherited to talk about moving images describes this aesthetics, or production processes involved in creating it. It is not cinema, animation, special effects, invisible effects, visual effects, or even motion graphics. And yet, it characterizes the image today, and calls for its theoretical analysis and appreciation.

It is not cinema because live action is only a part of the sequence, and also because this live action is overlaid with 2D and/or 3D elements, and additional imagery layers. It is not animation or motion graphics because live action is central, as opposed to being just one element in a sequence. It is not special effects, because every frame in a sequence is an "effect" (as opposed to only selected shots). It is not invisible effects because the artifice and manipulations are made visible. It is not visual effects defined as "various processes by which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside the context of a live action shoot" - because here live action is manipulated.

Rather than seeing this new aesthetics, and production processes involved in its creation, as an extension of special effects / visual effects model, I think that it is more appropriate to see as an extension of the job of cinematographer of cinematography. 20th century cinematographer was responsible for selecting and choreographing all material elements which together produced the shots seen by the audiences: film stock, camera, lenses, lens filters, depth of field, focus, lighting, camera movements. Today a shot is likely to include many other elements and processes - image processing, compositing, 2D and 3D animation and models, relighting, particle systems, camera tracking, matte creation, effects, etc. (See for example the lists of features in Autodesk Flame software). However, at the end result is similar to what we had in the 20th century: a 3D scene that includes (real or constructed in 3D) bodies and objects. While now it also incorporates all kinds of digital transformations, and layers, it is still defined by three-dimensionality, perspective and MO movement of objects, just as the first films by The Lumiere brothers.

Psyop - Fage Plain commercial - 2011 - montage
Fage Plain commercial by Psyop, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. The effects are almost close to real. Or maybe it is? Whatever it is, this post is very informative and entertaining. Thanks!


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