Realism is hardest with the fake stuff

This YouTube video is actually a really clever idea. Obviously the alien spaceships are fake, but that just serves to distract you from the fact that the entire video is CGI — everything else is fake, too.

It’s impressive work, but I’m not actually surprised to read that, “making the photorealistic car and desert environment was even more difficult than crafting the alien crafts.” Because, honestly, the photorealistic car looks more photorealistic than the UFOs.

Aristomenis Tsirbas, who put the video together, describes it as an effort “to prove that CGI can look natural and convincing,” and, hey, more power to him. But this approach actually points to one of the biggest problems with CGI. Visual effects have been good for a while at making realistic-looking versions of real objects, but it generally doesn’t get credit for that because people tend not to notice unless the object looks fake.

This video makes the environment convincing by making it washed-out and blurry and moving the camera around a lot — which, yes, is what a real amateur video would look like, but it’s also a classic case of misdirection: If there’s an alien spaceship flying across the screen, nobody’s going to spend a ton of time examining the power lines.

The real heavy lift comes when you’re create something that doesn‘t have an obvious analog in reality, like the alien ship. UFOs can look like anything, so the designer has almost total creative freedom to come up with the weirdest design they can think of. Trouble is, when you do that, you get a design that people will look at and say, “Wow, that looks weird.” Which is only a short step away from, “Eh, that looks fake.”

CGI has kind of turned the required mentality for effects artists on its head: Instead of taking real object and making it look like something fake — building a model spaceship out of common household objects, for instance — you’re creating something fake, from scratch, and trying to make it look real.

And that’s why I’m still wary of the transition to CGI. When your creations are completely unconstrained except by the software you’re using, the temptation to go crazy just gets huge, and a lot of animators seem to discount the idea that realism is even more important if you’re creating something that isn’t real.

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