Digital Environments: Visual Effects and Realism

In the book Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: [The Seduction of Reality}, author Stephen Prince outlines the changes in filmmaking that have occurred as digital technologies have become more widely used. He first traces the beginning movements of digital technologies and how they have shaped our perceptions of realism, how they replicate traditional filmmaking and how they change the aesthetics of a film’s content. Filmmakers have greater creative input in their films in the digital age being able to control light, sound, physical space and actors. Some productions have found a balance between using digital technologies to enhance the aesthetic of their films. Science fiction films have challenged the perceptions of reality by painting beautifully landscape complete with advanced technology. However, the author comments that they have been criticized as being effect-driven films when their “…visual effects to become more assertive” and finds that “…the results often challenged the primacy of narrative (36).” The author comments that this was more common in the 90’s when digital technology was on the rise and the perception of films by viewers was being questioned. Today viewers are used to these effects that we often overlook them, even in the event of them challenging the narrative of the film that we are watching. While this leads to us accepting more films as “realistic” or within the realm of “filmic realism,” (that encompassing all things possible in the human mind that can be replicated onscreen) the average user often overlooks ingenuity onscreen.

In the film Oblivion, filmmaker Joseph Kosinski designed a futuristic world in which Earth was ravaged by a war and now a beautifully desolate wasteland. While it is a science fiction film (and yes I’ll admit the narrative has some holes) it stands out in that the process that the filmmaker took towards completing the film was both a combination of common industry practices and creativity.

In the book, the author extensively covers the way in which digital environments are created and lit with digital lights in order to render the environment and its characters as realistic. In some cases, digital lighting proved to be beneficial, even when working with real environments. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher used a combination of “partial sets and bluescreen environments” and in one scene with the characters “the country house behind them is a CG object, and the beautiful sunset and sky before them is a digital matte painting. The lake was real but its placid surface was digitally altered to add currents of motion appropriate for the scene’s dramatic context” (176). Filmmakers can make an environment out of many separate parts and we would be none the wiser. In Oblivion, they shot on location in Iceland to get that wasteland feel and found a crater that would stand in for a destroyed football stadium. Tom Cruise’s character acts out a famous game that had taken place in the past and the stadium was later added in with digital effects. The question that should be asked is whether or not we take into consideration that a scene can be not just solely CGI but rather a combination of real and digital components.

Moviegoers shouldn’t just accept that CGI is an industry standard nor should they just write it off as ruining cinema. For Fincher’s films Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the use of digital effects allowed him to situate the film in a certain historical period that further emphasized a level of realism. The argument can be made that realism can be found in different aspects of the film experience. For the narrative of both of Fincher’s films it helped to create a realistic atmosphere and provided what you would expect of that time period. This challenges what Prince would say is a form of traditional realism “shooting on location, using nonprofessional actors, avoiding highly inflected editing, cinematography, or production design,” (2) but this doesn’t necessarily apply to today.

Take for example the film Oblivion and its use of actual footage of clouds, skies and sunsets in order to achieve a realistic representation of a house in the sky.

The use of the footage form atop the volcano is a viable option that ended up having a better affect on the film than digital effects would. It gave them the light necessary for that location and also proved to make the set feel more immersive. The actors were able to feel more in character because they were able to not have to imagine the clouds and therefore could give a more realistic performance.   The benefits of CGI are apparent and there have been some fantastic movies that benefitted from visual effects. What filmmakers and moviegoers should understand is that visual effects need to serve the film and not just be a first resort.


Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. 232: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Print.

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