Realism is not about Reality!

Why does camera-shake make everything look more real?

Whether we work in Games, VFX or Animation, our job is to create believable worlds and characters. The obvious and legitimate assumption is that the more realistic – the closer to the experience of the real world – the better. But there’s a snag…

It seems that cinematographic-specific features such as defocus, lens flare, motion blur, camera-shake and alike, contribute to an added sense of realism.

Films like ‘Children of Men’ or ‘District 9’ for instance, illustrate this strange relation between realism and camera factors. Both are highly fictional stories told as if they were real ones thanks to the overwhelming visual presence of the camera in every single shot.

Children of Men – Alfonso Cuarón – 2006

District 9 – Neill Blomkamp – 2009

But here is the contradiction...

The visual signature of the camera doesn’t match our individual experience of the physical world. Never do I see the world around me shaking like an earthquake when I walk. Never do I ever get to ‘contemplate’ the shallow depth of field of my own vision. Never do I ever see lens flares in my eyes, nor motion blur for that matter. Those visual artefacts belong exclusively to cameras and in no way to the human experience of the world.

One step further into the absurd...

While compositors are required to match the look and specs of live-action plates, why do game-artist and animators implement such optical gimmicks in their scenes when the digital world is free from any physical constraints? Cameraman have no choice, those optical aberrations are intrinsic to the device and are not originally by design. But digital artists can do whatever they want, there’s no actual lenses and cameras in our computers, just geometries and pixels. So why trying so desperately to mimic the faults of cameras and lenses for the pursuit of realism?

The explanation…

One common explanation is that the visual signature of cameras is primarily a code borrowed from news gathering. In other words, if it looks like the News then it must be real. But not everything should be condemned to look like the last CNN flash in order to feel remotely realistic. So here is the actual explanation behind all this…

In fact, at no point does your brain ever forget that you’re watching a screen. Linear media are no longer trying to make us believe that this is reality the way VR does. Quite the contrary. The visual presence of the camera is effectively telling us, unconsciously, that the scene has been witnessed by someone, an hypothetical camera operator, a human being. Therefor… the scene is real!

The validation of the scene as being real and genuine – its credibility – occurs through the suggestion of a human presence, a witness who’s been there, recording those images for us. And that presence is conveyed by the visual signature of the camera.

That’s also the reason why Virtual Reality – VR – can’t tolerate any of that cinematographic signature . The purpose of VR is immersion. VR truly intends to emulate the real world experience rather than witness its existence.

So make no mistake, realism is not just about reality, but rather how you look at it!


  1. I guess even reality is itself all about how you look at it. It is interesting borrowing tropes from related areas and using that to signal reality (or not). Blair Witch Project is another example. I remember many years ago when the Australian comedy Frontline came out at first I thought it was a real news programme. I know that sounds naive but It was done in exactly the style of news and was the first show in Oz to do that.


  2. I completely forgot about Blair Witch Project. That’s a great example indeed. I didn’t know Frontline. I’ll have a look into it. Thank you. It reminds me that one of the early precursor of this may be Orson Welles who staged a radio play of The War of the Worlds at the RKO and the audience apparently started to panic about the arrival of aliens!!!


  3. It’s important to make a distinction between Realism and Photorealism. Stephen Prince’s “Digital Visual effect (The Seduction of Reality) is a good place to start. Cinema started out mimicing the proscenium arch of theatre until Edwin S. Porter started using edits in 1903. It will be interesting to see if VR starts to ape ‘photoreal’ effects like chromatic abherration, edits, diegetic cues just to make people feel more comfortable. As Laurie Anderson once said about VR- she didnt want to get involved unless someone put some dirt in it.


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