The Illusions, Chapter four in Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media, is another comparative saga in the continuing deconstruction of the aspects of new media. The intensity of Manovich’s historical comparisons between cinema and computer generated images can readily confuse and simultaneously sedate the reader. I will attempt to pull out the high points in the chapter and disassemble his mystical approaches to illusion.
Great painters and sculptors work tirelessly to acquire the skills necessary to recreate the real world in perfect detail. If mastered, these skills imbue the finished product with the illusion of realness. The images are so life-like viewers interact with the piece as if it is, indeed, the object it represents. The eternal quest for improvement brings forth more techniques and new innovations.
Photography became Realism’s love child and was quickly hailed as the ultimate representation of reality. Next came Manovich’s favorite medium…Cinema.
Cinema evolved and struggled as all media before it. Evolution requires adhering to certain boundaries of old technique until they can be completely abandoned for the new technology. Cinematographers strive to create reality upon the two dimensional screen. Technology continually revamps and revises, making older films look amateurish at best.
Each new technological development (sound, panchromatic stock, color) points out to viewers just
how “unrealistic” the previous image was…because cinema functions in a structure with other visual media is, it has to keep up with their changing level of realism.
Fast forward to the world of computers and virtual reality takes illusion to even greater heights. The computer era saw an explosion of technology that pushed computer realism into the stratosphere. Manovich shows us that while this medium suffers the same limitations as its ancestors, the development of innovation occurs much more rapidly…Yea for numerical representation,variability, and modularity! When creating realistic images on the computer there are many obstacles to overcome.
Now reality itself has to be constructed from scratch before it can be photographed by a virtual camera.
Creating realistic images with “optically based representation”, a camera records what already exists. Creating a 3 dimensional (3-D) tree from scratch on a computer means having to create every leaf, branch, twig, and piece of bark. Coloring and creating movement that looks natural further complicates the process. Interestingly, the areas that received priority were determined by those that sponsored the research. They are, according to Manovich, the Pentagon and Hollywood.
The military showed early interest in photorealistic computer graphics for flight simulators. These simulators require renderings of terrain, clouds, trees and aerial perspectives. Not surprisingly work done to create shapes using fractal mathematics was done at Boeing.
The entertainment industry embraced 3-D technology for the lower production costs. in 1979 George Lucas’ company a computer animation research division. Much effort was spent in the development of humanoid figures and synthetic actors. Titanic (1997) featured hundreds of computer-animated “extras” and ninety-five percent of Star Wars; Episode 1 (1999) was constructed on a computer. But creating realistic humans is a struggle.
Virtual reality and gaming are other frontiers for computer graphic innovation. The popularity of gaming fuels the creation of ever more complex combinations of cinematic drama and virtual world interactivity.
Interactivity is an important partner of the computer’s unique realism. Game designers are offering a great deal of interactivity through selections from drop menus. Virtual worlds offer pre-designed objects to help users build their own worlds quickly and efficiently; Realism in a box. Manovich reminds us, “…behind the freedom on the surface lies standardization on a deeper level.” He ends a section of the chapter with the following;
Redefining the very concepts of representation, illusion, and simulation, new media challenge us to understand in new ways how visual realism functions.
Photorealism is the defined goal of research in the field of computer graphics. This is defined as the ability to simulate an object indistinguishable from a photograph. Manovich says common opinion is that computers just aren’t there yet. In a twist, Manovich points out that considering photorealism as the goal acknowledges that “over the course of the last one hundred and fifty years, we have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” While many consider the computer images as “not good enough to be realistic” Manovich contends that the 3-D computer images are actually too perfect. Point in fact, in the movies, these images have to be degraded to match real images as they are captured on film. Synthetic images can have unlimited resolution and level of detail. They are free from the constraints of the depth-of-field effect of a photo lens. If not softened and made less perfect, they stand out from the real objects with a spectacular glare. Manovich declares that computer object is”real” in a different sense.
From the point of view of human vision, it is hyperreal. And yet, it is completely realistic. The synthetic image is a result of a different, more perfect than human, vision….Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior predestination of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality.
While traditional photographs show events from the past, the computer images of today point towards future possibilities. Of course our author can’t help but look back historically to films and paintings that also expressed the future. Once again, he connects old and new media through continuity of theme.
Illusion, Narrative, and Interactivity
The last section of this complex chapter speaks of the unique requirement of computer users to work in a peculiar temporal dynamic …”a constant, repetitive, oscillation between an illusion and its suspense.” While cinema strives to create an unbroken veil of illusion, new media requires the user to pass in and out of the illusion regularly. The viewer suddenly becomes the creator.
A perfect example would be computer games today that take the player on a cinematic journey then suddenly flash pop up menus to click on prior to immersing players back into the illusion of the game. Shifting in and out of the illusion and reality to control the situation is in stark contrast to illusion of the past where the subject expects the illusion continually. But the power behind this may well be “the user invests in the illusion precisely because she is given control over it.”
Manovich also points out that computer use in general requires this temporal shift and multi-tasking cognitive ability. “All in all, modern computing requires of the user intellectual problem solving, systematic experimentation, and the quick learning of new tasks.
Currently our class is working with some techniques of computer illusion. Using iMovie and Photoshop, we have learned to create movement from still images, blend video clips into a seamless presentation, and apply filters to enhance the overall production. Next we will learn to create a cinemagraph. This combines the features of a photograph with a small repetitive motion.
Manovich has extremely complex, yet interesting ideas bout the evolution of our quest to re-create reality in a state of illusion. From paintings to pixels, our desires to become creators of “real” through illusion have lead us to the paradox of virtual reality. More lifelike than ever imagined, computer images are nothing more than electrical impulses controlled by mathematical algorithms. They are without substance, without form, completely malleable, and ever changing. We have evolved steadily in our acceptance of what constitutes an accepted depiction of reality. Computers allow us to create new forms of illusion using a dynamic interactivity. We continue our relentless quest of pushing the boundaries on our perceptions of reality.