CGI: too-real or not-real-enough?

I found the image above (Low Polygon model of La Mairie, Etaples, by HenFre.) whilst doing a mammoth search for CGI images on Flickr yesterday. It reminds me of the work of Thomas Demand and James Casabere, two artists (of many) who photograph exact miniature models of buildings. Demand’s Embassy 1 is reproduced below.


The similarities between HenFre’s La Mairie and Demand’s Embassy 1 are interesting. The process used is surprisingly similar: Demand builds intricate realistic miniatures, lights his model, composes the shot and sets up a camera. No doubt HenFre undertook a similar procedure using Maya, Lightwave or 3d Studio Max.

But it’s the relationship each of these images has to ideas of reality, photography and clarity that interests me the most.

Demand attempts to ‘do’ realism to a certain degree, but his photograph gives away the fact that the building is a model - it’s somehow too perfect, airbrushed - a dictionary-definition of an Embassy. The Embassy seems slightly removed from reality. Rather than being a depiction of an actual building, with it’s notches, marks and imperfections, Demand’s photograph is an idealised example of that building. The same could be said of La Mairie - for whatever purpose it is eventually put to, it currently looks toyish - like a model example of a building - the sort of generic image that comes to mind when we’re asked to imagine 'town hall’.

It’s perhaps, unusually, the clarity of Demand’s image that gives it away: it seems to be an assumption within image production that clarity in an image is synonymous with quality. And, in turn, that a good-quality image brings us closer to an accurate depiction of reality. But in the case of Embassy 1, the role of clarity in realism seems less straightforward.

This clarity - quality - reality relationship is especially true for CGI. Within the film, television and print industry, a CG model like La Mairie would likely become much more complex and detailed the closer it got to a final render. Replicating the fine detail of reality is, broadly speaking, the overriding aim of VFX production. However, if La Mairie found it’s way into a film or ad campaign, it would be 'graded’ - another layer of photographic texture (graininess, for example) would be added to match the live-action backplate, effectively adding noise to the image to make it seem more 'real’.

The same grain or 'noise’ is exactly what is removed from Demand’s model of the Embassy, thus giving it a sense of 'clarity’. Consider a photograph of the actual Embassy, from the same perspective. It’s unlikely that the photograph would capture the detail of the hairline cracks and mottled texture of the plasterwork. Such details would be lost to the grain of the film. What Demand achieves with the model and subsequent photograph of the Embassy, is to eliminate those details that a photograph of the actual Embassy could not reproduce. However, in doing so, he reveals the strained relationship between photography and the representation of reality: Embassy 1 raises our suspicions regarding it’s authenticity precisely because of it’s clarity. Demand therefore executes a neat double-hander - he attempts to eliminate the shortcomings of photography but in doing so, he earns our distrust. The conclusion being, our belief in photographic realism relies on the fact that photographs obscure detail: they lack clarity.

Embassy 1 and Low Polygon model of La Mairie, Etaples have one very obvious thing in common - their un-photographic clarity. But interestingly, each image comes from an opposite starting point in order to attain that clarity - Embassy 1 has 'upgraded’ the photographic process by attempting to erase noise. Low Polygon model of La Mairie appears to us before it is 'downgraded’ by recieving noise.

So, two images - one that is yet to be downgraded to the photographic in order to seem real, and one that has been upgraded from the photographic and had the real removed from it. But both images retain a sense of sharp, pressing reality - perhaps hyper-reality?

More to follow….