The Hyperreal of Digital Cinema

I went spelunking through my notes from my National University of Singapore days when I wrote an essay on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the point about the hyperreal and the mechanical robin at the end of the film came from this citation in case anyone’s interested or is using the film for a final paper or something:

Rhombes, Nicholas. “Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics.” The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. Eds. Erica Sheen & Annette Davison. London: Wallflower Press, 2005. 61-76.

In addition to the point made in class though, I wanted to just share that I really liked this idea of the “change from inside out” when it comes to digital cinema that Lev Manovich proposes and Elsaesser and Hagener reference because of this idea of the unbroken skin of digital cinema that parallels the way in which virtual reality is discussed as a truth onto itself because of its all encompassing nature that doesn’t even put it in competition with “realism” in cinema.

I liked the idea of the “inside out change” that cinema is undergoing because it helps me understand and rationalize how when it comes to the change and improvement in computer generated images over the years, we’ve evolved so much more and so much further beyond the ‘morph’ (that theorists seem to have become hung up over as if it’s some film technique to be fetishised and theorized over ad nauseum) to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell if the image is CGI or not.

However, as much as I like the idea, I can’t say that I agree that virtual reality is not in direct competition with realism in cinema. Instead, I find that the concept of the hyperreal is a more apt way of describing the relationship or the progression between realist cinematic modes and the virtual realities created using the skin of digital cinema.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his publication Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the hyperreal is something we arrive at at the end of a 3-stage progression. There is the Real, there is the simulation of the Real in models or Simulacra, and there is the Hyperreal, defined as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard). My personal take on this concept is that even though there is no reality to the Hyperreal, there seems to be a lineage of realism embedded within it given its reliance on models of the Real, once removed; and the nomenclature that continues to make reference to a’real’ even if it is a missing one.

This lineage of realism is clearly seen in the nature and functions of the (other less discussed) computer imaging softwares used in film today. For instance, algorithms that deal with ray-tracing and caustics, otherwise known as the movement of light across smooth and curved surfaces, and through refracting material, all contribute to the realism of a generated image.

Or how about the study and use of Subsurface Scattering software in the generation of computer images, particularly that of skin that gives it its translucent, life-like quality rather than the absolute plasticky fail that we saw in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Or how about Forward Kinetics and Inverse Kinetics software that move joints on models of monsters and creatures, unreal as they are, based on the parent-child relationship joints on an actual skeletal structure will have.


Or how about just how all the great special effects people emphasizing the need to have a solid understanding of anatomy and musculature in order to make good, believable looking monsters? Here, I’m talking about the advice Willis O’Brien, who created and animated through stop-motion the eponymous ape from King Kong (1933), gave to Ray Harryhausen who went on to give us such fantasy classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Clash of the Titans (1981).

I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to say two things:

  1. there’s a tonne of interesting software used in CGI and they deserve some attention and people should stop focusing on the morph like it’s the holy grail of CGI software
  2. while all questions of realism are at the end of the day period specific, there is a lineage of realism that impacts the kinds of images we create in digital cinema and we shouldn’t just jettison the whole debate over realism in cinema and virtual reality just because virtual reality “is no longer understood as index, trace, and reference of an elsewhere, but as a total environment” onto itself (Elsaesser and Hagener 199). I get the impression that if we take a more “apparatus” centred approach in our examination of the software of CGI, we’ll find many more traces of the real than we thought we would.

2 thoughts on “The Hyperreal of Digital Cinema

  1. Have you heard about Uncanny Valley?

    The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics which holds that when features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers. In fact, the biggest question that the whole CGI industry is faced with is to transcend the uncanny valley to emulate the realism. However, the problem is that the CGI industry is limited by currently existing algorithms and computer graphics technology. The scientists really want to solve this problem with new inventions. In my opinion, as the technology develops, the difference of virtual reality and reality will fade one day.

    Liked by 1 person

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