“Avatar”: The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant (part 1)

CG Art, Painting, Terminology Add Comment
Part 1 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

One of the common approaches to understanding pictorial images, especially in photography and film, is to consider them in terms of how real they are. Following the release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), this series of posts will explore this idea and the way it is being challenged by the recent achievements in image-making. The idea of what’s real has many aspects and layers to it, and has been a recurring topic in philosophical debates for millennia. These posts will obviously not get into all of them, yet it is interesting to try and observe what might be behind the contemporary everyday usage of this term with respect to pictorial images.

When we look at a pictorial image and say that what we see in it is real, there are several things that we might mean by that. For one, it could be a way of saying that we consider that what we see in it has an equivalent in the physical world. Also, it could be a way of saying that the technique used for making the image was that of photography. In some cases, it could be a way of saying that what we see in this image is consistent and believable enough to be considered as something that could have existed in the physical world, even though it might not.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Cathedral over a Town, after 1813

For example, the cathedral in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s painting Cathedral over a Town may indeed seem very real. Not because the painting looks like a photograph, but because its visual contents are quite convincing and believable. However, in the sense of having a physical equivalent, that cathedral is not real because there is no (and never has been) such a cathedral in the physical world – it is Schinkel’s own invention which he made specifically for the painting.

The following example, however, challenges these notions of what’s real quite a bit. It is a video which presents several famous buildings using advanced computer graphics, combined with unmistakable personal talent. Called The Third & The Seventh, it was made by Alex Roman in homage to the arts of Architecture and Cinema. This beautiful video runs 12 minutes long, and it is highly recommended to watch it in full-screen view:

In the context of our discussion, the contents of this video are visually very convincing, and in this sense they surely seem real. Additionally, the places we see in it are also real in the sense that buildings just like them indeed exist also in the physical world. And yet, in the sense of ‘real’ as meaning ‘photographed’, what we see in this video is not real at all: Even though it looks as if this video was filmed on location, everything in it is computer-generated.

“Avatar”: The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant (part 2)

Film, Terminology Add Comment
Part 2 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

The previous post presented some of the varied uses of the term ‘real’ with respect to pictorial images. In this post I would like to focus particularly on the use of this term as a way of describing the technique by which an image was produced. In that sense, the term ‘real’ is often used to denote a pictorial image which was made with the technique of photography, as opposed to one which was made with some form of ‘special effects’– or in more recent times, by using computer graphic programs. In this context, then, to say that something in a pictorial image is real would be to say that we assume that the image is a photograph, and that there indeed was a corresponding physical object in front of the camera when that photo was taken.

Such an approach towards pictorial images seemed to work fine for many years since the techniques of making them could usually be quite easily discerned. As CG technology is improving, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to truly figure out how an image was made, and the irrelevance of this notion of what’s real is becoming ever more obvious.

The approach of The Virtual Space Theory in this matter is that regardless of how a pictorial image might have been produced, what we see in it has its own independent existence as a virtual place in virtual space. In other words, it considers it to be irrelevant whether what we see in a pictorial image indicates what was in front of the camera, or whether it was achieved through some cinematic trick. Instead, The Virtual Space Theory focuses the discussion on the virtual place which has been created as a result.

The recent release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) makes this point perfectly evident. In this film Cameron created a virtual world called ‘Pandora’, complete with richly detailed landscapes, vegetation, and life-forms. When watching it there is no way you could distinguish the line between what was physically present in the studio and what was generated using computer graphics. They completely blend together in the creation of a continuous and consistent virtual world. The following video is a documentary-like presentation of that world:

The visual achievements of Avatar clearly demonstrate many of the principles of The Virtual Space Theory, as well as emphasize the irrelevance of trying to decipher how an image was made. James Cameron himself actually explains these issues very clearly in the following interview (starting at 00:37):

The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant: “Old Spice”

Production Techniques, TV Commercials Add Comment
Part 3 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

A TV commercial that aired recently is yet another good example of the irrelevance of the popular notion of trying to determine what’s real in pictorial images:

This commercial’s success in creating a buzz, apart from its considerable humor, wit, and boldness, comes from the fact that it also sparks a discussion among its viewers regarding the inevitable question “How did they do that?” or, more specifically, “Is it real?” As already discussed in two earlier posts, the answer will challenge our notion of what’s real once again.

Among the many events that are packed into this commercial, I would like to focus on its continuous transition between three locations: a bathroom, a boat deck, and a beach. According to The Virtual Space Theory, since we see all these places through a pictorial image, they are all virtual places in virtual space – regardless of whether they might have an equivalent in the physical world or not. Therefore, in such a context, one part of the question “Is it real?” is whether these virtual places truly reflect physical places in the physical world, or whether they were computer-generated. The other part of that question is whether the visual transition between such physical places indeed happened while the commercial was shot, or whether it was stitched together after filming.

The answer is that – apart from the transformation of objects in the actor’s hand – everything you see happened in front of the camera in one shot: this whole commercial was filmed in a single physical location. Its production crew built a section of a full-scale boat on a beach, along with a mock-up of a bathroom suspended from above by a crane, as well as a hidden mechanical system for sliding the actor onto the back of a horse. These were then all set in motion as the camera was rolling, and after three days of repeated shooting, they finally managed to get it all to work properly in one continuous sequence (you can check it out for yourself in an interview with the people who created it).

What this means, in popular terminology, is that “Yes, it’s all real!” And yet, there’s a catch. If we expand our notion of what’s real by just a bit, we realize that to seriously consider what we see in this commercial as being real is actually quite absurd. Even though the places we see in this commercial do exist in the physical world, the beach is the only one of them that is real. The bathroom has a physical existence, but it is not a real bathroom – it has a missing wall, and it is not part of any real house. The boat has a physical existence, but is not a real boat either – it is only half-built, and it can neither float nor sail.

The point is that what actually interests us in watching this commercial is not to see bathroom mock-ups hovering over half-boats, but to observe a virtual world where a man can seamlessly switch locations to match his mood and speech. Our curiosity may make us wonder how it was made in the physical world, but only because we were charmed by what we saw in virtual space. Therefore, in that sense, the only real bathroom, real boat, real beach, and real transition between them are the virtual bathroom, virtual boat, and virtual beach in virtual space – as seen in the virtual world of this TV commercial.