About this Article
Written by: Jason Scott
Written on: September 2nd, 2002
Tags: entertainment, computer science
Thumbnail by: Ben Dansie/
About the Author
In the spring of 2002, Jason Scott was a senior with a major in Computer Science and a minor in Cinema-Television. His student research was in the area of new techniques and programs for special effects for student films, and he was the re-founder of SCFX, the USC Special Effects Organization. He intends to work in the effects industry for a period of time and possibly return to USC to teach the art of special effects to students who share this passion.
Stay Connected

Volume IV Issue II > Photo-Realism: An Exact Science?
Occasionally, it is the job of special effects artists in film and television to manipulate reality in order to present an image that audiences believe they would see, as opposed to what they would actually see in real life. This concept and practice incorporates not only the mathematics and engineering of special and visual effects, but the psychology of what people expect to be reality as well as the art of filmmaking. Together, these fields create images that make a story more believable, even though it is now actually further from reality than before. However, this procedure leads us to question whether it is right to continue to propagate incorrect expectations in audiences' minds, as opposed to the reality of what actually exists. Which is correct: the accurate presentation of reality, or what the human mind expects to be reality? In due course, the two may be resolved in a fashion appropriate to the nature of visual effects for entertainment.


In the movie world, special effects artists are often given the same challenge over and over again--the re-creation of some aspect in the real world that, for reasons ranging from financial to safety concerns, cannot be filmed or recorded in a normal fashion. The artists must then incorporate their work seamlessly into the rest of the film so that no distinction can be made between the two pieces.
During the past few years, however, this has become increasingly difficult because many effects are now being done on a computer in 3D. Though this gives the effects team more control over the shot, it simultaneously introduces the problem of making the 3D elements appear real. For some objects appearing in the physical world, such as static, hard surfaces like brick or stone, this can be done easily--it is much more difficult to lend a photo-realistic look to something organic or dynamic, such as fur or water (see Fig. 1). That is where much of today's 3D graphics research lies: making an element like water appear to move, interact with other elements, and reflect and refract light like real water. It is a mix of science and engineering along with artistic creativity and vision. The ultimate goal is the creation of an on-screen product that is indistinguishable from the other elements of the movie.
Anthony Appleyard/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: It is quite difficult to lend a photo-realistic look to something organic or dynamic, such as water.

Can Everything Be Calculated?

Every major special effects house in the world has a Research and Development (R&D) team that supplies the rest of the company with new ways to make things photo-real. The engineers and mathematicians that work in R&D are constantly using mathematical equations to understand the actions of elements; this offers a more realistic imitation of life. It is similar, in a sense, to the final theory of everything, which says that one day we will be able to determine how everything in the universe interacts.