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Realism is representing reality as it is, or a close resemblance to what is real in the form of art. As digital technology develops in the modern world, our expectations of the visual styles in film and media increase. Lev Manovich argues the idea of realism should be studied afresh, based on the ever growing use of 3D synthetic imagery in contemporary visual culture. In order to assess how fair this statement is, it is vital to distinguish the difference between representations of the real world, and a simulation of what appears to be real. This essay delves into the arguments for and against this statement and studies the development of realism in visual culture.
Realism has taken on various meanings as time has progressed- man's impulse for replication is evident from mankind's earliest days, right back to prehistoric cave art 32,000 years ago. However, their views on imitation were different to our views today, as they had no interest in perspective or proportion. There was no dynamic change within realism until the Renaissance period, which had an extensive influence on the figurative arts of Europe, as well as science and humanism. The pioneers from this period included Andreas Vesalius, a gifted scholar and dissector, who brought attention to the importance of accurate anatomical detail within artistic studies of the human body. Other influential practitioners of realism included Leonardo Da Vinci and 'The Realists', who both focused on scientific concepts within their studies, also bringing consideration to how light can manipulate the overall image.
As realism moved into the realm of cinema and mainstream media, its notion became rather intricate. Our own experience of reality is not just a matter of the visual aspect of our surroundings, but also our relationships towards them. André Bazin's principles of cinema reflected this concept; he evaluated cinema 'according not to what it adds to reality, but to what it reveals of it'. Many artists and directors lacked both historical and theoretical interest in special effects and animation, as they felt it was essential to recreate a genuine appearance of the world through photography. This notion has changed over recent years, since animation and special effects are now widely used in cinema, and it has not become uncommon to produce a high level of realism in animation by replicating the real world, but looking at how these have turned out, you can see how it contrasts with Bazin's ideas and it is obvious that it takes more than visual effects to create a high level of realism in animation. This argument is supported by the contrast of feature films, 'Beowulf' and 'Who framed Roger Rabbit?' Although created by the same director, Robert Zemeckis follows two different disciplines of animation. In Roger Rabbit he uses classic methods of key frame animation to create a more artistic representation of his characters, and since this was combined with live action footage, he gave much thought and concentration to the believability of these artificial characters in the real environment. On the other hand, Zemeckis does the opposite with Beowulf, relying on motion capture animation to create perfect visual representations of his characters in artificial environments; there is a distinct lack of comic exaggeration seen in Roger Rabbit, and as a result creates lifeless individuals, as he has forgotten to consider the personality of them. To the audience Roger Rabbit- although seeming less real visually, appeals as the more realistic story.
The birth of the cinema in the nineteenth century was based on the process of moving image pre-conceived by animation. In terms of the history of visual representation, the capability of producing three dimensional images is not revolutionary. What was considered a break through was the ability to create a moving synthetic image- the introduction of this technology allowed the ability to move around in a virtual 3D space.
Through this development, a key ambition in recent years with mainstream digital animation has been towards attaining higher levels of realism- the progressions towards realism are construed by Manovich as 'the ability to simulate any object in such a way that its computer image is indistinguishable from a photograph'. It is this drive that has led to the rapid advancement of CGI along with peoples expectations. In unison to this, it is important to understand that there is more to realism than just the visuals, and that realism in live action cinema is different to realism represented in computer generated animation, as it's simulation of reality is not directly linked to the real world. It is this notion that much of the industry today has overlooked, to which they have learned about out the hard way through poor reception, a good example being the previously mentioned director Robert Zemeckis. In The Language of New Media, Manovich supports this idea with his distinction between the traditions of representation and the traditions of simulation.
Manovich's theories are supported by the values of Wallace Stevens who states, 'Realism is a corruption of reality'. This statements advocates the idea that realism shouldn't replicate the real world but instead, be represented as additions to reality. This view is supported by the twelve principles of animation developed in the 1930's by Walt Disney Studios, designed to bring about the understanding that realism in animation is best achieved not through duplicating reality but by over-emphasising and exaggerating character movement. Paul Wells, an established animation director, backs this belief by stating in his book Understanding Animation 'Moving figures within the Disney canon correspond more directly to realistic movement than work informed by other approaches'. I believe the meaning behind this is that the methods of producing realism by imitating the real world causes characters to look more static and dull. Creating the effect of realism without sacrificing entertainment can be achieved more successfully by making characters perform in an exaggerated but believable way. It is this reason why less realistic but truly animated characters in films such as Ratatouille stand out over photorealistic animations like Beowulf, and a good example of animation exaggerating reality to create a bigger sense of realism.
However there are many opinions towards how realism is represented dating back to the early developments of the movement. Philosopher, Nikolai Chemishevsky argues 'The first purpose of art is to reproduce reality' suggesting the idea that he supports the progression of CG animation to composite an exact replica of the world. Thus producing a deception of the image put before you. As explained previously we know the response to this life-like imagery can be received in a negative way, recognized as the 'Uncanny valley'.
Realism is a complicated topic based on many theories and practices which go deeper than what this essay touches upon, and in order to form a true understanding and opinion, one must delve into the subject much further. Based on the research compiled, I have come to agree with Lev Manovich's theories that realism needs to be studied afresh. The representation of realism today, constructed through the medium of animation is created at the expense of realism, depicted by practitioners over the beginning of the century. In regards to realism in animation, I applaud the fact that the industry is aiming to create realistic characters, but the focus on what realism actually is really needs to be considered. The problem is evident that the representation of characters is being strongly prioritised over other aspects that are equally important, such as personality as well as the principles of Animation put forward by Walt Disney Studios.
- Manovich, L: The Language of New Media, London: MIT Press, 2001, p 198
- Manovich, L: The Language of New Media, London: MIT Press, 2001, p 112
- Phillips, I: Lecture Notes -Can You Tell What It Is Yet? 16/11/2009, p 3
- Bazin, A: The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, California: University of California Press 1967, p 6
- Manovich, L: What is Digital Cinema?: www.manovich.net
- Rowley, S: Beowulf vs. Animation Online Article: www.cinephobia.com/beowulf2, 2007
- Manovich, L: The Language of New Media, London: MIT Press, 2001, p 184
- Manovich, L: Synthetic Realism and its Discontent: www.manovich.net, 1992, revised 1999, p 1
- Phillips, I: Lecture on Realism Notes
- Wells, P: Understanding Animation: Routledge, 1998, p 27
- Phillips, I: Lecture on Realism Notes
- Manovich, L: The Language of New Media, London: MIT Press, 2001. Pg 40