Digital Cinema’s Perceptual Realism: From Dinosaurs to Apes

CC image courtesy of f-l-e-x on Flickr

CC image courtesy of f-l-e-x on Flickr

Stephen Prince’s Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality examines how tools of image manipulation have changed over time for filmmakers, how these tools are used, and why they are used. Digital visual effects are not just used for spectacle in film, but are more often used subtly as additions to already existing images.

I think that Prince’s use of “perceptual realism” is important to understanding the purpose of digital visual effects. He describes perceptual realism as: “the replication via digital means of contextual cues designating a three-dimensional world” (Prince 32). He further describes the concept:

“Digital tools give filmmakers an unprecedented ability to replicate and emphasize these cues as a means for anchoring the scene in a perceptual reality that the viewer will find credible because it follows the same observable laws of physics as the world s/he inhabits” (Prince 32).

In other words, the digital visual effects that are used in movies are usually meant to replicate reality through making objects or environments appear as they would if they were to exist in real life. This is done through making living things appear with the subtle movements we would expect; following the physics of fire, water, light, and clouds; using realistic textures; and using realistic size and positioning of objects in a space.

CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

Prince spends a good amount of chapter one discussing Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park (1993) within the idea of perceptual realism. In defending the use of digital tools to create perceptual realism, Prince references a scene from Jurassic Park:

“Digital tools are best understood not as applications undermining realism but as modes of translation–seductions of reality–designs for creating new extensions of realism and fictional truths. When the T-Rex gobbles Martin off the restroom toilet, the staging of the action in a single framing creates a vivid continuity of digital and live action space, prompting a new interpretive response from viewers” (Prince 53).

Digital visual effects in cinema serve to help maintain the perceptual realism within a film. Even though there were no living dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the use of digital visual effects are so life-like that it allows the audience to view the effects as realistic within the world where the story takes place, even though they know that there were no actual dinosaurs walking around on set.

Prince also talks about Jurassic Park in relation to the idea of spectacle. This idea of spectacle that Prince talks about reminded me of the video essay by Kevin B. Lee about the Steven Spielberg “face”:

The “face” that Spielberg is known for using in many of his films is one of wonderment, of spectacle, a reaction shot to something out of the ordinary. This face was used by Spielberg in Jurassic Park at the amazement of the digital visual effects of the dinosaurs. Prince points out Michelle Pierson’s critique about how “during the ‘wonder years’ of the early nineties, digital effects broke the narrative action and were showcased in sequences that dwelled upon visual spectacle for its own sake” (Prince 36). The face of wonder often preceded long shots of the digital dinosaurs.

I would like to point out that, as the video essay reveals, Spielberg also used this face of wonder in his older films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind which did not use digital visual effects to enhance the objects of wonder (i.e. a shark and aliens) since they were made before digital visual effects were affordable and as enhanced as they became in the 1990s. This makes me question whether other directors were creating these senses of wonder because of the digital effects they used or if it was because they were borrowing from Spielberg’s style.

Another film that stands out to me as one that fluidly incorporates digital visual effects with live action would be Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). This short video below contains interviews with the director and some of the actors talking about how CGI and motion capture are used in the film.

CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

The original Planet of the Apes (1968) used men in costumes and prosthetic ape masks as the apes in the film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes used an actor, Andy Serkis, in a motion capture suit in live action sequences with the other actors to create his main ape character. The use of the motion capture suit by the actor allows the actor’s more subtle emotions in his face to be picked up by the motion capture equipment and then to be used in the final rendering of the CG ape. Not only does this method benefit Serkis, it also benefits the other actors who are able to act and interact with a real character on set, so it is easier for them to give better performances (Prince 31). Blending digital visual effects, like CGI or motion capture, with live action film sequences gives perceptual reality a foothold in the era of digital cinema.

Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012.

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