Computer images and realism

A non-humanoid robot on caterpillar wheels sporting a tube with a cork at the end

Computer graphics and animation are remarkable in their ability to mimic reality, or so it seems. Such technologies are interesting in so far as they purvey unreality, or more precisely, for making presentations to audiences that are unlike everyday experiences — features of narrative, drama and film in any case, but exaggerated further in the case of digital effects.

A non-humanoid robot on caterpillar wheels sporting a tube with a cork at the end
Excerpt from animation sequence by Vasilis Tsirimokos

On the rare occasion that I perceive something on screen as resembling an everyday object or event, it is the unfamiliarity engendered by a new set of relationships, or by the strangeness of the context, that jolts me into a moment of recognition.

Audiences are probably most impressed by how alike things are when seen against a backdrop of un-alike-ness. Walking down the street, eating a meal, or buying something in a shop, stand out when we realise that the walker is about to break into song, the diners hardly touch their food, and the shopper is Harry Potter in Scrivenshaft’s Quill Shop.

The cinema audience member is like a tourist. For sociologist John Urry: “Like the pilgrim the tourist moves from a familiar place to a far place and then returns to the familiar place” (p. 13). Part of this encounter involves the provision of a new backdrop to the ordinary aspects of a person’s life, such as physical activity, shopping, eating, and drinking.

Urry thinks of this backdrop as primarily visual, as if a stage setting. The gaze of the tourist “renders extraordinary, activities that otherwise would be mundane and everyday.” There is pleasure in eating as I usually eat, even from the same menu, but at a café on the beachfront rather than my own dining room or in front of the television; or to walk as I usually walk, but in the mountains or on the streets of Paris.

That one thing may strike us as similar to another, ie that an image on a screen is similar to something we encounter everyday, produces pleasure of a kind, but also invokes a sense of the uncanny. The “uncanny valley” hypothesis proposes that audiences are less comfortable with humanoid figures on screen that look almost human. The nearly realistic characters in the CGI film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Beowulf look cadaverous, or at least unwell. In the more recent  Avatar, as well as a its greater technical and designerly achievements, the CGI characters are fashioned to be super (or extra) human and so are received differently by audiences.

Computer animations, video games and immersive virtual reality are often applauded because they present experiences similar to what can be accomplished by actors and sets on film. But it is well to reflect on the human capacity to be provoked by differences, as opposed to similarities, in these experiences.

It is not necessary to search far to discover evidence for the primary importance of difference  (and not similarity) as a key factor in human thought. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure demonstrated that it is difference that makes language possible. Concepts of categorisation are not possible without difference. The social philosopher Michel Foucault pointed to the triumph of difference over attempts to introduce conformity. The identification of “the same” only serves to make “it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialities … all the shading of individual difference.”

The philosopher Jacques Derrida, Following Martin Heidegger, makes maximum play on the nature of difference, even to the extent of creating a new word (differance) that implies (in relation to language) “that meaning is always deferred.”

To focus on difference is to embark on restless discovery. By contrast, the identification of sameness aims for stasis and seems to close off discussion. If we are intent on finding out what is the same about things, then our search ends at the achievement of the goal, photorealism in computer graphics for example. On the other hand, difference reveals further difference.

Difference also opens up the possibility of dialectic — the revealing interplay between discussants who never quite agree. The pursuit of difference is an obvious motivator in design and creativity. The supposed realism of computer imagery and screen-based media connect to a wider social concern, and in turn to the character of design and all art.


Brenton, Harry, Marco Gillies, Daniel Ballin, and David Chatting. 2005. The uncanny valley: does it exist? Proceedings of Conference of Human Computer Interaction, Workshop on Human animated Character Interaction.

Coyne, Richard. 2005. The digital uncanny. In P. Turner, and E. Davenport (eds.), Spaces, Spatiality and Technology: 5-18. Dordrecht: Springer.

Foucault, Michel, and P. Rabinow (ed.). 1984. The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. London: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund. 1990. The ‘uncanny’. In A. Dickson (ed.), The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 14: Art and Literature: 335-376. Harmondsworth: Middlesex: Penguin. First published in German in 1919.

Norris, Christopher. 2002. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

Urry, John. 1990. The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage.


  1. ddmyun says:

    When designing a virtual character, I was told to avoid make it looks reality, because it is the hardest way to satisfy the viewer. In terms of anthropomorphic cartoons, for instance, Mickey Mouse (1928), The Lion King (1994). Although designing methods of the characters are completely against the laws of nature, audiences did not raise doubts or feel uncomfortable about it. Instead, they were completely attracted by the stories. The same goes to 3D cartoons. Pixar produced plenty of 3D cartoons that mainly use anthropomorphic characters, for example, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo. Although recently Pixar began using human as the chief characters, hyperbole methods play a key role in designing of those 3D characters. Take UP (2009) for example, Mr. Carl has an extremely quadrate face and a disproportionate stature, which do not exist in real life. I feel weird when watching this kind of 3D cartoon movies. People create 3D technology originally to restore reality, however, characters in the movies aforementioned greatly deviate from reality. I aware it might simply because they are cartoons. Their original intention is not showing off CG techniques, but using CG technology to tell a fanciful story to convulse the audience with laughter. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that higher CG techniques might bring a completely different visual impression.

    The success of Avartar(2009) made us rethink the identity of CGI technology in movie production. Though Na’vi came from digital technique, the CGI technician made many audiences believe that Na’vi as an alien species is exist in real world. James Cameron, as the director of Avatar, repeatedly stressed that Avartar is not cartoon, but a truly movie. Avatar made a perfect combination of personification and realism, which has mistune significance in both CG techniques and arts. Cameron mentioned the relationship among humanlike characters and realism when he was producing Avatar. That according to “uncanny valley” theory, the more realistic a virtual character is, the higher expectation the audience will be, thus, even higher CG techniques are required. The problem is, Na’vi itself is not derived from the real world, which is almost an impossible task.

    Despite the visual effects artists of Beowulf successfully produced extremely realistic CG human, it did not cause a strong repercussions that it should be. I personally believe it is because Beowulf concern too much on formalism rather than how to tell a story, which is a fatal evil in art creation.

  2. Jing Qin says:

    I can still remember that time, when i and my friends have come out of cinema, from watching Avatar. Most of us, include me, pretended that we want to be one of the Avatars. The world of Avatar is an Utopian.
    It’s so real, beautiful, and primitive. the mountains looks the same as those we have on the Earth, but they can fly, and be bound by huge plant roots. Those Avatars can rid on birds, and other animals, through a kind of natural interface. That makes the world a much better place, because they don’t have to make vehicles. And their religion is a simulation of Christianity, pure, strong and loyalty, their Eva is visible, natural and faithful.
    To render the whole file of Avatar, the total amount of machine hours is massive. Nevertheless, it still far from people’s Utopian. But it shows the possibility of the computer images, that it can be as real as photos.

  3. Hu says:

    In my opinion, what makes the CGI in Avatar look realistic is the familiar textures sampled from reality, the motions that follow the rules of physics, and the accurate lighting and shadows. If it matches our experience, it makes sense in our mind and we think it is real. On the other hand, I’ve seen some non-Photoshopped photographs that looks quite fake such as some ghostly pictures of Edinburgh or underwater world. Somehow some elements in such photos don’t make sense in my mind and they trick my brain to think it is unreal.

    In Sci-Fi films, aliens always get certain features from humans, animals, or both. And the scenery of a foreign planet always look like the plains, mountains, deserts on Earth (probably because it is shot on Earth). That makes them realistic. But in reality, since no one has been to too many planets, it might be nothing like what is shown in films with CGI.

    The similarity between the virtual world and the real world helps achieving realism, and the difference make the fantasy world “uncanny” and Utopian.

  4. S. ZHANG says:

    When we design, we try to make our works special and logical. Avatar is such a successful movie to me because Pandora looks like a real world and characters in the film are special and impressive designs, especially ears and tails of Na’vi people. One necessary thing of designing a game or producing a fiction film is setting rules of the virtual world and these rules should make sense. For example, the method of Na’vi controlling something is to connect their tails.

  5. kimo says:

    Films and animations provide a huge stage for us to squander our imagination. As the technology is growing in an increasing fast pace, we can or will bee soon bring most of them into truth.While high-tech makes it possible to make “artificial reality”, “the unreal part” is the most fascinating point of techno-utopias. As a result, it might also have an important function, which is presenting the desire and predicting the ideal future.That is to say, the “utopias” we build by computer today, can be of great historical, sociological and psychological significant in the near future, just like most of the science fictions did in years ago.

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