If It Seems Too Good to Be True Its CGI

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When you go to the movies these days, you expect to see impossible things (King Kong, starships, X-Men, that sort of thing) in full color, looking perfectly real and convincing. We’ve gotten used to seeing anything and everything on the big screen. White House destroyed by aliens? Seen it. A man grows younger as he ages? Been there. Titanic sinks? Old news. We know it’s all done through the magic of CGI (computer-generated imagery). So we aren’t fooled into thinking this is actual film footage. The movies have always been about fantasy and illusion, and we’re okay with that. 

The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte. The text translates as “This is not a pipe.”

Likewise, when it comes to ads in magazines. We know that the model has been retouched. We assume that the bottle of liquor looks perfect because it was digitally enhanced somehow, just as years ago we knew it had been “airbrushed.” Everyone knows what “photoshopped” means, even if they don’t know the origin of the word. 

What you may not realize is that, in many cases, you’re not looking at a photograph that’s been through Photoshop; you’re looking at a 3D render. The reason it looks better than real is that it isn’t real at all! Let me give you some examples, all of which have one thing in common: not one of them is a photograph. Don’t believe me? Read on. 

This is not an iPod. It’s not a photograph of an iPod, either.
“Those aren\’t tomatoes.”
Not a photo. Fooled you, eh?

Take a look at the following to get an idea of how these images were created. The lower image shows the wireframe 3D construction used in making the top image of cosmetics. No camera (digital or otherwise) was used. 

Virtual product photography starts out as the bottom image, known as a wireframe, using a 3D imaging program such as Maya, Cinema 4D, or Lightwave.

Magritte knew what he was talking about when he named his painting (top) “The Treachery of Images.” Images are sneaky things. They can fool us. How? They can alter our perception of the actual item represented by the image. When you see an image like this automobile (below), you naturally assume that a real car exists somewhere like that, and you can buy it. This is pretty sneaky, if not downright treacherous. 

No real car could possibly look this perfect. Is this deceptive advertising?

Back in the early days of color magazines, it was easy to tell a photograph from an illustration. But as technology advanced, the line between photo and art has blurred. For an example of this, let’s take Popular Science magazine (and its near-identical twin, Popular Mechanics). In its early days, the magazine cover was an illustration, usually of some new invention hot off the drawing board. Readers felt they were getting a glimpse of the future. The magazine, of course, tended to show outlandish–even silly–designs with little likelihood of ever being built since this is what sold magazines. In this cover from 1940, the implication is that, in two years, the car pictured would be for sale. Most intelligent people, I imagine, would realize that the cover was just an artist’s conception. It was plainly a painting. 

Did we say two years? Oops! We meant two hundred.

Beginning in the 1950s, photographs began to adorn the cover of the magazine. Actual working inventions were shown. These inventions were still unlikely to ever be available to the general public, but now they were real. See? There’s a photograph. It must exist. 

A recurring theme: the personal flying machine for the everyman.

As the magazine entered the 21st century, illustrations again began to appear on the cover, but now they looked just like photographs. This next cover, from 2008, seems to pretty clearly indicate that a real Iron Man, as shown, exists. That’s a photograph of one, isn’t it? 

Wow, look, Dad! It’s Iron Man!

This is the same bait-and-switch trick that Popular Science has always played. Yet, now it’s not apparent to anyone that the cover isn’t a photograph. In fact, it’s a 3D rendering by Nick Kaloterakis. To his credit, editor Mark Jannot does fess up in his opening “From The Editor” comments. “I have a confession to make,” he says. “There is nothing real about that ‘photo’ of the high-tech soldier poised for action. It is a near-future extrapolation of current technology.” Jannot then makes an intriguing admission: “When your mission is to offer vivid visions of the discoveries readers can expect to be coming around the chronological corner, it can be a bit of a challenge to deliver the photographs. That’s where Nick comes in.” 

Perhaps this is innocent, and maybe it’s not. Popular Science has been showing us highly implausible gadgetry since the late 19th century, and month after month, people eat it up. Who can blame them for using digital imagery to sell magazines? I have with it this: very few readers know that they’re not looking at photographs. Even the supposedly tech-savvy are fooled. Here’s a short article from the hugely popular blog Gizmodo. Note the last line, giving a “photo credit” to Popular Science’s illustrator Nick Kaloterakis. No great harm was done here, but as you can see, Gizmodo isn’t sure if the chair exists or is just a “concept.” In reality, the chair does not exist.

Here’s a link to that Gizmodo article. 

In time, people will become more sophisticated about what digital imagery can do. But we are still in the early days. One of the first motion pictures, “Arrival of a Train” (1898), showed a train coming towards the camera. The audience fled the theater in panic. We’ve come a long way since then. When we go to the movies, we know that it’s all made up, and that’s why we go: to be entertained. To make-belief. To dream. I’m glad that everyone knows how the movies are made. It means they’re watching them with their eyes wide open. The same cannot be said of advertising and anyone who uses images to make money. As I write here in Kozzi about this new technology’s craft, I thought it fitting to consider how it can be misused like all powerful things. Just something to think about. I welcome your thoughts and comments, as always. 

You may also be interested in:  Most downloaded stock photos on Shutterstock